. . . combat is salvation and deliverance, the cruelty of the victory is the pinnacle of life’s jubilation.
On the Genealogy of Morals
His has proved a lucrative model, but by making professional wrestling more spectacle than sport, McMahon abandoned the field for those who wanted to see “shoot” events (“shoot” being the wrestling term of art for unstaged or unrehearsed). And so with boxing in decline and wrestling newly locked into a pseudo-pugilist groove, the door was open for the rise of MMA.To understand MMA, you first have to state the viscerally obvious: Getting punched in the face is not pleasant. Even if one hasn’t personally experienced it, this is intuitively understood by most more or less normal people. Having myself run this experiment many times from numerous angles, I can assure you that it is unpleasant whether one is standing, sitting or lying down. Yet the root of much of the objection to MMA is the belief that it is somehow more moral to strike people when they are on their feet. The origin of this belief is fairly modern. The ancient Greek pugilistic sport, pankration, which had similarities to MMA, allowed striking an opponent on the ground. Only in 1743, with the introduction of the London Prize Ring rules, was the striking of a downed man in sport fighting declared against the rules. Of course, fighting was still bare knuckle, and grappling, throws and kicking were still legitimate. Not until the Marquess of Queensbury rules were promulgated more than a hundred years later were these “dirty” maneuvers outlawed. These rules also introduced gloves, which, as any boxer knows, are for the protection of one’s hands, not an opponent’s head. This seemingly simple, if widely unknown point turns out to be quite important in terms of comparing the relative “brutality” of sports. Bare-knuckle boxing actually limits punching to the head, as the closed fist is not nearly as hard as many of the bones in the skull. With gloves, boxers can throw full power punches with impunity. Heavier boxing gloves also reduce (though they do not eliminate) cuts, limiting fight stoppages and therefore allowing more punches to the head. In terms of brain trauma, a 2006 study by Johns Hopkins medical researchers found that MMA is likely much easier on the body than boxing. I can report that the only time I have been “punch drunk” (light-headed and euphoric after being punched) was after a regular boxing match. This euphoria was, alas, followed by a three-day, skull-splitting headache.
MMA has embraced gloves now, in large part to encourage more striking. Before the gloves (which are lightweight and made to allow the use of the hands for grappling) broken hands forced many fighters out of tournaments, to the disappointment of fans who had paid to see their favorites. The very first punch thrown in modern MMA, Gerard Gordeau’s right hook to the head of Teila Tuli at Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) 1 in 1993, resulted in a broken hand. One of the earliest fighters to wear lightweight gloves (before they were mandatory) was one of the sport’s “bad boys”, David “Tank” Abbot, a heavy-handed puncher. Never one to worry about his opponent’s health, he did so to protect his hands.In terms of other trauma, MMA seems to produce no more catastrophic injuries than other contact sports, and fewer than some. It has not produced, to my knowledge, anything like football star Ronnie Lott’s decision to amputate the tip of his left pinky finger, which had been demolished making a tackle in the 1988 season, so that he could continue playing. Nor has any professional mixed martial artist that I am aware of had to have an emergency splenectomy after a match, as hockey’s Peter Forsberg did after a 2001 playoff game. I’m not suggesting that MMA is not a tough and dangerous sport. Like any contact sport, it inflicts trauma. In early 1997, I was choked unconscious while bleeding heavily from the nose. Had I been on my back when I went out I could have aspirated my own blood with potentially serious consequences. Like death. In September of the same year, I competed in a MMA tournament in Georgia. In the other bracket was a fellow named Doug Dedge. Doug seemed like a nice guy from the little I talked to him. Six months later, Doug suffered a lethal brain injury in a fight in Kiev, Ukraine, making him the first fatality in modern MMA. Two months after that, I came uncomfortably close to causing the second when I choked an opponent unconscious at an angle where neither I nor the referee could see his face, so that there was some delay in stopping the fight. Fortunately, after a few tense minutes with the paramedics (always on stand-by at events I competed in) he was up and moving around. For those readers who might worry about his long-term health, I can report that he cleaned my clock in a rematch nine months later. Last I heard, he is an MMA instructor. If these episodes make it all seem highly and unnecessarily dangerous, consider that boxing and football both produce at least one or two fatalities every year. There have only been two in MMA that I am aware of since Doug’s death (one in the United States and one in Korea). Admittedly, the total number of competitors for MMA is lower than that of football or boxing (though MMA will likely surpass boxing in the not-too-distant future), so these numbers should not be overdrawn. Nevertheless, it does suggest that MMA is at least on par with other contact sports in terms of danger and brutality. It is far from the “total war” that some imagine it to be. This is nowhere more apparent than in the middle of an actual war, which is where I drafted most of this essay—at Camp Fallujah, Iraq, to be specific. The camp was a little to the west of the city of Fallujah, whose residents know something about what total war actually looks like. In the other direction, down the road to Baghdad, one can find the Abu Ghraib prison, which hosted its own set of barbarities. The U.S. Marines, in contrast, find some relaxation in their own form of MMA, known as MCMAP (Marine Corps Martial Arts Program). Created by a Marine officer on the orders of the Commandant of the Marine Corps, MCMAP is now part of every marine’s training. I sparred with a couple of marines at Al Asad airbase when I was there a couple of months ago. I hadn’t rolled on a mat in years and was reminded how much fun it is—a definite respite from the daily grind. And MMA’s popularity in Iraq is not restricted to the Marine Corps. Every base I went to seemed to have had at least one MMA class or club, from Camp Bucca to Camp Victory. The sport is also routinely aired on Armed Forces Network, prominently visible in DFACs (the inevitable military acronym for “dining facility”) and gyms. MMA in the United States is not a story of cultural decline, or of a public that cares only for bread and circuses. Its rise has less to do with an increasing brutishness in the American psyche and more to do with changing tastes combined with savvy marketing. Boxing’s fall and wrestling’s evolution coincided serendipitously with the birth of a new sport ideally suited to the void they left behind. With a few modifications to make the sport both more exciting and more marketable, MMA’s rise was all but foreordained. This could change, as the underlying factors behind the rise change. Yet as long as there is a desire for sports that resemble single combat, then something like MMA will persist. As Nietzsche’s aphorism suggests, that desire will always be with us.