. . . combat is salvation and deliverance, the cruelty of the victory is the pinnacle of life’s jubilation.
On the Genealogy of Morals
Iwas a barbaric participant in human cockfighting. Or at least that’s how I would have been described by those who view mixed martial arts (MMA) as a bloody spectacle heralding the decline of Western (or at least American) culture. Not so very long ago this negative view of MMA dominated in the United States. Many still consider MMA little more than semi-organized thuggery. No less a public figure than “reformer with results” Senator John McCain led a charge to ban the sport just over a decade ago. Yet since then, MMA, far from becoming illegal, has gone mainstream. How else to explain MMA champion Chuck Lidell’s appearance on, of all places, National Public Radio (he was featured on a February 2008 episode of NPR’s “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!”)?
At the same time, MMA’s closest cousins have either struggled to keep an audience (professional boxing) or changed so radically as to be barely related (professional wrestling). Clearly, something has changed. But what, and why? Let’s begin with what’s gone wrong with boxing and wrestling, which goes a long way toward explaining the rise of MMA.
In the late 1970s, the sport of professional boxing was in a good spot. It had tremendous fighters in many weight classes, ranging from the soon-to-be-champion welterweight “Sugar” Ray Leonard to heavyweight Larry Holmes. Boxing was an integral part of the national consciousnesses, as illustrated by the critical and commercial success of Rocky in 1976. True, Muhammad Ali was in the terminal phase of his career and no one had stepped up to provide his larger than life combination of charisma and talent, but that was to be expected. Competitors like Muhammad Ali come along perhaps once in a generation.
The 1980s also dawned as a great decade for boxing. The champions of the late 1970s found worthy opponents, and new champions emerged. Julio Cesar Chávez, Thomas “Hitman” Hearns, “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler—all were beginning careers that would soon be legendary. Ali’s shoes in the heavyweight division remained vacant, but the sport continued to prosper. Rocky sequels did well, as did Raging Bull (1980). Boxing remained a major element of American popular culture, particularly among the working class.
The working class, however, was not doing as well as the sport it followed. The 1970s era of stagflation had begun to drain the vitality from it, as layoffs in industry began. The 1980s were not proving to be much better as foreign competition took its toll, particularly in the heavy industries like steel and cars—the backbone of boxing cities like Detroit and states like Pennsylvania. The working class was contracting in both size and disposable income, which boded poorly for a sport so tightly bound to it.
This is not to say that the decline was immediate. Boxing still had some golden years ahead. In 1985, Ali’s shoes were filled, to the extent they ever will be, by an 18-year-old from Brooklyn named “Iron” Mike Tyson, who seemed almost unbelievable in his combination of physical power, boxing talent and psychological capacity for quiet menace. In the space of a year he won 19 straight fights by knockout or technical knockout, many in the first round. He was just over twenty years old when he won his first title, making him the youngest heavyweight champion in history. Over the next year, he unified the three major heavyweight titles. In early 1988, barely three years into his professional career, he won his 35th fight with an infamous and electrifying 91-second dismantling of Michael Spinks.
Tyson’s fall began soon thereafter, and in a sense, boxing went with him. A cultural icon in 1987 (the eponymous video game Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out was released that year and sold big for Nintendo), Tyson was headed for trouble. He fired his long-time trainer in 1988 and in 1990 lost for the first time in his career to long-shot James “Buster” Douglas. The nadir was his 1992 conviction on rape charges, for which he received a six-year sentence. “Iron” Mike was in prison when the first Ultimate Fighting Championship took place in 1993.
This is simplistic, of course; boxing had more problems than Mike Tyson. The decline of the working class reduced both the pool of potential fighters and, more importantly, the audience for the sport. The suburbanization of the country chipped in, too, as planned communities tended not to have boxing gyms, a quintessentially urban phenomenon perhaps best exemplified by Detroit’s Kronk Gym. Moreover, boxing began to be perceived as a sport dominated by blacks and Hispanics.
Boxing had racial undertones stretching back as far as Jack Johnson’s defeat of James L. Jeffries in 1910 and the Joe Louis/Max Schmeling fights of 1936 and 1938. But by the late 1980s, white fighters of high caliber were a rarity. Gerry Cooney, the “Great White Hope” of 1982, had been soundly beaten by Larry Holmes. Tommy “the Duke” Morrision, the next great white hope, proved no more durable, losing to Ray Mercer and Lennox Lewis, among others. While the fall of the Soviet Union revitalized white contenders with an influx of ex-Warsaw Pact fighters and their post-communist protégés, this did little to revitalize the audience for the sport. Combined with the overall working class decline, this racial element also worked against boxing.
Boxing still had a bit of life in it, however. In the mid-1990s, Tyson, released from prison, was ready for a comeback. He regained two heavyweight titles and then faced Evander Holyfield in 1996. Tyson was once again upset, losing by TKO to Holyfield, in a fight made controversial by a number of Holyfield head-butts. The 1997 rematch to this fight was even more controversial, as Tyson was disqualified for biting off part of Holyfield’s ear. If one were to pick a moment that was truly the beginning of the end for boxing, this would be it.
There had always been a counterpart to boxing in pugilistic entertainment in the United States—professional wrestling. Somewhat less respectable than boxing, as it is half-sport, half-opera (or soap opera), wrestling has nonetheless been a major part of American life. It has even had a somewhat more successful few recent decades than boxing, but this was result of embracing the opera more than the sport.
Wrestling in the late 1970s was, like wrestling today, “worked”—the term of art for scripting the outcome of matches in advance. The practice is indicative of wrestling’s origin in carnivals, where “working the crowd” was a way of life. Of course, pre-scripted does not mean safe, and injury is routine in events where unpadded men are slammed about with wild abandon. Scripting also implies the ability to deliver lines, so on top of athleticism, professional wrestlers must have charisma and a compelling persona. Men such as Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes and “Wahoo” McDaniel were able to deliver both in the 1970s, laying the groundwork for an explosion of wrestling in the 1980s.
One of wrestling’s main limitations had long been the regional nature of its promotions. Different organizations had “turf” that they dominated, but this inherently limited the audience for any given wrestler or organization. For example, I saw Georgia Championship Wrestling events with wrestlers like Dusty Rhodes and Ole Anderson (whose ability to casually taunt a crowd into a lather was amazing—a perfect example of the kind of ring presence intrinsic to professional wrestling), yet saw nothing of the wrestlers from the Northeast or Midwest.
This was all about to change, as promoters began both to consolidate regional organizations and to broadcast events nationally. Leading the way was Vince McMahon. McMahon, starting from a base in the Northeast, set out to overturn the regional model, selling tapes of events for his World Wrestling Federation (WWF) and buying up other organizations. McMahon also changed the inner workings of wrestling, emphasizing the entertainment and storylines of the business more than the violence. In the 1980s, he connected WWF to various celebrities and musicians, expanding wrestling further into popular culture. He also introduced massive pay-per-view wrestling events (“Wrestlemanias”), changing much of wrestling’s marketing and revenue structure in the process.
The explosive growth and evolution of wrestling in the 1980s settled into a highly competitive national duopoly in the 1990s (although there were still second-tier regional organizations, the wrestling equivalent of the minor leagues). McMahon’s WWF squared off against the Ted Turner-owned World Championship Wrestling (WCW). WCW and WWF often sought to out-escalate one another in storylines and showmanship. Pyrotechnics became an almost mandatory part of top-tier wrestlers’ entrances, and Byzantine tales of intrigue and double-crossing became the norm for promotions.
WWF eventually won the contest, buying out WCW in 2001. After losing the right to use the WWF acronym in a lawsuit (to the World Wildlife Fund, proof that sometimes you can’t script events as entertaining as reality), McMahon renamed his company World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). This name change, though forced, is indicative of what McMahon had molded wrestling into: pure entertainment. He even introduced the term “sports entertainment” to make the distinction clear.
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.