Mixed Martial Arts: Ultimate Sport, or Ultimately Illegal? Part 3

By: Donald F. Walter, Jr.
12/8/03

Part 3: A Defense of Mixed Martial Arts

Since the sport of mixed martial arts was first introduced to the United States in 1993, it has been the subject of much heated political debate. The opponents of mixed martial arts have leveled numerous arguments against the sport, and under the leadership of Arizona Senator John McCain, they even succeeded in forcing the sport from national pay-per-view carriers, and convinced several states to ban the sport. The four year forced hiatus that the sport experienced from 1997 until 2001 was a direct result of the political onslaught headed by Senator John McCain. Though on the surface, this event may look to be a terrible set of circumstances for the sport of mixed martial arts, but in reality this hiatus allowed the sport to almost totally reinvent itself. Though the rules of the UFC had been changed prior to the sale of the franchise to Zuffa by SEG, the sport still carried much of the negative stigma that was associated with the unruly nature of the early UFCs until the sport was dropped from pay-per-view carriers for several years. When the sport reemerged in 2001, many of the sport’s greatest opponents had all but forgotten about it, which allowed it to reemerge under the political radar. This also allowed the sport to gain a new fan base and to expand its support.

A major factor in the reemergence of the sport, and the return of the sport to pay-per-view was the utilization of a new set of rules. The Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts Combat, as drafted in New Jersey, and later adopted in Nevada on July 23, 2001 were a welcome change to the sport. The new rules featured five weight classes, rounds, time limits, a list of over 31 fouls, and eight possible ways for the fight to end . This differed greatly from the rules present at the sport’s genesis in the United States, which allowed for no weight classes, no time limits, no rounds, two methods of victory, and only three fouls. In drafting the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts Combat, the commission that worked on the project had the goal of making the sport safer, and to take the sport from a spectacle into the realm of respectable sporting events.

According to John McCarthy, head referee for the UFC since UFC II, the commission looked to other combative sports for rules that the sport of mixed martial arts could incorporate. Among these sports were the accepted Olympic rules for boxing, judo and wrestling, as well as the rules for professional kickboxing, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu tournament rules. The primary obstacle that the commission had to overcome was that no other sport in existence permitted striking while the participants are on the ground, but this is an essential feature in mixed martial arts. Nonetheless, the commission included striking on the ground in the rules. The Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts Combat have become the standard rules of not only the UFC, but of most major mixed martial arts promotions in the United States, and have been adopted by many states, including New Jersey, Nevada, Florida, California and Louisiana.

In order to fully understand why it was necessary for the sport to adopt the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts combat, it is necessary to analyze the exact arguments that have been leveled at the sport. The sport has been called “barbaric,” and labeled as “human cockfighting.” Beginning with Calvin McCard’s opposition to the holding of UFC IIX in San Juan, Puerto Rico, politicians began to take notice of the negative aspects of the sport. Most notable among these was Arizona Senator John McCain. McCain, an avid and lifelong boxing enthusiast, was horrified when he was shown a tape of an early UFC. He sparked a letter writing campaign to prevent UFC IIX, but the event went on despite his opposition. McCain’s next target was Colorado, the intended site of UFC IX, which also went on despite strong opposition, but with new rules. Following UFC IX, John McCain targeted the cable pay-per-view providers to encourage them to drop the UFC. He encouraged Neil Henry, a personal friend of Senator McCain’s, and the owner of TCI, the pay-per-view provider that was hosting the UFC’s events to drop the UFC from his service. Senator McCain also sat on the FCC commission, which had much say over Mr. Henry’s business. Mr. Henry voiced many of the opinions that Senator McCain and other opponents of the UFC had been voicing up until that point. Mr. Henry and Senator McCain believed the sport was “too brutal,” and that “to hit a man when he was down was un-American.” Other opponents of the sport believed that the sport raised serious moral issues, in that it encouraged two participants to enter a cage, or ring and seriously injure or maim one another.

The claims against the sport that were based on the health and safety of its participants seem to be widely based on misunderstanding. First, a sort of cultural determinism seems to have influenced the opponents of the sport of mixed martial arts. Unlike Japan and Brazil where mixed martial arts have a long history of popular acceptance, American society’s only experience with a mainstream combat sport is with that of boxing. Under the Marques of Queensbury rules, boxing only permits punches thrown to the head and body, unlike mixed martial arts which permits punches and kicks to all areas of the body with the exception of the groin, neck and back of the head, as well as knees and elbow strikes, takedowns, throws, and submissions.

Also, in boxing, the participants wear large padded gloves, whereas in mixed martial arts, the participants wear only minimally padded gloves. On the surface, this would make the sport of mixed martial arts seem significantly more dangerous, but in reality, it is actually safer. The heavily padded gloves used in boxing are actually employed to protect the boxers’ hands, not their opponents’ face and body. This allows the boxer to throw more punches to the head and body of his opponent than mixed martial artists, as mixed martial arts gloves do not protect the wearer’s hands as much as boxing gloves. In addition to the lower level of padding used in mixed martial arts gloves, the greater volume of techniques that can be employed in mixed martial arts actually make the sport safer as well. In the words of professional mixed martial artist John Rallo,


“After all the goal in boxing is to punch you opponent in the head until he is unconscious. This is not the goal in our sport. There are many other ways to win. Since 1900 their have been over 1000 documented deaths in boxing. There has been 1 in MMA in 70 years. That was in Russia at an unsanctioned event. Ironically the death was caused by strikes to the head.”

Mr. Rallo’s claim about the sheer volume of deaths in the history of the sport boxing is substantiated by numerous reports, most notable of these is the Manuel Vasquez Boxing Fatality Collection. The Vasquez Collection is a documentation of all reported deaths in the sport of boxing since 1900. The list compiled by Vasquez, and continually updated since his death, now contains 1,157 names. Ironically, one such death in the sport of boxing, the 1995 death of Jimmy Garcia, was witnessed by Senator John McCain, as he sat ringside. Strangely, Senator McCain remains a fan of boxing, a sport with a marred safety record, and over 1,000 recorded deaths in a little over 100 years, but he continues to be an opponent of the sport of mixed martial arts, which has not had a serious injury in the recorded history of the sport. In comparison to many sports that are widely and popularly accepted in American culture, including football, cheerleading, hockey, boxing and basketball, mixed martial arts is relatively safe. The numerous ways in which a fight can end in a mixed martial arts event, the great deal of safety precautions taken by promoters, and the attentiveness of mixed martial arts referees, who can end the fight at any time they see fit are all reasons why there have been no serious injuries in the recorded history of sanctioned mixed martial arts events. The effect that the various ways in which a mixed martial arts fight can end have on the safety of the sport is illustrated by John Rallo in his statement that:

“…it is honorable to tap in our sport. If you quit in a boxing match you may not fight again. Look at Roberto Duran after the “no mas” match with Ray Leonard. He was looked down upon and never regained his edge after that fight. A KO is not the only means of victory. The average boxer takes several hundred blows to the head in a winning performance. In MMA I have been in fights and not even taken one punch. If you take down your opponent and finish the fight on the ground you greatly reduce the chances of being KO’ed or even hit at all. Obviously there are injuries. This is a contact sport. But the injuries are no more severe then those suffered by collegiate wrestlers or football players.”

Even in the case of mixed martial arts events that are held on Indian Reservations, or in casinos where sanctioning bodies are not present, and the events are not monitored, such as Rob Braniff’s Freestyle Fighting Championship, it is still commonplace that the methods of business, safety measures employed and the ethical measures taken far surpass the rules and regulations set out by the sanctioning bodies of outlying areas.

Another major argument against the sport of mixed martial arts is that it is immoral, and goes against the morals that are considered part of the “American way of life.” Opponents of the sport question the sport’s morality, as it requires two opponents to enter a ring or cage with the intention of hurting or injuring one another. Another moral argument against the sport is that striking a downed opponent is “un-American.” Proponents of the sport strongly disagree with these allegations. Proponents of the sport strongly disagree with these allegations. One such proponent, John McCarthy emphasizes that the fighters in mixed martial arts do not fight to inflict pain on one another, rather they fight for the sake of competition. He states that all of the fighters that he has talked to about this issue say that when they fight, it is all about the sport, and that it is more an issue of dominance, like a game of chess, rather than one of inflicting pain on another human being. In this vein, Mr. McCarthy says that the ethics of mixed martial arts are the same as those of other widely accepted sports, such as football or hockey, where inflicting pain on the competition is merely a part of the sport, not the ends of competing. Professional mixed martial artist John Rallo reinforces this. Mr. Rallo says that when he fights:

I feel respect for my opponents. They trained just as hard to beat me as I did to beat them. You can’t underestimate anyone in this sport. One mistake and the fight is over. My emotional state is probably nervous…As for getting into the ring to harm my opponent this is not true. I am getting in the ring to win the competition. Unlike boxing, I can use submissions to defeat my opponent. Since competitors can honorably tap out usually nothing more is injured then pride. If you know them well it does complicate things a bit. But it is a sport. It is not personal. After the match is over you get up shake each other’s hand and continue to be friends.”

As for the morals of the sport of mixed martial arts being un-American, this statement too is refutable. Though the United States of America was founded on the principle of religious freedom, it is quite easily recognized that the founding of the United States of America and its government had a heavy Christian influence. This manifests itself in many ways, even to this day. It can be seen in everything from American currency, which bears the statement “In God We Trust,” to the Pledge of Allegiance, which proclaims the United States of America to be “One nation under God,” and these are just two of many examples of the imprint that Judeo-Christian beliefs and morals have on the United States. Since the American way of life and the morals that comprise it have their roots in the Judeo-Christian belief system, it would be difficult for the opponents of mixed martial arts to level a moral argument against the sport, since the first book of the Holy Bible (which happens to be part of the religious scripture for not only Christian religions, but Judaism, and Islam) features a tale of a mixed martial arts style competition between Jacob and God. Genesis 32 tells the story of how Jacob grappled with God at Peniel for the duration of a night. When the night was over, Jacob had dislocated his hip, and for his refusal to submit, or “tap out” in mixed martial arts terminology, God blessed Jacob.

Currently, mixed martial arts is the fastest growing sport in the United States of America. Its fans and participants can be found all over the country, and in all walks of life. They represent every race, creed and class of people in the United States. They are teachers, police officers, attorneys, truck drivers, accountants, laborers, ministers, soldiers, doctors, students, and family members. They are as much American as the fans and athletes involved in any other sport that is popularly and culturally accepted by the people of the United States of America. They are not savages, barbarians or criminals, nor are they a collection of social deviants and miscreants as people like John McCain would have the voting public believe. They are simply people who enjoy a sport that is misunderstood and as a result, feared and hated.

As the fan base of the sport continues to expand and grow, the sport will receive more attention as it edges closer to mainstream American culture. Currently, UFC events are covered in USA Today, and the Fox Sports Network, which has aired several fights from UFC events on its network, and ESPN airs similar competitions as part of its regular line up. It is only a matter of time before the sport of mixed martial arts is a mainstream sport which will rival boxing, but in order for the sport to gain mainstream acceptance, the public must be educated on the sport. As long as the terrible misconceptions that are associated with the sport continue to permeate society, misguided opposition to the sport will exist based on these misconceptions and irrational ideas. Only with education will the society ever fully accept the sport of mixed martial arts. Until the public can be educated, the sport will remain a fringe oddity to some members of the population, and will continue to be considered in the same vein as “extreme” sports, though it could achieve much greater things. The potential for the success of the sport exists, as evidenced by the widespread acceptance and monetary gains the sport has gained in both Japan and Brazil. It is only a matter of time before the sport of mixed martial arts sweeps the United States.

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