Why I just don’t get Mixed Martial Arts – and probably never will.
“Take four street corners; on one they are playing baseball, on another they are playing basketball and on another, street hockey. On the fourth corner, a fight breaks out. Where does the crowd go? They all go to the fight.” – Dana White, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) CEO.
I have never been in a real fight. I’ve never participated in any sort of structured wrestling, either. I’ve been close to fights, I’ve probably deserved a punch or two – but it’s never happened. I say this in the interest of full disclosure: I have no experience with structured, street or any other type of fighting, schoolyard dust-ups aside.
That said, I still believe I have a case for disliking Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), of which the UFC is the main organized body. Commercials for UFC events do nothing for me – even the occasional match I’ve seen hasn’t triggered any desire to learn more about the sport. However, its popularity can’t be denied. UFC main events are now major draws for FOX on the Saturday evenings they are shown; ratings for ‘The Ultimate Fighter’, a reality series on the cable channel FX, are on the rise.
It’s ironic that while the most popular sport in America (football) has made a concerted effort to decrease its level of violence, a sport which is primarily violence (MMA) is on the rise. In a time when we are exposed to violent images on television and at the movies, more and more people are also turning to it as a sport.
This won’t be an abstract discussion about human nature, or whether we are intrinsically good or evil, or about whether bloodlust is inherent to our species. Subjects like those deserve serious, academic discussion from serious, academic people. And as much as I’d like to be one, I’m not. So I’ll try to stick to the shallower, sports-related reasons why I just don’t get Mixed Martial Arts – and probably never will.
The other sports are better products – aesthetically and athletically.
ESPN’s Max Kellerman (original host of ‘Around the Horn’) repeatedly made a very elegant-sounding defense of his favorite sport, boxing, by saying something along the following lines: ‘There’s something about a conflict being resolved literally (i.e. with fists) rather than metaphorically (with a ball) that draws people in.’ This line of thinking is also present in the quote used to open this piece; if given the choice, people would flock to a spontaneous, street-corner fight over watching other sports. It’s not tough to envision that scenario playing itself out in real-life.
The two different styles of sport (metaphorical and literal) don’t need to be mutually exclusive, though. Baseball and boxing are about as fundamentally different philosophically and practically as two sports could be, yet for the majority of U.S. history, those were the two most popular sports. While Ultimate Fighting has overtaken boxing (for a myriad of reasons) as the ‘literal’ sport-de-jour, it still hasn’t approached the level of popularity boxing did during its heyday, and it’s unlikely it ever will.
Athletically, a more all-around skill set is on display when a ball (or puck) is added to the game – running, jumping, skating, hand-eye coordination, etc. There is something to learn from playing a team sport, and from watching teams grow together and gel, that people can relate to. Martial Arts also has some lessons to teach, but on a more individual level.
Aesthetically, there is a certain beauty to baseball, basketball, football and hockey that can’t be matched by Mixed Martial Arts. Tuning in to a fight is tuning into a conflict in which one person tries not to be maimed or killed by another person. What follows are many moments of discomfort and agonizing struggle, where one of the implicit goals is to render the opponent unconscious. On the other hand, football, basketball, baseball, hockey – they provide those moments when the ball is suspended in air, when the final seconds are ticking down, or when a breakaway begins – moments of drama that are devoid of existential danger.
Don’t get me wrong, there are moments of violence in just about every sport – especially football – but the violence is never as naked as it appears in MMA fights. Football players are covered (in helmets and pads), fighters are in shorts. Violence in basketball is penalized – collisions at home plate in baseball are much rarer than highlight reels would have you believe. Hockey’s a much trickier subject, due to the phenomenon of fighting, but eliminating that violent aspect wouldn’t render the game extinct. Light or mild violence is a part of all sports – but to have it be a sport seems slightly barbaric.
Speaking of barbarians…
Every professional sports league contains its fair share of unsavory people. Every league contains its share of felons, narcissists and cretins. I would never argue that the pool of professional athletes is overpopulated with choir boys.
It takes a certain type of person to willfully inflict violence upon another human being. Football players often have a mentality that straddles the line between aggression and rage; professional fighters are an even more extreme example of this. In football, violence is a byproduct of the stated goal of any player – namely, to either get the ball to the end zone (on offense) or to prevent that from happening (on defense). In a fight, violence is the method of attaining your goal – to knock your opponent out, or to inflict so much pain that he submits.
I’m not saying all professional fighters are thugs, but the mentality one must exhibit to get into a ring and run the risk of killing your opponent puts them in a unique subsection of society. To get oneself into the mental framework required to inflict that sort of harm to another human being is to channel some of the human race’s most primal (and ugly) urges. So while I freely admit that other professional sports league have behavior issues, it’s hard for mainstream sports fans to identify with borderline personalities – or at least, to a sport made almost exclusively of people residing on the fringe of acceptable behavior.
When a ball is involved, there’s never a doubt who won.
There are many subjective elements to stick and ball games: the strike zone, whether or not to call a travel, offsides in hockey, pass interference in football, etc. But there is a clear winner or loser, verified empirically by something that happens with the ball. The scoreboard lets you know objectively who won the game. The subjective layers to the game and the analysis beyond the box score provides context, but there can be no debate over who the victor was.
A UFC match can end in four possible ways. Disqualifications or withdrawals account for fewer than 2% of all results. The other three outcomes (submissions, knockouts or decisions) pretty much evenly split the remaining 98% of matches. That means nearly a third of all UFC matches are left to the judges – an unsatisfactory result for any fan accustomed to objectively determined outcomes.
If my ignorance of the strategy of Mixed Martial Arts wasn’t abundantly clear to this point, it’ll be obvious from this point forward. How does one decide, subjectively, who won a fight? Is it the person who landed a greater number of punches or kicks, or the person who landed more impact punches or kicks? When the two guys are rolling around on the floor, is it always clear who is ‘winning’ and who is ‘losing’?
Needing the opinion of judges to determine a winner and a loser is an unsatisfactory result to such an intense struggle. I have no idea how sports such as boxing or Mixed Martial Arts rectifies this. I know they have systems for determining who wins the decision, based on fairly strict criteria, but there’s got to be some sort of a letdown if it needs to come to that.
There are plenty of reasons to dislike Mixed Martial Arts. Many of mine stem from personal, philosophical ideals, and even though I’m sure they’re shared by many people, it’s tough to discuss them in a public forum without sounding holier-than-thou. When I examine fights from a purely sports-based perspective, I still find plenty to dislike – ambiguous endings, the brutality of what occurs inside the ring, and the people who are doing the fighting itself.
While I might believe the infatuation with fighting might reflect from a kind of sickness within a subsection of our culture, I have to admit that watching fights is a phenomenon as old as the human race itself. The old barroom argument over who the better athlete is – a superstar QB (say, Tom Brady) or an Ultimate Fighter (Junior Dos Santos) is answered by some people as “Santos, he could beat Brady to a pulp!”
That same question is answered by me as “Tom Brady”. Despite White’s intimation in the opening about people flocking to watch a street corner fight, I think we, as a culture, have moved beyond the brutal, antiquated definition of what makes ‘an athlete’ or ‘a man’. While a growing number of people might enjoy watching fights, it hasn’t made it to the big time – yet – and here’s to hoping it never does.
Am I a wimp? Let me know at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, on Twitter @BreakTheHuddle, or leave a comment! Thanks for giving it a read!