(No, I won’t apologise for that awful martial arts pun.)
I recently posted an article about the cost of the current MMA fight structure on the fighters. In brief, the article discusses how fights are not ended early enough in UFC bouts to prevent long-term fighter damage. It makes an incredibly compelling argument for increased responsibility on behalf of the support teams for each fighter. I shared it because I absolutely agree that it is turning into a bloodsport and bringing shame on martial arts as a whole. But perhaps I should make my response to it a bit clearer.
I know some MMA guys, just as I know competitive traditional martial artists who fight in tournaments under the karate banner. I myself have done the 100 Randori twice – 100 fights in one night, without a break. I know the siren song of the fight, of the joy of a well-fought spar, and the fear of going up against someone bigger and stronger and faster. Please believe me, I know how good it feels to fight.
But this is my main problem with EFC, UFC et al: its not about the fight so much as the blood.
The point of martial arts (in the traditional sense) is not to pick fights. It seems counter-intuitive, but its about the discipline and the knowledge. It’s about avoiding fighting, but knowing what to expect if it happens. It’s almost like buying a baseball bat to defend yourself – it’s for sport, but it can be used to hurt someone. Martial arts is a tool, and yes it can be a weapon, but most of us use it as a tool to improve ourselves. In my case, it’s for the discipline, the clarity of mind, the self-control, the strength of body and personal growth. I’ve written more here, but suffice to say, I don’t use my martial arts to go beat the crap out of people. That’s not even remotely the point of it. I’m sure that for the majority of MMA people, these things also hold true and I respect their journey as martial artists.
But then you get UFC, hosting big fights in Vegas and New York and all over the world. These are huge drawcards, with a global federation behind them, with established guidelines and experts. The fighters earn pretty good money (some of them millions per fight), but they also look like this after fights:
There’s a remarkable collection of before and after shots of MMA fights here. It is incredibly graphic, be warned.
In tournament karate, competitors have to wear gumguards, shinguards, gloves and now headgear is becoming increasingly prominent. When I started doing martial arts, I thought those guys were being babies, but now I absolutely see the necessity of protective gear. The rules are incredibly strict about excessive force, because we would like to see people training until they are old. According this fascinating study on MMA careers, the average MMA career lasts a mere nine years. And until they get to the big leagues, these guys are fighting small fights with the same amount of injury for very little money.
I am all for the idea of testing yourself. I absolutely think that we should all do something difficult and scary and tough, whether it’s ultra-marathons or the 100 Randori or climbing Everest. But I also think that this kind of bloodsport (and essentially it is) needs to stop. I’m not calling for the end of MMA. Whatever my feelings are about it as a martial art, I would never call for the end of something that gives a lot of practitioners their bliss. But what I am calling for is a much, much stricter rein on fight conditions. If the guy’s eye is swollen shut, then stop the fight. But the fights make a lot of money just in ticket sales and they generate huge viewership on pay-per-view and cable television in the USA. Maybe we should be blaming the audiences, who will howl if a fight is stopped early. It is the same question we should be asking about rugby, boxing and American football: the cost of these sports is the player’s health and lives. There are frightening stats for these sports about concussion and trauma. The worst part is, these adult players start getting injured for no pay at school level, and the damage is just accumulated.
As long as people are willing to watch and pay, however, we will be seeing more MMA fights with fighters being forced to stay in the ring past their quitting time. We will keep seeing young boys getting concussed at school rugby level because they all hope to don the Springbok jersey, even if only for a few years until their bodies give out.
Ultimately, the question we should be asking is: are we morally comfortable with watching people get hurt for our amusement? Personally, I don’t think we should be endorsing what’s happening in the UFC right now. It’s bad for the sport, it’s bad for martial arts and most of all, it’s bad for the fighters.