A Sporting Cult Moves Into The Mainstream

In MMA on December 11, 2009 at 6:15 pm

Of all the titanic battles which have taken place in MMA, the ongoing fight for respect and acceptance among the public has been the toughest. It could finally be nearing an end though, as MMA blossoms from its beginnings as a cult freakshow to its current status as a legitimate and well-respected sport.

As it stands, professional events are being hosted in front of enthusiastic crowds all over the world, television networks are beaming events into living rooms free of charge, and fighters are being recognised by mainstream journalists as the dedicated athletes they are.

While some will always be repulsed by the physical and sometimes brutal nature of MMA, the number of people who were once so quick to dismiss it out of hand are rapidly dwindling.

Royce Gracie gets to grips with the 484lb Akebono

As the sport outgrew its original teething problems and began to evolve throughout the 90s, regulations were necessarily put in place. The days of seeing a 180 pound Royce Gracie taking on someone twice his size at the first few UFC events were necessarily ended and the official Unified Rules were introduced in 2000. These rules were recognised by various State Athletic Commissions and allowed the UFC and other organisations to market themselves as a ‘real’ sport.

As MMA began to find its footing and establish itself in America and elsewhere, the setup became more and more professional. Top class referees like John McCarthy, who trained and understood the fight game, were brought in to ensure the fighters’ safety. Rather than being a bloodthirsty, no-holds barred brawl featuring street fighters with minimal formal training, MMA became a true test of skill and athleticism.

With proper weight divisions established, fighters could no longer depend on a size advantage to make up for shortcomings in a technical area, and the importance of true ‘cross-training’ was established. The sport became a mix of stand-up fighting (the main disciplines of which include traditional boxing, kick-boxing and its variants, and karate disciplines like Tae Kwon-Do), grappling (Judo and wrestling, etc) and ground fighting (mainly submission arts like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and catch wrestling). These days no fighter can make it to the top level without a moderate level of skill in all three disciplines, and any who are lacking will be quickly exposed.

Contrary to popular belief, the injuries in the first decade of sanctioned MMA have been almost exclusively minor. There has been one death in sanctioned MMA bouts to date, that of the unfortunate Sam Vasquez, who passed away in November 2007 following a fight for Renegades Extreme Fighting in Houston, Texas. It has since emerged that Vasquez suffered from a pre-existing medical condition, and should never have been cleared to fight.

Despite this tragedy, the image of barbaric ‘cage-fighting’ is hard to reconcile with the slick UFC, which has held over 100 events with no worse injuries to the participants than the odd broken bone.

Referee and former fighter 'Big' John McCarthy

The sport, in statistical terms and on a professional level, is no more dangerous than cricket, horse-riding or hockey. One of the reasons for this is the 4oz gloves which fighters wear. Although originally introduced to reduce the chances of the puncher breaking their hand, they paradoxically lessen the chances of damage to the cranium than someone being hit with a heavy, cushioned boxing glove. The reasons for this mainly come down to the fact that a punch connecting square on the jaw is likely to result in a straight knockout, or knockdown, and the fight will be ended. Boxers, on the other hand, may be subjected to perhaps 12 three-minute rounds of punishment at the gloves of their heavy-handed foe.

Another reason for the surprisingly sanitised environment of the octagon is the professionalism of the fighters. No-one becomes a professional mixed martial artist without a serious amount of training and hard work, and very rarely will someone be dangerously out of their depth in the ring.

Another aspect of this professionalism is evident in the respect fighters afford each other. More so than in almost any other sport, the isolated nature of MMA results in a mutual understanding between the solitary combatants. They are all acutely aware of the dangers they face, and any unsportsmanlike conduct which could result in a career threatening injury would be seen in a very dim light indeed by the MMA authorities. This leads to a surprisingly clean and respectful sport, especially given its inherent nature. 

Canada's 'Athlete of the Year' and UFC welterweight champ Georges St Pierre

Obviously, there will be exceptions to every rule. But the UFC laid down a marker in August 2007 when they cut one of their most promising fighters, Brazilian Renato Sobral, for holding a choke for too long after his opponent had submitted. Because of the priority which fighters’ safety is given and the (sometimes grudging) respect between the fighters themselves, the often jarring sight of two fighters emotionally embracing just moments after a ferocious scrap will still remain the norm.

With mainstream TV networks in the US and elsewhere belatedly recognising the potential audience which MMA generates, the sport has grown rapidly in the last few years. In the last 12 months alone, Setanta Sports and ESPN fought over the rights to broadcast every UFC event live in Britain and Ireland and organisations such as the ill-fated Elite XC and Strikeforce have found a home on popular US channels like CBS and NBC.

Although these organisations are augmented by the likes of Dream, Sengoku and the WEC, the big daddy is undoubtedly the UFC, particularly since the demise of Japanese behemoth Pride FC. As a consequence, the sport of MMA owes the UFC a debt of immense gratitude. If it wasn’t for their tireless promotional efforts, slick production and deep roster of fighters, the sport would not have reached a level where it is now pushing for entry to the Olympic Games.

A sign of the sport’s growth is the recent voting of French-Canadian Georges St.Pierre as Canada’s ‘Athlete of the Year’. With legitimacy now earned and mainstream popularity growing, this young sport is still developing as an art-form. The accepted blueprint of ‘kick-boxing, wrestling and submissions’ which emerged just a few short years ago is now being excitingly challenged by a new wave of unorthodox and exciting shotokan and sanshou karate stylists like Lyoto Machida and Cung Le.

UFC light-heavyweight belt holder Lyoto Machida lands a high kick against Tito Ortiz

It’s not often that we are afforded the opportunity to watch a sport grow from infancy, and the direction which MMA takes in the future is bound to be fascinating. Whatever happens, we will be given the chance to follow it closely from the comfort of our living room, because it looks as though ‘Ultimate Fighting’ is here to stay.


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