The recent mainstream acceptance of the sport of mixed martial arts, known as MMA, recently had a big breakthrough. On Saturday, the first primetime MMA event aired on CBS. Elite XC Saturday Night Fights introduced the primetime broadcast television world to the controversial sport.
Parade magazine said the game should be banned. The world of “legitimate” sports has long criticized the sport for not actually being a sport and more controlled brutality. Fans, however, mostly young men, flock to MMA which makes a sport out of kicking, punching, and grappling with others. Yes, people bleed. Yes, there are lots of really painful-looking things going on. Yes, it’s violent. But let me try to explain to women why this sport should matter and why you should not freak out so much about the popularity of this “fighting sport.”
One of the bones of contention for the CBS event was the women’s fight between Gina Carano and Kaitlin Young. You may know Carano as Crush, the “hot” gladiator on NBC’s series American Gladiators. Carano has been called the face of women’s mixed martial arts since women haven’t really been major players in MMA until Carano showed up. So far, she’s undefeated and trains with some very elite names in the MMA community. She’s being trained by Extreme Coture, the fighting school established by MMA hall of famer Randy Coture. Then again, maybe she’ll do American Gladiators full time and will quit the daily grind of fight training.
Thing is, fighting looks pretty violent. In the early days of UFC, one of the sport’s major fight organizers, fights were brutal and the stuff of paid subscription television. There were no rules, so any man could fight any other man, so they did. Men’s teeth were kicked out. Hair was pulled. Groins were kicked. Blood was spilled, sometimes in copious amounts. This wasn’t a sport but televised brutality. While the “train wreck” appeal was undeniable, it quickly became apparent to everyone that the sport had to change in order to gain respect.
So the sport pulled together and created some unified rules. In UFC events and Elite XC events, there is no eye gouging, groin kicking, or elbows to the head while fighters are on the ground. There’s no breaking of fingers. Ringside doctors have the power to stop any fight at any time. Referees are required to stop fights they feel might become dangerous.
MMA may look brutal. It is fighting, after all, but the danger is overemphasized by critics. MMA doesn’t kill. Dale Earnhardt fans know all too well the pain of sports death, and the danger of sports like NASCAR, the NFL, or even horse racing are understated in the media while the dangers of MMA are overstated. MMA requires that fights be stopped before anyone actually gets hurt.
The idea is that fighters get to the point when they could potentially hurt each other seriously, like locking someone’s arm or chocking someone while on the ground. When this happens, the fight ends before harm is actually done. Nobody’s breaking their arms because the fighter wins when he proves that they could but before he actually does. Boxing emphasizes standing up, even though tremendous damage is being done to the brain, and Muhammad Ali is reminder of the damage that can be done by boxing. MMA, however, is a sport where the fight is stopped before the damage is done. If you’re not fighting back, you lose. No exceptions.
Then, there’s the question of taste. How tasteful can it be to have muscle-bound men, with the occasional woman, punch, kick, and wrestle each other in the name of sport? How can a sport be tasteful if so many of its athletes bleed during competition? Therein lies the most legitimate criticism of MMA.
When I was a young girl, I used to watch my grandfather while he watched boxing on TV. Grandpa was quite possibly the world’s most mild-mannered man. He had a heavy accent and a dark, brooding look about him, softened over the years by gray hair and the rounding of old age. He also loved to watch boxing, a surprising sport for a man like him to enjoy.
As boxing events wore on throughout the afternoon, he would sit in the living room, watching as men would pound each other about the head and body. He’d ball up his fists and hold them under his neck, occasionally throwing light punches in the air and shouting in the language I didn’t know. Eventually the frustration would overwhelm him and he’d storm out of the room to go work in the garden. A few minutes later, though, he’d always return to find out what happened.
I feel like our tastes don’t always have to define us. Yes, most MMA fans are young men, the kind of men who buy energy drinks and malt liquor, perennial corporate sponsors of MMA events. I, however, am a fan. I don’t know why I’m a fan, but MMA seems like a harmless indulgence. If sweaty men want to punch and kick each other for money and they want me to watch, I’ll watch.
So there you have it, MMA in a nutshell. Ladies, feel free to hate MMA if you want. I, on the other hand, will be enjoying last week’s big UFC pay-per-view event, hoping for some nice armbar or rear naked choke action.