No Eye Gouging, Please
MMA has come a long way since the 1990s, when Arizona Senator and Republican Presidential candidate John McCain called MMA “human cockfighting” and led a campaign that resulted in MMA fights being removed from cable airwaves and banned in 36 states.
MMA had come to America in the early 1990s with the claim that it would allow the various martial-arts disciplines to prove theirs was the best system of self-defense in a no-holds barred fight. The new form of fighting was seen as more spectacle than sport, partially because there were only two rules—no eye gouging and no fish-hooking—and anything else was allowed. That led to McCain’s charge, and the sport appeared to be washed up heading into the 21st century.
But, in 2001, an investor group purchased UFC and placed former fighter Dana White in charge of the business. Rules were added to protect fighters (no head butting, hair pulling, kneeing the head of a downed opponent, putting a finger into an orifice or laceration of an opponent, etc.) and White began aggressively promoting the sport on TV with spectacular success. In May 2007, Sports Illustrated reported UFC’s reality show Ultimate Fighter regularly draws better than the NBA or Major League Baseball among the highly coveted demographic of males age 18-34. In 2006, UFC’s pay-per-view events made more money than the pay-per-view events for boxing on HBO or WWE wrestling.
Despite reaching that level of commercial appeal, MMA still “gets a bad rap because it’s a sport without a ball,” Stidham says. He recalled listening to an 80-something woman yell “Kill ’em,” while attending last year’s Utah-BYU football game. “If they’re fighting over yardage it’s OK, but once they step into a cage, suddenly it’s bad. There’s never been a death in MMA. The same can’t be said for Little League baseball.”
Proponents of MMA argue that injuries from their sport aren’t as bad as they seem when viewed from a long-term perspective. The cuts and bruises on the faces and bodies of MMA fighters can be seen immediately but will heal; the repeated blows to the head and body suffered by boxers and football players can’t be seen right away but take a serious toll later. An MMA fighter might look bad when he walks out of the cage, but is in happier shape than a 50-year-old former boxer who can’t remember anything or a middle-age running back who can’t walk after his playing days are over.
For some fighters, MMA is a safe and controlled outlet for aggression.
“I like to beat up other girls,” says Andrea Miller, a female MMA fighter. “When I do it this way, I make money and don’t get in trouble. I can take out my anger without getting the law involved.”
Some argue that MMA represents the next step in contact sports, because it is fighting’s ultimate free market.
“It’s the evolution of fighting,” Alexander Scott says recently while watching fights in downtown Salt Lake City. He has trained in the martial arts and looks forward to trying his first fight in 2008. “There’s so much that goes into it. It’s vicious but, at the same time, it’s a science.”
Many fighters stress MMA is not so much about hurting somebody else, but training in order to be able execute a game plan or react to what’s needed in a split second—as in baseball or basketball.
“Being a tough sonofabitch certainly doesn’t hurt, that’s for sure,” fighter Salvador Sanchez explains. “But it only gets you so far. The higher up you get the more it becomes like chess-match moves. You aren’t thinking about hurting the other guy but about what moves you need to make to counter his moves. If you have two trained fighters, it’s really quite beautiful. It becomes an art form.”