If violence is going out of fashion in sports, nobody’s told the fans.
Late last year, a capacity crowd of 20,427 people streamed in Madison Square Garden to witness Ultimate Fighting Championship 205. It was the first major mixed martial arts event to ever be contested in New York City. The stacked fight card drew a record gate and shattered pay-per-view records. For a night, spectators in the nation’s financial and performing arts capital watched eagerly for moves with names such as “guillotines,” “anaconda chokes,” “spinning back fists,” and “hook kicks” — the lingo of a sport that’s a mere quarter-century old and that keeps growing in popularity despite its brutal image, or maybe because of it.
In mixed martial arts, or MMA, fighters from different disciplines, such as judo, karate, jiu jitsu, and wrestling, face off against each other in a cage-enclosed ring. By sports standards, it’s an infant. But it’s growing up fast. A Sports Illustrated cover in 2007 famously asked if MMA was “too brutal or the future?”
The future has won. Fox regularly showcases UFC events, and ESPN covers the sport like any other. MMA athletes are becoming so mainstream that they’re landing movie roles and gigs on “Dancing With the Stars.” A recent swipe from Meryl Streep — who complained at the Golden Globes that an immigration crackdown would wipe out Hollywood and leave behind only football and mixed martial arts — offered backhanded testimony to the sport’s growing profile.
Yet questions that dogged mixed martial arts from the outset remain: How much brutality are fans willing to accept in a mainstream sport? And why is such a physically punishing sport attracting so much attention even as other forms of pro athletics, like football and hockey, are bending over backward to protect players from injury, particularly of the concussive variety?
The lingering controversy over mixed martial arts exposes a deeper dilemma in all contact sports: Even when fans rationally grasp the risk to individual competitors, we can’t help but feel that hard hits enrich the spectacle.
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The goal of mixed martial arts is to inflict as much damage on your opponent as possible while taking minimal damage yourself. There are few restrictions — which makes MMA extremely unpredictable. In three or five five-minute rounds, viewers are virtually guaranteed to feel exhilarated, dubious, or guilty.
“There’s an edge-of-your-seat kind of thing, a very visceral gut instinct to [MMA],” says Adam Naylor, a clinical assistant professor of sport psychology at Boston University who has worked with mixed martial artists. “In any sport there’s a tension to a tied game, or a close game, but I feel like all of these fights feel this way.”
Oddly, because of the brevity of the matches and lack of padding, the sport can be less punishing to the body that other sports, like boxing or football. Still, mixed martial arts feels different. There is a real threat of seeing something terrible at any second — a fighter being choked unconscious or stiffened up by a particularly severe knockout, for example. Fighters have died from their injuries, though not at the highest levels of the sport. Other sports have the real risk of injury or death, NASCAR for instance. But the goal of car racing isn’t to bring other drivers to the edge of consciousness.
Because of the violence, fans of the UFC and its competitors have been stigmatized over the years as bloodthirsty. Jonathan Gottschall, a college professor who decided to take up MMA and chronicle his experience in his book “The Professor in the Cage,” explains in an interview: “A lot of people have looked at the violence in MMA and they think it’s just beyond the pale. They think it’s beyond boxing, too much for a civilized society to tolerate. Also, MMA came on the scene around the time when traditional models of masculinity became suspect. Now we have a much more complex and really adversarial relationship with masculinity, and our best thinkers don’t want to celebrate it.”
Indeed, the rise of MMA highlights a growing divide between public mores, which increasingly condemn physical fights, and a certain quirk of human nature: When two people are battling it out, it’s hard to look away. “If you’re watching a basketball game at a stop light, you might watch for a minute and move on; but if you see a fight, you’re likely to want to hang back and watch the train wreck that might ensue,” says Matt Mitrione, a heavyweight veteran of the UFC who now fights for Bellator MMA, a rival mixed martial arts circuit. “It’s like that in first world and third world countries, fighting is universal.”
Do all humans have innate inner aggression that needs to be fed? Is fighting something people want to emulate? Behavioral psychologists have been seeking an answer to that question for years. Albert Bandura’s famous “Bobo Doll Experiment” found that children are far more likely to behave violently if they watch an adult behave violently first. The findings spawned his “social learning theory” — the idea that behavior can be learned just by observing the environment around you without it being reinforced. The theory is often applied to violence in the media like video games and music, but there has been limited research on how it applies to ultimate fighting.
“I don’t think [MMA] makes people more violent, and I don’t think it makes people less violent,” Gottschall says. “For some reason, intellectuals really want to believe in this. We consume a huge amount of violent entertainment in our movies, our video games, MMA, and yet our world gets safer and safer. When you’re watching men fighting in a cage, you understand they’re in a magical zone where the laws and codes of civilized behavior are temporarily suspended. People aren’t this stupid. They understand that MMA in no way authorizes us to behave in a violent fashion.”
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To some extent, the fighting organizations are playing a double game. They’ve perfected the art of promoting themselves as a mainstream sport, complete with fighter rankings, betting lines, and fantasy games. Still, in UFC commercials, social media posts, and highlight reels, the brief moments of shocking brutality define the sport more than anything else. When Ronda Rousey, among the sport’s earliest female stars, was knocked out at UFC 193 with a kick to the head, it was a sobering reminder that the flashy sport really is a high-risk venture.
Even so, it may be heading for more widespread acceptance. Sam Sommers, a professor of psychology at Tufts University and coauthor of “This is Your Brain on Sports,” sees the emergence of violent sports as cyclical. “While MMA has become popular, things are going in both directions,” he says. “Other sports are being made safer. [MMA] seems to have captured some kind of cultural zeitgeist, but some sports are getting less violent.”
More established sports also get a benefit of the doubt that mixed martial arts does not. Ultimately, we’re not entirely used to MMA yet. “We in psychology talk about norms, which are unwritten rules that govern society as to what is considered acceptable, and those evolve over time,” says Sommers. “There was an era where fights to the death were appropriate for public consumption. . . . What’s thrown people off about MMA is that it’s newer. It has less gravitas. When people have grown up with it, they’ll be more accepting.”