Outside of writing, I do a lot of martial arts. I train in a style called Kajukembo, which is a mixed martial arts off-shoot of Kempo. It was founded in Hawai’i just after World War 2, born out of the multi-ethnic slums in that time.
I enjoy martial arts a lot, but it sometimes surprises people to learn that I don’t like most combat sports like MMA or professional boxing. I don’t have anything against MMA per say (leagues like Bellator or the UFC), but I do actively have a problem with boxing.
My issue with boxing stems from the increasing awareness of just how serious chronic brain trauma has proven to be. The idea that you can be a championship fighter, you can be undefeated, you can have never been knocked out, and still have suffered serious brain trauma…that’s just beyond terrifying. I genuinely don’t think any person can agree to such a thing. I don’t believe a person – any person – is capable of making an informed decision as to what that would be like. This debate is being played out largely in the NFL because I understand that they actively obfuscated the data, but I think various boxing promotions around the world are equally culpable.
It’s a little bit different when you talk about MMA. The gloves between the two sports make a big difference, as do the rule-set. Many MMA matches end with a submission, not a knockout. In fact, I would argue that striking has really been devalued, or rather more-accurately valued. The gloves in MMA are not meant to protect the opponent, but the wearer. They’re little more than knuckle-guards and wrist-wraps. This means that punches don’t just cause concussive damage (as is the case with heavily-gloved hands) but also cause abrasive damage (cutting). Blood is drawn, which can end a fight on its own.
Secondly, matches are much shorter. MMA matches are three, five-minute rounds (five rounds for championship bouts), which pales compared to boxing’s 10-12 rounds of 3 minutes (and the standard used to be 15 rounds). A lot of damage can get build up over that time, and that damage is cumulative. But while many boxing matches go the distance (go through all the rounds with no clear victor, necessitating a judges’ ruling), most MMA matches are decided before the final bell, often in the very first round. This means accumulated damage simply isn’t there, and the damage that is sustained may be more intense but all evidence suggests that it is superficial (though hardly trivial).
The brain trauma issue aside, I don’t enjoy the sporting aspect of combat. I don’t enjoy the glorification of violence. I love action movies and professional wrestling, but those two genres are fiction. When you are talking about two people actively hurting one another, I just can’t get behind that. So long as the damage is immediate and superficial (meaning cuts, bruises, sprains, maybe a broken bone or two), I don’t see a tangible problem with it. More serious, severe damage, though – more sustained and long-term – and it becomes a different story.
Part of my disdain for the glorification of violence stems not just a personal and moral issue, but there’s a larger societal issue. Glorifying violence in this form normalizes it. Setting up two willing competitors in the ring (or octagon) isn’t the absolute worst way to solve problems, but it does numb us to what real, true violence is and can be like.
We see this happen through the teaching of MMA techniques to soldiers and women’s self-defense classes. While there’s certainly some degree of carryover between the octagon and the battlefield, it’s smaller than many might think. The same is true for domestic violence situations. Combat sports are just that: sports. Sports have a multitude of rules, not the least of which are barred moves and weight classes. No such luxuries are enjoyed by spouses dealing with an abusive partner.
When the UFC first started, the progenitor of the mixed martial arts scene looked very different than it does today. Back then, the Ultimate Fighting Championship wasn’t MMA but NHB: No-Holds Barred. The rules were simple: no biting and no eye-gouging. Everything else was fair game. No gloves, no weight classes, no time limits, none of that. It was a one-day, 8-persn single-elimination tournament.
This sort of competition is closer to a real fight than modern mixed martial arts and professional boxing. And if real-world violence is to continue to be seen as entertainment, then this should be the manner in which it is done. Because if people wish to see a thing, then the closest they can get to the truth is what should be made available.
The truth is, strength matters, size is an asset, and that violence is very, very ugly.