Mixing It Up

November 12, 2010

I was 25 years old before I finally found a sport that I genuinely enjoyed. I’d had a passing interest in combat sports for many years but didn’t come to properly explore this until I came to Korea and discovered the abundance of quality martial arts broadcast on cable TV here; from the well-known (and now entirely dominant) American brand, the Ultimate Fighting Championship to the now-defunct Japanese organization, Pride Fighting Championships and the strictly stand-up (striking) fighting promotion, K-1.

Now there is a sport I follow. I watch the main monthly UFC events on Sunday mornings and the highlight shows on Friday evenings. I seek out footage of significant fights in the smaller promotions in whichever corner of the internet they’re hiding and I read up on statistics and fighter biographies and career histories. Like many other men my age I finally have a head filled with useless sports trivia albeit in a sport that, although extremely fast-growing, still remains slightly outside the mainstream (I haven’t been able to apply this knowledge in a pub quiz as yet). That’s not to attempt to overstate my knowledge of the sport, by any means. I don’t actually train in any martial arts myself and, in all likelihood, I couldn’t fight a bag of shit. What I can do is provide a summarized understanding of MMA (mixed martial arts) for the layman in an attempt to address some enduring misconceptions of the sport that I still see appearing in various publications and voiced by people around me.

MMA legends: Royce Gracie vs. Kazushi Sakuraba

In the loosest possible sense, mixed martial arts has a long history stretching back into ancient combat competitions but the sport as it is known today grew largely from the traditions of vale tudo in Brazil. Vale tudo, as I understand it, translates as ‘anything goes’, meaning ‘no rules’. It is a full-contact, bare-knuckle, mixed martial arts combat event that developed in the last century. Grainy videos of it can be found on Youtube but the sight of such stripped-down, unregulated yet clearly organized violence as a spectator sport is surreal and not for the faint hearted. Brazil was also the place of origin of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a grappling and ground-fighting martial art that originated with a Japanese judo master, Mitsuyo Maeda, who arrived in Brazil in the early 20th century practicing a somewhat modified version of traditional judo that he taught to the now-renowned Gracie family. The Gracies developed this martial art into what later became recognized as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and they were instrumental in the growth of mixed martial arts initially in Brazil and later throughout the world, chiefly for the purpose of promoting the superiority of their martial art in combat competitions. In the early 1990s, members of the Gracie family were operating BJJ gyms in the United States where Rorion Gracie met businessman Art Davie. Davie had seen videos of the Gracies defeating different martial arts masters in combat exhibitions around the world and proposed the creation of a televised tournament pitting different martial artists against one another in a vale tudo style competition to determine which style was superior. This event, dubbed the Ultimate Fighting Championship, took place on November 1993 and was originally intended as a one-off show. For their part, the Gracies fielded one of the more diminutive members of their family as their representative in order to showcase the superiority of BJJ, confident that the smaller man could achieve victory through technique alone. As expected, Royce Gracie ran through all of his opponents at UFC 1 and also managed to win UFC 2 and UFC 4 before eventually fighting decorated submission fighter Ken Shamrock to a draw in UFC 5. The sight of the 175lb Gracie defeating 250lb kickboxers and 260lb wrestlers via submission hugely increased the popularity of BJJ and launched the phenomenon of mixed martial arts in North America.

However, notoriety soon followed and the UFC found itself targeted by opportunistic politicians like John McCain who launched a campaign to have the event banned throughout America (succeeding in 39 states), dubbing it “human cockfighting”. McCain is still widely loathed by American fans of MMA because of this. The lack of regulation, political pressure and dwindling pay-per-view sales saw the UFC under threat and in need of reform. The promotion soon adopted weight classes, time limits and a more extensive set of competition rules in order to appease its critics and win increasing support and cooperation from state athletic commissions. Still struggling financially, in 2001 the promotion was sold by its owners, SEG, to a pair of casino operators, the Fertitta brothers, and their aspiring boxing promoter friend Dana White, who formed the company Zuffa LLC as the parent company of the UFC. The company continued to be a loss-making venture until they created a reality TV show (based on the premise of new fighters competing for a UFC contract) that proved extremely popular, massively increasing interest in mixed martial arts and finally making the UFC profitable.

BJ Penn chokes Joe Stevenson

From around the early 1980s, the Japanese also had a strong MMA scene. Owing to long historical ties to Brazil (the largest population of Japanese people outside of Japan reside in Brazil), Japan had an interest in vale tudo style competitions and it had a large amount of professional wrestlers who wanted to branch out into real fighting competition. Early MMA promotions with emphasis on grappling such as Shooto, Pancrase and RINGS eventually led to the creation of the celebrated Pride Fighting Championships which became the biggest mixed martial arts promotion in the world in the ten years it was operating. Many Brazilian fighters now regarded as bona fide MMA legends made their names fighting for Pride and during the time it operated, from 1997 – 2007, it was regarded as the only real rival to the UFC in America, in terms of brand recognition and popularity. MMA fans still hotly debate which of the two promotions is/was the superior, a debate that was settled, at least in a financial sense, when Pride was sold by its bankrupt Japanese owners to Zuffa and many of the most popular fighters on its roster were absorbed into the UFC. Unlike the UFC events, held in their famous octagonal cage, Pride fights were held in a traditional boxing ring and fighters in Japan were allowed to stomp and kick the heads of their downed opponents, moves long since banned in major American MMA promotions.

Many people who do not follow the sport believe it is largely still an “anything goes” circus act but it has in fact underwent a significant amount of reform and evolution since the early 1990s. The initial approach was one of sideshow spectacle to address the question of who would win in a fight between the trained boxer, wrestler, BJJ expert, karate practitioner, etc. and it wasn’t unusual to see men who were little more than glorified bar brawlers stepping into the cage to throw wild haymakers at each other until they were swiftly exhausted. Now, the sport has evolved into a competition comprised of well-conditioned athletes with phenomenal training ethics and the commitment to sacrifice much of what would be considered a “normal” life to pursue their love of prize fighting. At the lower level, many MMA fighters hold day jobs to supplement their income whilst pouring all of their free time and finances into their training and diet. Most MMA in America (if not all) uses what are known as the unified rules of mixed martial arts. These rules, drawn up in 2000 and widely adopted by 2005, are extensive, covering moves that have long been forbidden in major promotions (head butting, gouging, biting) as well as augmenting and introducing a new range of regulations. Some MMA fans have voiced displeasure at these measures, particularly the ban on knees and kicks to the head of a downed opponent, as they are seen as diluting the nature of the combat and favouring the stylistic approach of the wrestler, i.e. a fighter who is likely to take his opponent to the ground and who is content to win the match on points via control and positioning rather than the more desired violence of a technical-knockout or knockout. Knees and kicks to the head of a downed opponent (so-called “soccer kicks”) are allowed in Japan and were a staple of the mighty Pride FC where many beloved fighters would finish their matches in a spectacularly brutal fashion but, given the political pressure American MMA has been subjected to, and the continuing struggle for sanction and mainstream acceptance in some areas, it is unsurprising that these overtly vicious manoeuvres have been strictly disallowed. The UFC is still pushing to lift the ban on MMA in New York and an upcoming UFC event in Germany has been banned from television broadcast there.


Jon Jones dominates Brandon Vera

The influence of the lingering “human cockfighting” slur has been difficult for the sport to shed with similar sentiments and other misunderstandings still appearing in the media. However, if you compare MMA to a combat sport like boxing you find that the former is demonstrably safer overall. When a boxer is knocked down he is given a count by the referee before the fight resumes, during which time the fighter can recover from the immediate concussive effects of the blow and continue to fight and potentially receive many more blows to the head. Boxing is entirely a striking sport with the sole offensive approach being to land shots to the opponent’s head and torso. By contrast, if an MMA fighter is knocked down then the fight instantly continues on the ground. Therefore, if the fighter is knocked down in a manner that he is too dazed to immediately begin defending himself (throwing up his hands, improving his position), the fight is stopped by the referee and declared a KO victory. Fighters receive far fewer strikes to the head than their boxing counterparts and MMA fights can often involve very little striking at all. The highly decorated Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighter Demian Maia has used his BJJ submission skills to finish most of his fights and once declared his intention was to show people that one could become an MMA champion without hurting an opponent. Submissions tend to involve various choke holds and joint-locks successfully applied with the intention of coaxing a “tap-out” from the opponent whereby he formally submits. It’s not unusual to see some fighters attempt to continue resisting a choke until they slip into unconsciousness but it is rare for a fighter to allow a joint-locking hold to carry on to the point of snapping an arm or leg, usually due to the pain involved (although this has happened occasionally). The vast majority of submission moves successfully applied result in an immediate tap-out or verbal submission and little to no damage to the fighter on the receiving end. In most MMA chokeholds, being “choked out” does not involve being deprived of air. The unconsciousness results from pressure to the carotid arteries in the neck restricting the blood flow to the brain and, if immediately released when ordered by the referee, it is said to do no lasting damage to a fighter. Being choked out is far safer, for example, than being knocked out with concussive force. Many fights also feature a dominant wrestler maintaining top control on an opponent and winning the fight on points without doing much damage at all. These fights are generally disparaged by most fans as being uneventful and dull but they nonetheless involve far less violence than a boxing match. MMA is safer than boxing.

I would also argue that MMA is far safer than any sport that involves strapping yourself into a modified vehicle with the intention of racing it around a track at extremely excessive speeds. Motor sport is an incredibly dangerous pursuit and yet it is rare to hear any calls for it to be banned despite the kind of injuries and deaths that occur.


Fedor Emelianenko defeats Andrei Arlovski

That said, MMA is a full-contact sport specifically about the deliberate application of violence, one way or another, and that is the all-consuming, inescapable reason why I adore it so. Restless spectators in attendance at live fights will be heard booing and jeering when the action stalls as the fighters circle one another tentatively awaiting openings, or when they neutralize each other’s offense by grappling, whereas the crowd will erupt in roars of approval when fists and feet meet their targets and fighters start crashing to the canvas. I can’t speak for the braying mobs but watching two men trying to smash the shit out of each other is something I find utterly enthralling. I’ve had a lifelong lack of interest in virtually all other sports and many typically masculine pursuits (cars, D.I.Y., etc.) and my theory is that this deficit is addressed at a primal, atavistic level when it comes to combat sports and the exhilaration I feel viewing refined physical violence. I’m also secure enough with my sexuality and man enough to admit that I fully recognize the intense homoerotic nature of watching two near-naked men beating, grappling, and crawling all over each other until they both are a sweaty, bleeding mess. However, in all likelihood my appreciation of this particular aspect of combat sports may set me apart from many of the typical fans.

I believe MMA is the purest form of competition there is. Two individuals who have trained their bodies to an extraordinarily high level of athleticism and unarmed combat ability meet in an enclosed space and attempt to use all their skills to defeat the other through ruthlessly applied violence. Each event is a fight to determine the alpha male, the apex predator. The dynamic of this competition also speaks to its purity for it is a dynamic that can be found throughout human history and across all human cultures; two beings, fighting over a prize. It’s a beautiful thing, an art as honest and simple as brutal and unforgiving and it electrifies my reptilian back brain every time I watch.



  1. S’all fake tho ain’t it? My favourite is The Ultimate Warrior. But seriously folks…interesting piece. I still think football has the edge on drama and narrative but then team sports are a different…em…ball game.

  2. In hindsight, this should have been two pieces; a summarized history of the sport and a separate exploration of why I love watching two men kicking the shit out of each other. It’s the niggling psychological questions I’ve been experiencing with the latter that intrigue me and which I didn’t really delve into above. For example, despite my rationale for the exclusion of the kicks to the head of a downed opponent, I absolutely love watching those moves.

    I saw a highlight video of the phenomenal featherweight fighter Jose Aldo and his early fights that took place in Brazil where he’s scoring KO’s by booting the fuck out of his opponent’s heads. Hairs stood up on the back of my neck and I felt a slight adrenaline rush watching it.

  3. 3:14 of this clip.

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