A decade into an amateur martial arts career, and two hours into a binge session of the latest UFC fights, I began to throw it all away. My delusions that martial arts was a creative form of sport, rather than a widely promoted street brawl, made way for the perspective that the sports are a style of violence. I unsubscribed from all news regarding recent fights, upcoming championships, or competitor’s inner lives. Instead, I dug myself into the dry world of sports science, brain health, and the dark history of a sport with little to no regulations. Though, there is a discrepancy between most martial arts — karate, taekwondo, and others which are practised worldwide with little to no physical detriments — and mixed martial arts, which consists of full-contact combat and a multi-million dollar industry. In lieu of seeing martial arts as interchangeable with televised MMA, I now look at professional fighting as martial arts gone rogue, with the potential to be banned in coming years.
For those not accustomed to UFC, the monetization of both a fighter’s health and often gruesome images of scratches, broken noses, and knockouts is appalling. And for the many who spend their childhood in pee-wee karate or their teens in cardio kickboxing, the gore in UFC has little to do with themes we learn in recreational combat. Instead, there is a focus on avoiding danger. But all competitive sports come with a level of risk: rugby struggles to protect children from concussions, skiing involves a number of broken bones and torn ligaments. At the professional level such extreme physical exertion frees no one from danger — long distance runners need hip replacements before retirement, and ping pong leaves many with long-lasting joint injuries.
Indeed, the difference is both the level of risk to competitors and the glorification intrinsic to streaming combat sports. In rugby, head injuries are a side effect of a team’s effort to advance across the field. In judo, a form of ground-fighting originating in Japan, the primary objective is to throw and immobilise the opponent. This has little to do with the overall health of the competitors, and there are strict regulations on techniques which lead to serious injuries. Professional fighting is an exception in prioritising the harm of another competitor; with MMA now the world’s third most popular sport, it is difficult to understand why viewing the harm of another human being is normalised.
Just as mixed martial arts made headway in sports media in the mid-2000s, the term ‘punch drunk’ became a part of athletic research. Professional fighters have reduced brain volume and perform poorly in cognitive tests, a lessening of their mental capacity equivalent to multiple drinks. There is a shockingly low life expectancy for retired fighters. But such statistics are irrelevant to the viewers’ enjoyment, which thrives off of the most traumatic fights and the notoriety of the more aggressive professional fighters. Professional fighters face the same requirements as actors — a pressure to entertain the public, and to provide a memorable viewing — but with permanent consequences to their health. Such a choice is made entirely by the individual competing, but would not be made possible without the high demand from viewers.
Any amateur martial arts enthusiast comes to the same conclusion: I may as well stop now. It is time for me to retire my shin pads, gloves, and mouthguard for a lifetime of yoga, golf, or synchronised swimming. But recreational fighting is far removed from the theatrical nature of televised fighting. I’d record, furthermore, a level of paranoia amongst university martial artists overshadowed only, maybe, by that of the competitor’s parents. In 3 years I have seen more concussion screenings for taps on the head, or x-rays for ankles after tripping over a mat, than I have long-lasting injuries. This is not to say the sport lacks risk, but that students are far more likely to land themselves in A&E on a night out than in a boxing gym.
The normalisation of violence in professional sports extends far past just combat fighting. There is something far more interesting about a dramatised version of martial arts which involves flashy movements, the interior world of the competitors, and a modern betting culture. This comes at the expense of a more subdued version of martial arts; namely, the centuries-old forms of fighting, imbued with strong cultural implications, which are becoming more and more neglected.
Combat fighting, and its related professional sports, remains a large part of popular sports culture. This is particularly true for university students and those in their early 20s. For students accustomed to combat fighting as a hobby, we may disassociate from the gravity of the sport at a professional level. However, as the sport gains traction, the prospect that full-contact cage fighting should be banned, or at least reconsidered by the general public, transforms into a pressingly pertinent matter of life and death.