The first time I saw UFC on the television, the experience was akin to watching a car crash. One fighter had knocked the other out. Before the referee could intervene, the fighter had launched himself onto his prone opponent and began to pummel the man’s unconscious face with ‘hammer fists’. I looked on with horrified fascination, at times wanting to avert my eyes, but somehow engrossed. One look at one of YouTube’s MMA greatest knockout videos is enough to have you clenching your teeth.
But MMA is not only for macho men. As judoku welterweight Ronda Rousey has shown, women can be just as violently efficient in the octagon. Her defeat of Meisha Tate is not for the fainthearted; as the YouTube video states, viewer discretion is advised.
From its humble beginnings in brutal no-rules street-fighting tournaments, MMA in the last ten years has gone nova. Now Mixed Martial Arts is said to be the fastest growing sport in the world. In the US, it may well have dealt boxing a knockout blow. According to a friend of mine, in the US advertisements and merchandise outlets for the largest MMA company in the world (the UFC) are ubiquitous. Ads for UFC DVDs can be seen on the side of trams in Melbourne, while Sydney has hosted two UFC nights, featuring Australian fighters (fighting in the ‘octagon’ is banned in Victoria, thus excluding the UFC from holding fights there).
For some, like philosopher Damon Young, MMA is a virtuous sport. From a piece he wrote a few years ago for the Age:
To step into the cage again and again is not the deed of a coward – it requires the virtue of courage. One must fear the danger and threat of pain, and rationally confront them with the help of one’s knowledge and will. Aristotle recognised this as a genuine virtue, and so do I.
There are others from the Greek and Christian traditions: temperance, to keep one’s body and mind fit; generosity, to give one’s opponent his dues; mercy, to show restraint in the face of victory; and magnanimity, or ‘greatness of soul’, which keeps one from pettiness of spirit.
I’m not sure we need take this too seriously. It’s true that stepping into the cage isn’t the act of a coward (in Young’s sense of the word), but then again, neither is base-jumping or undergoing surgery without anesthetic. Showing mercy or restraint towards someone you have voluntarily agreed to fight with is hardly on par with showing it towards someone to whom you might rightfully seek revenge.
Supporters of MMA do better when they describe the fighters as elite athletes. One of the reasons MMA surpasses boxing as a spectator sport is the sheer variety of skills that fighters must master. Fighters must be proficient in striking (punching and kicking), wrestling and throwing, and ground fighting. Over the two decades of the sport’s existence, a dominant form has developed mostly composed of Muay Thai, wrestling and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. As in all elite sports, there is something wondrous about the feats these athletes can pull off. Fighters like Anderson ‘Spider’ Silva are extraordinary to watch.
For all this, MMA is still composed of skills aimed at hurting someone else. If part of its appeal lies in the fighter’s talents, another most likely lies in the appeal to a conservative notion of (mostly masculine) authenticity, not unlike that which I described in a recent piece on torture porn horror films. Indeed, the reality TV show ‘The Ultimate Fighter’, in which fighters compete for a UFC contract, are all the more gripping because they lay claim to a ‘seriousness’ that many other reality shows lack. In a jumped-up karaoke competition like Australian Idol, the worst that can happen to a contestant is that they will be voted off. In The Ultimate Fighter, a contestant might be seriously injured. It takes a ‘real man’, a ‘tough dude’, to step into the octagon. (It’s interesting to note that most of the contestants are from poor backgrounds and success would mean that most clichéd of working-class escapes – through sport. A more incongruous fact is that many of the fighters are religious; they fight for ‘God’, apparently.)
It’s this ‘seriousness’, this sense that the fights have meaning in a world seemingly emptied of it, that John Birmingham noted in an opinion piece he wrote for the Age. With a good dose of irony, Birmingham said of Sydney’s UFC 127 (held just over a year ago): ‘But I’m thinking if I can just pack my wife off to a ladies’ night somewhere, and sneak a few mates around, slurry up a few brewskis … well, maybe my life could have meaning again. Just for a little while.’ Such a position is, of course, deeply conservative. But perhaps it goes a way to explaining why MMA is apparently the fastest growing sport in the world.