Despite Criticisms, Mixed Martial Arts Continue to Grow Popular
The stage is set. Two men, dressed in only shorts, circle each other in the octagonal cage, their fists close to their face, waiting for an opening to attack. The raucous crowd surrounds the stage, cheering their favorite fighter, hoping to see a good fight. A quick punch here, a wild kick there, and then, both men are on the ground, grappling for control. One man ends up on flat on his stomach, trying valiantly to protect his head from the calculated punches of his opponent. It is soon over. The referee rushes to stop the fight. The crowd goes wild. The victor raises his fists in triumph. He is their gladiator.
This is mixed martial arts, a full contact combat sport that was once relegated to the fringes, but in recent years is experiencing a surge in popularity, creeping steadily toward the mainstream. Considered by many to be the fastest growing sport in the country, mixed martial arts – or MMA, as it is often called – has already replaced boxing and wrestling as the favored combat sport among young men.
MMA involves a mixture of different martial arts techniques, which allows fighters from different backgrounds to compete. It is the skill required to master such techniques that has drawn many people the sport.
Cuki Alvarez says he was “bit by the MMA bug” when he watched his cousin compete in an MMA bout. Impressed by the fighting skills displayed, he jumped into learning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and soon started his own MMA club on Saipan, a U.S.-owned island in the Pacific. Now in its fourth year, the club continues to draw huge crowds, its popularity indicative of the growing trend nationwide.
However, MMA wasn’t always popular. When it entered the scene in 1993 with the creation of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, many saw it as brutal and excessively violent. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) famously described it as “human cockfighting.” People believed that such a violent sport being shown on TV could lead to people imitating such violence in their lives.
Even now, with its popularity on the rise, those against mixed martial arts voice the same criticisms. Television, however, seems to be helping MMA win its case with the public. Networks like Spike TV, where the majority of UFC fights are broadcast, and TV reality shows like The Ultimate Fighter have brought mixed martial arts to a wider audience.
Nancy Cheever, assistant professor of Communications at California State University Dominguez Hills, believes that television was the reason for MMA’s rise in popularity. Specializing in media and its affects on individuals, Cheever believes the reality shows have placed a personal aspect to the sport, saying “people were able to see the fighters as people, rather than just brutes [that] were beating each other up.”
Many people still view the sport as “brutes beating each other up”, but a recent study conducted by Cheever suggest that the sport might be something more. Published in the Journal of Sports Media, the study found that mixed martial arts had a positive effect on its fans, such as promoting male bonding, rather than the degenerative effect many critics feared it would cause. Furthermore, the study found that those that did follow the sport did so not because of the blood and violence, but rather the skill and technique of the fighters.
Recent local criticisms against the sport have Alvarez fighting back against his critics. In an email to his members, he argued that MMA was relatively safer than boxing, a sport already widely accepted and seen as relatively tame in comparison to mixed martial arts. “In boxing,” he writes, “a fighter is hit ninety percent of the time in the head and face…Head trauma is more likely to occur this way.” Indeed, in another study published in the Journal of Sports Media, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that “the overall injury rate in MMA competitions is now similar to other combat sports, including boxing. Knockout rates are lower in MMA competitions than in boxing. This suggests a reduced risk of [traumatic brain injury] in MMA competitions when compared to other events involving striking.”
Despite the criticisms against the sport, its growth in popularity has not slowed down. Two years ago, mixed martial arts was legal in 18 states. Now, the number has reached 32. Its popularity has brought economic benefits as well. Last April, at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Canada, a stadium that could seat more than 21,000 people, a UFC fight sold out within two minutes, setting the record for the fastest sellout for a UFC fight.
It doesn’t look like MMA is disappearing. Another big fight is planned for later in April at the Bell Centre, and is bound to attract thousands of fans. But will it ever break out into the mainstream? Cheever is confident it will, believing that once people understand the sport, and look beyond the blood, the sport will become accepted and enter the mainstream. “Isn’t that the way it is with everything in life?” she remarked, “If you don’t understand something, you just have a kneejerk reaction to it.”