[ED NOTE: This is a bonus post – it’s a bit outside the normal remit of Live Hard, but is something I wanted to write and so I did. Normal service will resume with the next post – or you could always revisit the archives. The archives are brill]
‘Sport is war minus the shooting,’ Orwell once wrote. This probably depends on the sport: American football, for instance, is clearly a game about territory and position (and concussing people), curling not so much. What’s less arguable is that sports, when things get heated, tend to degenerate into violence – either on the pitch, or afterwards. A team loses a close basketball game and conversation swiftly moves to who could kick whose ass. Things get heated in football in football and someone lashes out with a petulant hoof. A pitcher beans a batter and a bench-clearing brawl ensues. By contrast, no boxing bout has *ever* ended with the loser challenging the victor to a dunk-off or a penalty shoot-out.
This is the main reason that mixed martial arts, or MMA as it’s known to fans, is the greatest sport ever created. There are rules, let’s be clear on that – 31 of them just to deal with infractions inside the ring/cage, including everything from striking groins and bending back fingers to holding your opponent’s shorts or smearing yourself with Vaseline. It’s not just unregulated carnage. But it is the closest thing to war that society’s ever likely to sanction as a sport – more so, even, than boxing, kickboxing or Olympic wrestling. It’s the last argument, the ultimate test of ingenuity, skill and heart. This is why so many fighters hug after their bouts – after spending 15 minutes where you’re legally allowed to do (almost) anything to knock your opponent unconscious or make them give up, there’s a sense that nothing has left undone, and no need for further closure via yelling or throwing things.
The (relative) lack of rules is, of course, the other reason mixed martial arts is so endlessly entertaining. A game of football where the object was ‘Get the ball in the net’ would be a fight. Debut a new style of stroke in swimming, and you’d be disqualified before you did your first kick-turn. Cycling will never be more innovative than the UCI’s labyrinthine edicts allow. In MMA, though, a lack of technology to worry about (fighters wear shorts, promoter-provided gloves and little else) combined with a very loose brief (make the other person stop fighting) makes for endless permutations of violence. Every year in the UFC, someone sinks in a variation of choke or joint-lock that’s never previously been seen by casual fans. New tactics evolve monthly – once, shoving a grounded opponent into the fence was seen as the best way to keep them on the mat, but now, fighters have learned to ‘wall-walk’ their shoulders up the mesh to get up more efficiently. Once-useless moves from ‘traditional’ martial arts like karate and Capoeira suddenly work – in a pure kickboxing match you’d never land a Karate-Kid style crane kick because the opponent would see it coming, but in the UFC, where there are dozens of potential attacks to worry about, it might be exactly the move you need. This isn’t theoretical: karate expert Lyoto Machida knocked out former heavyweight champ Randy Couture with one in 2011. New moves are still being invented – lightweight champ Anthony ‘Showtime’ Pettis has made a career from running up the cage and launching kicks off it like a character from the Matrix – and old ones are being revived. Another point to consider: if you learn a new play in football or a new shot in tennis, it’s only applicable on the court/pitch. When fighters start using oblique kicks to the knee in the Octagon, we learn more about how they work in real conflicts, which has applications in everything from military training to women’s self-defence. It’s probably fair to say that fighting has evolved more in the 20 years since the invention of the UFC than it did in the 200 previously.
Want more? Okay. There’s plenty of evidence that MMA is safer than boxing, alongside a handful of other sports. In the sweet science, your options are limited to a) Get punched in the head or b) Punch your opponent in the head. If you’re knocked down and given a concussion, you’re given 10 seconds to get up and get another one, compounding the damage. There are no other options: you can’t go for a takedown, or kick them in the leg, or roll for a knee-bar, or do anything other than cover up and try to concuss the other guy. Compare and contrast this with Brazilian jiu-jitsu expert and UFC welterweight Demian Maia, who once said that his idea of a perfect fight was to “To submit my opponent without him hurting me or me hurting him,” Maia, by the way, has come close to this – in one fight, he submitted his opponent after landing a single not-very-hard punch.
Finally, the UFC’s one of the most progressive sports in the world in terms of treating its female athletes with respect. Ronda Rousey, former Olympic judoka and current bantamweight champion, makes pay comparable to the top men in the sport, and regularly tops cards just like any other title-holder. Among fans, she’s regarded as one of the finest athletes in the sport. To date, John Merrick hasn’t said anything about this state of affairs. He probably wouldn’t dare.
There are dozens more reasons why MMA is the finest sport ever created – the camaraderie, the excitement, the openness, the universality, but if the above doesn’t convince you, only watching it will. I’d urge you to give it a go, either by catching it at a bar, or (preferably) enjoying some of the many fine fights available on the UFC’s Fight Pass system. If you still don’t enjoy it, that’s your perogative: unlike a footballer, I’m unlikely to challenge you to a fight about it over Twitter.
Go check out just how violence has evolved – check out Jack Slack’s
excellent breakdowns of striking, BJJ Scout’s
incredibly detailed analyses of grappling, then watch a fight and apply your newfound knowledge. Fighting: it’s the best sport ever.