Oct 27, 2016
On the one hand, I’m a huge fan. I’ve been watching the UFC since its inauguration in 1993, and have enjoyed fights in Pride FC, Shooto, WEC, Strikeforce, Bellator, and many other organisations. I have good friends who are professional fighters, and have helped them prepare for their fights. And I have nothing but respect for the skill, athleticism and mental toughness of the modern MMA fighter.
But on the other hand I’ve always had misgivings about the sport too.
Initially it was the seedy underbelly of the sport that worried me. The established press of the time pilloried the UFC as an underground bloodsport, and they weren’t that far off base. There was copious blood, a general lack of rules, extreme mis-matches between fighters, and brutal fights that went on much longer than would be acceptable today.
Furthermore, the only places in my town televising the early events were strip clubs, which only amplified the sense of it being an illicit activity. Watching the fights alongside strippers, drug dealers and Hell’s Angels wannabes didn’t add much legitimacy to the sport. I enjoy my sex, I enjoy my violence, but I’ve never particularly enjoyed mixing the two!
But despite my misgivings I was fascinated by this sport. Events weren’t nearly as frequent in those days, so every couple of months my friends and I would make our way to the Marble Arch stripclub in downtown Vancouver to watch Royce Gracie, Mark Coleman, Don Frye, Oleg Taktarov and the other early icons of the sport do battle in the octagon and tear apart my notions of what worked in a real fight.
I’d get so excited during these events that I’d always get hit with serious insomnia afterwards. I’d lie awake for hours obsessing about matches, replaying the finishes in my mind, and wondering what each fighter should have done at certain points in the match. Eventually I resorted to popping a couple of over-the-counter sleeping pills on the way home; those usually allowed me to get to sleep despite all the adrenaline still coursing in my veins.
My appreciation of the sport shocked and appalled some of my more politically correct friends. They had, of course, never actually seen any of the events, but were pretty sure that the existence of the UFC was a sign of the end times. A modern day equivalent of the brutal gladiatorial games of Imperial Rome…
Arguing with these friends I tried to give them the party line, that MMA was actually LESS brutal than boxing.
Sure, there was blood. Sure, there were broken bones, twisted limbs, and dislocated joints. The chance of orthopaedic injury in early MMA were fairly high, but I told myself (and anyone who would listen) that sport was a lot safer than boxing, at least when it came to the issue of brain trauma.
After all, in boxing there were no submissions and no tapping out. Boxers wore gloves which allowed them to hit harder. There were rounds and standing eight counts which essentially allowed someone on the brink of getting knocked out just enough time to recover to go back out and then absorb even more punishment.
MMA has matured greatly over the last two decades. The rules have evolved. Referees now have the power to stop matches, and the presence of judges means that open-ended fights are a thing of the past. The events are overseen by doctors and athletic commissions. Fighters have become respectable professional athletes. MMA has gone mainstream.
But something is preventing me from fully enjoying the new, improved, sanitised spectacle. Despite the improvements it’s still a guilty pleasure, and my mixed feelings remain. And that’s because of the mounting tidal wave of evidence connecting the sport with serious, permanent brain damage.
We can no longer live in denial. Modern MMA is going to result in an epidemic of shattered fighters.
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