The Problem With Mixed Martial Arts

Is there anything scarier and more horrifying than mixed martial arts?
Thursday 18 October 2018
The real horror show takes place in the Octagon. Photo: Getty Images

I will not be stocking up with chocolate and bite-sized goodies in my house this Halloween. I won’t be a soft candy touch for the visiting children dressed up as Freddy Kruegers, skeletons, zombies and – the scariest – late but pre-mortem Michael Jacksons. This is not a curmudgeonly attempt to transplant Ebenezer Scrooge to another made-up-for-commercial-purposes quasi-religious holiday, but I am intending to put a spin on the tradition by providing no treats, and coming up with a trick of my own.

Visitors young and old will be invited in to my house, and sat in front of my television. Once comfortable, with a drink in hand, they will be forced to watch five minutes of the latest bout in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). It won’t be difficult to find. It’s now carried by some of the world’s major ‘sports broadcasters’, and is, I am told, one of the world’s fastest-growing sports. If that doesn’t scare the crap out of the little buggers (and their chaperones), I don’t know what will.

It’s brutal, bloody and terrifying. They’re going to love it. Who doesn’t enjoy watching other people get physically hurt? Anyone? Unlike the world’s favourite horror movies and slasher flicks, this is real. Real people getting really badly harmed by other real people really trying to hurt them. For glory, apparently. And money,of course.

For anyone not familiar with UFC and MMA (Mixed Martial Arts is the ‘sport’, and UFC is the current, most successful organising body) it’s a combination of a number of combat sports – karate, jiu-jitsu, kickboxing, taekwondo, wrestling, judo, boxing, fisticuffs, general thuggery and barbarism. It’s fast, furious and incredibly violent– often leading to horrific injuries – and people pay good money to witness few-holds-barred brawling between two human beings in a cage. That’s it in a nutshell.

The UFC, incidentally, insists on referring to the cage as an ‘octagon’, such was the negative association with actual ‘cage fighting’, although they’re kidding no one who cares enough to think about it. Presumably however, someone thought that a cage by any other name would lend the spectacle a veneer of respectability.

An MMA bout provides much more visceral bang for the buck than any slasher movie I’ve ever seen, because it’s real and what you see is what you see – the blood spattered on the canvas doesn’t emanate from a packet on a props table, but actually used to belong to someone –and no one with a megaphone yells ‘cut’ when a protagonist collapses.

And this is, perhaps, one of my biggest problems with MMA. When a fighter hits the deck, his or her opponent is encouraged – nay, it’s mandatory – to go in for the kill, scenting blood and looking to inflict the maximum amount of physical damage possible.

I was always taught not to kick a man when he’s down, and consider that to be an unquestionable moral imperative. I am aware of the fact that the fighters themselves are fine figures of men and women, having honed their bodies to the peak of physical perfection and fitness, and that there is no small amount of skill in the moves they are capable of carrying out.

But the fact that in the early days of the UFC jiu-jitsu took precedence, only to be supplanted by near-bare knuckle fighting because there wasn’t enough action, violence or blood – tells you everything you should need to know.

What kind of world do we live in where an activity that is illegal in every single country on earth has evolved into a supposedly legitimate sport? And what kind of example does it set for young people? There are no age restrictions for live audiences at these events (although certain venues, I gather, stipulate that those under the age of 18 be ‘accompanied by an adult’ – there’s no mention of the word ‘responsible’) and I recently read a thread on the internet that had people encouraging their friend to take along six-year-olds – for an evening of ‘fun and entertainment’.

Beating seven bells out of a fellow human being is something that we wouldn’t encourage our children to do, and we would punish them if they did – although probably not with a kick to the head. And yet now, people are paying good money to witness just that – live– and are even bringing their families along with them for the horrific ride.

Calcio Storico

Violent sports have been around for millennia – just ask the spirits of the early Christians. One such, Italy’s Calcio Storico (organised violence in the name of sport in which two teams of 27 ‘players’ batter each other, annually, with every available limb) is even rumoured to predate Jesus himself.

It’s said to have derived from ‘Harpastum’– an exercise/pastime invented by the ancient Romans to keep their legionnaires fighting fit during the ‘off season’. There’s some pageantry involved as well, which possibly justifies it in the eyes of the tourism board of Florence, where it is held. The aim of the game is to get a ball into the opponents’ net – a bit like football– but what differentiates Calcio Storico and the world’s most popular game is that in the former, violence is not so much encouraged as compulsory.

No ‘kicks to the head’ and no ‘sucker punches’ appear to be the only rules, but pretty much everything else goes. You can thump, bash, and smash any opponent until they’re as senseless as they were before ‘slap-off’. You can even attempt to remove an opponent’s ear off or put a knee to his delicate regions – everything you have always wanted to do to your worst enemy – only legally and without fear of imprisonment, and within the framework of an organised event that attracts 7,000 spectators and has an unhealthy number of YouTube views.

Calcio Storico may have come from ostensibly noble origins. Even 50 years ago there was a certain gentility to the event that pits teams from the various Florentine neighbourhoods. But, in an apparent attempt to cater to the tastes of protagonists and spectators alike, it became so barbaric, bloody and brutal that it was cancelled in 2014 for being too violent. Was it attracting the wrong kind of people? New rules were put in place. The carnage continued. As one Florence resident put it, “It’s not a game. It’s only a history of violence.” Maybe there’s a connection here with MMA.


If you prefer your brutality with animals, it’s time to look for a Buzkashi team to join. Played mostly in Central Asia, the name translates as ‘goat grabbing’. Men on horseback try to score points by carrying a goat carcass (a calf can also be used and is said to be more durable) either into a hole, a basket or around a post. The ‘pitch’ can be enormous. The lines being crossed may even be borders. The only rules seem to be that you shouldn’t whip fellow riders intentionally (accidental whipping is fine), or deliberately knock them off their horses, but pretty much anything else is permissible, and with the referee possibly in a different postcode, enforcing what few rules exist is always going to be tricky.

It’s what polo would look like, I imagine, if it were played by residents of death row. Both Calcio Storico and Buzkashi are drenched in history and the pursuit of gory (not a typographical error) and I suppose the same could be said of MMA.

Buzkashi proponents and the inked-up thugs who do their thing in Florence once a year don’t get paid for what they do – they’re just looking for an excuse for a good fight, while the UFC stars and their facilitators make good money by generating acts of brutality for our viewing pleasure, tapping their PINs into our lizard brains as though they were ATMs.

This is just my opinion of course, and I realise that I can simply exercise my prerogative by not tuning in to any of this grisly, putrid stuff on TV or online, and that’s what I do. But what’s being served up to us in the name of sport is more horrific and a lot scarier than anything Halloween is likely to produce.

I will continue to ask myself why people see fit to organise events that depict adults doing things that we are constantly telling our children not to do, and that would almost certainly end up with a custodial sentence were we or they to do it, but I think I already know the answer.