New American Gladiators: The Rise of Mixed Martial Arts

“Are you not entertained?”

— Maximus (Russell Crowe), Gladiator

There’s blood on my television — a lot of it. Surrounded by ominous black fencing (in an arena dubbed even more ominously “the octagon”), two half-naked men are near exhaustion as they pummel each other with fists and elbows. The face of the man on top is obscured by a mask of red, blood flowing freely from a cut on the bridge of his nose. With the body of his opponent pinned underneath him, a crimson torrent streams from his nose, off his chin, and into the trapped man’s eyes. It drips into his mouth. And it covers the mat on which they sprawl with increasing difficulty, their bodies losing traction amongst standing pools of dark liquid.

What horror show could my channel-surfing have produced, and on basic cable no less? Surely one of the dozen Saw movies has made its way through TV censors and onto my screen. Yet, as the show goes to commercial, I learn that what I’m watching is the latest installment of reality television: The Ultimate Fighter. The show’s premise is a kind of Real World meets The Running Man: prospective fighters share a house, divide into teams, train together, and then beat one another until a winner is crowned at season’s end. The victorious fighter goes on to become a professional in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) league. The rest are left to their own devices, presumably (though some have made their professional debuts by other means), and with the small comfort of having spent their 15 minutes of fame in the earnest pursuit of trying to turn another human being into raw hamburger.

Perhaps that’s oversimplifying things, though. After all, Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is currently one of the fastest growing sports in the country, if not the world. The UFC is perhaps the league best known in the United States, but other outfits, such as K-1, PRIDE, and IFL command a following in places like Japan, Brazil, and Eastern Europe. The fighters, too, come from around the world. Showcasing a combination of boxing skills, jujitsu, Greco-Roman wrestling, muy thai, and a variety of other martial disciplines, MMA fighting offers a truly global and democratic way to kick someone’s ass.

It has managed this growth in part despite, and in part because of, the previously dominant presence of professional boxing. Initially seen as little more than back alley brawlers scrapping for beer money, MMA has found sporting legitimacy in meteoric fashion. Aiding its rise is the unabated decent of pro boxing which has, lacking a truly dominant and (importantly for advertisers) American heavyweight champion and divided by the rancorous infighting of several contesting federations, struggled to keep the attention of casual fight fans. Where once boxing was seen as the domain of the true professionals, it’s now viewed with the same mix of apathy or distaste as its former standard-bearer, Mike Tyson. While Tyson wheezes his way through pathetic exhibitions to stave off his enormous debt, UFC champions are now certified B-listers in Hollywood circles.

“Iceman” Chuck Liddell made a cameo appearance on HBO’s Entourage, and Tito Ortiz has been linked with porn starlet Jenna Jameson. And if we consult that final arbiter of cultural hipness, reality television, we see The Ultimate Fighter featured prominently in Spike TV’s primetime line-up, while boxing’s answer, The Contender, flounders during midday broadcasts of ESPN 2.

All of these measures, as well as the now weekly pay-per-view UFC events that command top dollar, speak to the allure of the league specifically, and MMA in general. What is it about the sport, though, that garners such popularity? The answer has much to do with my first impression: blood. MMA offers more of it than boxing, and on a more consistent basis. With smaller, less padded gloves, the impact of MMA punches is, generally speaking, more severe than those delivered in padded boxing gloves. In addition, MMA allows its fighters to grapple as well as punch, creating scenarios where arm bars, wrist locks, and, yes, choke holds are used to force opponents into a) submission (known as a “tap out”), b) unconsciousness, c) a broken limb, or d) some combination of all of these. As a result, the potential for spectacular violence is greatly increased, and fans move to the edge of their seats in anticipation of the next punishing display.

Few are disappointed. By removing the padding that insulates combatants in other violent sports (hockey, American football), MMA retains, and frequently delivers, the promise of spectacular violence. In an era where CGI and Xbox routinely push the limits of realistic violence-as-entertainment, leagues like the UFC offer the ultimate in violent reality. Though strategy does play into the matches (and is often pointed out by UFC commentator and ex-Fear Factor host Joe Rogan), it’s hardly the stuff of boxing’s “sweet science”. More appropriate is the term favored by many fighters who, after entering the octagon to a blaring dose of nu-metal, look to win their matches via a campaign of “ground and pound”.

Despite MMA’s shock and awe approach to violence, its defenders are quick to point out that this sport is actually safer than boxing. One reason is that, unlike boxers, MMA fighters rarely survive a knockdown. That’s because it’s legal in most MMA leagues to pounce on a man after knocking him to the mat. Since by then he’s generally defenseless, this is one of the few times a referee (who is generally otherwise just so much decoration) will intervene, often stopping the fight if one competitor fails to actively defend himself. In boxing, on the other hand, one’s opponent gets 10 seconds to recover from a knockdown. If they do recover and continue to fight, odds are that they’ll end up absorbing many more blows than an MMA fighter in the same position.

Over the long-term, this argument in favor of MMA makes sense, but if you ask a fan why he (and the Spike TV-watching audience is indeed predominantly male) watches these fights, the relative safety of the fighters is not likely to be come up. More likely, the response will involve the words “bad”, “kick”, and “ass”, perhaps with a touch of profanity thrown in for good measure. It’s impossible, of course, to account for all the motivations of this growing legion of devotees, but it is clear what kind of enthusiasms leagues like the UFC and others are encouraging — namely, the bicep-tattooed, no fear, overtly physical machismo of the rugged individual.

The nod to the strong, silent, brute species of force that once pushed forward the United States’ westward expansion is not accidental, I think. In many ways, MMA is purposed in its regression to a rougher, tougher period in history. By lengthening their rounds (five minutes in the UFC versus boxing’s three), shrinking their glove size, and relaxing the rules of engagement, today’s MMA seems more like the boxing of yesteryear, where champions like John L. Sullivan brawled bare-knuckled for 80 rounds or more. Without a three knockdown rule to end the contest, early boxing was a gory affair, emphasizing sheer toughness and fortitude, rather than strategy and out-pointing an opponent for the sake of the judges.

This is not to say that modern boxers aren’t tough, nor is it to suggest that MMA fighters don’t keep the judges in mind during their bouts, but it’s clear that the evolution of professional boxing, in adding gloves, shortening bouts, and instituting more regulation in the ring, is characterized by an increased consideration for the athletes’ well-being. By undoing many of those reforms, MMA seems to be purposefully working against this legacy of increased precaution. But to what end?

Image likely has much to do with it. In a way, the toughness and violence of the UFC and its ilk is reminiscent of the hypermasculine displays of professional wrestling. Unlike pro wrestling, however, MMA is not fake. Its participants inflict and suffer real trauma and endure a greater variety of physical threat. By those standards, MMA fighters, more than boxers, and certainly more than wrestlers, are able to lay claim to a kind of aggressive, unassailable manliness that is prized in great numbers elsewhere.

For, even though its top athletes are newly-minted celebrities, MMA is much more than entertainment — particularly in the United States. Post-9/11, the country’s imperial agendas are debated on a global scale, giving frequent rise to parallels with the Roman Empire. Political similarities aside, however, it seems now that these ultimate fighters fulfill for the Pax Americana a bloodlust once sated for Romans by gladiators in the Coliseum. Of course, there are no tridents, nets, chariots, or lions, but the success of MMA, in direct proportion to the blood and violence that it propagates, should give pause to those who think that our sporting interests don’t inform upon, or take their cues from, the development of our national character.

As the “Let’s Roll”, “Bring ’em on” mentality continues to showcase spectacular failures on a geopolitical stage, it will be interesting to see how the popularity of MMA develops. Those less hawkish among us may hope for the emergence of more subtle, less overtly bloody way of showcasing competition. At the very least, we should all do well to prevent the metaphor of this sport from creeping into our political metaphors. After all, putting our opponents in a “rear naked choke out”, might make us wish for the days when a simple football “blitz” was all we needed to rout our nation’s enemies.