Is MMA A Sign of A Healthy Society?

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The sport of MMA has enjoyed increasing popularity over the past three decades all around the world. The attraction, however, is not equally distributed across cultures. Political superpowers like the US or Russia show more interest in the sport than, say, Africa or continental Europe.


But what is MMA really? For some it is blend of sophisticated athletic disciplines and skills with a profound history of martial arts that harkens back to the ancient Chinese....blah blah blah. Excuse me that I don't have patience for them! If anything the origins can be attributed to unruly circus brawls in Brazil, called Vale Tudo ("anything goes").


Deep down we know that we call a sport 'martial arts' when a participant wins by physically harming his opponent or putting him into real danger. All the juries, rounds and 'protection gear' do not diminish this simple truth. At least somebody must appear to be put into harm's way to some onlooker to make it work.


There are some basic biological reasons for our absurd interest. It looks like some side of our sexuality has a gross, unsettling necrophiliac component. This is not only true for the real, disgusting necrophiles. Gladiators, for instance, were fat, sweaty, maimed brutes of low social status and yet they were seen as sex objects by women of all social circles in ancient Rome. The ladies may deny it, but at some level they have this weird instinct, some more, some less.


For a male fan it is the sheer action of it that drives his passion. It's the competition. He identifies with one of the blokes and the adrenaline level in his blood rises when the action begins. If you look at a man and a woman watching a fight, she may be excited and even cheer at the right times, but it is really him who itches when his candidate is dealt with a blow.


There are very obvious risks for the athletes and those who support them when something goes wrong. Do the benefits outweigh the risks?


One argument for indulging in scarcely ruled martial arts like MMA is that the participants are biologically driven to do it anyway and a free society can showcase its adherence to its laissez-faire principles by letting adults do what they want.


Whenever a society becomes freer we see a rise in voluntary fights between free men and often they are the freest men who engage in it. The first time when free men chose to fight each other with little to no weaponry accompanied the rise of the proto-democratic Greek poleis. The game, then called 'pankration' (which translates to 'all powers'), was included into the Olympic games in 648 BC and survived the rise and fall of democracy in ancient Greece. At some point the prizes surely were an incentive for the daredevils, but probably not from the beginning. The rules of the game: Don't bite, no eye-gauging and feel the lash if you disobey! The winner was picked by survival or by black-out or submission of his opponent, the wimp.


Bare-knuckle boxing emerged in England of the 16th century and grew in popularity as society became freer. The earliest descriptions mention everything from eye-gauging to choking. Brazil became a presidential republic in 1889 when Emperor Pedro II was ousted. The above mentioned 'Vale Tudo' circus brawls emerged in the following years and became more and more popular until it went underground during the military junta years (1964-1985). In 1978s Rorion Gracie moved from Brazil to the US where he would co-found the Ultimate Fighting Championship UFC. Even Russia, as unfree as it still is, sees a strong interest in martial arts today while society is becoming more prosperous and freer, and Russians leave the extreme oppression of the Soviet Union behind.


Keep in mind that these are all voluntary fights between free men. Mankind also knows a long history of honing fighting techniques for security purposes. Almost all Asian marial arts known in the West were not designed for competition but as a mean of protection.


We all know fight competitions such as the gladiatorial games of the Italian antiquity and the Roman Empire, which were not voluntary and clearly not a sign of a healthy, free society. On rare occasions some daredevils participated in these gladiator fights, too. High-status individuals like various Emperors took part in utterly staged farces with no real risk to their opponents or to themselves. Whatever motive drove low-status individuals to the arena cannot be reconstructed. They were not many.


Since the middle ages we see an uptick in duels. The pattern remains. The knights, members of the aristocracy and the freest individuals of the society, did compete in usually harmless mock fights. Very often there was nothing to win and nothing to lose. At the same time, however, fighting competitions emerged that would also settle serious disputes. Germanic law recognized Trial by Combat. Common men could settle legal disputes with fights and the outcome was accepted by the state. The practice was eventually abolished because only the challenger was really free to participate and weaker individuals were robbed off their possessions. As time passed by the stake was no longer some material good, but the honor of the participant. In modern times duelling was so linked to the concept of honor that free will played no role in it at all. It was pressure and society rightly saw duels as gross barbarism that would cost the lives of too many good men.


You might guess already that I won't leave you in the comfort zone with my high-brow libertarian argument. The elephant in the room is that public fights present an image of manliness, a manly stereotype that is cheered on throughout the events. There are lady fighters, too, but I don't have patience for the feminists now. Sorry! Men fight! Women even get wet for fat, maimed, low-status gladiators if they only fight!


Does showcasing a violent image of manliness benefit society? The reason that there is a biological factor suggests it. We could also be driven by an outdated evolutionary program, a legacy that does more harm than good today, but what is the argument for its irrelevance? Don't we still fight?


Any society has and always will have professional fighters. Today they are usually found in the police or military forces (or some other security related organization). We are talking about a controlled, measured application of violence in these professions. Don't we want to encourage men, particularly those whose financial and/or intellectual resources leave little capacity to contribute to our society otherwise, to fight for us? Isn't a place where we cheer controlled violence a heads-up to them?


Don't get me wrong! I'm all against these phony street work projects that teach the worst individuals how to fight. These kids cannot be whisked from the streets if they don't want to contribute to society. But to show young men that fighting has a place in a civil society is a way to keep them off the streets in the first place (and maybe to enlist in the army). Wasn't the admiration for Muhammad Ali an integrative factor of American society in a time of racial tensions? Didn't his stardom inspire the black community?


Is the first argument really different from the second? Isn't the laissez-faire attitude and the urge to embolden free men to fight for our freedom and protection one and the same drive?


As a rule of thumb women are less interested in leading a free life than men. Their drive to disobey, to lead and to grant freedom to themselves and to others is not very strong. Women are often ardent defenders of oppressive regimes, which they see as a protection of their own status quo. However, their necrophiliac instincts, if encouraged, will make them choose hard men. The stereotype of women leading the cheers of hard men is usually reinforced during fighting shows.


All the well-crafted documents and traditions can be overthrown if civilized men are not ready to fight. This is the reason for the Second Amendment of the US Bill of Rights. A population where good, cultivated men are cheered for fighting (without putting them under pressure) is more capable of fending off oppression and to establish fairness and equality between them.


On New Year's Eve 2015/2016 mass rapes were reported for several German cities, most notably in Cologne. The event hit international news before it hit our own. The perpetrators were from North Africa. Few women uttered in public what I thought: Why was it a mass rape and not a mass brawl? Where were the men? Is German society in decline?


Maybe! But maybe I'm wrong. There was also a mass rape in Tahrir square in Cairo in 2005 amidst the so-called Arab Spring. I thought Egypt had a military fetish and was replete with buff pugnacious men. But were the educated city dwellers who opposed the military junta ready to fight? Is it possible that they were beta males who object to violence in all forms and as a consequence were helpless against the thugs?


Leroy Added Oct 28, 2017 - 10:10pm
Interesting history and commentary on MMA, Benjamin.
I can't say that I have ever had the desire to beat my fellow man.  But, I can understand.  Men have always held pissing contest.  It is just the nature of man.  Some have to prove that they are the best.  
I am fortunate to be big enough so that most men don't want to mess with me and small enough to where I am not worth the challenge to the others.
Thomas Napers Added Oct 29, 2017 - 2:54am
Does showcasing a violent image of manliness benefit society?
I think a society always benefits when it is allowed to do what it wants.  In the case of MMA, people enjoy it despite how dangerous it is.  People do a lot of things that are amazingly dangerous.  Sport fishing is the cause of more deaths than any other sport, would society benefit if we banned sport fishing?  Where’s the outrage against boxing? I’d argue 10 rounds of pounding to the head is far more dangerous than MMA.  Most MMA fights are ended after a submission move, which I’d argue is the most peaceful way to end any fight.   
We could also be driven by an outdated evolutionary program, a legacy that does more harm than good today, but what is the argument for its irrelevance?
With so many different types of martial arts to study, it’s not to see which one results in the most success.   However, the main reason its relevant is because people enjoy it.  Stated differently, given all the flaws of the sport, how relevant is football?
Leroy Added Oct 29, 2017 - 7:51am
I'm ok with letting people beat their brains out whether it is MMA, boxing, football, or sports fishing.  Just don't expect me to pay for the consequences of their choices.
Benjamin Goldstein Added Oct 29, 2017 - 9:24am
Thomas: Yes, the risks of today's MMA are comparable to other sports. You make the libertarian argument and I agree completely. American Football also developed out of a form of (team) martial arts. It is still practiced in Florence. They call it 'calcio storico'. It serves similar purposes.
Thank you, Leroy! You understand that I'm touching some concepts here. The responsibility of the community to protect an individual from itself.
As long as I don't have to pay for it they can throw tomahawks through the bush. They only have to clearly document the rules in advance and the adherence throughout the activity.
We all argue from a libertarian perspective. In the real world some costs are inadvertable. Martial arts will always bring pain to some of the athletes' families, insurers and so on. I would still argue that all these secondary 'victims' can carry the costs. The loved ones may prefer to see somebody do what he loves rather than to avoid the risks. Insurers will hardly feel a dimp in the balance sheet because only few men will ever be willing to fight voluntarily....
Now, I go full-blown conservative and ask about morals. In British tabloids citizen violence is cheered on a regular basis, e.g. when a mobster was beaten up. This climate is probably a reason why martial arts are more accepted there than, for example,  in Germany.
There are other ways to cheer violence. Conservatives also make a huge effort to honor police and the military. But what happens when these tiers are gone and no decent men will fight against those who are not bound by morals? A state can fail. Remember e.g. the police stand down that gave way to the antifa riots in Berkeley! In the article I spoke about German and Cairo liberals unprepared to fend off thugs. Is it more moral to fight or to watch your girlfriends being raped? And is highlighting courageous acts in the media (like in Britain) or cheering well-regulated, controlled violent games a way to establish the chivalry that we need?
Leroy Added Oct 29, 2017 - 10:19am
There is something wrong in this world.  I can't quite put my finger on it.  It's a lose-lose situation today for the police intervene against a violent crowd, especially if it is a protected class such as BLM or a protected political group such as Antifa.  A bully in school can make one's life miserable.  He gets away with it.  But, if the victim ever lashes out, he is punished instantly.  I imagine that if any German tried to protect a woman against an Islamic rapist, he would be labeled a racist and thrown in jail. 
Ian Thorpe Added Oct 29, 2017 - 12:21pm
Benjamin, I enjoyed your article which presents an interesting point of view however I think the fact that an overwhelming majority of us have little or no interest in MMA shows we are quite healthy societies. As to your point about there being little interest in third world nation or Europe, that does not really stand up.
Here in Britain you can go into the centre of any large town on Friday or Saturday nights and watch the more extreme versions of MMA involving broken bottles, baseball bats and big lumps of concrete, and I'm assured things are the same throughout most of Europe.
In their world areas they have their own local variations, such as stoning and flogging. Recreational beheading is big in some places I've heard.
Benjamin Goldstein Added Oct 29, 2017 - 12:55pm
Ian: Great to hear that you enjoyed it.
The other parts of your comment go a bit off the rails.
For example, I did not say the Third World and Europe. I said continental Europe and that was already a fuzzy description because I contrast it with Russia. In my last comment to Leroy I also mention that Britain is different. I don't go through it all, beheadings are no martial arts. Stoning ain't no martial arts ......
Thank you for reading and letting us know your thoughts!
Dino Manalis Added Oct 29, 2017 - 4:52pm
It's a sign of a violent society, not very healthy,  domination and lack of kindness!
Ian Thorpe Added Oct 29, 2017 - 5:15pm
Benjamin, the point I was making might have been to subtle for you. MMA (cage fighting) has little in common with competitive combat sports such as Judo, Karate, Taekwando and even amateur boxing. It is legally sanctioned violence. Stoning or beheading people is legally sanctioned violence. Street fighting and pub brawls are not legally sanctioned but they are violence and to my mind have more in common with cage fighting than the Olympic combat sports do.
I just found it too much of a stretch to think of something as insignificant to the majority as MMA being a commentary on our or your society.
I mentioned the third world because they may not have taken up MMA but even so have far more violent societies than the USA or western Europe.
Britain has always had a bare knuckle boxing fraternity. Followers of the sport are very enthusiastic, but it would be ridiculous to say it reflects in any way on the kind of society we are because it is very much a minority interest.
Benjamin Goldstein Added Oct 29, 2017 - 7:12pm
Ian: The joke went over my head because of the Third-World-Europe sentence. It looked as if there is no real match with my text.
All the sports that you mention are either tamed down versions of self-defence practices that were turned into competitions (generelly in the 20th century) or evolved out of brutal fights. As you see from my comment above this is also true for some sports that have nothing to do with fighting anymore such as American Football (came from rugby, came from something that looked like 'calcio storico'). Also some unsuspicious sports like lacrosse started as fights.
Every society has legally sanctioned violence this is no sign of anything. Very few societies attract the phenomenon that free men start fighting one another.
One famous exampel is 19th century Germany. The leader of the movement was called Turnvater Jahn. After Napoleon conquered Germany and introduced idea from the French Revolution to Germany, Jahn organized sport activities with an emphasis on fencing. He popularized fencing to the extent that German student fraternities to this day make their newbies fight. His goal was to keep the freedoms that the French brought while getting them out of the country to live up to them.
I find it significient that such an interest arises in some societies and not in others. You don't see a combat sports movement in Saudi Arabia. A violent society does not bring about a violent sport and a violent sport is not a sign of a violent society.
Benjamin Goldstein Added Oct 29, 2017 - 7:30pm
Ian: A phenomenon does not need the participation of a majority of people in a society to reflect on a general theme.
I think MMA arises (and it's less fringe than you make it out to be) because other sports were not fighty enough to serve interests of the alpha males involved. It pushes through only in free societies.
Benjamin Goldstein Added Oct 29, 2017 - 7:40pm
correction of post above: in societies that become freer at the time. You need enough individuals who are highly open-minded. Their percentage can decline in societies who are on a plateau. Fighting sports can dwindle or remain in societies after they progressed. I can only observe that an interest in fighting sports comes at times when societies progress.
Henry Ortiz Added Oct 30, 2017 - 3:08pm
I see this MMA as a resemblance of the Roman Circus. They became so rich and powerful that could not get enough with their promiscuity so they start feeling pleasure in observing people, first fighting,  then killing themselves, and then using ferocious animals.
That is called civil decadence for me. But of course for many is just fun.
Benjamin Goldstein Added Oct 30, 2017 - 3:52pm
Thank you Henry for your comment. The Roman Empire was poverty-stricken. Panem et Circenses ("bread and games") is a common phrase to describe how dolls and the circus were used to distract the masses from the underlying problems of their society.
Dave Volek Added Oct 31, 2017 - 2:08pm
Interesting piece. I bet there is whole level of psychology involved here. It would be interesting to hear what these experts have to say.
A few weeks ago, I accidentally came across an internet video of a man beating his wife in an open field. He whipped her about 20 times as she was trying to get away. A big part of me was horrified. Another part was bewildered as to why this was still happening and onlookers were not doing anything. And a small part was fascinated.
Most of us abhor this raw violence and will not deliberately look for it. Many of us would not bother with something like MMA. But many of us will still watch action movies, where the actors are putting themselves in unrealistic situations with unrealistic results (sorry Captain Kirk, if you get into enough fights, sooner or later you are going to get clobbered, regardless of all the Star Fleet training you had). 
Benjamin Goldstein Added Oct 31, 2017 - 2:28pm
Dave: You hit the nail. If it wasn't for that drive, Hollywood movies wouldn't show soooo many fight scenes. Everybody looks over his shoulder, but we all have it.
I think the reason why this bastard could beat his wife is that chivalry is down. I think there are still differences between cultures. I don't know what part of the earth the video shows, but I assume it was in Great Britain where you live. I would bet that these things happen more often in Germany than in the UK. If the onlookers did something, the Sun, Express, Daily Mail and Metro would headline something like "43-year-old father of three broke jaw of wife-beater" and the hero would be praised. Yet, there are also cases when heroes who defend others are blamed and legally charged. Britain is yet healthy in so far as such a punishment usually meets some objection if not outrage. In Germany such stories wouldn't even hit the tabloids. Chivalry is not praised. And, of course, there are people who even try to ban the fake violence in movies.
Dave Volek Added Oct 31, 2017 - 2:50pm
I think we both agree that there is an internal demand to observe some violence--and maybe even partake in some violence. 
I was never a rough-and-tumble kid, but I remember how some boys just relished taking a basketball into the key and getting knocked around and doing a little knocking in the same time. Eventually I did learn how to move into the key and take a few bangs along the way. But was this was not my character.
So the next question is: "If we say a sport like basketball is too violent (or binge watching Star Trek is too violent), what do we do with these people who somehow need this low level violence in our lives? Should we somehow be managing this natural drive? If so, how? I think there is a good argument that boxing and ultimate fighting might be going too far.
Psychologists are now saying that even a modest viewing of pornography is affecting our thought processes, which than affects our characters, which then affects our outward interactions in the world. Maybe watching violence is doing the same. And I think it has been proven that TV violence does affect some of us.
We just might have this figured out 100 years from now. Until then, it is an experiment!
Benjamin Goldstein Added Oct 31, 2017 - 3:05pm
Meta studies prove now that even computer games which involves some identification do not cause kids to become more violent. It overrules studies which previously claimed that. There is consensus now that video games don't cause violence. This is very likely true for TV violence. Directly watching sexuality goes to a much deeper level. It is possible that it does something.
For this is not just about controlling some who still have a drive to act violently when they are adults. I am libertarian enough to just let them slug it out. If they were not allowed to do it, I don't assume that they would seek other outlets. It's possible, but I don't see it.
What is with the people who do have moral standards? Are they hitting the gym if violence is denounced as something that is alwys evil? Does a movie scene motivate them to learn some skills? Aren't fans of violent sports more likely to check it out than cinema goers? You need just enough of decent people prepared to fight to prevent this wife-beating situation which you described from happening.
Phil Greenough Added Nov 1, 2017 - 9:56am
“Any society has and always will have professional fighters. Today they are usually found in the police or military forces (or some other security related organization). We are talking about a controlled, measured application of violence in these professions.”
I couldn’t disagree more.  Police spend very little of their time “fighting.”  They basically drive around, settle disputes, investigate and do paperwork.  As for the military, most members of the military will never fight.  By way of example, aircraft carriers have a full time member of the Navy making sure all the soda dispensers are filled.
You’re basically making the argument in this article that the more fighters we have the more good that will become of society.  However, a recipe for anarchy is when we condone fighting over the rule of law, which essentially what you advocate in this article.  In other words, there is a difference between fighting for sport and fighting because you’re angry at our government.  If it’s the latter, only if you wish for there to be a revolution, would I understand fighting.  
Dave Volek Added Nov 1, 2017 - 12:01pm
There was a big psychological study done around 1980 that compared watching TV violence to outcomes later in life. Basically the study analyzed the TV habits of several thousand kids, and then looked at their adult life a decade later. Some adults were successful in work and relationships; others were in jail.
They study quoted a correlation factor of 0.25. Normally, correlation factor close to 1.00 shows a direct correlation between A and B (i.e. TV violence and success in later life). A -1.00 means the two parameters are inversely correlated.  A factor of 0.00 shows no correlation.
In a usual statistical sense, a 0.25 is considered close enough to zero to be deemed as zero. But because this study was so vast, the researchers concluded that there was some correlation. Most of us can process violence on the screen and deem it to be fake and not representative of life. But a few of us do internalize these shows and build our psyches around what we see on the screen.
I don't follow psychological journals, so I can't say whether that study has been debunked. But it is still quoted in first-year psychology texts. And it seems to fit with my sense of how the world works. And there is no black/white answer. Only shades of grey.
Benjamin Goldstein Added Nov 1, 2017 - 12:34pm
Phil: I very careful made clear that abiding rules and law is the centerpiece of the matter. I am not an anarchist.
As Dave Volak can tell you the British police has a much worse bureacracy problem than any other in the world. You ain't nothing seen yet :D.
Dave: I bet that study is completely outdated. For one, most programs in the 80s had violent images. No matter if the studied group watched cowboy movies or the A-Team. All it says is that people who watch too much TV don't do well in life.
Dave Volek Added Nov 1, 2017 - 1:14pm
You might be right. There's probably a similar correlation between hours per days playing video games and success in life as well.
There must have been more research on this matter, for no other reason than the violence on 1980s TV screens is different than today's TV screens. I can envision that 0.25 going up or down as the world changed.
So little time to keep up to date!