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?