The sport of mixed martial arts, or MMA, is growing at an exponential rate. The sport is as big as it has ever been by any commercial measure and media coverage of the sport is at unprecedented levels. Athletes such as Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor have transcended the sporting landscape into popular culture, bringing the sport of MMA to new audiences who previously unaware or uninterested in the sport. For all its growth however, particularly in Australia, the sport still has many critics among the mainstream media.
Following the UFC’s first event, UFC 193 at the Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, Australia last month, many columnists and opinion writers in Australia’s newspapers and magazines took aim at the UFC and the sport of MMA. Among the most vocal of critics was Peter Fitzsimons of the Sydney Morning Herald, who wrote a piece after the event which was scathing in its criticism of the sport. It is clear from the outset that he has little, if any knowledge of the sport. His first claim, a popular one among those unfamiliar with MMA and the UFC, is that bouts are essentially no-holds-barred fights. This has not been the case for many years, since the very first UFC events of the early 1990s. Modern MMA, under the unified rules, has a clear and extensive range of rules and regulations which prevent particularly dangerous strikes or grappling techniques. Another, even more bizarre insinuation, one which is shared by his Sydney Morning Herald colleague Sam Varghese, is that the participants are somehow competing against their will. Varghese even goes as far as likening the bouts to human cock-fighting, a comparison first made back in the 1990s by United States senator John McCain. It is important to remember, however, this quote was made in the context of MMA being essentially a no-holds-barred sport in its infancy. The sport has moved on since then, with changes even being acknowledged by McCain. The lingering stigma and prejudice against the sport from many in the media, however, has not.
The prejudice against MMA, particularly when considered against the broader Australian landscape and culture in general, is perplexing, to say the least. Australia has a long and storied tradition of sports which are physical in nature, such as Australian Rules football, Rugby League and Rugby Union. The physicality of these sports is a central part of the sports themselves as well as their appeal to mainstream Australian society. In each of these sports, injuries are frequent and sometimes debilitating. Yet, in the case of these sports it is rightly accepted that harm and injury is a natural risk associated with participation. Even boxing, despite being a combat sport, is not held to anywhere near the same level of scrutiny as mixed martial arts is among Australian media. This is despite boxing actually being a more dangerous sport overall than MMA, despite common misconceptions.
As is all too often the case in modern society, broader social issues such as street violence, aggressive public behavior and domestic violence are blamed on a single factor, in this case the sport of MMA. Despite offering no statistical evidence or even a specific anecdote to draw upon, Fitzsimons confidently asserts a direct correlation between the increased popularity of MMA and increased violence in Australian society. Street violence and domestic violence are of course pressing issues which must be addressed by society. However, to claim that the presence of MMA in Australia worsens such issues, without evidence to back it up, is simply wrong. Banning the UFC from Australia, as Fitzsimons pleads for at the end of his piece, will not reduce rates of street or domestic violence. By removing a sanctioned, regulated platform for people to compete in MMA, the sport will simply be driven underground, with less oversight and much more danger for participants. That scenario, rather than the current situation where MMA and the UFC are legalized in Australia, would be a truly worrying prospect to consider.