MMA: Redefining Combat Sport In America

The crescendo of anticipation preceding UFC 100 and the event’s immediate aftermath garnered an unprecedented deluge of media attention to UFC and the sport of MMA.

Aside from Brock Lesnar’s post-fight antic, media has chimed in on UFC’s impressive feat in bringing Mixed Martial Arts to American public.  The meteoric rise of a sport that was once roundly condemned as “human cockfighting” has indeed been impressive.

Besides giving some established sports serious run for their money, MMA has had another major impact that is not often discussed:  MMA has singlehandedly redefined combat sport in America.

Before MMA has taken America by storm, the sport fighting tradition in America has been shaped by the preponderance of two majors sports:  Boxing and wrestling.

Boxing — in its modern form promulgated by the Marquess of Queensberry rule and the earlier incarnation of bare-knuckle fighting — has a deep root in America.  Since John L. Sullivan became a bare-knuckle champion and America’s first sports celebrity, boxing rose to fame and cultural prominence during the early part of the 20th century.

The sport’s inclusion in the Olympic games in 1904, regulation by state commissions, emergence as a source of discipline for youth, and other subsequent developments solidified its legitimacy.

Mass media helped boxing thrive and become entrenched in the American culture.  The enthralling appeal of boxing had transcended the realm of sport and reached a higher stratosphere: An embodiment of masculine ideals and, in times of national crises, of national vitality.

Dominant champions like Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, and Muhammad Ali became national heroes and captivated the nation with extraordinary skills, physical and mental fortitude, and charisma.

Wrestling, one of the oldest sports in the world, has also enjoyed a long pedigree in the United States.  European immigrants have brought various regional wrestling styles native to their homeland.  The cross-pollination of the different European wrestling styles has formed the foundation of catch wrestling and modern freestyle wrestling.

Catch wrestling, arguably the ancestor of modern grappling and professional wrestling, became popular during the early 20th century.  Practiced in carnivals and public exhibitions, catch wrestling has bred numerous “strongmen” who became well-versed in pinning and submission techniques to defeat their challengers.

While catch wrestling eventually waned and gave way to the entertainment-oriented wrestling spectacle, amateur wrestling has established itself in the Olympic games, as well as in the youth and scholastic athletics.

The popularity and cultural significance of boxing, and the entrenchment of amateur wrestling had thus been instrumental in shaping the American concept of combat sport.

Thanks to the cumulative historical influence of the two sports, stepping into a ring with ones fists as the sole weapons or vying to pin the opponent on a wrestling mat have come to define “civilized combat” in America.

The emergence of kickboxing in the 1970’s and the introduction of Asian martial arts had done little to alter the said notion of combat sport.  While these combat systems introduced novel elements not found in boxing and wrestling, they garnered little recognition as legitimate fighting sports.

Kickboxing has blossomed in different incarnations at one time or another in Japan and Europe, but never broke the ceiling of fringe sports in the United States.  The establishment of sanctioning bodies, such as World Kickboxing Association (WKA) and International Kickboxing Federation (IKA), as well as the presence of a handful of star athletes, including Benny “Jet” Urquidez, proved insufficient in bringing the spotlight to kickboxing.

Asian martial arts have become the objects of cult-like fascination among some.  The devout practitioners of these martial arts have cherished the philosophical and sportive aspects of the arts; to many, however, Asian martial arts have remained the elusive amalgam of self-defense, spiritual exercise, and Eastern mysticism.

Consequently, traditional karate, kung fu, judo, etc have been banished to the arcane provinces of movies and curious cultural exploration — the preconceived construct of “combat sport” simply did not accommodate them.

On November 12, 1993, the Ultimate Fighting Championship stormed the McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Colorado.  The inaugural UFC event marked the beginning of the revolution in American combat sport that has gradually taken root over the course of a decade.

From the no-holds-barred, style-versus-style contests of the early days of UFC to the development of a full-fledged hybrid combat sport, the emergence of Mixed Martial Art has rewritten the rule book of combat sports in America.

As the sport became sanctioned in state after state and appeared on Pay-Per-View, Americans witnessed kicks, knee strikes, clinch fighting, chokes, and joint locks — all techniques foreign to boxing and amateur wrestling — utilized in the realm of legal sports fighting for the first time.

If history is any indication, people do not respond kindly to iconoclasm.  Besides the “human cockfighting” controversy surrounding the dearth of rules in the early days of UFC, the allegation of violence has been leveled against MMA even after rules ensuring fighter safety has been implemented.

By most accounts, the condemnation of MMA has been a knee-jerk reaction to things that clash with ones sense of what constitutes civilized, legitimate pursuit.

It is not uncommon for those who oppose MMA to acknowledge boxing as a legitimate sport.  Even with all the fatalities in boxing, they deem the sweet science to be the noblest form of fighting.

On the other hand, they find kicks to any part of the body “wrong” and chokes and joint locks to be cringe-inducing acts used only by thugs — if there is something they are not accustomed to seeing, they cry of savagery.  Unbeknownst to them, karate, muay thai, and other martial arts throughout the world employ kicks, while chokes and joint locks are staples of jiu jitsu, sambo, and other grappling arts.

The preconceived notion of sport fighting comes into play here with the cognitive dissonance exhibited by the detractors of MMA.  Whatever does not comport with their intuitive sense of “sports fighting” is deemed barbaric, even with the availability of statistics that show a higher injury and fatality rate in boxing than in MMA.

Fortunately, the passage of time and diligent education of the public and key decision makers have led to the unprecedented acceptance of MMA as a legitimate combat sport.  The current level of popularity MMA enjoys is indicative of its status as a fifth major sport in the US.

The redefinition of “sport fighting” spearheaded by MMA has brought exposure to the numerous fighting disciplines involved in MMA.  The revolutionary feat of Royce Gracie has introduced the world to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and ushered the advent of submission grappling.  Muay thai and kickboxing have also enjoyed heightened popularity.

The emergent interest in the combat sport disciplines previously unknown to most Americans may be a harbinger of a diverse, vibrant combat sport scene.

Submission grappling tournaments, such as those hosted by NAGA, Grapplers Quest, and American Sambo Association, have seen a surge in the number and level of prowess of their participants in recent years.  The kickboxing circuits remain small, but the popularity of MMA has spurred interest in muay thai and kickboxing.

Even amateur wrestling remains as popular as ever in the wake of the MMA’s ascent.  Given the success wrestlers have had in MMA, MMA has solidified itself as a viable career path for high school and collegiate wrestling standouts who thirst for competition when their amateur career comes to an end.

Finally, the surge of MMA in time of boxing’s declining popularity and social standing has prompted some to hail MMA as the last nail in boxing’s coffin.

While boxing has been far removed from its golden era for more than a decade, sounding its death knell is premature:  For all the mishaps and blunders that have undermined the sport, boxing still boasts a faithful legion of fans.

Also, many, including the MMA fighters, revere the rich tradition and craft of the sweet science.  In fact, some MMA fighters, such as Anderson Silva and Frank Mir, have expressed interest in trying their hands at boxing in future.

MMA and boxing essentially are two different sports with disparate fanbase.  The attempts to co-promote the two sports simultaneously have been failures thus far.  Though the rivalry between them has been well-publicized, no zero-sum game in overall popularity and profitability exist between MMA and boxing.  Only time will tell how MMA and boxing will co-exist in the future.

One thing is certain, however:  MMA has not killed boxing.  MMA has merely shown that combat sport encompasses much more than a pugilistic contest or pinning ones opponent on the mat.

Here’s to bright future for MMA, boxing, and the new era of American sport fighting.

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