Vancouver's first UFC bout will take place this June. It's time to reconsider the usual controversy that surrounds this sport.
Let me start by explaining I’m both female and an academic – exactly the demographic that typically has no interest in watching two men beat each other senseless. It will probably surprise you to find out I’m also a fan of Mixed Martial Arts and their largest promoter, the Ultimate Fighting Challenge, or UFC. My partner has followed MMA for years and it was the one thing we didn’t watch together. I mean, there are dudes rolling around on the ground, and sometimes it gets bloody, and then there are those fake-and-baked girls who wave the numbers around. I just didn’t get it. But, in the past year, I’ve made an effort to overlook the testosterone overloaded marketing and hysterical public disapproval. I’ve learned there is a great deal of history, professionalism and honesty to the MMA sport.
Vancouver city council’s recent approval of professional MMA events on a two-year trial basis means a bout will take place in our city this June, bringing the usual controversy along with it. If you want to jump on that bandwagon I won’t stop you, but I am going to let you know that most people who dismiss the sport seem to know very little about it.
UFC today is vastly more developed than when it began in 1993. Back then, it was advertised as an extreme bloodsport with no rules (though it did have a few). Senator John McCain campaigned enthusiastically against the UFC and said it “appeals to the lowest common denominator in our society.” After McCain managed to have MMA banned on major pay per view networks for a period, the UFC revised it's rules, which now meet Olympic and international tournament standards, and reinvented itself as a legitimate sport. When you consider it took 42 years of NHL hockey before goalies started wearing masks (and being made fun of for doing so), the UFC has evolved at an accelerated pace.
Let me ask you this: In a fight between Batman and Superman, who do you think would win? Some would say Superman because he has innate super powers, and Batman just has lots of toys. Others would say Batman because he has superior intelligence and more money. Plus, there’s the kryptonite factor. Either way, it would be an epic struggle and - admit it - you probably have an opinion on it. Now, who do you think would win in a fight between a boxer and a jujutsu specialist? How about between a wrestler and a Muay Thai fighter?
MMA combatants typically possess a combination of stand up and ground fighting skills and use them together against an opponent. Many fighters begin their careers as professional wrestlers or martial arts experts and go on to train in a variety of other disciplines. MMA has reinvigorated sanctioned combat sports that have been around for eons – sports that are widely considered “safe” – bringing them to a new and wider audience. Like Superman and Batman, the competitors’ mix of fighting skills ensures a complex and unpredictable contest.
A version of mixed martial arts called Pankration, which combines boxing and wrestling, originated with the ancient Greeks and was an official Olympic event for a thousand years. The mythological Theseus supposedly invented Pankration and used his skills to defeat the Minotaur. Emperor Theodosius I abolished the ancient Olympics and Pankration was not reinstated when the modern Olympics began in 1896 – it was only the stuff of legends by then. Today, there is a movement to restore modern Pankration as an Olympic event. Contemporary MMA fighters borrow many techniques and strategies from this revived ancient sport.
A match that illuminated MMA for me took place on May 23, 2009 between undefeated fighters Lyoto Machida and Rashad Evans. Half Brazilian, half Japanese Machida’s elegantly defensive karate-focused strategy completely stumped the equally talented Evans. Machida took home the light heavyweight championship. Some fighting styles have proven to be more effective than others in MMA fights, and karate has not been one of them. Watching Machida assume that classic, backward leaning karate stance was a surreal and nostalgic moment. Lyoto “The Dragon” Machida stands out as the ultimate Karate Kid, the distilled essence of dozens of badly dubbed, 70’s martial arts films inhabited by the ghost of Bruce Lee. After winning the match, Machida shouted, “Karate is back! Machida Karate!” It doesn’t get much more exciting than that.
My favorite fighter is the classy, French Canadian grappler and welterweight champion George St. Pierre, known as GSP. If you’ve never heard of him before, take note – he was voted Rogers Sportsnet Canadian Athlete of the Year two years in a row, most recently outshining hockey prodigy Sidney Crosby. GSP is the first representative of his sport to be awarded this honor. His charming smile, perfect proportions and tight shorts aside, (remember, I am a girl) GSP’s fighting style clarified for me what MMA fighters are doing when they ‘roll around on the ground.’ His technique is clean and textbook perfect. He is a true professional, and by all reports a pretty nice guy, who got into the sport as a teen to defend himself from bullies.
At the other end of the spectrum, inevitably, are fighters like heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar, who resembles a Street Fighter video game character. After beating Frank Mir in July 2009, Lesnar proclaimed to the audience, “I’m gonna go home tonight and I’m gonna drink a Coors Light, that’s a Coors Light, because Bud Light (his sponsor) won’t pay me nothing” and “Hell, I might even get on top of my wife.” He apologized later, but remarks like that can cause people to take the sport less seriously. Still, you have to laugh at Lesnar’s blunderingly candid rant in the same way that I’ve learned to laugh at the need for girls carrying numbers to balance out all that sweaty, naked man-flesh. I’m glad the UFC doesn’t muzzle competitors or feel the need to promote all of the athletes as role models. As Tiger Woods has recently shown us, this can backfire in a rather enormous way.
And speaking of honesty – Isn’t it somewhat hypocritical for Senator McCain to call MMA “human cockfighting” while accepting complimentary ringside tickets to equally violent yet more socially acceptable boxing matches? Boxing has a damaged reputation due to accusations of match fixing over many years. Many MMA fans will tell you they were once boxing fans, but this sport has been tarnished for them.
I don’t want you to think of me as a person who glorifies and promotes violence. There is a huge difference between the baseless need to instill harm without rules or consequences and the desire to attain the skills and stamina required to compete with an opponent on the most fundamental physical level. You can argue that the evolution of humanity should exclude violent sport, but the fact is we all have an intrinsic desire to know how a conflict between one opponent and the other will resolve, in any type of competition. As a society we need champions - comic book heroes, gladiators, video game avatars, and mythological warriors – to step up and represent our subconscious inner conflicts and the pride of nations.