It’s the oldest and most honest category of sport.
Back when we lived in caves, there was only one way to determine one person’s athletic abilities against another’s, and it wasn’t by being able to hit a ball solidly with a stick.
One could argue sports were created simply so we wouldn’t have to fight.
Think about it. Our hardwired propensity for physical conflict is evident when the rules cease to matter in modern sports situations. When two football players get mad at each other, do they agree to kick field goals? When one player fouls another with too much gusto on the basketball court and the recipient takes umbrage, does either immediately make his way over to the foul line to take penalty shots?
Often there’s a temporary break in the rules the players agreed to.
For that brief moment, the two (or sometimes more) adversaries fight, the result frequently resembling a schoolyard scuffle. It happens in every sport, and some, like hockey, accommodated this natural tendency by allotting it space in their rules.
Unsurprisingly, these brief melees — pocketed inside of otherwise more civilized contests — are usually the most talked-about aspect of the entire affair.
UFC President Dana White said it best:
“Take four corners anywhere, any major city, anywhere in the world. On one corner they’re playing soccer. On the second corner they’re playing basketball. On the third corner they’re playing street hockey. On the fourth corner a fight breaks out. Where does the crowd go? They go to watch the fight. The guys that are even playing the other sports will stop playing those sports and run over and watch the fight. It’s human nature. It’s in our DNA.”
I grew up watching boxing. The first original poem I ever wrote was about wanting to watch Tyson vs. Spinks, in 1988. (It wasn’t Whitman.)
When the UFC 1 aired in 1993, I scrambled to find a bootleg copy of the event. (I didn’t succeed in getting one, but I by the time UFC 3 came around, I did.)B
Barely any rules existed when the UFC began. There were no weight classes or time limits. Almost every competitor entering the Octagon mastered just one martial art.
At UFC 1, Art Jimmerson represented boxing. Gerard Gordeau used Savate (French kickboxing). Teila Tuli was a Sumo wrestler. And so on.
There were two early favorites: Royce Gracie, a 175-pound practitioner of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a martial art theretofore unknown in the United States; and Ken Shamrock, who specialized in shootfighting, a hybridization of Muay Thai and catch wrestling. Gracie won, largely because fighters didn’t prepare for when the fight inevitably went to the ground.
Considering almost every fight turns horizontal at some point, having no mastery there was fatal.
The lesson was plain: Know how to grapple or risk losing to someone who does.
Not long after, strikers began supplementing their repertoires with grappling arts. And the smart grapplers? They learned how to strike.
Mixed martial arts, or MMA, was born.
One martial art in particular became revitalized: wrestling.
Before wrestling’s rebirth, amateur wrestlers were relegated to three career paths after finishing school:
- Coach wrestling
- Try out for the Olympics
- Pursue a pro wrestling career
Like other exceptional collegiate athletes, wrestlers could finally turn their skills into possibly lucrative careers. And because wrestling determines where the fight takes place — on the feet or the ground — the historic martial-art-turned-sport was revitalized.
MMA’s popularity is unsurprising. Fighting is a global language, and like music, film, visual arts and poetry, anything done with an understanding of all the pertinent moving parts, their proper applications and a little bit of inventiveness can be beautiful to behold.
Fighting is often also a national export. Almost every country has its own form of martial art (if not multiple forms). So though singular martial arts aren’t really a thing anymore, each countryperson is nonetheless symbolically wearing a flag on his or her feet, fists, knees and elbows.
And unlike the reckless flailing in basketball fracases, the occasional impromptu mound charge or the odd street fighting video, MMA matches – or fights, as they are nonpretentiously called – show commitment to a craft that rewires a person’s natural tendencies in conflict.
Despite their alleged barbarism, cage fights seldom resemble untrained combat.
Professional fighters learn to not flinch when opponents feint, to develop styles that balance defensive reflexes with effective offensive techniques, to be prepared everywhere. It’s the same set of standards to which karatekas, judokas, samurai and innumerable other traditional martial artists hold themselves.
To be successful in the fight game, one must exhibit restraint, knowledge, dedication and respect. Anger must be removed, replaced by poise and precision.
It is no wonder, then, that a martial art is often referred to as a “discipline.”
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