NEW YORK – Each growth spurt in mixed martial arts is met with a fresh wave of ignorance.
In the mid-'90s, politicians looking to score easy points succeeded in pressuring cable television executives to boot the fledgling sport off cable television. Instead of killing off MMA, it simply went underground
When MMA returned to cable in 2001, it was portrayed as a sign of the decline of American civilization. Somehow, the republic survived.
When the Ultimate Fighting Championship's popularity exploded in 2005, it was dismissed as a fad that would soon go away. Three years later, the company is on the hottest sustained pay-per-view business streak in its history.
Now the sport has made it to the mainstream, with this weekend's live network television debut of EliteXC's "Saturday Night Fights" on CBS. And with it has come another round of half-baked, poorly researched commentary across the media spectrum.
Whether a paint-by-numbers slam from stick-and-ball sports columnists, or the hyperventilating tone television airheads usually reserve for cases of young blonde Caucasian women gone missing, silly season is once again under way.
For those who have watched MMA since the beginning, the criticism has become as tired a schtick as Gallagher's smashing watermelons. But for those who still don't get it, one last time, here is the truth about the myths and stereotypes that continue to be perpetuated about MMA:
John McCain once called mixed martial arts "human cockfighting."
Indeed, he did. The Arizona senator and presumptive Republican presidential nominee gave MMA the label detractors have mouthed like trained parrots.
McCain helped the drive to push MMA off cable television around 1996. In other news from that year, the Yankees won the World Series. But here in 2008, the Red Sox are the reigning champions and likewise, McCain changed his tune. In fact, McCain recently told Britain's Daily Telegraph, "The sport has grown up. The rules have been adopted to give its athletes better protections and to ensure fairer competition."
MMA was once banned in nearly every state.
Actually, only one state, New York, enacted a mixed martial arts ban into law, a statute that remains on the books (hence why Saturday's CBS show is across the river in Newark, N.J.). The difference is the UFC refuses to promote in places that don't have a sanctioning athletic commission, an entirely separate matter from an outright ban.
Mixed martial arts was a rules-free freak show until the UFC's current ownership came in and cleaned up the sport.
Current UFC owners Zuffa LLC bought the company in 2001, and deserve the bulk of the credit for making the sport a success in North America, which came after years of backbreaking work.
But the notion that casino magnate Ferttita brothers and UFC president Dana White cleaned up the rules is a fairy tale. Referees had the power to stop matches as early as UFC 3 in 1994; the first time limit was instituted not long after, and weight classes came into play by 1999.
In 2000, the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board instituted the current rules since adopted by most state athletic commissions, known in the business as the "unified rules." UFC later took those regulations and pitched them to influential states like Nevada and California on the way to getting sanctioned in those states.
Mixed martial arts is a haven for white trash.
This is perhaps the most egregious stereotype of them all. If anything, one can make a convincing argument that the industry-leading UFC is among the most internationally diverse offerings on the American sporting scene.
Last Saturday's UFC 84 featured fighters from the United States, Canada, Brazil, Japan, Korea, Cameroon, Great Britain and Croatia. The roster of UFC's current champions features a native Brazilian (interim heavyweight champ Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira); an African-American (light heavyweight champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson); an African-Brazilian (Anderson Silva); a French-Canadian (welterweight champ Georges St. Pierre) and a Pacific Islander (lightweight champ and native Hawaiian B.J. Penn).
MMA contributes to the level of violence in our culture.
The base components of MMA, like jiu-jitsu, judo, taekwondo, and Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling, teach people discipline and respect. Women's self-defense classes based on utilizing MMA techniques are popping up all over the country. This would seem to indicate self-empowerment, not reckless violence.
Both the U.S. military and police departments from coast to coast teach soldiers and police officers how to use mixed martial arts maneuvers for self-defense. If MMA is good enough for our nation's peacekeepers, it should be good enough for the rest of us.
Mixed martial arts is inherently more dangerous than other contact sports.
In the 15 years since modern mixed martial arts came into being, one fighter, Sam Vasquez of Houston, has died as a result of injuries sustained in a sanctioned MMA fight.
Vasquez's death was unfortunate, but society has always accepted the risk of catastrophic injury and death in high-profile sports. Rarely does a football season pass without a player being carted off the field with a severe spinal injury; an Arena Football player died in Los Angeles a few years back after a violent collision; and of course, it is rare a year goes by without a death in boxing.
Not enough proof? OK then, consider a 2006 study conducted by the Johns Hopkins Journal of Sports Science and Medicine "Incidence of Injury in Professional Mixed Martial Arts Competitions," which found that while MMA competitors had slightly more minor injuries than boxers, MMA fighters had a far lower incidence of major injury and brain trauma. This year, the British Journal of Sports Medicine conducted a similar study and came to similar conclusions.
MMA is unskilled bar-fighting; while boxing is refined and genteel.
The glare coming off that pile of Olympic and world championship medals won by MMA practitioners in disciplines like Greco-Roman wrestling and judo should be enough to dispel the notion MMA doesn't require skill.
Regardless, the wheezing "in my day" arguments from grey-haired boxing writers too set in their ways to learn anything new continue unabated. The mental gymnastics required to declare MMA "barbaric" while ignoring that boxing has a body count greater than every other contact sport combined make these sort of columns must-reads in their own perverse way.
In MMA, when a fight hits the ground, the referee is instructed to halt the match at the first sign the fighter on the defensive can no longer intelligently defend himself.
Boxing, on the other hand, features the mandatory eight count, in which a dazed pugilist who has been knocked to the mat has to immediately scramble to his feet, regardless of whether the cobwebs have cleared, and come right back out to potentially absorb more brain trauma from the person who just put him down.
Which sport is barbaric, again?
Mixed martial arts fans are bloodthirsty and just want to see people get knocked out.
Well, yeah, fight fans tend to get excited by knockouts, whether in MMA, boxing or kickboxing. Likewise, baseball fans tend to react louder to 500-foot home runs than they do to a well-executed bunt; and basketball fans get out of their seats for a thunderous dunk, not for the pick that cleared the lane so the dunk could occur.
If you watched a complete mixed martial arts card, instead of cherry-picking knockout clips, you'll find that the average MMA fan is educated to nuances of the sport, and react as much to a subtle shift of position on the mat that creates an opening for a potential submission attempt as they do any other aspect of the game.
But of course, learning this requires research, something sorely lacking from the bulk of commentary slamming the sport.
Hey, this is America. You have the right to detest MMA if you wish. I can't stand watching volleyball. But if I was assigned to cover it, I'd at least make an effort to get the basics of the sport correct rather than concoct a lazy rip job. Is it too much to ask the same for MMA?
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