This Thursday, the UFC declared its support for the new International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF).
The organization, founded in Sweden by its president August Wallén, aims to develop “MMA as an international sport, from the recreational level to the elite level, driving the development of common sets of rules, safety regulations, structure, mutual exchanges and so forth,” according to its website.
There is no doubt that as of right now, the UFC’s backing is much more beneficial for the IMMAF than for the UFC.
To begin with, its probable that few MMA fans were even aware of the IMMAF until this announcement, and the UFC doesn’t gain any immediate strength as an organization with the growth of a governing body for amateur sport.
And while the development of regulated amateur competition for MMA is likely to bolster the UFC in many ways, the end result could redefine the sport of MMA while smartly retaining its traditions—provided that the IMMAF continues to grow in concord with the UFC.
History, however, reveals the complications of such a relationship.
In an interview with Sherdog.com, Wallén explained the abnormal development of MMA as a sport.
“I think MMA developed kind of backwards. All other sports, more or less, start on the amateur level with people playing soccer, for instance, in their backyards. Then you get many teams in one city, and they complete, and then a city against a city and a country against a country. Then, when you get worldwide, you start a professional league. In MMA, the professional league has been the first thing, and now we’re looking at the amateur.”
While Wallén has a point, he forgets an important similarity to another sport that developed in much the same way: boxing.
In the late 19th century, boxing struggled for legitimacy much like MMA does now and reacted similarly. Its first movement toward gaining wider legal acceptance was rulemaking that carried the sport from its old bare-knuckle ways.
In 1867, John Graham Chambers created what became known as the Queensberry Rules, a set of rules that introduced many elements of boxing we know today, including the gloves, the 10-count, and the structure of rounds.
These rules aimed to draw attention to the finesse and skill of boxing beyond its barbaric appearance. While many boxers dismissed the rules as unnecessarily diluted, they did allow fights to take place where prize-fighting had been outlawed. These rule changes didn’t create immediate widespread acceptance of boxing, but they marked the progress of the sport.
1867 also saw the beginning of amateur boxing, and by 1880, the Amateur Boxing Association had emerged as its first governing body. Unlike its close relative, prize-fighting, amateur boxing spread quickly in areas where boxing was previously forbidden. A new international tournament system grew, which eventually led to the Olympic addition of boxing in 1904.
Many professional boxing legends, including Muhammad Ali, Shane Mosley, Oscar de la Hoya and Roy Jones Jr., gained extensive experience as amateur fighters before becoming professionals.
Though there are likely thousands who left the amateur system without even a distantly comparable measure of success as these fighters, and though there are fighters who have become successful professionals without entering the amateur ranks, the significance of such development cannot be ignored.
If amateur MMA develops, it will likely follow a similar path. Of course, this will be good for the UFC in that the potential for new MMA gyms, programs and awareness will breed a larger audience and more fighters. But a priority of the amateur boxing system that has remained since the Queensberry Rules might haunt the sport of MMA: the focus on technique that negates its complete physical identity.
Not only did focusing on technique improve boxing’s image as a competitive sport rather than a blood sport, it also allowed fighters to become acquainted with the fundamentals of boxing before entering the professional sphere.
Likewise, a greater amateur presence of MMA will create a more accessible space in which fighters can understand the competitive technique of mixed martial arts.
This in itself, however, guarantees the change in what we know as the mixed martial arts. At one time a fusion of both unified and competing disciplines of fighting, MMA is currently being redefined as a complete fighting style that takes traditional styles and situates them according to an individual fighter’s strengths.
In other words, there is less need for fighters to train in many separated disciplines and more benefit in understanding the greater system of mixed martial arts. The result is a more holistic fighter and more refined competition between such fighters.
Regardless, one thing that boxing could move away from that MMA cannot is the inherent violence of the sport. Boxing can be reduced to its own technique to abate violence and still resemble boxing; on the other hand, MMA cannot be distilled in the same way without simply reverting back to the individual sports on which its based. Consequently, any attempt to do this will only seem excessively reductive.
The demand for MMA technique is driven by the physical danger of the competition, which keeps it from simply regressing to any of the disciplines it once sought to test. For this reason, an amateur system in MMA will not be any more fruitful than the current professional system without substantial rule changes.
Given the IMMAF’s immediate preoccupation with the sport’s safety, popularity, and eventual placement in the Olympics, it can be inferred that changing the rules considerably must be part of the plan somewhere.
Fortunately, the IMMAF argues that it will become an international presence for MMA not by “creating mandatory regulations for all members but rather investigating best practice and assisting countries and organizations that need help in creating their own regulations.”
Furthermore, its safety ladder system appears to mimic the framework that governs most modern MMA gyms. Not only will these likely expand the acceptance of MMA as a safe sport in certain arenas, but the simple label of “amateur” connotes a focus on pure and safe sport that “professional” doesn’t in most societies.
Moreover, this safety ladder recognizes at its highest rung the Unified Rules of MMA—the rule set that the UFC already follows. In this fact alone, the IMMAF exhibits its dedication to the sport’s professionalism while allowing a larger arena for various levels of international competition and development.
It also promotes the level of violence in professional MMA as an unrestrained opportunity for qualified fighters to showcase skills, thus positioning individual restraint as one of the many learned skills that marks the highest level of MMA.
If the IMMAF is able to keep its laddered structure and remain flexible with various regional and national concerns, it may be the best thing MMA has seen in its move toward an international presence.
Right now, it's a pro bono organization with good intentions, but those intentions are important for the expansion of MMA. In an interview with MMAJunkie.com, Wallén used France as an example of the possibility for expansion.
"If you take France, for example, to get a permit in France, you need to have a national federation. To have a national federation that is recognized by the states to have a permit, you need to have it be recognized by an international federation. If there is no international federation, then it is impossible to get a permit. So you have that side.
"If you want to arrange a professional event in France, you need to have an international federation. Then we have to be recognized as a sport by SportAccord to be a true sport. To do that, we have to have an international federation. We need to have international competitions, like a world championship."
With the UFC's verbal backing and its probable financial backing, the IMMAF simultaneously becomes a major proponent for international amateur MMA and a lobbying organization for professional MMA.
Such a complex relationship is the one thing that separates a governing body for amateur MMA from that of amateur boxing, and the identity of the IMMAF that comes from that separation is paramount to the global success of such a unique sport.
While such changes won’t necessarily make professional MMA as a separate entity any different than it is now, it may conceivably redefine the sport by the boundaries between technique and violence in the mind of the greater public.