What's Better for the Fighters and the Fans: A Ring or a Cage?
There’s a dividing line in mixed martial arts, drawn in the very arena of combat that encircles the fighters, separating two traditions of the sport which came of age at the same time.
The one, adopted across most of the world, from Japan to Brazil and Europe, drawn from a strong tradition of pugilism, where the blood and sweat of boxers and strikers has molded the squared circle, enclosed with ropes.
The other, a steal cage born from the minds of circus showmen; a gimmick designed to accentuate the animalistic danger of the action taking place behind the closed chain link fence. It had few antecedents yet has grown to be the defining icon of the sport and without a doubt the most appropriate stage for its promulgation.
The difference between the two is stark and the comic shortcomings of the ring are all too evident.
At first glance, the boxing ring would be the obvious choice to house MMA. It is, after all, the place of real combat over a hundred years in the making.
When boxing was first born out with the Marquis of Queensbury rules, matches would take place in an open pit with only the jeering crowd keeping the action from spilling out of control. Eventually, a single rope would circle around the fighters, a loose demarcation of something resembling an arena, pinned by corners for the sake of practicality.
This eventually evolved into the “ring” that we know today. The elastic ropes keep the fighters in and keeps the fight standing. Fighters have learned to adeptly fight on the ropes, with Muhammad Ali’s famous “rope-a-dope” being just one example. So effective was the ring that it was adopted by other striking sports, such as Muay Thai and Kickboxing.
But there’s one problem: You can’t wrestle against a rope. This is the one reason that wrestling sports, from Sumo to Greco-Roman, have never used ropes. The action in wrestling takes place in an arena marked on the ground, and if it strays beyond this, the fight is restarted from the centre.
We see a hybrid version of this system in ringed MMA matches the world over, not least in the Pride contests in Japan. The inadequacy of this format is made comically evident with the sight of referees, sometimes three or four men, dragging 265-pound men ensnared in each other’s limbs on the ground, close to falling out of the ring, back to the centre repeatedly.
These fighters are prone to injuries, too. Time and again we’ve seen fighters in matches taking place in a ring being thrown out of the arena and landing on the hard solid floor below.
All these problems are fixed with the cage. Whether it’s an octagon, a hexagon or a circle, the cage keeps the fight going at all times. It introduces a new dynamic to the action, with fighters adept at fighting off the fence and using it as leverage when the opportunity comes. None of this is possible with a ring.
The cage was introduced with the first Ultimate Fighting Championships as a showpiece for a new sport and as a gimmick which would highlight the no-holds-barred action inside; there was no more thought given to it than that. But it has since proven its resilience and shown itself to be the most appropriate venue for MMA.
Of course, this is not to discount the epic MMA battles seen inside the ring. The rich history of Pride is a testament to that. But for every Don Frye versus Yoshihiro Takayama there was a Mark Kerr versus Hugo Duarte or a Nathan Jones versus Mitsuharu Kitao.
When you add the fact that fighters can do so much more with a cage—with Anthony Pettis’ famous Matrix-style kick off the fence from two years ago just a glimpse of what’s possible—the case becomes compelling.
For both fighters and for fans, the cage is a far superior arena for mixed martial arts.
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