MMA: The Cruelty of the Combative Sport

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MMA: The Cruelty of the Combative Sport
USA Today

It is odd how the viewing public has romanticized combative sports to the point that one would think it’s a glorious, glamorous life—all positive and little negative. As with all sports, our perception is clouded by assumption and comfortable distance, which is the norm for nearly all sports.

Of all sports, however, combative sports are the most deceptive in their overt portrayal, as the presented image hides a core feature: cruelty.

In Bert Sugar's self-titled book, Bert Sugar on Boxing, he called it “legalized assault,” and he was absolutely correct. As fans, we don’t like to think of it like that; the term seems fit to come out of the mouths of those who hold low opinions of such sports.

But when you actually look at combative sports unvarnished, you can see them for what they are. When you see the Octagon set up in the arena, empty and waiting, surrounded by thousands upon thousands of empty seats, you know instantly what is going to happen the next night; no words are necessary.

Fighting employs a fury and deliberate energy spent toward a single end: the defeat of another through bodily force. Other sports have much the same fury and energy, but there is also a fair amount of deflection in their design.

Get the ball in the end zone.

Hit the ball out of the park.

Put the ball in the basket.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor
Chris Leben

In the world of combative sports, there is a purity of motive and clarity of intent that cannot be denied. It’s a primitive contest; two men enter with the sole intent to do as much bodily harm as necessary to defeat the other.

Yes, there is some symbolism going on; to act otherwise would be doing the sport a great injustice. The fighters don’t live in a world of make believe; they revel in underlying parallels of life and death that combative sports embody.

However, one only needs to look at where the fighters do battle—a ring or cage put on a pedestal under the brightest of lights—to see why many detractors called it “human cock fighting.”

Of course that’s a flawed perception, but it’s based on an honest acclimation of the surroundings, the setting, where the fighters do battle in a contest where, symbolically, only one man leaves.

It may be a sport to some or a spectacle to others, but it’s not a game. It’s a regulated, endorsed and sponsored theater of sorts, and like the saying goes, the blood is always real. In fact, MMA and boxing are stylized and partially synthetic fighting to the finish—the submission akin to the asking for quarter, the knockout a parallel for death.

Perhaps the most transparent acknowledgement that shows the beating heart of the sport is the proud advocacy each fighter has for fighting for “The finish.” This, of course, refers to the most sought after result to every fight. Be it via submission, technical knockout or pure knock out, the finish is the ultimate resolution to the conflict—the truest statement of authority.

When a fight ends because time has expired, there is no full resolution. The judges may declare an official winner, but in many ways that is just a judgment of who was ahead when time ran out.

Conversely, the finish severely hinders the act of denial; of course many declare a fight was stopped too early, but very few argue that the moments before the end were very bad for the defeated fighter.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press/Associated Press
Things looked bad for Cung Le before the end.

Professional fighting is a struggle with life-or-death overtones that confronts us on a primal level. It evokes emotions in us that speak to the best and worst aspects of our nature. Most fans cry for the finish above all else. It's a possible reason why a fighter as dynamic, personable and dominant as Georges St-Pierre was constantly deflecting criticism for his seeming inability to finish his opposition.

Be it by submission, technical knockout or clean knockout, any finish seems to be better than no finish at all, just as some authority is better than none.

When a fighter claims a victory by submission, he (or she) earns a kind of technical victory that is less destructive to the ego of the vanquished. Losing by submission does not assault the beating heart of machismo, but the tactical decisions that put the defeated in harm's way.

Surrendering due to the inescapable submission is akin to asking for quarter on the dueling field. It’s a gentleman’s request for cessation, and by proxy it lends the fighters and their fight a kind of gentleman’s sophistication—much like tipping the king in chess.

On the other hand, there is also an element of strength and dominance in claiming a victory by submission. There is nothing gentle about it when Ronda Rousey tosses an opponent to the floor and secures the fight-ending armbar. That is pure technique empowered by aggression; both of which are honest and true.

But when looking at the mechanics involved, both in the submission and the act of tapping to concede defeat, the only negative associations come by way of the fighters involved. An armbar submission from Rousey, who fights with an intensity that looks like animosity, seems much worse than it is. This is in contrast to a man like Frank Mir, who has made the breaking of limbs a matter of policy, not prejudice.

But no matter how intense or bitter the rivalry, a submission ending is still seen and understood in the realm of the tactical, the academic.

When the submission is tight, it is then up to those in jeopardy to decide the final outcome. In this way, the loser still retains a degree of power, even if it’s only the power to capitulate. It is easier to see a fighter at the mercy of a technique (and their understanding of it!) than it is to see a fighter who is helpless before the aggression of a relentless opponent.

The knockout is an entirely different species of victory that is brutal and gives the whole possession of superiority in the most masculine sense to the winner. While the knockout may not be feared equally by all fighters, those who have proven capable of delivering force (which is exactly what striking is all about) to such an extreme degree, time and again, are truly feared in their division.

Oddly enough, most times the terminology for the knockout is mistakenly assumed to mean a fighter is actually rendered unconscious. While instances of that are seen from time to time, such as when Dan Henderson flattened Michael Bisping at UFC 100, more often than not the term is addressing a different aspect: time.

Time is one of the universal constraints in all combative sports. It is one part ally and two parts enemy; rarely does a fighter feel like he (or she) has enough time in a bout to finish a hardened opponent and seldom are the times when a fighter is grateful to be saved by the bell, “in the nick of time.”

In her book, On Boxing (perhaps the shortest and best book on the subject, so wise and profound that it easily translates to all combative sports), Joyce Carol Oates identifies how time relates to the knockout.

When a boxer is ‘knocked out’ it does not mean, as it’s commonly thought, that he has been knocked unconscious, or even incapacitated; it means rather more poetically that he has been knocked out of Time. (The referee’s dramatic count of ten constitutes a metaphysical parenthesis of a kind through which the fallen boxer must penetrate if he hopes to continue in Time.)

While the sport of MMA does not utilize the standard 10-count or the standing eight-count, the referees are constantly aware of time, telling the hurt fighter to work. How many times have we seen a stunned fighter, knocked to the ground, given time to show that he is still aware and capable?

It is during such times that the referee (and we as viewers) will look for a sign that the fighter is intelligently defending himself. The presence of the referee, looming over the action, inching closer, clearly concedes to the notion that “Time” is indeed short.

Oates continues:

There are in a sense two dimensions of Time abruptly operant: while the standing boxer is in time the fallen boxer is out of time. Counted out, he is counted ‘dead’—in symbolic mimicry of the sport’s ancient tradition in which he would very likely be dead.

The movements of a hurt fighter almost always seem to be a beat behind the music—or in slow motion. Only when we see him (or her) responding in time with the actions of his would-be conqueror are we able to realize that he (or she) has regained his (or her) senses.

His adversary, too, is ever aware of time, continuing the attack, because the time to finish is now. If he (or she) cannot finish his (or her) man, then the moment (or time) has passed.

Professional fighting in all forms is perhaps cruelest when we honestly consider what the fans and fighters long for above all else: the war.

The fighters want to be involved with such dramatic contests because they are seldom forgotten. It ensures their name will be remembered, their legacy cloaked in blood and glory.

For the fans, incredible fights, bursting with high drama, are moments that quicken them and make them feel alive. As observers, we cannot help but live vicariously through the deeds of the men and women in the sport, but a truly great fight does something to us that all lesser versions cannot. It makes us feel a true affection and appreciation, and even kinship, with the vanquished.

When we witness a fight like Marvin Hagler versus Tommy Hearns or Forrest Griffin versus Stephan Bonnar, the defeated are recognized with a kind of equality with the victor. Both are co-authors of sort to an epic saga that saw the best in both come to the surface.

But as prized as such fights are, there is indeed a jagged edge to be found. Fighting is a hurt sport, and while the glory of a war may never really fade, it does hide the tragedy of a combative sport—it consumes the very excellence it displays.

One need only recall the tale of Meldrick Taylor and his brutal effort with Julio Cesar Chavez—which won Fight of the Year for 1990—to know this to be true. The amount of sheer damage Taylor took in for what looked to be a winning effort left him forever changed. That fight saw much of a young man's greatness and youth spent in the ring in a single night, and he was never the same.

Fighters are, by and large, a unique breed. They exist with one foot in the normal world and the other in a life that demands separation and dedication—a mastery of skills and their body and an understanding that to display either they must risk both.

That they can continue fighting after sustaining true damage is clear proof that we cannot fully understand them unless we join them—unless we willingly bare ourselves to the harsh scrutiny of a violent opponent, not to mention the crowd.

Professional fighters are never more vulnerable than when they are in the ring or cage; this may seem like an obvious admittance of the perils of physical combat, but it is much more than that. To fight in front of a crowd is to willingly offer up the sum total of your being for public judgment.

How surreal must it be to win a fight in front of thousands, only to stumble in your next bout and thus be labeled a “loser” in defeat? How hard must it be to learn just how short the memory of the crowd really is?

Eric Jamison/Associated Press
Wanderlei Silva

As fans live through the victories of a fighter, so do they distance themselves from the feeling of defeat by realigning their affections to the winner of the day. A fighter’s greatest advocate may one day turn into a vocal detractor if the fighter begins to lose, and all fighters lose on a long enough timeline.

This, of course, is not a fault the fans should be criticized for. All fighters know fans' affections are fickle, mainly because they started as fans before they became fighters.

Some fighters use this as fuel to recapture that respect, to show the fans why they were wrong to be so dismissive. Who can forget Muhammad Ali, in defiance to the doubters, standing on the ring ropes in victory, pointing to the writers at press row, shouting: “Eat your words! Eat your words!”

But no matter how fighters handle the turns in favor, they no doubt endure from the fans, nearly all of them are enabled by pride. All fighters are proud creatures, and how could they not be? Pride is what keeps a defeated fighter from turning his back on the sport.

It kept Ken Shamrock fighting in his first bout with Tito Ortiz, and pride kept Evan Tanner, his face badly swollen and bleeding, coming back into the fray against Rich Franklin in their second bout.

Perhaps the greatest—and most tragic—example of pride is embodied in Kazushi Sakuraba.

During the height of his career, he was the sole candle in the dark for his Japanese fans; all attention was focused on his fights. He defeated opponent after opponent, attacking them where they were strongest and defeating them via submission.

Then came Wanderlei Silva, a Brazilian fighter who at the time appeared to be nothing more than the next in line to be defeated. Silva proved to be far more than anyone really expected, brutalizing Sakuraba and stopping him in the first round.

Bob Riha, Jr./Associated Press
Sakuraba in action against Royce Gracie

While he enjoyed some victories after that bout, he was never the same. He fought Silva two more times and was defeated two more times, both via stoppage. But the real sadness is found only in part with his trilogy with Silva—the rest in the sum total of damage he took in his career.

Near the end, Sakuraba was literally coming apart in the ring. His fight with Marius Zaromskis was stopped when it was noticed that Sakuraba’s ear was actually falling off.

Perhaps anyone else would have been able to swallow pride long before such a pronounced failure of one's body, but pride (both personal and national) kept Sakuraba coming back, time and again.

It kept him coming back from three damaging losses to Silva. It kept him coming back after taking a horrible beating from Ricardo Arona. It kept him coming back, no matter what.

Of course, Sakuraba is not the only fighter to have his pride carry him into combat well past his prime. There have been countless others, and there always will be. It’s a standard that isn’t likely to cease anytime soon, especially when fighters like Randy Couture prove the exception to the rule.

In the persons of Couture, Dan Henderson, Bernard Hopkins and other Methuselahs, pride finds a new footing in the hearts of fighters and fans everywhere. It becomes a kind of false-positive that there is actually a proven method in defying nature and old age.

“If they did it, so can I.”

Of course, just as no one should ask fight fans to give up being fans as they grow older, neither should anyone insult fighters for finding the cup of retirement bitter. Perhaps that is why many fighters transition to other roles in combative sports, such as trainers, promoters, etc. After all, in what other sports can old men still be in the thick of bloody combat?

Perhaps that sums up the true cruelty and tragedy of the sport; it does consume the very excellence it displays (just as Oates said) and will continue to do so.

Round after round, event after event, there is never enough time, the fight never really over.

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