Is Mixed Martial Arts Simply Violence for the Sake of Violence?

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Is Mixed Martial Arts Simply Violence for the Sake of Violence?
John Locher/Associated Press
Robbie Lawler and Rory MacDonald put on an ultra-violent fight.

Conor McGregor's coach, John Kavanagh, reacted with some vehemence last week to a tweet by MMA Junkie that touted UFC 195's potential for "beautiful violence."

Kavanagh would prefer "competitive" rather than "violent" as an adjective. Per his follow-up explanations of his position, his definition of violence relies on an understanding of it as non-consensual and therefore bad. An assault by thugs in the street is violence; combat sports are consensual and therefore not violence.

Furthermore, argues Kavanagh, an embrace of MMA as violence harms the sport's public image:

We can read a step further into Kavanagh's definition. Violence is inherently bad, because it's not consensually agreed upon. Combat sports and martial arts aren't bad; therefore, MMA isn't violence. The terms of Kavanagh's reasoning are clear. By "violence," Kavanagh seems to mean something more along the lines of "assault."

I'm sensitive to Kavanagh's point. He wants MMA to be defined as a competition along the lines of other sports that involve violent interactions, such as football, hockey, rugby and many others, rather than for it to be defined in the minds of observers by its violence. That contingent still exists: Arguments against the use of the cage in Australia focus on the idea that MMA glamorizes extreme violence, for example.

There's a substantial difference between being a sport in which some violence occurs and pure, unalloyed violence without redeeming qualities. Avoiding usage of the term is one way of encouraging both the sport's supporters and detractors to treat it as legitimate, and to acknowledge the good—the values of honor and discipline that martial arts promote among their practitioners—that comes out of MMA.

That's Kavanagh's point, and it's a fair one in the face of some of the more nonsensical criticism the sport has received.

What's less clear is whether his definition of violence is broadly shared. Arguing from dictionary definitions, as I tell the college students to whom I teach writing, is bad practice. It limits the terms of your argumentation, and generally speaking, it's lazy.

I'm going to do it anyway. Here's what the Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists as the most common definitions of "violence":

  • the use of physical force to harm someone, to damage property, etc.
  • great destructive force or energy

In a more extended sense:

  1. a: exertion of physical force so as to injure or abuse (as in warfare effecting illegal entry into a house); b: an instance of violent treatment or procedure 
  2. injury by or as if by distortion, infringement, or profanation: outrage
  3. a: intense, turbulent, or furious and often destructive action or force; b: vehement feeling or expression: fervor; also: an instance of such action or feeling; c: a clashing or jarring quality: discordance
  4. undue alteration (as of wording or sense in editing a text)

You might see echoes of Kavanagh's emphasis on consensus between the parties involved in a fight in the first extended definition: Abuse, for example, isn't consensual. When most people say "violence," however, the first and second definitions are what come to mind.

In terms of general usage, if you're hitting someone in the face, that's violence. If you're slamming someone to the ground, that's violence. If you're cutting off the supply of air to someone's brain or trying to snap his arm or ruin the tendons in her knee, that's violence. Those are the component parts of MMA.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Kavanagh's pupil, Conor McGregor, prepares to deliver a hammerfist to the unconscious Jose Aldo.

Whether it makes Kavanagh uncomfortable or not, and whether it potentially damages its long-term future to admit it, MMA is violence. It's a competitive sport, to be sure, but it's a violent sport. Whether the sport should be defined by its violence is another question.

Despite the fact that football and hockey involve a great deal of violence, that's not the purpose of those sports. Scoring points, as represented through goals or touchdowns, wins games; rendering the opposing team's players unconscious is a sideline, not the objective. In MMA, despite the existence of judges and scoring systems, it's impossible to make the argument that winning by knockout or submission isn't the goal.

At the end of the day, there's just no denying that, no matter how hard we emphasize MMA as competition. Moreover, trying to get around the idea of MMA as violence does a disservice to the sport and to its practitioners, and it airbrushes intriguing and worthwhile questions for its viewers and those who cover it professionally.

Is violence inherently bad? Are combat sports good, in some ethical sense?

If MMA is violence, what does the enjoyment of it say about its practitioners and the millions of people around the world who watch it regularly?

These aren't new questions. Boxing, for example, was a distinctly working-class sport in the United States for most of the 19th century and was therefore inherently suspect in the eyes of those who fancied themselves the moral arbiters of the day.

Harper's Weekly, one of the most influential periodicals in the United States in the 1860s and an excellent proxy for the social mores of the middle and upper classes of the period, described one bareknuckle match as a "bloody, brutal and blackguard prize fight." 

It took the addition of gloves and the adoption of the Queensberry rules to make the sport palatable to the rising middle and upper classes toward the end of the century. 

As the academic historian Elliott Gorn put it in The Manly Art, his history of bareknuckle boxing in the 19th century, through the increasingly strict codification of rules, "prize fighting acquired a gloss of gentility that legitimated the violence and freed respectable men to enjoy previously forbidden fruits with safety and good conscience."

In the decades after the 1880s, boxing slowly but surely became one of the most important sports in the United States, producing seminal figures such as Jack Johnson and stars such as Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and eventually Muhammad Ali.

Like boxing, MMA began without rest periods, gloves or much in the way of rules. It was unacceptable to the mainstream social norms of the 1990s in the same way that boxing was definitely not socially acceptable to the rising middle class of the Victorian period.

Like boxing, MMA has changed its rules to make itself more palatable, but the perception of a dirty, violent sport with little separation from thugs brawling in the streets remains. MMA hasn't experienced decades as an accepted, mainstream sport in the same way that boxing did for most of the 20th century. 

Yet even at the peak of its popularity in the middle of the 20th century, boxing raised ethical questions. Sports Illustrated invited a Catholic moral theologian to discuss the morality of the sport in a 1962 column entitled, "Is Professional Boxing Immoral?" Father McCormick's answer was a reserved and qualified yesprofessional boxing was still immoral, even in its sanitized and popular form.

We can go back even further than the last two centuries. Gladiatorial games and other violent contests were common in the Roman Empire, including pankration, the spiritual forerunner of modern MMA.

For every Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who wove an ethical lesson about types of gladiators into the opening of his philosophical tract Meditations and used an analogy of the practitioner of pankration as someone always prepared for whatever life might throw at him, there was a Saint Augustine of Hippo, who railed against the "madness" and "filth" of the violent games. 

Neither man, however, thought of the spectacles of pankration and the gladiatorial games as anything other than violence. Whether it was to be held up as a moral example, as Marcus Aurelius did, or condemned as filth unworthy of a godly man, as Augustine did, the violence carried some moral weight.

For Augustine, the gladiatorial games were a siren song to the baser instincts of human nature. He told the story of his friend Alypius, who was seduced away from solid moral ground by the roar of the crowd and the spectacle before him:

For, as soon as he [Alpyius] saw the blood, he drank in with it a savage temper, and he did not turn away, but fixed his eyes on the bloody pastime, unwittingly drinking in the madness—delighted with the wicked contest and drunk with blood lust. He was now no longer the same man who came in, but was one of the mob.

Anybody who has ever attended a live MMA event knows this feeling. The energy that surges through a crowd at pivotal moments in a fight is incredible and has to be experienced to be believed. Deriving that kind of satisfaction as an observer from someone else's pain and misfortune is the kind of thing that should raise ethical questions about the viewer.

That's not an admission of weakness or a needless dive into self-doubt. It's part of being a thoughtful human being.

Is MMA violence?

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Fighters are real people. The injuries they suffer in the cage and during practice are often serious. The long-term effects of concussive trauma to the head are well-documented. Violence produces those things, just as it produces wealth for promoters and some—too few—fighters through its commodification as an organized combat sport.

The hard work and discipline necessary to achieve at that level have an uplifting moral quality. That's the age-old argument in favor of martial arts: It's why schools around the world have wrestling teams and why millions of parents have signed up their children for karate or Brazilian jiu-jitsu classes.

There are values to be had through the dedicated practice of violence and from competition that involves violent acts. The Greeks included multiple combat events at the ancient Olympics, and the Romans certainly thought so 2,000 years ago in the same way that the parents who take their children to the local dojo do today.

The real dilemma is whether the moral costs of such violence outweigh the potential benefits. Kavanagh takes issue with those who would argue that the benefits don't exist, and this is a worthwhile cause to champion.

Where he comes up short, however, is in implicitly arguing that because MMA isn't violence, the dilemma doesn't truly exist at all.

"It is never easy," Father McCormick wrote in Sports Illustrated more than 50 years ago, "to question the moral character of our own pleasure and entertainment." We're better people and better fans of MMA for having to ask and answer the hard questions for ourselves. Answers will differ from person to person, and that's all right.

Societies have debated these issues for millennia, and on a broad level, we seem to agree that some level of violence is acceptable in sport. The question is how much. These are healthy questions to ask: They get at deep ethical issues and matters of personal responsibility, freedom and what we deem to be culturally acceptable. Kavanagh's points represent one side of that age-old back-and-forth.

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