Rome. 264 BC. Welcome to the first recorded gladiator games of the Roman Empire.
From this day forward, the games evolved over more than 3 centuries into incredibly intricate festivals of barbaric "entertainment." In true Roman fashion, the games represented the most grotesque limits human death could be squeezed for spectator pleasure. Professional Gladiators would enter Rome days before combat with the equivalent of pamphlets being distributed with their personal background information. These gladiators were key guests at lavish dinner banquets leading up to the day -- or days -- of arena combat. The gladiators would also be made available for rich women who desired special attention from the Empire's athletic superstars.
The gladiators were the main dish for the blood bath that was the Gladiator Combat sporting event, but they were not the only course. At one point in the evolution of the games, the first entree was to-the-death animal on animal warfare, man vs animal and even criminal versus criminal. This was just to warm up the crowds. It is said the Emperors even staged dramatic plays in which a character from the play was scripted to be killed. A convicted criminal was then substituted for that role and was actually slain while playing the character.
For lunch breaks actual state sponsored capital punishments would sometimes take place.
Then, the main event. Interestingly enough, when it came to the actual gladiator combats, the men were instructed NOT to kill each other. Their status was as slaves but they were actually highly experienced fighters which had proven themselves in years of combat. They were skilled, entertaining to watch and therefore popular well known "stars" of the Roman cultural world. In short, they were marketable and lucrative commodities for their owners. The weapons used were often small-spiked clubs able to superficially puncture the skin and flesh but not fracture bone or rip muscle from limb. Blood loss. But not death or severe injury.
Small swords were still in use and sometimes accidental death did occur. And it is said that if a gladiator seemed to be timid in his loss, the Emperor could stand and order his immediate execution. But all in all, it was a money driven sports franchise which protected its popular players.Gladiator slaves could eventually purchase their freedoms after only 3 years of successful combat.
Now the UFC. There is obviously a huge gap between the American "empire's" sporting franchise and that of the Roman Empire's gladiatoral phenomenon. The simple fact is death is not an expected part of mixed-martial arts contests such as UFCs. Furthermore, statistically the lifestyle of a boxer is more dangerous due to the high volume of repetitive head blows in sparring and competition. Football at the high school, collegiate and professional level and rodeo are still the source of the athletic world's most heinous and handicapping injuries. More so than Formula 1 and NASCAR where tons of steel are forced along at unnatural speeds and collisions lead to bursts of explosive shrapne.
So what gives? Why the controversy? Should there be a controversy?
Most likely. This writer's personal view on the UFC phenomenon is not black and white, but it is a grey which has begun to darken.
A subtle shift occured in the West's transition from single mode combat sports such as wrestling, karate, boxing and judo and the now incredibly addictive franchise of MMA fights. The media coverage of the UFC is an example. It has a circus-like edge with a growing hint of unhealthy bloodthirst. Although boxing was by no means bloodless, its pre-fight momentum was able to somehow hold the sterile atmosphere of football pre-game hype. Admittedly, there was a more gladiatoral aspect to boxing but for some strange reason it seemed to not burst beyond a certain bubble. The UFC appears to have blown clear through the gentleman-like aura of its predecessor. It has dived into the "I'll kill this guy" trash talk zone of pre-fight hype complete with sophisticated re-runs of slow motion devastation, heavy metal driven ad campaigns that ring a definite bell: a new age is here. A more vicious one. A more brutal one. More.
Yes more injuries come from football. Yes boxing allows the human skull to be dribbled more consistently and therefore suffer greater central nervous dysfunction. Yes all sports use energetic imagery and sound to create anticipation. I realize this.
But something is not sitting well in my gut. Just like FBI investigators allow their "6th sense" to inform their decision when tracking psychopaths, I am letting my conscience's buzz do some talking. For one thing, the UFC introduces a style of fighting which allows for more superficial wounding which translates into small but bloody wounds often gushing visible amounts of human blood. Elbows, smaller gloves and other intricacies of MMA create the presence of blood more copiously then other combative scenarios. And much like in the premeditated presence of blood a la gladiator combat, the human spirit seems shark-like when it "smells" blood. And the unique combination of (nearly) no-holds-barred barbarism, blood, aggressive marketing, lack of sportsmanship, alcohol and sexuality make a for a potent tug at the sensual and base urges of male viewship.
Do I have sophisticated graphs, stats and case histories to back me up? Nope. Just practicing some well-calculated premonition. We live in a culture which has prepped itself for something like the UFC. The greasy, over the top machismo and sweaty fake-fighting of the WWE and other institutions, the increasing raw edginess of movies and video games as well as the huge surge of pornography are swirling into a perfect storm of Romanesque excess of the senses and emotions. Ted Bundy and several other unusually perverted and violent criminals have all testified to the role of sexuality in their increasing thirst for violence. There is a familial bond between the urge for more extreme and realistic sexual experience and the thirst for more exotic displays of violence. So the creation and consumption of the UFC is both a product of our current cultural excesses and a fuel for its strange fire.
My longest distance attempt at pessimistic prediction will be for the UFC or a like-minded successor in about 15 years. We will grow tired of the same old stuff. Just like we did with boxing. And we will be desensitized to anything less than what we enjoy in MMA-type displays. Someone, somewhere will get state permission to begin introducing a benign form of weaponry. Perhaps a simple kempo stick or padded nunchucks. And rinse, lather, repeat. We will be prepping the cultural conscience to accept something completely equivocated to the gladiatoral world of Rome perhaps only a decade later.
Maybe I'm wrong. Heck, maybe I'm right. But as someone who has felt the rush of witnessing a human beat down on television, I'm willing to admit that the urge connecting me with MMA is not one God intended for man to stimulate, nurture and evolve.
My humble opinion.