The Essence of MMA: A History of Extreme Violence As Sport

Scott GyurinaCorrespondent IAugust 11, 2010

PORTLAND, OR - AUGUST 29:  UFC fighter Antonio Nogueira (L) battles UFC fighter Randy Couture (R) during their Heavyweight bout at UFC 102:  Couture vs. Nogueira at the Rose Garden Arena on August 29, 2009 in Portland, Oregon.  (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images)
Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images

Let me first state unequivocally that I am not here to condemn something that does not specifically appeal to me. There are many endeavors in life that I do not find particularly appealing, yet can recognize the inherent value in, while understanding the allure to others.

Truthfully, I am not a fan of the seemingly ubiquitous mixed martial arts phenomenon which has enveloped the United States and many parts of the world in all it's testosterone fueled glory. The fact that I do not follow the sport does not mean that it doesn't interest me in some bizarre fashion, however.

In asking these questions, I am not attempting to educate myself in an effort to try to become a fan of MMA. It is more from a sociological perspective that I seek to understand the depth of its popularity, and what it means to you, the dedicated fan of mixed-martial arts, or MMA.

To critics of the sport, it represents little more than a symptom of a sick, depraved society, systematically desensitized to violence and bereft of its once-present moral compass.

Fans of course, see it in a vastly different light. They see a dynamic action spectacle which offers hot-blooded intensity which no other popular sport can even hope to rival.

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Now, MMA is hardly the first sport of its type to capture the attention of a significant segment of a culture.

Thousands of years ago, the Greeks held vicious chariot races, encompassing various forms of violence and often resulting in serious injury or even death. The sport was massively popular in Greece, making its debut in the Olympic Games in 680 BC and surviving well into the period after Greece was conquered by the Romans.

Chariot racing grew in popularity and importance throughout the reign of the Roman and Byzantine empires. It remained as dangerous as ever, and it was responsible for numerous riots between its supporters and participants, even the first documented reports of sports-centric hooliganism.

The violent and dangerous sport survived in Rome until the sixth century AD and in the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, until the 13th century AD.

Another incredibly popular Roman sport, and an ancient pre-cursor to MMA, gladiatorial combat is believed to have originated in the year 264 BCE. Mostly criminals, slaves, or prisoners of war, gladiators engaged in brutal armed combat, often to the death.

Fighting other condemned men or, at other times, wild animals, the clashes took place in crowded stadiums, in front of wildly enthusiastic groups of spectators. If the fight didn't end in death, the fate of the loser was left to the spectators, voting whether or not he lived to fight another day.

As ancient societies transitioned into the medieval era, another sport of violent origins grew in popularity across Europe. With the first jousting tournament reportedly occurring in 1066 AD, the combat-based sporting event remained popular throughout the continent until the 17th century.

Jousting was comprised of armored horsemen riding toward each other, thrusting pointed lances into the body of his opponent, in an attempt to knock him from his horse or even kill him. Once off the horse, there were often bouts of further armed combat to follow.

In more modern era, various forms of violence based sport have proven popular to the masses.

Throughout the 20th century, many of our greatest sporting heroes were boxers. Men like Jack Dempsey, Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Mike Tyson, and Oscar De la Hoya were some of the most compelling sports icons of the era. The list of prominent boxers who made tremendous sums of money fighting for sport goes on.

During the early 1970's, martial artist Bruce Lee became an enduring cult figure and an instantly recognizable sports and entertainment icon via his fighting skills and popular film career.

Ask any kid who grew up in the 1980's, which athletes they watched most often during their youth, and mixed right in with Joe Montana, Magic Johnson, Daryll Strawberry, or Michael Jordan would be the likes of "Hulk" Hogan, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, and Randy "Macho Man" Savage. Professional wrestling, in all it's choreographed, violent glory, has remained a massive industry and popular attraction to this day.

Growing out of a combination of various fighting styles, hence the name, mixed martial arts, it emerged on the popular scene in the early 1990's. Shocking many in its unabashed embrace of seemingly vicious combat, MMA has nonetheless exploded in popularity over the last 15 years.

The degree to which it has become accepted as a mainstream sport was really hammered home for me when my mother randomly asked me something about Kimbo Slice a year or two ago. Mom, I had no idea you were a closet MMA fan!

With competing corporate entities, such as Ultimate Fighting Championship and Strikeforce, battling for the prime market shares, even taking their product to network television, the profile of MMA is as high as ever.

Former stars, such as Rampage Jackson, are starring in big-budget Hollywood films, and men like Tito Ortiz, who is living out a popular male fantasy by marrying porn-star Jenna Jameson, have thrust themselves into the world of mainstream popular culture.

I often wonder what the future holds for the sport. Will we witness a further societal desensitisation toward institutionalized violence? In considering this development, I recall a favorite movie of my childhood, one that took place in a not-so-distant future which now in retrospect appears rather prophetic.

It is likely that in 1987, most people wouldn't have considered The Running Man, the action-adventure set in a dystopian 2019 and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, to be much more than escapist fare, capitalizing on the massive popularity of its star.

Based upon a 1982 novel by Stephen King, The Running Man tells the story of an American society on the verge of collapse, crumbling both financially and morally, not completely unlike the world we now face.

As the government has now devolved into a totalitarian regime, it seeks to quiet societal discontent via various popular TV game shows. In the story, The Running Man is one such show, in which convicted criminals are thrust into a labyrinthine environment, pursued to the death by the stars of the show, who happen to be extremely violent, professional killers.

It is difficult to ignore the likenesses to modern American society readily apparent within the story. The financial ruin, obsession with violence, and combination of two of our greatest modern entertainment fixtures, reality TV shows and combat as sport, provide ample food for thought. Could The Running Man offer a glimpse of where we're headed?

Whether we see our lust for violence continue to evolve into a sadistic combination of punishment and entertainment, much like it was in Roman times, or soon witness the birth of a new form of combat-based sport, one thing is certain; our culture's love for violence and sports appears undiminished, even 2,300 years after the first gladiators battled to the death in ancient Rome.

As a novice in the world of MMA, I would love to hear from some aficionados, regarding what the sport means to you.

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