This article will attempt to answer the question ‘What is MMA’ and dispel some of the more common misconceptions about the sport.
First things first, MMA stands for Mixed Martial Arts, which is the proper title for the sport sadly more commonly known as ‘cage fighting’ or ‘ultimate fighting’ thanks to the media obsession with the cages most commonly used as the competition area for the sport (although boxing-style rings and open mats are also used) and the most successful, popular and widely known organisation in the sport, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
As the name suggests, MMA is a combat sport which combines the various more specific martial arts into one cohesive whole. While in grappling disciplines like jiujitsu or wrestling you aren’t allowed to strike, or conversely in striking disciplines like boxing you aren’t really allowed to grapple, MMA combines them to create arguably the purest and most level combat sport of them all.
In a very real sense, MMA is the modern expression of the oldest sport, which is the very human need for two competitors to test their mettle against one another without resorting to a near endless list of things you aren’t allowed to do. To paraphrase UFC president Dana White, if you had a big room with a game of football in one corner, a game of tennis in another corner, you’d have a big crowd in another corner chanting ‘fight, fight, fight..’
MMA might not (yet) be a modern Olympic sport, but with freestyle wrestling, greco-roman wrestling, boxing, judo and tae kwan do all recognised by the IOC this should not be considered evidence of its lack of credibility as a ‘proper sport.’
Indeed, MMA was present in the classical Olympic Games in the shape of Pankration, described by Wikipedia as ‘a blend of boxing and wrestling but with scarcely any rules.’ You don’t get much more traditional than that…
Of course, its not antiquity any more and I don’t want to give the impression that modern MMA has no rules as that is one of the more persistent and damaging misconceptions about the sport.
It has to be said that when the UFC was first founded it did promote itself along those lines (tag lines such as ‘no holds barred’ and ‘there are no rules’ were de rigeur in the mid 1990s) and old videos on YouTube can attest to a time where groin shots were perfectly legal in the UFC and people being kicked in the head when on the ground was a common finish, especially in Oriental promotions.
Thankfully, those days are (mostly) behind us.
Most modern promotions adhere to the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts and for an exhaustive list of those rules I’d direct you here where the UFC have provided a neat presentation of the regulations that there is no point in my exhaustively replicating.
The Unified Rules were developed by the California and New Jersey State Athletic Commissions in 2000 and were officially ratified by the Association of Boxing Commissions in 2009 and have been adopted by most major MMA organisations worldwide.
The rules are predominantly concerned with safety, defining things like weight classes, suitable ring attire, and a list of fouls designed to reduce the risk of serious injury, mostly pertaining to attacks which jeopardise the spine.
Scoring is in the same format as boxing, the mildly contentious ‘Ten Point Must’ system where the winner of a round is awarded ten points and the loser receives between nine and seven points, depending how one sided the round was. It is also possible to draw rounds.
This system, or rather the way it is implemented has come in for some criticism as judges more familiar with boxing or wrestling have been accused of not scoring rounds properly in an MMA context. This is the kind if thing will only improve with time and education but we’ve actually covered scoring the sport previously here.
Bouts can end via knockout, submission, referee stoppage (resulting in a technical knockout or submission, a no contest or a disqualification depending on why the fight was stopped) or go to the judges after three, five minute rounds for non title fights or five, five minute for championship fights.
In the modern age of MMA, one of the key themes of the sport was the concept of proving which martial art was best in contests between competitors who were masters of one style or another.
As the sport has grown and evolved, this approach has fallen by the wayside as competitors have become proficient in multiple disciplines and in order to compete at an elite level grapplers must possess a quality striking game and vice versa. Similarly, pure disciplines need to be altered for application in MMA as jiujitsu practitioners have to content with strikes and lacking the leverage of a gi, while boxers have to contend with takedowns, kicks and submissions etc.
As such, MMA has become a distinct sport from the disciplines that came together to create it, a sport where versatility, heart and composure are key.
What else to address in this article? Oh yes, the cage and the general concept that MMA is an especially unsafe ‘blood sport.’
Detractors of MMA often cite that competitors are ‘locked in a cage’ as a reason that the sport should be banned, which is fundamentally wrong headed as the cage is in fact a piece of safety apparatus. WWE may market ‘cage matches’ as especially brutal but please lets remember that pro wrestling is scripted…
When contested on open mats (which is not actually permitted under the unified rules) or rings, the fluid nature of MMA could result in competitors falling, or being thrown into the crowd. That’s a danger to competitors, officials and fans alike. A cage on the other hand allows the competition area to be raised so everyone can watch, while keeping the competitors securely contained. That doesn’t mean that they are ‘locked in’ and not allowed to leave. Top UK referee Marc Goddard has emphasised that he speaks to fighters before matches and if they say, even at the last moment, that they don’t want to fight then the fight doesn’t go ahead. The same is true at any point once the bout has started and either competitor can ask for the bout to be stopped, and it will be. Sure, it counts as a verbal submission loss but the point is that nobody is forcing anyone to fight.
MMA is often cited as brutal and dangerous, but in truth it’s no more so than any other contact sport. I’ve played rugby and football, trained in karate and jiujitsu and been watching all of the above and MMA for years, yet the worst injuries I’ve ever seen have come on the rugby field. I don’t here much call for that to be banned…
You can have a perfectly compelling MMA bout with no blood and indeed, little noticeable striking damage. You can similarly get a cut from a relatively innocuous strike that bleeds like hell and leaves the place looking like a slaughterhouse (one reason why strict blood testing and matt hygiene is very important in MMA) but one thing you won’t ever see in MMA is a fighter being all but knocked out and then allowed to continue, or a fighter continuing to fight with an evidently broken limb or similarly dangerous injury.
In boxing, you can be knocked down time and again and as long as you answer a ten count, the bout can continue. Given the level of fitness and natural reaction to fight in a professional fighter this can result in a basically unconscious (punch drunk) fighter continuing to take excessive damage. In MMA, the referee should stop the fight if a fighter goes limp for one instant (KO) or if they are taking repeated blows and don’t improve their position or make a meaningful attempt to defend themselves (TKO).
Fighter safety is a key concern in real MMA and any instance where this isn’t the case must be seen as an aberration or a backsliding attempt to appeal to a baser demographic and not representative of the forward moving bulk of the sport.
Obviously this is a pretty concise attempt to explain a complex sport, and if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask us in the comments here, on Facebook/TeamKumite or Twitter @TeamKumite and we’ll do our best to answer.