During this current pandemic there have been a few things that have helped me keep my sanity; listening to podcasts, watching too many TV series on Netflix, and spending extra time with my family have been some of my go-to comfort blankets whilst the world has been turned upside down.
But aside from these fairly typical home comforts, there is also something slightly less ordinary which has provided me with the perfect form of escapism from anything related to COVID-19 — watching mixed martial arts (MMA), specifically the ‘UFC’ (Ultimate Fighting Championships).
During this pandemic, the UFC seems to have been the only sporting organization confident that it would be able to host events despite COVID-19 related restrictions, going as far as to find a privately owned island in the Middle East to host events.
The public haven’t been allowed to attend these events but, much to the appreciation of myself and other UFC fans around the world, they have still been broadcast live on TV. Which has given me the perfect ‘excuse’ to be watching my favorite sport, despite my mother’s bafflement as to how “I can enjoy watching people hit each other in the head”, to which I’ve now been able to reply; “Well mum, there aren’t many other sports on TV at the moment.”
I mention my mum’s confusion at why I enjoy watching MMA because I’ve found it be a fairly common reaction from the people who know me well when I tell them that I’m a fan of this combat sport.
I understand their confusion, I have often wondered why I enjoy watching this, at times, bloody sport, and whether, morally, its OK for me do so. Considering I am a Christian and a Caregiver, and given what is important to me in life — showing love towards others, helping people, being a good “neighbor” — MMA, on the surface at least, doesn’t feel like something I should enjoy.
Having thought about this conflict I’ve come to realize that some fairly innocent reasons lie behind my enjoyment of watching Mixed Martial Arts. In the following article I share some of these reasons, in that hope that anyone like me, who wouldn’t ordinarily have thought of themselves as someone who would enjoy watching MMA, might be convinced to give it a go.
The authentic personalities in MMA
I started watching the UFC when Conor McGregor-Mania was in full swing, despite my own unfavorable opinions of the Irishman’s way of doing things, it was the authenticity of his bad-blood with fellow fighter and Stockton native Nate Diaz that initially drew me to the sport.
There was a genuine disdain between Mcgregor and Diaz before they fought, you could see it in their pre-fight press conferences and media appearances, and even during their fight, in which they regularly taunted each other.
Quite often a feud between fighters escalates to the point where the opposing teams of each fighter — family members, friends, trainers — become involved in the war of words. When feuds reach this scale, the authenticity of the conflict becomes undeniable and as a viewer you feel that there is so much more at stake in the fight than simply winning or losing — the pride of each fighter is on the line, and this makes for enthralling viewing.
Case in point; most UFC fans will remember when current light-weight champion Khabib Nurgmadamedov, after beating Conor McGregor, leaped over the cage to attack one of Mcgregor’s team-mates because he felt he had disrespected him during the bout. The fight was over, but the feud was still very much alive, and years later things aren’t any more amicable between the McGregor and Khabib camps.
When I’m witnessing a conflict unfold between two UFC fighters, it’s not the feud itself I find enjoyable — it’s the authenticity of what I’m watching that makes it so riveting. It’s uncomfortable viewing in one sense, but impossible to ignore at the same time, much like watching a true-crime documentary, as weird as that might sound.
I don’t want you to think that the UFC is all about bickering fighters, because it’s not — I find it equally captivating to watch the fighters who authentically portray more of a positive and friendly demeanor (yes, friendly fighters do exist). These more affable combatants share a genuine kinship with each other before, during, and after their fight.
UFC fighter Donald Cerrone is well-known for the good rapport he shares with many fighters, he even hugged one of his opponents mid-fight after Cerrone had allowed him time to get back to his feet because he slipped. Cerrone wasn’t obliged to show such altruism towards his opponent, but true to his authentically friendly nature, he did — it’s moments like that which make MMA so captivating to watch. These fighters aren’t slaves to their sport, robotically following a regimented rule set, they are individuals and they express that individuality both in and out of the ‘cage’.
I feel like other sports don’t manage to convey the authentic personality of their participants in the same way that the MMA does, and because of this, I’m not as engaged with the proceedings — a sense of human connection is missing. And this kind of connection is vital for me if I’m going to watch a sport long-term.
Take soccer; I like watching it, but after half an hour of watching these tiny figures dash too and through, up and down the pitch, unless the match is particularly exciting, I start feeling detached from, and uninterested in, the game. I don’t feel like I can relate to those little figures bouncing around like pin-balls on the pitch. Sure there are some personalities in soccer, but in the main I find it hard to distinguish between the players, they all seem like carbon copies of the stereotypical ‘soccer player’.
If you want to feel a connection to the players of the sports you watch, you should try watching MMA, particularly the UFC because of the amount of effort that this particular MMA organization puts into promoting fighters and showcasing their true personalities (the ‘Bellator’ and ‘One Championship’ organizations are improving in this respect though).
The UFC YouTube channel makes for great additional viewing around watching the actual fights if you want to get to know the fighters on a deeper level, their ‘Embedded: Vlog Series’ that airs in the lead up to fights is especially good in this respect — providing viewers with a fly-on-the-wall view of what the fighters are doing and feeling like in the lead up to their bouts.
Every bout is unique
So long as the participants of MMA are sticking to the rules and regulations of their governing body, they have complete freedom over which mix of the martial arts they want to bring to the table come fight night. They could choose to adopt more of a typical Kickboxing/Karate approach to the proceedings and keep the fight standing (Stephen Thompson is an aficionado of this style), but they’re just as free to utilize the techniques of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and take their opponents to the ground in an attempt to lock them into a submission, equally they could do a bit of both and throw in some boxing for good measure.
The degree of freedom that each fighter has in choosing how to approach a fight allows them to express their creativity in each of their bouts, meaning no two MMA fights are ever the same. Because of the unique nature of each bout, you never feel that sense of repetitiveness that can come with watching some sports — I love watching tennis matches, but when Wimbledon comes around I usually enjoy the matches up to the quarter-final stage, before I become unable to shake that lingering sense that I’m witnessing the same game again and again.
If you’re getting fed up with the repetitiveness of some of the sports that you watch, try watching just one MMA event and see what you think. A single fight card will usually have a wide selection of bouts (for different weight classes and male/female fighters), with the whole event lasting anywhere from two to five hours. But despite this lengthy running time, the time flies by and I can promise you will never feel like you are watching the same fight twice.
Equally, if you value a sport’s ability to allow its participants to express their creativity then MMA should be right up your street. There’s a good reason for the last word in the MMA acronym — Mixed Martial Arts — in many ways it is an art form. Popular UFC fighter Jorge Masvidal likes to refer to his fights as his “Picassos” and with good reason, each MMA bout is like a unique art-piece, the creation of which you can watch unfold, live, before your very eyes.
Watching MMA is a visceral experience
When I watch MMA I can’t help but become emotionally invested in what’s happening. I squirm with every punch thrown, my heart beats faster as I see a competitor locked in a submission attempt, and my sense of fear, and empathy, is ignited if I see a fighter KO’d — before I know it I’m uncontrollably shouting at the television for the referee to “Stop the fight!”
There’s no doubt about it, watching MMA is certainly a visceral experience and it’s one of the main reasons I think a lot of people would enjoy watching it.
There are various reasons why watching MMA is such an emotional roller-coaster. Firstly, an MMA fight has the potential to end at any moment, one of the fighters could KO the other in the opening seconds and that’s a wrap — just as Jorge Masvidal did recently did in his well-publicized fight with Ben Askren. As you watch a fight you’ll find yourself on the edge of your seat, leaning forward, eyes glued to screen, looking for the smallest sign that the knockout blow could be coming.
Equally, at any point in the fight one of the combatants could do something — get a take-down, lock in a submission attempt, land a head-kick — that changes the whole dynamic of the fight; e.g. a grappling exchange on the floor might favor one of the fighters more than the other who is maybe more of a boxing specialist. Again, this unpredictability of how things will play-out puts you on edge as you watch the fight unfold, you’ll find yourself constantly trying to predict the infinite directions in which the bout could go.
The relatively short duration of MMA bouts (in the UFC, fights are either three or five rounds, with rounds only lasting five minutes apiece) means that fighters are anxious to make an impact while they can, trying to score points whenever possible, or bag that elusive knockout. Because of this time pressure, there’s rarely ever lulls in the action, or periods when the fighters take their foot off the gas for a little break. All of which leads to a fight scenario that provides non-stop intensity and excitement for the viewer.
If you decide to try watching an MMA event, you won’t find yourself wanting to get up and get some mid-game snacks like you might when you’re watching a ninety-minute long soccer game, you’ll be too worried that you’ll miss something important. Your emotions will keep you tied to what you’re watching and, speaking from experience, you’ll struggle to even find time for a toilet break.
MMA is a sport, not a street-fight
I’ve repeatedly referred to MMA as a sport throughout this article because that’s what it is, it’s not glorified street-fighting. I’m emphasizing this point because a lot of the people I’ve spoken to that are reluctant to watch MMA are so because they think that it’s not a true sport — some of my friends at Church are convinced that MMA is just a televised version of the violent brawls you might see around the back of a shady bar on Friday night.
As this article from the Bleacher Report website argues, I too believe that MMA “is only a bloody disgrace to those who refuse to become educated”. Once you become acquainted with the scoring system and strict rule set which MMA bouts adhere to you will start to realize that you aren’t just watching two brutes aimlessly swinging their fists at each other, you’re watching two highly skilled Martial Artists compete in a legitimate sporting competition.
Just as with other sports, MMA also puts a lot of emphasis on protecting the safety of those who participate. The rules of MMA, and the way referees officiate the bouts, have been continually improved over the years since the creation of the sport, to ensure that MMA bouts are now staged in a way that minimizes the potential for fighters to be seriously harmed.
Given that MMA is a ‘contact sport’, there is still a risk of serious injuries and even fatalities (the latter is extremely rare) but it should be remembered that most contact sports pose a degree of risk to participants, MMA is not unique in that respect.
A 2015 study by the University of Alberta even found that MMA was a less dangerous sport than boxing, with the lead author of the study (and a long-standing ring-side physician), Shelby Karpman, concluding that;
“Yes, you’re more likely to get injured if you’re participating in mixed martial arts, but the injury severity is less overall than boxing.”
Karpman says in the same study that most of the injuries that you see in MMA are superficial, “bloody noses or facial cuts”, the blood tending to make an injury look “a lot worse than it actually is”, which is perhaps why MMA is so easily perceived as “savagery, not sport” from a superficial glance.
The antiquated opinion of MMA as something akin to a televised version of Fight Club-in-real-life is slowly changing, as the sport becomes increasingly mainstream. But amongst people who don’t know too much about MMA this misconception still, sadly, persists.
If you’re one of those people with reservations about MMA’s status as a legitimate sport, hopefully I’ve helped to dispel some of those doubts for you. If so, maybe some of what I’ve written in this article will have persuaded you to try watching MMA — I’m sure you’ll enjoy it a lot more than you think.
Thank you for reading,