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Grappling with ultimate 'sport'

Mixed martial artists are professionals in a rules-based contest

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On June 15, the Ultimate Fighting Championship is bringing its version of mixed martial arts to Winnipeg. To be sure, the UFC is the premier MMA organization on the globe. It draws the best fighters and outpaces boxing and professional wrestling in pay-per-view buys. The UFC seeks markets that can feed their mega promotion, and Winnipeg fits the bill.

In many ways, the UFC can be said to be finally coming to one of Canada's fight meccas. As for draws, one has to look no further than Winnipeg's Joe Doerksen, who has fought in more than 65 fights in the last 10 years. The city is also home to Brazilian jiu jitsu black-belt world champion and former professional mixed arts fighter Rodrigo Munduruca. In addition, Winnipeg is home to surging UFC bantamweight Roland Delorme. There is no question Winnipeg has unequivocally contributed, much like Montreal, to the development of mixed arts in Canada.

Over the last seven years, I have studied the sport. This has included interviewing fighters across North America, training with and alongside fighters, incessantly watching events and working as a judge. I have written several articles and a book about the sport.

One thing I have noticed with the various events that have taken place across Canada is the almost constant depiction by citizens and athletic commissions of MMA as singularly violent and more injurious to participants than other sports. Even "mainstream" boxers speak out against mixed arts, and Winnipeg media have engaged with a familiar refrain: it is "pay for pain."

The reality of MMA is it is a sport, and like a lot of sports, it can be violent and lead to injuries among its participants. However, the overarching fact is it's a sport. Eminent sociologist Norbert Elias has shown in his study of the historical development of sports that in the conversion of folk games into sports, there is an institution of common rules to make them safer for participants. MMA is no exception, as the UFC, in conjunction with American athletic commissions during the last two decades, has established more than 30 internationally recognized rules pertaining to allowable actions to promote fairness and ensure the safety of participants.

With regard to injuries, Shelby Karpman, sports-medicine specialist and ringside physician with 20 years' experience, notes that injury rates in mixed arts are comparable to hockey and football.

Sports can be painful. If we are going to have any level of integrity, we cannot label mixed arts as violent and pretend that hockey, football and boxing are somehow more humane and less violent.

One has to look no further than Todd Bertuzzi's sucker-punch on Steve Moore, crushing three vertebrae and leaving him unable to play hockey again. In contrast, there have been no serious injuries of this magnitude in the UFC.

In a recent interview with CBC, Matt Roucek of Winnipeg's Pan Am boxing club stated he worries the "arrival" of mixed arts in Winnipeg will glamourize fighting and "kids can start doing this in their own homes and backyards, and it becomes so dangerous. It really needs to be supervised."

I would venture the same could be said for boxing. In many ways, Roucek represents the disposition of many people in the boxing community: fully cognizant their sport is going the way of the dodo and being swallowed by MMA (since fighters use boxing techniques), they resort to criticizing the sport. With so much footage already available on television and the Internet, the notion youth will suddenly take to their basements and backyards and start fight clubs as a result of the UFC coming to Winnipeg, specifically, is ridiculous.

And let me present another -- alternative -- reality regarding the sport. Its fighters are some of the best-conditioned athletes in the world.

As Sports Fan's Michael Winkler has suggested, MMA fighters "are not only entitled to recognition as the best fighters alive, but should probably be considered the best athletes on the planet as well." While that point may be debatable, the fighters I met and trained alongside trained two or three times a day, six days a week, and maintained rigorous diets. They all train multiple martial-arts styles, all of which take decades to master. Many of the fighters I met and interviewed take seriously living as a martial artist and profess the necessity of showing respect for anyone they meet, especially their opponents in the ring. The fighters are, first and foremost, professional athletes.

So enough of the sensationalism -- MMA participants are no less athletes than those in "mainstream" sports such as hockey and football. They deserve more respect for their training regimen and professionalism, and sports enthusiasts (and sports writers) should take a closer look at the UFC, as it represents what more fans are seeking every year.

 

Dale Spencer is an assistant professor of sociology, faculty of arts, University of Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 27, 2013 A9

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