In June this year, a mixed martial arts (MMA) competitor died as a result of a head injury sustained during a sanctioned bout in South Carolina. Sociologist David Mayeda, writing for online sports site BleacherReport.com, uses this tragedy as the impetus to reflect upon the intrinsic competitive nature of sport, MMA’s evolving structure, and how society regulates violence in sport.
Mayeda explains that MMA, a rapidly popularizing sport, is by its nature a violent sport.
MMA is at its core, violent. Injuries, even death, are a risk in all sports. Even in non-contact sports, such as long distance running, deaths occur on occasion (though the absolute number of long distance runners is massive in comparison to MMA). However, in most sports, there is not intent to harm. In combat sports, “the intentional use of physical force…against…another person” is required and formally sanctioned.
Even with the brutal nature of the sport, the larger leagues have been efficient at regulating and protecting fighters.
Within the United States, prominent MMA organizations such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and Strikeforce have the resources and existing infrastructure to prevent, or at least minimize, the most serious, tragic levels of violence. Earlier this year UFC welterweight contender, Thiago Alves, was forced to withdraw from competition because of a discovered brain irregularity.
However, it is in the smaller and less visible levels of competition, that lack the money and regulation, where the danger lies.
None of the major MMA organizations provide smaller, regional ones with the financial backing that would allow for a more robust medical infrastructure and help prevent the most serious ramifications of sporting violence. Thus, up and coming fighters must gain experience in smaller organizations, where the risky consequences of more serious violence and injury rise.
Mayeda concludes by arguing that the injuries that occur at the smaller leagues must not be written off as collateral damage or disconnected from the popularity of the large MMA leagues that have dominated pay-per-view and made their way on to network television. It is the success at higher levels that is often at the root of the pressure to risk more for less at the lower levels – a lesson applicable to all types of sport.
Professional and semi-pro mixed martial artists – frequently seduced by the financial gains and popularity that the sport’s biggest stars enjoy – should be treated as human beings, not as collateral damage dismissed in the wake of the sport’s growth. Neither society’s thirst for violence nor a sport’s increasing popularity should be cited to justify or excuse athlete safety.