Combat sports, such as mixed martial arts (MMA), involve substantial risk of physical injury. (Photo by Gregg Rich Photo.)

Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is a combat sport that involves a combination of different fighting styles. As it has gained prominence in mainstream cultures, MMA has introduced the world to a variety of martial disciplines, such as wrestling (grappling), Muay Thai (striking), and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (submission grappling). Given that the goal of an MMA competitor is to defeat an opponent, which can occur by way of a knockout or submission (e.g., “tapping out” due to pain or injury), the sport involves a substantial level of physical risk.  When a fighter inflicts visible damage on an opponent, it is categorized under what the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), one of the world’s biggest MMA organizations, calls “significant strikes.”

What determines a “significant strike” ranges from the opponent’s facial expression of pain to blood drawn from a strike. Concussions and head trauma are prevalent concerns in my experience as a combat sports competitor and in contact sports more generally. With rising concerns about the consequences of concussions, head shots are still encouraged by spectators and professional combat sports organizations. It is common for professional combat sports organizations to favor fighters who knock out their opponents, “brawl” or “finish the fight,” because the brutality of knocking an opponent unconscious is seen as entertaining and brings in more viewers. Fighters are encouraged to knock their opponent unconscious through financial incentives, such as Glory Kickboxing’s “Knockout of the Night Bonus,” which offers an additional $5,000 to the fighter who knocks out their opponent. Often combat sports organizations take advantage of the entertainment value of knockouts by prioritizing advertising knockouts as opposed to other facets of the sport. Fighters who have “knockout power” are often portrayed in the media as “knockout artists” to attract viewership for the fighter’s following bouts. For example, knockout footage is compiled together into highlight reels, such as a knockout countdown of the year, that highlights the least to the most intense knockout. So, why do people continue to compete in combat sports despite the risk of serious injury?

To explore this question, I conducted in-depth interviews in my research with combat sports competitors: 11 individuals (2-hour sessions each), ages 18-40 years of age, male (8) and female (3). Based on these interviews, I argue that social bonds with other fighters heavily influences participants’ decisions to continue competing in a sport where physical harm is all but guaranteed. In the discussion below, pseudonyms are used to protect participant confidentiality.

A fighter’s community involvement and the relationships a fighter develops with their training partners are important factors that keep competitors in combat sports. For example, Jake, who is in his mid-20s and a high level Muay Thai amateur fighter, explained that his training partners are his “best friends” and fighting gave him “a sense of belonging.” Sam, a fighter in his late-20s and an amateur Muay Thai world champion, also expressed “a sense of belonging” with his training partners. He continued: “you don’t get these relationships outside where you see each other’s weaknesses and other sides…There is a non-verbal communication which is stronger here. I don’t feel judged in the gym, I feel more authentic compared to outside.” Fighters “sense of belonging” with training partners illuminates the significance of identifying with a community. Sam’s response suggests a sense of comfort and openness, within a combat sports context, that enables fighters to see each other’s weaknesses. A combat sports context offers an openness that leads to a shared intimacy and bond between training partners that is often difficult to foster outside this athletic context. In particular, male fighters’ intimate interactions with each other contrast with traditional gender norms because men showing signs of weakness is often considered socially detrimental under dominant notions of masculinity. 

I also observed social pressure as a key component for fighters to continue to compete in combat fights. Training partners, coaches, and family members were often cited as sources of pressure for fighters to continue fighting. For example, Lucus, a Muay Thai head coach in his mid-30s, said: “definitely, pressure from friends and family to continue, to live up to their expectations, to win in front of them.” Carol, an elite boxer and Muay Thai fighter in her mid-20s, initially stated that social pressure is not a factor in her motivation to compete in combat sports, but then admitted, “but on a subtle level, yes when coaches ask me to take a fight that I do not want to because I feel like I need a break. Also, peers expect something from me.” 

Photo by David Ash.

The motivating factors of community and social pressure exemplify the influence of people around fighters they care about. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu used the term “habitus” to explain the influence of people’s surroundings on their ingrained habits and dispositions. Habitus explains how an environment can shape an individual’s personality to reflect the environment they interact within. An interplay between a person’s agency and the environment they inhabit helps us understand how fighters are shaped by a combat sports context through taking up the social role of a fighter. Fighting becomes part of fighter’s identity and, because of this, quitting combat sports would raise other issues that may seem more daunting than fighting itself, such as an identity crisis, loneliness due to the disconnection from peers, and a loss of “a sense of belonging.”

One participant’s responses succinctly express Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, specifically how individuals are shaped by their surroundings. As Lucus stated: 

it is who I am, but I chose to be in this environment and to be molded by it, I didn’t just be a passive subject to my surroundings. I think the difference between animals and humans is that we can change our environments.

Lucus’ response captures not only how individual identities are shaped by their surroundings, but also the agency individuals have in choosing to adapt to a combat sports environment. Overall, fighters continue to compete in combat sports because of engrained habits, views of others around fighters, and relationships. Social determinants, such as a sense of belonging, pressure or lifestyle, are significant factors in a fighter’s decision to continue to compete in combat sports. 

When we talk about the complex nature of head trauma and the possibility of physical harm, it is important to understand the need for fighters to identify with a community and how these needs come from both internal and external influences. 

John Deidouss (@johndeidouss) is a PhD Candidate at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada. His research interests are in the sphere of racism and combat sports. He is part of the socio-cultural studies branch in the Kinesiology department. John Deidouss is a striking coach, a Muay Thai Classic World Champion and a 2x Fightquest K1 Champion.