To introduce the topic of mixed martial arts and its continuing surge in popularity, I’m not going to resort to that old “unless you’ve been living under a rock” cliché. Honestly, who lives under a rock? Who could fit? It doesn’t even make sense. So instead, the more apropos: unless you’ve been rear-naked-choked-out for the past few years, you’ve probably noticed that mixed martial arts, or MMA—UFC, “ultimate fighting”—has become a big deal.
After CBS aired some of the first-ever live-on-network-TV MMA events, Fox Sports recently followed suit with a historic seven-year television deal with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) which promises even more mainstream exposure for the sport (see here); pay-per-view for the UFC continues to grow, regularly outselling professional wrestling and boxing PPV; Spike, HDNet, Vs., Showtime, NBC and other TV channels now feature MMA; 2011’s Warrior continued the trend of MMA on the big screen; heck, the sport is even on its way to becoming an official Olympic event—though it would be called “pankration” in keeping with the centuries-old combat sport, similar to modern MMA, that was part of the games for over a millennia.
But of course, popularity does not equal coolness. Even if everyone decided that they wanted to be the next Quinton “Rampage” Jackson—who played B.A. Baracus in 2010’s The A-Team—and wore “magic submission pants” a la Shinya Aoki to work, we would still have to examine whether MMA is a positive thing in general. Is it safe? Are there negative consequences, especially for the young? From a spiritual perspective, given that Jesus taught to “turn the other cheek” and so on, we have to ask: is there a moral or ethical issue with people getting into what is essentially fighting?
In the end though, I wonder whether mixed martial arts—like so many other things that rise to the surface of culture, inviting thoughtful attention—might not only be acceptable, but understood and approached rightly, even beneficial in some ways for people of faith.
Round One: What Mixed Martial Arts Is (and What It’s Not)
John McCain famously referred to “extreme fighting” as “human cockfighting” back in 1997. Unfortunately, many people still think of today’s MMA as “extreme fighting.” I imagine these people imagining some sort of no-holds-barred Toughman contest—you know: there’s a cage, there’s blood, there are two muscle-heads bar-brawling, that’s it. But that’s not it.
For anyone who’s watched professional sanctioned MMA recently, it’s obvious that most MMA fighters are highly-conditioned, well-trained athletes who have typically spent years trying to improve at the many facets of the game. Yes, there’s a cage (or a ring), and yes, there’s sometimes blood (like in other full-contact sports)—but there are also gloves and other protective gear, referees, judges, ring-side doctors, and dozens of rules. And what does McCain say now? This: “The sport has grown up. The rules have been adopted to give its athletes better protections and to ensure fairer competition.”
With that said, however, let’s be clear: the purpose of an MMA match is to determine which of two fighters is better at fighting. “Mixing” skills from multiple martial arts—Western boxing, wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and Muay-Thai kickboxing being the most common today—the winning fighter generally wins by knockout, technical knockout, opponent submission to a joint-lock or choke-hold, or judges’ decision. It is, clearly, a violent, full-contact sport. Fighters can and do get hurt during matches, sometimes with long-term effects. Particularly for the young, whose physical and emotional development may not be complete enough for the sport, MMA shouldn’t be gotten into lightly.
True, successful arguments can been made that other full-contact sports—football, hockey, boxing, etc.—are just as dangerous, if not more dangerous and detrimental to the health of participants as MMA. In fact, a recent study in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine found that “the overall injury rate in MMA competitions is now similar to other combat sports, including boxing. Knockout rates are lower in MMA competitions than in boxing. This suggests a reduced risk of TBI [traumatic brain injury] in MMA competitions when compared to other events involving striking” (Bledsoe, et.al., 2006).
But it is the difference between the perceived goal of MMA and those of these other full-contact sports that has lent stigma to mixed martial arts, and that inevitably moves the fight from safety issues to issues of morality.
Round Two: Mixed Martial Arts Against the Ethical Ropes
Professional boxing—likely due to its storied history and despite obvious similarities to MMA—usually ducks the charge that the sport itself is wrong in some way. Even professional wrestling, with its premium on scantily-clad women, hyper-aggressive males, violence-for-the-sake-of-violence and revenge motifs, steroid abuse and “early death” issues, and widespread lack of sportsmanship between “competitors” isn’t usually made into a moral issue.
But despite its having been shown to be safer than boxing and pro wrestling, despite the oft-demonstrated camaraderie and respect between MMA fighters, it is mixed martial arts that regularly has to take the “this is wrong” punch for all combat sports. As above, I believe this is because the goal of MMA, to the untrained eye, appears to be hurting another human being—which most people (rightly, generally) see as wrong.
Someone may get hurt playing football, incidentally, but we know that the goal in football is to score points. Likewise with hockey. Our culture appears to accept the “collateral damage” of human pain if the humans hurt along the way serve a higher goal—winning. With MMA though, that “collateral damage” can seem to be the actual point of the competition. Winning the game is so closely tied up with hurting another person that people easily confuse the two.
But think about it: if a pro football player were to say, “I’m going to score. For me to score, you’re probably going to get hurt, and I’m sorry, but I’m going to score,” we wouldn’t question his ethics. We would call him a driven competitor, nothing else. I submit that MMA, though some don’t see it, is operating under the same exact philosophy: “I’m the better fighter. For me to prove it, you’re probably going to get hurt, and I’m sorry, but I’m the better fighter.”
In other words, just like other sports, an MMA match is ultimately about competition, not people hurting each other. Even a cursory foray into mixed martial arts will show that most fighters aren’t interested in inflicting pain—they only want that “W,” as they say. For them, it’s a question of who is the superior athlete, who has the better skills, who is more dominant at the game. With MMA, the game just happens to be fighting. And besides: though inflicting pain on another human being is laced-up pretty tightly with fighting, so it is with any type of competition, when you think about it . . .
Always, if two people compete, there is the resulting pain of loss, of defeat, of having another’s superiority demonstrated. Perhaps, with MMA, a case can even be made that it is the purest form of competition between two people. With the subterfuge of other games set aside, mixed martial arts becomes what all sports essentially are: assertions of, defenses against, and triumphs of power. What you’re left with, with MMA, is a complex “human chess match” of sorts that is not unethically about just hurting others, but that can only actually be called unethical if all competition itself is wrong.
Round Three: Mixed Martial Arts Strikes Back
So then, if MMA has successfully blocked the questions of safety and morality, perhaps it can now counter with a strike of its own. Maybe mixed martial arts, specifically for the person of faith, specifically for the Christian, can be a positive, beneficial thing. In any case, how should one respond to MMA, particularly from a spiritual perspective? First, let’s get rid of the idea that, since Jesus said to “turn the other cheek,” a spiritual person is always a pacifist, and that any fighting, even fighting as competition, is a bad thing.
Remember that, in context, this particular saying probably has to do with specific cultural issues of the day—issues of equality, vengeance, etc.—and shouldn’t be extrapolated to forbid fighting, certainly not fighting as sport. And remember that this same Jesus who spoke the words of Matthew 5:38-42 also spoke the words of Luke 22:36: “One who has no sword must sell his coat and buy one.” He also said, “I come not to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34). He also personally (and violently) “cleansed the temple” of money changers using a whip. He also, in Revelation, is depicted as a warrior who will “smite the nations” with a sword and “rule them with a rod of iron” (19:11-16). Clearly a spiritual person isn’t necessarily a pacifist. There is occasion for the spiritual person to be physically aggressive, even violent. Perhaps a physically aggressive game, where both competitors agree to the rules of the game, could be one of these occasions.
Moreover, the New Testament is full of examples where sport—even violent sport and warfare itself—is used positively to illustrate spiritual truths. In 1 Corinthains 9:24-27, Paul says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training . . . Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave . . .” In Ephesians 6:10 and following, Paul says to “put on the full armor of God” so one may “take a stand.” Paul instructs Timothy to “fight the good fight” (1 Tim. 6:11); Jude 3 tells us to “contend [fight] for the faith;” near the end of his life, Paul tells Timothy that he has “fought the good fight” and “finished the race” (2 Tim. 4:7-8).
Examples like these—and there are others—lend implicit support to the validity and figurative usefulness of sport, competition, and even war and struggle in general. As is implied in verses like Luke 9:50 and James 4:4, the world is now a complex of struggles: man vs. himself, vs. man, vs. nature, vs. God, the church vs. “the world,” and so on. Understood metaphorically, mixed martial arts bows easily into this context. It is common in Eastern martial arts to see physical movements as ritualized representations of spiritual truths. Perhaps the modern MMA practitioner or fan, if he/she is also a Christian, can appreciate the sport—and all sports, for that matter—as meaningful on this even deeper level, as the New Testament seems to do.
Unsurprisingly, the Old Testament echoes (foreshadows?) this positive figurative use of struggle. In numerous places, Israel’s God is portrayed as a warrior. Psalm 18, for example, presents God as having a shield, shooting arrows, riding chariot-like cherubim, and aiding in the defeat of enemies. The name “Israel,” in fact, comes from a very interesting occurrence, documented in Genesis 32. In this chapter, Jacob actually wrestles with God himself, has his hip “wrenched” but does not submit, and ends up getting blessed—presumably due to his perseverance in the fight—having his name changed to “Israel” . . . meaning “he struggles with God.” Here we have God himself engaged in physically aggressive, even violent, competition. It must be agreed, then, that this type of competition is not only figuratively useful in terms of struggle, but has actually even been participated in by God himself, just as God is uniformly represented in the Bible as being part of a very real, world-wide, history-long struggle for humanity as a whole.
Some final thoughts on the value of MMA for the person of faith: mixed martial arts is great exercise, and Paul says, “Physical training is of some value” (1 Tim. 4:8). MMA, being still very rooted in traditional martial arts styles, will always build things like discipline, self-confidence, respect for authority, etc., which seem to be clear spiritual goods. The sport, as other sports, generally leads to stronger relationships amongst participants—a spiritual good. As other sports, MMA is challenging and demands perseverance, courage, strategic thinking, and other spiritual goods. Finally, mixed martial arts is entertaining (at least to some), both to participate in and to watch. Paul said, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is fair, whatever is pure, whatever is acceptable, whatever is commendable, if there is anything of excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy—keep thinking about these things” (Phil. 4:8). I hope it has been shown that MMA can be accurately described by some of these words, and that it can—when understood and approached rightly—be a positive form of entertainment, of sport, maybe even more, even for Christians.
So now, a (probably obvious) confession: I am a big fan of mixed martial arts and have been for a number of years now. I train in it, I have friends who compete in it, I regularly watch it on television, I attend local MMA events. But I am also a Christian. I am a Christian who tries to thoughtfully and biblically approach all parts of my life—MMA is a part of my life. It is my hope that the above will be helpful to others who wrestle with reconciling involvement with MMA and their faith. It is my hope that mixed martial arts has here been shown to be relatively safe when compared to other similar sports, ethical in terms of its goals, and even spiritually positive, beneficial, and useful in light of the Bible itself.
Not everyone will be watching the next big MMA match—tonight’s heavyweight UFC bout between Brock Lesnar and Alistair Overeem, by the way—and certainly not every Christian will be. But for those who will be, myself included, it’s gratifying to know that mixed martial arts and faith definitely do mix.