UFC: So That’s A Sport Now, Then, Is It?

by | Oct 17, 2018

I recently posed this question on Facebook: “This whole “UFC” stuff. It’s an absolute abomination, isn’t it?”

I got no response, a silence which I have optimistically attributed to an indifference among my Facebook friends to UFC, the “Ultimate Fighting Championship,” rather than an indifference to what I think about anything. Because UFC seems to me to be an absolute abomination, as a spectator sport and as a sport in itself.

My opinion on UFC is not based on extensive research because…well…I find it an abomination as a spectator sport (see above). So beyond the already-viewed, mostly blood-splattered bouts of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ style ultraviolence, I have no desire to watch any other mostly blood-splattered bouts, as I do not expect many, if any, UFC contests to be balletic, defensive masterclasses, showcasing all the skills of truly valuable self-defence.

Ian King, the editor of this site, tweeted last week, that he found it “very difficult to watch anything UFC-related without the word ‘dystopia’ popping into my head.” Which is a better way of describing my feeling that UFC has a “Rollerball vibe” about it. UFC scares me, to be truthful. Which says a little about me but much more about a ‘sport’ which also repulses me.

Indeed, I would go further than revulsion. For all the skill and athleticism of ‘Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), of which UFC is but one branch, and for all valuable self-discipline and self-defence capability it can offer mixed martial artists, I have huge problems with UFC’s existence as a ‘sport,’ especially one which can be followed with such dystopian ‘fanaticism.’

In my pre-teens, I watched ALL sports. When I was at home on Saturday afternoons, nothing on BBC’s ‘Grandstand’ or ITV’s ‘World of Sport’ escaped my attention. Not even bloody wrestling, until I twigged that it was mostly stage-managed, otherwise un-masking Kendo Nagasaki would be a cinch (one for the over-50s only there, I fear).

In my early teens, however, certain sports’ allure faded quickly. Show Jumping was about the first to go (and I’ve no clue why it was ever there), soon followed by most things equestrian. And boxing didn’t last long, either. I found the concept of rendering an opponent senseless, even if only for ten seconds, as a method of victory increasingly distasteful. And boxing provided my first semi-direct experience of the abhorrence of racism.

In September 1980, black American middleweight Marvin Hagler brutally disproved World Middleweight champion Alan Minter’s pre-fight proclamation that he wasn’t going to lose his title to “that black man” (some quoted him as saying the even more racially-charged “a black man,” but either way, you know, f**k off). The nationalist pre-fight overtones and the Wembley Arena crowd’s dreadful post-fight reaction, beer bottles and cans raining down on Hagler and his team as they celebrated in the ring, sounded bad on radio, and looked sickening on the TV highlights.

Hagler/Minter was an ugly low point for boxing. But so many elements of that night appear to be the norm in UFC, especially when someone such as Dublin’s Conor McGregor emerges as a ‘leading’ UFC ‘personality.’ When I was in Ireland last September, I checked with a number of my cousins that “McGregor’s an arsehole, right?” I got a response this time (unanimous agreement)..

But McGregor wasn’t the first UFC ‘star’ to nauseate me. That ‘honour’ (I’m running out of apostrophes here) fell to American Ronda Rousey, as she favoured breaking or dislocating arms or shoulders in order to win and retain her UFC World Bantamweight title. Rousey, a Judo Olympic bronze medallist in 2008, is still damaging arms in the ‘WWW RAW’ wrestling ‘brand,’ including that of WWW supremo Stephanie McMahon, for reasons which need not detain us, at an August… erm… celebration of another Rousey title.

And all the other UFC bouts I’ve inadvertently chanced upon (via TV adverts, switching to wrong cable channels etc…), have glorified in horrific injury and/or profuse blood-letting. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that becoming a mixed martial artist requires an admirable dedication and bravery which is FAR beyond my capabilities, even without my considerable physical shortcomings. But UFC seems almost a betrayal of those qualities. And whatever the character traits of those people who enjoy watching such stuff, I cannot understand those people.

A profound distaste for UFC was aired by Gaelic Football pundit and expert opinion-divider Joe Brolly in his most recent regular column in Ireland’s Sunday Independent newspaper. And, bar one thoughtful, better-written article to which I will return, the criticisms Brolly’s piece received included all the obvious, stock defences. Not “understanding the intricacies of the sport,” “if you don’t like it, don’t watch it” and, tiresomely, inevitably “what about other sports?”

The article’s headline declared it “time to call a halt to the UFC’s bloody freak show,” and centred on Brolly’s experience of watching a UFC event on TV. But he confused UFC with MMA. “MMA, instead of being banned, is going through the process of normalisation,” he declared. “It is sold and marketed like the violent video game market. No boundaries. No rules, violence is good.” And critics naturally swooped on Brolly’s acronymic confusion. “MMA is the sport. UFC is a brand,” one respondent noted, correctly

But I had trouble with all these defences. I don’t understand how ‘understanding’ UFC makes it a less-horrific spectacle, despite understanding the immense skills involved (as does Brolly, who acknowledged that “combatants” could be “incredibly-skilled and courageous”). Maybe MMA could help “boost peoples’ confidence” and bring “discipline to their lives,” as the above respondent added. But the “brand” was Brolly’s target, not the “sport,” however bad his spelling of UFC. And he clearly doesn’t need telling not to “watch it” if he doesn’t “like it.”

The “whataboutery” brigade did what they do, comprehensively rejecting the notion that “two wrongs don’t make a right.” The ‘whatabout’ sports naturally, and logically, included boxing (“did anybody want to ban boxing when an actual riot happened at Tyson v Holyfield?” someone asked, to which the exact correct answer is “erm…yes.”). And, in the context of mass brawls and fighting at recent games, Brolly’s own sport, Gaelic Football got numerous mentions, a common suggestion being that UFC and the Ulster (Gaelic) Football Championship shared similar violent tendencies.

Less inevitably, we were also informed that “Rowing risks death from drowning.” All this accompanied by the suggestion, stated or implied, that if you ban UFC you should ban these sports (e.g. “NFL should be banned, then, because of head trauma”).

One, arguably THE, fundamental point escaped them all. The inflicting of injury, serious or otherwise, in UFC is a method of victory. Mass brawls are not, despite recent appearances, within Gaelic Football rules. When County Down clubs Ballyholland and RGU Downpatrick recently mass-brawled at the end of their All-County Football League clash, they were despatched from next year’s championship, not awarded the league title.

Indeed, inflicting the sort of injury which would win UFC bouts has a tendency to be against the rules. Oxford have never won the university boat race by dunking Cambridge head-down into the Thames at Barnes Bridge until they are left gasping for air. There is a diametric contrast between “against the rules” and “method of victory.”

Brolly’s piece had considerable kinks, for all that his conclusions resonated. Not least, the circumstances which had him watching UFC in the first place, for supposedly the first time (“I had gone downstairs to see if my 13-year-old son and his half-a-dozen excited friends had gone to bed after watching the McGregor fight. It hadn’t started yet. So I made some chilli tea and sat down amongst them to watch it”). And critics lambasted Brolly for letting seemingly unsupervised young teens watch the event (others were as quick to deride him for the “chilli tea,” but that was arguably fair enough).

But many responses were equally… er… ’kink-y.’ One respondent didn’t “want to see people get hurt, I want to see them be brave and creative, focused, clear and enduring,” which sounds fair enough but unlikely. “Every single sport in the world evolved from fighting,” noted another, whose explanation of how cricket “evolved from fighting” would fascinate. “It’s a bloodsport. We have enjoyed and celebrated bloodsports from the beginning of time,” said another still, as if that was a good thing. Ditto the tweeter praising the “awesome war” of one bout.

And, as appears compulsory in on-line ‘below-the-line’ commentary, one creature thought Brolly “should worry a lot more about the Muslim invasion and the violent crime uptick in Europe.” To which one natural reaction is “PLEASE be a parody account.” If it isn’t, then their @PLEASEHELPP1 username is highly appropriate.

Higher quality responses came from Cillian Cunningham of Irish ‘sports news and analysis’ website ‘Pundit Arena.’ His website article’s headline “A response to Joe Brolly’s disgusting attack on MMA” didn’t promise nuance. But the article and Cunningham’s brief twitter exchange with Brolly were genuinely interesting and offered a neat encapsulation of the whole debate.

Cunningham told Brolly he had no issue with “the accuracy of your claims” or “that you don’t understand MMA” or even “that you have built this view based on the most minimal exposure.” His beef was Brolly “using your platform to potentially damage our country’s athletes.” Cunningham didn’t really explain how one opinion column might wreak such “damage.” But one quote from his article inadvertently explained a fundamental problem with ‘ultimate’ or ‘cage’ fighting as a sport.

He declared: “If getting punched in the face isn’t something you’re comfortable with, you’ll know pretty early on in the gym that combat sports isn’t the road for you.” An entirely valid point. However, the corollary of that is that “combat sports” are “the road” for those who ARE ‘comfortable’ with “getting punched in the face.”

And this is where I wear my lack of ‘understanding’ of UFC with some pride. I’m glad I don’t understand people who are ‘comfortable’ in any way with getting punched in the face, or those comfortable to pay-per-view of someone getting punched in the face and/or being physically damaged within UFC rules. And when Cunningham says that professional cage-fighters “do this because fighting is what they know, it’s what they are at their very core,” I wonder what, at his “very core,” allows him to unequivocally admire such people.

Cunningham admits that “the violence” and “the blood and gore” are “part and parcel” of UFC. And while “we’re not cheering alone” for that (“we’re in it for the technique, the bravery and the times when we simply sit back, mouth agape and marvel” at cage-fighters’ “unimaginable feats,” he continues), no “cheering” for violence, blood and gore should be part of anything that wishes to exist as a sport.

It would be way too simplistic to attribute the recent furore over UFC to the recent McGregor bout and the many, varied examples of dreadful behaviour which surrounded the bout itself, although that didn’t stop Ronan O’Flaherty from trying in Tuesday’s Irish Independent newspaper, in a piece which was also a greatest hits package of whataboutery and don’t like it, don’t watch it.

As a soccer fan, I am in no position to wish extinction on UFC as a sport for the McGregor stuff. There are knobheads among soccer’s elite (on-and-off-the-pitch) and crowd trouble, as I wrote recently, feels like too much of a potential risk to allow two soccer matches on the same ‘bill.’

However, the ultimate question about ‘Ultimate Fighting Championship’ is: if its violence isn’t wrapped up in the protections afforded by it being a sport, what does it become? I don’t dispute that MMA can, and often does, “boost confidence” or “instil discipline” and often is a valuable self-defence mechanism in a violent world (the role played by glamorising UFC in a violent world is not something I know enough about to comment).

But none of that requires UFC’s continued existence as a sport. It is an abomination as a spectacle, and as a sport. And it should not be considered a sport.