Last weekend, for the first time ever, the world saw women fighters on the main card of the finale of The Ultimate Fighter, putting women on the same big stage as men. While this may look like a huge feminist leap forward, the headline fight was still between two young men, as most professional fights of any style are.
Mixed martial arts (MMA), like most professional sports, is dominated by young men; unlike many others, it is also predominantly consumed by young men as well. Now one of the most popular contact sports in the world, MMA faces controversy for promoting misogyny and downplaying the risk of injury. MMA fighting is, by nature, a brutal sport, but does that make it unhealthy for millennial men to aspire to be in the octagon?
It was difficult for me to look into this topic without bias. I trained in martial arts for six years and earned a black belt in Japanese jujitsu, mixing in a little Judo and MMA.My training experience was overwhelmingly positive. It increased my self-confidence, fitness, and understanding and control of my body, giving me a deeper understanding of pain.
If anything, practicing martial arts made me less prone to violence, since I better understood the feeling of a punch or a chokehold.
The training also instilled in me a deeper enjoyment of watching MMA, which was just gaining popularity in the U.S. (That's right, I liked it before it was cool.)
MMA is definitely popular with men my age now. The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), which has mostly MMA, is now arguably the biggest stage for fighting in the U.S., earning a spot on Fox Sports, breaking the billion dollar mark a few years ago, and polling, particularly among millennial men, as more popular than boxing in a recent Sports Business Journal survey.
The increased popularity of the UFC, however, means it is also subject to increased scrutiny. The latest scandals involve accusations that MMA and the UFC foster a culture of rape, domestic violence, and misogyny. Four social media incidents were particularly concerning to opponents of the UFC, such as Manhattan lawmakers and Boston City Council President Stephen Murphy. Commentator Joe Rogan Tweeted some undeniably anti-feminist things; fighter Matt Mitrione insulted transgender fighter Fallon Fox; fighter Miguel Torres made a rape joke (also on Twitter); and most egregiously, fighter Quinton Jackson made a joke video on how to pick up girls using chloroform.
The UFC's reactions to these incidents were decidely mixed. They did nothing to Rogan, suspendied Mitrione, belatedly released Jackson, and released Torres (about the biggest punishment the UFC can hand down on a fighter). They also released a code of conduct in August, similar to the NFL's, which forbids "derogatory or offensive conduct," clearly reacting to the backlash from and preempting future incidents.
This relatively young organization was slow to react to "off-field" controversies, but I don't think the UFC is necessarily fostering a culture of misogyny or violence against women, or that mixed martial arts itself creates such a culture.
However the UFC reacts to such incidents, no research suggests any connection between martial arts training and violence against women, a point confirmed by Roger Canaff, the president of End Violence Against Women International. (For the record, he still opposes the UFC.). Rather than promoting real-life violence, multiple studies have found that studying martial arts improves discipline, decreases resistance to rules and authority, and decreases inappropriate social behaviors. It is also widely recognized as an effective form of fitness.
That said, while the evidence favors martial arts as a character builder and shows no connection to increased violent tendencies at home, there is increasing evidence that MMA may not be as safe as the UFC would have you believe.
Long-term injuries are the newest hot-topic in the NFL, the country's most popular contact sport. The UFC turned 20 this year, so the necessary long-term health data simply isn't available yet for MMA fighters, but it seems to be on track for brain injury risks similar to what boxers and football players face.
A Johns Hopkins study on injury trends in MMA competitions conducted between 2002 and 2008 concluded that 23.6% of professional fights resulted in an injury to one of the fighters and 3% of all fights result in a concussion. More recent studies from the Lou Ruvo Brain Institute have found "substantial degradation" in certain areas of the brain in veteran fighters, as well as symptoms consistent with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the same condition football players are worried about later in life.
Fortunately, the UFC has already invested in long-term studies of fighter health and their fighters receive health insurance for any training or competition-related injuries. They also have much stricter concussion protocols than the NFL, placing fighters on suspension for 90 days after a knockout or concussion, compared to many NFL players who are cleared to play the week after suffering a concussion (like Wes Welker last week).
Let me be perfectly clear about two things.
One, there are more protocols in place at the professional level than at the amateur training level, so assume it's more likely that this you will get injured.
Two, there are plenty of ways to train in martial arts without risking serious brain injury. Even famously violent and dangerous styles like kickboxing or boxing can be practiced with minimal contact, which means you won't be winning any tournaments, but you will gain the character-building and fitness benefits of training.
There doesn't appear to be a link between mixed martial arts and violence against women, though there is (unsurprisingly) a good chance you will be injured if you put on the thin gloves and enter the cage. That damage could be long term. There are, however, many martial arts that do not involve thinly-padded punches to the face, and it appears martial arts training can be healthy for adolescents and young men.
So enjoy the replays from the fight last weekend, boys, and consider training in a martial art that seems appealing to you.