The announcement that the UFC will return to Brazil is a no-brainer. It's a return to its roots, the birthplace of the first Ultimate Fighting Champion. However, it's also the host country for the 2016 Summer Olympics, a fact that escaped no one. Since many have fantasized about MMA being an Olympic sport (wouldn't it be awesome to see "UFC Champion and Olympic Gold Medalist Georges St-Pierre" flash across the screen?), I decided to seriously consider the option - is MMA a viable Olympic sport?
Short answer: No.
Long answer: First off, the logistics of a tournament are a nightmare. Consider Kazuo Misaki winning the PRIDE Welterweight GP despite losing to Paulo Filho in the semifinals or Joachim Hansen, an alternate who lost in the quarterfinals, winning the DREAM lightweight GP. Both of those wins soured many fans who felt they didn't deserve to win the GP by a fluke injury to another competitor. Even a fighter who can advance would be handicapped by any injury sustained due to fighting so often in such a short time span. That happened in The Ultimate Fighter 3, when Matt Hammil broke his nose and couldn't continue. An international tournament that lasts a few weeks could be a disaster with an injury.
Secondly, there is no major international organization governing the sport. The closest thing is the UFC, and there is no reason why Dana would want to legitimize any possible competitor. I'd wager he wants the UFC belts to be the supreme achievement in MMA, and an Olympic gold medal would only threaten that.
Third, I don't think the sport is as international as we like to think it is. Perhaps I'm wrong (I'm no expert on the global scene), but nearly all the dominant fighters are American, Brazilian, or Japanese. There isn't enough of an international basis to include it (M-1 has done a fine job expanding the sport in Europe, but I doubt the International Olympic Committee is willing to co-promote) . Though it is conceivable that exposure to it would encourage more competitors, especially since wrestling is part of world culture, and many wrestlers do transition to our sport.
If we wanted to assume that the logistics are possible, is it still fitting in the spirit of the Olympics, of international brotherhood and friendly competition? While we see it that way, I still have doubts based on what combat sports are already allowed. Compare:
Fencing: There is enough protection to prevent any real danger to the fencers. Besides, the goal isn't to hurt your opponent, but out-point them (though with traditional rapiers, a touch is lethal anyway, so it's a fair approximation)
Judo: No striking, so it looks very tame. Most matches are quickly decided by a single throw (ippon), so there aren't any protracted battles (and the throws look good on highlight reels).
Wrestling: All-grappling, no striking, based solely on positional advantage instead of damage inflicted.
Tae Kwon Do: Lots of striking, especially kicks. Also lots of pads (large gloves, shin pads, chest pads, headgear) I am always amused by watch TKD matches where the bounce around, hands by their hips, hopping while kicking each other. While TKD is responsible for some brutal KOs, it is largely point-fighting, and blood is rarely seen.
Boxing: Very different from regular boxing. Very brief fights (4 rounds x 2min), headgear, essentially point fighting. Technique is more useful than raw power. Knockouts are not that common.
The common denominator is that none of these sports cause much outward physical damage - little blood & bruising. Boxing turned into nearly a completely different sport to accommodate the ideal. Remember, the Olympics are supposedly about athletic goodwill, brotherhood, and human physical achievement, and the violence in MMA is antithetical to that (I suspect this also the reason why kickboxing never made it in). Unless we're willing to see Cain Velasquez fight in headgear and padding (imagine trying to grapple with that), I doubt MMA will ever be an Olympic sport.
Still, if the Olympics are in Rio, that does give rise to a much likelier scenario - that of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu being a demonstration sport. It isn't as graphically violent as MMA, and judo & wrestling are similar enough that it can be deemed permissible by the IOC. The many, many tournaments are a testament to how easy the logistics are to implement. If BJJ is too specific, then a more generic "submission grappling" could be used, similar to ADCC rules. The submissions and lack of pins make it distinct enough to be a separate sport. There is just one catch, though.
How would submissions be executed? Obviously, when a fighter is caught, he should tap, but the ethos of the sport is that if someone doesn't tap, then it is acceptable to break the limb or choke them out, arguably breaking the spirit of the Olympics of good-natured competition. Should the referee be allowed to halt a fight if the sub is deep, or give him a 3-count before calling it? How often, then, would we see fighters try to appeal the decision, saying they were just about to break free? Regardless of the veracity of their claim, I'm sure many would forgo tapping to have the ref stop the fight simply so they could save face and say they weren't truly submitted - that it's the ref's fault. While the idea of a ref having that much power might be distasteful, imagine, though, Rousimar Palhares or Shinya Aoki cranking a limb until it breaks. With that much national pride on the line, it could arguably a political scandal, something the IOC wouldn't want any more attention on. Referees can already stop a submission if it has been taken to its inevitable conclusion (Mir/Sylvia, Saku/Renzo, Faber/Mitzugaki), so it's not an alien concept, but think of the times when it goes wrong (Wiman/Danzig, Askren/Thomas).
So, is it an acceptable trade-off? If the only way to have BJJ in the Olympics is to allow for more technical submissions, is it worth it? Or could BJJ get in without any need for modified rules? Am I too pessimistic about MMA's chances? Let me know below...