Mixed martial arts is one of the fastest-growing sports in America. Yet for years the New York State Legislature has refused to sanction M.M.A. — making New York one of the last states holding out against the sport’s expansion. (Connecticut is a holdout, too.) After helping to block a clause in last year’s budget that would have legalized M.M.A., Bob Reilly, a state assemblyman, called it "a violent sport not worthy of our society."
As the editor in chief of Men’s Health, I’d been a de facto supporter of New York’s ban by refusing to put a mixed-martial artist on the magazine’s cover — despite the entreaties of several editors and even my own brother, Eric, who trained in M.M.A. I edit a health magazine, after all, and this is a sport in which men use nearly every means available to beat one another into submission, from jujitsu to kickboxing to simply slugging one another in the face with nothing but lightly padded gloves on their hands.
But I’ve come to believe that, in fact, the New York Legislature is wrong. Mr. Reilly is wrong. And more to the point, I was wrong (an admission my brother will hold over my head as long as I live). Mixed martial arts may be a violent sport, but it is much safer than other, supposedly more civilized competitions, and New York and its fellow holdouts should finally sanction it.
We think of more traditional violent sports like boxing and football as safer in part because of the helmets and padded gloves their athletes wear, and that supposedly protect them from harm. These are, in fact, more like the equivalent of poorly designed sunscreen — "protection" that allows athletes to submit to even greater levels of punishment.
For instance, studies show that up to 40 percent of former boxers have symptoms of chronic brain injury, the result of repeated, if padded, blows to the head. And recent studies have demonstrated that most professional boxers, including the majority who show no outward signs of impairment, have some degree of brain damage.
In comparison, a 2006 Johns Hopkins study noted "a reduced risk of traumatic brain injury in M.M.A. competitions when compared to other events involving striking." The reason is simple: Boxing’s "protective" padding, coupled with its 12-round bouts and rest periods, means the boxer is subject to dozens of brain-jostling head blows in each fight. In M.M.A., most bouts end in a wrestling match, with one opponent forcing the other into submission; only 28 percent of all M.M.A. bouts are decided by a blow to the head, according to a study published in The British Journal of Sports Medicine.
As a result, M.M.A. fighters have not only a lower risk of cognitive impairment, but of death. There have been only three fatalities in the 17-year history of American M.M.A. But we average almost that many in a single year in boxing: 129 fighters have died in American rings since 1960.
Some might argue that such statistics only make the case that boxing, too, should be banned. But what about hockey or football? Men’s Health has proudly and without controversy featured Drew Brees, Tom Brady and other N.F.L. stars on our cover — despite the fact that football and hockey combined sent 55,000 Americans to the emergency room for head injuries in 2009 alone.
Hall of Famers like Harry Carson, a former linebacker for the Giants, and Pat LaFontaine, who played center for the Islanders and the Rangers, have talked publicly, even courageously, about the physical and emotional toll of their multiple concussions. And watching 41-year-old Brett Favre dragging his swollen body onto the field week after week last season was an exercise in spectator-sport sadism.
Compare that to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the premier M.M.A. league, where 23-year-old Jon Jones recently won the light heavyweight championship but injured his hand in the process; as a result, he is barred from competition until doctors say he has healed. In fact, fighters who suffer knockouts are suspended and barred even from sparring for three months; in the N.F.L. and N.H.L., we cheer when a player leaves the game on a stretcher and returns the next week — and even louder if he comes back the next period.
The New York State Assembly and Senate both have bills in committee that would allow M.M.A. into the state, and it only makes sense to push them through. In the meantime, I’ve changed my policy: This month Men’s Health features the U.F.C.’s reigning welterweight titleholder, Georges St-Pierre, on its cover. Sometimes the more raw and visceral a sport appears, the more humane it may actually be.