Recently I posted my thoughts on the 5 things I miss about classic MMA, specifically the elements of safety (or rather, lack thereof). I reminisced about the days when MMA was all about no-holds barred, anything goes, bare-knuckled fighting. It was the closest thing one could get to watching a street fight without having to walk into an alley at an opportune time or getting hammered (in all senses of the word) in a bar.
Early MMA sought to answer the question of which art could hold out in a street fight the best, and it sought to answer this in the most realistic manner possible-by introducing as little rules as necessary. You could wear gloves, or not. It was really up to you. In fact it was so up to you that Art Jimmerson decided to wear only one glove, leaving his other hand free to tap out to Royce Gracie at UFC 1.
Then in Japan, a major exporter of outrageous awesomeness, fight fans were treated to head stomps and soccer kicks that made warriors look like bobble head dolls.
If MMA was going to be as close to a real fight as possible it better be violent, it better have few rules and it better have head stomps. And Alex Davis can complain all he wants about grounded elbows but that’s not going to stop me from baying for blood, because blood is what you will expect in a real fight.
But a few things happened the past week that got me changing my mind about safety in MMA - the death of Dustin Jenson, Devin Johnson’s paralysis and listening to Matt Hume speak at the One Asia MMA Summit that took place in Singapore.
Organized by the ONE FC network, the One Asia MMA Summit saw fighters, coaches and owners from all the major MMA promotions, fight teams and gyms in the Asia Pacific, convene in Singapore to discuss the future of MMA in the region. In attendance were the owners of Japan’s Dream FC, Korea’s Road FC, Australia’s CFC and the Philippines’ URCC. Topics discussed ranged from the potential of MMA to explode in Asia with its population of 3.9 billion to the nuances of running a professional fight team like Mark Sangiao’s Team Lakay from the Philippines. A key discussion point was the role of safety in helping to develop the sport of MMA.
If there were anyone qualified to speak on safety and rules, it would be Matt Humes, who was formerly Rule Director for Pride FC, and now Chief Official and Head Referee for ONE FC. He took to the podium to deliver a master-class on the evolution of safety in MMA and how the rules of ONE FC were designed to meld the best in Unified rules from the West, and the soccer kicking action we so love from the East.
ONE FC differs from other promotions by rejecting the 10-point must rule. Rather than score fighters based on each round, fighters are scored for the entirety of a fight. The scoring is based on 5 distinctly ranked criteria, in descending order
- Near KO or Submission
- Striking Combinations and/or Superiority of Position in Ground Control
- Takedowns and Takedown Defense
This helps to move the action along and measures a fighter based on his effectiveness in finishing a fight, not showboating for 2 rounds and then getting lucky in the last. Legal grounded knee strikes also allow action to continue after fighters hit the deck, preventing lay-and-pray type snooze fests that we see far too often.
Thankfully, under ONE FC rules, a fighter may
head stomp or soccer kick a grounded opponent if the latter is intelligently defending himself, hence preventing serious injury while feeding the blood lust of the MMA fan looking for someone’s noggin to get kicked in. This is a call that the referee would have to make mid fight and highlights the importance of having well trained, experienced and competent referees, an area we don’t always think about.
As much as we enjoy the violence, and the visceral reality that MMA offers, we have to keep fighters safe to keep them in the cage and ring. Injuries rob us of potentially epic fights. The rematch between Wanderlei Silva and Vitor Belfort was 14 years in the making. Looks like we now have to wait a little bit more after Belfort broke his hand in training. Simply put, fighters cannot deliver highlight reel knockouts with broken hands. In Belfort’s case, they’re stopped even before they step in the cage.
Safety does not just protect fighters; it protects the promotions that provide them with opportunities to knock each other out by keeping government regulators at bay and the fight game in business.
Over the years audience numbers for MMA fans has grown exponentially and is expected to grow even further. CEO of ONE FC Victor Cui estimates that MMA will reach 500 million viewers across 28 countries in Asia. This means more money for the various fight promotions and their fighters who can now compete for larger purses. Much of that growth will be a result of MMA gaining wider acceptance within mainstream audiences and its increasing legitimacy as a sport. Safety and rules provide that legitimacy.
MMA has come a long way since its origins as a proving ground for an art’s efficacy in a real confrontation. It is time to concede that MMA is not a proxy for a real fight. In fact, it never was and never will be. When gangbangers are whaling on you, Herb Dean is not going to stop the fight just because you are no longer intelligently defending yourself. You do not get a break every five minutes and you do not gas out, you bleed out.
MMA has evolved into a sport, and like any other sport it needs to keep its athletes safe and rules in place to legitimize its existence. We love its violence, and let’s keep it that way, by making MMA safe.