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Legalizing mixed martial arts in New York shouldn't be a steel-caged matchPosted on Thu, Jan 20, 2011 at 7:36 am
by IDMA Editor
Is the city that never sleeps ready for sleeper holds? This year, the New York State Legislature will consider legalizing mixed martial arts (MMA) competitions. Most states have already sanctioned the growing sport; New York has banned it since 1997.
The reason for this caution is simple: MMA is seen as a "human cockfight," to paraphrase Sen. John McCain. Its combination of punches, kicks, throws and locks look uncivilized. For many, it is a symbol of dim-witted thuggery.
This attitude is understandable, since MMA is a full-contact sport that involves physical force.
But appearances are deceptive. Like boxing, MMA is tightly regulated and closely refereed. In fact, a Johns Hopkins study concluded that MMA has a lower likelihood of brain trauma than boxing - which is legal in New York.
MMA has an excellent safety record precisely because it isn't a free-for-all. There are rules about when fighters can strike, and for how long. Strikes to the groin and eyes are banned, and many matches end with competitors "tapping out," which is less damaging than repeated head strikes.
In short, what looks like a cockfight is actually a relatively healthy sport. It is also international, with fighters and fans from all over the world contributing to its popularity. MMA would be at home at Madison Square Garden, alongside the famous Golden Gloves.
MMA would also be a financial boon. A study commissioned by the Ultimate Fighting Championship concluded that an MMA bout in the city would bring more than $10 million in "net new" economic activity.
And the sport has a number of bona fide virtues, making it worthy of philosophical defense.
The physical virtues are obvious. Competitors must be strong, fast and agile. They have a sprinter's lungs, a weightlifter's shoulders and a gymnast's legs - all while keeping their dukes up. They move decisively from boxing to Judo to wrestling, often while coping with pain, exhaustion and pressure. They show the human body at its most swift and robust.
There are also ethical virtues. To compete in MMA requires courage. Cowardice or foolhardiness won't do. Fighters must face danger with diligence and skill.
Another virtue is restraint: You commit to a forceful punch or tight lock, but walk away once the fight is won. MMA thrives on mutual trust and cooperation.
Generosity is also encouraged. The best fighters, like Canadian George Saint-Pierre, are upfront about their own talent - and their opponents'. They neither gush with praise nor withhold it. To win, they must recognize passion, skill and willpower when they see them. Pettiness is no aid.
Temperance is another virtue: keeping one's body healthy. Anger and brute strength are not enough to win. MMA requires meticulousness in eating and drinking, as well as patience in training. If only more Americans had the fighter's disdain for sodas and snacks.
Not every fighter exemplifies these traits. There are unfit, cruel, egotistical fighters - just as there are such athletes in every sport. Still, MMA encourages bona fide virtues.
Finally, it is beautiful. This is not obvious to the uninitiated, but MMA can be mesmerizing: The precision of a Royce Gracie take-down, the rhythm of a Chuck Liddell jab and hook combination, the balletic arc of a Mirko (CroCop) Filipovic kick, the elegance of Randy Couture's strategies. For martial artists, this has an embodied, tactile allure.
MMA cannot accomplish miracles. It will not necessarily turn thugs into sages or make cowards brave. It has its share of arrogant promoters and blinkered fighters.
However, these are reasons for tight industry standards, not for outright banning. Mixed martial arts is no cockfight: It's a safe, profitable, often-virtuous combat sport. It's well worth fighting for.