Wednesday, December 5, 2012

One and a Half Cheers for MMA

I find myself somewhat conflicted on the subject of mixed martial arts, like the Ultimate Fighting Championships.

Far and away the best thing about them is that they've proven incredibly useful as a vast experiment in the most effective hand-to-hand combat techniques. Previously, all you had was a bunch of different martial arts - boxing, karate, jiu jitsu, what have you - and you'd just pick whatever one seemed cool to you. You'd spend ages developing techniques in that style, and learn how to counter the attacks of someone else coming at you with the same set of moves.

But this left almost completely unanswered the far more important question of what the inherent weaknesses of the style were. In other words, suppose you perfected the techniques of that particular style. What weaknesses would that leave you open to if you were attacked by someone who wasn't limiting themselves to attacking you in the same way that you were planning to attack them?

Hand-to-hand combat instructors, including places like the military, have been interested in this question for ages, and indeed had developed training that was a synthesis of a number of different styles. But UFC really caused this exploration process to explode. By providing a television spectacle and large cash prizes, it gave big incentives for the best fighters in the world to actually explore and come up with different combinations of techniques. The range of styles currently used covers a bunch of principal components (if you will) of martial arts space: ground-and-pound, submission grappling, sprawl-and-brawl (apparently rhyming names have proved popular), etc. These may not have a rich pedigree of historical tradition, but is there really any doubt that learning any one of these would prove vastly more effective than just perfecting a single traditional style?

One of the big lessons that came out of the early UFC rounds is that a lot of traditional martial arts (boxing, karate, muay thai) work great when you're both standing on your feet, but are virtually useless if the guy takes you to the ground. Which, if he's doing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, he will. And then your training will have very little to say about what you should do. MMA has injected a lot of life into the intellectual question of fighting styles, and forced a bunch of fossilised martial arts to consider honestly what their strengths and weaknesses are.

So that's cheer #1.

Cheer #2, which is really half a cheer, is related to cheer #1. As MMA has become more popular, people have started to learn MMA directly, rather than studying other fighting styles. To the extent that I think that these MMA synthesis styles are better for self-defense, this is a good thing. If you're going to have to defend yourself in a bar, you want to have the most effective way possible. And giving people knowledge that they think will help them defend themselves can actually make them worse, if it causes them to get in more fights because they think (incorrectly) that they'll win.

Did you ever notice that Bruce Lee isn't often seen fighting his way up from the ground in movies, or dealing with guys holding him in grappling moves? Do you wonder why that is? It's not that it's not possible to keep standing up. It's that you're in a lot of trouble if your fighting style relies on both people standing up and being at a distance from each other, and you don't know how to stop the other guy taking you to the ground or getting you in a clinch hold. You're in even more trouble if you're a guy who's learned karate and gets in a fight without having given this some thought in advance. MMA thus ensures that you know better what you'll actually be up against.

The only slight hitch here is that I think that MMA practitioners don't think fully about the implicit restrictions that MMA places on fights which a bar fight does not. To a lesser extent, this is particular moves like eye gouging, small joint manipulation, groin attacks etc. But the much bigger one is the ability to deal with multiple attackers at once. Skills like taking the other guy to ground in a choke hold are immensely useful in a one-on-one fight. They are disastrous if the guy has three friends around who will kick you in the head as you perform the choke hold on the ground. The more people are attacking you, the more 'stay on your feet at all costs' becomes a crucial principle.

That's okay though. People can figure that out. Overall, I'm a pretty big fan of MMA in the abstract, and am interested in what it reveals about fighting styles. So what's the issue?

The problem is that I just find it rather gross and distasteful to actually watch. Just to check, I went over to the UFC website. The current headline was "Free fight - Shogun stomps his way to a pride title", where the photo showed the guy in question stomping on his opponent, who was on the ground. The bout ended, as it usually does, with one guy on the ground being punched in the face over and over until the referee calls it off. And I just can't help but find this barbarous and unpleasant to look at. Every now and again, one of those guys on the ground is actually being beaten to death. Sure, it's rare, but it's still troubling that during every one of those deaths, the crowd was cheering the guy on doing the beating.

In other words, what I find the most gross about these events is the crowd. I personally don't like watching guys beat the hell out of each other. But lots of other people apparently do. You can dress it up in fancy terms like watching the skill and the spectacle, but at its heart, the appeal is the same as that of the circus maximus, nature documentaries where one animal hunts and kills another, and every other kind of blood porn. People find it exhilarating to watch one creature attack and kill another.

The guys in the ring are professional athletes. They know the risks, and they're paid handsomely for what they do. That's fine. It's their job.

The guys in the audience, on the other hand, are there because they like watching people hurt each other. And try as I might, I can see nothing at all to celebrate in their behaviour. People are of course free to exercise their liberty however they want. But it takes a particularly obtuse sort of libertarian to not consider the possibility that a society where more people exercise their freedom to watch the ballet might have more to recommend than one where people exercise their freedom to watch a boxing match.

This may be human nature, but it's a particularly dark side of human nature, and not one I think ought to be celebrated.

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