Pankration, the ancient Greek precursor to modern-day mixed martial arts, made its debut at the Olympics sometime in the seventh century BC. Taking its name from the Greek word for “all powers,” Pankration was the first competitive anything-goes fighting sport, famous for its blend of boxing and wrestling and its barely there rules (that there were rules at all bothered some purists, including the Spartans, who boycotted the Olympic Pankration competition when they learned that biting and eye-gouging wouldn’t be allowed). Since Pankration was the “manliest” sport in a rough-and-tumble era, those who did take part often chose death over the shame of submitting to their opponents’ chokes. Legend has it that one early champion fought a lion. Another, a Minotaur. It was, as they say, a different time.
When the modern Olympics were inaugurated in 1896, the no-holds-barred brutality of Pankration didn’t jibe with the event’s new spirit of enlightened internationalism, so the sport was left on the trash heap of history, a relic from a more brutish time, I guess. As a consequence, in 2012, fans of the Olympics can watch athletes competing in many of the disciplines that make up mixed martial arts—wrestling, boxing, judo, and taekwondo—but not mixed martial arts itself. This is one of the great ironies of MMA: Take the time and effort to master one fighting style and you’re revered; take the time and effort to master all of them and you’re an animal.
So, with mixed martial arts becoming one of the biggest sports in the world, and half of the sports it’s made of already long-established summer events, isn’t it about time it got its own place in the Olympics? Many say it does but I’m not so sure.
Earlier this week, I watched a few rounds of Olympic judo. Since the matches were streaming online, there was no commentary. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever watched a judo match, but without previous knowledge or professional commentary the sport is all but inscrutable. It feels like the combat version of a tea ceremony or a floral arrangement ritual, with strange rules and customs. Points are scored when one fighter tosses the other to the ground cleanly, though I couldn’t figure out what the definition of “cleanly” was exactly, or when one fighter accumulates too many penalties. These penalties are assessed for any number of reasons, some reasonable, some bizarre. For example, one female judoka won her gold medal after the judge decided that her opponent had tripped her in an unsafe manner. Fair enough, I thought: it seems like a strange way to win a fight, but safety first, I suppose. Another, however, lost her match because (and I’m almost positive of this) she was taking too much time rearranging the belt on her uniform.
I don’t mean any disrespect to judo practitioners (I’m a fan of a quality hip toss), but if that’s what combat sports are like in the Olympics (delicate, ceremonial, fussy), I can’t even imagine what the response would be to an ugly MMA fight, like the awful beating Mauricio “Shogun” Rua took from Jon “Bones” Jones or the epic five-round bruiser Rua fought with Dan Henderson, at the end of which both men looked like they’d brushed up against death. Such events would be traumatic experiences for Olympic audiences used to the thrill of the 200-meter individual medley and the agony of doubles badminton.
Could you imagine—the stunned looks, the open mouths, the covered eyes, the horrible silence, the scandal? I can still remember when the Olympics nearly ground to a halt in 1988 after Greg Louganis hit his head on a diving board. How people recoiled in horror when Zola Budd bumped into Mary Decker in the 3000-meter track final in 1984? What will casual Olympics fans (not sports fans, but two-weeks-every-four-years Olympics fans, who spend the other 206 weeks ignoring gymnastics and beach volleyball) do the first time they see an MMA competitor grab an opponent in a Thai clinch and start throwing knees? Will they fall in love with the sport the way I did? Or will they rebel at the first broken nose, at the first guillotine choke, at all that blood (in MMA, as in tragedy, the blood is compulsory)? Of course it’s going to be scenario No. 2! Phone calls will be made and editorials will be written and protests will be arranged and the International Olympic Committee will tremble and mixed martial arts will find itself right back where it was 20 years ago: on America’s radar—its disapproving, dear-god-think-of-the-children little yenta of a radar.
Besides, does MMA really want the sanitized, mainstream legitimacy that comes with Olympic status? UFC President Dana White and International Mixed Martial Arts Federation President August Whallen say yes—Whallen because it would bring legitimacy to a sport stuck on the fringes of most of the world’s imagination, and White because it would be an enormous promotional boon to his business. But it sounds like a devil’s bargain to me: What good is it for a sport to gain worldwide marketing appeal if it loses its soul?
In an IOC-approved MMA, would fighters be required to wear headgear? Shin guards? Would an Olympics audience stomach ground and pound? Would the IOC outlaw elbows to cut down on bleeding? Would they eliminate head kicks to lessen the chances of flash knockouts or submissions to limit opportunities for serious injuries? And if so, at what point does a sport stop being itself and become something else? Everything that makes MMA MMA is exactly what would make it impossible for the IOC to stomach: it’s brutal and violent and terrifying and harrowing and dangerous and completely wrong for the safety-first world of Olympic competition. Maybe it’s time to admit that cage-fighting isn’t family-friendly entertainment meant to go down easy like water polo or the long jump. Maybe it’s time to admit that MMA is something darker than that.