I used to work in an office, the kind with a dress code, and much as I tried to keep quiet, I was "the weird guy who watches UFC stuff." Eventually, I found ways to talk about mixed martial arts to assure co-workers that I wasn't a sociopath: I emphasized the strategy and nuances of grappling, the all-purpose conditioning of MMA fighters that rivals athletes in any other discipline, the years of thankless devotion to craft that precede a fighter's first appearance in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. My favorite defense mechanism was (and still is) borderline cliché: MMA is pure competition, without bases or balls or nets for metaphors—a sport distilled to its essence.
During the days of the UFC's Spike TV ascendancy and blood-soaked commercials for The Ultimate Fighter, I also fielded their questions about how I could watch something so brutal and feel morally OK. The irony is that I was usually defending my love of a sport that occasionally leaves young men in unconscious heaps to people who ritually watched the same thing—the only difference was they watched on Sunday afternoons instead of Saturday nights, and the splayed-out bodies wore jerseys instead of board shorts.
Football is mainstream in a way that MMA will never be. The sports might occasionally share the same broadcast network and same lead-in theme song and Curt Menefee behind the mic, but they'll never share the same level of viewership or the same cultural currency. We like physicality, but we don't like blood. We don't mind big hits rendered with helmets, but we cringe when we see a concussion rendered with fists and on purpose. We applaud the moment and look away from the consequences. That will always make a large segment of spectators uncomfortable with the honesty of MMA—you want a roast beef sandwich but you don't want to look inside the slaughterhouse—and that discomfort makes MMA the morally superior sport.
Well, that's not entirely true. How do you gauge the morality of a sport in the first place, let alone measure it against another? The comparison is especially fraught because you're looking at two separate histories: football has been at the forefront of American life for half a century, while mixed martial arts has only resembled its present incarnation for 16 years or so. I'm also compromised by my own history as a spectator; I've only become a casual football watcher in the last eight years. Growing up, my dad devoted his Sundays to NASCAR. Watching cars circle a track made my head hurt, so I found MMA through a modem.
There are also the overwhelming, uncomfortable similarities. Football and MMA are both gladiatorial displays where athletes in peak physical condition hurt one another for our amusement. Both sports carry the risk of serious injury, death, and the insidious consequences of brain trauma. So far, at least 91 former NFL players have been posthumously diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that has been linked to the repetitive sub-concussive blows they suffer on the field every week. With the posthumous CTE diagnosis of Jordan Parsons, a 25-year-old featherweight who died in a hit-and-run car accident earlier this year, the disease made its first confirmed appearance in the brain of a former MMA fighter.
It would be surprising if there weren't more to come in MMA, and the lack of surprise stems from the nature of fighting itself. Watching the sport means looking at half-clothed humans sweat, bleed, raise their arms in victory, and wake up staring at the lights with gashes on their foreheads. Aside from the dubious refrain that "MMA is safer than boxing," head trauma has always been a concern in the sport because it's always been so visible. There are no helmets or headgear or anything beyond lightly gloved fists to suggest an enhanced degree of protection.
As a result, athletic commissions have imposed measures with respect to brain health, like MRIs in the pre-fight licensing process, and lengthy post-bout suspensions to dissuade fighters from fighting or sparring at a time when their brain is at heightened risk. Though imperfect, they at least show more awareness than an ethos that says suiting up to smash your body every Sunday is normal. Lately, that awareness has encouraged some fighters to change their training habits. While the all-out-brawls-as-fight-practice approach persists in high-profile gyms like the American Kickboxing Academy, hugely successful fighters like Donald Cerrone have curtailed or entirely cut out hard sparring, focusing on conditioning and controlled situational drills instead.
It's not that football doesn't have its own player safety protocols; it's that it's been such a high-profile adversary of owning up to what happens after the big hits. In MMA, anything resembling a concussion generally means the referee stops the fight. In the NFL, it just means a doctor is going to wave a flashlight in your eyes, and you'll still be back out there to fumble a couple of plays later. Consider, also, that young children train in MMA's watered-down components, but subjecting them to the sport's full concussive rigors before adulthood is the kind of shit only your sadistic strongman father would do. Meanwhile, a NFL player already has suffered a lifetime's worth of head trauma to his still-developing brain before he graduates high school.
The NFL's efforts to obfuscate the consequences of concussions and other head trauma were so awful that every subsequent effort to address brain injury, including a $1 million donation for the study of CTE and a billion-dollar concussion lawsuit payout, looks inadequate. Compare that with the UFC's $1 million backing of the Cleveland Clinic's Professional Fighters Brain Health Study, an effort that began in 2011 to examine how repetitive head trauma impacts MMA fighters through the years, without any scandal or cover-up spurring it along.
With football at times a sanctuary for the kind of toxic, outdated macho attitudes that enable a certain segment of people to have sympathy for Richie Incognito, MMA's social culture looks downright progressive. After UFC president Dana White vowed to never showcase women's divisions, the rise of Ronda Rousey and her elevation into a feminist icon turned MMA into a vehicle for gender empowerment almost by accident. Seven years ago, White called a journalist a "faggot." He apologized; years later, he still said saying that word was his biggest regret. Now fighters are roundly criticized for using sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic slurs, sometimes facing official penalties as a result. Gay fighters have quietly become contenders and at least one has become a champion without the promotion drawing unseemly attention.
All of this is secondary to the sport itself. In MMA, inelegant violence doesn't suffice. There's an arms race of athleticism within the sport, and the idiots who would otherwise watch Bum Fights and Worldstar clips like masturbating monkeys would eventually lose interest. (The single-digit UFC era is physical comedy at this point.) And as rare as it is, there's a place in MMA for people who don't like to hit other people so much. Consider that Demian Maia, a Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt and a top welterweight contender, headlined a UFC event this summer, won with a choke, and threw only five strikes in the process. Instead of being obliged to brutalize the opposition at the line of scrimmage, MMA offers legitimate ways to win without trauma and with humanity.
Football, of course, has its own drama and beauty—that's why I watch it from time to time. And there's a huge issue where pro football has the moral high ground: money. The NFL Players Association ensures a close to even split of revenues between the league and its players, while analysts have estimated the UFC, which recently sold for $4 billion, pays its roster—all independent contractors without a union or association—closer to 15 percent.
The two sports also share sins. Both attract truly awful people, from Aaron Hernandez to War Machine. For all the criticisms that NFL safety equipment encourages players to perform riskier and more damaging feats, the same is true in MMA: the tiny padded gloves—the one measure that's arguably done the most to make such a raw sport palatable to a scared viewership—ensure you can rattle your opponent's skull more times without breaking your hand than you would with bare fists. With a growing understanding that MMA as well as football can leave athletes beaten, broken, and broke, we're obligated as spectators to decide what degree of harm to our fellow man we're willing to stomach.
So is MMA really more moral than football? I don't know. It's certainly less hypocritical to watch. Humans punching humans in the face is elemental to our species, but football lures us into thinking it's something else. We'll watch the defensive line pummel running backs for four quarters, but if the players brawl in the end zone, we'll shake our heads for the violation of decorum. It's an ugly accident. In MMA, that would've been the point all along, and no one could pretend otherwise.
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