Despite the inherent violence and risk involved in mixed martial arts, the sport and its proponents aren’t going anywhere, according to Jonathan Gottschall, author of “The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch.”
“It’s a fantasy that we’re going to abolish combat sports,” said Gottschall, whose book about his MMA experience was published in April by Penguin Press. “People like them. The competitors like them. They’ve been around for as long as we’ve charted human history. I don’t think they’re going away.”
Schenectady may host its first MMA event in September, but while mixed martial arts fights are allowed in New York state, Ultimate Fighting Championships, the professional version of the sport created in 1993 in Las Vegas, is not.
New York is the only state in the union that continues to outlaw UFC matches, but according to Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, change is on the horizon.
Santabarbara sponsored a bill in the state legislature earlier this year that would have legalized UFC, and while it passed in the Republican-led Senate, 47-14, it never came up for a vote in the Democratic-led Assembly.
“I was surprised and disappointed as one of the members that was pushing hard for the bill right up to the very end,” said Santabarbara. “We had an extended session and I was hoping it would come to the floor on the last day but it didn’t happen. But we’re going to keep on fighting and try again early in the next season to get it on the floor.”
Santabarbara is confident that after a good debate weighing all the pros and cons, the bill legalizing UFC will pass the Assembly and became state law.
“In many ways the sport is already here,” he said. “I’ve been to mixed martial arts events in Albany and Amsterdam and seen the sport first hand, and I think there is growing support for it in the Assembly. Right now New York is missing out on tourism dollars because people have to go to New Jersey or Pennsylvania or some other state. All those dollars that could be spent in New York are going to another state.”
There’s no denying that mixed martial arts, especially the UFC variety, is violent. That violence, however, is something that’s a part of our culture according to Gottschall, a literature professor at Washington and Jefferson College who trained for three years in the sport, fought one fight, and then wrote a book about it. As for it’s morality and legality, Gottschall has mixed emotions.
“I have complicated feelings about it,” he said. “Anyone who watches any kind of blood sport, boxing, kick boxing, or MMA, and watches it closely and sensitively, is going to have a reaction of ambivalence. There is something quite wonderful about these sports. They’re a showcase for courage and skill, heart and an indomitable will. At the same time, there’s something really ugly about it. It’s bloody and it can be fairly savage.”
Like boxing and football, Gottschall concedes there is no doubt about the neurological repercussions faced by its participants. Still, he doesn’t think it should be banned.
“On the whole I am a supporter, mainly at the grass roots level,” he said. “The UFC is only the tip of the iceberg. It’s a very small smidgen of the sport, and there is a huge mass of amateurs that for the most part aren’t inflicting the kind of damage that the pros are. But the young guys that are doing it, it’s not for fame or fortune. They’re looking for this test for life, a dangerous quest. They want to slay a dragon and this sport gives it to them.”
Latham’s Danny Ferris, now 58, fought as a welterweight boxer during the sport’s glory days in the Capital Region back in the 1980s. He’s not a fan of mixed martial arts, suggesting the sport isn’t the science that boxing is.
“I don’t see the sense or the contribution it makes to anything that would resemble a sport,” said Ferris, who went 30-2-1 over an eight-year professional career in the ring. “ It’s organized street fighting. People seem to enjoy the brutality of the event. It’s not for me, either as a competitor if I were younger or as a spectator now that I’m older.”
Mechelle Smith, a Schenectady native who won 14 national titles and 4 world championships in judo, includes cardio kick boxing in her classes at Mechelle’s Way Taekwondo in Schenectady. And while she has many friends who compete in mixed martial arts, it’s not something she ever felt drawn toward.
“I don’t think I know enough about mixed martial arts to give my opinion, but what I like about the traditional martial arts is the respect aspect of it,” she said. “The non-violence aspect of it. We do have competitions and there are knockouts and people do get hurt. I’ve knocked out people. But with traditional martial arts you have a tradition behind it. Every bout begins with a bow and a handshake, and every bout ends with a bow and a handshake.”
Albany businessman Tim Rankins runs Cage Wars, a group that stages amateur MMA events in the Capital Region and around the state. He appreciates the concern voiced by detractors of the sport, but he feels that MMA is less dangerous than boxing, which is sanctioned by the state.
“In boxing, there’s a bull’s eye on your head the whole time,” said Rankins, who says he is hopeful of bringing a Cage Wars event to the Schenectady Armory in September. “You get stunned, you get knocked down, you have 10 seconds to get up and get your head together and then take some more pounding. In MMA, a lot of the time you’re wrestling. You’re not trading shots to the head all the time.”
Gottschall backed up Rankins’ assertion that MMA is safer than boxing.
“I think people who think about this seriously, will tell you that mixed martial arts, while it may look worse, is, for a variety of reasons, probably safer, especially for your brain,” he said. “Boxing matches are 10 to 12 rounds, so they’re 30 to 36 minutes long. A professional MMA fight is going to go 15 minutes at the most. There’s much less time to do damage, and to be honest, what boxing is is a brain damage contest. That’s how you win. Even when you hit to the body, you’re trying to open things up to get to the head. The winner is the guy who can dish out the most brain damage and who can best manage getting hit in the head.”
Rankins has put together more than 30 MMA events since creating Cage Wars six years ago. He’ll typically draw between 700 and 1,000 people for his shows, but feels that making professional MMA legal will only make the sport safer.
“Fighter safety is really important to us, but there are other promoters around the state that do a disservice,” he said. “We err on the side of caution, we carry insurance on all of our fighters in case they get hurt, and we properly match people. We don’t put somebody in who has two bouts with some guy who has 20. We really look out for the guys, and if the sport was legalized there would be higher standards around the state. Fighter safety is paramount for us. Most of these guys are personal friends of mine. I don’t want to see them hurt.”
Rankins said that violent clips shown on television focusing on the brutality of the sport are a bit misleading.
“We don’t let it get to that extant,” he said. “If the guy isn’t defending himself, it’s over. We’ve never had anyone seriously hurt in over 30 shows.”
That’s not the case every where. There have been 11 deaths recorded in the sport’s professional and amateur ranks, including six since 2012. And, according to a study by the American Journal of Sports Medicine, about a third of professional MMA fights end in a knockout or technical knockout, indicating a higher incidence of brain trauma than boxing or other martial arts. The study, done by researchers at the University of Toronto, was called “somewhat flawed” by UFC head Lawrence Epstein.
Rob Grier, who teaches a variety of martial arts courses at the Schenectady Ring of Hope in the Crosstown Plaza, feels the danger connected to MMA isn’t any worse than the risks involved in boxing, judo or wrestling.
“The sport has evolved a bit, and to me it’s just as safe as any martial art,” he said. “In judo these Olympians will pick you up and slam you on the mat, so there you’re looking at spinal cord injuries. There are dangers in every sport. Look at polo. Every sport has some risk involved.”
While women also participate in MMA bouts, their numbers are not nearly as high as the men’s. Albany Cage Wars will typically have 15 fights on a program, and as many as three of them will involve women.
Rankins hopes that one day in the future he will be able to promote professional MMA matches, including athletes like Ronda Rousey, who was in Albany earlier this year lobbying the state legislature.
“It’d be great to bring her into Albany, but I don’t know if the politicians will allow it,” said Rankins. “Right now we have a bunch of old men writing legislation about a sport they completely don’t understand. After years of anticipating that they’re going to legalize it, I don’t feel that optimistic anymore. It’s really sad because it’s a great sport.”