Mark Dirscoll the mega-popular mega-Pastor at Mars Hills Church explains in depth the reasons he thinks MMA is good for Christians. It’s a great article. Mark Driscoll is one of my favorites.
A Christian Evaluation of Mixed Martial Arts
Preface: This blog post is long. Since Mixed Martial Arts is a fast-growing phenomenon, it deserves some thoughtful Christian reflection. And, since many people with strong opinions about it have very little knowledge of the sport, I’m trying in this post to not assume any level of understanding about the sport. For those who disagree with me, consider whether or not your online posts in reply would constitute verbally fighting against physical fighting and ask yourself why one would be so much more “holy” than the other?
Saturday, November 12, is the biggest day in the history of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). On that day, the sport will go mainstream as the premiere brand, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), debuts on FOX TV and is broadcast without a pay wall.
MMA, also known as cage fighting or ultimate fighting, is the fastest-growing sport among the coveted demographic of young men in their twenties and thirties. Now under contract with FOX and their affiliates, FX and Fuel, I expect the sport to explode in popularity.
The Roots of MMA
MMA finds its history in ancient sports like pankration and wrestling and more recent sports like boxing, muay thai, karate, jiu-jitsu, Taekwondo, sombo, and judo. In 1993, a tournament called UFC 1 was held in Denver to answer the question of which martial art is the best in the world. At that time, unlike today, various combat sport practitioners were only versed in one discipline. So, the idea was born that if world-class athletes from each discipline were allowed to fight, the world would once-and-for-all know which combat sport was the best.
At that time, the sport did not have some of the rules or the weight classes that it does today, as it has matured. But much to everyone’s surprise, it wasn’t the much bigger and more physically imposing men who won the tournament. Instead, it was a slender 175-pound Brazilian jiu-jitsu expert from a renowned combat sporting family named Royce Gracie. He continually defeated much larger men by taking them down and putting them in submission holds most of the world had not seen.
I’ve been a fan of MMA since the early days of the sport, renting DVDs years ago of MMA pioneers Royce Gracie, Tank Abbott, Kimo, Ken Shamrock, and Don Frye. I also was a big fan of Pride Fighting during its run.
Today, there remains much controversy around the sport due to what I believe are two primary reasons. One, many people simply do not understand the rules in place to help make MMA safer for the athletes. Two, it’s a new sport and will take some time and the kind of exposure that main events on FOX will provide to quiet some critics.
Things began to change for MMA when Spike TV aired the first season of the reality series The Ultimate Fighter in 2005. The show followed a group of UFC hopefuls as they competed for a contract with the organization. Fighters divided into different training camps and at the end of each episode a member from one team fought someone from the other team. The winner would stay in the competition, and the loser would go home. The show marked the first time viewers could watch MMA outside of pay-per-view and helped to educate viewers about the UFC. The Ultimate Fighter served as a catalyst to make MMA a mainstream, popular sport, and great advertising and publicity for the sport followed the advent of the show. The tipping point of popularity came when Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar stood toe-to-toe in an epic battle of heart and will in the first Ultimate Fighter championship bout.
In the US, MMA has gained mainstream popularity, and the UFC specifically now has cable-television and pay-per-view contracts on six continents. Programming can also be found on Spike, Versus, FOX, and ESPN in over 170 countries worldwide. There are several flourishing MMA organizations in existence apart from UFC, such as K-1, DREAM, and Bellator. These are just a few of many, as the sport now has smaller regional shows all over the world.
Mixed martial artists are also acquiring celebrity status and accepting lucrative endorsements for gear, workouts, and dietary supplements. MMA has a presence with DVDs (nearly all UFC events have been released on DVD), video games (e.g., UFC: Tapout, UFC: Throwdown, UFC: Personal Trainer), books (autobiographies and histories), and even action figures (e.g., of fighters such Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Matt Hughes, Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture, and Anderson Silva). Further, MMA personalities are gaining exposure in various forms of media. For instance, Tim Kennedy made a guest appearance on an episode of “Deadliest Warrior” on Spike TV, simulating combat tactics.
The Redemption of MMA
Since the mid-1990s, when we started Mars Hill Church, I’ve continually used three categories to help Christians think through cultural issues: receive, reject, or redeem. My belief is that MMA can be redeemed as a sport for a Christian.
Some Christians will vocally declare that we must reject MMA. Sometimes it’s because they simply do not understand the nature of the sport and misperceive it, and other times it’s because they are pacifists theologically who don’t condone violence in any form. Their picture of Jesus is basically a guy in a dress with fabulous long hair, drinking decaf and in touch with his feelings, who would never hurt anyone. The problem is that Jesus probably had short hair (1 Corinthians 11 says it was a disgrace in that day for a man to have long hair), was in good shape from a labor job and lots of walking across rugged terrain, and upon his return will come again not in humility but rather in glory. Revelation 19:11–18 explains that day saying,
Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.
Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly directly overhead, “Come, gather for the great supper of God, to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, both small and great.”
Simply, on his first trip to the earth Jesus took a beating to atone for sin; on his next trip he will hand them out to unrepentant sinners instead.
Additionally, some argue that we should reject MMA because some aspects of the sport stem from Eastern religions and philosophy. Indeed, this was some of the pushback on my recent post on yoga, “Christian Yoga? It’s a Stretch.” To this I would agree on a certain level. I would not encourage anyone to study under a teacher who, in addition to combat techniques, was also pushing non-Christian philosophies and Eastern spirituality. As stated earlier, MMA involves a host of various combat traditions, including disciplines such as wrestling and boxing that do not have roots in Eastern religion. Further, as I stated in the yoga post, it’s wholly acceptable for Christians to engage in the physical aspects of stretching, including yoga-type stretches, without engaging in the practice of yoga itself as it’s been understood and practiced for thousands of years. My further caution was to not use the word yogasince it has such religious and cultural background that is antithetical to Christianity. Similarly, one can practice combat sports and learn various techniques without immersing oneself in the philosophy and culture of such activities.
Not everyone should participate in MMA, watch it, or even enjoy it. The Bible doesn’t command us to, and God’s people are free to operate according to conscience on this matter. But the controversy around MMA provides us an opportunity to consider a Christian perspective on sports in general. As I see it, there are four basic categories of sport.
1. Competitive Sports
Competitive sports don’t have any physical contact and include tennis, golf, track, and so forth.
2. Contact Sports
Contact sports have occasional, moderate physical contact. Examples would include basketball (where there’s a lot of boxing out and contact), baseball (where someone can be upended turning a double play or a catcher can be run over on a close play at the plate), or soccer (where there is a lot of jostling for position).
3. Collision Sports
Collision sports have occasional intense or even violent physical contact. Examples would include sports such as American football, Australian-rules football, rugby, and hockey.
4. Combat Sports
Combat sports have nearly constant physical contact that can escalate to violent physical contact. Examples would include wrestling, boxing, muay thai, judo, karate, and sombo.
As Christians, the question is, where is the line to be drawn and why? I would argue the line should be drawn wherever one’s conscience permits. But to bind everyone with your conscience is to do what the Bible forbids. All of God’s people are to obey all of God’s Word, and beyond that we are to operate according to conscience.
Many Christians are involved in MMA as their conscience dictates. I, for example, have had multiple conversations with Matt “The Law” Lindland, who was an early UFC fighter after winning an Olympic silver medal in wrestling. He’s become a friend, and I can assure you he is a growing Christian who also runs Team Quest in Portland, Oregon. On one occasion I also got to sit down and interview early UFC fighter, Ken Shamrock. He was very open about his faith and his testimony was powerful. A rough kid without a dad growing up, he was brought in and adopted by a godly man who taught him the Bible and loved him. He spoke very fondly of his adoptive father and articulated a genuine Christian faith.
Ben Henderson is a known devoted Christian who sees fighting sports as a means to share his beliefs. He is known to quote scripture (e.g., Phil. 4:13) after bouts, and even walks into each fight to gospel songs. Henderson said of the gospel music, “Through music, that’s one way I like to proclaim my faith. I try not to be overly pushy, but let people know. . .I’m not the best at converting people, but what I can do is live my life a certain way. . . I don’t do the club scene, I don’t go to bars. By people seeing that, that affects them in a bigger way than me talking about it.” Henderson also spends time honoring his busy mother by helping relieve her from long shifts at the convenience store she owns. Henderson has spoken publicly about his Christian upbringing, saying his mother brought him up in the church and that he attended youth group. As Ben got older and was in college, he decided Christianity was the right choice for him after being exposed to “other perspectives.”
Recorded from Spike TV is a five-minute clip of Ben reading Psalm 23 with workout and fight footage. The clip shows Henderson going to church, working out, explaining his Psalm 144:1 tattoo, and reverently talking about his faith: “Before all my fights, the only thing I pray for is strength and honor. . .I’m not one of those guys who is about the violence and. . .idolizing the lifestyle of money and fame. A lot people, when they fight, they’re afraid of losing. I realize there’s something more important in my life. So I don’t fight to not to lose, I fight to win.” Henderson’s coach, John Crouch, says of Ben, “I think he’s doing it [MMA], because in his heart, he’s God’s warrior.”
Jon Jones is perhaps the most exciting fighter on the planet today and one of my favorite fighters to watch. He also sports a tattoo of Philippians 4:13 on his chest. That verse says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Renowned Brazilian UFC champion Vitor Belfort tells the story of his MMA career and faith in Christ in this powerful, well-produced, five-minute video on I Am Second. In this interview, Vitor shares his spiritual journey, which has been marked by great pain, but nonetheless Jesus has been the only true source of peace and joy for Vitor.
Vitor’s sister, Priscilla, disappeared in Brazil in 2004, and it was later discovered she was kidnapped, raped, and murdered. Belfort struggled, “My heart was getting hard and bitter. I wanted revenge. I was hurt, and I wanted a solution for my pain. . .I started praying and started a strong fire with God. My heart is so peaceful.” This faith spurs Belfort to encourage others to experience a saving relationship with Jesus.
On his website, Belfort shares his “favorite book is Wild at Heart by John Eldredge [because it is] a great book about a man’s journey to faith.” Vitor also responds to the question, “Who is your inspiration?” by saying, “Jesus! He is my guidance—the light that helps me towards the future. I could not do what I do without his help.”
In addition to fighters identifying with Jesus, some MMA clothing promotes him too. The well-known brand “Jesus Didn’t Tap” was one of the first Christian-based MMA clothing companies and features shirts with imagery of Jesus choking Satan and being crucified, and sporting slogans like, “Jesus Loves Me and My New Tattoos,” “Warrior Of God,” and “Get a Hold of Your Life.”
Perhaps the most common reason some Christians oppose MMA is that they consider it simply too dangerous. However, MMA events are supervised by trained referees and ringside physicians and governed by the established rules, including weight classes, limited rounds per match, proper safety gear, and the banning of dangerous techniques. Even though injuries are unavoidable, MMA competitions have changed dramatically since UFC 1 in 1993. The overall injury rate in MMA competitions is now similar to other combat sports. What’s more is that knockout rates are lower in MMA competitions than in boxing, and this fact indicates a reduced risk of traumatic brain injuries.
Comparatively, cheerleading is the most dangerous sport for females. High school cheerleading accounts for 65.1 percent of all catastrophic (which counts fatal, disabling, and other serious injuries) sports injuries among high school females over the past twenty-five years, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research. In short, cheerleading (competitive cheer) is more dangerous than one might think, and MMA is surprisingly safe. The difference in safety lies largely in the promotion and public perception of the sports. Each year there are more recorded injuries in cheerleading than in MMA (however, one must note that there are not equal numbers of participants).
Other research indicates that not only is cheerleading potentially dangerous but the trend of its injuries is also rising sharply. The Consumer Product Safety Commission took emergency room data from 114 hospitals and found the number visits for cheerleading injuries jumped from 4,954 in 1980 to 28,414 in 2004. Similarly, a study from the journal Pediatrics in 2006 found emergency room incidents with cheerleading injuries rose from 10,900 in 1990 to 22,900 in 2002—a 110-percent increase. Yet, we are not seeing the same public outcry against cheerleading that we are against MMA.
The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine Department of Emergency Medicine recently published a report of a five-year study of injuries sustained during sanctioned MMA competition that took place in Nevada. The conclusion: the overall risk of critical sports-related injury appears low:
During the 635 professional MMA matches, 300 of the 1,270 athletes sustained documented injuries with an injury rate of 23.6 per 100 fight participations. Most common reported injuries were lacerations and upper extremity injuries. Severe concussion rate was 15.4 per 1,000 athlete exposures, or 3% of all matches. No deaths or critical sports-related injuries resulted from any of the regulated matches during the study period. Age, weight, and fight experience did not statistically increase the likelihood of injuries after controlling for other covariates.
American football, by comparison, appears to be more dangerous.
A 2000 study surveyed 1,090 former N.F.L. players and found more than 60 percent had suffered at least one concussion in their careers and 26 percent had had three or more. A 2007 study conducted by the University of North Carolina’s Center for the Study of Retired Athletes found that of the 595 retired N.F.L. players who recalled sustaining three or more concussions on the football field, 20.2 percent said they had been found to have depression. That is three times the rate of players who have not sustained concussions.
In contrast to other combat sports such as boxing, MMA competitions have thetapout, which enables the participant to stop the competition at any time. The tapout is the second most common means of ending a MMA competition and, combined with more options of attack when competing, it’s thought to help explain a knockout proportion in MMA competitions that is almost half of that reported for professional boxing matches in Nevada (when TKOs are compared, proportions between professional boxing—38 percent—and MMA are similar).
Compared to boxing, MMA records less brain injuries. One study stated that “while professional boxers may show brain functional impairment in comparison to normal subjects, judoists do not.” A second study confirmed these findings, concluding, “There is no evidence of permanent central nervous system changes due to judo practice and choking.” A different three-year study (from 2001 to 2004) by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine followed 171 matches and 220 fighters. The study recorded lower knockout rates compared to boxing, which prevents brain injury in MMA events.
The Sports Injury Bulletin cited a ten-year a study (done by Dr. George Buse) published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that indicated 40 percent of MMA matches ended with at least one injured fighter. Yet, (often minor) facial cuts were the most common injury (48 percent), followed by hand (13 percent), nose (10 percent), and eye (8 percent) injuries. The findings indicated an overall injury rate of 28.6 injuries (with some being very minor) per 100 fight participations, which is similar to other combat sports involving striking.
UFC President Dana White has gone on record stating, “We’ve never had a serious injury . . . what I consider a serious injury is something that changes the quality of your life. We’ve had cuts and broken hands. I think the most serious injury we had was a broken forearm.”
Lastly, those participating in the sport enter voluntarily, knowing there is a possibility of injury, not unlike other professional athletes of other sports, or police officers, fire fighters, or soldiers who enter potential danger as part of their vocation.
Jesus said both to turn the other cheek and to bring a sword to defend oneself. So let’s not simply quote one thing he said as if it were the only thing he said. Furthermore, quoting Bible verses against assault or persecution is not appropriate in regards to MMA, because such verses do not refer to a regulated sporting competition governed by rules where two athletes of similar size and skill agree to a competition. It would be akin to telling a Christian hockey player they could never check anyone into the boards, or a soldier at war or police officer in a crisis to turn the other cheek. Good verse, wrong application.
If MMA were a sin, we would need to bring up for church discipline every wrestler, American- and Australian-rules football player, rugby player, and hockey player, along with everyone who is involved in combat sports. And if we were going to also discipline those who were endangering their bodies for athletic competition, we would need to include the cheerleaders as well. While we’re at it, we should also rebuke God for wrestling all night with Jacob, and tell Paul to stop using wrestling metaphors to teach us spiritual principles throughout the Bible because he’s setting a bad example.
The remainder of this blog is an introduction to MMA for those who are not informed about the fast-growing sport.
The Rules of MMA
For MMA in the US, a non-championship mixed martial arts contest is set at three rounds, each round no more than five minutes in duration with a rest period of one minute between each round. Championship contests (and possibly future featured non-title fights) are set for five rounds, each round no more than five minutes long with a rest period of one minute between each round. However, different MMA organizations, like DREAM (headquartered in Japan) for instance, have different round lengths.
Contests are now scored by three judges who use the “ten-point must system” (which is also used in boxing). Judges must give the winner of a round ten points, and the loser nine points or fewer. A knockdown usually results in a score of eight for the fighter who was knocked down and ten for the opponent. If the fight progresses through all scheduled rounds, the sum of the scores for each round is tallied for each judge in order to determine the winner of the match. If a fighter is unable to continue the match, the fight is ruled a “no contest.”
If a fighter loses points by committing fouls, or a round is without a clear winner, this may result in awarding an equal number of points to each fighter. So even with an odd number of rounds and an odd number of judges, draws are possible. Judging remains highly controversial and as the fighters always say, “Don’t leave it in the hands of the judges.”
The referee and ringside physician are the sole arbiters of a contest and are the only individuals authorized to enter the ring/octagon at any time during competition and to stop a contest. Warnings sometimes precede fouls. A fighter is not penalized but is issued a single warning only for minor infractions like holding the fence or holding an opponent’s shorts.
MMA Rule Set
The Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts is the most commonly used rule set and has been adopted by all state athletic commissions in the United States that regulate the sport. Most global MMA organizations also use the Unified Rules. The Unified Rules of MMA identifies twenty-nine specific acts as fouls. The list includes: eye gouging, biting or spitting, groin attacks, striking to the spine or the back of the head, throat strikes, clawing, pinching or twisting the flesh, grabbing the clavicle, kicking/kneeing the head of a grounded opponent, attacking an opponent after the bell has sounded the end of the round, timidity (including avoiding contact with an opponent, intentionally or consistently dropping the mouthpiece, or faking an injury), and interference by the corner. (For a full list click here and see “8. FOULS”).
When a foul is committed, the referee calls time to check the fouled contestant’s condition and to assess the foul to the offending contestant. The referee deducts points and notifies the cornermen, judges, and the official scorekeeper. A fouled contestant has up to five minutes to recuperate. Also, the referee may disqualify a contestant and terminate a contest based on the severity of a foul or after any combination of three fouls.
MMA Weight Classes
It should be noted that variations in weight classes exist depending on the organization in which the event is to occur. For a variety of reasons (mainly historical), different weight classes can use the same name in different organizations. For example, a boxing Middleweight weighs up to 160 pounds, a UFC Middleweight is 185 pounds, and a PRIDE Middleweight was 205 pounds.
Yet, due to the competitive nature of the sport, additional weight is seen as an advantage. Thus, weight limits are nearly always set by the promotions themselves. These categories differ from organization to organization but are usually comparable. In the United States, the Unified Rules states that there are nine classes for MMA contests and the weights for each of the classes are as follows:
- Flyweight: 125 pounds and under
- Bantamweight: 125 to 135 pounds
- Featherweight: 135 to 145 pounds
- Lightweight: 145 to 155 pounds
- Welterweight: 155 to 170 pounds
- Middleweight: 170 to 185 pounds
- Light Heavyweight: 185 to 205 pounds
- Heavyweight: 205 to 265 pounds
- Super Heavyweight: over 265 pounds
Because athletes weigh-in the day before the fight, they commonly cut weight, sometimes extremely, and weigh considerably more come fight time, which can be unhealthy.
MMA Banned Substances
According to the Unified Rules, the use of any illegal drug by a contestant results in immediate disqualification and disciplinary action.
In order to detect prohibited substance, contestants submit to urinalysis or other laboratory procedures ordered by commission-appointed physicians. Refusal to submit to such testing results in immediate disqualification and suspension.
In terms of penalties, a contestant who tests positive for illegal drugs is penalized as follows: a first offense is a 90-day suspension, a second offense is a 180-day suspension and mandatory completion of a supervisory treatment program, and a third offense results in a 2-year suspension and mandatory completion of a supervisory treatment program.
MMA Safety Equipment
Before gloves are placed on a fighter’s hands, the bandaging and tape must first receive the approval of the commission inspector, in the presence of the commission inspector and of the manager of the opponent.
Male contestants are to wear a foul-proof groin protector, and all contestants are required to wear a mouthpiece. If a mouthpiece is involuntarily dislodged during competition, the referee will call time and replace the mouthpiece at the first opportune moment, which does not interfere with the immediate action.
In terms of apparel, each contestant must provide themselves with mixed martial arts shorts, bikers’ shorts, or boxing or kickboxing shorts/pants. Contestants may not wear a shirt or gi (in Japanese, gi means dress or clothes, and is basically a pair of workout pants), or shoes of any kind during competition.
A contestant’s physical appearance, according to the Unified Rules, “Must be clean and present a tidy appearance. The excessive use of grease or any other foreign substance, including grooming creams or lotions or sprays, may not be used.”
If an official concludes the head or facial hair presents a hazard or will interfere with the contest, the contestant may not compete in the contest unless the circumstances are changed. Without limiting the foregoing standard, hair must be trimmed or tied back in such a manner that it will not interfere with the vision of either contestant or cover any part of a contestant’s face.
Contestants may not wear any jewelry or other piercing accessories while competing.
When the rules are broken, the discipline can very serious. As one example, after losing to Josh Koscheck at UFC 113 (in Montreal), Paul Daley lost his temper and was effectively banned from Ultimate Fighting Championship for the rest of his life. Several seconds after the bell sounded at the end of the final round, the victorious Koscheck walked back to his corner with his back to a visibly upset Paul Daley. With Koshcheck’s back turned, Daley connected a hard left-handed sucker punch on Koshcheck’s face (twenty-seven-second clip here).
In a post-match interview, UFC President Dana White promptly said Daley would not fight in the UFC again:
I don’t care if he fights in every show all over the world and becomes the best and everybody thinks he’s the pound-for-pound best in the world—he will never fight in the UFC ever again. He’s done. You don’t ever hit a guy blatantly after the bell like that, whether you’re frustrated or not. It was probably one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen because he is a talented guy, and he is one of the best 170-pounders in the world.