Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA, is the fastest growing combat sport in the United States today. Although it has its roots in the ancient Greek sport Pankration, which was a combination of boxing and wrestling, and its modern incarnation can trace its lineage to Japanese pro-wrestling offshoots like Shooto and Pancrase, MMA didn't start to make much of an impression in the United States until 1993 and the first Ultimate Fighting Championship.
The legacy of the early days of the UFC is two-fold. Most importantly to the evolution of martial arts, it opened the eyes of American audiences to the effectiveness groundfighting and submission techniques in general and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in particular which in turn ultimately led to the modern generation of highly skilled, heavily cross-trained athletes that currently fill the sport's ranks.* Secondly, and less fortunately, the way in which the early UFCs were promoted cemented the image of MMA as a bloodsport in the mind of the public.
"There are no rules" was the original tagline for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which wasn't entirely true - technically you weren't suppose to eye gouge, bite, or fish hook (insert your fingers into the mouth or nose of the opponent to control their movement), but in the earliest days of the UFC these infractions netted only a monetary penalty and would not result in a disqualification. That being said, in its earliest incarnation the UFC had a very limited set of rules - head butts and groin attacks were legal, kicking a downed opponent was legal, no weight classes were imposed, and (until the 3rd UFC) the referee didn't actually have the power to stop a bout. Some early UFC fights, such as Kevin Rosier vs. Zane Frazier at UFC 1 and Pat Smith vs. Scott Morris at UFC 2, were short, brawlish affairs that gave politicians fodder for a new moral panic.
Arizona Senator and current presidential hopeful John McCain (Who, it should be known, is a boxing proponent) came out swinging against the UFC, famously branding it as "human cockfighting" and grimly intoning that it was likely to cause a spate of brutal deaths in the ring. News magazine shows ran pejorative stories on the sport, often replaying a bout from the third UFC event in which Kenpo expert Keith Hackney defeated sumo wrestler Emmanuel Yarborough with a series a fierce right hands. Much was made of the most brawlish aspects of the sport, something which the Semaphore Entertainment Group, then the owners of the UFC, unwisely chose to play to the hilt.
Nevermind the fact that early UFC events were dominated not by power strikers but by technical, methodical wrestling and submission experts like Royce Gracie (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu), Oleg Taktarov (Sambo), and Dan Severn (Wrestling) who employed only very limited striking techniques. Nevermind that choking and joint locking techniques have exceedingly low injury rates, especially when a referee can stop a bout to protect the fighters. Nevermind that using lightweight gloves (as to modern MMA events) or no gloves (as did the early UFC) provides a disincentive for blindly trying to punch your opponent's head off - it's incredibly easy to break your hand if you're punching someone upside the head without a glove.** Nope, the important thing is that MMA looks like it ought to be super-dangerous, and thus, to the media and the politicians, it was.
There was a problem with all this fear-mongering and moral outrage - the in-ring deaths predicted by MMA opponents just didn't happen. According to this article by the British Medical Association, there have been over 140 deaths because of (good ol' socially acceptable) boxing since 1990. *** The statistics for MMA for the same years show only...wait for it...TWO deaths associated with in-ring injuries in the sport. That number's not for just the UFC, it's for the entire sport of Mixed Martial Arts and includes not only the United States, but the entire world. Douglas Dedge died after a bout in the Ukraine in 1998 (after failing to receive medical clearance to fight in the United States) and Sam Vasquez fell into a coma and died after injuries sustained during a Renegades Extreme Fighting event in October of last year. Both of the men apparently had pre-existing brain conditions that made it unsafe for them to participate. In larger, better regulated organizations like the Ultimate Fighting Championship, King of the Cage, and the now-defunct Pride Fighting Championships, there has never been anything remotely close to an in-ring death.
According to a study that ran in 2006 in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, while the overall risk of sustaining some kind of injury in an MMA match is approximately the same as boxing, but most of these injuries consisted of facial lacerations and broken noses. The researchers noted that only 6.8% of MMA bouts end in a knockout, as opposed to over 11% of boxing matches, and further note that the opportunity for fighters to use non-striking techniques and to submit (and thus end the bout) at any time both serve to reduce the risk of severe traumatic brain injuries.
Now to be fair MMA can be pretty scary looking. Facials cuts, the most common type of injury, bleed a lot because your face has of blood vessels close to the surface. Watching a guy get choked out, knocked out, or even just get pinned down and punched a few times on the ground can be a pretty visceral experience that a lot of people aren't used to. So sure, MMA looks really dangerous, but science shows us that it isn't, or at least that it's less so than "acceptable" combat sports like boxing and kickboxing.
Keep in mind also that the whole "There are no rules" shtick is a thing of the past. MMA is heavily regulated now and has rules tailored to maintain the safety of the fighters. The UFC, for example, now has rules banning headbutts, groin strikes, kicking or kneeing the head of a downed opponent, striking to the back of the head or near the spine, blows to the kidneys, and certain kinds of elbow strikes. UFC bouts can now be stopped by either the referee or the ringside doctor, and weight classes were instituted years ago. The sport was relatively safe to begin with, and its safer than ever now.
So why the hell am I bringing all this up on a blog that's usually devoted to dealing with aliens, living dinosaurs, and crazy religious beliefs? Because tonight CBS is going to run a live event by the Elite XC fighting promotion, marking the first live MMA broadcast on network television. It's also an election year, so you can expect the moral crusaders and culture warriors to have a conniption fit about this, especially since they seem to be capable of working themselves into a fury over anything these days. You can bet that there's gonna be a storm of horse shit about this, and as a fan of the sport I just wanted to put an umbrella out there for anyone who wants to know the truth.
*It also helped to expose the relative, and in some case absolute, ineffectiveness of certain popular and highly touted fighting styles in a limited-rules scenario, but that's another story for another time.
** A note on gloves: Competitive boxing gloves do not exist to pad the blows for the guy on the receiving end of a punch, they exist to protect the hands of the guy doing the punching and, to a lesser extent, to prevent cuts. MMA gloves, which are are usually 4-8 oz. open finger jobs, serve a similar purpose. If anything, larger gloves increase the chance of blunt force injury because they make it much more comfortable to punch to the head.
*** In the interest of full disclosure, the I should note that the BMA wants both boxing and MMA to be banned.