Editorial Note: The college has removed the name of one of the people who are quoted in this story. The college made the edit at the request of the interviewee. In July 2010, the person informed the newspaper’s online editor that the remarks published on the website were preventing him from obtaining employment. He said that he no longer wanted his name associated with the article.
The first time I heard about mixed martial arts, my friends referred to it simply as “fighting” and showed me a clip of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
I was horrified.
To me, all I saw was flying fists, crushed noses, and bruised eyes. To be honest, I didn’t think it looked like much more than a bar brawl. The only differences were that the fight was taking place in an arena, and the men appeared to be sober.
Otherwise, the punches that were being thrown, and the blood that was being let, provoked in me the same sense of disgust and fear I feel when I watch any sort of gratuitous violence.
Recently, though, the sport has been growing in the mainstream, and has been the inspiration for box-office successes like Never Back Down and TV shows like BoDog Fighting.
There must be something to it that draws so many people. After all, not only are UFC ratings on TV frequently beat out viewership of more traditional sports, but the sport seems to be catching like wildfire in gyms around the city.
“At first it was about surviving the streets,” jokes Brandon Moy, who has been practising the sport for just over two years.
“No, I’m kidding.”
Moy, 22, in many ways surprised me.
Barely anything about him reminded me of the bruised faces I’d seen on TV.
He is of average height and, though he appears to be in shape, he is no muscle maniac.
He says he’s finishing up a degree in engineering at Waterloo, and likes to rock-climb in his spare time.
His face is also free of bruises or healing wounds.
In fact, nothing about his build or his friendly demeanour in any way suggests that he has anything in common with any of the UFCers I’ve seen.
“The real draw was not, as most people think, the violence,” he says. “It’s a combination of the mental aspects of it, as well as the physical. You really have to be in good physical form to perform at a high level.”
It’s this combination of mental and physical stimulation that seems to draw a lot of MMA enthusiasts.
[Name Removed], 27, who recently gained an interest in the sport after his friends introduced him to it, echoes this similar draw.
“I like the competition,” he says. “In some cases there’s violence which in some ways is appealing for some primal reason. But when it comes down to it, it’s just about the fight. It’s all about, you know, who’s going to win? And how are they going to do it?”
He says both as a spectator and as a competitor he enjoys seeing how a variety of match-ups can play out.
According to him, it’s not just a person’s brawn that wins a fight. It’s also their brains.
“What gives [an athlete] an edge in one situation and not in another is all about their mental ability to sift out weaknesses in their competitors and leverage their own advantage to win the fight,” he says. “It’s all about the strategy.”
Wendy Chu, 25, who has been practising the sport for about a year and a half, says she appreciates the physical aspects, but not necessarily the violence.
“I’m pretty busy at work, and after work I need to study, so that takes up a lot of time. So I definitely need it to balance things out,” she says. “It’s a way to relieve stress because I can use all my force.”
Chu says similarities between her experience of the sport and what is shown on TV is pretty limited. She admits that at her gym, the classes are mostly dominated by men, but the similarities seem to end there.
“What you see on TV is obviously a lot more violent than what happens in class. In class, you’re not trying to win the titles. You’re helping each other out to learn,” she says. “And you’re watching out for your training partner, of course.”
Like most other sports, though, she says what you see on TV is usually not a fair representation.
“It’s just like hockey,” she says. “That kind of violence doesn’t happen when you’re at practice.”
Moy also sees a distinction between what is shown on TV and what is being taught at gyms.
“When I see a lot of the events, the people that it’s drawing are mainly drawn to the violence,” he says. “It’s all in the way they market it. And it’s kind of hard to balance [business and sport] and in the end, it all comes down to money, so I don’t think that it’s very possible for them to market it in the positive light that I would like to see.”
Ultimately, though, Moy prefers to focus on the positive consequences of MMA making it into the mainstream. Though he says it’s unfortunate the media portrays the sport as a bloody fight-fest, he hopes with more exposure more and more people may get to know what it’s really about.
“The fact that it’s coming to mainstream means it’s being accepted, because when it started, it was very stigmatized as a human cockfight,” he says. “But now that it’s being accepted and shown in theatres around the world, regardless of how they’re portraying it, it still shows that there’s a public acceptance to it.”