The rise of MMA from maligned backwater freak show to multi-million dollar sports juggernaut over the last twenty years has been monumental and many within the sport hope its ride will continue until it is nothing less than the biggest sport in the world.
However in the immediate future the sport faces a potentially crippling image problem that will only become more and more prominent as it continues to grow in popularity.
Just two days ago yet another ‘mainstream’ sports writer, this time the Murdoch press’ Phil Rothfield, took MMA to task.
He labelled it “barbaric savagery”, saying it made him sick and calling for it to be banned in Australia.
And while Rothfield and his shrill brand of sensationalism was expertly dissected and earned worldwide scorn, the MMA community would be fools to dismiss his piece outright because there is just no dodging one plain point that he and many others have tried to hammer home: MMA looks bad.
And here lies the problem for the MMA community.
While it can do all the education it wants about how safe the sport actually is, to the unseasoned eye it looks like two men locked in a metal cage, beating each other bloody all to the cheers of a crowd baying for even more carnage.
To those in the know it is an image that doesn’t stack up.
While there is no doubt that MMA is dangerous, it is a heavy contact sport after all, the sport has tight regulations in place to protect its fighters and structures such as ‘The Cage’ actually help prevent injuries compared to a more civil looking boxing ring.
It even comes up trumps when compared to other high contact sports.
A 2006 John Hopkins University study which appeared in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine found MMA fighters suffer far lower instances of traumatic brain injury compared to boxing.
These findings were backed up by a 2008 study by the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Moving even more mainstream, if a player suffers a concussion in the NRL or AFL they can expect to sit out for maybe a week, however in the UFC after a concussion, fighters are regularly banned for months from even sparring let alone getting back in the cage.
Yet for all the skill in the sport, for all the regulations in the rule book, for all the safety the cage gives, for all the well informed cries of the fans, at times it does look exactly like “barbaric savagery”.
Compared to those other contact sports MMA just looks less regulated and far more dangerous.
And for the growth of the sport that is going to be a huge hurdle, particularly at the grassroots level; which is where the long term sustainable growth that truly makes a sport mainstream comes from.
Can you imagine schools offering ‘cage-fighting’ as an option for school sport or middle class mums and dads cheering on their kids first outing in ‘The Octagon’?
These scenes are normal for most sports but seem outlandish when played out with MMA.
But is there anything MMA could change to help its image?
The NRL banned the shoulder charge so anything is possible, however for better or worse it is unlikely any substantial progress will be made in the short to medium future.
UFC President Dana White is the lead Ostrich, burying his head in the sand, publicly slamming the aforementioned Rothfield article and (somewhat understandably) leaping to the defence of the sport he has raised up into a multi-million dollar franchise.
However if he, the UFC and the rest of the MMA community truly wants MMA to be the biggest sport in the world, there will come a time when we have to confront MMA’s violent image and adapt or perish.