THE fastest growing sport in the United States is not soccer, arena football, or even NASCAR racing. Instead, it is a contest where two supposedly rational human beings punch, kick, knee, elbow, twist limbs, choke, and otherwise attempt to beat the stuffing out of each other for the entertainment of hundreds, sometimes, thousands of "fans."
The competition is called mixed martial arts and it joins boxing, wrestling, toughman contests and, sometimes, even hockey games among the ranks of spectacle sports that pander to the lust for violence that seems to reside just beneath the surface of many otherwise civilized people.
Of course, conditions for MMA participants are better than they were just a few years ago when the Ultimate Fighting Championship was billed as a no-holds-barred event. Since then, rules have been instituted to prevent biting, eye gouging, and "fish-hooking" and the sport has grown into a multimillion-dollar business drawing large audiences on pay-per-view television. Top professionals, according to the Columbus Dispatch, can earn as much as $250,000 in a title match and millions more from sponsorships and pay-per-view royalties.
In Ohio, which is at the forefront of the MMA phenomenon, there are about 2,800 licensed fighters, modern-day gladiators who step into a "cage" to pummel each other for the pleasure of adoring masses. Most will never earn more than a few hundred dollars per match.
Far from elitists pooh-poohing the skills of a new breed of athlete, we do not fault the combatants who are trying to make something of their lives using the skills at their disposal. But there is something sad nonetheless about believing the path to fame and fortune has to be lined with your own teeth. And it is positively unseemly for other people to rake in huge profits on the blood, sweat, and tears of these fighters.
We also wonder how this differs in its essentials from the California court case a few years ago where vagrants were videotaped fighting each other in exchange for money, alcohol, and other incentives. These so-called "bum-fight" videos were determined to be dehumanizing.
More problematic, however, are the people who attend these events. Many, we suspect, can also be found at wrestling matches and toughman contests. They will say they love the sport for the skill of the athletes, then scream in appreciation as teeth begin to fly and noses are flattened. They often are the same people who go to hockey games to see "goons" and "enforcers" duke it out on skates and attend auto races not because they are fascinated by 500 miles of left turns but in the hope of seeing a really spectacular crash.
We recognize the temptation to look when driving by the scene of an accident, both repelled and fascinated by the prospect of seeing someone seriously injured. But as members of a civilized society we are supposed to aspire to be better than that. The evening news offers ample testimony every day to the fact that there is plenty of violence in the real world. It should hardly be necessary to manufacture more purely for our entertainment.