The sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) is barely 20-years-old, but has roots much deeper than that. A combination of boxing, Greco-Roman wrestling, muay thai, and jiu jitsu (plus some judo, karate, and kickboxing thrown in for good measure), MMA is a sport that has evolved quickly over the past two decades and seemingly exploded into pop culture. The UFC was sold in 2016 for a staggering $4.2 billion and names like Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor have become household names to even the most casual sports fan.
However, the sport does have a dark history. In the early days of the company, state governments rushed to ban MMA from their jurisdictions. Then-Arizona senator (and future presidential hopeful) John McCain famously called the sport nothing more than “human cockfighting” in 1996 and campaigned to have the sport banned from arenas and cable/satellite providers, and almost succeeded. For anyone who doesn’t regularly follow MMA, there are still a lot of misconceptions about the sport. So whether you are just brushing up on your MMA knowledge or trying to convince a skeptical friend, here are ten of the most popular myths about MMA — and like most myths, they are all completely wrong.
MMA is Banned
Let’s start with what we previously mentioned. Some people still seem to think that MMA is a banned sport in the majority of places, and is only allowed to have events in cities/states in morally corrupt places like Las Vegas. While it’s true that Senator McCain did succeed in getting the sport banned in a number of states in the 90s, the sport is now legal in all 50 states (with New York being the final hold out), as well as numerous international counties like Canada, Japan, Brazil, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
The UFC have actually spent millions of dollars trying to work with local and federal governments on things like MMA education, regulation, drug testing, and a set of universal rules. Those efforts have caused almost every lawmaker to realize that MMA has long been a legitimate sport.
MMA Has No Rules
One of the reasons MMA got such a bad rap is the myth that it has no rules. Granted, the early days of the UFC did nothing to help this, as they had no weight classes, no time limits, and typically very little in the way of actual rules (you may have seen the cringe-inducing video from UFC 4 where one fighter deliberately rains down punches into the groin of his opponent). The UFC even used this in their early marketing, proudly boasting that “no holds were barred.”
All of that has changed. The UFC introduced weight classes, fingerless gloves, and a set of unified rules that included five-minute rounds, time limits, and judges scoring. They also banned strikes to the groin, hair pulling, and any small joint manipulation (aka purposely breaking someone’s finger). They also banned headbutts, any strikes to the back of the head, and kicks/knees to the head of a downed opponent. Recently, the sport has begun to explore the use of video replay to determine fouls when declaring a fight a disqualification or no-contest. Regulatory bodies also regularly dish out “medical suspensions” to any fighter who suffers an injury, which prevents fighters from jumping back into the cage a week or two after a brutal fight, giving their bodies time to properly heal.
MMA is More Dangerous Than Boxing
It seems weird, looking back, that MMA was so controversial when it first burst onto the scene. After all, boxing has long been a part of the North American sports culture. Some of the people we consider to be among the best athletes in history are boxers, like Muhammad Ali or Mike Tyson. Early critics of MMA cited the myth that the sport was incredibly dangerous compared to the more traditional sport of boxing, but those claims don’t hold up at all.
The main concern is head injuries. In MMA, fights can end via submission, which reduce the number of head shots any fighter would have to endure. Additionally, the focus on wrestling and grappling means that a typical MMA fight has way fewer punches to the face/head than your average boxing match. Some people even claimed that MMA’s early days of using no gloves made the sport more dangerous, not realizing that 10-ounce boxing gloves are designed to protect the puncher’s hand from breaking, and not the face of the intended target. The 10-count in boxing allows a likely concussed fighter to regain his footing just in time to receive more punishment, whereas most (but not all) similar flash knockdowns in MMA usually result in a referee stoppage, preventing further damage.
MMA Killed Boxing
Speaking of boxing, you have probably heard the numerous cries from different sports media outlets that boxing is dead. Gone are the days of Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield, or Mike Tyson. Even guys like Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd Mayweather, and Manny Pacquiao are retired and/or way past their prime. Most sports fans might not even be able to tell you who the heavyweight champion is these days (it’s this guy). But boxing is not dead. Not even close.
While there may not be as many high profile boxing events every calendar year, the ones that do exist are incredibly successful. You shouldn’t need to look any further than the recent Anthony Joshua vs. Wladimir Klitschko fight that sold over 90,000 tickets for a heavyweight title fight at the legendary Wembley Stadium in London, England. It did 1.5 million PPV buys in the U.K. alone, far more than the average UFC PPV that garners somewhere between 150,000 and 300,000 buys depending on the fighters involved.
In terms of money, it’s not even close. The biggest boxing fights attract hundreds of millions more dollars than even the biggest UFC event, with Floyd Mayweather making close to $200 million to fight Manny Pacquiao in 2015. He should collect a similar number to come out of retirement in 2017 and fight Conor McGregor, who ironically became a star as an MMA fighter.
MMA Fighters Are Rich
Speaking of money, it’s easy to assume that the UFC fighters you watch on PPV are incredibly wealthy. After all, they are championship fighters and famous celebrities. But other than a select few stars at the top of the food chain, many UFC fighters (even championship caliber ones) struggle to get by. The average mid-card fighter might only make $20,000 to show (and another $20,000 if they win). But once you realize that they have to pay their gym fees, training partners, managers, taxes, and often their own travel and medical expenses, that money disappears quickly.
There has long been talks of forming some sort of fighter’s union, and the whispers are louder than ever these days. Even high profile champions like McGregor or Demetrious Johnson are standing up against what they see as unfair treatment from the UFC. Some fighters, including Donald Cerrone, Georges St-Pierre, and Cain Velasquez, even announced the formation of a MMAAA (Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association) in 2016, although there has been zero news from them since. The day is coming where the fighters collectively band together to get a bigger slice of the pie. After all, the company they fight for just sold for $4 billion. Surely there’s a few more dollars hiding in the couch cushions at the UFC head office so that fighters aren’t living paycheck to paycheck.
MMA Fans Are Trailer Trash
Let’s do a science experiment. I want you to picture an average UFC fan watching the fights in a bar. You probably pictured some 20-something white dude, wearing a gaudy Ed Hardy or Affliction T-shirt, drunk off a few too many Bud Lights, yelling “COME AT ME, BRO!” at some guy who accidently bumped into him while trying to get to the bathroom. It’s okay, you can admit it. We’ve all thought it at one time or another.
But the MMA fanbase is actually much more diverse than that. Hollywood celebrities and famous non-UFC athletes are often seen sitting at ringside. The sport is popular is countries like Brazil, the Netherlands, Mexico, and Japan. And perhaps most surprisingly, the sport even boasts a large number of female fans (although we admit the split is nowhere close to 50-50). While you’re bound to run into those stereotypical frat bro fans at any sporting event (have you been to an NFL tailgate lately?), the UFC audience is, in reality, so much more.
MMA is Not a Real Sport
There are many critics who loudly proclaim that MMA shouldn’t even be considered a sport. It occupies a weird space, sometimes, between the legitimate world of professional fighting and the pageantry of professional wrestling. Then again, some people just like to crap on anything that’s new and different to them. But rest assured, MMA is a real sport, with real athletes and real competition.
Various state athletic commissions treat it exactly the same as boxing, and the UFC have partnered with the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) to ensure that athletes aren’t taking any performance enhancing drugs. There has also been a push to get MMA into the Olympics as a medal sport, which isn’t that much of a stretch when you consider that boxing, Judo, Taekwondo, and wrestling (Greco-Roman and Freestyle) have all been medal sports at various times. MMA is simply the next evolution of combat sports.
MMA Wouldn’t Exist Without Dana White
UFC President and loud mouthpiece Dana White is often credited as saving MMA. The story goes that he convinced his old high school friends, Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, to help him purchase the fledgling UFC brand for just $2 million. After hemorrhaging money for a few more years, the UFC was still in the rocks when it came to financial health. A last-ditch reality show called The Ultimate Fighter would literally help save the company, as it helped the product reach more eyeballs on the basic cable channel Spike TV than the UFC ever could by only broadcasting on PPV.
There’s no doubt that White has helped the sport grow immensely, but he’s hardly a savior. PRIDE Fighting Championship was founded in Japan in 1997 and saw almost instant success, most notably thanks to Russian heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko. Other MMA promotions have thrived under the UFC’s dominance in the last 10 years, including WEC, Bellator, Strikeforce, and Invicta MMA. And while the UFC ended up buying half of those companies, the sport of MMA was coming on strong whether Dana White was at the helm or not.
MMA Fighters Are Violent Outside of the Cage
Some people still assume that MMA fighters are bar room brawlers who realized they could get paid to throw punches. Basically, naturally violent people who happened to stumble upon on a legal outlet for their violent tendencies. But that perception just isn’t true. While some MMA fighters have been arrested for violent crimes, the rate is no higher than the general population (or the rate of athletes in any other contact sport, for that matter).
The truth is that most martial arts are about discipline and respect, which is why you’ll almost always see fighters embrace and shake hands after even the most grueling battles, regardless of the pre-fight trash talk. Most of that is just to drum up interest and drive PPV buys. Not only are MMA fighters generally non-violent outside of the cage, there have been multiple stories of athletes using their skills to diffuse violence situations started by others.
1. Smaller Fighters Are Boring
For the longest time, the UFC marketed their light heavyweight division as their marquee weight class. Guys like Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell, Rampage Jackson, Randy Couture, Lyoto Machida, Shogun Rua, and Jon Jones routinely did big business at 205 pounds. It was generally assumed that the lower weight classes featured small fighters with no knockout power who put on boring fights.
That’s all changed though. The WEC was one of the first promotions to show that bantamweights (135 bounds), featherweights (145 pounds), and lightweights (155 pounds) could put on incredible fights, as guys like Jose Aldo, Uriah Faber, Dominick Cruz, Benson Henderson, and Antony Pettis were crowned champions. After the UFC bought WEC, the smaller weight classes became some of the deepest in the promotion. Then superstars like Conor McGregor and Demetrious Johnson emerged to dominate 145-lbs and 125-lbs, respectively. If you’re only tuning in to watch the heavyweights slug it out and then get tired after half a round, you’re seriously missing out on some of the most talented and exciting fighters in the UFC’s lighter divisions.