Fighting has been used as an entertainment activity for centuries. Since Ancient Greece, men have been fighting in public settings for the sole purpose of sport and entertainment. It is of course, only until recent decades that fighting has become televised. This has many people concerned regarding the potential impact it can have on youth and with regards to safety. Mixed Martial Arts is a new sport that has simultaneously caused media controversy and gained immense popularity in only a few years. The general public overall has cast a negative image on MMA and its fighters. Critics find that it promotes fighting, rewards aggressive behavior and that viewing violence on television leads to violence in real life. However, what the public fails to realize that there is a positive side of MMA fighting in that it promotes physical activity and healthy living and often the fighters act as role models for underprivileged youth. Specifically, this paper aims to identify the negative aspects of Mixed Martial Arts in the media. The objective is to view how negatively framed media messages can create biases in viewers of the sport. Furthermore, this paper aims to acknowledge the potential opportunities positively framed MMA media messages can create for viewers.
UFC 196 Weigh-In with Conor Mcgregor and Nate Diaz.
Though professional fighting has existed for centuries, mixed martial arts is a relatively new sport. The sport combines techniques from various martial arts including karate, jiu-jitsu, wrestling, kick-boxing, and boxing. Mixed martial arts as a sport has been a developing since the early 1990’s and is presently continuing to increase in popularity. In the media MMA is shown most commonly in the television program the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) which has garnered huge success and a cult-like following. In 2001, UFC was purchased for just $2 million but it has since become a controversial but immensely successful billion-dollar industry (Lim, Martin, & Kwak, 2010, p.49). UFC has become not just a televised sporting event but a lifestyle marked by a specific style of clothing and physique. UFC gained rapid popularity due to the “no-holds-barred” style of fighting with no weight classes or time limits, and no restrictions on fighting moves (Bledsoe, Hsu, Grabowski, Brill & Li, 2006). However, over the last few years the sport has changed dramatically and there are now regulations and rules set in place in order to decrease the risk of injury.
The media coverage of Mixed Martial Arts shows a varied opinion on the new sport. Mainly, live fighting events are criticized for their violence and for promoting fighting amongst men and young boys. Furthermore, studies insist that viewing a high level of violence as a child leads to aggressive behavior later in life (Bushman & Anderson, 2001). They are also slated for the injuries that often occur as a result of fighting including concussions, brain hemorrhage, lacerations, bone breakages, among many others (Bledsoe, et al., 2006). Studies have been released that in addition to short term injuries such as broken bones and bruises, MMA fighting has been the cause of permanent disabilities. While this is of course a legitimate concern, the media is simply providing the audience with a one-sided frame which influences the creation of meaning. For the public, the meaning associated with Mixed Martial Arts is nothing more than violence.
New York Senator John McCain has jumped on board the anti-UFC initiative, referring to the sport as “human cockfighting” (Santos, et al. 2012). This led to a country-wide media discussion on whether or not this is a legitimate sport and if it contributes to aggressive behavior. These perceptions and the public concern is what led Nevada and New Jersey to sanction MMA fighting and insist on rules changes in 2001 (Bledsoe, Hsu, Grabowski, Brill & Li, 2006). These actions, Santos et al. (2012) suggest, reflect how the sport has become politically framed. The authors contend that the media has a strong influence on the public’s decision on any matter, particularly when it comes to something so controversial like MMA. As such, the media’s decision to air commentary including the term ‘human cockfighting’ and by discussing the harmful outcomes of the sport, is a way to influence the way the majority of people feel about the sport. Should the media have outlined any positive externalities associated with MMA, the public would have the opportunity to decide how they feel about it for themselves.
Notably, the media often frames MMA as being a potential negative influence for children. In their article on the consumption of violence and its effect on behavior, Bushman and Anderson (2001) discuss how the media has a strong role in leading the public to believe that there is a certain relationship between violence in television and violence in real life. This belief has led to a public outcry regarding having children view violent media such as MMA. In addition to the previous article, there have been numerous more studies which attempt to find correlation between violence and the media; however, results remain inconclusive.
Instead, having children view MMA fights can have a positive outcome on their development. Seeing the athletes as role models can promote an interest in sport and leading a healthy a physical life. Just as children idolize football players, musicians and actors, MMA athletes can serve as positive role models for healthy living and overcoming adversity. In a nation where childhood obesity is an epidemic, any sport should be promoted for youth participation. Theeboom, Knop, and Vertonghen find that practicing martial arts can have positive socio-psychological benefits and can contribute to healthy development and positive conflict resolution skills (2009). These possible positive outcomes of the mainstreaming of MMA to popular media, however, are never discussed in the news.
Despite the controversy, media framing and sanctions surrounding MMA, there continues to be a huge following. Professional UFC fights sell out stadiums with more than 3 million viewers tuning in to pay-per-view television for every fight (Lim, Martin, & Kwak, 2010, p.50). It is obvious then that despite the outpouring of criticism regarding the sport and the poor media representation, UFC’s image remains untarnished to its dedicated viewers.
The growth of MMA in China.
Due to public outcry, there are many people who are left wondering why there is still a following for the violent sport. For those who have caught on to the MMA and UFC craze, we must ask what it is that draws them in. There are countless reasons why men (and often women) view the sport and each viewer will give a different reason. To answer this, we can summarize the reasons in terms of the perception of hyper masculinity, the obsession with violence and the lifestyle it promotes. Overall, UFC has a very dedicated following, but much like with the sport, the viewers are often portrayed by the media in a negative light.
The most common reason that people watch UFC is the same reason that people watch horror and war movies: it increased adrenalin and promotes escapism through violence. Basically, violence sells. Bushman and Anderson (2001) discuss how the United States is the number one exporter of violence. The reason behind this is primarily because it appeals to a larger audience than other entertainment genres since it requires no background knowledge and can be translated easily into other languages. Furthermore, the more violence is consumed, the more that it will become desired as an outlet. It is no wonder then that one of the most violent sports in recent history is praised. Additionally, Lim, Martin and Kwak (2010) find that there is a connection between certain personality traits and types and the desire to watch violent media programs. Personality traits such as risk-taking and sensation seeking are high amongst MMA viewers. The authors continue to explain that viewers of MMA obtain feelings of pleasure and arousal when viewing the fights and other “violen[t] and/or morbid events” (Lim, et al. 2010, p. 59). Simply put, viewers watch violence because they obtain physical gratification from it.
Advertisement for UFC 196 on Dec. 12th 2015.
Another large reason for why MMA has become a fast rising phenomenon is due to the masculinity associated with the sport. Like with any male-dominated sport, the media commodifies MMA athletes as the embodiment of masculinity, virility and strength. In an article analyzing the masculinity of a baseball player, Trujillo (1991) looks at how the media reinforces notions of masculinity as a byproduct of athleticism. Sports have become synonymous with masculinity in that they demand a winner and a loser, exerting control and dominance and heterosexuality (Trujillo, 1991). MMA and UFC specifically demand all of these. Furthermore, UFC takes these masculine elements to the extreme by adding the threat of injury. Men with hyper masculine personalities are drawn to sports that emulate their characteristics. For this reason, when viewers consume MMA they are consuming the media’s representation of masculinity which in turn allows them to exert their own masculine behaviors.
Finally, MMA viewers are fascinated with the sport because of reasons that go beyond the sport and break into a lifestyle associated with it. Sports are incredibly important to the formation of identity and the creation of lifestyles for boys and young men. UFC as a sport revolves around the associated lifestyle. In promoting their brand, the UFC has gained partnerships with well-known brands including Bud Light, Harley Davidson, a US bank and several other large American corporations. The pictures of athletes are now emblazoned on t-shirts, sports cards, figurines, and posters. These items are traded amongst fans and athletes with more ‘wins’ become considerably more popular models for these items. Furthermore, popular clothing brands and styles such as Infliction and Ed Hardy have become synonymous with the lifestyle and those who wear the items explicitly identify themselves as UFC fans. Interestingly, there is even a successful videogame wherein players assume the identity of a professional MMA fighter and battle other players (Lim, Martin, & Kwak, 2010). Beyond this, UFC has contributed to an increase in young men taking up the sport as part of their own physical routines.
Mixed Martial Arts is becoming a very challenging and realistic form of competition an individual can engage in. The reason for this is because the media is sometimes portraying only the negative aspects of MMA. There have however, been instances wherein MMA has shown in the media as being used as a method for keeping at risk youth off the street an engaging them in physical activity. As was shown in the article MMA Helps Transform At-Risk Youth (Bullock, 2011), this has the potential to promote crime prevention and reduce gang violence. In the article, an MMA studio was set up in a low-income neighborhood renowned for gang violence. The owner then provided martial arts training for at-risk youth free of charge as a method to enforce positive role models and lifestyles that are alternative to gang memberships. Furthermore, MMA promotes healthy living, athleticism and endurance for young men and kids alike. Mixed martial arts is an incredibly multifaceted sport that calls for dedication, endurance and self-discipline. The athletes that participate in fighting matches train for them as much as a fulltime job. These factors, however, are seldom shown and discussed in popular media.
While there certainly have been numerous injuries directly resulting from MMA, the sport has evolved since its inception. There are now many regulations and rules involved in the sport that make it a relatively safe method of entertainment. Still, the discourse on the legitimacy of the sport is divided. Whereas some see the sport as a way to promote violence and a senseless way for people to become permanently injured, it is a way to develop a sense of community and identity for others. For instance, the nature of the sport promotes masculinity and normative male behavior. It also acts as an athletic outlet for young men and encourages physical activity, dedication to sport and perseverance. Above all, MMA has become a lifestyle for many viewers and participants. For these reasons, the frame in which the media presents are narrow and only functions in building misconceptions.
A preview for the latest UFC (205) event held on November 12th 2016 SOLD OUT at the Iconic Madison Square Garden.
Bledsoe, G., Hsu, E., Grabowski, J., Brill, J. & Li, G. (2006). Incidence of injury in professional mixed martial arts competitions. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 136-142.
Bullock, J. (2011). MMA Helps Transform At-Risk Youth accessed November 3, 2016 from http://www.themmazone.net/Martial-Arts-WP/2011/11/24/mma-helps-transform-youth- at-risk/ [news article]
Bushman, B., and Anderson, C. (2001). Media Violence and the American Public: Scientific fact versus media misinformation. American Psychologist 56(6), 477-489.
Kochhar T, Back DL, Mann B, Skinner J. (2005) Risk of cervical injuries in mixed martial arts. Br J Sports Med. 39(7):444–7
Lim, C., Martin, T. & Kwak, D.( 2010) Examining Television Consumers of Mixed Martial Arts:The Relationship Among Risk Taking, Emotion, Attitude, and Actual Sport-Media Consumption Behavior. International Journal of Sport Communication 3:49-63.
Santos, C., Tainsky, S., Schmidt, A. & Chim, C. (2012). From Human Cockfighting to Legitimate Sport: Politicians weigh in on MMA. Presentation: University of Illinois, accessed November 4, 2016 from http://www.nassm.com/files/conf_abstracts/2012-321.pdf.
Theeboom, M., Knop, P. and Vertonghen, J. (2009). Experiences of Children in Martial Arts. European Journal for Sport and Society, 6(1), 19-35.
Trujillo, N. (1991). Hegemonic Masculinity on the Mound: Media Representations of Nolan Ryan and American Sports Culture. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 8: 290-308.