Why we fight
MMA, or mixed martial arts, is exactly what it sounds like: a Molotov cocktail of fighting skills combining the strikes of traditional boxing and muay Thai kick-boxing with the grappling of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and wrestling (Olympic-style, not the off-the-top-rope, gold spandex–wearing kind). A well-rounded MMA fighter can attack you standing up, with feet, fists, knees, elbows, shins and shoulders. He can force you to the ground and tie up your arms and legs with painful joint locks that threaten to pull meat from the bone like a chicken wing until you tap out—the MMA equivalent of crying uncle. Or he can wrap his arms around your neck and choke you unconscious by cutting off the blood supply to your brain.
When MMA fights were first staged in North America 16 years ago, the then-senator John McCain likened them to human cockfights and tried to have them banned. Now MMA is the fastest-growing sport on the planet, rivalling soccer, NASCAR and NFL football for our Jumbotron-loving, slo-mo-replay-addicted, foam finger–waving attention. Even Hollywood has taken notice: George Clooney, Keanu Reeves and Mandy Moore are fans; and last year David Mamet released a movie called Redbelt, which was set in the world of MMA. The billion-dollar Ultimate Fighting Championship, the NHL of MMA, has, for better or worse, made the sport what it is today: a cultural juggernaut. And nowhere in North America is MMA more popular than in Toronto.
On nights when the UFC is on pay-per-view (about once a month), Toronto sports bars are packed with patrons wearing UFC or Affliction (a smaller competitor) or Tapout (an MMA clothing line) T-shirts. The Fight Network, a Toronto-based digital channel that was created to give fans a round-the-clock UFC fix, has more than five million subscribers across Canada. The annual Mixed Martial Arts Expo attracts thousands to the International Centre to meet such UFC stars as Matt Serra, Dan Henderson and Carlos Newton, the first Canadian to win a UFC championship. And the UFC’s Web site gets more visits from Toronto per capita than from any other city in the world.
And this despite the fact that MMA fighting is illegal in Ontario. Critics often decry the sport as a prime example of the coarsening of society, but it has tapped into our fighting spirit in a way not seen since George Chuvalo went 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1966. MMA is the last arena where might makes right, and many of us are drawn to its lack of ambiguity. The urge to fight is a survival mechanism hard-wired to our DNA since caveman days yet out of place in modern society. Fighting, we’re taught, is bad. Disputes are not to be settled with fists and knees and elbows, but with lawyers and arbitrators and negotiators. Nobody tells their son to fight like a man anymore; even hockey fights are under threat of extinction. Yet, like it or not, when faced with conflict, our first impulse is still to fight. To deny it is simply unnatural.