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The Sociology of MMA: How Do You Define Violence?

What is violence? Jacking someone in the face on the street will get you jail time, but the same act in a boxing ring could make you rich and famous. Violence in sports begs us to ask the question, what is violence and when should we as a society take steps to prevent it? In this piece David Mayeda explores how a recent Mixed Martial Arts competition demonstrates how violence and sport are socially constructed.

MMA Fighter PunchingFor those of you who frequent SociologyinFocus on a regular basis, you will shortly learn that one of my hobbies as a sociologist is understanding the edgy, burgeoning sport of mixed martial arts, more commonly known as “MMA.” For those of you unfamiliar with the sport (and no, not everyone considers it a sport, though its acceptance is growing), it is a combat sport in which participants compete (i.e., fight) one another through a mixture of combat sport disciplines, the most common four being Olympic wrestling, traditional boxing, Muay Thai kickboxing, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Other fighting disciplines can be integrated as well, such as judo and karate.

MMA formally began back in 1993, through an organization called the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), which is now widely regarded as the pinnacle of all MMA organizations. Over the decades, MMA has evolved to include increased rules, weight classes, and regulations. However, because the sport can still be quite visceral to the unfamiliar viewer, it is still not sanctioned in all 50 American states, or in many other countries. To quickly check out the UFC’s rule structure, click here.

Now let’s watch a little MMA. A very recent UFC event took place on 19 November 2011, headlined by former two-time U.S. Olympian Greco-Roman wrestler, Dan Henderson, going up against Brazilian Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. Henderson squeaked out a decision victory in an extremely exciting 5-round match that lasted the full 25 minutes. Here’s some highlights from three matches on that fight card:

So having watched that clip, do you consider MMA an example of “violence?” Before you answer “yes,” “no,” or “I’m not sure,” let’s step back a second. In studying the sociology of violence, it is important to also ask, “What is violence?” Defining violence entails subjectivity, meaning not everyone defines violence in the same way. Consider some of the following questions. Is violence restricted only to physical harm? Is intentionality important; can violence include accidents? What if those involved in what might be a harmful endeavor both consent to their participation? Is violence restricted to interpersonal interchanges, or can it be structural, based on things like social inequality or unjust laws? See, defining violence is not that easy.

The definition of violence I like to use is that provided by The World Health Organization: “The intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation” (p. 6).

As can be seen, this is a rather broad definition that includes physical harm, as well as the threat of harm, or even the high likelihood of different types of harm. This definition also argues that violence must include intent to harm, and under this definition, MMA is undoubtedly an example of violence – sporting violence. But again, defining violence is subjective, and your definition may differ from that provided above.

The point here is that violence is socially constructed. When and where violence is tolerated or even celebrated depends entirely on how we as a society define the situation in which the violence is used. The social definition of violence also changes over time. Today many schools have a “zero-tolerance” policy on school yard violence, but in generations previous, fighting between students was not punished as systematically or as harshly.

At Saturday’s UFC 140 the debate over the legitimacy of MMA and the controversy of its visceral violence raged on after heavyweight Frank Mir broke the arm of his opponent Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in a legal “submission” move (See the move hereWarning graphic photo). In the main event Jon “Bones” Jones executed a “standing guillotine choke” hold on Lyoto Machida that won him the bout. Machida’s body fell lifelessly onto the canvas as Jones walked away victorious in a scene that will undoubtedly leave many MMA critics horrified and possibly outraged, but in reality, such a move if stopped in time by the referee does virtually no physical damage.

Both matches left at least one sports writer asking is, “MMA too violent to fully go mainstream?”. A sociologist would rephrase this question, “Can the definition of socially acceptable sporting violence be broadened to include MMA and competitions like we saw at UFC 140?” Only time will tell.

Now dig deeper:
1. Try coming up with your own definition of “violence” and explain why you defined violence in the way you did.
2. What sports would you consider “violent,” and why?
3. Sometimes sporting violence spills over outside the sport itself. Think of a few examples where fans become involved in sporting violence.
4. Going back to your definition of violence, try to apply it to other institutions in society. How does your definition of violence apply to examples of family conflict, street crimes, war, famine, or even media (video games, television, movies)?