It’s easy to be seduced by UFC but violence will grow from legitimising the cage | Anthony Panegyres

When you remove the veil of smooth marketing and the charismatic characters, what we are left with is a barbaric blood spectacle that should be banned

A few years ago, a couple asked me to watch their apartment while they honeymooned in sunny Tahiti. As I didnt have a TV at the time and they had Foxtel I obliged. I watched plenty of David Attenborough and Aussie Rules, and then I caught myself mesmerised by a blood sport: UFC. Well-trained gladiatorial athletes in combat in front of a ravenous crowd. I was hooked by not only the tactics but also the level of savagery.

This was actual blood being sprayed all over the place, not the stuff of Hollywood. I was observing an ancient rite straight out of Neil Gaimans fantasy novella Monarch of the Glen, two ancient enemies eternally fated to be locked in combat. The combatants intense concentration along with their heavy breathing, wasnt too distant from the predators Id just seen on Attenborough either.

Since then Ive watched the UFC on occasion. I watched the Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm fight and I began to chat with people about the UFC. Its a sport that polarises audiences: some of my friends love the sport, others cant stand it or understand it. There is no doubt, however, that cage fighting magnetises many, drawing both spectators and future wannabe fighters, in much the same way boxing once did.

The market surrounding the sport at the elite level is beyond lucrative. Theyve created a winning narrative of not only archrivals in combat, but also friends out to destroy each other in the cage. Its no surprise that the viewing audience is a few hundred million.

I am philosophically opposed to the violence yet I was a victim to UFCs hold and was glued to the screen. When you investigate the UFC, however, and remove the veil from the smooth marketing and the charismatic characters, it is essentially a barbaric blood sport, and wherever it takes root the culture of violence spreads with it.

This is where the Labor opposition leader in Western Australia, Mark McGowan has been led astray. McGowan has promised to legalise cage fighting if elected, a major policy reversal by Labor in WA. He claims allowing cages will make fighting safer. Either McGowan has been bedazzled by the dollars and slick arguments from promoters of the sport (he has even referred to UFC executive Tom Wright as a mate on ABC Radio), or he is deaf to the overwhelming scientific evidence on it causing brain damage to fighters. And there are broader, socio-cultural issues with McGowans potential move to popularise violence.

The Australian Medical Association (WA) has called for a statewide mixed martial arts (MMA) ban, and has has condemned McGowans move, with president Andrew Miller saying: We find it very curious that Mr McGowan decided to announce his disappointing change of heart on this issue on the same day that salesmen from the UFC were in Perth to lobby state politicians.

At present, without the sport of MMA being fuelled by the popularity of the cage, it is in decline in WA. Adam Wyatt, owner of an MMA training gym was quoted in the West Australian regarding current participation rates, which had stagnated due to the ban. From a health perspective, this stagnation is beneficial to the broader community, but McGowan seeks to provide an infusion, a bloodline, into the sport in the form of the cage.

Obviously, MMA gym owner Adam Wyatt wants the participation rates to increase with McGowans fuel injection. But would fans of the sport be thinking that way if they knew more?

There is one sole study saying that MMA is less dangerous than boxing (another sport with a proud history of causing brain damage): the Alberta study. Yet this study is already outdated. Its biggest fault was that it largely investigated fights of a grappling nature, when the sport has well and truly moved to a combination of grappling and striking. The report wasnt longitudinal, and only dealt with short-term effects. But as you can imagine, the information being bandied across social media and the web by fighters and promoters, is of course, from the Alberta study.

The large ongoing study is in Cleveland. Dr Charles Bernicks early findings show that both boxing and MMA, are equally dangerous to the brain. Long-term fighters in both groups have had reduced brain volume and have performed worse in cognitive and memory tests. If boxing is already an issue, why does McGowan wish to add to the list by legitimising another sport involving head strikes? If fighters knew their brains were shrinking would they be willing participants?

Its been common knowledge for a while that fighters are usually punch drunk by their old age. But there is a list of other ailments outside of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) not being addressed here. Fighters also suffer from brain trauma.

Current findings show that bleeding to the brain often results in long term atrophy of the area concussions have similar effects. Any movement of the braincase is likely harmful in the long term. Once again, the Alberta study doesnt touch on this.

Researchers from the University of Toronto found some disturbing facts. On average 2.6 head strikes are inflicted on already unconscious fighters in MMA. At the time of the study, there were 15.9 knock outs (KOs) and technical knock outs (TKOs) in MMA per 100 athletes. Contrary to the cultural myths being spread by the UFC executives, boxing was at 4.9 and kick boxing 1.9. The next highest was American Football, which at 8.1 is still well below the MMAs average. The UFC actually equates to a concussion-like injury in 32% of fights.

Every knockout, every concussion, is a prime candidate for long-term brain disease.

Like most Australians, Im a fairly liberal minded person at heart. Yet, like free speech, we have limits in place to ensure peoples safety. Most Australians dont tolerate speech that inflames hatred and violent acts against others. In the case of the cage, limiting the sports popularity is about protecting innocent youths from being caught up in the euphoria.

McGowans UFC-influenced move contradicts the ALPs traditional prioritisation of health. Growing the sport, normalising the violence, popularising it, doesnt help anyone let alone his party. Especially when safer options exist.

Its easy to be seduced by the sport I was myself. Partly due to ignorance, partly due to the glib talk, partly due to the narrative that comes with it, but chiefly through a morbid fascination that it even exists in this day and age. Through legitimising the cage, the evidence is clear: it grows. And the flow-on affects are real: there were brawls in Melbourne following the Rousey vs Holm fight. Here in Perth, brawls followed a screening of the same event at Burswood Casino.

Now thats surely the opposite of a safety measure.

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