Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Are combat sports (boxing and MMA) barbaric?

“Two people trying to beat the crap out of each other for a prize – isn’t that barbaric?”

Friends always ask these questions every time they learned I got a ticket for either a mixed martial arts (MMA) or boxing card.

If it’s true that our forefathers clubbed each other for pieces of meat or a handful of berries, prizefighting in today’s world may deserve that label.

In fairness to our cave-dwelling forefathers, they may have figured out early on that they can also get what they wanted, or at least some of it, by haggling and bargaining. Negotiations must have yielded results that were mutually beneficial. Out of this process evolved complex relationships of give-and-take that blossomed into what we now call “civilized behavior.” Nevertheless, one cannot deny that prizefighting could trace back to that early, nasty episode in human evolution.

Prizefighting actually thrives in advanced societies.

Greece had pankration (a combination of boxing and wrestling with few rules) in their Olympics and while Rome had gladiators. Where do we hold the biggest prizefights covered by media and beamed to millions of homes worldwide in modern times? America. Europe. Japan. These countries have advanced economies, produce cutting-edge technologies that are changing the world, and churn out culture (songs, media, dances, fashion, philosophy, etc.) that are constantly shaping the way we live. So it’s tempting to say that the huge and glamorous prize-fighting events in these societies, beamed to millions of homes worldwide through TV and the Internet, are probably socio-cultural indicators of "greatness."

I heard another “theory.” Maybe human nature hasn’t really changed since the days of the cave dwellers. We have all the accoutrements of modernity now (smart phones, internet, jets, better plumbing, glamorous clothes, table manners, air-conditioning, morning-after pill, etcetera) but we probably haven’t gone far beyond who we really are since humans first experienced the thrill of watching fights among fellow savages. (Watch those crime reports, read the newspapers today and you will realize that lots of places in the world remain in the Hobbesian state of nature “where life is nasty, brutish and short.”)
Over time, social expectations (mores, laws, regulations, treaties, agreements, ethics, religion, etc.) have tempered human impulses. Obeying these rules and expectations, usually buttressed by State violence (i.e. the courts, cops and the army), is part of the “social contract” to prevent humans from annihilating each other. This arrangement is getting more important by the day as the the effectiveness of the tools for killing and maiming (automatic rifles, machine guns, biological agents, nukes) is improving by the minute. But it seems like there’s this subconscious and persistent – nay primal – urge for either employing or watching violence. To use Sigmund Freud’s phraseology, is this primarily to “to work off the intolerable burdens of civilization”?

Hence, we have sports competitions which are essentially simulations of combat and from which audiences derive vicarious experience and pleasure. I suppose we have ‘action’ films for the same reason. (We no longer have gladiators around – passé – because we can now watch combat and bedlam either on LED TV or the movie screen).
And of course, there’s boxing and MMA.

Barbaric? Nah, just enjoy the show. Or switch the TV off.

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