Mixed Martial Arts or MMA is one of the fastest growing sports in the United States and its popularity since its inception in the early 1990s has grown to the point where one fighter recently took home a million dollar purse. With such a large following, it is not uncommon for the winner of a fight to express gratitude to God for helping in a win. While we have addressed the question of whether God cares about the outcome of a sporting elsewhere, MMA deserves a closer look because it is decidedly an unChristian activity by its very nature. No one is questioning the sincerity of belief of the fighters, but what needs to be called into question is whether one can bring glory to God doing something which, ultimately, is wrong.
To begin, it bears mentioning that the fact that MMA is wrong is not because it is violent, per se. The fact that two fighters are engaged in a “friendly” fight that involves a degree of physical violence is not the problem. The problem is the goal—to knock the other opponent out. In this regard we would pass the same moral judgment on boxing, but not on wrestling or most martial arts. In the latter the goal is to use grappling or sparring techniques to pin or score points against your opponent. As proof of the intent, the head is almost always off limits. In MMA the goal is to deprive your opponent of consciousness and therein lies the moral problem. It is always wrong to deliberately deprive another person of consciousness violently without a proportionally grave reason.
One may say that there are ways for an MMA fighter to win other than by knockout but those are merely accidental. It is the knockout that is the primary goal of the fighters, promoters and fans. The fighters are not just known by their win-loss records, but by their number of knockouts. No fighter sets out to win by decision or submission, but wants to knock their opponent out. Obviously not all matches end in a knockout–while significant less than boxing (7.1 % of the time), a knockout still occurs in about 5% of the MMA matches.
It is also important to mention that when examining the morality of a given act that we look to the intention of the moral actor not at whether they are successful or not. So even though there is a knockout in only 5% of the matches, it is most certainly the case that in 100% of the matches both fighters are intending to knock out the other. It may change the moral gravity of the act itself whether they are successful, but it is still an objective wrong. A person who sets out to kill someone by putting a bomb in their car is still guilty of attempted murder even if the bomb does not go off.
It bears mention as well that it is the goal of the fighter that sets it apart from something like football, even though there are more concussions than in MMA. While football players regularly receive head injuries and concussions, it is not a goal of the football player to knock the other player out. Certainly there are some players who do try to, but these players are labeled as “dirty” evidence by the NFL’s Bountygate scandal from a number of years ago.
For the sake of clarity, it is also helpful to understand what it is that makes it wrong. When we speak of something as a sin or wrong against our neighbor we mean that we are deliberately depriving him of some good without a proportionate reason to do so. In the case at hand, the fighter intends to deprive his opponent of the use of his reason, the highest and most uniquely human faculty that he has. In other words, it is contrary to his dignity because it attempts to make him into something less than human. As an aside, drunkenness is wrong for the same reason—it deprives us of our proper use of reason.
Only recently have we begun to see the danger of repeated head trauma and that concussions (which is what happens when someone is knocked out) cause permanent brain injury. Because of its lasting effects, no amount of money or fame is enough to be considered a proportionately good effect to inflicting (or even receiving) permanent brain injury. All of us have an obligation to maintain bodily integrity and thus a right to do so. A fighter has, then, no just reason for harming a neighbor in his rights to bodily integrity or well-being by inflicting wounds which will most certainly lead to long term impairment of his body.
Presumably the fighters themselves are freely engaging in the fight and thus bear full responsibility for their actions. What about the fans?
MMA fans, by their presence and enthusiasm, participate in the wrongs of the contestants. Certainly we would not have seen the growth in the MMA without the support of the fans. Therefore we need to first examine the fans’ role through the moral lens of cooperation in sin.
The principle of cooperation recognizes that a number of people directly and indirectly participate in bringing about an evil action. To understand this principle of moral philosophy, it is important that the distinction be made between formal and material cooperation. It is meant to assess how closely one aligns their will with the intention of another to carry out evil. Formal cooperation assumes that one aligns their will with the evil intention of the principal moral agent. Material cooperation presumes that one does not directly align their will with the principal moral agent. Material cooperation may be of two different kinds. If one cooperates in an evil act by performing something that is essential for the performance of the evil action, then it is immediate material cooperation. If one cooperates in an accidental or nonessential manner in the evil action, then it is called mediate material cooperation.
Returning back to question of MMA fighting we can certainly see that there is immediate material cooperation. Just by paying to see the fight, the spectator contributes financially to the contest; the fighter fights primarily for the purse supplied ultimately by the spectators. But in almost all cases the spectator’s cooperation is formal. They too have come to see “a good clean fight” in which one of the participants is knocked out. In many ways the fans are no mere spectators to the wrong in that they are encouraging the fighters by cheering them on.
Engrossed in what is in essence a brutal culture, we can easily miss the bigger issue. What makes prize fighting like MMA wrong for people to watch is that it is based on deriving pleasure from the injury of another person. This is so obviously wrong that we often overlook it. “A man who is angry without being injured or with one who has not offended him” is according to St. Thomas “not to be cruel, but to be brutal or savage.” For all the supposed sophistication of our culture, it is marked by a brutality or savagery that takes pleasure in the unnecessary sufferings of other men. It is the same thing that led Romans to watch the gladiators fight. It leads to an overall insensitivity to the sufferings of others that is a defining tendency of our culture. We should feel pity and compassion in the injury of another person and not cheer it. To pay money for such a thing only shows how depraved we have become.
Our Lord admonishes His followers in the face of violence to “turn the other cheek”, but when it comes to the inherent violence of prize fighting like MMA, we should simply turn our heads and walk away.