Ethics in the UFC: Barbaric Spectacle or Ethically Permissible Sport?

The picture above was taken after UFC 189, a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) event held on July 11, 2015. The fight itself was for the UFC Welterweight Title and as you can probably judge from the picture, the fight was an extremely violent one. In the end, the champion Robbie Lawler (pictured right) defeated Rory Macdonald (left) in the fifth round of the fight via Knockout. After the fight, both fighters received “Fight of the Night Honours” (bonus salary given to fighters that put on the best fight) and many fans speculated that it was one of the best fights of the year.

I believe the story of the fight between Lawler and Macdonald is a perfect introduction to the discussion of ethics and MMA. These two fighters who displayed such violence and inflicted significant damage upon each other, were praised and rewarded extra for their performance after the fight. Both fighters entered the octagon cage, the standard UFC setting, with the intention of causing physical harm to their opponent. Overall, the scene looks more like a modern depiction of gladiator combat than a sport, and at first glance, certainly doesn’t seem ethical.

Founded in 1993, the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) is the premier MMA organization in the world. Despite existing for over twenty years, the UFC has skyrocketed in popularity in the last ten years or so. UFC fights consist of two athletes who are locked in an octagon cage and are given three rounds in an attempt to knockout or submit their opponent. If both fighters are still able to fight at the end of three, five minute rounds, the winner is decided by a panel of three judges.

Fortunately the UFC reflects more than just brutality; there is also a technical side. UFC fighters are not just bar brawlers or tough guys who have something to prove, they are highly trained martial artists. Many have been training their craft since they were young, they follow strict nutrition in order to stay in peak condition, and follow rigorous and sophisticated training programs. As mixed martial artists, most have knowledge of a collection of different fighting styles like wrestling, muay thai, jiu jitsu, and kickboxing. Mixed martial arts differs from practically every other fighting-based sport because almost anything is allowed. Fighters can have so many different fighting styles and all have different strengths and weaknesses. By understanding this, you can see that MMA is extremely complex and involves a lot of tactical decision making. The best fighters in the UFC understand this. They prepare by studying their opponents, learning their tendencies and habits, and then building a game plan for how to defeat them. The seemingly chaotic nature of fights may deceive a casual viewer, but fans of the sport understand that there is a lot more going on than just the apparent barbarism.

With this, you can see why it’s quite difficult to get a read on mixed martial arts from an ethical perspective; it is a unique blend of barbarism and technique. As for whether it’s a sport, the answer is yes. Boxing, kickboxing, and wrestling all qualify as sports; it seems ludicrous to call mixed martial arts something other than a sport when it is just a combination of multiple sports. Determining if MMA is ethical is another matter entirely.

The fact is this, when two UFC fighters are locked into the octagon cage, they will do anything they can to injure their opponent to the point of not being able to continue. That is, at least at its core, the point of any mixed martial arts fight. You have three rounds (five in the case of a title fight) and five minutes per round to physically beat your opponent with whatever methods you deem fit. Violence is in the very nature of this sport, and although violence itself could be argued as unethical, in a UFC fight it is not against the sports’ rules. One could argue that there are plenty of other sports that involve similar amounts of violence, like football for example, however there is a strong distinction between the two. Football involves only instrumental aggression, which is essentially aggression that occurs because of non-aggressive goals. You make a big tackle in football so your quarterback can score; that’s instrumental aggression. Reactive aggression is the aggression present when you have intent to harm or injure. In UFC, you exhibit reactive aggression, as well as instrumental aggression.

The other thing that makes MMA even more ethically troubling is the presence of gratuitous violence. Gratuitous violence can be defined simply as when violence exceeds what is necessary for success. There are rules that fighters must follow during fights, however because of the nature of the sport, fighters can still get away with a lot of illegal contact. It is quite common to see fighters getting in an extra punch after the bell sounds the end of the round. Or perhaps most shockingly, when fighters get a few extra punches in after a knockout, even after the ref has called off the fight. The grisly truth is that in a sport as violent as MMA this sort of thing is bound to happen, and its almost impossible to fully regulate these incidents.

MMA fighters also reflect some of the most violent people in society: the volume of domestic violence arrests involving MMA fighters is more than double that of the average US national rate. 

With all this being said, it is hard to morally defend MMA or the UFC. Like many other fighting-based sports, there is an inherent violence at the very core of the sport. However it goes beyond that, MMA is more violent than virtually any other fighting sport, as all of the different fight techniques lead to different ways that damage can be inflicted upon an opponent. The central goal of MMA is to inflict harm or to injure, reflecting reactive aggression, which is certainly a more dubious form of aggression to the more common, instrumental aggression that is present in most other sports. Lastly, the presence and frequency of gratuitous violence, where violence goes well beyond what is needed for victory, is extremely common and sets MMA apart from many other fighting-based sports.

What do you think? Do you feel that the MMA is unethical? Do you think its appropriate that such violent sports entertainment is readily available online and on cable TV? Feel free to comment below any opinions.

References & Additional Reading:

Can Martial Arts Be Ethically Defended

MMA and UFC Have No Place In Civil Society

No Holds Barred Sport Fighting: a 10 year review of mixed martial arts competition

McNamee, M. J., and S. J. Parry. Ethics and Sport. London: E & FN Spon, 1998. Print.

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