In honor of the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics in Sochi Russia tonight, I am taking this opportunity to write about the merits and likelihood of Mixed Martial Arts becoming an Olympic Sport. The early-2000’s brought a meteoric rise in popularity to MMA, and since then, I have often heard a calling amongst MMA enthusiasts for it to be made an Olympic sport. Proponents will point to it’s globalness, popularity and history, while also drooling over the chance to see a knockout style tournament reminiscent of the movie “Warrior”. On the other hand detractors will point to the sports violent nature, recovery time needed for fighters, no governing body and a lack of quality amatuer presence.
The sport of MMA has been around for millennia, dating back to the Coliseum and prior, however, it’s recent emergence can be attributed mostly to Dana White taking over the UFC and bringing it’s stature to the “SportsCenter” level. While yes, the sport existed in Japan decades before the UFC first broke onto the scene in the early-90’s, it was not globally accepted. The UFC floundered in it’s early years, and struggled to turn a profit, while well known politicians, including Arizona Senator John McCain called for it’s ban. It was not until Dana White took over, instilled rules making the sport less barbaric and created a tremendously popular reality television show, “The Ultimate Fighter” that showed the more personal side of mixed martial artists. This led to a exponential rise in popularity in the sport, generating hundred of millions of dollars. This popularity puts financial pressure on the IOC to consider making it an Olympic Sport. While the Olympics struggles to make sports like speed-walking, badminton and curling lucrative, MMA would surely be popular and profitable.
The popularity of the Olympics adding MMA would be intriguing for fight fans because the tournament would have to be designed to start and finish within two weeks. MMA is typically a sport where injuries are so prevalent that it is assumed that fighters will take 2-6 months between bouts. Tournaments such as this would force the sport to regress to the roots of the UFC, where the athletes fought in a knockout tournament style completed in days, not months. The precedent has been set for fighters to fight in rapid succession, because the “Ultimate Fighter” demands that their fighters fight once every 10 days. Which brings up the questions of who would fight in Olympic MMA?
The IOC does not have any precedent towards amateurism or professionalism. While most sports allow only amateurs, including boxing, some Olympic sports have allowed semi-pro (baseball) while others professional (Basketball, Hockey). I can not imagine Dana White would allow his fighters out of their contracts and risk injury to fight in the Olympic mega-tournament. This would leave the fighting to the amatuer/semi-pro circuit. Unlike boxing, amatuer MMA does not have a strong contingent of fighters. Many boxers, have dozens, even hundreds of bouts before turning pro. This type of amatuer culture does not exist in MMA, where fighters typically turn pro after a string of only a few victories.
While the IOC reluctantly accepted wrestling back into the 2020 Olympiad, the fact remains that wrestling in the Olympics dates back to the original Athens Olympic games from ancient Greece. However, this style of wrestling would be more akin to modern-day MMA than it would be contemporary wrestling. The sport’s violent rules allowed for “Strangling” and “holds intended to persuade the opponent to concede defeat through pain or fear”. These rules were permitted and were an integral part of the sport.
Ultimately, I think the IOC will never come around to making mixed martial arts an Olympic sport. While the concept intrigues casual fans, the only professional power (UFC) seems completely uninterested in the concept, the deciding body, the IOC believes the sport is entirely too violent, lacks international rules and a decent circuit of amatuer fighters. Fight fans, such as myself, will merely permitted to enjoying this sport through the lens the UFC has designed for us.