Next year, one of the biggest sporting organisations in the US is coming to Australia, and it’s going to make a lot of people very angry.

It’s the UFC, or Ultimate Fighting Championships — the world’s largest Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) promotion — where the best fighters in the world battle it out for squillions of dollars, and millions around the world pay to watch on PPV.

MMA is already a favourite target of Australia’s mainstream media, who trot out a lazy WON’T SOMEBODY THINK OF THE CHILDREN!?! article every few months on a slow news day.

Combat sports have always made easy fodder for the pundits (the old “Boxing harms your brain!” dead horse still gets pulled out for a flogging at least once a year, and it’s been an Olympic sport for over 100 years), so a multi-million-dollar outfit like the UFC hitting our shores was always going to attract more than its fair share of fist waving and moral indignation.

But I didn’t expect it to start so early. Yet here it is in last weekend’s SMH: Cage rage coming here! ZOMG, lock up your children: cage rage is coming!

Before I delve any further into the article, a quick history lesson and clarifier:

The UFC is an organisation. Competitors in the UFC are doing Mixed Martial Arts. You may know it as “cage fighting”, “ultimate fighting” or maybe even “no holds barred”. But it is called Mixed Martial Arts.

Without going too in depth: Organised fighting is hardly new or exclusive to any country, but the origins of MMA largely lie in Brazil**, where they used to run competitions called “Vale Tudo”, which quite literally means “anything goes”. And it did. Fighters from various disciplines would battle it out, with no rules, and folks would watch and gamble.

Meanwhile, a family of strapping young Brazilian boys called the Gracies started learning the Japanese martial art of Jiu Jitsu (well, they were sort of learning a more primitive form of Judo, to be more precise, but that’s a whole can of worms not worth opening here). They took the ground fighting and grappling techniques they liked from the art, and developed their own style: Gracie Jiu Jitsu, though it’s now more generally know as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu or BJJ (the name Gracie is very proprietary. They’re clever businessmen, as you’ll see).

The Gracies (or some of them; they bred like rabbits)
The Gracies (or some of them; they bred like rabbits)

ANYWAY, some of the Gracie lads moved to America to make their fortunes, and, to cut a very long story short, they decided to set up a Vale Tudo-style event — pretty much just to show how frikkin’ awesome they were.

And so they did. And someone agreed to put it on TV. And they called it the UFC. And to make it more spectacular and attract viewers, they held the fights in an eight-sided “cage”, creatively titled the “Octagon”. And martial artists of different styles took up the ‘Gracie challenge‘ to find out which fighting style was truly the best. And after they beat the crap out of ninjas and karate geeks, they showed the world it was theirs.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4osAd9dFK2k[/youtube]

And people paid good money to watch it on TV. But some more conservative folk weren’t so happy about this “no rules” fighting on their screens (there were some rules — no biting or eye gouging or small joint manipulation), so it was banned for a while. So the UFC folk toned it all down with lots of rules and regulations and weight classes, and everyone was happy (well, there are still some die-hards who yearn for the early free-for-all days, but isn’t that always the case?) and they put it back on TV.

After a while, the “style-vs-style” started to fade away as people worked out pretty quickly that only a handful of styles really stand-up in the ring: full contact styles like BJJ, wrestling, boxing, Muay Thai/kickboxing, Judo, etc. And so most aspiring UFC fighters started training in a mix of those, and out of that grew a style in and of itself: Mixed Martial Arts.

Now there are people training and fighting MMA all over the world. The UFC is still the largest, most widely-known MMA competition around but the UFC is not MMA. People train MMA in gyms like they train any other martial art or combat sport –hours and hours of drilling techniques, bag-work, strength and flexibility training, jogging, weights and, yes, some sparring. They compete in all sorts of competitions — often alongside boxing or kickboxing bouts.

It isn’t “cage fighting”. Sometimes it’s done in a cage, sometimes it’s done in a ring.

It isn’t “no rules” or “no holds barred” — there are plenty of rules. It is probably a more “complete” fight sport than most out there — in that it incorporates both stand-up and ground fighting — but the competitors adhere just as strict a rule-set as any other sport.

So. The article.

THE sport described by critics as “human cockfighting” is coming to a stadium near you, despite warnings that US-style cage fighting will fuel more violence on the city’s streets.

Which critics call it “human cockfighting”? The media themselves. Oh, and John McCain.

The combat sport, known as mixed martial arts, will be launched in Sydney early next year by the US promoter Ultimate Fighting Championship.

Legal representatives of the company have approached the Combat Sports Authority to seek permission to stage a bout in February, with organisers understood to be looking at the Acer Arena in Sydney Olympic Park.

They’re not “launching” the combat sport in Sydney or Australia at all. MMA has been in Australia for years, with gyms and shows in every city — especially Sydney.

UFC fighters use a brutal combination of martial arts, boxing, kick boxing and wrestling inside a cage called the octagon.

Competitors are permitted to pin an opponent to the floor and punch or elbow them into unconsciousness in a move known as “pound and ground”. UFC rules explicitly ban fighters avoiding contact, faking injury or throwing in the towel, while the absence of a blood rule often leaves the octagon looking more like an abattoir.

Heh, it’s “ground and pound”, mum. It is one of the more brutal parts of the sport: one fighter gets the dominant mount position, straddling their opponent and striking them until they give up or the ref reckons they can’t go on. They can “tap out” at any time.

There is, of course, a blood rule, and it’s fairly well on-par with all other combat sports: some bleeding is allowed, but the fight will be stopped if it is obscuring a fighter’s vision or the ref or coach thinks too much blood is coming out. Blood is part of fighting. It sometimes only takes a glancing scratch to draw blood, and most fighters are fairly unfazed by it. Fighters undergo regular and comprehensive blood tests before being given permission to compete.

The first cage fighting bouts were staged in Australia in 2007, with a championship staged at Sydney’s Luna Park in May last year attracting football players, and television and music stars.

See? Nice contradiction there. (I’m quite sure there have been shows here pre-2007, too, but I’d have to look it up).

“It’s madness. If this was the animal world, the RSPCA would come down on you like a ton of bricks,” said leading neurologist Professor Mark Cook of St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne.

“As in boxing, the nature of sport means that brain injury is inevitable and this cage fighting may be worse, with people allowed to hit somebody while on the ground.”

Except two grown consenting adults competing in a combat sport is absolutely not analogous in any way to defenseless animals with no free will fighting or being hit.

There’s no doubt injury is a risk in MMA, though actually, there are relatively few head shots in most bouts. Broken bones and over-extended joints are more common. Boxers take repeated blows to the head day-in, day-out with 16-ounce gloves. It’s much harder to hit someone in the head when you’re wearing tiny 4-ounce MMA gloves and they can tackle you to the ground. IF it happens, it will probably only be a few times per fight.

A prominent criminologist questioned whether UFC should be staged in Australia .

“This is the last thing we need to be importing,” said Professor Rob White from the University of Tasmania. “UFC may have an even bigger impact than other forms of violence because it is a blood sport where we make heroes out of people who bash each other.”

That’s drawing a pretty long bow. One could make a similar argument about everything from rugby to pro wrestling. I’ve certainly seen no evidence or studies that MMA competitions — or any combat sports — fuel violence.

One of Australia’s best-known MMA fighters and trainers, Elvis Sinosic — who has himself competed in the UFC — has also written a nice critique of the article here.

Look, I get why people don’t like MMA or other combat sports. Yes, it can be confronting to see blood and brutal combat first-hand. But no-one’s being forced to watch. It’s a legitimate sport done by consenting adults.

Drumming up fake moral outrage with biased, poorely researched articles is lazy journalism and doesn’t serve anyone’s interests.

The UFC isn’t bringing anything to Australia we don’t already have. It would be nice to see a bit of balanced coverage about it in the media for once. But I’m not holding my breath. Prepare for a barrage of misinformed beat-ups by the MSM as the event draws nearer.

* This is the catchphrase of UFC referee ‘Big’ John McCarthy. Hopefully they bring him over for the event.

** OK, MMA geeks/history pedants, I know the sport simultaneously developed in Japan, but there was only so much I could fit in. I plan on dedicating an entire post to Japanese fight shows like PRIDE and K-1 soon, because they’re vastly more entertaining than the Western version.