The Ethics Of Being A Mixed Martial Arts Fan: How Safe Do We Really Want Our Sport?

Being a fan of a sport which encourages violence obviously brings up certain moral dilemmas. Can we be fans of violence but simultaneously be pro fighter safety? MMA Today’s Ryan Thomas looks at the ethics of being a Mixed Martial Arts fan and asks, how safe do we really want our sport?

Raucous crowds baying for blood are seldom rare in MMA. Fans crave the violence, even if they appreciate the aspects of fighting on a technical level. Violence is what we’re there for. It just is. And like it or not, this offers up some moral ambiguity regarding how you view safety within the sport. Can we, as fans, be pro fighter safety, yet simultaneously condone vicious knockouts, asinine weight-cutting practices or systemic use of performance enhancing drugs? Well, can we?

Just as the sport of MMA combines multiple aspects, so too does safety within the sport. There are three primary concerns which we can determine as being notably risky. Firstly we have issues with drastic weight-cutting, secondly, performance enhancing drugs and, thirdly, all forms of traumatic brain injury –  TBI.

Drastic Weight-Cutting

In recent months there has been a welcome change in how weight-cutting is viewed and how protocols are being enforced. The stigma around drastic weight-cutting is becoming more prominent given tragedies within the sport such as Leandro ‘Feijao’ Souza and Yang Jian Bing. The latter would spur ONE on to change how their weight classes were determined and subsequently, forward-thinking California State Athletic Commission’s Andy Foster, would bring up new weight-cutting safety protocols which would be passed and implemented as of May 16, 2017. These weight-cutting reforms have ushered in a new found caution and willingness to change from fighters, coaches, and nutrition specialists. UFC fans need look no further than high profile cases such as Johny Hendricks or Anthony Pettis, as both former champions have fallen victim to horrific and unsustainable weight cuts in recent times.

In the sport of MMA, weight-cutting is clearly an immediate issue with a high-risk factor attached. Some could argue, if not for the habitual weight-cutting many fighters bring from their days in amateur wrestling then it wouldn’t be as prevalent or as in MMA. You could also argue the Unified Rules perpetuated it when specific weight classes were introduced, meaning fighters attempted to cut to gain advantages over smaller opponents. While no singular reason can explain why it has become the norm within the sport, if you compound a few of those reasons it likely becomes a little clearer. 


In an interesting yet distressing documentary which follows current ACB fighter, Dean Garnett, as he attempts his weight cut for his fight at Bellator 158 against Luiz Henrique Tosta, we get a brilliant insight into the lengths fighters go to on a regular basis just to make weight. It could be argued that these days leading up to the fight are the ones where fighters are at the most immediate risk in their schedule, including fight night.

On the whole, a lot of people are coming around to the notion that drastic weight cuts are a dated and inherently dangerous aspect of the sport. It’s one which can be controlled to a lesser extent, such as the protocols and safety measures being implemented by CSAC, but it’s also a long way off being regulated on a wider scale.

After implementation of CSAC’s new 10-point weight-cutting regulations, their executive director, Andy Foster, is hoping to compile data over the coming year to show the positive impact the new policy is having on the sport. Foster spoke on his hopes for further implementation by the ABC which would make it a mandatory policy for all North American commissions if voted in at next year’s annual ABC meeting. Per MMAFighting:

“I want to come back next year after we have a little over a year of data worth from this thing, show it to people and say, ‘Look, this works.’

“I want people to adopt it right away, because it’s gonna save lives. But if they’re skeptical, I’ll come back with hard data, not just what I think and what I believe. Thoughts and beliefs don’t do a lot. Hard data shows.”

While eradication of such drastic weight-cutting practices is currently little more than a pipedream, hopefully, more Athletic Commission’s will follow CSAC’s lead and adopt these new protocols, ensuring the wellbeing of the fighters as their primary concern.

Performance Enhancing Drugs

PED use within competitive sports is seemingly a prerequisite. From Victor Conte and the BALCO scandal to Russia’s alleged state-sponsored doping program, it’s roots run deep throughout competitive sports. It’s alleged that banned substances have compromised competitive sports from as early as the 1900s, where strychnine was used frequently. These methods to enhance performance ran right through to the 1930s and subsequently each decade there on after, where the introduction and evolution of substances went from amphetamines to testosterone to steroids to blood doping to EPO – Erythropoietin. The latter four still being widely used today.

Sports and PEDs have progressed in such a manner now that the science behind it is often in favor of those who are espousing its illicit use rather than those trying to prevent it. Many reactionary measures are only put in place once said PEDs have been in use for a considerable time. That’s the unfortunate position governing bodies such as WADA and USADA find themselves in. There has often been a new form of performance enhancing drug which can work around current testing procedures, although in recent times this practice has also become considerably riskier. New measures and procedures are being put in place incrementally. Ones which can also identify metabolites in research performance enhancers which have yet to hit production. Them often being the drugs athletes take to circumvent stricter testing. The window is closing but it’s still a game of catch-up nonetheless.

In June 2015, the UFC took a bold stance against such practices within the sport of MMA, introducing an agreement between themselves and USADA, which would implement a robust testing program on all fighters within its purview. The program, known as USADA | UFC Anti-Doping Policy, would be a first within MMA. Historically, promotions such as the UFC, would leave testing to Athletic Commissions, but given a series of high profile failures, the impetus being Anderson Silva, and to a lesser extent, Nick Diaz, the UFC decided to change tact and implement a far more robust program to counter and deter fighters from taking banned substances.

The program hasn’t been without its teething problems though, as fighters have fallen victim to tainted supplements or a distinct lack of recourse after being flagged for a violation. There is even a contingent of fans who bemoan the fact that the UFC have such a policy in place. And while there is an argument to be had that using them to recover is beneficial, it’s also a fine line to be walking when determining when you can and when you can’t use banned substances within the confines of an Anti-Doping Program.

And herein lies a moral dilemma for fans. Many will fall different sides of the track on this particular subject.

I appreciate, even advocate what the UFC is doing in regards to curbing PED use within the sport. There is evidence to suggest that within sports, the competitor using a banned substance is generally in a better position to win. When that sport involves intentionally damaging your opponent then the dynamic becomes a little different than say, sprinting. What is worth noting though is that predating the USADA | UFC ADP the UFC allowed for Testosterone Replacement Therapy. TRT being an androgenic and banned within competitive sports. But if you look at the records of fighters who took TRT during that period then you’d be hard pressed to determine if it was of benefit to them or not. Insofar as to say the results of the participants fights during that period were mixed and the pool was rather small.

With the UFC being the only promotion that has implemented this level of testing – ACB now have an ADP in effect since July 2017, although to a lesser extent – fans can find their fix of steroid induced MMA on the continent. This is not to say all fighters, or even most fighters, outside of the jurisdiction of Athletic Commissions or ADPs take PEDs, just that they have the opportunity to do so with little-to-no repercussion.

PRIDE even explicitly stated it would not test for performance enhancing drugs, per the language in the fighter contracts. Per MMA Weekly (h/t Jonathan Snowden).

“Fighter agrees to be tested immediately preceding and following the fight in each event, to confirm negative results of the use of marijuana, cocaine, barbiturates, and other illegal substances. Should any test be positive, fighter shall forfeit all amounts payable under this agreement granted for such event. Performance-enhancing stimulants of the steroid-based family are specifically excluded from the scope of the tests and the prohibition in this section.”

As a fan of promotions such as Fight Nights Global, Rizin and others, it can leave some fans feeling conflicted in their beliefs of what they should be happy with in regards to fighter safety. It’s known that fighters on these shows are under no strict policies in regards to doping, yet, we can still enjoy watching them attempt to knock each other out. It’s a moral dilemma which many try to justify to themselves. In promotions where there is a structure in place to eradicate or deter such practices, it’s a commendable concept to have fighters be clean as a mandatory provision of entry. In promotions where there is no such structure in place, fighters who aren’t using could ultimately be the ones at risk. Hence why you could argue that it could be deemed safer if both fighters used performance enhancing drugs given they have the opportunity to do so. As to not, then one fighter may be at a greater immediate risk than the other.

While the UFC’s enforcement offers something tangible to those that advocate fighter safety, it also signifies how small the scope of it is. If we’re really to see this sport become safer globally then all major promotions need to advocate a robust Anti-Doping Policy with the emphasis being that it will protect fighters in the long run. Not only from potential immediate damage but also adverse effects of prolonged use, including a diminished endocrine system, mental health problems and other functional problems such as hypogonadism and intense joint pain. Furthermore, prolonged use becomes an even more dangerous prospect once fighters realize they don’t have a 401k or annuity plan to help them with their medical bills once they retire. A sad truth which some of the sports pioneers can attest to.


Traumatic Brain Injuries

Recent events became a precursor to this particular article. The potential return of Chuck Liddell is a great segue into questioning the ethics of being a Mixed Martial Arts fan. And parallel to that; how safe do we really want our sport? It’s a question which is well worth exploring.

The potential return of Chuck Liddell feels somewhat unnecessary. Even for the most ardent violence junkie. Personally, it crosses the risk threshold that I’m comfortable with. At forty-seven, Liddell is almost eight years removed from his final fight and was subject to three successive knockouts – four in his last six -each one arguably more brutal than the last. His retirement was forced upon him due to health reasons yet now his return is being entertained for nothing more than monetary gain. There is unnecessary risk attached to his return. Liddell should be nowhere near a professional fight given these facts. One such method that can be used to determine this is by using the MMA Severity Index. Kirik Jenness of would relay news regarding a revolutionary index used to measure the risk surrounding a fighter in hopes of it then being available to promoters and Athletic Commissions to determine if they should proceed in greenlighting a specific fighter or fight.

“An MMA Severity Index (MMASI) is being developed at the direction of California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) Commissioner Martha Shen-Urquidez and Executive Officer Andy Foster, among others. The MMA SI is being developed in collaboration with the Contact Sports Foundation.

The Contact Sports Foundation has secured the services of statistician David Algranati to help refine an algorithm for the MMASI. Once developed, promoters too will receive access to the MMASI for matchmaking, to help assess the likelihood that state commissions will accept the matches they submit for approval.”

The MMASI is still in beta form but it currently works as such:


  • 1. Activity
    1 or 0 fights in last two years = +1
  • 2. Recent Record
    Lost 5+ in a row = +2
    Lost 3 of last 4 = +1
    Won 3 of last 4 = -1
  • 3. T/KO or Technical Sub
    4+ in last 2 years +3
    1-3 in last 2 years +2
  • 4. Age
    44+ = +2
    35+ = +1
  • 5. Cage Age
    75+ rounds = +1 (note: Amateur fight = 1 pro round)
    5+ years = +1
  • Risk Category
    +3 to +4 = High Risk Category “C”
    +5 to +6 = High Risk Category “B”
    +7 to +9 = High Risk Category “A”

Following these guidelines Liddell would score a +5 and a High Risk Category B rating.

“Categories A, B, and C indicate the fighter needs further clinical evaluation by the commission and their medical advisory board before licensure. This scale is not meant to replace good judgment but is to be utilized as one objective tool to determine suitability to compete.”

The MMA Severity Index took on an all too real and tragic meaning in recent weeks after the death of former UFC fighter, Tim Hague. At the Association of Boxing Commission’s annual convention, Kirik Jenness would apply the Index to Tim Hague’s combat sports career, illustrating that Hague did indeed need further examination before being sanctioned.  An avoidable tragedy had those in charge followed procedure. Mike Russell of would go into great detail on the appalling negligence surrounding the incident.

Needless to say, this is the exact definition of why safety measures such as this should be enforced as a mandatory precaution within the sport.

Josh Hedges|Zuffa LLC|Getty Images

Besides pre-fight safety protocols you also have to contend with the damage sustained within the fight. Can we consciously advocate violence and simultaneously advocate fighter safety? I say yes. The two can co-exist. Of course there is an element within the MMA community who either don’t care because ‘it’s a fight’, or they try not to think about consequences of such things as it impairs their ability to enjoy fights, either way, that lack of awareness, and in some cases, ignorance, is what this article is attempting to change. We need to be aware of fighting being inherently dangerous and the risks it entails as it helps our understanding on how we can make the sport safer. Conversely, we should still allow ourselves to enjoy it when it meets certain safety standards. Ethically, if all safety procedures are followed, pre, during and post-fight, then that is the best that we can ask for. It then allows us to enjoy the fights knowing that fighters are doing this in the safest possible conditions all while knowing the potential risks involved.

Making sure fighters are fighting in the safest possible conditions, even if the actual act of fighting isn’t safe. Whatever you can control by introducing certain safety measures, you do. That is how fighter safety is determined.

Even then there is clearly no guarantee that something won’t happen which could ultimately change a fighters life but, it’s the closest thing we can get to actual safety aside from not competing at all.

MMA Today had the opportunity to speak with Dr Johnny Benjamin, a leading orthopaedic spine surgeon with a wealth of knowledge in relation to TBI within sports. Dr Benjamin is a staunch advocate of athletes, fans, employers and everything in between, being aware of the risks associated to head trauma within sports. When asked for comment, Dr Benjamin gave some expert insight into the matter:


“Any blow which leads to a loss of consciousness is a serious issue.

Most fighter deaths happen after a grueling pummeling and rarely after a single blow stoppage.  The accumulation of trauma, at least anecdotally, appears to be fraught with potential disaster. It appears that once the brain has suffered sufficient trauma, continued trauma prior to adequate healing & recuperation creates a rapidly devolving ‘slippery slope’ to catastrophic injury. The potential for the dreaded ‘Second Impact Syndrome’ regarding head trauma is often underappreciated during a grueling & brutal fight.”

While there are no peer reviewed studies to verify what Dr Benjamin has described as anecdotal, it stands to reason and sound logic. It’s also a huge part of MMA. Singular strike knockouts are not as voluminous in MMA as accumulative strike finishes are, which in itself is worrisome for those who advocate fighter safety. Not only can this be worrisome throughout the duration of a fight but the issue of second impact syndrome carries from fight to fight and sparring session to sparring session. And SIS has impactful consequences, as fighters like Jamie Varner can attest to.

Dr Benjamin would also bring up another issue in regards to safety measures which are routinely put in place to protect fighters; The referees:

Just because the coliseum demands blood doesn’t mean those who have sworn to promote and protect the health and safety of the fighters should allow it to be given to them. If modern MMA & boxing are to be viewed as legitimate sporting contests the health & safety of the fighters must be more important than financial concerns of the promoter or the blood lust of the crowd.

This is a legitimate concern and goes back to how fighter safety is determined; Making sure fighters are fighting in the safest possible conditions, even if the actual act of fighting isn’t safe. Whatever you can control by introducing certain safety measures, you do.

While the highest levels of MMA can boast legitimately good referees, often, unregulated or smaller promotions don’t receive that same level of officiating — larger shows are often appointed the most prominent and experienced referees. Referees are there solely for the safety of the fighter so when they fail at their job it’s an issue. And to be sure, the sport has it’s fair share of negligent referees, none moreso than Missouri’s, Mike England, who has repeatedly put fighters at undue risk. Recent fights in Russian promotions Fight Nights Global and ACB have also shown referees to have placed fighters in extremely dangerous positions which should have been avoided.

These instances are extreme and hopefully they are clear examples of where fans need to draw the line in what we condone in a fight. Pleasingly, Denis Geyko, of MMA Today and, revealed that Herb Dean recently held a refereeing seminar in Grozny prior to ACB 67. It’s a move which ensured their referees were more well prepared and thus capable of keeping the fighters as safe as possible at future events. It would be great to see more high level, experienced referees host seminars in countries where the sport doesn’t have as much regulation. Hell, more of this even in places where the sport is regulated would be welcomed, including reasonable accountability measures, such as an independent adjudication board where referees are scored on key areas including but not limited to their performance in regards to a fighter’s safety.

Further reactive measures which have been taken include MMA promotions such as the UFC and Bellator funding brain studies at the Lou Ruvo Centre for Brain Health. A commitment which will see active and retired fighters volunteer themselves for testing in the Professional Fighters Brain Health Study.

Per the UFC, as of February 2016:

“The Professional Fighters Brain Health Study has enrolled nearly 600 active and retired athletes. Participation is voluntary, and fighters in the study receive free, ongoing assessments of their brain health and function, including MRI scans. Individual tests will be repeated annually for a minimum of four years.”



Further still, CSAC has shown itself to be proactive in their quest for fighter safety having green lit the use of handheld brain scanners to determine any adverse effects on a fighter’s neurological system. With others also using the technology in gyms.

It’s these structures which are put in place which, when compounded, ultimately determine how much safer a fight can be.

As fans we should all be striving for the safest possible conditions for fighters to compete in. Awareness is key.

Just something to think on the next time someone asks; how safe do we really want our sport?


Further reading:

MRI Study Shows Promise Tracking Brain Damage in Fighters

Neurologist Calls for Uniform Minimum Standards For Combat Sports Neurologic Safety

Multimodal MR Imaging Signatures of Cognitive Impairment in Active Professional Fighters

Neurologic Health in Combat Sports

MMA and Boxing Greats Call for Answers on Fighter Brain Health Questions

Ian McCall undergoing brain treatment, unsure of UFC future: ‘My whole career is a regret’

Is MMA Too Violent? One Reporter Says Enough Is Enough


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