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What MMA really tells us

The interpretation of Mixed Martial Arts like a cultural phenomenon by an Italian sociologist

Alessandro Dal Lago is an outstanding Italian sociologist of cultural processes and a university professor, who has also taught in the United States. He has published and edited more than forty volumes and over two hundred essays and articles.

He also discussed MMA in an article published in 2016, available online: “The sense of brutality. An anthropology of professional Mixed Martial Arts”. In the final part of this publication, the author asks himself: what does MMA really tell us?

According to Dal Lago, MMA represents a “privileged observatory on the evolution of that vague phenomenon that we call western, global, capitalistic, liberal society”. The author believes that this idea is clearly explained by David Mamet, an American screenwriter, director and essayist who sees Mixed Martial Arts as a metaphor of trade. Dal Lago quotes an extract from the article that Mamet wrote in 2007 for The Guardian:

“[In MMA] goodness and gracious, capitalism meets globalism, and the question […]  of free trade versus protection is addressed in a canvas ring. […] Mixed martial arts was invented by Brazilians, whose families had been trained by the Japanese. Those Brazilians came to the US, where their invention was bought out, gussied up and presented to the world, which found it good. […] In practice we, in the world, must do business with each other. How will this global economy evolve? Watch mixed martial arts, the true marketplace of ideas”.

According to Dal Lago, MMA would be the ideal American sport, as “it knows no borders, just like capitalism”. However, the Italian sociologist claims that Mamet has approached the point, without catching it: “Yes, MMA combines fighting techniques learnt all over the world […]: but analysing it on a simple global trade level […], falsifies its nature and reality “. Therefore, we come back to the initial question: what does this controversial sport really express?

Dal Lago states that Mixed Martial Arts spread from America as this country is the symbol of an “essentially violent culture, common to the whole west, but of which the United States are obviously the best expression”. In this vision, the US is “a country that has always fought, to free itself from the homeland, to conquer a piece of land, to eliminate the natives, to abolish slavery and defeat Nazism, to become the leader in the world”. Therefore, it is evident that MMA is “the revealing metaphor of a combat culture that, not recognised in Europe, fully manifests itself in America and in satellite countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia”.

In addition, the professor makes a more general reflection on western culture, arguing that the most violent sports represent “a martial background of which the West, with all its rationalisations, has never completely emancipated and which today reemerges more or less triumphantly “. Just Mixed Martial Arts describes the level reached by this re-surfacing.

Moreover, the similarities between MMA and the conflicts existing today in the world seem to be many. As a matter of fact, “Combat sports, entertainment and military spirit are mutually enriching each other”. Dal Lago believes that Mixed Martial Arts “was actually born as a global, commercial and spectacular phenomenon, between the second half of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, at the turn of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the consequent spread of conflicts following the end of the Cold War”. In addition, MMA “reflects that civil and military hybridisation typical of contemporary conflicts. […] Today armed conflicts […] multiply and become confused […]”. The essay ends with a certainty: this is the soil in which  Mixed Martial Arts was born and has developed.

What does Dal Lago think about today’s dynamics of this sport? Here are his answers.

In your article, you explain the reasons why Mixed Martial Arts has become popular and spread particularly in the United States, as a revealing metaphor of a combat culture. You also mention Europe, arguing that this culture is not completely unknown on our continent. Today MMA is developing a lot in Europe. In your opinion, why this? It is true that the US is,”a country that has always fought”, but can the same be said for the European countries, which have gathered in the European Union, precisely to pursue peace and stability in the continent?

I would not see great differences between the European warrior spirit and the American one. After all, the Greeks invented pancrazio. The difference is in the minor popularity of combat sports in Europe, which however – as you say – are rapidly emerging. The return of European nationalism, a political-cultural circumstance that has caused two World Wars and a large number of other conflicts up to now, describes this western analogy.

In 2018 MMA events has widespread in Italy. For the first time, four Italian athletes belong to UFC. Many insiders consider this moment the beginning of a Golden Age for Italian Mixed Martial Arts. In your opinion, could this sport become really popular in such a strongly Christian-Catholic country with conservative components like Italy? Or is it just a passing phenomenon?

I don’t think it is a passing fad: Mixed Martial Arts perfectly fits the extreme right-wing drives that are manifesting themselves in Italy. I don’t mean that MMA is necessarily a right-wing phenomenon. I want to say that it represents the prevailing social feelings in a certain period, as it was for boxing, which expressed different values embodied by Muhammad Ali and Loi or Benvenuti.

From a sociological and cultural point of view, could you explain why boxing is in crisis all over the world, while Mixed Martial Arts is spreading? Aren’t they both representations of the combat culture?
I believe that boxing reveals the combat culture less than Mixed Martial Arts because it is more stylised and formalised, even if it may be more dangerous and even brutal. I mean that only fists are used in boxing, while Mixed Martial Arts goes back to the period between the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries, when every move was allowed. Moreover, modern boxing was actually born from these extreme moves. In a work of the early Eighteenth century, a baronet suggests to lather the hair not to be grasped and to hit with headshots the opponent to weaken him. The extreme combat of MMA refers to the practice of street fighting and military techniques of combat with bare hands, even if equipped with rules. And it is this which fascinates so many fighters and spectators.

Tommaso Clerici

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