Last week the Ultimate Fighting Championship had its debut in Melbourne. The new Victorian Labor government removed the ban on so-called "cage fighting" shows, allowing the UFC to hold a mixed martial arts competition in its trademark Octagon. Given the records broken – Etihad stadium's biggest gate takings, and the UFC's largest crowd – it's safe to say the UFC will be back. The next Australian fight night will be in Brisbane, 2016.
Melbourne's UFC 193 was remarkable for more than its fat purse. Two main fights were between women, a remarkable turnaround given the UFC's Dana White said there would "never" be female combatants in the Octagon. One of the reasons for this about-face was ex-Olympic judo medallist Ronda Rousey, whose charisma and talent quickly put her on magazine covers and screens. Rousey was beaten in Melbourne, and definitively so: her first MMA loss, and by knock-out in the second-round.
This kind of violence is still controversial, and not because women were involved. Gender is irrelevant to this particular question, although it's worth noting that their physical prowess was unquestionable. What's troublesome for many is the spectacle itself: public, brutal, hand-to-hand combat. Is there a robust ethical case against MMA?
The most obvious charge is that is violent. Fair enough – it is. But this is a fact, not a moral failing. Violence itself has no inherent ethical value. It can be cruel, just, petty or tragic. There must be something about the violence that makes it objectionable.
Much violence does not involve consent: it is a form of domination, which reproduces asymmetries of power. But these UFC fighters are consenting adults, specifically trained for this sport. They are professional athletes, not victims, and it is patronising to deprive them of their agency. If there is exploitation in the industry, this is cause for industrial relations reform, not blanket condemnation of the sport itself.
There are certainly risks involved in combat sports. While victor Holly Holm celebrated and gave interviews, Rousey was in hospital with a split lip and concussion. Even the winners, like meticulous Polish striker Joanna Jedrzejczyk, can look set-upon afterwards. But according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the martial arts have a much lower injury rate than all codes of football, horse riding, and basketball. Some of the most dangerous pursuits, by severity and hospital stay, are sports like cycling, skateboarding, roller-skating and quad-biking.
Professional combatants face the additional threat of repeated brain trauma, leading to so-called dementia pugilistica. A John Hopkins study suggested that this risk is lower in MMA because fighters can win with grappling rather than strikes. A more recent study, published in British Journal of Sports Medicine, cautiously confirmed this conclusion, studying over two hundred professional fighters. Nonetheless, the risk is real.
However, this danger does not make MMA intrinsically unethical. It is something to be recognised and possibly minimised. But, as in football, car racing and equestrian events, it remains a risk that trained adults can freely consent to. The selective criticism of combat sports seems misguided.
If the sport itself is not unethical, perhaps the spectacle is. This involves two different accusations: that the UFC produces violence in the general population, or that enjoying the UFC is morally dubious.
The argument that perceiving X causes X is an old one, beginning at least with Plato. This is a "mimetic" argument: that the audience copies what it sees. However, there is no evidence that watching MMA causes violence. One 2012 study of young people in Violence and Victims unsurprisingly found a correlation between MMA and positive attitudes towards violence. But it concluded that viewing MMA was a poor indication of antisocial behaviour.
Interestingly, being a victim of violence, and having anti-gay attitudes, were better predictors of violence than viewing MMA. In short, look to the broader social context, not the pay-per-view spectacle. This is why soccer is never banned, despite the horrific aggression displayed by some of its fans: the disjuncture between the show and the thuggery is so stark.
If MMA does not cause vice, perhaps enjoying it is dubious? As Martha Nussbaum argues in The Fragility of Goodness, we can rightly say that some emotional responses are vicious, in the original sense of the word: kinds of vice. It is virtuous to be saddened by Antigone, and vicious to whoop at Rousey's concussion. But, again, this does not make MMA itself unethical: it means some fans have cankered characters. It is possible to enjoy the sport – its athleticism, courage and perseverance, for example – without revelling vicariously in the suffering of its competitors.
None of this obliges critics to view, enjoy or endorse the UFC or other MMA events. It does, however, ask that criticisms be at least as meticulous as the violence on display.
Damon Young is a philosopher and author, and the co-editor of Philosophy and the Martial Arts: Engagement.