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Something to prove?

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

I can appreciate what mixed martial arts competitions are trying to do but I'm not sure they are achieving their goal.

The idea behind the current MMA competitions is to determine who the best martial art fighters are.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship began as an exhibition to prove that Gracie Jiu-Jitsu was the best fighting system by presenting "style versus style" matchups.

The competition has evolved since then to the point where all competitors, regardless of their background, must become familiar with a number of specific skills in order to do well in the octagon.

So the UFC is now not about style vs. style, but about who is the best fighter given that particular set of rules.

During a discussion on MMA competitions, my hapkido instructor, Master Mike Morton, pointed out that we have come full circle. "Anything goes" fighting competitions are nothing new. He pointed out that the ancient Greeks had a competition, called Pankration, which the Wikipedia breaks down as coming from the Ancient Greek words "pan" (meaning "all") and "kratos," ("holds") or, literally, a "no holds barred" contest. The fights included all the elements of mixed martial arts -- striking, grappling, clinches, joint locks, choking -- everything but eye gouging and biting.

According to Morton, the Greeks eventually abandoned the sport in favor of forms of boxing and wrestling because all of their great warriors were ending up crippled or dead.

Again proving that history repeats itself, the mainstream MMA competitions now have a list of rules as long as my arm: we have once again abandoned "anything goes" in favor of some degree of safety.

And, to paraphrase a favorite Star Trek quote often used by a martial art friend, "that changes the conditions of the test."

Any seemingly insignificant change actually makes a big difference.

For example, look at the different competition areas. Boxing rings put ropes around the area, which some boxers use to lean against to recover their strength. The UFC puts fighters in an octagon bordered by a chain-link fence which clever fighters use to trap their opponents up against during clinches and ground fighting.

Other sports, such as Olympic taekwondo, simply draw lines around the area and penalize those who refuse to stay within bounds. Sumo awards a win if you manage to push or throw the other guy over the line.

UFC now uses rules established by the New Jersey Athletic Control Board that have drastically altered "the conditions of the test" in other ways, too.

Requiring fighters to tape their hands and wear gloves means that its fighters no longer need to condition their wrists and knuckles. They have made the contest safer for fighters' hands and more dangerous for their heads -- not exactly a wise trade-off, in my opinion. It may result in more exciting fights, but damage to the head has far more serious consequences than spraining a wrist or breaking a hand.

It defeats the purpose of finding out who the "better" martial artist is. On the street, the ability to deliver a punch without hurting yourself worse than the other guy is definitely a deciding factor.

Breaking the fight down into rounds is also a step away from simulating who would win on the street. Endurance can be critical when two determined fighters face off as there are no resting periods on the street.

I am beginning to think there is no way to determine who the best fighter is with a single event without putting the fighters at risk for serious injuries.

But I do have an idea. Look at track and field's decathlon which determines, by 10 events, who the best overall field and track athletes are.

The idea is to earn respect, after all, and who gets more respect in track and field than these athletes?

Fighters could face off in a list of competitions such as boxing for hand skills; Olympic taekwondo for kicking skills; judo, wrestling or sumo for grappling skills; point-style karate sparring for speed; board and brick breaking for focus and power -- even a patterned movement form competition, known as "kata" in karate or "poomse" in taekwondo, to determine precision of technique and body control.

Maybe then we could truly determine who the "best" martial artists are without crippling our best warriors.