Why you should care
Because if they bleed, they lead.
The list of Summer Olympics sports overlaps only slightly with our list of most relevant sports. There’s fencing and handball, race walking and trampoline, and Ping-Pong — er, table tennis. They’ve ditched sports like tug-of-war and jeu de paume, but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is apparently going to consider adding such popular favorites as sport climbing (mmmkay?) and wushu (don’t ask me).
Which has us thinking: Why not mixed martial arts too? After all, MMA has a strong, wide constituency. More than 150 countries already host events put on by the UFC, MMA’s flagship league, and the sport itself combines legit Olympic sports such as boxing, judo and Tae Kwon Do. The Olympics could do far worse than to jump on the juggernaut. “You look back at the growth, at this inimitable pathway — I don’t think anyone’s done it in the history of sport,” Garry Cook, UFC’s chief global brand officer, told OZY. He argues that its irreverence poises it perfectly for the future, and for TV too: “Aesthetically, it looks very different than what we’re used to, but the next generation wants short, clip-value content.” The Olympic sports that have recently been on the precipice of being dropped from the slate, like wrestling, look weak in comparison to MMA nowadays.
In just a few short years, the sport has built a large, global following of cultish fans. Three years in, the international federation has signed up 69 countries; that will rise to nearly 100 by next year. (The minimum number of countries to file with the IOC is 70.) Take that as a sign that the IOC would need to do little to promote MMA events. Real money is up for grabs. Just this month, the UFC, the league that monopolized the MMA landscape, sold for $4 billion after 15 years of growth.
Of course, mixed martial arts’ ascent to becoming an Olympic sport won’t happen with a simple roundhouse kick. Rules and regulations may need to come first, and though it’s going slowly, the taming of the sport is underway. For one, the federation will soon be a signatory to WADA, or the World Anti-Doping Agency. As the sport matures, rules that vary in different countries and different promotions are being streamlined for International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF) events: Shin pads and cushioned gloves will soften blows, the number of rounds will consistently be three, each lasting three minutes, and doctors and EMTs will always be on hand for competitions. There’s a strong likelihood the international amateur version of the sport will eliminate the “ground-and-pound,” in which a fighter can pounce on his prone opponent and pummel him with a flurry of punches.
To be sure, such adjustments might take the teeth out of the bloody, brutal spectacles people pay $59.95 to watch on Saturday-night pay-per-view. They may curdle the very blood of MMA’s core following. But without them, this edgy sport won’t make it outside a paywall. “Lots of people look at it as a tough-man competition, not a sport,” Frank Babcock, the president of the USA Mixed Martial Arts Federation, told OZY. But inclusion into the Olympics would mark the final hurdle in this once-controversial sport’s legitimization: “They’re moving onto the status of an athlete, not a bar brawler.”