Wednesday on Sidelines
, the daily sports commentary Web show run on this site, NBCSports.com's Jimmy Roberts denounced the sport of mixed martial arts, saying, "Don't try and pretend it's anything other than what it really is: savagery."
In full disclosure, Roberts has won multiple Sports Emmy Awards, has worked in the journalism field for three decades and is generally respected as one of the top reporters in the field.
Without a doubt, it's an enviable resume, but it doesn't make him right about this topic.
Roberts goes on to liken his argument on MMA's "savagery" to former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous explanation of obscenity, "I know it when I see it."
Here's the problem with that argument as its stands. History shows that Potter later recanted his obscenity explanation, saying it was an untenable definition, one that was baseless and simplistic. So, in the halls of justice, it doesn't stand up as an argument, and I will not let Roberts get away with it here, either.
There are certain things we "know" as soon as we see them. As a simple example, we know right away whether we think someone is attractive. But the problem with such quick judgments is that there is always subtext below the surface. We often discover that the attractive person may have an abrasive personality, a drug problem or some other characteristic that diminishes our original assessment.
At first glance, mixed martial arts is indeed a violent sport. That is indisputable. It is no different than football, hockey and boxing in that regard. But the subtext – the beauty to the sport – is in the layers beneath, the techniques that must be learned through years of practice, and for fans, years of viewing.
Think back to the first time you watched a football game. Maybe you were five or eight or even 16 years old, but what did you think the first time you saw a tailback run off left tackle on fourth-and-one and get stopped for no gain? You probably thought, "What was all that effort for? They accomplished nothing."
But look deeper; there is more to the play. The quarterback hard counts to draw the opponent offside. The center snaps the ball and seals the nose tackle. The right guard pulls to open a lane. On the defensive side, the down linemen engage their blocks, the middle linebacker reads the center and anticipates the play, beats the right guard to the spot and stops the play cold.
In time we learn that we have just seen more than a pile of humanity. We learn to watch Brian Urlacher or Ray Lewis read the play, avoid the blocker and tackle the runner. We know there are 11 players on each side working together to achieve a goal. There is give and take, push and pull, and there is no way to know that without being educated about the sport. It is not hard-wired into our brain, even if you've been watching so long that you've forgotten that you actually had to learn about it.
It is no different in mixed martial arts. "I know it when I see it" suggests that there is nothing more than two unskilled beasts fighting without any plan or goal. It disregards that most fighters come from disciplines like Greco-Roman wrestling, boxing, judo, karate and jiu-jitsu. Separately, these fighting forms are respected; some are even Olympic sports broadcast on this network. Yet somehow, when put together, they become "savagery"?
Does that make sense?
The interesting thing here is that many of these sports exist in an amateur setting, yet despite the fact that many pursue the sport for years, there has been no professional outlet for, say, a judo practitioner or an All-America collegiate wrestler. And so, it makes sense that over time, the participants wondered, "What is the practical use of the sport I've spent a lifetime on? "
Mixed martial arts is a simple extension of that, the interest in finding out which discipline and ultimately, which man, is best in a fight.
Just because you don't understand that the man on the bottom, with his opponent in guard, is in a 50-50 position (meaning he is just as capable of winning the fight as his opponent), doesn't mean it's barbarism. Just because you don't understand that a choke hold has been medically proven to cause no lasting damage when applied properly doesn't mean it's savage. And just because you don't understand the complexity of the gogoplata doesn't mean it's not a thing of beauty.
See, there is education involved in any sport, and nobody is forcing you to learn it, but if you're going to criticize it, you should probably know something about it first.
To call it savage and barbaric is an insult to its practitioners, who are incredibly well trained, and respectful of one another.
At UFC 73, I sat ringside in Sacramento watching Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Heath Herring battle for 15 minutes. When it was over, Herring's left eye was bruised and his face was bloodied, but only after he'd nearly knocked Nogueira silly with a head kick. The two had clearly been in a battle. Still, after the fight, the two shook hands and spoke of each other with high praise. Hours later, many of the fighters who had just competed against each other were celebrating together in the same hotel bar. Does that sound like a roomful of savages?
Disliking mixed martial arts is anyone's right. The sport is not for everyone, but no sport is. Roberts' quick dismissal of MMA as a savage sport is akin to dismissing a book by its cover. So next time you are flipping by a channel showing MMA, feel free to flip right on by if you don't like it. That is your right. But if you've never taken the time to learn about it, you don't have the right to attack it. Instead, allow yourself the very real possibility that unlike the famous quote that Justice Stewart not-so-famously recanted, you have no idea what you just saw.