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MMA as an Olympic Sport? UFC Co-Owner Says It Will Happen

9 Mar, 2016

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Objections from Enthusiasts, However, Include Possible Loss of Sport’s Aggressive Character

Mixed martial arts as a podium sport in the Olympics? The opinions on both sides of this argument might just be the strongest yet.

UFC co-owner Lorenza Fertitta has claimed it will happen. In an interview in Inside The Games, Fertitta cites the huge growth of cage fighting, which packs in crowds around the world and particularly in the U.S., as proof of the sport’s marketability.

Fertitta claims there has been interest from various National Olympic Committees, with MMA’s appeal to youth cited as a potential lure for the International Olympic Committee.

“The Olympics are a business too, they get it, they want to attract all those younger viewers with all those television deals they are doing,” Fertitta told the BBC World Service’s Sportsworld program.

That much is a valid point. The addition of slopestyle events to the Winter Olympics is one attempt to capture the youth market, particularly on the male side. The fact that the Olympics is favoring sports that attract a younger, hipper market – with five sports including surfing, roller sports and sport climbing on the board for possible inclusion – could mean the IOC would be willing to take a few risks.

“We have had conversations with a number of heads of Olympic Committees from around the world and there is an interest,” notes Fertitta.

The question, of course, is this: do fans and athletes want it? Not all of them. In an MMA Training blog entitled, “MMA Will Never Be An Olympic Sport,” it becomes clear that some of the main objections include the possibility that Olympic inclusion might take away the sport’s inherent punishing character.

“If MMA made its Olympic debut, you could anticipate it wouldn’t look like the MMA you know and love – be it UFC, Affliction, EliteXC or other,” noted the blog.

Instead of having a fight go on until an opponent is knocked out or taps out, for example, the sport might use guidelines to score punches, much as boxing does, something opponents say will change it irrevocably. (UFC fans area also irked at the thought that fighters might have to wear gloves, footwear and head protection -- although now that the Olympics no longer requires headgear in men's boxing, that at least may not be as much of an issue for MMA.)  

To put the argument in perspective, when snowboarding was first incorporated into the Games, some professionals refused to participate because they did not like the idea of wearing helmets and uniforms and being subject to team rules.

In addition, MMA fighters currently take time to recover between bouts, whereas the compressed timeframe of the Olympics might not allow for a sufficient recovery.  There is also the need for widespread acceptance. At the moment, MMA is still not legal or sanctioned in many places including New York City.

Plus, say organizers, MMA is growing just fine. Although Olympic inclusion would heighten its visibility still further, it is unnecessary at this point.

"Do we need it? No, we are going to survive and continue to grow,” UFC’s Mark Fisher told Reuters in 2013. “Would it help to put us on that next level of interest and really capture everybody's imagination and understanding? I think it would help tremendously. But we are talking about theoreticals.”

The first steps have been taken. Kerrith Brown, a former British Judo Association (BJA) chairman, was elected as the President of the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF) last June. (The IMMAF was founded in Stockholm in 2012 by August Wallén, a former fighter and previous President of the Swedish MMA Federation.)

IMMAF says its goal is to establish MMA as an international sport, from the recreational level to the elite level, and that it now has members in 50 countries. The IMMAF is currently not recognized by the IOC, but Fertitta believes the Federation are targeting a place in continental games, with an eye on future Olympic inclusion.

“They are pushing to try to get mixed martial arts involved, whether that be the Pan American Games, eventually the Olympic Games,” he said.

“If somebody had told the Olympic Committee that 20 years ago that their number-one program would be snowboarding and halfpipe, they’d probably think they were crazy but that is where we are today.”

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