Unless you’ve been off the grid for the past six months, you are likely aware of the upcoming match between UFC Champion, Conor “The Notorious” McGregor and Undefeated Boxing Champion, Floyd “Money” Mayweather coming up in a week. This fight is unprecedented in that the two worlds of MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) and Boxing are coming together on the big stage for the first time. Conor, an unbelievable talent in MMA will be stepping into the boxing ring to take on one of the biggest names in boxing since Mike Tyson. If you’ve seen any of the face-offs or interviews you will quickly notice the unrelenting trash talk and overt “alpha-male” back and forth that both fighters offer in their own unique way. While this isn’t anything new to the fight game, this level of promotion and back-and-forth talking is on another level. Regardless of what you might think of these two fighters, or the fight game, these fighters are at the top of their sport and they have spent numerous years training and sacrificing to be at the top, and for that, I tip my hat. However, I must ask, what has this sort of ‘entertainment’ done for the ethos of martial arts?
As a practitioner of martial arts and a father of several boys who are already learning boxing and Muay Thai, I have a vested interest in wanting to know how a martial artist lives and how it is to be lived as a Catholic man today. I want my sons living lives of virtue and authentic masculinity, which I believe learning martial arts can help engrain. In a recent video, and a follow-up video, Fr. Mike Schmitz makes the case that perhaps we need to be careful of MMA as a form of entertainment. He isn’t against the sport, the training, or the participation, but perhaps watching two men enter a cage to fight, as a form of entertainment, could potentially be problematic in that there is a danger of depersonalizing an individual as a sacrifice for the pleasure of the crowd. I completely agree with Fr. Mike in that there is a dangerous potential to treat fighters like two animals. I also agree that martial arts as a sport has the incredible potential to encourage men and women to live a life of virtue and unveil the profound nature of mankind’s ability to strive for excellence, embrace discomfort, and push through obstacles to find victory.
One of the problems of modernity, that of the secularization of culture as a whole, is that it has dripped into the world of the martial way. When the philosophy of life for a fighter, or athlete in general, is nothing more than material reductionism, which is arguably the most popular philosophy of our day, we are going to see the dehumanizing activities that have become the norm in sports. If man is nothing more than atoms and cells, and the objectivity of morality does not exist, then watching the strong defeat the weak becomes a matter of taste. However, when morality, ethics, and the dignity of the human person are strongly professed and engrained into the very soul of the athlete, now you have something entirely distinctive. Sports and refereed martial arts become the very thing that can unite a people, eradicate intolerance, and build a brotherly love among not only competitors but entire nations as they cheer on their champions. Learning how to fight is not enough as the desired result is simply the annihilation of an enemy. However, the constant coaching and training towards self-awareness, perseverance, honesty, sacrifice, and mutual respect for the other, lends an athlete to understand that fighting is ultimately not about the perceived evil in front of them, but rather the subjugation and internal warfare of the evil within themselves. A fighter who acts as the schoolyard bully is certainly not a true martial artist in the traditional sense of the word.
Hans Urs Von Balthasar spoke of the problem of anima technica vacua, a separation of the orders of nature and grace which has occurred in the West. One of the major symptoms of this problem is the creation of a world where power and profit-margin are the sole criteria for anything worth keeping. While prize fighting has been around since the beginning of mankind, martial arts at its core has nothing to do with profit-margin, nor the desire for power. Rather it is a sincere self-investigation of the inner demons of ego and the growth of self-discipline to eradicate those from your life. This self-discipline and technical training then gears one to better handle the potential dangers of life. And yes, for a martial artist to test his skills, he must compete against another.
Now, in terms of MMA as entertainment, in cultures around the world, right up to the early 20th century, boys would often fight or wrestle one another as both a test of manhood and a way to be welcomed into the tribe or culture in which they found themselves. Boys became men by learning how to defend their tribe, which taught them that their life was one of self-sacrifice for the common good. The camaraderie of learning how to defend others built lifelong friendships between boys who were expected to work together for the good of the tribe. In times past, priests themselves would teach troubled youth the art of boxing in order to help engrain discipline and respect into the boys they were evangelizing. These boys would fight one another and a brotherhood would grow. Boys have not changed. They still want to have something or someone to test themselves against. They learn who they are by physical challenge. Yet unfortunately, modernity and anima technica vacua has robbed many boys of that experience, and the growth of MMA as a form of entertainment is a result of a culture which often neglects intense horseplay in their homes and culture. Boys still desire a place to test themselves, and having been neglected the normal pathway, it has been built as a sport, with judges, referees, rules, and everything else that goes along with sports, making it as safe as possible for the competitors, and actually much safer than many other mainstream sports.
Sadly though, much like other sports, money creeps its way in.
In regard to the growth of MMA as entertainment, one negative is that, much like any professional sport, the entire game can become about the almighty dollar. Just listen to Conor and Floyd throughout all their rants; every single one is about money and how much they have. While I have nothing against using your talents to make a comfortable life for yourself, if martial arts become nothing more than training for entertaining fans and making money, it has lost its original purpose. MMA as a sport has an excellent opportunity to engrain the virtues of sports, however, we must be keenly aware of the depersonalizing effects that can occur when a sport becomes nothing more than the entertainment of a crowd for insanely large amounts of money, and the same goes for any other beloved sport.
What I might suggest to any of those participating in martial arts, or those who enjoy MMA, is to be keenly aware of the anima technica vacua in your life. Don’t reduce the things you love down to its base form and forget the depth and beauty available to you when you are blessed enough to partake in the art. If we forget the metaphysical reality of the body, we reduce martial arts to nothing more than fighting in a cage. However, if we embrace the delicate balance of grace and nature, then martial arts become not only beautiful, but a pathway towards a human being fully alive. When metaphysical forms are properly in place, a fighter becomes a martial artist, an MMA match becomes a place of mutual respect for the person in front of you, and physical restraint when needed, becomes an expectation.