This Is the End


Markets, Risk and Human Interaction

August 12, 2012

Return Pankration (a.k.a. Mixed Martial Arts) to the Olympics

Of the sports in the ancient Olympics, there is one that remains absent from the modern Olympics: Pankration. Pankration, which means “all strength”, is a combat sport which is a combination of boxing and wrestling; indeed, it permits all fighting techniques. What is essentially pankration does exist as a sport today outside of the Olympics. It began in Brazil as vale tudo, Portuguese for “anything goes”, and now is called mixed martial arts (MMA). It dwarfs boxing in popularity. Its most active promoter, the UFC, has filled arenas throughout the US (except, surprisingly, New York), and has extended to events in Japan, Ireland, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Germany, Abu Dhabi, and Sweden.

MMA had a poor start in the U.S., decried by John McCain as “human cock fighting.” But whatever its past, it is now a carefully refereed sport with rules to protect the athletes, who wear gloves and are barred from dangerous techniques. Despite its reputation, MMA does not have the brutality of boxing. In boxing a fighter might sustain hundreds of blows to the head; even if he is knocked senseless, even if he sustains a concussion in the process, he will continue to absorb rounds of punishment after the respite of an eight-count. With MMA, if a blow stuns the opponent, rendering him even momentarily defenseless, the contest is over. And more often than not, if it fails to go the distance it ends not though strikes but through a submission, where an arm lock or a choke hold leads the opponent to “tap out” before damage is done.

I bring up the idea of returning Pankration to the Olympics for three reasons.

First, the roots of modern Pankration lead back to Brazil, as do the roots of one of the two key disciplines behind MMA, Brazilian jiu jitsu. (The other is Thai kick boxing). So the Brazil Olympics is a natural time to return the sport to the games.

Second, having an “anything goes” sport is a natural given that we have most of the raw ingredients peppered throughout the Olympics today. Among the combat sports in the Olympics is one where you can strike only with your hands, and another where you can strike only with your feet. With both, if you end up in a clinch you are separated. Then there are other combat sports where the contest begins once in a clinch, but where no strikes are permitted (Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling, and Judo).

And, third, do I dare mention that the state of combat sports in the Olympics is pathetic? All of these sports are highly stylized, in some cases to the point where their combat origins are obscured. The scoring system for boxing and tae kwon do has turned them into little more than games of tag, with the athletes wrapped in padding, with the power of a strike almost incidental to the outcome. (Which gets to another question: how did tae kwon do end up elevated from being a demonstration sport? Or did it? If you compare what goes on in the competition versus in an academy, you would never guess there was a connection).

There are two problems with bringing MMA into the Olympics. The first is that having multiple matches in a few days is difficult in a sport that is so physically grueling. The rules should be modified to reduce the risk of injuries that might keep the victor from being able to continue with future matches by, for example, not allowing elbows to the head, and by having a small field admitted to the Olympics, so perhaps there would only be two or three preliminary matches. The second is that the very top fighters might not want to bypass a big payday in order to compete for an Olympic gold, any more than you would likely see Manny Pacquiao or Mayweather entering the Olympic ring if boxing eliminated its amateur-only restriction. (An amateur-only restriction would not fare well for MMA, because most all of the high level athletes have fought professionally).