Daphne Bramham: A barbaric spectacle demeans us all

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“I hit him with a lot of shots with my knees to his face … my knees are hurting pretty bad. Usually when I hit people with those shots in the gym they go down.” ­— Demetrious (Mighty Mouse) Johnson, speaking admiringly of opponent Ali Bagauntinov after Saturday’s Ultimate Fighting Championship event in Vancouver.

There is no doubt that the men and women who enter the cage at mixed-martial arts events are superbly trained and conditioned athletes. They have to be to take that kind of punishment.


But that doesn’t necessarily mean that what they do is sport. It’s spectacle.


Its rawness harks back to Roman times and the spectacle of blood-soaked gladiators in front of massive crowds in the Colosseum or the fights-to-the-death with roosters and dogs that have been banned because they are overwhelmingly deemed to be inhumane.


Yet, these human fights continue despite ­— and perhaps because of — their shocking violence.


In mixed-martial arts, there are only a few rules: No strikes to the back of the head, no hair pulling, head butting or inserting fingers into someone’s mouth and pulling, no groin strikes.


The International Mixed Martial Arts Federation bans kicks to the head of a downed opponent, but is silent on other blows to the heads of downed opponents.


Unlike boxing, MMA fights don’t stop when an opponent goes down. There is no 10-second count, which offers a chance for the downed opponent to concede or stumble back up to his or her feet.


A mixed-martial arts fighter suffers a traumatic brain injury in almost a third of all professional bouts, according to a recent study by University of Toronto researchers.


They analyzed seven years of Ultimate Fighting Championship video and scorecards, which detail when a fight ends with a knockout or a technical knockout.


“The 30 seconds before match stoppage was characterized by the losing competitor sustaining a flurry of multiple strikes to the head,” said the study, published in the March edition of the American Journal of Sports Medicine.


It says brain damage done to the fighters is likely exacerbated by the “surprising,” repeated blows to the head delivered to opponents who are already unconscious.


Four years ago, my colleague Iain MacIntyre described one fight at Vancouver’s first Ultimate Fighting Championship: “It was like an execution, except it took longer.”


Incidents of traumatic brain injuries in MMA fighters is twice that of football players, three times that of boxers and eight times higher than for hockey players, according to the U of T study.


(Another study is underway at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas that involves close to 400 active and retired boxers. It’s being partly funded by MMA promoters.)


Meantime, the bloodbaths continue. They’re the ones that drew the roars of approval from the crowd at Saturday’s Vancouver event. The bloodied heavyweight Ovince Saint Preux was described by Canadian Press as having “nearly had his arm ripped out of the socket,” before the fight was stopped.


If this kind of violence took place anywhere else — including a hockey arena or football stadium — the so-called winner would be criminally charged.


As Vancouver Canucks fans remember only too well, Todd Bertuzzi eventually pleaded guilty to criminal assault after punching Steve Moore of the Colorado Avalanche in the back of the head during a game in 2004.


Moore’s neck was broken in three places.


Moore never played hockey again and more than a decade later, it’s still not over. Moore’s civil suit against Bertuzzi and the Canucks will finally be heard this fall by an Ontario court.


It’s only last year that MMA was legalized across Canada with the Criminal Code amended to allow it. In the United States, it’s legal everywhere but New York. But that ban is being challenged in Federal Court by the UFC.


Still, it’s disconcerting to see violence legalized.


After all, we live in an era when even real warriors are often far from the battlefield, dropping real bombs from drones and killing real people as if they were playing a video game.


And it’s troubling to realize how lucrative it is to stage these barbaric spectacles.


Maybe a morbid fascination with brutality is primal. Maybe nothing can lessen the desire of some people — particularly young men — to see it or even experience it.


But we ought to be better than this.


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