Mixed Martial Arts is trying to shrug off its image as an ultra-violent, inhuman and even degrading sport in France, where it is banned for pros but loved by amateurs.
“MMA isn’t a hooligan’s sport,” insists Bertrand Amoussou, a trainer at an upscale gym in a quiet Paris neighbourhood in Montmartre.
Combining elements from boxing, judo, karate and wrestling, MMA is allowed across Europe except in France and Norway.
It is played barefoot and without a helmet, while hands are protected only with fingerless gloves.
Despite the ban, the discipline has proved irresistible to tens of thousands of amateurs in France.
“MMA suffers from its past image when it was pretty savage, with bloody fights resembling street brawls,” said Taylor Lapilus, a former jujitsu champion.
At age 24, he became one of the only French professionals to compete in the premier Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in the United States, having trained in his home country but able only to compete abroad.
“Most people misunderstand the sport,” Lapilus said. “It’s not unusual for people to ask me if it’s allowed to hit below the belt, or to bite, or to poke your opponent in the eye. MMA has strict rules!”
The rules, which are internationally standardised, do allow contestants to be hit, even in the head, when they are on the mat.
A player can win through a knockout blow, submission — locking the opponent in one of many types of holds — or a referee’s decision.
The octagonal “cage” in which the fighting is held is designed to protect contestants — and spectators — when they are thrown.
– ‘Chess for legs and feet’ –
“Once you get a taste of it you can’t let it go,” said Lisa Amghar, who swears MMA is the first sport she has played.
“MMA is very complete. You leave the session feeling serene and calm,” the 35-year-old said after sparring with Adams Soulaimana, a hunk of a guy standing 1.93 metres (six foot three inches) tall and weighing 120 kilos (265 pounds), a professional dancer by profession.
“MMA is great because there’s no repetition,” said Arnaud Colom, a 50-year-old orthopaedic surgeon who has long practised martial arts. “It’s a mix of all the combat sports that uses techniques for both the feet and the hands.”
Matthieu Quidu, a sports professor at Lyon’s Ecole Normale Superieure, a prestigious university, has begun attracting more and more enthusiasts to his MMA class.
“For my students, it’s a chess game for the legs and feet. It requires strategy (and) adaptability, which are important qualities in professional life,” said Quidu, a researcher in sports sociology.
As with any combat sport, MMA can be very dangerous.
“When fighting is down on the mat, it uses submission techniques that are potentially fatal,” Quidu said.
“The art of it is to apply the right amount of force to make your opponent quit without hurting him,” he added.
“Statistically in terms of injuries it’s behind gymnastics,” says James Elliott, who represents the UFC in Europe, citing American studies.
– ‘Humans are voyeurs’ –
The discipline is a sport, and as such the goal is not to hurt your opponent, he said.
It is also a show that attracts millions of viewers on television, generating huge profits for broadcasters.
“You never know what’s gonna happen at an MMA event,” Elliott adds.
The fights can also be bloody.
“Blood is always spectacular, but it’s not that serious in medical terms,” said psychiatrist Jerome Palazzolo, noting that “the eyebrow is one of the places that bleeds the most.”
“If you get hit hard in the head or are knocked out it can be much worse, but this doesn’t happen with MMA,” he said.
People have always been drawn to violent spectacles, he said, likening MMA bouts to “circus games”.
“Humans are voyeurs, and these spectacles perform a sort of exorcism. They reach certain emotions that are deeply rooted in us, like compassion and hatred.”
“But the ones who win at MMA are not the guys who hit hard but the ones with great technique,” he added.
And the true connoisseurs among the fans are fascinated by technique more than by staging because “MMA blends the best of all these sports,” Amoussou said.
Because of what Palazzolo called a “habituation phenomenon”, the unitiated may fail to understand and appreciate the violence of MMA.
The danger is that young people “thirsting for violence” with no appreciation for combat sports may replicate the moves and the holds without containing their strength, he said.