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Mixed Martial Arts and the Evolution of John McCain – by Robert J. Szczerva

Mixed Martial Arts and the Evolution of John McCain

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In 1996, Arizona Senator John McCain famously categorized the sport of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) as nothing more than “human cockfighting” and made it his personal agenda to ban it from the airways.  However, by 2007, McCain seemed to have softened a bit by saying the “sport has made significant progress.”  Flash forward to 2014, and the same Arizona Senator can be seen working closely with MMA promoters to fund brain injury research at the Cleveland Clinic.  Even more surprising was his comment that he absolutely would have participated in MMA as a young man in the Navy if it were around.

MMA is a full-contact sport that allows the use of striking and grappling techniques, both standing and on the ground, from a variety of other combat sports.  It consists of several different disciplines including Brazilian jiu-jitsu, judo, wrestling, boxing, karate, kickboxing, and Muay Thai.  The granddaddy of MMA is the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), but there are a number of popular, regional promotions as well.

So, what spawned this dramatic Senatorial turnaround from MMA antagonist to advocate?  According to Linda Shields, the talented and energetic founder of New England’s popular Cage Fighting Extreme (CFX), “MMA’s little talked about secret is its increased focus on safety.”

Shields explained, “MMA was originally promoted as a competition to find the most effective martial art techniques for real, unarmed combat situations.  Because of this, competitors were pitted against one another with minimal rules, as would be the case in actual combat situations.”  MMA debunked a lot of fighting myths and showed the reality of what would and wouldn’t work in an actual fight.  The sport has seen increased popularity with a pay-per-view business that makes it one of the fastest-growing sports in America.  “Whether at the national or regional level,” Shields added, “safety is built into the all our rules and procedures.”

Let’s not kid ourselves here.  No one should think that MMA is not a dangerous sport and that serious injuries don’t occur.  Every fighter who steps into the ring understands the risks.  However, over the past 20 years, real progress has been made to minimize these risks to ensure safer competition for the athletes while still entertaining the fans.

MMA1 (Phoe credits CageFX) William Nineve battles John Havel in a CageFX MMA event. (Image credit: CageFX)

To help us understand the safety elements that go into each match, we had the opportunity to speak with Dr. David Worman, who has a unique MMA perspective.  Not only is Worman an MMA CageFX champion, he’s also an orthopedic surgeon.

Worman explained, “Most of the injuries occur not during the actual competition, but during training.  When I watch organized MMA fights, I’m always amazed that there aren’t more injuries.  A lot of that has to do with all of the safety precautions that go into these productions.”

The precautions begin months before the actual event and start with the fight promoter.  First, the promoter picks two fighters that should be evenly matched in training level and experience.  Then the fighters and the coaches get to evaluate the opponent and decide whether they want to accept the match-up.  The fighters then have months to train and prepare for that single fight.  They are put through a rigorous medical screening for anything that would place them at increased risk for serious injury (dilated eye exam, EKG, CT scan of the brain, physical exam, and blood work for communicable disease, etc.) before they can even show up for the weigh-ins.

“What the casual observer doesn’t understand,” explains Worman, “is that these events are not street brawls or bar fights.   The competitors are closely matched in size and are protected with groin cups, mouth guards, and small gloves.  They are entering into a padded, contained, and protected arena.”  At anytime, a fighter, his corner men, or the ref can immediately stop the fight verbally, or by simply by tapping the mat or his opponent.   Outside the cage there are first responders and a physician waiting to care for the participant should an injury occur.

The safety measures continue after the fight as well.  Any fighter who does receive an injury serious enough to warrant medical treatment, such as a fracture, cut, or most significantly, a concussion, will be suspended from competition for a minimum amount of time and until cleared by a physician to participate again.

“None of this eliminates the risk of this sport,” added Worman, “but I think the preparation, planning, and precautions that are taken before, during, and after a production, make these events as safe as possible, while still maintaining the ideal of ‘combat sport’ that draws the fans and competitors to MMA.”

At the age of 77, John McCain seems to have lost his chance to participate in an MMA cage match.  However, if a challenge came from one of his Senate colleagues across the aisle, it might be a pay-per-view event for the ages – an event I’m sure Shields would love to promote.

Robert J. Szczerba is the CEO of X Tech Ventures and author of the Forbes column “Rocket Science Meets Brain Surgery.”  Follow him via TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn.

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