With moves like "ground-and-pound" and "lay-and-pray", Mixed Martial Arts is considered the most brutal form of contact sport after street fighting. So why are children as young as six getting involved?
MMA is a refined version of "ultimate fighting", the short-lived full-contact sport that emerged in the early nineties and was once labelled "human cock fighting" by John McCain. Too violent for the public, ultimate fighting was reworked with a few strict rules and re-entered the sporting arena as "Mixed Martial Arts". Since it began, three people have died from MMA related injuries, and organised competitions are illegal in 49 states. However, the sport's popularity continues to grow, and it's now on a par with wrestling and boxing in terms of TV viewing numbers.
In the past few years increasing numbers of classes for children have sprung up around the US. In states where it's legal, such as Missouri, competitions are staged - like the one in this video.
"It’s just a big pillow fight"
Matthew Douglas runs the Barbarian Fight Club which is open to children, and The Cave MMA gym, in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He held the US title in MMA for three years.If you've got a coach who's not teaching adults properly, then they're going to get themselves hurt. It's just the same with children. There are some extra precautions you have to take with kids, but that's easily conquered with leg pads, head gear and thicker gloves. MMA for kids is just a mixture of wrestling for kids, jujitsu for kids and judo for kids. There are wrestling and judo classes for 4-5 year-olds. That's a start. Once they've got one martial art they can then go on to MMA.
My son is nine-years-old and he's perfectly trained in MMA. In fact we're off to Missouri - where it's legal for kids to fight in competition - for his first fight next month. He's really excited. You look at the kids when they come out of a fight - they love it! And they're the best of buddies with the people they fight. It's just a big pillow fight for them.
I've never personally seen any child get injured. I'm sure it's happened, like with every sport. Just last night I was watching a children's [American] football game and a seven-year-old got his knee busted so bad he'll never play again. MMA fighters have great respect - I've competed right to the top and I've never hurt anyone.
MMA is getting really big now. We have a fight every three months here and we get around 2000 spectators each time. It's the sport of sports - its original form is gladiator fights. People might say they don't like watching fights. But if one breaks out ten yards away, you're going to watch it."
"Why? For the spectacle"
Yves Papelier is a sports science doctor and judo coach in Paris.
These videos make me think of full contact or Thai boxing. The most dangerous aspect seems to be the length of the fights. It's the same difference between amateur boxing and professional boxing - when amateur enters professional boxing, the matches are longer so that competitors get hurt. At the end of the fight they're tired, and are slower to dodge the blows - which are still as powerful. It's even truer for a child, who has a limited capacity to resistance. It's people around them who will push them to hurt themselves.
I can't say if I'd call what I've seen in these videos a sport. Sport is a coded practice and a part of a culture and society. Its rules are the results of evolution. They're a kind of gentlemanly agreement, a way of continuing the sport while protecting the sportsmen. Judo and karate are dangerous sports. That's why there are also customs that go with it (we salute each other before and after a fight etc). In professional boxing, this is not so present. And with MMA, we reduce the rules even further, to a minimum, and let the players express themselves. Why? For the spectacle. It's a very Anglo-Saxon view of sport. With judo, there's no aggression, at least not with the good fighters. And the public don't shout (at least not until recently), because it's a sport and not a gladiator fight."
"France is more developed than the US in terms of sport"
This sport presents both biomechanical and psychological problems. I watched these videos carefully. These children carry on punching even when someone is on the ground. The most worrying thing for me, is the headlocks and shoulder locks, that can cause a cervical strain at the back of the neck. With this type of move, when it hurts, it means it's too late - it's broken.
MMA is banned in France by the Minster of Youth, Sports and Health. We consider that sports should be codified and not endanger the people involved. It's also because MMA is a practice often related to sects - it's happened several times in France. And also because there's a fine line between being a good coach and a guru. France is more developed than the US in terms of sport - the US only has a commercial approach to practice."
Children fighting MMA with no protection