The Mainstream UK Newspaper Perception Of Mixed Martial Arts Throughout The 21st Century
By James Lee
There is little question that mixed martial arts has faced extensive criticism from all forms of mainstream media across the globe since its inception in the early 1990s. Individually in the UK, negativity began from the UFC’s 2002 debut in London throughout the Cage Rage era to the modern age of annual UFC events in the capital city.
Initial marketing of blood and violence from the various organisations was far from ideal though for mainstream appreciation. A tongue-in-cheek slogan of “two men enter, one man leaves, with three ways to win: knockout, submission or death” was used in the mid-1990s that saw the UFC largely ignored by the national sports pages.
However, more up-to-date marketing has favoured accomplishment and skill alongside violence. The UFC’s partnership with BT Sport in 2013 especially has helped to cultivate the sport nationally, and its legal status is firmly secure under the Licensing Act 2003 (Descriptions of Entertainment) (Amendment) Order 2013. This extended the definition of regulated entertainment to include entertainment “which combines boxing or wrestling with one or more martial arts”.
Despite that, scepticism remains a requisite aspect of reporting. As smaller sports receive more publicity and boxing is key to sports coverage of national newspapers, mixed martial arts has not quite followed. This article will try to decipher the various reasons behind that and the differing stages of newspaper reporting about MMA since the turn of the century.
Firstly, it was found that early newspaper reporting situated MMA as close to savage competition, mainly through the use of such narratives as “little more than barbaric violence enacted for the vicarious thrill of a bloodthirsty mob” (The Times, July 12 2002) and “whether ringside or via television, a large number of people will, to paraphrase a boxing scribe, get as close as they can without bleeding” (The Sunday Times, July 7 2002). Subsequently, little approval was found towards the UFC debuting in the UK, detailed by narratives such as: “UFC seems a definitely American phenomenon, something that one can imagine happening in the steamy atmosphere of the Deep South, but surely never here in the UK” (The Times, July 12 2002). Further remarks compared the event as “reminiscent of a street brawl” (The Observer, July 14 2002).
Even towards the turn of the 2010s, the sport maintained its negative mantra, and was called a “blood business” (Mail, July 13 2009) with Dan Henderson’s knockout of Michael Bisping labelled as an act of “cowardice” (Mirror, July 15 2009). Henderson himself was called a “demented thug” (Guardian, July 13 2009) and the knockout was likened to death (Mail, July 13 2009). Jeff Powell, from the Mail, questioned the sport: “Thank goodness, not least for Bisping, that the UFC for all its brutality, has never suffered a fatality” (Mail, July 13 2009). The Mirror’s Oliver Holt went further, deeming what he had seen as a “sport of ultimate cowards” and “barbaric” (Mirror, July 15 2009).
Amongst editorial opinion, UFC 100, held a similar tone, regardless of newspaper demographic. A few examples below outlined that:
“To me, it seemed more like cowardice. If that’s what the UFC’s about, I’m not interested.” (Mirror, July 15 2009)
“I was left feeling guilty for being even a tangential part of it.” (Guardian, July 13 2009)
“Their popularity tells us much about the society in which we live in and not all of it is pretty.” (Mail, July 13 2009)
Kevin Mitchell, from the Guardian, similarly showed disparity, comparing it to boxing and making it clear he was only interested in one form of combat:
“These are two different constituencies, two different sports, two different sets of values. Boxing is far from perfect. But I think I’ll stick with it for a little while longer.”
Surprisingly though, despite the past decade featuring an instrumental step in worldwide recognition and participation, negativity remained a fundamental element to the minute amount of reporting.
Conor McGregor did raise interest slightly, especially from the Mirror, however. It is expected the working class nature of the newspaper perhaps correlated with the sport, although an article five years ago by John Shaw and Derek McGovern shared similarities to the previous coverage.
“It’s a tough sport, you can tell that by the permanently blood-stained canvas. It doesn’t look like a sport so much as a crime scene. They don’t even bother to clean it – guys who need blood transfusions are hooked up to it. You are allowed to choke your opponent, knee him in the face, snap his limbs and knock him unconscious – and that’s just at the weigh-in.” (Mirror, July 11 2015)
A 2016 article in the Guardian, by James Nevius, also highlighted more recent negativity:
“The fastest-growing sport in America is completely centred on brute violence – and death. The Romans had their gladiators – we don’t need them anymore.” (Guardian, July 13 2016)
Needless to say, the perception has undoubtedly changed to an extent as MMA is now at least recognised as a justifiable sport and not regularly likened to a street fight, likely due to BT Sport and Sky Sports broadcasting. But, full acceptance as a mainstream sport has yet to be fulfilled.
The recognised proposal that outrage is the dominant mode of engagement within modern media may explain why controversy is still relevant and stayed prominent throughout. The potential for drama is a virtual guarantee an event will become a major news story so as the sport is seemingly not popular enough for generic reporting, the negative editorial tone was maybe necessary for engagement.
On the other hand, it could be said early reporting and criticism from the British Medical Association has forever stained the sport from normality. Having an organisation with their stature come down continuously on its presence is guaranteed to negatively impact the growth, regardless of their reasoning. Their influence can be exemplified by their stance being regularly quoted by major newspapers The Mirror, Guardian and Observer.
Furthermore, condemnation from notable figures may also have been a factor in the constant cynical tone. The likes of former Senator John McCain and Meryl Streep are two of the most famous people to have condemned MMA, however in the UK, ex-Labour MP Derek Wyatt was one of the loudest critics in 2002. Before UFC 38: Brawl at the Hall, Wyatt condemned the UK debut, saying: “We have been campaigning against fox hunting, bear-baiting, cockfighting and this is the human equivalent”. Having an MP condemn it harshly in Parliament was sure to have attracted the adversarial tone.
Ultimately, the history of reporting towards mixed martial arts was found to be significantly negative across the UK newspaper sample. As a variety of terminology from glorified bloodbath, barbarism and cockfighting has been the norm throughout the century, MMA has not quite amassed mainstream recognition on the back pages.
Condemnation from the British Medical Association and public figures has likely been instrumental in the rationalising behind that, as the wait for sporting acknowledgement is possibly decades away still.