Mixed Martial Arts has become one of the fastest growing sports in the world. From its humble beginnings of being dubbed “human cockfighting” by U.S. Senator, John McCain, the sport has undergone a massive image overhaul, and has since truly broken into the mainstream public eye. The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is the premier MMA organisation in the world, and in fact has such a monopoly over the sport that the acronyms MMA and UFC are often incorrectly used interchangably. Much to the dismay of die-hard fans who argue that this is akin to calling all football the Champions League. What is interesting, is the UFC President Dana White has publicly thanked the Senator for his incendiary comments, and claimed that the UFC would never have reached its current $7 billion net worth without him. White, a shrewd businessman who is the living embodiment of the phrase “All press is good press” doubled down on McCain’s claims and essentially used them as free advertising to get his organisation off the ground. Despite the immense popularity of the UFC in the USA, with events occasionally taking place in the UK, Sweden, Brazil, China, Australia and many more countries around the world, MMA remains outlawed in France. However, last month the French Minister of Sports, Roxana Maracineanu announced her plans to champion the movement to finally legislate the sport in France.
Interestingly, MMA was never directly outlawed in France. Rather, the French Sports Ministry chose to enforce sanctions which effectively meant MMA could never exist. The first being the prohibition of any sport which takes place in a cage as opposed to a carpeted ring with ropes. This is considered ‘degrading‘ and harkens to the “human cockfighting” sentiments of Mr. McCain. However, this was not necessarily a death sentence for MMA as some organisations outside of the UFC, such as PRIDE in Japan, found great success with MMA taking place in a modified boxing ring, rather than a cage. However, the most significant sanction which essentially ruins any hope of MMA in France is the rules which prohibits strikes to a downed opponent. As the name suggests, Mixed Martial Arts incorporates multiple disciplines. Boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai, Thai boxing, karate, savate (French boxing), Taekwondo, are all examples of disciplines seen in The Octagon which take place with fighters standing up. However, wrestling, Brazilian Ju-Jitsu (BJJ), Sambo, and some forms of Judo are techniques which take place on the canvas. Therefore, by eliminating the ability to strike an opponent who is on the ground, the French Sports Ministry effectively knocked MMA out of France.
The motivation behind prohibiting strikes to an opponent on the ground is fairly straight-forward. It can seem barbaric or dangerous, and it is distinctly “not-boxing”, where a fighter is given a 10 second count to return to their feet after a knockdown. This leads us back once again to Senator John McCain, the inadvertent pioneer of MMA, who called strikes whilst on the mat “un-American.” Somewhat ironically, Chris Weidman, the fighter receiving strikes in the above picture it nicknamed “The All-American.” Clearly, the powers that be at the French Sports Ministry also consider the concept ‘un-French.’ However, there is substantial evidence to suggest that allowing a fighter 10 seconds to recover is more devastating to the brain than follow-up strikes to a downed opponent. In MMA, if a fighter is knocked down, their opponent will typically look to continue to strike them or to secure a submission which will usually prompt a swift stoppage by the referee before much additional damage to the head can take place. In boxing, a fighter can be knocked down, and in concussed confusion born of pure instinct manage to return to their feet, only to receive another concussive blow and return crashing to the mat. The biggest, most dangerous strikes therefore are coming whilst fighters are standing. By this logic, allowing strikes on the ground, despite looking “un-American” and admittedly more barbaric, actually tends to result in less significant damage to the fighter. With Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the brain disease linked to concussions which is undetectable until post-mortem dominating conversation in combat sports (as well as American football), there has never been a more important time to start looking very closely at fighter safety, especially in regards to blows to the head.
Notably, despite having become a mainstream sport in the United States, highlighted by the UFC’s recent partnership with ESPN, MMA was banned in the state of New York until late 2016. Most major events took place in Las Vegas, and MMA never saw the inside of the hallowed ground of Madison Square Garden until November 2016, when Conor McGregor knocked out Eddie Alvarez in a career-defining performance.
The main opponent to Roxana Maracineanu’s plans to push the legislation of MMA in France is Jean-Luc Rougé, the President of the French Judo Federation (FJF). Judo has a long and storied history in France, which may urge some to argue that this stance is about self-preservation rather than fighter safety or dignity. The increasing popularity of a sport in which a Judo practitioner can thrive could potentially encourage more and more martial artists to turn towards MMA rather than Judo. UFC Hall of Famer and Judo Olympian, Ronda Rousey made history in the UFC by using an incredibly Judo-centric style. Therefore, the blueprint has been laid out for future competitors who may decide to follow Ms. Rousey’s example.
Despite having a proud history and long-standing legacy, the French Judo Federation certainly does not have the same financial appeal as a multi-billion dollar organisation like the UFC. Therefore, some argue that it has been the ulterior motive of the FJF to suppress the growth of MMA in order to guarantee its own survival. However, in a statement in L’Équipe, Mr Rougé argued that it was professional MMA to which he has an objection, as privatised leagues may operate with varying rule sets and medical standards. It is bizarre that amateur MMA is not higher on Mr Rougé’s hit-list, given that amateur bouts of any combat sport tend to be more exploitative of fighters, especially from a safety as well as a financial standpoint.
Despite Roxana Maracineanu’s plan, MMA has not been legalised yet. However, the backing of France’s Minister of Sports certainly will go a long way to finally bringing The Octagon to L’Hexagone. Also leading the charge alongside the Minister will be the number 2 ranked UFC Heavyweight contender, Francis Ngannou. Having emigrated from Cameroon to Paris at the age of 26 and being a homeless boxer looking for a big break, Ngannou transitioned to MMA where he soon smashed through the UFC rankings to become a fan-favourite as well as one of the most intimidating characters in the sport.
Should Ms. Maracineau’s plans be approved, no doubt UFC President, Dana White will look to capitalise on France’s starved MMA community by having superstar, Francis Ngannou headline the country’s inaugural event. Judging by the following poll, the French sporting community would be rather receptive to MMA (and consequently the UFC) arriving in France. Events in London and Stockholm routinely sell out, with homegrown stars such as Alexander Gustafsson and Darren Till leading the charge so should the motion pass, France will likely produce a few of its own stars within the next few years. This would naturally be fantastic for fans of the sport, Francophone or otherwise, as well as the sport itself. Steel sharpens steel, and a new wave of competitors entering the various divisions would only serve to improve the ever-growing standard of the sport.
Ultimately, it is clear that Ms. Maracineau’s intention to legalise MMA, whilst proving very popular, will face some stern opposition in the coming months. Whether this is from genuine concern for fighter safety, or from a genuine concern for the future of French Judo remains to be seen. However, what is certain is there will be some major fights in French MMA soon, be it in the cage or in the courtroom.
[Featured Image Credits : Josh Hedges, Zuffa LLC via Getty Images]