Why do we watch MMA, or for that matter, any combat sport?

Here at Ronin Athletics, our MMA school in NYC, we train all aspects of the sport separately and in tandem. We have classes for BJJ, standup and wrestling, and we also have dedicated training sessions for mixing them together for the MMA ruleset. Coach Christian and a few others have fought MMA, and many of us have competed in at least one of those disciplines. That means that each one of us has spent a significant amount of time and resources training, getting ready for, paying for and actually competing in these combat sports in New York and in other places. But more than just practicioners, players and instructors of the sports, we’re also big fans.

Coach Carlo can talk in intricate detail about what happened at the last Mundials, Coach Dolan can name a host of NCAA All-Americans, Coach Aldy has a list of all time greats wrestlers and why they’re great, and Coach Vinh can wax nostalgic about MMA in the good ole days. We’re not alone in our fandom. There are millions upon millions of combat sports fans in the US and around the world. You’re most likely one yourself or else why would you be looking up New York MMA schools?

But why do these sports move us? And more importantly for the sake of this article, how can training make us appreciate them more fully?

On one hand, there’s the skill involved. We all know how much work it takes to get good at a sport, any sport. It can be basketball or it can be BJJ, either way it takes time to get good at something. Even if you aren’t excellent, if you really invest time into learning anything, you’ll begin to appreciate the intricacies more and more. What was once just a punch becomes series of biomechanical systems working together within a larger fight strategy. When we get a little bit more experienced, things that might be more boring become engrossing. For example, if you watch high level BJJ players competing in the Mundials, you might have no idea what you’re watching. Matches can seem boring, or make no sense within the context of the MMA grappling you might be familiar with from watching the UFC. But if you become more sophisticated in your understanding of the sport, you can see that both athletes are fighting for grips, and the guy who’s grabbing for the pants is in the middle of a berimbolo. It becomes engrossing to watch high level play in order to understand the strategies and the metagame that underlies the sport, how types of guards are used to counter different types of passing and how different strategies might affect the flow of a match.

But you can’t understand these things, can’t really get a grasp on them, unless you yourself train. No matter how much jiu jitsu you watch on the screen, there’s a certain amount of intrinsic learning you need to do on the mat to really appreciate the intricacies of what is happening. You can’t appreciate how intricate a berimbolo is without at least once trying it yourself and failing.

Then of course, there’s the spectacle of high level athletics. You don’t have to be a gymnast to understand the grace, skill and sheer athleticism that is on display in Olympic gymnastics. It’s fascinating even when you don’t exactly what is happening. Similarly, even if you don’t know Olympic wrestling or MMA, you can still appreciate the high level of athleticism that is on display. Professional MMA fighters, like Olympic wrestlers or Mundial-level BJJ players are part of the athletic elite, and are all at the peak of condition. When they compete, we see what absolute pinnacle of what humn bodies can achieve in their speed, their strength and their stamina.

The difference between what the normal person and these elite athletes can do is made more obvious when you train. You understand how hard it is to do these things, how difficult it might be to do a suplex against a resisting opponent or get that perfect 1-2 combo against someone who’s actually resisting at full speed. Training enriches your appreciation of the physical aspects of the sport because you’ve had a taste of them, and thereby understand how difficult these athletics tasks may be. You see a wrestler do sprawl and spin drills, and you appreciate it that much more because you’ve done them yourself.

Tied to the last poin is the fact that sports are a microcosm for life in a lot of ways. No MMA fight is ever without its contextualizing narrative, whether it’s the gutsy underdog vs the dominant champion that everyone knows is going to win or the hot young prospect vs the grizzled veteran. It’s why we always describe someone as having lots of heart or as someone who works ridiculously hard in the gym. We love these human interest aspects of our sports, especially in that they portray people who are fighting or struggling with things that we deal with in our lives every day, whether it be age, or ambition or the limits of the human body. There isn’t a person out there who hasn’t imagined themselves in a training montage at one point or another. There’s an element of escapism that’s inherent in watching a sport.

Training, though it may inform our understanding of those struggles, is valuable because it allows us to get space from our own trials and tribulations. Whether it’s rolling or doing takedowns or throwing punches, they all get us out our heads and away from the stressors that might be plaguing us, just like watching sports do. Furthermore, training brings its own struggles, as you try to do things you might not have been able to do before. But it also brings its own successes, victories that can carry over into your outside life.

No matter why you watch these combat sports, no matter why you find them compelling, training makes your enjoyment richer, fuller, and more nuanced. And maybe, it makes you more ready to deal with life outside the sport.

See you on the mats.

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