In today’s post I’d like to explore whether fighting is something missing from our lives. Before you protest, understand what I mean by “fighting.” I won’t be directly commenting on the war and violence we see on the evening news. Genocide, conquest, theft, rape, and murder? These are acts of coercive violence, wherein either an institution, an individual, or a group of individuals perpetrate violence (or coerce others to do the perpetrating for them) against people who have not consented. No, I’m talking about something decidedly different. Boxing, MMA, martial arts, wrestling, and just roughhousing with some buddies are all examples of two people consensually engaging in interpersonal violence. Going up against another person in single, consensual combat where personal enmity is not the motivating factor? I can’t imagine a greater test of one’s strength, speed, skill, and smarts. Let’s dig in.
Last time, I mentioned that violence was ubiquitous among early humans. Hominids have been fighting for millions of years, and every culture of humans has a fighting tradition, from the boxing, wrestling, and pankration (a freeform mix of boxing and wrestling, similar to MMA) of the ancient Hellenic world to the well-known East Asian martial arts (judo, jujitsu, karate, kung fu, tai chi, etc.) to the folk grappling/wrestling traditions that every culture across every continent seems to have. People fight, people like winning fights, and fighting systems improve a person’s ability to win fights, so even if our ancestors weren’t writing instructional manuals, they were probably learning to fight.
In the West, we hear the words “martial art” and imagine Mr. Miyagi, Shaolin monks, and Bruce Lee uttering “Be like water.” It’s come to be associated most strongly with Eastern religious philosophy, with “zen” (or whatever we think zen is) and calm, kindly old men who’d rather teach and talk than fight (but when they fight, you better watch out). And indeed, most traditional Eastern martial arts are linked to various schools of religious thought, but when you get down to it, a martial art remains a codified system of combat – a fighting system primarily developed to improve self-defense and physical conditioning. So why the spiritual stuff? Systematic fighting likely didn’t arise as a way to become enlightened or achieve perpetual serenity – people developed codified fighting because it helped them win fights and stay alive in battles – the philosophy came after as a natural product of learning how to fight.
What if fighting is a way to “tame the beast” within? By being aggressive for a short amount of time in a controlled environment where aggression is expected and understood, you satisfy the “need” for aggression. Remember that human aggression is probably an adaptive trait, a deep-seated holdover from the days when surviving and thriving meant killing things (and sometimes people) for food or territory. As I mentioned yesterday, aggressive people had a better shot at obtaining resources, retaining mates, and spreading their genes. Evidence for the effect of fight training on aggression is mixed. While a few studies suggest that martial arts training increases aggression, a recent review (PDF) of the literature found that the majority of studies show martial arts to have a favorable effect on aggression across all age groups. Of course, this all presupposes that “aggression” is always a negative trait that results in actual violence. If that aggression is used or redirected productively – when training or fighting – it may not even result in destructive or “extracurricular” violence.
In fact, I’ve yet to see any evidence that martial arts training increases violence outside of the ring/mat/gym. There’s some evidence that training in martial arts or other fighting systems reduces violence, however, and it appears to have a generally positive effect on mood. Three US elementary schools used a martial arts training program called the Gentle Warrior to reduce bullying in 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders. Participants who spent the most time in the program displayed the most empathy, fewer bouts of aggression, and a greater frequency of helpful by-standing, or helping out others who were being bullied; the effect was only present in males, however. Another recent British study found that youths who were involved in “combat sports” were subjected to fewer environmental risk factors commonly associated with criminality. It was questionnaire-based and totally observational, but it’s supportive of the hypothesis that martial arts does not increase violence. A similar study was undertaken to assess the impact of martial arts training on “high-risk” youth, finding that training improved self-esteem and gave high-risk kids a less favorable attitude toward violence in general.
Martial arts could even be rehabilitative. In female veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who had been sexually assaulted by fellow soldiers while serving, a self-defense program improved their mental states and reduced PTSD symptoms. The results were impressive. At six months, behavioral avoidance and depression had decreased.
For a sport that revolves around inflicting damage on your opponent, mixed martial arts has fairly low rates of serious injury. In a study of injury trends during 635 professional matches, lacerations (tearing of the skin from blunt trauma, like a fist or knee; ugly, but relatively minor) were the most common injury. Serious concussions occurred in 3% of matches, and no deaths or serious injuries occurred. A comparison (PDF) between martial arts, wrestling, and boxing found that boxing resulted in the most injuries, followed by wrestling, and then martial arts, but overall, the three combat sports had similar injury rates to non-combat sports. I’ve heard that since boxing gloves are bigger than MMA gloves, they allow the fighter to take more hits, so more damage accumulates, somewhat similar to the effects of padded running shoes. The pain is blunted but the damage is done.
Overall, I think there’s a strong case to be made that humans derive a lot of benefits from fighting in a structured system against peers, not out of anger, but with mutual respect. Indeed, it appears to reduce or redirect aggression, relieve stress, build self-confidence, and improve mood (and who couldn’t use a little less stress, a little more confidence, and a better mood?). In my opinion, structured combat training allows us to address the modern “violence deficit” without seriously hurting others, hurting ourselves, or getting into trouble with the law. Joining an MMA or boxing gym, learning to wrestle, or attending martial arts classes are probably ideal, as they provide the structure and guidance that a beginner needs, and they offer the chance to “fight” people who are there with a similar mindset and purpose. Another option is to roughhouse with a friend, but I’m not sure unstructured, untrained freeform fighting offers the same benefits as a structured fighting system, or if it’s even safe. If that’s your only option, exercise caution, don’t ruin any friendships, or consider a heavy bag instead.
The only MMA site I’m familiar with is Sherdog, and from initial observations it appears to have a robust forum with some helpful folks who do the sport themselves (rather than just talk about professionals who do). If you want to get started with fight training, that might be a good place to start. If you’re looking for gyms or schools for instruction, quick Google of “mma gym (your city)” or “boxing gym (your city)” or whatever fighting art interests you will produce results. Be sure to check reviews on Yelp. A lot of places will offer beginner classes for free to let you get a feel for the place. Look for gyms with supportive, friendly teachers and students without visible egos. Don’t go joining Cobra-Kai dojo or anything like that.
I know from your emails that I have a lot of readers who are into mixed martial arts and other combat disciplines, so please – blow up the comment section with advice on how one gets started with learning how to fight. I’d really appreciate it, and I’m sure all our readers would, too.