Disclosure: I train in MMA and have not trained in other fighting sports. The purpose of this article is not to contrast MMA with other fighting sports, only whether it is best understood as a science or an art. I have not competed in MMA. This article is written from a philosopher’s perspective, not an MMA fighter’s.
MMA and its history
Modern day Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is a mixture of various fighting disciplines. Typically Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Muay Thai Kickboxing and Judo. This came about due to a competition that began in the early 1990s called the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). This competition was originally designed to test different fighting disciplines against one another. For instance, Taekwondo fighters would fight boxers, Judo wrestlers would fight Aikido practitioners, and so on. It was as close as we could get to bringing about in the real world video games such as Tekken, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, etc.
During that time, a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) expert, Royce Gracie, although much lighter than many of the other fighters, would be able to wrestle them to the floor and force them to submit (acknowledge defeat), regardless of their fighting discipline. Over time, it began to be recognised that BJJ was superior to other fighting disciplines, since fighters in other disciplines were universally unable to answer to this approach. However, as fighters began learning BJJ, and were knowledgeable enough to not be held on the ground, those proficient in boxing and kickboxing became dominant due to being able to avoid staying on the ground. This is because regarding punching and kicking, boxers and kickboxers were more dominant than other striking related disciplines, such as Taekwondo, Kung Fu, and so on.
To respond to this, fighters strong in BJJ or boxing/kickboxing would begin to learn the discipline they were weak at, so they would be able to survive long enough in the field they were weak at to put the fight in the area they are strong at. Nowadays, although there are still many fighters will have a preference to one discipline, most fighters are ‘all round fighters’, which means they a proficient enough to be recognised as experts in both.
Furthermore, in MMA there are techniques that have evolved that cannot be clearly recognised as BJJ, Judo, or Muay Thai Kickboxing. An example of a commonly known technique as the ‘ground and pound’, which is a punching manevour whilst on the ground. Hence, BJJ, Judo, Muay Thai Kickboxing, and ground striking is typically what is practiced and known as MMA today.
Definition of art
In philosophy, defining what counts and does not count as art is highly contentious. Indeed, there will be some who will argue that the very attempt to do so is a folly. However, for the purposes of this article, I will take a broader definition of an ‘expessivist’ view of art. This view, appropriately enough, is described by H. Slater (n.d) as the creation of something to express to an audience something aesthetic in nature, which is to say something that attempts to get an emotional response from the audience. Such expressions could be of culture, political views, entertainment, provoking imagination, and so on.
Definition of science
The definition of science is also a controversial philosophical topic. Any set of criteria that we set to say that something is a science and something is not a science, will be met with counterexamples. However, for the purposes of this article I will be using a Popperian view of Science. The Popperian view, according to A. F Chalmers (2013), is that science is when we will test theories by making bold and surprising predictions. Someone, by the Popperian standard, will be doing science if they are willing to give up their proposed theory if it does not make the desired predictions. If they want to hold on to a theory in the face of a failed prediction, the explanation to why the prediction failed needs to be more easily testable than the original theory. If these standards are met, then by the Popperian standard, then we are doing science. If they are not, we are not doing science.
MMA as an art
At first glance, it is not obvious whether MMA fufils the criteria to be an expressivist art. The goal is to fight to render the other person unconscious or force a submission.
However, there are many aspects of how the sport is presented in public that does seem to have the purpose of expressing something of aesthetice value. In the UFC competitions, the fighters walking in with their entourage, loud aggressive music blaring, stare down the opponent, and so on. A response to this could be that this is advertising art which not relevant to the sport itself. A contrast someone may wish to put forward is professional wrestling, where the fights are pre choreographed in advanced for the sole purpose of entertainment, making it purely an artform, whilst MMA fighters will use only effective skills, with little or no concern to how entertaining the fight is.
Although this would be mostly correct, there are cases where entertainment has overridden tactics in MMA. When strikers and grapplers began to notice their strengths and limitations, grapplers would fall onto the ground as the fight would begin and wait for the striker to approach. And unless the striker was not very intelligent, they would not accept the invitation. Over time, referees would br allowed to intervene and force the fighter to stand up, or penalise fighters for not engaging. The obvious reason for this is because this stops the fight from being ‘boring’.
Hence, there are some aspects of MMA that do hold value on the aesthetic, not only the practical application.
MMA as a science
As the history of MMA has shown, it has evolved from the failures of various fighting disciplines through them being tested in the UFC competitions. Some proponents of the fighting disciplines that failed may want to explain the failure due to that the rules disallowing certain strikes and holds did not allow them to use the tactics that would make them victorious. Examples of such tactics would be things like a ‘secret death touch’ or ‘neck breaking and groin attacks’.
This response goes against the Popperian standard, because this is not as easily testable. No one, at least in the modern day and age, will fight to the death or to life long disability just to prove a point. Furthermore, competetions within most of the fighting disciplines would have at least the same rules (most often there would be more) would be constraining their options as in the UFC. So even if they were correct, the options that they were appealing to would be the only things worth retaining. For example, the scientific approach would be to take on BJJ and kickboxing, but only keep the ‘secret death touch’ and nothing else.
Also, MMA has included new adaptations to the traditional disciplines, such as the ground and pound, which is beyond the scope of merely being experts in multiple disciplines due to the mixed environment of striking, grappling, and ground wrestling.
Given that MMA is the result of rigorous testing, and that the surviving fighting disciplines also evolved to a point where there are techniques that do not clearly fall into any of the disciplines on their own, MMA is entitled to call itself a science.
Where does MMA sit on the spectrum?
Since MMA contains aspects of itself that can be both called an art and a science, which more does it tend to lean towards? I would argue that MMA leans more heavily towards the science side of the spectrum. This is because the examples of rules enforced by referees based on aesthetic value are generally to ensure that the fighters are actually fighting, not avoiding the fight. And fighting is the very thing being put to the test.
Oustide of these examples, MMA fights will use whatever techniques within the rules that will give them victory, and would not risk performing techniques that would risk losing the fight, even if they were more aesthetically pleasing. You will not see any jumping spinning cartwheels in the UFC anytime soon. If there were a martial art that existed that was far more effective than the disciplines currently used in MMA, history suggests that MMA would abandon them in favour of the new discipline, even though the image of the sport would be drastically changed. So, this suggests a priority of effectiveness over aesthetic value and expression.
Therefore, although MMA has attributes of both art and science, it heavily leans to being a science more than an art. This is due to its creation through rigorous testing, and its preference of practical application, even though the practical application may come at a cost to not being as aesthetically pleasing.
History of the UFC: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultimate_Fighting_Championship
H. Slater: https://www.iep.utm.edu/aestheti/#H7
A. F Chalmers: https://amzn.to/2JhBoRO