Everything you don’t know about MMA fighters at uni

We’re not thugs, I still sleep with seven teddy bears


Last week João Carvalho, a Portuguese fighter, suffered a fatal blow in a Mixed Martial Arts contest in Dublin. His death, which happened 48 hours after the match in hospital, was a tragedy.

Carvalho’s death was awful, but it was not caused by the inherent nature of the sport. In MMA’s relatively short history, there have only been five fatalities after sanctioned fights. In unsanctioned fights, there have been eight deaths. This means that 13 men have died as a result of MMA fights since the 1980s. In that same time frame, there have been 27 cycling deaths, 94 football deaths, and 19 deaths in the World Grand Prix Motorcycling Championship. In fact, two men have died biking the Lap of Honour at the Isle of Man TT.

Us looking dapper on our way to colours ball

Royal Holloway’s MMA fighters looking dapper on our way to colours ball

Terrible accidents happen in sport, and more so in extreme sports, but that doesn’t mean that we should ban them. If you were to come to one of our four (!) weekly training sessions at Roho, you wouldn’t see a band of knuckle-dragging thugs talking trash about other members and itching to give someone a black eye. You would see a gaggle of energised young adults showing each other how to tie our hand wraps and complaining about our 20 minute warm-up run.

The majority of our training is padwork where we work with a partner and focus on improving our kicks and punches. Sparring takes place at the end of the session, and only gets serious when we’re in the run-up to competitions. The point of sparring is to improve your technique, if your partner lands a heavy blow then you’ll know better how to block it next time. When we fight in the “ring” (okay it’s a square made from chairs) we’re taken out if we’re not fighting with proper technique. We aren’t allowed to brawl or fight street-fighter style, we are controlled and calculated in our moves and if our coach sees sloppy work then we’ll be told to stop.

Our new president helping a team mate work on the pads

Our new president helping a team mate work on the pads

Serious injuries rarely occur because of the defence techniques we learn in training. Nobody wants to seriously injure an opponent. Stepping into the ring, fighters assume that their opponent has a good medical record and that the referee will stop the fight if one person isn’t coping. That didn’t happen for Carvalho, which was terrible, but we’ll learn from this. There have been tragedies in MMA, and these have been met with improved safety measures. The Watson and McCellan debacles of the 90s led to medical professionals now being required to be present at competitions. Fighters also have their health checked beforehand, and there are oxygen masks and ambulances on standby.

Working the knees

Working the knees

In our club we’re all friends and when we step up to fight our intention is to test ourselves against another person, not to put the other person down. When we fight we are doing it for self-improvement and in the knowledge that our partner is trying to improve as well. At the end of fights we often hug then compliment the other person. Some of us have been together for years so we see the improvement in each other and it feels good to let the other person know.

A beautiful round kick during a muay thai session

A beautiful round kick during a muay thai session

The only difference between us and other societies is we’re a bit more fitness focused. We have banter just like anyone else: training jujitsu at the same time as the Body Pump people are exercising is always a laugh as having to get your head right into someone’s crotch for a move whilst their music is playing “wiggle” can never not be a little funny. But we’re also unquestionably supportive. If one person can’t hack the session we’re understanding and make sure they’re cared for. We know each of us is trying their best to improve physically and mentally and we’re all encouraging and compassionate on that journey.

The call to ban MMA after the tragedies the sport has seen is the result of classist attitudes towards combat sports. Peter McCabe in the Guardian called MMA a “barbaric ‘sport’”, which not only stripped the athletes of their right to be known as professional sportsmen, but also dehumanised them. No one, except animal rights activists, would call jockeys barbaric for beating horses or would ever suggest that horse riding is not a sport. This is because horse riding has been the preserve of the wealthy elite who can afford the training, horses, space and diet to compete in it. Because it is dominated by the upper class, it receives the respectability of an upper class sport even though it harms animals and has caused many deaths among the athletes. MMA is an accessible sport, requires little gear and the training clubs are affordable for most.

Helping improve our punches

Helping improve our punches

At the end of the day, professional fighting is a job for many people. Selling our bodies in the form of manual labour has been the norm for centuries. Hundreds have died building bridges, fishing, oil drilling and mining. The nature of manual labour is dangerous, and that’s what MMA is for many people. Apart from just being a job, it’s a livelihood for the fighters. The camaraderie from our team mates, the encouragement and support we get from our coaches, the pride we feel for ourselves when we see our improvements, and the pride we feel for our friends as we see them achieving their goals all add to a great quality of life. UFC and TEF bosses shouldn’t be making millions off the back of fighters but that’s a problem with capitalism, not MMA.

Since Carvalho’s death we’ve been branded barbaric thugs who only want a way to legally hurt people. Our sport has been called “legal killing”. We train MMA to build our confidence, to learn self-defence and to see how far we can push our bodies and our minds. And for some to put food on the table. MMA improves your mental and physical health, and seeing as how this is a time of crisis for both we should not be demonising people for how they want to keep fit.

Mourn Carvalho and regulate our sport, but don’t use classist and dehumanising terms to describe a community of people you know nothing about.