The introduction of Karate (both sparring and form) as an official sport in the 2020 Olympic Games brought about discussion for more combat sports, such as MMA, to be included as official events.
In the immediate aftermath, the International Olympic Committee met to vote in Muay Thai as an official Olympic sport. This is a major step for the sport, but it does not mean that it would immediately be introduced in the 2024 Paris Games — sports have to be recognized and then agreed to be held at the Olympics for this to happen.
What Does This Mean for Combat Sports at the Olympics?
However insignificant it may seem, this is a large step in the right direction for those concerned with introducing MMA into the Olympics and giving it a wider audience. Muay Thai makes more sense at the Olympics, as it can be adapted for a point scoring system without knockouts, simply by having knockouts result in disqualification, as in sparring karate.
The willingness of the IOC to include it for consideration shows a progressive attitude towards combat sports that has continued since the reintroduction of boxing at the London 2012 games.
This bodes well for the introduction of MMA as an Olympic sport, but there are several roadblocks the sport faces before it has any shot at legitimacy. The sport is known as one of the most violent and bloody in the world, which could be seen as a turn-off to both viewers and the committee. This is partly why there are no knockouts in Kumite: the governing body wishes to protect the fighters from lasting damage.
MMA’s Possibility as an Olympic Sport
MMA, however, often relies on the knockout or submission finish for its trademark entertainment. There is little way for the Olympic Committee to skirt around this; especially because MMA judging is notoriously fickle. It would need a much more concrete scoring system to have any chance at succeeding with no finishes allowed, but that would make little sense for the fighters and fans alike.
If MMA were to become approved as a sport, it would need serious planning to become logistically feasible, as the Olympics are only two and a half weeks long. Having a large contingent of fighters from different countries provides challenges for the event, as the short span of the Games would mean that there would have to be multiple fights in an unusually abrupt time.
Booking bouts would remain especially tricky as many fighters often take six months or more in between fights to recover, and so fighting five or more times to the championship in a hypothetical 64-man (or more) tournament would be a tall task.
That’s not to say it hasn’t been done before: organizations like Pride put on multi-fight tournaments in one night, but fighters would make the walk two or three times rather than four or five. Additionally, the constant weight maintenance would be brutal. They would most likely have to weigh in before every fight, as in wrestling, and the fighters would be severely depleted, making it unsafe. The fighters’ willingness to fight in a large tournament poses another question: how far are fighters willing to push themselves in today’s age of layoffs between fights?
However, there do seem to be legitimate strategies to avoid this. A large national qualifying tournament could be held in the leadup, and countries could only send two or three of their best fighters in weight classes. This format would keep tournaments small if that format were to be explored.
PFL’s scoring system of points for certain results makes sense, as well, as the group stage is only two fights. It would be similar to group play in soccer, and then a small tournament could be held for the semifinalists of each weight class. The system is built so that different results are awarded different points: winners get three points, a first-round finish three bonus points, a second-round finish two extra, and a third-round finish gets one extra point.
Potential Team Format
Some have proposed a team-style format, where fighters would rotate, or fight once, and the country they represented would move up in the tournament. This would eliminate the need for fighters to go more than once or twice in the Olympics, and the medals would go to a country as a whole, rather than an individual. This may disincentivize fighters from fighting for their countries, especially because the Olympics’ pay varies from country to country for winning medals.
This format does have some drawbacks: fighters losing penalize winning teammates by having their country eliminated from the tournament. Additionally, MMA is by nature an individual sport, and training for this sort of tournament format would be near impossible, as teams would have multiple fighters to choose from in that round of the tournament, and some fighters may not fight at all if their countries are eliminated early.
Weight remains an issue, as well. It is near impossible to ask fighters to remain on weight for two weeks, and so the only legitimate solution would be to have a weigh-in at the start of the Olympic Games. Fighters would have drastic weight differences in their fights and would be able to keep training at regular weight once they weighed in. This would eliminate complications from weigh-ins such as fighter pullouts, but would also create discrepancies on fight night.
Professional athletes have long competed in the Olympics, but the Games remain an amateur competition. In other words, the IOC does not contribute to the salary of athletes. Fighters might not want to compete in the Games if they are not being paid without a medal, and fighting outside of their promotions could cost them paychecks.
Promotions, as well, may not be willing to let their athletes compete in national trials (assuming the teams are not hand-picked) and take two-and-a-half extra weeks off to fight, as this would leave companies’ cards thin, especially the UFC and Bellator, where many top fighters are located. For this reason, it may not be feasible for champions such as Israel Adesanya and Amanda Nunes to make the walk for their respective countries; being that it would push their title-defense bouts further back.
Companies may not be willing to risk career-ending or trajectory-altering fights for their stars, as many know how one bout can change a fighter’s career drastically. This being said, many lower-level fighters could be considered, but this results in a decrease in star power for the casual fan to observe, as well as the skill level in the fights being broadcasted. This does not seem to be a problem for countries with overflowing talent in other sports; as many Team USA basketball stars sat out the Olympics, yet the USA took home gold.
MMA, additionally, has few governing bodies other than IMMAF, or the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation. They often serve as the de facto governing body for countries without federations, and this may result in countries not having adequate representation at the Games, being that national federations often organize Olympic teams and their trials.
With everything in mind, MMA could realistically become an Olympic sport in the near future, and this would push the sport to the forefront of athletics and give it the international attention many feel it deserves. MMA is still considered a fledgling sport by many, but inclusion in the Olympics could transform it into a household sport.
Is MMA deserving of status as an Olympic sport? What format do you feel best fits it? Feel free to let us know in the comments!
Follow me on Twitter and Instagram @Cooper_Burke9 for more sports news and discussions. Also, make sure to follow @OT_Heroics for all your sporting needs and @OTHeroicsMMA for all things mixed martial arts!
Featured Image Credits To Embed from Getty Images