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Can you love your neighbour as yourself, and at the same time knee him in the face as hard as you can?’ asks Christian mixed martial arts (MMA) champion Scott ‘Bam Bam’ Sullivan. Given that more than 700 American churches now integrate MMA (also known as cage fighting) into their ministry programmes and missional strategies, it’s time for Christians to ask critical questions as to the appropriateness of participating in and watching MMA and other violent sports, such as boxing.  

The recent death of professional Portuguese MMA fighter Joao Carvalho at the National Stadium in Dublin, and the disablement of Nick Blackwell in his boxing bout against Chris Eubank Jr are just two sad examples of the potentially devastating outcome of participating in these sports.  

This debate is also timely, given that the boxing fraternity is about to descend on Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, even though the Olympic Charter states that it will ‘dedicate its efforts to ensuring that, in sport, the spirit of fair play prevails and violence is banned’. Predictably, given that MMA is the fastest-growing sport in the US (and is expanding rapidly in the UK), there have been recent calls for its inclusion as an Olympic sport.  

God on my side

Historically, there has been a controversial relationship between boxing and religion, both with regard to the nature of the sport itself and the seeming contradictions between the religious convictions and the personal lives of the pugilists.  

After winning the light-  heavyweight boxing title in the 1960 Rome Olympics and defeating Sonny Liston to capture the world heavyweight title in 1964, the late Muhammad Ali became a cultural icon: ‘the Greatest’ in many eyes, including his own. However, as The Times’ chief sports officer, Matthew Syed, noted: ‘The Greatest was a far more complicated figure than the sanitised version fed to the public in recent years…he could be ugly, vindictive and, at times, hypocritical.’ In his book, Ghosts of Manila  (Harper Perennial), Mark Kram Jr wrote: ‘Today, he would be looked upon as a contaminant, a chronic user of hate language.’

 Can you love your neighbour as yourself, and at the same time knee him in the face as hard as you can?

In an interview with the Sunday Express in January 1963, Ali himself realised that the foundational virtue of the Christian faith was of little use to his career and status: ‘At home I am a nice guy, but I don’t want the world to know. Humble people, I’ve found, don’t get very far.’ While Ali did bring much positivity to the world, we should not, as Syed points out, be ‘drowned in a deluge of misleading sentimentality’. I would add that we should also avoid idolatry when it comes to sporting celebrity figures.

The titles of the biographies of Christian boxers, God in My Corner (George Foreman; Thomas Nelson) and Holyfield: the Humble Warrior (Evander Holyfield; Thomas Nelson), raise a whole host of questions, not least whether God can really be on a particular boxer’s side in a fight.

Deeply controversial boxer Tyson Fury said in an interview with The Catholic Herald in 2011: ‘God gives us talents and I’m using mine to the best of my ability. I pray for my opponents before fights…It gives me strength to know that if God is in my corner then no one can beat me…I use religion as a strength not a weakness, and it helps me. I do my training and then he does his bit…I’ve a wife and two kids to provide for and if it means killing you in the ring, that’s what I will have to do.’

What are we to make of Fury’s comments, which border on  transgressing the sixth commandment, ‘Thou shall not kill’ (Exodus 20:13), and which, on the surface, seem to contradict the teaching of Paul, who was strong in his weakness (see 2 Corinthians 12:10)?  

Chris Eubank Jr reflects after his recent tragic bout against Nick Blackwell, who suffered a brain bleed: ‘We don’t go in there to cause that type of damage to an opponent...I just went in to fulfil a lifelong ambition and become British Champion...As fighters we know the risks.’  

Candid disclosure such as this suggests that boxers understand the risks inherent in their craft: death and disablement to self or others. This raises a key issue in any assessment of whether to accept or reject involvement in boxing and MMA: the use of ‘intentional violence’ and the intent to harm your opponent, which is allowed within the rules of the sport.  

Boxing and MMA can both be differentiated from other dangerous sports, such as ice hockey, motor racing, American football and rugby (which all have, on average, higher death rates) by the fact that, within  the rules, inflicting physical violence on your opponent is the primary goal.  

Within rugby or American football, while a player may be seriously injured by being tackled, within the rules of play the goal is to invade the opposing team’s territory and score. Deliberate violence against opponents is not rewarded in rugby or American football. It is punished, as it contravenes the rules of the game.  

Muscular Christianity

Mark Driscoll, the well-known US pastor and avowed supporter of MMA, states: ‘I don’t think that there is anything purer than putting two men in a cage...and just seeing which man is better. And as a pastor, as a bible teacher, I think God make men masculine...Men are made for combat, men are made for conflict, men are made for dominion.’  

Driscoll’s hyper-masculine philosophy, which is in line with the oft-cited theory that all men have a primal urge towards violent behaviour, is laced with values selectively taken from the 19th-century Victorian Muscular Christianity movement.

If God is in my corner then no one can beat me 

The founders of this movement, Charles Kingsley and Thomas Hughes (a boxing coach) sought to counter the perceived feminisation of the Church and to attract men into the pews.  

The use of MMA, in modern America in particular, as a missional tool to address the decline in male church attendance is, then, a marker of the times in which we live. MMA and boxing are also championed by pro-lobbyists on the assumption that these activities develop positive character attributes such as discipline, respect for self and others, honour, dignity and work ethic. Those in the MMA community regularly remind us that Jesus didn’t give up. Or in their language, ‘Jesus didn’t tap’.  

Ex-heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman once said that boxing ‘makes young people less violent’. Stories abound of individuals who have been ‘saved’ by engaging in violent sports such as boxing and MMA.  

Perhaps young lives redeemed from a life of crime, underachievement and illegal violence within society in some way bear testimony to the worth of boxing and MMA. That said, there are many other character-forming activities that do not involve intentional violence. Ironically, Chris Eubank Jr clearly grasps this truth in stating that: ‘You play football, you play cricket but you don’t play at boxing. There are two guys in there and they are fighting for their lives.’ Let’s be clear. Boxing and MMA are very dangerous activities and can  cause devastation to participants and their families.  

Should boxing be banned?

Sport ethicists who have written on the moral defensibility of boxing generally haven’t advocated that boxing should be banned but have suggested that the authorities should restrict or ban blows to the head,  stipulate compulsory head guards and better educate boxers and coaches as to the health risks.  

These suggested changes will either be rejected by those in the boxing community (boxing without head shots) or will fail to reduce the potential for devastating harm (head guards have been shown to be generally ineffective in protecting from brain damage). It is important to note that the risk of acute and  long-term physical and psychiatric harm from boxing and MMA is higher in the professional ranks. This is principally because fights are longer and participants are more highly conditioned and are powerful athletes, which ultimately leads to more intense violence and therefore greater harm.

After witnessing the first MMA fight at London’s O2 Arena, which sold out in minutes, sports journalist Matthew Syed concluded that ‘the sooner UFC is choked to death the better’. Syed said his deepest unease was directed at the audience: ‘Any time there was a let-up in violence, the booing started. And any time there was a clean hit, particularly one that drew blood, there was a deafening roar. “Kill him” and “mangle the b*****d” were two of the incitements I heard from the ringside.’  Similarly, when reporting on the Eubank Jr and Blackwell fight, Syed notes: ‘I love boxing but now doubt its worth more than ever...Boxing, as even its admirers must concede, is constructed on violence.’  

Research in the US has demonstrated a significant increase in domestic violence and the number of homicides on and around the day of major professional boxing matches. Since the 1920s there has been clear medical evidence to demonstrate that boxing can cause traumatic brain injury, irreversible neurological dysfunction, concussion, psychiatric conditions, eye and ear injuries, and death. This has led the British Medical Association, the American Medical Association and nine other national medical associations to repeatedly call for a ban on boxing and MMA.  

When considering the grandeur and dignity afforded to the whole human person (body, mind and spirit) in the sight of God and Jesus’ teachings on non-violence, a ‘moral thorn’ exists as to the defensibility of boxing and MMA. As the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19), how can we accept the brutal and intentional violence that exists in boxing and MMA?  Often overlooked is the potential emotional trauma and hardening and desensitising of the heart through the voluntary participation in, or observance of, violence. After all, according to Proverbs 4:23, the heart is the wellspring of health and godliness.

I love boxing but now doubt its worth more than ever 

At least one MMA fighter has come to recognise this. ‘Fighting just didn’t jibe with my prayer life,’ says Christian MMA champion Scott ‘Bam Bam’ Sullivan. He said bouts of MMA ‘foster a brutal mind-set’. Surely there are some links here (at a lower level, of course) to the trauma and desensitisation that war veterans commonly report when returning to their families and civilian life.  

As advocated by the Christian pro-boxing lobbyists, can boxing and MMA be a tool for spiritual formation? When reviewing the vast body of medical data, biblical teaching and biographical accounts of fighters, it seems unlikely.  

The case against violent sports 

Writing more than five decades ago in Sports Illustrated, Catholic moral theologian Richard McCormick stated: ‘Regardless of what answer we come up with, it is both a sign and guarantee of abiding spiritual health to face issues at their moral root. It is never easy to question the moral character of our own pleasure and entertainment.’ Sloppy theological arguments based on transient cultural norms and individual opinions do not hold up when we take an honest look at whether Christians should participate in or watch boxing and MMA.  There are three main reasons why Christians would decide to refrain from participating in these sports:  

• Intentional physical violence of any kind against a person made in the image of God solely for entertainment and recreation cannot be justified (some pro-lobbyists and Christians cite the Just War thesis, which is at best woefully naive).

• There are many other sports that are ‘physical’ in nature that can be used to develop positive character attributes in young men and women.  

• The potential emotional trauma and hardening of the heart in these activities surely does not engender the fruit of the Spirit such as love, peace, gentleness, joy, humility and kindness.  

As we approach the 2016 Rio Olympics with the magnificent statue of Christ the Redeemer overlooking proceedings, let’s not forget that nearly 2,000 years ago in AD 394, Christian emperor Theodosius I, strongly supported by the theological heavyweights of the age (Tertullian, Philo of Alexandria and Chrysostom), banned the ancient Olympics, not least due to the barbaric violence evident in the sports of boxing and pankration (a sport very similar to MMA).  

Should the International Olympic Committee ban boxing, given that it is dedicated to ‘banning violence’ in the Games? Could it be that the love of money that feeds professional boxing and MMA is making supporters of these activities dismissive and blind to the wealth of medical evidence and moral questions surrounding their sport?  

Self-professed Christian boxer Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather (estimated net worth $650m) and MMA fighter Conor McGregor (estimated net worth $15m) are on the verge of agreeing a ‘billion-dollar fight’! As McGregor recently commented when asked about the potential fight, ‘I’m all about numbers, and I wouldn’t say no.’  

Given that Senator John McCain, who famously called MMA ‘human cockfighting’ and a ‘blood sport’, called for a nationwide ban in the US, which fell on deaf ears, should the UK government ban MMA and professional boxing as some other nations, such as Sweden, have?

In answering this question, let us first ask God to search our hearts, then read Jesus’ teaching on violence and finally, if you have the stomach for it, watch the official trailer for US documentary Fight Church (2014) on YouTube. And let’s pray fervently that MMA does not become an Olympic sport.   

Dr Nick J Watson is senior lecturer in Sport, Culture and Religion at York St John University and will be hosting the Inaugural Global Congress on Sports and Christianity in August. 

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