This article was produced in association with the IMMAF
Massive global interest in the sport, triggered in large part by the success of elite professional series, has seen a surge of interest from the grass roots and the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation is working to ensure that all those coming into the sport enter a safe and well-regulated environment where they are able to fulfil their potential and train for success.
MMA may be a relative newcomer to the international sports scene, but its roots are deep. Pankration, thought to have been very like MMA in format involving a combination of striking and wrestling was featured in ancient Olympic Games and in many ways MMA represents the natural evolution of combat sports in a super-connected world where media, technology and travel have brought cultures together and created a fresh appetite for new and exciting sporting spectacles.
Densign White, chief executive of the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation, recognises that the way the sport has grown has created distinct challenges.
“More or less every other sport you can think of has started with the grassroots and grown from there and, as they have developed, governing bodies have been launched to regulate the sport and organise elite competitions,” he says.
“With MMA things are different. This is a sport which started with elite competition and has since exploded at the grassroots level but the IMMAF is focused on ensuring that we embrace the highest standards of best practice in sports governance to ensure that our sport operates with the same high levels of safety, scrutiny and regulation as more traditional sports,” White adds.
White, who was recently elected to the council of the Sport Integrity Global Alliance, says that as MMA develops it is attracting a new breed of athletes.
“In the past people tended to come into MMA from one of the established combat disciplines, often as a way of making some money as they came to the natural end of their careers. But things are different now. Youngsters coming into the sport today are still fascinated by the traditional martial arts which make up our sport, but their starting place is different – it is MMA itself,” he says.
IMMAF has responded to the massive interest among young people by developing regulations designed to enable them to enjoy and benefit from the sport in an appropriate environment. Next year will see the introduction of pre-Junior and Cadet rules from 12-year-olds and upwards.
“This is a really important decision. The rule changes were necessary to support our young athletes and help them get the most form the sport as they develop. The rules eliminate headshots in junior contests and young fighters don’t fight in the cage,” White explains.
“We are also introducing youth competitions and a grading system which gives people coming into MMA goals for personal development so that they can enjoy the fitness benefits of the sport even if they don’t take part in competitions,” he says.
Elsewhere IMMAF is rolling-out coach and referee education courses and continuing to develop its regulatory policies.
“The point is that we are about the grassroots and participation,” says White. “People may think they know the sport because they are among the millions who watch UFC on television, but the amateur side is different and governed by different rules. These include clothing and protection, the use of 7oz gloves, fights which last just three rounds and restriction which ensure that fighters are in action just once a day,” he said.
The IMMAF also operates a thorough medical programme which ensures pre-fight tests and compulsory brain scans for fighters who are stopped or knocked-out. In addition, the federation operates a comprehensive, WADA-compliant doping policy with random testing and testing of all gold medallists at every event.
With governance, medical and doping procedures firmly in place could amateur MMA one day find its way onto the Olympic programme?
“I’d say it fits the bill perfectly,” says White. “MMA is universally popular, has competitions for men and women and has tremendous appeal among young people and they are all attributes that the Olympic Movement demands of its sports.
“Perhaps more importantly the work we continue to do has ensured that MMA produces true sporting contests, that it is a safe sport and that it reflects all the Olympic values of inclusivity, fair-play and respect.”