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Why do Humans like Combat Sports

Originally posted on by Angelo Baaco

During one of the fights, you can clearly see a large amount of blood gushing out of one fighter’s broken nose and onto his opponent’s chest and arms as they struggled for position against the metal cage. It was at this point that my wife turned to me and asked with a bit of disgust in her voice: “Why does this appeal to you so much? I’ve been watching this with you for a while now, and I still don’t get it.”

The first thought that came to mind is: “Maybe I’m a mean, sadistic person who gets off on watching people get locked in a cage and beat each other to submission or until loss of consciousness?”

It’s possible.

But seeing that mixed martial arts is one of the fastest-growing professional sports in the world, does that mean that the rest of the world is sadistic and bloodthirsty?


Combat sports (be it mixed martial arts, kickboxing, muay thai, judo, karate, boxing, wrestling, jiu jitsu, sambo, or tae kwon do) is the purest form of competition between two people. It’s not about the type of car you drive, not how far you can throw the ball, or how good your equipment is during the competition. There are no teammates that you can pass the ball to if you’re in a tough spot. There’s nobody else to blame if you lose. It’s just two people trying their skills, using nothing but their bodies and their wits against each other to see who is the superior competitor.

To paraphrase UFC announcer and comedian Joe Rogan, martial arts competition is high-level problem solving with dire consequences.

I’ve practiced and competed in martial arts for most of my teen years and pretty much my entire adult life. The key word here is “art.” I can understand how an untrained outsider can only see testosterone-filled displays of violence and brutality (although that in itself can be pretty fun to watch). I can even understand “traditional martial artists” saying that this goes against the ethics of the “peaceful warrior” ethos (subject for another post). But there’s more to it than that. For me, I appreciate the hard work, the physical skills, discipline, technique, and mental toughness that competitors need to develop to be at the highest level. I’m not claiming that I’m a top, world-class martial artist. However I did get a small taste of what it takes to get there, and I can appreciate how difficult it can be.

This quote from Bruce Lee’s movie “Enter the Dragon” summarized it best:

We are unique, gentlemen, in that we create ourselves… through long years of rigorous training, sacrifice, denial, pain. We forge our bodies in the fire of our will.

But that’s me. What about other people? What makes combat sports so compelling to other people?

I’ll use this example: Try and remember when you were still a young kid in a schoolyard. At some point, at least once, you would have heard someone scream out: “Fight! Fight! Fight!”. I’m willing to bet that the first reaction that you had was to run towards it and see what was going on (unless you were the weird one who ran to the teacher). I’m pretty sure that most people had the same reaction.

I would argue that fighting is one of the most natural things that humans do. It’s in our DNA and what allowed the species to make it to 2016. We can speculate that humans probably evolved to fight. So much so that biologists from the University of Utah have published findings theorizing that the human hand/fist evolved to throw punches.

Let’s take a look at other professional sports. In any other sport, when emotions run high, the competitors are in a high-pressure, high-stakes situation; it doesn’t take much for it to escalate to a fight. This happens on several occasions in Major League Baseball, the NBA, and the NFL. It happens every other night in the NHL. I guess the good news is that we’re trying to evolve by enjoying sports that serve as proxies for violent confrontations.

Perhaps, in a few millennia, we will evolve and get rid of this vestigial part of our caveman/ape DNA. For now, let’s admit the fact that fighting is just so naturally human.

One last thing. If you watch the end of each combat sport contest, again be it MMA, karate, wrestling, etc., notice that in most cases, the competitors will hug, shake hands or even bow to each other. This is not a mere ceremony. With this final bow, hug, or handshake, we say to our opponent: “I respect your skills. You’ve pushed me to my physical and mental limits. Your efforts have helped me become a better version of myself. Thank you.”

And that is my favorite part.

Angelo Baaco is a Professional listener and talker extraordinaire. Office occupant by day. Dojo dweller by night.

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