Mixed Martial Arts is on the rise in Finland: 15 to 20 professional fighting events are now held here annually.

Mixed Martial Arts is shedding its brutal image and is on its way to becoming a mainstream sport. SixDegrees spoke to practitioners and enthusiasts about MMA’s rise, appeal and potential future.

IF YOU’VE never been to a Mixed Martial Arts fight, you may picture this scene in your head: in the centre of a hall, surrounded by up to 3,000 cheering people, is a cage. In it, two men (or women) hit and kick each other and block each other’s strikes using techniques of various types of martial arts. After a while of fighting on their feet, the two fighters eventually end up grappling on the floor until one of them gets the upper hand that ends the match — for example, by putting the other fighter in a chokehold after which he submits or, more rarely, passes out.

For the uninitiated, fighting in a cage with seemingly permissive rules might seem like a violent, even barbaric activity. MMA fans would retort that the sport is not, in fact, any more dangerous than many other types of combat sports. For them, it is the king of martial arts, thanks to its diversity and hard work it takes to succeed, the fights in the cage (called “the Octagon” in the sport, because of its eight sides) being just the most visible part of the life of an MMA fighter.

Currently, MMA is one of the fastest growing sports, both in terms of attracting bigger audiences and more practitioners. There are about 70 MMA clubs in Finland and 3,000–4,000 people practice it actively, according to the Finnish MMA Association, and youth activities are growing rapidly. Overall, the sport is these days roughly in the same size category with more “traditional” martial arts.

MMA audiences have also grown fast: 15 to 20 professional fighting events are held annually in Finland, each attracting an audience of 1,000-3,000 people. By the MMA Association’s estimate, that means that more people go to MMA fights than to professional boxing events. The media have also caught on, as MTV Max broadcasts international MMA fights, while Yle reports on MMA fight results on a regular basis as part of its sports coverage. In addition, Finnish MMA is also followed by engaged online citizen media, covering the events and interviewing the fighters.

MMA has, thus, come a long way since its inception. The first fights were organised by the Ultimate Fight Championship (UFC) in the early ‘90s in the US. The main reason was to pit against each other fighters of different disciplines to see which type of martial arts practitioner would win the tournament. There were few rules — only biting, eye gouging and strikes to the groin were forbidden.

Sport like any other

Over the last 10 years, the sport’s popularity has steadily risen, with new organisations being founded regularly and UFC, the biggest one, holding events in Europe, Latin America and Asia in addition to the US. Rules are more comprehensive now, and there are more forbidden techniques. For instance, professionals aren’t allowed to head-butt, kick the opponent in the head when they are down, hit the opponent in the spine, neck or throat, and so on; for amateurs and beginners, there are additional restrictions.

In short, MMA is regulated in similar ways to other types of martial arts. What, then, explains its popularity? “I think MMA is the most demanding sport there is, as it requires so much speed, stamina, explosive energy, strength, skills in different martial arts disciplines and also mental capacities. For me, it’s the king of sports,” says Jukka Paananen, the Chairman of the Finnish MMA Association. “For instance, in running short distances your success comes pretty much down to whether or not you’re a fast runner. In MMA, the are a lot of variables that are all important.”

These days, MMA fighters have to be well versed in several types of martial arts in order to succeed. According to Paananen, the sport can be divided roughly into five different areas: boxing, Thai boxing, standing wrestling, wrestling and submission holds. “These are very different from one another, but important to master. If you’re good at one, but your opponent handles two, it’s easy for them to take the fight to their comfort zone and win.”

This diversity also means that matches are engaging to watch also for those people in the audience who just want easy entertainment. Even among the audiences, there are misconceptions about the nature the sport. “It’s true that some people get their kicks out of aggression and violence. It’s the same guys who follow NHL only because of the fights. It’s pretty marginal; their share is probably the same in any sport,” estimates Joonas Poikela from MixedMartialArts.fi, a website dedicated to MMA news. He describes a staple event that still happens at every MMA fight evening: “Someone in the audience always shouts ‘Kill him!’ at some point. The ‘cheer’ is notorious in the sport, and these days I honestly can’t say if it’s mostly shouted with irony.”

“It’s true that many people in the audience don’t realise the amount of preparation and practice that the fighters put in before a match,” Paananen says. “But I suppose it’s the same thing in professional boxing.”

Day in the MMA life

In order to better understand the reality behind the sport, SixDegrees spoke to an MMA professional: after practising several other sports and martial arts, Toni Tauru started practising MMA six years ago. He had his first professional fight in 2011, and in total has close to 30 MMA fights under his belt.

Why did MMA appeal to Tauru more than other styles of martial arts? “It may sound weird, but for me MMA is a sport for the brain,” he explains. “You need to read the opponent and how the fight develops all the time and you have to react quickly. You also have to prepare well for a specific opponent and plan your strategy.”

Tauru says that bulk of his training consists of practicing different types of martial arts together with visits to the gym. He typically practises once a day, however the pace picks up significantly one or two months before a match, the sport pretty much taking over his life. “On the other hand, we’re a close group with the other guys doing MMA, so in a way the gym is where your friends are.”

MMA fights are fought in different weight classes, so just like in boxing, fighters typically need to lose weight for a weigh-in day before the fight, the last days often involving quite drastic measures. “I like to use an infrared sauna blanket, but many use the traditional sauna to get rid of water weight quickly,” Tauru says.

On the day of the match, the fighters are usually taken to the location a few hours earlier and kill time waiting for their turn: “We read magazines, sleep, eat, watch the other fights.” About an hour before the fight, Tauru starts to warm up. Time can pass slowly: “In a way it’s a relief when they come to get you as it means that the waiting is over. On the other hand, it’s a lonely walk from the dressing room into the cage. A lot of stuff passes through your mind during that walk, and for some it can happen that you can’t clear your mind and be mentally ready for the fight.”

Usually, however, when the cage door closes and the match starts, everything else but the fight disappears. “The most important thing is to be awake,” Tauru says. “It’s the best thing about the sport, the excitement you get every time you get in the cage. There’s something addictive about it.”

MMA in a nutshell

Mixed Martial Arts is a combat sport that combines techniques from other types of martial arts. Originally there were minimal rules when the first matches were held in the early ‘90s, but since then the sport has become more regulated in order to make the fights safer and to make the sport acceptable for the general public.

Modern MMA competitors have to train in several martial arts disciplines to be balanced, well-rounded fighters, both standing and on the floor. Striking and grappling techniques are both allowed. Some of the most important disciplines that MMA fighters practice include boxing, Thai boxing, and martial arts with different types of wrestling and submission holds, such as judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. The key to success is the effective combining of the various techniques.

Most fights take place in a cage with eight sides, called the Octagon. There are three ways to win: either by a knockout, submission (the other fighter submits verbally or by tapping out) or by a decision of judges. Unless there is a knockout or one combatant submits, fights consist of three rounds, each lasting five minutes.

From safety to where

Tauru says he hasn’t had major injuries (“the worst has probably been a broken ligament, but I’ve also had some fractures in my face and broken my nose a few times”). In fact, he doesn’t see MMA as a particularly dangerous sport, but rather comparing favourably to some others.

“I would actually say that MMA is safer than ice hockey, for example. But there are so many different ways of looking at safety. For instance, a lot of injuries happen when amateurs get together to play football seriously but without practicing.”

Has MMA entered the mainstream by now? At least the public perception is evolving. “There’s less and less need to explain that we don’t fight simply because we enjoy the violence. It’s nice to see that people have started to understand that this is a real sport, and a tough one at that,” says Paananen.

On the other hand, it’s easy to mistake the rise in popularity for a general acceptance. “People who follow MMA may easily fall into a kind of a bubble, thinking that the sport is more popular than it really is,” says Ilkka Outa from Häkkiradio, an online team of journalist who cover MMA events and interview fighters.

Still, the sport is indisputably breaking new ground, as this summer the first amateurs’ world championships will be held in Las Vegas, with five Finns participating. There is also talk of a major organisation organising a fight event in Finland later this year, which would go a long way in attracting attention to the sport in the country. Some even have their hopes up for MMA being eventually accepted as an Olympic sport, which would be a sort of a homecoming: pankration, which was a combat sport in the ancient Greek Olympics, is considered a kind of a spiritual predecessor to MMA.

The sport is thus here to stay and stands to grow significantly in the future years — and those attitudes are also slowly changing. “I used to work as a sports animator, and at one point worked with a group of pensioners. At the start I didn’t tell them that for my main occupation I fight other guys in a cage,” Tauru says. “Little by little as they got to know me and saw that I’m a regular guy, I told them about my MMA career — and they were totally cool with it!”

Teemu Henriksson
Photos by Joonas Poikela -- MixedMartialArts.fi