Two fighters make their way to the cage. The crowd cheers as one of the warriors circles the cage, waving the flag of his native country. They walk to the center of the cage and the referee signals the start of the fight.
Soon, a scramble ensues on the ground, with the stronger fighter cinching a guillotine choke. Displaying great submission defense, his opponent continually rolls through the maneuver, creating just enough space to survive. Eventually, however, he finds no escape route and taps out. The winner celebrates, sitting atop the cage with hands raised before leaping down and doing a spot-on impersonation of UFC Hall of Famer Tito Ortiz’s famous grave-digging routine.
It all seems like a fairly common occurrence in the world of mixed martial arts. Ortiz’s post-fight antics are even something that lesser-known fighters might be tempted to mimic. But there is something different here. The fighters are not twentysomethings in the embryonic stages of their fight careers. In fact, they have not even hit puberty yet. These two competitors, who took part in a surprisingly entertaining and technical fight, are ages six and seven.
Cue the outrage.
Even UFC President Dana White chimed in on the fight, for which the video appears on YouTube and could be seen via mixedmartialarts.com. Dropping his requisite f-bomb, White expressed disgust for the contest, which took place under the banner of Arm (short for Armenian) Fighting Championship, and criticized the parents of the two young children.
Seven-year-old Hayk Tashchyan (white trunks) vs. six-year-old Minas Avagyan
Surely, plenty of people who see or hear about the fight—both MMA fans and those who rally against the sport—have or will express similar feelings. In the past, even the idea of allowing children to train in the discipline of mixed martial arts had been condemned, so it’s not hard to imagine uproars of outrage in this situation. But is the outrage truly warranted, or is this a case of hypocrisy?
Now, let me make it very clear—in no way am I suggesting that first-graders should co-headline UFC events, or even the local cage fights in podunkville U.S.A. And there certainly are some things wrong with the Armenian show that these young boys appeared at, such as the lack of regulation and proper protective gear. It also seemed vastly out of place to have two elementary school kids marching to the cage in what appeared to be a night club environment.
If we put all of that aside, though, and look purely at what happened inside the cage once the fight started, it’s actually hard to see exactly why this should spark so much consternation.
On any given weeknight or weekend, parents across this nation pile their young boys into minivans and shuttle them to Pop Warner (or YAFL, depending on where you live) football practice. Children as young as five suit up and play in tackle leagues.
Meanwhile, I can no longer count on two hands the number of newspaper articles or features on ESPN’s E:60 that have told the story of a young athlete suffering brain damage from concussions, paralysis from a broken neck or even death from some form of these injuries. Yet, thousands still play. Mothers and fathers still cheer their offspring, pushing them to win and telling them to “suck it up” when they complain about bumps and bruises.
The only individuals who are bothered by youth in a sport that has seemingly surpassed baseball as America’s favorite pastime seem to be the friends and family of those who suffered the tragic loss or life-altering injury of a loved one. Hardly a soul looks at five-year-olds playing football and cries foul.
Even boxing has a place among youth. There is actually a ranking system for 12-year-olds. As with any amateur boxers, the kids do wear more protective gear than their professional adult counterparts. The sport definitely doesn’t share the popularity of youth tackle football, but outside of the medical community, which raises concerns with both sports due to concussions and traumatic head injuries, even children in boxing are looked at as athletes in a sport.
So, why the difference when it comes to MMA? Perhaps some of it stems from the roots of the sport. Fans on the inside don’t want a return to the days when Congressmen railed against MMA and bans on the sport were commonplace. The imagery of bare knuckles and legal groin shots is still too fresh in MMA’s collective memory. And those on the outside continue to perceive MMA as nothing more than a brutal bloodthirsty sport, one that requires little skill and results in more serious injuries than those of football or boxing.
If it weren’t for these stigmas, the impulse to express outrage might be more on par with what we see in those other, more commonly accepted youth sport activities.
Outside of the need for the same structure of safety precautions as any other sport—proper protective gear and medical screenings such as pre-fight physicals—youth MMA should not draw the ire of fans or critics. At least, not while those same individuals are applauding their own sons for spectacular head-rattling tackles.
Photo: Minas Avagyan (YouTube)