Kazakhstani Strawweight Bagdat Zhubanysh competing in IMMAF's Amateur MMA competition. (Photo:@IMMAFed/Twitter.)

With the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games underway and the debut of new sports, it is now time for Mixed Martial Arts to become an Olympic Sport?

With the Tokyo Olympic Games underway and the debut of new sports at this year’s games such as Sports Climbing, Skateboarding, Surfing, and Karate what sports could potentially become Olympic Sports in the future.

Paris 2024 is set to have break dancing and proposed sports for the Los Angles games in 2028 include cricket and flag football.

It is now the time Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) finally gets some much-needed recognition and becomes an Olympic Sport.

Much like how martial arts such as boxing and wrestling were a part of the Ancient Olympic Games, so was Mixed Martial Arts however it was known as Pankration.

Pankration was a primitive form of martial arts which combined wrestling and boxing but also included kicks, holds, joint locks, throws, takedowns, and chokes on the ground similar to modern-day MMA.

However, compared to the barbaric fighting style of Pankration which often resulted in fighting to the death, modern-day MMA now has clearly defined rules and regulations surrounding the sport ensuring the safety of the athletes.

While mixed martial arts roots originate from the ancient games, MMA has been unable to be recognised globally as a sport and therefore unable to make its case for becoming an Olympic sport.

For Richie Cranny the President of the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation of Australia, MMA should be a part of the games as MMA is the pinnacle of all martial arts.

“The Olympics is about the ultimate athletes, it’s the pinnacle and if you look at martial arts, if you compare it to an Iron Man, in an Iron Man you have all these various disciplines, swimming, running, cycling. They, like the traditional martial arts are kind of one dimensional. But everyone loves to see the Iron Man because it is the true test where you have to do everything.” Cranny told the Inner Sanctum.   

“It’s the ability to be able to adapt and change your game and I think it’s the ultimate martial art, so if there are martial arts in the Olympics and we have a system that’s proved to be safe and effective, then there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be in there.”

Previous Attempt

In 2019 the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF) and the World Mixed Martial Arts Association band together in an attempt to get MMA recognised as a sport by the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF), the umbrella organisation for all established sports, however, was denied.

A prerequisite to being considered by the International Olympic Committee is a full GAISF membership, however, IMMAF was unable to even achieve the first step.

IMMAF is the official world governing body of amateur mixed martial arts and currently has 120 national federations underneath them and five others currently under review.

However, MMA is still a divisive sport around the world with many of these national federations working towards sports recognition in their country. National federations in countries such as Australia, Belgium, Demark, and the Republic of Ireland fall under this category.

This is why getting recognition from the GAISF and then the International Olympic Committee is so crucial. This will force the hand of many of these countries to recognise the sport’s governing body and recognition will lead to uniform regulations and improve the amateur MMA scene leaps and bounds.


Destroying the myths surrounding MMA

If MMA were to be part of the Olympic Games, it would be amateur MMA not professional MMA like people are accustomed to seeing on TV from organisations such as the UFC and Bellator.

In amateur MMA the rounds are only three minutes compared to five, shin guards must be worn, elbow strikes and knee strikes to the head are disallowed, submissions that apply pressure on the spine such as the twister, neck-tie, and crucifix are not permitted as are heel hook submissions.

These are all in place to help protect the athletes and their longevity.

A major objection to MMA becoming an Olympic sport is the striking on the ground component, which is seen as contra to the spirit of the Olympic movement.

Cranny however believes that it’s an issue of education which is why people have this opinion.

“I understand, I’m a parent, there are images I don’t want my kids being involved with, but I also understand what I do and I understand how safe it is and I understand why we do this. So, it’s a case of educating people and I think that’s the hardest part,” Cranny said.

“People have that perception of someone sitting over someone’s chest in the playground, with the bully on top, throwing punches. That’s being a bully because the kid underneath has no education and doesn’t know what to do at that point.

“In the MMA you’ve got two skilled athletes that can protect themselves and can escape positions and the reason they’re so skilled is because the danger in each of those areas that they have to face, escape and transition.

“It’s an image that people feel isn’t sport like. It’s fine to stand and punch someone in the face in boxing 400 times in a fight, but to take a shot when you’re on the ground, the damage that’s done from headshots compared to someone taking punches on the ground, it’s not comparable, it’s ridiculous, but it’s an image and it’s just a case of educating.”

Barriers to entry and overcoming them

Removing the barriers to entry of MMA at the amateur level will also play a large role in removing the negative stigma surrounding the sport and show people what mixed martial arts is truly like

The barriers to entry surrounding MMA are due to the multitude of different disciplines involved. If an athlete wants to work on their ground game, they might do a Brazilian Jui-Jitsu tournament however the skills and techniques used do not directly apply in an MMA setting.

“If you want to become a Formula One driver you don’t start in a Formula One car you start in a go-kart at the basics and you build yourself up. There’s a pathway, steppingstones and with mixed martial arts there really isn’t that,” said Cranny.

“If you go to a gym with no experience, you’ve got to train for three years before you can have your first amateur fight.”

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Cranny believes he has a solution to the issue with his new project Specialist MMA which he is launching in Australia. Specialist MMA is broken into two disciplines stand up and ground for mixed martial arts.

“If it is stand up you start standing as you would in a normal fight, you touch gloves and you go, the difference is takedowns. If there is a takedown it’s a reset, touch and you go again. Point system is the same as normal mixed martial arts, but it is open mat,” said Cranny.

“Same with the ground, MMA gloves on, you start in a standing clinch so there is no break from action. You work straight away into action and when it goes to the ground you then include the strikes and all the submissions.

“So, you have got both elements of MMA in its purest form but divided down the middle.

“Now we have this way that athletes can fine-tune different elements of their game as well as being a pathway of entry.”

The hope is that specialist MMA will act as that steppingstone and showcase mixed martial arts for what it truly is, not just what is seen on TV.

“We need to be able to show that there is a martial art, there is a sport that sits underneath what we see on TV and I think that’s what’s missing,” said Cranny.

“We need that image of recreational competition like you go to a jujitsu competition on the weekend and you’ll see mum, dad, and kids, 300 to 400 people in a hall and mats competing, and that’s the image of sport and recreational sports. So that, I believe is the missing piece of the puzzle for mixed martial arts.”


Olympic athletes and MMA

MMA has proven to become a strong career pathway for former Olympians still wanting to compete who have had great success in their previous sport.

A prime example is the 2008 United States Olympic Wrestling team which included Daniel Cormier, Ben Askren, and gold medallist Henry Cejudo. All three men went on to win world titles in different MMA promotions with Cormier and Cejudo both becoming two division champions, a feat which has only be done by four fighters.

2008 Olympic Gold medalist and UFC Flyweight and Bantamweight Champion Henry Cejudo Photo: @HenryCejudo/Twitter

Australia’s own Dan Kelly competed in Judo at four Olympic games before pursuing MMA full-time and joining the UFC, finishing his career with a 13-4 record.

Ronda Rousey won a bronze medallist in Judo at the 2008 Beijing games and went on to be one of the most dominant female fighters in the UFC during her reign and still holds the record for the most title defences by a woman in UFC history.

Kayla Harrison won gold at the 2012 and 2016 games in Judo and is currently one of the best and most exciting female fighters in the world.

The Olympics have proven to be a breeding ground in these different combat sports for world-class athletes who becoming world-class MMA practitioners, so could you imagine the level of skill and talent that an athlete would possess specialising in purely MMA their whole life.  

Current progress

In a statement by IMMAF provided to The Inner Sanctum concerning their progress with getting the mixed martial arts recognised by GASIF, it read,

“We have a live application in process with GASIF which is mandated to formally be recognized as a sport for us to go through Olympic recognition. IMMAF meets all the recognition, all the recognized criteria except the WADA signature, which is the World Anti-Doping Agency. IMMAF’s initial application has been accepted by WADA. We are now in the next steps and processes which will be completed at the end of August and for our final submission decision.”

With other martial arts such as Kickboxing, Muay Thai, and Sambo receiving full Olympic recognition at the 138th IOC Session held from July 20th to 21st, it is only right that mixed martial arts should follow next.

“How many people watch judo (all year round) on TV? How many people watch Muay Thai, taking away Thailand,” said Cranny.

“If you want world audiences, you have to have MMA in there. We’ve got to get it right; we believe we’ve got it right through IMMAF.

“It will be different from what they’ve seen before because it will be amateur sport, the rules are slightly different, but the uneducated won’t understand. But it has to be in there, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be.”

Hope is for the mixed martial arts to be recognised and become an Olympic sport by the Los Angles 2028 games, however, there is a chance that Brisbane could play host to MMA’s debut at the games in 2032.

Stay up to date with all the Olympics action happening now. For all your Tokyo 2020 coverage, stay tuned to The Inner Sanctum’s Olympic hub and the Olympics Central.

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