Mixed martial arts, or MMA, has exploded in popularity over the last twenty-five or so years. That’s new enough that misunderstanding still surrounds the sport. In simplistic terms, an MMA contest involves one-on-one combat: a physical fight. Unlike boxing or pure wrestling, MMA involves a wide variety of techniques and situations. This includes anything from kicks and punches to takedowns, joint locks, and chokes. The sport is exhibited in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, as well as other leagues such as Invicta, Bellator, and Absolute Championship Akhmat. Christians are divided over whether MMA is appropriate for entertainment, let alone participation.
The basic philosophy of competitive mixed martial arts (MMA) is not extremely different from other contact sports. It involves collisions, competition, the risk of injury, physically imposing one’s will on another person, and so forth. Likewise, there are rules and restrictions. Competitors are willing participants who know what to expect. Of course, no sport, including MMA, should be allowed to compromise a person’s Christian witness. This is not unique to combat sports. Yet it’s especially sensitive regarding a genre not fully understood by most mainstream citizens. Christians are not obligated to avoid MMA at all costs, but neither can they partake without prayerful, careful understanding.
Aspects of modern MMA can be contradictory to Christian faith. Modern fight promotions can degrade into bitter, derogatory exchanges between scheduled fighters. Some leagues use “ring girls”: nearly naked women holding signs indicating the current round. Fighters and promoters may speak and act in deeply offensive ways. Some spectators are drawn to MMA by a hope of seeing mayhem or gore. Participants can be pressured into unhealthy practices such as extreme weight loss or using performance-enhancing drugs. Of course, those flaws are not unique to combat sports. Concerns about inappropriate advertising, revealing clothing, physically violent acts, elements of deception or deceit, and risk of injury can be applied to baseball, football, soccer, track, car racing, and so forth. Insofar as those sports can exist without those flaws, the same can be said of MMA.
Other objections to mixed martial arts are the result of misinterpretation or bias. The first hurdle faced is the word fight. Yet there is an enormous difference between an MMA event and schoolyard fights or bar brawls. A similar distinction exists between competing in a track meet and fleeing from the police. Or between “stealing” the ball from an opponent during a basketball game and stealing one from a gym bag on the playground. Knocking someone to the ground on a football field is different from tackling someone at the grocery store.
When both parties agree to rules, when the intent is not vengeance or mayhem or killing, and when the event is supervised, then it’s a sport. What happens in a football or hockey game can be extremely violent. The same acts, done to someone unaware and walking down the street, would be immoral and criminal. Given these stipulations, games involving combat can be legitimate contact sports.
Many believers are uncomfortable with the idea of violence in any format or for any reason. Yet Scripture does not advocate for total pacifism. In fact, the Word speaks of God giving people martial prowess (Psalm 144:1). The concept of training, practicing, and competing in combat techniques is compatible with a biblical worldview. In fact, training in MMA provides less lethal methods of self-defense; these are more merciful than the use of weapons.
A related complaint is that combat sports such as boxing or MMA are intended to “hurt the other guy.” This is false in any meaningful sense. The goal of MMA competition is not to physically injure the other person—it’s to win according to the rules. In MMA, those rules exist to prevent serious injury or maiming. No legitimate MMA leagues sponsor “no rules” events; the rules that exist are explicitly to protect the health of the competitors.
Mixed martial arts are obviously more dangerous than sports such as swimming or jai alai. Yet, to many people’s surprise, MMA is not significantly riskier than other sports. In fact, while minor cuts and bruises are much more common in MMA, the risk of life-threatening or crippling injury is less than in other combat sports. It’s even lower than in some non-combat extreme sports. In a boxing match, for instance, competitors throw punches at each other’s heads and upper bodies for round after round. They can be knocked nearly unconscious and allowed to continue. The typical boxer or kickboxer, after a 15-round fight, looks like he’s been in a car accident. MMA fights are stopped the instant a competitor is disabled. The typical MMA match lasts less than a few minutes, and in many cases both competitors could walk out of the arena without anyone knowing they’d been participating in a “combat” sport.
Football players deliberately hit opponents hard enough to knock them off their feet, as do hockey and rugby players. They smash, push, and drive into others with force and intent. Collegiate wrestlers deliberately impose pain and restraint on their opponent. Physically “violent” acts happen in water polo, field hockey, and so forth. All such acts come with risk of injury. But the intent is not to cause serious harm or death. There is certainly intent to deliver discomfort and psychological pressure. MMA is no different, in the sense that the goal is to “win,” while rules are in place to avoid dire consequences.
Without question, sports like MMA are human-on-human “combat.” That alone makes some people uncomfortable. Choosing not to partake is perfectly fine in the context of someone’s own spiritual walk. With mixed martial arts, as with any activity, each Christian needs to make up his own mind as to whether it’s compatible with his own spiritual life. Other believers should make room for those personal determinations. Those who ask, “Would Jesus punch someone in the face?” well-meaning as such questions may be, need to consider the same perspective for all sports. Would Jesus run at full speed into a smaller man, blast him to the ground, and take what he was carrying? That’s American football, which itself makes some Christians uncomfortable for all the reasons given so far.
In the Bible, God “wrestles” with Jacob (Genesis 32:22–28). This was clearly combative; the result was a substantial injury to Jacob (Genesis 32:31–32). David praised God for helping him become a better warrior (Psalm 144). And David’s training wasn’t for entertainment or recreation—it had lethal intent (1 Samuel 18:7). Jesus did not command total pacifism; He advocated reasonable use of armed self-defense (Luke 22:36–38). In summary, the Bible does not give any hard-and-fast reason why a Christian cannot enjoy or participate in martial arts or the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA).
Few people call American football or rugby “un-Christian” because the sport involves running into people and knocking them down. Tackling someone on the street out of revenge or in a fit of anger is not “sport.” Likewise, a backyard brawl or bar fight is not the “sport” of mixed martial arts. What happens in the ring, in a controlled environment, is neither morally nor materially equivalent to the type of violence the Bible prohibits in the life of a Christian (1 Timothy 3:3; Titus 1:7). That doesn’t make MMA acceptable for all believers at all times, but Scripture does not entirely preclude the sport.