“I’m “broken” but I’m happy”: when MMA explodes in France

These all-round martial arts champions, who hit each other very hard and very quickly, reap phenomenal success. Blood, tears, provocation… explosive cocktail.

Sitting in her sweat against the mesh wall of this octagonal cage, Samira scans her body and feels the scars of her weekly training. A swollen cheekbone, a creaking right wrist ligament, a bump that will soon double in size on a shin already riddled with bruises and scrapes. “Nothing serious, it’s fine,” breathes the 32-year-old young woman, who had not put on the mittens for two weeks. MMA (from English mixed martial arts, mixed martial arts), this is not forgiving. I had a hard time today, I'm exhausted and “broken” now, but I'm happy. I love this pain…”

It's been a little over seven months since this wealth management advisor opened the door to the MMA Factory (Paris, 12th arrondissement), the French temple of mixed martial arts. A decision taken in the wake and madness of a certain September 2, 2023. That evening, at the Accor Arena in Bercy, Samira attends by chance – “an improbable first Tinder date” – the second night of fights organized in France by the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship), the leading American league in the discipline. Coveted by 200,000 people on the waiting list, the 15,000 tickets (€83 to €1,591) were sold out in just a few minutes.

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In the sweaty and excited atmosphere of a show notably dominated by French stars, Ciryl Gane and Manon Fiorot, Samira is carried away “by the spectacle, but above all by this pure intensity and this controlled bestiality that these athletes exude”. She therefore joins the 4 million French fans, according to the UFC, fascinated by the country's now 12th favorite sport. Then the 60,000 practitioners identified at the start of 2024 (+ 338% in one year!) by the French Boxing Federation which has overseen this legal discipline for only four years. But what is this boom called? And why does this mix of English and Thai boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, karate and judo electrify the crowds so much?

“Already, because this plurality of disciplines allows it to drain the pool of fans from each of them,” explains Yann Ramirez, doctor in sociology of sport at the University of Montpellier and author of In the MMA cage (Editions Atlande, 2021). But above all because unlike sports that become a spectacle after having been a leisure activity, MMA was first thought of and designed as a show.”

A cage show

Precisely on November 12, 1993, in Denver (Colorado), when the promoter Art Davie made his television dream come true, proposed on pay-per-view, of seeing a sumo wrestle a karateka or an English boxing champion fight against another in kickboxing during fights authorizing all blows in a cage invented by John Milius, director of Conan the Barbarian, who would have even once imagined it electrified and surrounded by alligators… “MMA is born from an ambivalence between this amused curiosity of knowing which discipline prevails over the other in a spectacular way, a bit like if we put a whale and a hippopotamus face to face; and this serious desire for synthesis, this “third” way that we find in the Asian culture of combat sports,” analyzes the philosopher and screenwriter Ollivier Pourriol. But to put on a show, you still need to be able to count on protagonists who are as charismatic as they are physically capable of putting themselves in danger.

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“In these circus games, there was very quickly money to be made, it attracted fighters from the working class,” remembers Doug Merlino, New York novelist author of Beast: Blood, Struggle and Dreams at the Heart of Mixed Martial Arts (Ed. Bloomsbury, 2015). And in a country that almost no longer works with its hands and its body, these warriors captivated Americans. Ollivier Pourriol continues: “We can add the M of “meritocracy” to MMA, which exudes a form of proletariat as it is physically hard and grueling to reach the summits. The social trajectories of these modern-day gladiators speak to many people.” In 2001, MMA unified its rules to make itself better understood, softened them by prohibiting kicks and knees on an opponent on the ground and thus began “its quest for sportivization by doing everything to make itself acceptable to television, therefore of the general public,” explains Yann Ramirez.

But without losing its sulphurous and wild soul. Especially since the 2010s, now broadcast for free on American sports channels with growing content needs and now relayed in YouTube best-ofs, MMA has found the last missing link to escape its niche: a world star as good in the cage as she is entertaining outside of it. King of trash talking (verbal provocation) like Mohamed Ali, subscribed to extra-sporting escapades like Mike Tyson and winner like them of Homeric fights, the Irishman Conor McGregor becomes a hero of TV and the Web. And the extra-popular figure of MMA, which makes him a role model. He is at the origin of this pre-fight sales process based on verbal provocations, even physical altercations, as expected and galvanizing as the confrontation itself, continues Yann Ramirez. This attitude coincides with the culture of buzz and clash which governs social networks, which young people love.

Perfect illustration last March, around the highly anticipated and incredible fight between Baysangur Chamsoudinov, known as Baki, and Cédric Doumbè, alias The Best. Five days before the confrontation, he broadcasts a video in which he brings into Bercy… an ambulance which will be used to evacuate his opponent. On the big day, in the third round, an improbable imbroglio: Doumbè reported discomfort (a splinter in the foot!) to the referee who believed him to be injured, stopped the fight and gave Baki the winner. Doumbè, his clan and his fans scream scandal, demand revenge, and off we go again…

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The cathartic effect

Accomplice of this scoundrel theater, magnetized by these athlete actors with superhero nicknames inspired by comics or manga, and vamped by “these abstract and idealized beings who we believe capable of everything like in a video game”, image Ollivier Pourriol, the public would also purge its worst inclinations through them. “Our taste for blood, our fascination with death, our need for violent domination,” lists Doug Merlino. In other sports, defeating the opponent remains symbolic. Not in MMA. In a cage, blood flows and bones crack “for real” and the domination is real, palpable, visual.”

Yann Ramirez, who counts “fewer deaths in MMA than in cycling”, tempers: “The morbid imagination which can go as far as public catharsis exists less since MMA legitimized itself by equipping itself with a real sports identity now “safe”, more reassuring and in this sense also more attractive.” But since (human) nature abhors a vacuum, it has already found a replacement, street fighting. Videos of his clandestine street fights between hooligans, neo-Nazis, former prisoners and ex-soldiers now generate millions of views on the Internet…

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