Death of mixed martial arts fighter another black eye for the sport

Michael Kirkham is the second mixed martial arts fighter in 2-1/2 years to die of injuries sustained in a state-sanctioned fight. As critics denounce MMA as barbaric, defenders say it's no more dangerous than some other sports.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/AP
Mixed martial arts: Ben Rothwell, left, of Kenosha, Wisc., hits Gilbert Yvel, of the Netherlands, during UFC 115 in Vancouver, B.C., on June 12. The death of MMA fighter Michael Kirkham has raised safety concerns about the sport.

The death of a mixed martial arts fighter on Monday – the second fatality of an MMA competitor in the US since November 2007 – is renewing concerns about safety and regulation of the meteorically growing sport.

Michael Kirkham died Monday morning after a bout two days earlier in Columbia, S.C. Kirkham collapsed after his first professional fight Saturday and remained unconscious before dying of a brain injury, according to the Aiken County coroner. Kirkham took several strikes to the head during his match, which was a state-sanctioned fight.

Despite its rising popularity, mixed martial arts ­– which combines a number of fighting disciplines including boxing, kickboxing, jiu-jitsu and others – remains controversial because its rules allow fighters to strike opponents with knees and elbows and to continue hitting rivals who have fallen to the mat.

South Carolina legalized MMA, which is regulated by the state’s Athletic Commission, only last year. It is one of 44 states that have legalized and regulated MMA fighting. On Monday, the New York state legislature halted a measure that would have added it to the list of legal MMA venues.

Proponents of MMA argue that the sport is less dangerous than others, even legal fighting sports like boxing. A 2006 study in the Journal of Sports Science Medicine found that though MMA fighters sustain more overall injuries per fight than boxers, there are half as many knockouts – and thus fewer serious brain injuries – in MMA bouts. Kirkham’s death was the second directly resulting from a US mixed martial arts fight, but the history of boxing is rife with fatal injuries sustained in matches.

MMA’s supporters also claim the sport is a cash cow that could serve as an important economic boost and revenue source for states still recovering from the recession. After Maine legalized MMA fights last year, representatives from the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a MMA promoter, told the Bangor Daily News that multibout MMA events in Maine could generate more than $8 million each.

The anti-MMA crowd contends that mixed martial arts will prove to be just as dangerous as boxing if the new sport is allowed time (and government approval) to continue growing. The American Medical Association and other doctors’ groups oppose MMA because of its potential for causing severe injury and its promotion of violence.

In New York, the state Senate included a provision in the budget last week to legalize, regulate, and tax MMA fights. But it was removed in the Assembly on Monday, the same day as Kirkham’s death, by lawmakers disturbed by the sport’s violence. Bob Reilly (D) of upstate New York argued in a 24-page memo last year that MMA is too barbaric for the state to support.

“Ultimate fighting is a form of violence that physically harms the participants and has a negative effect on children, adults and our society as a whole,” Mr. Reilly wrote. “Young people are increasingly imitating ultimate fighting.... It is difficult to convince young people that their fights are not acceptable when they see adults participating in ultimate fighting.” Reilly also disputed the potential economic gains from legalizing MMA fighting in New York.

New York state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D) of Long Island is one of the legislature's biggest supporters of legalizing MMA fighting. There are arguments against it, he says, but the "genie is already out of the bottle" in terms of publicity for MMA, and there is no good reason for closing it off as a potential source of revenue. "I'm not going to get up on a soapbox and say we need this to [afford to] put cops on the street," says Mr. Englebright, "but I'm also not going to get on a soapbox and say it's debauching our society. It's already out there."


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