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What MMA Can Teach Us About Politics

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Steve Marcus

If you have become fed-up with American politics—which lately can only be described as the world’s most boring circus—allow me to suggest another outlet for your viewing pleasure. Unlike politics, my suggestion features civility, maturity, respect, and honor. It’s quite the breath of fresh air from the regular goings-on in Washington. I’m speaking, of course, of mixed martial arts (MMA.)  


The brutal imagery of MMA can easily mask the profound philosophical underpinnings of martial arts. Comedian and MMA commentator Joe Rogan has called martial arts “high-level problem solving with dire physical consequences.” In many ways, MMA is the polar opposite of modern politics: differences are handled swiftly, and both parties tend to walk away with mutual respect. But there are countless lessons that Congress can glean from MMA. Here are just a few:

1. Respect for opponents. During an MMA fight, the combatants are doing everything in their power to remove their opponent from consciousness. After the fight, however, fighters almost universally hug or display some other form of mutual respect. Fighters understand that despite the bloody battle they are engaging in while locked in the cage, they also share much in common.

In politics, it’s become routine to label one’s opponents with the worst possible epithets. But unlike fighting, the insults in politics never seem to end. When one political scuffle is over, everyone dives right into the next one. This constant war of political factions is not only exhausting, it makes us lose sight of why we engage in politics at all. Fighters understand that, in the end, their purpose is more than just damaging their opponent – it’s to earn a living, to entertain the crowd, to put their training to the test. 


To many today, the goal of politics has become the clash itself. Instead of seeing our political foes as countrymen, we have divided every issue into a war of good versus evil. And our purpose has become defeating our opponents using the most destructive means possible. This game of mutually assured destruction only ensures that we all lose.

2. Spectacle can often overshadow reality. Conor McGregor is indisputably the most prominent star in MMA history. Yet experts rarely include McGregor in the top 10 on their lists of greatest fighters. McGregor certainly did not get where he has without being a world-class fighter, but MMA experts have been able to separate the theater that surrounds a McGregor from the actual fight results. The fat that McGregor is #1 at selling pay-per-views does not automatically make him the #1 fighter. The fighters who do make the top of the lists—Georges St. Pierre and Anderson Silva, for example—are much better known for their accomplishments within their cage than their drama outside of it. 

In politics, we often struggle to make a similar distinction. Charismatic presidents who served during momentous times or who ushered in sweeping changes—Harry Truman and Woodrow Wilson come to mind—are often ranked as the best presidents in American history. Historians, political scientists, and the general population are willing to overlook the disastrous results of these presidents’ policies and the loss of freedoms that occurred during their tenures in favor of building up their outsized legacies. Meanwhile, presidents such as Grover Cleveland and Calvin Coolidge, who held office during times of relative peace, prosperity, and liberty, have been relegated to the bottom of the history barrel.  Determining what constitutes good governance requires looking past the showmanship and assessing real-world results.


3. Seek truth wherever it leads you. Bruce Lee, whose philosophy is widely credited with paving the way for MMA, was once quoted as saying, “Use only that which works, and take it from any place you can find it.” MMA started as a test of which martial-arts styles worked best. Instead of people being married to their styles, the ones that worked were adopted and the ones that didn’t were discarded. Those who were too proud of their own style to evolve and adopt more successful styles found themselves on the losing end of fights. In the UFC’s first event in 1993, Royce Gracie demonstrated the value of Brazilian jiu-jitsu by beating a series of larger fighters who were unfamiliar with the style. Today, every top MMA fighter trains in a variety of styles—including jiu-jitsu—that have proven to work.

What politics has forced us into is a world in which our ideologies must be unflinching. We pick our “style” and stick with it under all circumstances. Instead of learning from history and adapting to an ever-changing world, America’s political system continues to enforce the narrative of limited choice and immobile bureaucracy. It is only when we shed our egos and value truth about all else that we’re able to grow—as individuals and as a society.

In our current culture, it takes men fighting in their underwear to show us civility, prudence, and subtlety. The dire consequences of MMA require its participants to think through their actions in order to be effective. Those who are active in politics should also acknowledge the dire consequences of their actions and act accordingly. As UFC announcer Bruce Buffer would say, “It’s time.”


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