Kids in the cage: How not to do mixed martial arts

A big fear for the UFC and other reputable MMA promotions is that some promoter or sports commission with more brashness than brains will put on a card that puts the sport in a bad light or actually gets someone seriously hurt.

Case in point: This youth grappling exhibition from England. See the YouTube video and the Telegraph piece about it.

Some of the criticism in the Telegraph is nonsense. The griping about protective gear misses the mark — this is grappling. They’re not hitting each other. And the condescending quotation marks around “mixed martial arts” are unnecessary. It’s as if people saw two kids walk into a cage without gloves and headgear and just assumed the rest.

Kids grapple all the time. They do it in youth wrestling programs — locally, we start at age 7. Kids can start training in jiu-jitsu at an early age, just as they can learn karate and do “sparring” sessions with more protective gear than the kids who do sumo matches in between innings of minor league baseball games. Like any other youth sport, the safety is a matter of proper supervision. You wouldn’t let your kid play football for a maniac teaching dirty play, and you wouldn’t let your kid grapple without nearby adults who know what they’re doing.

The exhibition in question, however, is a shaky concept executed poorly. The promoters are simply lacking common sense in a couple of facets:

1. Stop the danged fight. The announcers, who seem fairly level-headed, plead for several minutes for the ref or one kid’s corner to put an end to the proceedings. One poor kid is clearly overmatched, and his tears may be tears of embarrassment or frustration rather than tears of pain. He clearly can’t defend against the other kid’s leglocks. An MMA bout ends with one tapout. Bully Beatdown bouts ended with five, but that show’s raison d’etre was to humiliate an adult who deserved it. This bout should’ve stopped by the third tapout.

2. Leglocks? Seriously? U.S. grappling promoter Grapplers Quest has a lot of restrictions on leglocks. For beginners, none. For advanced kids’ classes, only a couple of holds are allowed. These are kids — they might not understand the damage that a leglock can cause, and they might not tap until their underdeveloped joints have been stretched. To put this in perspective — UFC president Dana White doesn’t even allow leglocks at tryouts for The Ultimate Fighter, and these are professional adults.

3. Hey ref! Wake up! In at least one case, the announcers are pleading with one kid to tap out. The ref should be able to see what the announcers see. Let’s put this in perspective: At Grapplers Quest tournaments, they remind the adults to tap out and make sure they leave the mat without a limp or a messed-up arm. At tryouts for The Ultimate Fighter, White stops the proceedings and awards a submission bonus when one guy clearly has a strong hold, even if the other guy is being stubborn.

This is pretty simple, folks: When a referee sees an 8-year-old kid trying to be brave by not tapping out to a leglock, he needs to step in and stop it.

4.  Should this be in a cage with a crowd? Kids love to be in the same arenas as their athletic heroes, sure. I played football in front of about 20 people at the University of Georgia’s Sanford Stadium about two hours before the Bulldogs played. (All I remember is that I missed a tackle.) D.C. United and the Washington Capitals let youth teams play in between halves or periods. But a one-on-one bout, particularly a mismatch such as this one, might be a bit too much for an 8-year-old to handle in front of a riled-up crowd. Most martial arts sparring sessions take place in front of fellow students and watchful instructors … and no one else.

So is this footage “disturbing”? Not quite. They’re not punching each other and causing potential long-term damage. There are some trained supervisors in place, even if they’re operating under dubious rules.

But the promoters really need to rethink the way they’re doing things. And we can only hope the media and the tut-tutting medical boards will realize that major promoters have a little more sense than this.

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