Editorial by Rami Genauer for MMAWeekly.com
“The cage is safer than the ring.”

“Mixed martial arts is safer than boxing.”

“MMA has its roots in the ancient Olympic Games.”

Antagonized by critics, these are the kinds of things fans of MMA find themselves saying in trying to defend the sport. But are they true? And even if they are, do they make for persuasive arguments?

This is the first in a series of articles entitled “Myth-ed Martial Arts.” The goal of these pieces is to examine statements that are made about MMA and analyze their truth and consequences. Some of these statements are true, some are mere myths, but true or not, each carries with it profound implications for winning support, or at least tolerance, among the general public for MMA. These questions require a level of thought deeper than a simple true or false. When working with public opinion, the correct answer is not necessarily the right one.

To introduce this column’s topic, read this blurb from the May 12th edition of the Washington Post about a recent MMA event:

“The Revolution” is the big fight night at the D.C. Armory. But rather than boxing, it will feature fighters skilled in “mixed martial arts,” an ultra-popular, newish sport that’s a blend of kickboxing, wrestling and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. All of which sounds on the up and up till you learn it’s usually fought in cages. (emphasis in original) Thankfully, cage fighting hasn’t been approved in the District, so this debut of MMA in D.C. (it was long illegal here) will feature 10 open-ring bouts.

MMA fans have been hearing statements like this for years and have a ready retort: Actually, the cage is safer than a boxing ring.

First principles: Is this true? The notion that a fence-enclosed structure is safer than a roped ring emerges from the risk of fighters falling out of the ring or getting tangled in the ropes. The argument says that while a roped ring may be fine for boxing, where all the action is on the feet, MMA fights take place at multiple levels and involve shoots, takedowns, and sweeps that could increase the risk of fighters falling through or over the ropes. Indeed, some organizations tried to solve this problem by placing netting around the bottom portion of the ring (the old IVC, for example) or stationing a dozen or so folks to physically push contestants back inside the ropes (Pride is the obvious example). While rare, fighters do still fall out of the ropes, something a fenced-enclosure prevents.

Critics will say that a cage has similar problems. The recent Strikeforce bout between Bobby Southworth and James Irvin was called a no contest when both fell out of the cage. After clinching against the fence, the door swung open, sending both men to the ground and injuring Irvin to the point where he could not continue. But that incident, and others like it, are indicative of a flaw with the construction of that specific setup, not a problem inherent in the design of the structure. A ring will never provide the support that a fence does and will always present some (though admittedly, marginal) safety risk of fighters exiting the ropes.

But this isn’t settled yet. The statement that a cage is safer than a ring is not one of architecture or physics. It’s an argument used to combat a particular perception. The problem with this answer is not one of veracity; the problem is one of phraseology. A cage is a place where you keep an animal, in many cases, a dangerous or vicious animal. If there is one characteristic that makes critics uncomfortable with MMA it is the notion that these are caged animals hell-bent on violence. This is where the “human cockfighting” stigma comes from. The safety argument is unpersuasive because the critic already has a preconceived notion about what they are seeing. Anything that goes on inside a cage must necessarily be unsafe.

The solution is not universal adoption of the ring, though it’s obvious that organizations looking for immediate mainstream acceptance (the IFL, for example) should make that decision. The solution is to challenge the critics’ preconceived notions. Step one is re-branding. It’s not a cage (really, it isn’t), it’s a ring with fences installed for the safety of the participants. Remember, the original boxing rings were simply circles drawn on the ground. A square canvas mat with ropes around it lays no greater claim to the term “ring” than an eight-sided canvas mat with fences around it. A ring, in the parlance of our times, is simply a place where combat sports happen. The material that one uses to enclose the fighting area is irrelevant.

The UFC has recognized the need for a re-branding effort, referring to their fighting area as “The Octagon,” not as a cage. Re-reading the Washington Post blurb above, the writer had no objection to the sometimes-brutal action that takes place inside the cage; his or her objection was merely to the idea of a cage. With time (and a good PR firm), the UFC should be able to make Octagon a recognizable alternative noun, one that deflects some of the negativity surrounding fenced-in fighters.

The issue remains with smaller shows. The Octagon – its shape, name, and construction – is a trademark of the UFC. Any show that wants to use it has to get permission from the UFC, and potentially pay a licensing fee, which small promoters can ill afford. Without an Octagon, or even the right to use the term Octagon, they build fenced rings that are quickly called cages. And with many people referring to MMA as “ultimate fighting” these promotions need an alternate descriptor that differentiates them from the UFC. Many rely on the term “cage fighting,” which only perpetuates MMA’s image problem.

As the sport matures and promoters no longer need to rely on spectacle, mixed martial arts organizations as a whole need to make a concerted effort to shift away from the term cage and call the fighting area what it is – a ring, just a different kind than the one used for boxing. Perhaps then we’ll see the day when mixed martial arts can be accepted for what they are – the very best athletes in the world.