In early July, thousands of mixed martial arts (MMA) enthusiasts trekked to Las Vegas for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Fan Expo to watch legendary fighters like Forrest Griffin and Anderson Silva pummel and thrash each other inside the ring.
Outside the arena they strolled among booths exhibiting MMA gear, muscle building supplements, extreme sports equipment, Fight Chix Apparel, and … a church.
Fight Church, located in Las Vegas—the fight capital of the world—and Minnesota, is one of the first Christian ministries to reach out to the MMA community, operating as a chaplaincy program for the sport, extending support to fighters, coaches, and promoters through one-on-one mentoring, prayer before and after matches, and small group Bible studies.
“I didn’t see a lot of my peers in seminary reaching out to this community,” said Brian Roberts, pastor of Fight Church in Minnesota. “It’s a need. MMA is there, and somebody needs to intentionally bring the gospel into that community.”
MMA, which has roots in age-old combat arts like wrestling, boxing, jiu-jitsu, and taekwondo, is one of the fastest growing sports in the world. An MMA match pits two fighters against each other in a cage, as they punch, kick, choke, and body slam their opponent until only one fighter is left standing. In the last decade, most began sanctioning MMA as an official sport with rules and weight classes, and professional MMA has gained a large following among men ages 18 to 34.
Josh Boyd, the pastor of Fight Church Las Vegas, said MMA culture permeates the city: “We’re kind of in this bubble of MMA culture. It’s on every taxi, every billboard, every bar advertisement.”
After moving his family from Indiana to Las Vegas to pastor Fight Church, Boyd began walking into MMA gyms to let fighters and coaches know he was a Christian chaplain. “Everyone was very accepting of what we were doing,” he said. “Guys who are kind of rough around the edges welcomed us with open arms. It confirmed what the Lord was doing.”
Some of the high-profile men inside the cage profess Christ, including Jon Jones, Vitor Belfort, and Michael Chandler.
Chandler, named 2011’s breakthrough fighter by MMA website Sherdog.com and ranked 10th in the lightweight division, considers MMA a God-given platform that allows him to share his faith not just with other fighters, but also with everyone who looks up to him as a professional athlete.
“Everybody who sees me fight knows I’m a Christian,” Chandler said. “I’m glorifying God in the cage.”
But because of moves like the hammerfist, which buries a grounded opponent with a barrage of short-range punches, and the guillotine choke, which locks an opponent’s head and then lifts him up to cut off the airway, some Christians take a dim view of MMA.
“[Fight Church] gets a lot of criticism from Christians,” said Boyd. “They perceive MMA as being barbaric and primitive, and they don’t see it as a legitimate sport.”
Modern MMA has a strict set of rules, like no groin attacks, eye gouging, or launching an opponent outside the ring or cage. Statistically, MMA is safer than sports like boxing and football. The fighters themselves are elite athletes, coming from backgrounds as Division I college wrestlers, champion martial artists, or Olympians. “MMA is a way for professional athletes to push themselves to the ultimate level in martial arts,” said Roberts.
That’s not to say that MMA isn’t violent, because it is: “There is blood, we bleed on each other, and sometimes bones get broken,” said Chandler. “But that’s the nature of the beast. That’s the nature of the sport.”
Dr. Adam P. Groza, an adjunct professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, argued in a column published in 2010 that MMA amounts to violence porn: “Violence for violence’s sake, as opposed to instrumental or redeeming violence, desensitizes the viewer to the graphic horror of watching two people pummel each other for the sake of entertainment.”
But Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll disagrees: “If MMA were a sin, we would need to bring up for church discipline every wrestler, American and Australian-rules football player, rugby player, and hockey player, along with everyone who is involved in combat sports.”
Chandler urges Christians to have an open mind when evaluating MMA.
“As Christians we need to be finding the platforms that reach the most people. MMA is the fastest growing sport on the planet,” he said. “I know that God put me on this earth to be a champion MMA fighter.”