What’s the difference between physical assault and a prizefight? Consent. To so casually dismiss combat sports such as MMA (mixed martial arts) and boxing as being no different than a street assault is to miss the significance of consent entirely. Consent isn’t about the outcome; it’s about the process of the outcome. This knee-jerk bias against combat sports, however, is no different than how people once reacted to tattoos, extreme performance art, and BDSM. (For many, perhaps this is still the reaction).
Consensual fighting, in legal and historical terms, is known as mutual combat and perhaps predates any written history. In spite of what the UFC would like you to believe, it is in mutual combat that the origins of prizefighting begins and not from the forced fighting of slaves and prisoners in the Roman coliseum. This, however, does not mean the practice of forcing prisoners to fight for entertainment and profit ended with the Romans.
Wrestling and early boxing existed as sports prior to the Roman gladiators, with cave drawings that go back over 15,000 years. There are Egyptian sculptures with depictions of boxers and spectators that go back to c. 1350 BCE. Wrestling was added to the ancient Olympics in 708 BCE and boxing in 688 BCE.
Then came the Roman gladiator period (105 BCE to 404 CE); this is where the sport of mutual combat nearly died. The forced fighting of slaves and prisoners in the coliseum replaced mutual combat as a spectator event. Then the lack of consent became synonymous with spectator combat. When the Roman government eventually abandoned this practice, the people no longer wanted any part of it, either. Spectator combat’s association with cruelty was too strong, and eventually, even the sport of boxing was abolished in 393 CE.
Romans knew the barbaric gladiator fights (which is what it’s still called by prison guards when they force inmates to fight) were wrong. Just as in the founding of the United States, people knew slavery was wrong. When you purposely rob people of their freedom, it leaves a legacy of suffering and shame. In the case of mutual combat, not because of similarities in principles, but because of visual similarities, prizefighting disappeared into the annals of history along with the gladiators.
Like any beacon of freedom, it never completely went away. It existed in pockets, in whispers, eventually resurfacing in London during the late 16th century (over a thousand years later). What was once seen as an extension of slavery, became a new sort of freedom. The freedom to fight if one chose to do so. This is when prizefighting also began to have monetary prizes and championships (designated by the people involved, rather than the government or ruling class). Becoming a fighter was no longer something you were born into; it was something you could choose to become.
In 1743, Broughton’s rules were instituted (not by law or force, all voluntarily), which included gloves, no hitting of a downed opponent, and if one couldn’t get up within 30 seconds, the fight was over. Even if one consented to the match, if it appears you are no longer in a rational mental state, others could intervene on your behalf. One could also take a knee to withdraw your own consent. One was free to say yes, but also free to change one’s mind. It was understood even then that consent was not a fixed event but a living agreement. Let me repeat that—even in 1700s boxing, it was understood that a person could consent but also have the personal autonomy to change their mind. Yet even today, this same concept is hard to understand with regards to sex and personal autonomy.
The evolution of consent ethics in prizefighting didn’t end here. In 1867, the Marquess of Queensberry rules were published. This introduced weight classes, referees, physicians, and corners—and more importantly, this gave nonparticipants the ability to stop the match. Even if one does consent, it does not mean one always has the soundness to do so. Outside the ring, this concept stands in a stark contract to the laws of many states where the age of consent is 16. Only recently did Las Vegas start cracking down on intoxicated people getting married.
In prizefighting, one has to not only be in a physical and mental state to consent, but to continue to participate, one has to keep consenting. If not, the contest ends. Declaring your consent over and over again like a broken record is an explicit part of the contest, as the referee, doctor, and even the corners will keep asking if you want to continue. An omission is the same as saying no. (A vital part of consent.)
Then came the UFC in 1993. The UFC will tell you its great innovation was the lack of rules. I disagree. As far as consent ethics is concerned, its greatest achievement was the tap out. You could take a knee in boxing or say, “no more,” and the fight would end. But this was considered more of a loophole, not a legitimate way to beat an opponent. Perhaps the most famous example of this was Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Roberto Durán II in 1980, where Duran told the referee, “No más.” This was considered cowardice at the time by both fans and commentators.
In MMA, tapping out is not only seen as honorable but as an essential component of the sport. The unspoken mantra of every MMA fighter is: I choose to do this, and I choose when I’m done. But the unified rules go even further. Verbal submissions, yelling, no response, not fighting back, or if you’re in a submission and you aren’t moving or not physically responsive when the referee touches you, all mean stop. Not only does “no” mean no, but so too, silence or a lack of response. Consent requires an action, but withdrawing consent does not.
The standard ethical rule most of us cite, the golden rule, needs an update because the emphasis is solely on action even at the expense of consent. In 1743, you could no longer punch a downed opponent and in 1867, weight classes were instituted. Today in society, many people still don’t understand, or choose to scoff at, the idea of not “punching down.” When they do so they dismiss the advantage of privilege. Where are our Broughton’s rules? Or even the understanding that rules and norms need constant revision?
On May 26, 2000, Congress enacted The Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, which gave boxers more protection and more autonomy as fighters. This is why so many MMA fighters are asking to go to boxing. More autonomy equals more rights, more transparency, and better pay. Exploitation works, even if there is consent, when the participants don’t know what they were consenting to? Was it under duress?
What runs counter to the “macho” stereotype of prizefighting is its open willingness to change. We as a society should be as open and willing. In fact, we should be better than prizefighting.
However, consent ethics in prizefighting is far from perfect. Prizefighting still lacks unions and collective bargaining rights that are standard in all the other major sports. And in the UFC, athletes are neither employees nor independent contractors—the worst of both worlds. Yet I would argue, the world outside of fighting, our day to day world, has yet to catch up to the standards of consent in prizefighting. If you find prizefighting to be “primitive,” then how primitive are we? Even allies of consent may have a too simplistic definition of consent and autonomy in comparison to what already exists in prizefighting.
Prizefighting has done much of the legwork, if we’re willing to look past the physicality. But the physical stakes are what makes consent that much more vital. The ethics don’t exist in spite of the physicality, but because of the physicality.
Perhaps part of why conceptions of consent improved quickly in prizefighting after its revival compared to elsewhere is because it initially only affected white men. As a spectator sport, everyone saw the consequences. Perhaps this is why in the history of consent, boxers were taking knees in prizefights before African-Americans were given their freedom in the United States. This isn’t an ironic fact, it’s an embarrassment.
“No más” today would no longer be newsworthy because it happens all the time in boxing, it has become an encouraged fixture of the sport. Protect the fighter—we get it. It’s his body—it’s his literal skin in the game, he has the final say. Yet, why is this so hard to understand when it comes to women’s bodies?
Consent is not just about fighting or sex. It’s whenever we don’t take no for an answer, when we ignore someone who asks us to stop. Or when we sense someone wants to say no but they can’t, so we push them. We insist—we have to get our way.
It can be as common as grabbing someone by the arm, or patting someone on the head, or placing our hands on their shoulders without their permission because we know we can. When we take an omission as a “yes.” Regular life can be the opposite of prizefighting in the worst ways.
You might not feel like this a daily occurrence in contemporary life, but understand this is an everyday feeling for many among us. There are women, people of color, and LGBTQ folx where this feeling is the norm. And if they feel this daily, then perhaps it is we who aren’t paying attention. Because it’s not always sex, it’s not always physical violence, so we think that makes it okay. We think that makes it normal. The scenarios may vary, but the rules of consent remain consistent.
The most famous rule of Fight Club is to not talk about Fight Club. But the most important rule, fans of the movie seem to forget, is about consent and the withdrawal of consent. To continue to fight after consent is withdrawn is a violation. And nothing illuminates this better than a fight. It’s why fighting is a convention in movies.
Because fighting is a metaphor. Struggle is in our bones.
Then what is the greatest lesson fighting is trying to teach us? What is the morality tale that we have missed for thousands of years?
That before we understood killing was wrong, or stealing was wrong, perhaps the first thing we learned was making others do something against their will was wrong. And it’s a lesson we keep missing. Rather than the ubiquitous ethical question being about people and trolleys, perhaps it’s more useful to ask ourselves: What’s the difference between physical assault and a prizefight? Because the answer to that should be consistent in all that we do and, more importantly, don’t do. This is why the golden rule is incomplete because it doesn’t account for consent. It’s not only, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” but also, “Don’t do onto others what you don’t want done to you.” Don’t violate autonomy but also be willing to go from bystander to referee.
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