Michelle Waterson secures a rear choke submission against Paige VanZant in a women’s strawweight bout in 2016.

Global popularity and an ancient pedigree make MMA a sensible fit for today’s Olympics. The reasons why it’s not even being considered – too violent? too popular? – are less clear

Gatekeepers charged with determining which sports can qualify for the Olympic programme say they carefully considered mixed martial arts before concluding this month that it isn’t the appropriate time to recognize a worldwide governing body for amateur MMA.

The Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF), the umbrella organization for all established sports, informed the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation and the World Mixed Martial Arts Association that one of the oldest sports known to man, popular with spectators as far back as the Ancient Olympic Games (as pankration) and modern audiences alike, would not be granted a two-year provisional term supporting and guiding international federations on the path towards full GAISF membership, a prerequisite for consideration by the International Olympic Committee.

The denial of “observer status” on 4 February, baffled IMMAF chief executive Densign White, who claimed that he and his constituents “have been blocked, there’s no two ways about that”.

While international federations that govern dodgeball, footgolf, kettlebell lifting, match poker, pole sports, foosball, rugby, padel, competitive jump rope and landsailing have been nominated for observer status, the decision against including MMA in that group told White and the stakeholders he represents that GAISF are “not even going to take the risk that we’re going to get to the starting line. The whole thing is anti-democratic. It’s not transparent. They’re not accountable to anybody.”

Philippe Gueisbuhler, the GAISF director, declined to publicly comment on reasons for any decision involving membership applications, nor would he address White’s criticisms through the media. Gueisbuhler, however, pledged to continue a “constructive dialogue” between GAISF and the nascent MMA federation.

White suggested that delaying the timetable for establishing a world governing body empowered with the authority to regulate amateur MMA only exposes an inherently dangerous sport to negative outcomes at the grassroots level.

“We’re getting all these walls put up in front of us stopping us from gaining any recognition that will allow us to actually regulate the sport properly,” White said. “We are a long way from getting IOC recognition, but GAISF recognition would actually give the sport credibility.”

The IMMAF launched in 2012 with the support of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the sport’s largest promotion, in a partnership that continues to this day. That same year a Russian group created by the nation’s most successful professional MMA promoter, Vadim Finkelstein, who boasts heavyweight great Fedor Emelianenko as a figurehead at the behest of a supportive Vladimir Putin, declared its intention to gain international recognition for MMA.

Heavyweight great Fedor Emelianenko and Russian president Vladimir Putin have both campaigned. for international recognition for MMA.

World championships for MMA began in 2014. Last year the IMMAF-WMMAA held its first junior championships for competitors aged 18 to 20. And in 2019, they introduced cadet competitions for competitors ranging from 12 to 17.

Like any international sports federation recognized by GAISF, IMMAF-WMMAA aims to standardize rules and regulations, ensuring structures are in place to monitor the health and safety of participants as a signatory to World Anti-Doping Agency code (which IMMAF-WMMAA is litigating in a Swiss court), improving the quality of licensed referees and judges, developing qualifications for coaches, creating competitor rankings, and, eventually, producing world champions and Olympians whose pedigree would be valuable in the professional ranks.

Nationwide bans on MMA in France and Norway, and discussions of something similar in Ireland following the death of a fighter last year, are evidence of why GAISF’s recognition is crucial, otherwise White said global regulation of MMA at the amateur level will continue to be administered by “a lion without teeth”.

“MMA cannot afford to have headlines that talk about people dying,” White said. “Whatever happens in the world will have a knock-on effect on everyone else around the world. It’s not just isolated to where it happens. It can reverberate. That’s why the work we’re doing is so important. It’s important to the professional promotions as well. They’re not immune. The consequences of a ban will impact their business.”

Often the highest hurdle for federations seeking to join GAISF is recognition at the local level from either a National Olympic Committee or a country’s chief sports authority. IMMAF-WMMAA claims 35 of its 85 member federations are recognized this way (they would need at least 40 to be eligible to apply for full membership). The threshold for receiving observer status is statutorily less stringent. GAISF observer applicants must show examples of good governance (e.g. audited accounts, minutes of general assemblies, information on elections, directors gender balance, youth development) and justify why they are not a rival in conflict with member federations.

Six of the GAISF-recognized combat sports are scheduled to appear at the 2020 Games in Tokyo, and will be eligible to receive pieces of the lucrative Olympic revenue pie. The IOC distributed $540m to the international federations whose sports were active during the 2016 Games in Rio.

Thus far none of GAISF’s martial arts and combat sports federations – aikido, boxing, fencing, judo, ju-jitsu, karate, kendo, kickboxing, Muay Thai, Pankration, sambo, savate, sumo, taekwondo, wrestling and wushu – have made a formal rivalry claim against MMA’s bid, according to the IMMAF-WMMAA, however behind the scenes White said several members have mentioned the possibility.

“The only rivalry that GAISF has ever brought to our attention was between ourselves and the WMMAA,” White said. “We were told without resolving this we could not become a member.”

The affiliated groups now operate under one calendar and will host a joint world championship in Bahrain this November, at which time the federation’s quadrennial ordinary general assembly is set to take place.

Behind closed doors, objections to MMA have also postured a core element of the sport – striking on the floor – as contra to the spirit of Olympic movement.

White said critics inside GAISF told him that the violence produced by MMA contests can be addressed by eliminating its ground-and-pound component – a true differentiator relative to other combat sports – and could clear the road to recognition.

But considering that MMA effectively morphed into a unique martial arts style that is rooted in the techniques of an assortment of combat sports, White called the request “a trap”, suggesting of that if IMMAF-WMMAA complies existing GAISF members “will have a rivalry argument”, never mind that the sport simply won’t function like MMA anymore.

Over the past three years as IMMAF-WMMAA participated in the application process, including numerous workshops and discussions, White also heard about the supposed risk MMA might pose of siphoning off athletes from other sports.

“There is a fear, I believe, that MMA is growing too quickly and I think they’re concerned about the commercial impact it’s going to have on them,” White said. “They may even be concerned that it may hinder their entry into the Olympic Games programme. Some of these sports have been waiting for years. Their perception may be that MMA has gotten too popular and there is a risk here that MMA gets recognized and jumps ahead of us to the Olympic Games.”

This would be ironic considering that as professional MMA was endangered by political forces in the mid-to-late 1990s, proponents, especially in the US, often likened MMA’s action to what it would look like if the IOC-approved combat sports were combined. The idea was to assuage detractors that there was nothing indecent or morally suspect about a sport that despite its troubles continued to generate interest across the globe.