The Smashing Machine is a documentary about Mark Kerr, a professional fighter in the pay per view mixed martial arts (MMA) industry. Mark Kerr himself is a great subject. He weighs in at 105 kg, stands around 6’2″ and for a sport that has more than its fair share of brutish and brutal looking men, outbrutes most of them in appearence and physique. However, he is also intelligent, articulate and expresses himself in such a way that in some scenes, as he has quite a high voice, if you close your eyes you’d think it was Woody Allen on screen.

However, it’s pretty clear very early on that Mark, no matter how nice and sensitive a guy he is in real-life, he is something else entirely in the ring. The documentary showed quite a lot of footage of earlier days minimal rules MMA bouts when head butting, wound and eye gouging and other such techniques were allowed. Mark was very proficient in these techniques. At the end of those bouts, his opponent’s faces often looked like they’d been through a meat-grinder.

I watched Modify earlier that week. It was a film with graphic surgical procedures, lots of blood and a fair amount of footage of people being cut, branded and sliced. A little difficult to sit through but nowhere near as difficult or as confronting as I found many of the fights in The Smashing Machine.

The rules these days for many MMA organisations have been changed so that the early ground-and-pound fighters like Mark Kerr no longer have as much of an advantage. (those interested may want to have a look at the Mixed Martial Arts entry in Wiki). It’s hard to say how much of the rules change resulted in Mark Kerr’s later losses and how much of it was due to his drug, relationship and attendent fitness problems.

But it is still the closest thing to a modern day gladiatorial bloodsport that we have. I’ve always liked the fighting sports and it annoys me that we get so little of it broadcasted during the olympics or whatever other games are around. I find MMA fights having minimal rules as the most compelling of all competitive combat sports. Not just because it allows a large variety of techniques to be used but because having stripped away most of the rules that permit safety and hence style and art to enter the ring, MMA comes closest to what battle really is – an ugly and violent affair.

But surprisingly enough, given my libertarian beliefs and my interests both in combat sports and other more fringe practices, having seen the Smashing Machine I now have ethical reservations on minimal rules combat.

On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with a couple of adults, trained and experienced in their sport, competing in as safe as possible an environment for prize money. It’s not that big a deal that the sport is risky (as mountain climbing or base jumping is) or that one or both of them will get hurt. The two in the ring know the risks, have taken punishment in the past and probably have a close relationship to violence which might otherwise be expressed somewhere else in not quite as sane, safe or consensual an environment. OK, maybe a MMA fighter getting his face beaten in isnt quite as consenting as a submissive getting a nail hammered through his penis, but it is part of the deal, part of the scene so to speak.

So, why these new scruples?

It is because the documentary, in potraying the lows as well as the highs of the sport, shows the raw fear and doubt on the MMA fighters’ faces before they get in the ring, it shows the injuries they sustain, the grief, self-doubt and emotional trauma defeat brings which, being so violent a defeat rather more resembles assault-victim shock than tennis star runnerup tantrums.

And also, the documentary shows that for even the most successful of them, while fame and glory are rewarding, it is primarily the money that pushes them into the ring.

Mark Coleman, who was 36 when he was trying to make a comeback in the documentary puts it pretty clearly “I’m doing it because I have four mouths to feed.”