Kids fighting is punch to gut

August 06, 2008

There are times when ESPN is so depressing you want to throw yourself off a cliff.

It's depressing to hear about another ballplayer signing a 10-year contract for $160 million when we have cops, teachers and social workers so terribly underpaid. It's depressing to hear another interview with another pampered superstar who thinks the world revolves around him and his tricked-out Hummer and his 14,000-square-foot mansion.

It's depressing to watch another high-profile athlete being carted off to jail for doing drugs, beating up his girlfriend, brawling at a strip joint, etc.

But the other day, ESPN was even more depressing than usual.

That's because its Outside the Lines show did a segment on kids taking up mixed-martial arts, drawn by the popularity of TV shows like Ultimate Fighting Championship.

In case you're not familiar with it, mixed-martial arts is fighting where almost anything goes.

Punching, kicking, elbowing your opponent, kneeing him in the head - hey, that's just another fun night in UFC.

Think of it as a street fight, only without the chains and tire irons.

OK, it's not like there are no rules at all.

For instance, the killjoys at UFC discourage head-butting, eye-gouging, hair-pulling and groin-striking.

And as the UFC's Web site delicately puts it, "putting a finger into any orifice or into any cut or laceration" will result in a foul.

(I don't know ... if you need to institute rules about groin-striking and fingers in orifices, isn't that a sign that things might be getting a little out of control?)

Well, say UFC supporters, this isn't a tea party. It's a violent sport.

Which is why it attracts millions of viewers, mostly from the demographic of young, Bud Light-swilling males who like to see a little head-busting and blood-gushing when the NFL is out of season.

That's why Sen. John McCain got it exactly right when he called mixed-martial arts "human cockfighting" and called for banning the adult version in all 50 states.

After watching this Outside the Lines piece, most sane people would be all for banning the kid version, too.

Throughout the piece, we saw videos of kids, some as young as 6, whaling away at each other in various gyms around the country.

We saw kids crying after being punched in the face. We saw kids yelping while being pummeled in the chest.

We saw kids kicking one another and being slammed to the mat head-first.

We saw an interview with Eddy Millis, a former Special Forces soldier who teaches mixed-martial arts at a California gym called the Shark Tank and thinks there's nothing wrong with little kids pounding on each other.

"This is just like you see on TV," he said, "minus the elbows and kicks to the head."

Wonderful.

And we saw interviews with the mothers of two young fighters, who said, in effect: "Sure, I'm worried about little Johnny getting the daylights punched out of him. But, you know, this is something he really wants to do."

Oh, it made you want to scream.

It made you wonder what some of these idiot parents could be thinking - or if they're even thinking at all.

Thankfully, some voices of reason were also heard in the Outside the Lines piece.

A pediatrician named Paul Stricker expressed shock at the aggression and brutality displayed by some of the kids in the videos, saying, "That's not considered normal child development."

"They don't innately think about beating up another child," he continued. "They have to be taught those things."

Stricker also ticked off the various ways kids could get hurt ("neck injuries, head injuries, fractures, ligament injuries") in these Lord of the Flies moments of child savagery.

And a man named Luis Gutierrez, who teaches a far more restrained and compassionate form of mixed-martial arts in Florida, watched the videos of kids beating each other while being cheered on by adults and immediately labeled it "child abuse."

"If there's a neck broken," he said after seeing one boy slam another to the mat head-first, "maybe it'll get on the news and that'll be the end of it."

Or maybe not.

Both Millis and Gutierrez say the demand for mixed-martial arts instruction for kids will continue to rise. UFC has made big stars out of many of its fighters. Kids see this. So many of them want a taste of that celebrity.

But it's Gutierrez, after watching another grainy video of a pint-sized kid raining down punches on another kid, who asks the pertinent question.

"As a society," he says, "why are we doing this?"

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

Online

To see a video of kids learning and practicing mixed-martial arts, go to baltimoresun.com/mnapractice

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