As the popularity of mixed martial arts (MMA) and the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) continue to skyrocket, the debate as to whether it is sport or glamorized brutality has only grown. Pankration, a version of MMA fighting which has been adapted specifically for children has taken the argument to an entirely new level.
Parents across the United States are sending their sons and daughters by the millions–some as young as five years old–to take part in cage fighting events that conjure images of ancient Sparta and appear to be little more than organized brawls.
Proponents of the ‘sport’ say that the events promote fair play and self-discipline, as well as the ability to learn how to win and lose with grace. They add that before the US childhood obesity epidemic, a little extra exercise can’t hurt too much.
Naturally, critics paint a much more grim picture of it all. Not only are they concerned about the immediate health of the children participating in the brutal sport (some kids don’t wear head protection; others’ gloves feature less than an inch of padding), they’re also worried about its effect on their long term emotional development. Some politicians have gotten involved, too. Senator John McCain has referred to professional MMA as “human cock fighting” and in 2008 wrote letters to the governors of all 50 states asking to have it banned.
New York based-photographer Sebastian Montalvo traveled across the U.S. to document the events, the kids participating in them, and the culture surrounding it. As the project wore on, Montalvo found that the biggest factor driving the growth of the Youth MMA movement is, somewhat unsurprisingly, the parents. “They’re mega-competitive,” Montalvo said. “They love their kids 100% and they just want them to win.”
Chris Conolley, an MMA teacher who owns Spartan Fitness in Hoover, Alabama points out that not all youth MMA training is the same. For example, Conolley says he teaches his students to get in shape and have fun–none of the techniques they learn are used to inflict pain on another person. Said Conolley in an interview, “It’s an outstanding way for them to get in shape, exercise. Childhood obesity now is a big issue…[this can] get them on the right path conducive to fitness.”
That being said, Conolley’s method is more of an exception than a rule. To parents involved in the event, encouraging their children to stay in the ring and see the fight out is a way to teach them valuable lessons about life. To others, it’s little more than Spartan.