A social club in England narrowly retained its operating license last week after letting minors as young as eight compete in mixed martial arts (MMA).
The U.K.'s Guardian reported that The Greenlands Labour Club in Preston, Lancashire, drew the ire of concerned citizens when it featured a MMA bout between two youngsters on a September fight card. Video of the match outraged viewers, and they quickly pressed the Preston City Council to review the Club's license.
"This example of cage fighting among young children is particularly disturbing, especially as they are not even wearing head guards," a spokesperson for the British Medical Association (BMA) told The Guardian after the match.
"Boxing and cage fighting are sometimes defended on the grounds that children learn to work through their aggression with discipline and control," the spokesman continued. "The BMA believes there are many other sports, such as athletics, swimming, judo and football which require discipline but do not pose the same threat of brain injury."
MMA is a fast-growing sport that sanctions competitions between fighting styles as diverse as karate, jiu-jitsu, wrestling and kickboxing under a unified set of rules. Fighters can use one or more style in an attempt to defeat their opponent via point scoring, knockout or submission. It's best known through the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a group that doesn't allow underage competitions on its television or pay-per-view fight cards.
Steven Nightingale, a professional mixed martial artist who runs Preston's Reps MMA gym, told The Guardian that under proper regulation youth MMA bouts are safe and self-improving for children involved in them. A gym like his own, he said, worked hard at ensuring the health of its younger fighters.
"The kids are not getting hit or anything at all when they are underage," he said, noting the Labour Club clash allowed only grappling but no striking. "We do not let them strike – punch or kick – until the age of 14 or 15."
Others quickly condemned the event as organized barbarism. Writing for The PostGame, Martin Rogers criticized parents who let their children participate in MMA before they left minor status.
"Youth sports are a wonderful thing and learning how to compete and strive for victory is one of their more positive elements," he wrote. "The loser of a MMA fight has been defeated, physically, by another child, and in this case, while a crowd voices its approval. Apart from any physical damage, psychological aspect of such an outcome is far more severe than a bunch of Little League strikeouts or a missed penalty kick."
Michelle Anderson, the Labour Club's owner, defended the bouts as sanctioned matches between trained youngsters watched by their attending parents. Citing the legality of the event, she said she applauded the Preston City Council's decision to let her club keep its license.
"There was only one fight for kids, which was a demonstration fight," Anderson told the BBC. "The other fights were for adults."
The Preston City Council is allowing the Labour Club to keep featuring children's bouts provided it gives 21 days notice when the participants are ten or younger. The Lancashire Police Department, meanwhile, found no criminal wrongdoing in the event. The Club maintains it will keep holding such fight cards in the future.
"We are very pleased with this decision," Anderson said of the Council's judgment call. "They have confirmed that we can hold similar events in the near future which promote healthy sporting events in the city."