The Science Behind Why Combat Sports Are So Popular

Combat sports, such as MMA (mixed martial arts) and boxing, have exploded in popularity over the past few years. From the KSI vs Logan Paul fight saga to the recent Mike Tyson vs Roy Jones Jr. exhibition match, combat sports have become a booming form of entertainment with an ever-expanding fanbase. 

Hence, this phenomenon raises many questions. What compels us to gleefully cheer on a fighter as he pummels an opponent? Are there any psychological or biological benefits to watching combat sports, aside from them simply being fun to watch?

Winning makes you feel good

Have you ever felt that sense of euphoria when winning a competition, as if you’re on top of the world? There are three hormones, namely dopamine, serotonin and testosterone, that are responsible for this. Dopamine and serotonin are the ‘happy’ hormones responsible for making you feel a sense of accomplishment when doing rewarding activities. Testosterone increases competitiveness, builds muscle mass and burns fat. The combination of these three hormones therefore contributes to the fighters’ drive to win.

Interestingly, winning biologically affects spectators as well as players. Researchers from the University of Utah carried out a study and observed two groups of basketball fans supporting different teams during a game; the winning team’s supporters produced more testosterone while the losing team produced less. Researchers observed the same effect among football fans during a World Cup match.

Aggression itself is rewarding

A reason why fighters and fans alike find combat sports so captivating is that aggression itself is biologically rewarding due to the dopamine production by the body. Have you ever gotten into a fight and felt a surge of joy after you’ve tackled someone to the floor and put him in a triangle choke?

Sorry, must be the aggression kicking in. For legal reasons, please do this only in a dojo or some other controlled setting.

Anyway, this was concluded in an experiment done by researchers at Vanderbilt University, Tennessee. In this experiment, a male and a female mouse were kept in a cage together. When the female mouse was taken away and an uninvited mouse put in its place, the male mouse began to act aggressively by biting and boxing. To determine whether the male mouse found the experience rewarding, the researchers would put a new uninvited mouse in the cage whenever the mouse poked a certain target with its nose. Obviously, the mouse wouldn’t want to fight, right? Nope. The mouse poked the target multiple times and fought the uninvited mice who dared to face it. This demonstrates that being aggressive in itself was rewarding to the mouse.

Sports boost self-worth

Lastly, fans enjoy sports and support certain fighters because it helps cement a social identity and improves their self-esteem. There are studies to prove this, including one done by Edward Hirt. In this study, subjects first watched a live basketball game and then predicted how well they would perform at a set of various tasks. The subjects’ predictions were more positive if their team had won, compared to the subjects whose team had lost. 

Furthermore, being in a group with other fans who support the same fighter increases individual and group self-esteem, making one feel happier and more at ease. Finally, fans enjoy combat sports because they identify with the fighters themselves for reasons other than fighting prowess. For example, Khabib Nurmagomedov garners a lot of Muslim and Russian support due to a sense of relatability, apart from his lethal skill. Fighters like him, who people can personally relate with, possess a magnetism that is difficult to resist.

By Luqmanul Hakeem Bin Qhaireel Anwar