By Marshall Putnam – Thompson Rivers University 3L JD Student
Back in April 2015, a strange development occurred in the Russian M-1 Mixed Martial Arts (“MMA”) league. The league, in an effort to test audience reception, introduced medieval style fighting into the MMA arena. Rather than your typical MMA fight where two shirtless combatants pummel each other using punches and kicks, the combatants in this arena wore full body armor equipped with blunted swords and shields. The result: a gladiatorial battle between two knights reminiscent of Game of Thrones.
The audience loved it, spurring the M-1 president to state they would pursue developing it into a full league with separate weight categories, provided they find enough fighters. Although this can be dismissed as a mere publicity stunt, it does pose a serious legal question: can weapons be added into MMA fighting leagues?
In some ways, the addition of weapons seems like a natural development in MMA leagues. After all, martial arts has a rich history of incorporating weapons. For example, the Eskrima style of martial arts is the national sport of the Philippines, and is known for emphasizing weapons-based fighting styles with weapons such as sticks, chained-sticks, knives, and daggers. The obvious issue presented by weapons, even blunted weapons, is the substantially increased likelihood of combatants causing serious bodily harm to each other.
The legality of combatants attacking each other with weapons may appear trivial in some regards. The obvious argument is that the fighters have already consented to engage in a fight, and with or without weapons, there is a risk of either fighter causing bodily harm to the other. The law has already contemplated this possibility, and deemed it legal in the circumstances. From this perspective, the legality itself of engaging in an organized fight has not changed. The only tangible difference is the manner in which combatants are permitted to harm each other; before they were limited to the natural extensions of their body (fists and feet), and now they would be permitted an unnatural extension of their body, i.e. a weapon.
The legal issue arises in the fact that the criminality behind inflicting an assault is increased when a weapon is added. Proof of this claim is found Canada’s Criminal Code, as there is a provision for basic assault (section 266) and another provision altogether for assault with a weapon causing bodily harm (section 267). The difference between the two provisions is that assault with a weapon bears a substantially higher period of incarceration of up to ten years. As it stands in Canada, inflicting an assault using a weapon outside the organized sport arena is treated markedly more severe.
If the MMA arena of sport functions as a shield protecting the combatants from criminal liability when assaulting each other without the use of a weapon, can this shield be extended to protect against criminal liability arising from assault with a weapon? There is evidence supporting the conclusion that it just might.
Consider fencing for instance. Fencing is a recognized sport where the combatants use swords against each other. A fencing sword is modified with the addition of a circular tip to prevent it from inflicting serious bodily harm, and is considerably light-weight. The combatants also wear protective gear, notably around their face, as an added precaution against receiving serious bodily harm. This suggests that combatants may use weapons against each other in an organized fight provided adequate precaution has been taken.
It follows that the legality of introducing weapons into MMA leagues likely hinges on the ability for the coordinators to prevent the likelihood of combatants inflicting and suffering serious bodily harm. In the Russian M-1 league the combatants used heavy-weight blunted swords. In an effort to nullify the increased likelihood of inflicting serious bodily-harm, the fighters wore full armor plating. There is a balancing act of ensuring the increased probability of inflicting serious bodily harm is countered by incorporating equally serious preventative measures.
Ultimately, the legality of introducing weapons into MMA leagues would likely come down to the ability of organizers to convince the courts that the safety precautions taken adequately address the increased ability for combatants to inflict serious bodily harm. Time will tell if MMA leagues opt to introduce weapon-based martial arts, likely following a profit versus risk-assessment. In the end, the fights themselves would surely be as entertaining as any legal battle that may ensue.