Alexander Engelhardt

With the Paris 2024 Olympics around the corner, the quadrennial question is resurfacing: Does MMA have a future in the Olympics, and what would the sport look like in the Games? As President of the organisation working to make this dream a reality – the Global Association of Mixed Martial Arts (GAMMA) - I can partially answer this.

GAMMA is an International Federation for amateur MMA with seventy-two nations as members and we already host international tournaments in the Olympic format around the world. Our defining vision is to achieve Olympic recognition for the sport. Founded in 2018, we are still a young organisation, and we take the long view when it comes to attaining Olympic recognition, which has taken other sports many years. 

Though despite this, we have already made significant progress: This year we secured the inclusion of MMA in the programme as a demonstration sport at the 2023 African Games in Ghana, an event part of the Olympic umbrella. Here, sharing facilities with boxing, wrestling and chess, we showed that MMA has its place alongside other sports, and we attracted significant media attention across Africa.

Action during the GAMMA U18 European Championships. GAMMA
Action during the GAMMA U18 European Championships. GAMMA

So, what does Olympic MMA look like? Amateur MMA rules apply, with techniques such as elbow- and knee -strikes to the head disallowed, to enable athletes to compete daily in the tournament format. However, commensurate with other Olympic sports, professional athletes may compete since the Olympic platform, for us, represents the pinnacle of athletic achievement.

Safety is of course crucial, and athletes must pass medical examinations to progress to the next round of competition. When an athlete is subject to protective medical protocols and unable to compete, then the opponent advances to the next round via "walkover". 

The nature of a tournament leads to far more technical bouts, where athletes seek to limit the impact on the body in order to reach the finals. GAMMA introduced the fenced "MMA Arena" this year as its field-of-play, replacing the traditional modified boxing ring, to reflect the changing perception of the sport among international decision-makers. 

This has been lauded by our members and fans alike, with the "MMA Arena" an identifying feature of the professional promotions. Also, in true Olympic style, GAMMA’s World and Continental tournaments conclude with medals ceremonies, where athletes representing their nations are duly awarded. So, we believe that MMA under GAMMA is already in a good place for recognition. 

We are encouraged too by the Paris Games, which sees the inclusion of new disciplines, such as breaking, skateboarding, surfing and sport climbing. This demonstrates the IOC’s appetite to reflect the tastes of younger audiences and showcase sports that translate well to digital short forms. 

I believe this shift further opens the door to the future, potential inclusion of MMA into the Games programme as a young, dynamic sport that grew over the internet and has grown exponentially since the early nineties.

GAMMA was founded in 2018, but is already in a good place for recognition. GAMMA
GAMMA was founded in 2018, but is already in a good place for recognition. GAMMA

There is of course the formal application process for international sport recognition, which can take a long time. GAMMA is ready, and we are striving to ensure that we excel in all the required areas of sport governance. Our focus is not solely on the global development of MMA from the grassroots up, but more broadly on supporting sport, as part of the ecosystem.

To this end, I am firm believer in collaboration and open communication. With MMA being a new sport it is critical that we are sensitive to developing in the right way. We are too young to be rigidly fixed in our structure. We remain open-minded and flexible in our bid to bring amateur mixed martial arts into the family of international sport. 

There are obstacles of course, and in overcoming these, it is education that paves the way. Not only of GAMMA members (be it national federations, officials, coaches and athletes) for the safe, well-regulated development of the sport, but also of government and sport decision-makers, and the public too. We still have our work cut-out to shift lingering negative perceptions of MMA accrued in its early years. 

It is on us to demonstrate the sport’s tremendous benefits and values, for example, that it is good for kids as shown by the U18s at our recent European Championships for 10-year-olds upwards. It is not all about competition either: The practice of mixed martial arts is great for self-defence; for honing self-discipline and perseverance; for conditioning, fitness and health; and taught correctly, for developing traditional martial arts values such as humility and respect.

GAMMA secured the inclusion of MMA in the programme as a demonstration sport at the 2023 African Games in Ghana. GAMMA
GAMMA secured the inclusion of MMA in the programme as a demonstration sport at the 2023 African Games in Ghana. GAMMA

The name, mixed martial arts, lays the sport open to rivalry claims by other combat and martial arts federations. The name derives from how MMA started, as a televised competition format that pitted different martial arts styles against each other. Though the sport has long since developed into a discipline of its own with its own unique techniques, transitions and monikers under more-or-less universal global rulesets that have been adopted by consensus world over.

It is no longer possible to win a bout through the mastery of just one martial art. Expertise in a combination of skills from across MMA’s composite disciplines is essential, as is artistry in MMA’s unique transitions, ‘arena’ control and distinct aspects of the ground game. That children nowadays train in MMA from scratch in gyms across the world both illustrates this and continues to accelerate the sport’s autonomous development.

Firm in our belief and undeterred by these challenges, we continue our journey for Olympic recognition, always striving for excellence and to uphold the highest values. However, while our vision is to see MMA’s athletes standing one day on the Olympic podium, this is not truly our end goal. 

More crucial is the acceptance that Olympic recognition would bring to MMA: It is recognition that would enable the continued effective safeguarding and governance of our sport, expanding participant and community access to its benefits globally. For GAMMA, this is what will always come first, MMA’s, and indeed sport’s, athletes and participants.