The rise over the past 20 years of mixed martial arts as a spectator sport would look odd to an observer from the 1950s. It's an unarmed gladiator spectacle, something that would have felt out of place when people were supposed to rein in their individualistic competitive instincts. Even boxing went through a lull during the mid-century, didn't pick up again until the '70s, and reached the status of a bloodsport spectacle only during the '80s (most memorably with Mike Tyson).
At first that looks like it tracks the violent crime rate, yet gladiator-style entertainment has only increased since the '90s -- not only with mixed martial arts, but also popular video game franchises like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat.
If the '40s through the '60s group together against the '80s through the 2000s, then it doesn't reflect the cocooning-and-crime cycle but rather the status-striving-and-inequality cycle as described in Peter Turchin's work.
What is it about a climate of rising status competition that brings out a taste for such entertainment in the public? It looks like a reflection of the prevailing moral code, which is to do whatever it takes to get ahead and to never be satisfied with what you've got. You can always climb one rung higher on the status ladder, if you don't mind stepping on one more skull to get there.
Status-striving has neither a moral basis nor a larger goal which motivates the action. Higher and higher status is glorified and pursued as an end in itself. (Rationalizations abound, as usual, but we're interested in what people think and feel in reality, not hypothetically.) That's what distinguishes gladiator entertainment from other forms that look like combat.
Football at least has team vs. team behavior (although even there it's getting more self-promoting and show-boating), and professional wrastlin' has both a (flimsy) narrative or dramatic arc along with age-old moral motives such as avenging a betrayal. A normal person watching along can easily understand why these two guys are trading blows, which is blunted by being staged.
Viewers tune into the UFC to watch two guys try to beat the shit out of each other, hopefully with blood spilled onto the mat and no stoppages by the party-pooping ref. The combatants are more skilled and tactical than the ghetto thugs on World Star Hip Hop, but it still looks like a physical version of debate club, where the purpose is to skewer the other side in a debate for its own sake -- not to achieve greater understanding of the topic, to defend their honor after having been slandered by the other side, etc. Just pointless individualistic competition and self-promotion.
Bullying can serve a larger pro-social function -- yet we're supposed to discourage bullying. Is it because there's a point? Like some tranny trying to scandalize his high school, and some guy kicking his ass so he'll stop polluting the social atmosphere -- evil. But one guy elbowing another guy's face for no reason other than to win status points and money -- good (or at least permissible).
Community defense -- Us vs. Them -- is pro-social. Why don't we see the UFC fans beating back the black punks responsible for the knockout game? Shit, they're only 13 years old -- wouldn't be hard for a posse of fit 20-something white dudes to go out on patrol, whether to just stare them down as a warning, or go with the "best defense is a good offense" strategy and give blacks a taste of their own knockout game medicine. Italians in the New York area used to do that off-and-on back in the '80s, but now they're more obsessed with Jersey Shore-style show-boating.
Perhaps a casual interest in practicing mixed martial arts serves to train you for the dog-eat-dog world that we live in these days. But we're not talking about what hobbies a handful of people practice, but the entertainment spectacles that so many are fascinated by, and that owners and promoters go to such lengths to hype up.
There's a conspicuous consumption angle to bloodsports as well, since they're typically held in larger-than-life venues like Caesars Palace in the '80s or Mandalay Bay today, commanding high ticket prices, and often with celebrities in attendance. Elites compete against each other to see whose casino or arena can stage the most spectacular fight night. That's also true for team spectator sports (the most ostentatious being the Super Bowl), and was not seen during mid-century or even 1960s football culture, when the national anthem was sung by military bands rather than pop music celebrities.
Widening inequality is not just a result of the top soaring, but of the bottom sinking. And it's not only about money, but health and quality of life, as well as feeling part of a strong community. Once you look beyond money, it turns out that there is no "floor" on the status pyramid -- that it's hovering over a bottomless pit. If you thought it was bad seeing the poor get poorer, you ain't seen nothin' yet. Degradation and corrosion know no depths.
Related: A post on hazing as a form of elite in-fighting rather than solidarity building.