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The History of MMA

By on December 26, 2009

Wanderlei Silva vs. Chuck LiddellLast time, we talked about the organizations of MMA in a sort of beginner’s guide to the sport.  This time, we’ll go over the major events in the history of MMA itself.  Of course, there’s no way we could touch upon everything that’s happened in this great sport in one article, but this will be a good way for newcomers and established fight fans alike to brush up on the story of mixed martial arts.

MMA’s Roots: Ancient Greece and Beyond

The roots of MMA are often traced way back to 648 BC, when pankration was introduced as an Olympic sport in Ancient Greece.  Pankration was notable for featuring punches, kicks, wrestling and submissions all together as one method of combat, and fighters could win by submission even in those days.

PankrationOf course, you can also take a lot of modern MMA from other sources, as well.  Bruce Lee, though most famous for being an actor, was a serious life-long martial artist who believed in combining many effective styles to find an ideal, ever-evolving unique martial art.  This emphasis on function and effectiveness over tradition and marriage to one style provided a philosophical basis for the way that mixed martial artists train today.  Also, MMA would not be what it is without the evolution of boxing, wresting, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and traditional martial arts like tae kwon do, karate, kung fu and many more.

The UFC and Pancrase

In the United States, the first group to represent competition between fighting styles in an organized fashion was the Ultimate Fighting Championship (founded in 1993).  Although today the UFC is the flagship promotion of the sport, in the early days there was no emphasis on the combination of many techniques.  Instead, a roster made almost completely of single art-based competitors faced off to supposedly find out which art was the best.

Gracie vs. JimmersonIn fact, one of the main motivations of Rorion Gracie’s involvement with the formation of the tournament-style competition was to push Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.  The Gracie family chose Royce Gracie to represent the family not because he was the best competitor they had to offer (many think that honor belonged to Rickson Gracie), but because he was of small stature an had an non-intimidating appearance.  The Gracies knew that the sight of a 6 foot tall, 180 pound man taking much bigger (and scarier) opponents to the ground and making them submit would be a powerful image to use in advertising their family’s art.

In time, though, competitors realize that they must combine techniques from other arts to supplement their basis in their arts of specialty, or they would never be successful in the competition.  Strikers learned jiu-jitsu and wrestling to keep the fights standing or defend themselves on the ground, and grapplers learned striking to round out their arsenals.  This well-roundedness was first embodied by Ken Shamrock, who came to the UFC as an undefeated fighter from the Pancrase organization in Japan, which was another important predecessor to modern MMA.

Bas Rutten vs. Frank ShamrockPancrase (also formed in 1993) was in many ways the antithesis of MMA, with an emphasis on showmanship and technical superiority instead of violence and few rules.  For instance, Pancrase allowed striking, but you could only strike with open hands and kicks, not closed fists.  Also, fighters competed in a boxing-style ring, and could escape submissions by grabbing the ropes (just like in the WWE).  However, the mix of limited striking and explosive grappling matchups gave the sport many a star, including both Shamrock brothers, Bas Rutten, Josh Barnett, Nate Marquardt, and more.

Controversy and a New Competitor for the UFC

The UFC was slowly evolving, with top competitors being taken out of tournaments and put into “superfights”, and other aspects such as time limits and judges’ decisions being put into play.  However, for many, the sport did not evolve quickly enough.  Senator John McCain spear-headed a campaign to ban the sport, and many, seeing only the violence and chaos that had been marketed by SEG (the UFC’s owners), were quick to join him.  The result was many cable companies dropping the events from pay-per-view, and 36 states banning what they called “no holds barred” competitions.

Dana White and FertittasTherefore, SEG started instituting weight classes, rounds and other precautions, including more extensive rules and the requirement of wearing gloves for all competitors.  These efforts seemed to make little difference to the public perception of the sport, though, and may have turned off many who simply wanted a violent spectacle and no longer felt that they were getting it.  In 2001, SEG sold the company to Zuffa, a group formed by Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta along with Dana White, who would become president of the company.  While Zuffa did a lot of work to get the sport sanctioned by athletic commissions (including Nevada, which was vital), the myth that Zuffa made all of the changes and that SEG had nothing to do with reforming the sport in the U.S. is false, though it continues to be reported that way in the mainstream media to this day.

Meanwhile, a new era had begun in Japan.  In 1997, Pride Fighting Championships was born, with rules similar to the UFC and a roster that included fighters popular with Japanese fans and former UFC competitors alike.  With the ability to fill huge arenas (the first event attracted an amazing 47,000 spectators), the company could afford to pay UFC stars like Ken Shamrock, Gary Goodridge, Mark Kerr, Mark Coleman and others much more than SEG (and later, Zuffa) could at the time.  Even as the UFC began to grow quickly after the Zuffa purchase, many fans stateside remained loyal Pride fans, as the talent-packed roster and dynamic action featuring kicks and knees to the heads of grounded opponents, as well as dramatic presentation elements that were typical of Japanese events continued to win them over.

Wanderlei Silva vs. Rampage JacksonPride still has many MMA records, including the record for the greatest attendance of a live MMA event, with over 70,000 strong turning out for their co-promotion with K-1 in August of 2002.  Pride would follow the UFC’s path, instituting weight classes (though only featuring three to the UFC’s five), and would feature many of the world’s top fighters up until the organization fell to the wayside.  In 2007, things went south quickly, as alleged ties between DSE (the group that owned Pride) and the Japanese mafia, along with the loss of network television coverage of Pride events doomed the organization to failure.  DSE would eventually sell the promotion to Zuffa, who talked of operating Pride as a separate entity (with periodic “super-card” events between the two organizations), but instead did not do so and merely absorbed many of the fighters into the UFC.

“The Ultimate Fighter” and Post-Pride MMA

One of the reasons that the UFC could afford to purchase Pride (and that Pride tried hard to find footing in the U.S. near the end of the company’s existence) was the explosion of MMA’s popularity due to “The Ultimate Fighter”.  As most know, the UFC made a television deal with basic cable network Spike TV to broadcast UFC programming, which led to the reality show debuting in 2005.  Broadcasting after WWE’s “Monday Night Raw” wrestling show, “The Ultimate Fighter” was an immediate hit that featured taped fights from the show each week, as well as a live finale that featured the all-time classic bout between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar for the show’s light heavyweight contract.  Since then, Spike TV has aired multiple live events for the UFC, as well as ten total seasons of the reality show.

Bonnar vs. GriffinMeanwhile, numerous events have sprung up and then folded after making brief attempts to challenge the UFC as the world’s biggest event.  These organizations include EliteXC, Bodog Fight, Affliction, the International Fight League, and more.  However, there are many viable promotions in existence these days, such as Strikeforce, Dream, Sengoku, World Extreme Cagefighting (also owned by Zuffa), and more.  Local promotions all around the world help out by allowing fans to get an up-close look at the sport and fighters to get their start at a smaller level, as well.

The mixed martial artist these days is almost unrecognizable in comparison to the brave, but motley crew that composed the early UFC lineups.  Today’s top-notch fighters eat and train like Olympic-level athletes, work in many different disciplines by training among those that are better than them in various areas, and are skilled in promoting the sport through the media, as well.  Increased fight purses in top organizations have also attracted higher level athletes to the sport, where in past years, the only great athletes who were attracted to MMA were amateur wrestlers who had no real way to earn a living in their former discipline.

GSP vs. PennThese days, the sport itself continues to evolve as the fighters do, with constant tweaks to rules and judging, along with new states and countries featuring the sport each year.  MMA has become a truly worldwide sport, and the increase in participation by young kids in sports like Brazilian jiu-jitsu, wrestling and traditional martial arts will undoubtedly lead to even more talented crops of MMA athletes in the years to come.  While there is a good deal of history already written in MMA (with far too much to cover here in this brief article), there is still much yet to happen in the world’s fastest growing sport.

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