The History Of Mixed Martial Arts

Mixed martial arts is a polarizing
subject, brutal to some beautiful to others. Detractors argue against a lack
of decency while diehards rebute a lack of
understanding. The truth remains that mixed martial arts as an international
billion dollar industry that packs stadiums, floods
pay-per-views and shakes up pop culture but what’s the source of this success? By
understanding the history of mixed martial arts, it becomes clear that this
sport has been immensely popular longer than detractors would admit. The earliest
semblance of mixed martial arts can be traced back to the ancient Greek Olympic
games. The forgotten sport of Pankration pitted two Olympians against
each other in a hybrid form of combat that combined the skills of grappling
and striking. Pankration’s limited rules only prohibited biting or eye gouging
and competitions were won by either knockout or submission. One of the most
popular events for centuries, Pankration was abolished after the Roman disbanding
of the olympics and it would be over a millennium before another competition of
his kind would gained similar popularity. After the dissolution of Pankration, the
individual combat sports of grappling and striking continue to develop
separately. Both amateur boxing and wrestling became flagship events in the
modern Olympic games. Professional boxing resonated throughout Europe in the 1700’s
and professional kickboxing grew in prominence when the Thai version Muay Thai
became the country’s national sport in the early 20th century. Even traditional
martial arts appeared sporadically in the combat sporting arena, including
Karate, Jujitsu, Kungfu, and Taekwondo. However it wasn’t until the growth and
evolution of professional wrestling that hybrid styles of fighting reminiscent of
Pankration began to reemerge on a large scale. Professional wrestling to this day is a highly popular worldwide sport. The early
popularity of professional wrestling started in the United States after the
Civil War. Unlike the choreographed spectacle of
modern professional wrestling, these early competitions drew large crowds
simply by pitting famous strongmen against each other.
The rule set for these competitions revolved around winning by pinning the
opponent, with no strikes and very few submission holds allowed. These rules
eventually change with the introduction of foreign styles of grappling
like Japanese Sumo and Indian Pelwhani, promoting a competition called
no holds barred, a moniker later used in tangent with mixed martial arts.
The term no holds barred originated in local challenge matches and eventually
traveling carnival acts. Carnival strongmen would demonstrate wrestling
moves that not only pinned opponents but also forced them to submit under extreme
pain or threat of injury. These submission holds, many of which
were banned in professional wrestling, became the draw of these carnival acts
advertising that no holds were barred. A large number of these holds came from
an English style of wrestling called catch as catch can. Also known as catch
wrestling, this style heavily emphasized hooking or quickly locking onto a body
joint to called severe pain. Wrestlers proficient in this style, often called
hookers, could end matches quickly despite the size and strength of their opponent,
which made for an enticing carnival attraction. The challenge was made for
all comers to grapple with the wrestler for a certain period of time without
having to submit, a feat very few achieved. Professional wrestling
promoters noticed the popularity of these carnival acts and started bringing
the no holds barred style of fighting to large arenas. They also borrowed the
underhanded practice of worked matches. Also known as work, in these carnival
matches wrestlers intentionally lost to an accomplice known as a ringer and they
lured potential challenges into a false sense of confidence. On a grander
scale professional wrestling promoters used
works to drive box office sales, and they continue to do so today. It was a
departure from these choreographed productions that led to the next
evolution in professional wrestling which evolved into the earliest direct
predecessor to mixed martial arts. Although works started becoming a mainstay in
professional wrestling sometimes competitors will go off script
insinuating a full on brawl. When a match made the sudden shift it was no longer
called a work but a shoot. During shoots, rules were often abandoned
as wrestlers would tried to incapacitate each other with a crippling submission
hold or a knockout. Promoters capitalize on this dramatic change of direction and
choreographed works to look like shoots by adding strikes. This shoot style
eventually became, and still is the standard for professional wrestling.
Actual shoots were few and far between but this newfound interest in striking
and grappling blended fights led to the advent of challenge matches between
wrestlers and boxers sometimes, called anything goes matches. Relegated to small
clubs with the occasional exhibition on a professional fight card, these matches
were novel at best and never caught the lasting eye of a broader audience.
It wasn’t until shoot style wrestling spread outside the United States that
the concept of blended striking and grappling belts would emerge as a
reputable spectator sport. Meanwhile the no holds barred style was making
professional wrestling easier for international collaboration. Wrestlers
trained in foreign styles could compete against each other under the less
prohibitive ruleset. Promoters began advertising world champions as wrestlers
traveled from country to country challenging national champs for the
coveted title. Wrestlers used this international exposure to advertise
their unique styles to worldwide audiences. One style addition to the
international wrestling circuit became pivotal to the development of mixed
martial arts. Japanese Judo practitioners or Judokas began to emerge on the
world wide wrestling scene in the early 20th century. A recently developed style
of Jujitsu, Judo introduced unique pins and submission holds to no holds barred
wrestling, much like catch wrestling did before it. The Judo influence on
professional wrestling can be directly traced to a birthing point in the
history of mixed martial arts when it arrived in Brazil. The international
popularity of professional wrestling combined with the heavy influx of
Japanese migrating to Brazil during the first world war led to the country’s
initial interest in both no holds barred and Judo. One professional wrestler and
Judoka Mitsuyo Maeda was instrumental in combining the two sports into a fighting
styles that led to the creation of mixed
martial arts. After gaining attention for his wrestling bouts in Brazil, Maeda
began teaching his No Holds Barred style of Judo to a select group of locals. One
of his students Carlos Gracie saw the opportunity to market and promote this
modified style of Judo as a new martial art that combined the spectacle of
professional wrestling with the practicality of traditional martial arts.
Carlos involved many of his family in building an enterprise based on this
style of fighting eventually trademarked as Gracie
Jiu Jitsu. This enterprise would include high profile training facilities, public
demonstrations and a new type of competition that wasn’t wrestling or
Judo, but something that resembled a more ancient sport. Subsequent competitions
were called the Gracie Challenge. Fighting members of the family held an open
challenge to all comers, reminiscent of the catch wrestling hookers in
traveling carnivals. Unlike no holds barred or even shoot style wrestling matches,
these challenges didn’t prohibit any techniques and could only be won by either
knockout or submission, practically identical to Pankration. There were no
weight classes and no time limits. The biggest selling point for these matches
was the exploitation of Carlos’ younger brother Helio. Helio Gracie,
Carlos’ weaker sibling devised modifications to the family style
allowing him to use each technique with surprising effectiveness, despite his
lack of physical strength. This breakthrough helped catapult the Gracie
Jiu Jitsu enterprise to a new level of popularity. Helio was put at the
forefront of the Gracie challenge and used his modified style to submit
substantially bigger and stronger opponents. This gave him legendary status
in Brazil and eventually made Gracie Jiu Jitsu a household name. The Gracies
continued to build their name with no rules challenge matches throughout the
first half of the 20th century. Many of the Gracie fighters and their
challengers built the model for the modern day mixed martial artists. Notable
opposition included fighters from Fadda academy, another school taught by Mitsuyo
Maeda and Luta Livre, a style derived from
catch wrestling that eventually blended with Muay Thai. Each of these schools
have and continue to produce superstars in mixed martial arts. It wasn’t until the
second half of the 20th century and the televising of these challenge matches
that they gained recognition as legitimate sporting events. Local
networks began airing the challenges dubbing them a new sport named Vale
Tudo, the Portuguese translation for anything goes. Several events on separate
stations pitted the legendary Gracies against their heated rivals.
Although Vale Tudo gained a ravenous fanbase in Brazil, it struggled to cross
over into international mainstream success on the level of professional
wrestling. Due to the violent nature of the rule set and a few gruesome
televised incidents, Vale Tudo was eventually taken off the air and fell
into obscurity. The next big iteration of Vale Tudo
emerged in the United States in the 1990’s. It materialized when the Gracie
challenge came to America along with the second generation of the family fighters.
One of Helio’s sons, Rorion Gracie sought to expand the Gracie enterprise
by opening a school in California and promoting it with the Gracie challenge.
Once again these challenges went into local legend but didn’t find widespread
popularity until they captured a TV audience. Rorion partnered with Hollywood
producers to televised a live Vale Tudo tournament and engineer a spectacle that
could sell as a pay-per-view event. Since the term Vale Tudo was vastly
unheard of in America the event was called the Ultimate Fighting
Championship, UFC. The Gracies didn’t have the same caliber of opposition they
faced in Brazil while transplanting to the states, so they challenged master
martial artists to represent their individual fighting styles in the
tournament, drawing from the popularity of martial arts films like Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Bloodsport and Chuck Norris’ The Octagon. In the same way that Carlos
had marketed Helio, Rorion chose his younger brother Royce to be the sole
representative of Gracie Jiu Jitsu. He was billed as the smallest and
physically weakest competitor at the event. Rorion’s goal was to use whatever
fame his brother achieved through the high profile tournament to cement the
Gracie Jiu Jitsu enterprise in the United
States, but inadvertently he set a new sport into motion. The UFC was an
overnight success. The spectacle of using an octagon shaped cage instead of a ring,
combined with the shocking violence of Vale Tudo instantly set it apart from
any other combat sport witnessed by a large audience. The scheme to build
celebrity for Royce paid off when he used his family style to defeat much
larger opponents in route to winning the big tournament. Like Helio, Royce earned
legendary status and helped put Gracie Jiu Jitsu at the forefront of both
combat sports and traditional martial arts. Royce inspired a new generation of
combat sport athletes to cross train in Gracie Jiu Jitsu in order to effectively
compete in Vale Tudo events. Due to it’s graphic violence however, the UFC was
instantly met with backlash from political authorities. Individual states
began banning the competitions, prompting the show’s constant relocation to any
region that would sanction the events. Similar tournaments also began emerging
to overshadow the success of the UFC. The sudden saturation of the market,
combined with political pressure and lack of exposure nearly sunk the
organization. Meanwhile on the other side of the globe, the professional wrestling
roots of mixed martial arts were redeveloping into a better received
version of the sport. The already fanatical sport of Japanese professional
wrestling was drastically changed when the shoot style was adopted in the 1970’s.
Just as Mitsuyo Maeda brought his no holds barred style of Judo to Brazil,
a wrestler named Karl Gotch brought his shoot style of catch wrestling to Japan
during his tour of the world wrestling circuit. Gotch collaborated with local
wrestlers, many with traditional martial arts experience, to create a more
elaborate shoot style of wrestling called shoot fighting. Shoot fighting combined
the grappling style of catch wrestling with the striking styles of Karate and
Muay Thai, similar to the Luta Livre fighters of Brazil. The rules of shoot
fighting were much more prohibitive than those of Vale Tudo, still granting
victory by knockout or submission but restricting a large assortment of
strikes. This new style was gradually shoehorned
into the Japanese professional wrestling circuit when promoters either put shoot
fighting bouts on wrestling cards or branched off into shoot fighting only
promotions. Although these contests were advertised as real fights, the majority
were still worked matches. One famous wrestler in particular sought to reimage
the public perception of shoot fighting by resurrecting the anything goes
exhibitions that died off in the United States. In the mid seventies, professional
wrestler Antonio Inoki used his celebrity to host Invitational shoot
fighting matches between strikers and grapplers, peaking when Inoki himself
faced off against legendary boxer Muhammad Ali to a sold out crowd. Demand
for anything goes exhibitions caused some promoters to actively distance shoot
fighting from professional wrestling. In the late 80’s, an organization called
Shooto was the first to disavow professional wrestler and the notion of
worked matches with bouts convincingly ending in brutal knockouts and
submissions. As Shooto prohibited fewer techniques than the other shoot fighting
organizations, they also pioneered new safety standards in the sport like the
use of padded gloves and the establishment of amateur divisions.
Practitioners referred to this new style of shoot fighting as NHB, a throwback to
no holds barred. In the early 90’s, one NHB promotion ingeniously used the named
Pancrase, short for Pankration. Pancrase positioned itself for international
success, courting some of the best fighters in the world, many of whom would
eventually become mixed martial arts royalty. Incidentally it wasn’t until the
shoot fighting world of Pancrase collided with the Vale Tudo inspired
world of the UFC that the sport of mixed martial arts would have a foreseeable
future. Although Royce Gracie shocked the world by submitting the bigger stronger
competitors at the first UFC, a single threat lingered when Pancrase champion
Ken Shamrock entered the tournament. Shamrock’s NHB style of shoot fighting
gave him an advantage over the tournament competition, inexperienced in
grappling striking blended fighting. In their fateful pairing, despite a
back and forth exchange Gracie eventually submitted the shoot
fighter. This began a long and storied rivalry
not just between the two fighters but also between the sports of shoot
fighting and Vale Tudo. Japanese promoters started emulating the Vale Tudo style of the UFC to both satisfy the growing demand for NHB and to legitimize
the country’s roster of shoot fighters. A year after the first UFC, the Shooto
promotion hosted the first Vale Tudo Japan event, facing off local shoot
fighters against a new contingent of UFC inspired Vale Tudo fighters. Due to
the traveling legend of Gracie Jiu Jitsu and Royce’s defeat of Ken Shamrock, a
member of the Gracie family was sought to headline the event. Instead of Royce
however, his brother and storied family champion Rickson would be the ambassador
of Gracie Jiu Jitsu in the tournament and subsequently Japan as a whole,
further expanding the family enterprise. Rickson handedly won Vale Tudo Japan,
captivating Japanese audiences by fueling the rivalry between shoot fighting
and Vale Tudo and more specifically Japanese fighters versus the Gracies.
With the decline of the UFC in the United States, aspiring Vale Tudo fighters
along with a large contingent of the Gracie family traveled to Japan to
fight in these rivalry themed events. Free from the political pressure endure by
the UFC, promoters were able to secure major TV deals and book some of Japan’s
largest venues. In the US the UFC was making strides to not only survive but
also ensure a future for the sport now called MMA or mixed martial arts. They
began distancing the perception of MMA from the violence associated with Vale Tudo or even NHB. By expanding the MMA rule set to prohibit a larger pool of
dangerous techniques along with standardizing weight classes and time
limits, the UFC and rival promotions collaborated with state athletic
commissions to ratify the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts by the turn of the
century. This collaborative effort to indoctrinate the responsibility of
promoters to ensure fighter safety helped gradually lift the individual
state bans on MMA. The American MMA industry was on the
rise but still couldn’t match the success of Japanese NHB ruled by an
organization built on the shoot fighting versus Vale Tudo rivalry called Pride
Fighting Championship. It wasn’t until the acquisition of the UFC by Las Vegas
magnate Station Casinos that it finally soared over all competition. Under new
management the UFC invested large amounts of money to expand the marketing
appeal of MMA. This marketing push paid off when the UFC used the timely trend
of reality TV to land an MMA themed show on cable network Spike TV. The Ultimate
Fighter debuted in 2005 to surprising success. In the reality show format
audiences witnessed the personal struggles of fighters as they competed in a
season long tournament to win a six figure fight contract. The live
season finale featured finalists Stephan Bonnar and Forrest Griffin in one of the
greatest fights in UFC history which generated a sharp spike in ratings and
almost instantaneously gave the UFC long awaited mainstream success.
Soon after, UFC pay-per-view sales, box office returns and public notoriety
began to grow exponentially. The UFC would become the worldwide leader in mixed
martial arts and help MMA become one of the fastest growing sports. The company
went on to acquire rival promotions and absorb their fighters into the UFC
roster, including their stiffest worldwide competition Japan’s Pride
Fighting Championship. The height of the UFC’s success came in 2011 when they
landed an extensive TV deal on the Fox Network, broadcasting their MMA events on
the same platform as major league sports. This new level of exposure allowed UFC
fighters to bring celebrity to the sport of MMA. UFC champions including Chuck
Liddell, Randy Couture and Georges St-Pierre became ambassadors of MMA in news
media, TV and film. Professional wrestling superstar Brock Lesnar brought cross over potential when he braved his way to a UFC title.
Female audiences were engaged when the UFC spotlighted women’s MMA,
championed by the hugely popular Judo Olympic medalist turned
professional fighter Ronda Rousey. The UFC also expanded its international
visibility by securing large venues and TV deals in many foreign nations. To the
general public, the UFC became synonymous with MMA but rival organizations
continued to diversify the sport. Promoters would fit the bill for big
name talent or deviate from the Universal Rules of Mixed Martial Arts to
gain notoriety. Another phenomenon in the growing landscape of MMA was the demand
for hybrid style martial arts. Seemingly obscure martial arts that utilized
grappling and striking in full contact competitions were suddenly in favor. Arts
like Russian Sambo, Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do and even a vitalized form of
Pankration pronounced Pankration were central to the restructuring across the
martial arts world that groomed practitioners to compete in MMA. At the
core of this new era in martial arts where the original inspirations for MMA: Catch
Wrestling, Muay Thai and Gracie Jiu Jitsu also known as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. These
styles individually and collaboratively made a mark in the martial arts industry
as people looked to MMA as not only a revolution in sports but also the future
of unarmed combat. MMA gyms started cornering the martial arts consumer
market providing kids classes, certified rankings and self-defense courses. Even
the US military and some law enforcement agencies have adopted MMA inspired
curriculums into their unarmed combat training. Mixed martial arts has come a
long way from ancient Greek stadiums to traveling carnival acts to major
pay-per-view events. On the journey legends have been made and industries
have been changed forever. Few are certain about the future of the sport
but if history repeats itself, MMA will never truly disappear.
It may take on a different name and appearance, but there’s no denying one of
the world’s oldest and most popular sports from continued existence.

8 thoughts on “The History Of Mixed Martial Arts

  1. Great video. So much info packed in to 22min. This could be a hour long with some video footage and interviews. That would make it easier to digest.

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