While Mixed Martial Arts is seen as the new kid on the block in terms of competitive fighting, it’s actually not so much new as a late bloomer and it may come as no surprise to learn that its roots are, as in so many things, in Ancient Greece, as far back as circa 648BC. In fact, if you look closely enough, throughout history, every culture has had its own form of martial arts, and most of them developed some form of combat sport, both for entertainment and as a way to keep its soldiers fit for action. However, as far as recorded history, it all started in Greece.
We must be clear here and say that it does go back further than that, since there are Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions of men practicing some sort of martial arts in Ancient Egypt which date back to 3000BC, and there are some vague reports of soldiers in Mesopotamia and Sumer employing empty hand fighting techniques around the same time. However, these are vague chronicles with no real detail, and it’s not until the first original Olympics where we see a developed discipline emerge and get recorded in history, a combat sport known as Pankration (Pan=all, kratos=powers), introduced in 648BC and combining boxing and wrestling techniques; true to its mutant modern day offspring, it was a no-holds barred vicious battle.
Despite these early incarnations of the sport, martial arts have their roots firmly based in Asia and are, quite rightly, viewed by one and all as an Asian ‘thing’. There are reports of types of martial arts being practiced in China around 200BC, but it’s in Thailand where it all really kicked off, with Muay being used in warfare, before then becoming the spectator sport which became integral to local festivals, and which is now the national sport of Thailand and recognized the whole world over.
The Philippines have also, throughout history but definitely during the mid 1800s, featured a variety of combat sports disciplines, like boxing (panantukan), grappling (dumog) and even foot fighting (sikaran), as well as kali and escrima, which were weapon-based but looked decisively like modern MMA, with punches, knees, grappling, sweeps, throws and submissions all thrown in the mix, but where the fighters would hold a stick in the right hand.
Surprisingly enough it was an Englishman who adopted this and took it a step further. Edward William Barton-Wright was an entrepreneur specializing in self-defense and physical therapy, and, after spending three years in Japan, he was one of the first to learn and teach Japanese martial arts. He also developed a new martial art, Baritsu, in 1898, combining boxing, judo, karate and stick fighting, and largely based on the Shinden Fudo Ryu Jiu Jitsu of Terajima Kuniichiro.
As it spread around England, he brought Japanese fighters over to fight English fighters in what can only be described as a rough precursor to MMA. Ironically, a few years later, the same thing was more or less happening across the pond in America; a President’s whim was responsible for the conceptualization of MMA when Theodore Roosevelt wrote to his son, commenting that “with a little practice in Jiu Jitsu I am sure that one of our big wrestlers or boxers, simply because of his greatly superior strength, would be able to kill any of these Japanese.”
And it was Japan that was by now leading the way and it’s in Japan where we find the real direct roots to what is now recognized as MMA, with Jiu-Jitsu having long been a favorite among the populace, as well as something which they managed to export. The early 1900s saw a bunch of contests known as Merikan, which were basically mixed-style fights with victory coming by way of knockout or submission.
In 1914, Judo expert, champion and all-round tough guy Mitsuyo Maeda moved from Japan to Brazil, which had long had a tradition of vicious Vale Tudo (No Holds Barred) matches, and practically started a revolution. He befriended Gastao Gracie, the head of a prominent family, and taught his kids, Helio and Carlos, the art of Jiu Jitsu and Judo; they then went on to start a school in Rio teaching others and the whole thing just spread from there. They issued open challenges to Brazilian practitioners of different martial arts styles, as well as Japanese champions from the Land if the Rising Sun, to take part in fights, known as Vale Tudo (No Holds Barred) competitions which got so big they were eventually held in soccer stadiums.
Helion Gracie’s eldest son Rorion moved to the United States in the 1980s and continued the legacy, but not before Bruce Lee had come through like a hurricane in the 1960s and revolutionized the sport. His style, known as Jeet Kune Do, was a mix of Kung Fu, Boxing, Muay Thai, Wrestling and Jiu Jitsu, and his speed, precision, uniqueness and X factor, as well as the fact that he spread his message through popular and star-studded films, propelled him, and, with him, the mixed martial arts genre, to the mainstream consciousness, albeit as a warped version since it was all high flashy kicks and punches which are the antithesis of real unarmed combat. Bruce Lee then went and died, and the bourgeoning mainstream fascination with mixed martial arts went off the boil.
But boxing was still the big draw, with fighters like Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Roberto Duran, to name but a few, drawing in the crowds for the big gates, as well as that all too important TV money. A slight cross-over occurred when Ali fought Kanji Antonio Inoki, a Japanese wrestler and superstar schooled in the art of ‘hooking and shooting’ (essentially ‘grappling’), in an exhibition bout, and Inoki actually went on to fight many different fighters from different disciplines in what could be looked at as ‘testers’ for MMA.
1984-85 saw the first step in the real deal, what is now known as MMA and spearheaded by the UFC, when Shooto was founded by Japanese wrestler Satoru Sayama. This was a highly developed martial arts sport which resembled modern MMA, with its integration of wrestling, Muay Thai, Judo and Jiu Jitsu and lots of striking and grappling. The first amateur event was held in 1986, with the first professional bout taking place three years later in 1989.
Although this never became an international global smash hit, it did re-ignite the appetite of the people, and a few years later another notch was added to the Gracie family belt when Rorion Gracie, having by now gained notoriety among the martial arts community in the USA, teamed up with Art Davie, a business entrepreneur, and started to make history.
Art (apt first name) Davie had watched the Gracies’ video series, which featured their students taking on all-comers from different martial arts disciplines, and proposed to stage a one-off contest where different fighters from different disciplines would face each other in no-holds-barred fights in order to determine the best and most effective martial art. They formed a production company called WOW, brought in SEG, a pioneering pay-per-view producer, commissioned an art director called Jason Cusson to design the by now iconic octagon ring, some bright spark came up with the name Ultimate Fighting Championship, and, on November 12, 1993, UFC 1 was held in Denver, Colorado.
At the beginning, living up to its reason d’etre, namely to determine which fighting style was the most effective, fighters tended to have skills in just one discipline, and grappling and submission won out more times than most; in fact, Royce Gracie, younger brother of Rorion, won the inaugural competition, and then two out of the next three.
These fledgling events were a far cry from what the UFC has become; there were no weight divisions and in fact Keith “The Giant Killer” Hackney once faced Emmanuel Yarbrough with a 9”and 400lbs disadvantage; most fighters had one style and one style only; and there were very few rules, which resulted in very violent contests. It was this last point which at first proved to be its undoing.
The UFC tagline of “There Are No Rules” (which was not completely true as it actually banned biting and eye-gouging), and disclaimers warning audiences of the violent nature they’re about to witness, as well as the fact that the fights were supposedly banned in 49 American states, while controversial and appealing to the more bloodthirsty fight fans out there, gave the sport an extremely violent reputation and ultimately kept advertisers and the majors away.
So, after an initial surge in interest due to the novel and raw nature of the fights, in addition to over-the-top marketing, the sport faced a number of obstacles. Too many people started to complain about the unchecked violence and the limited rules, and the sponsors began to pull out as the audience figures started to wane and the publicity became too negative; worst of all, it was dropped from most of the networks. The sport was on its knees and on death’s door. Then, two white knights in shining armor came riding over the crest and started to resuscitated the lifeless body.
Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta were entrepreneurs and businessmen who, in 2001, were contacted by Dana White, Lorenzo’s childhood friend, about buying the UFC; they didn’t mess about, buying it within a month and immediately setting about transforming it. Over the next few years they would buy up all their major rivals, World Extreme Cagefighting and Pride Fighting Championships in 2007,
They introduced rules and made it safe (or safer anyway) and they bankrolled the sport for a long time, going through many peaks and troughs and losing heart many times. There came a critical point when, having lost money to the tune of several million dollars, they decided to cut their losses and sell the franchise. Lorenzo told Dana White to contact a buyer he had found in Texas, but also said that he would sleep on it. The next morning he phoned him up and said two simple words; “F**k it.”
They decided to plough ahead.
In 2005 Dana White invented The Ultimate Fighter reality TV show, featuring professional MMA fighters living together, being split into two teams, mentored by eminent fighters/coaches, going through a grueling training routine and eliminating knockout contests, leading up to a grand finale final fight. The winner would then be awarded with a million dollar sponsorship contract.
The pivotal moment came at the end of the first season, when Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar ended up in the final together. The fight was a classic; both fighters pure went for it, with a flurry of kicks and punches, showing bravery, skill, and a huge desire to win, propelling the sport to the mainstream consciousness as people were ringing their friends, urging them to turn the TV on and watch this fight. At the end, with Griffin declared a narrow winner, after a very quick consultation Dana White came into the ring and declared that both fighters would be offered contracts.
The UFC, as we now know it, in other words the world’s fastest growing sport and one that has now arguably become bigger than even boxing , was reborn. It has not looked back, each fight becoming bigger and better and more hyped, and it is continually ‘stealing’ fans from boxing, mainly due to the fact that the fighters display more skill and raw toughness, and also due to the fact that the fights are arranged purely by order of merit, not by promotional match ups.
And now we have a wealth of iconic fighter superstars in the UFC, both past and present; Connor McGregor, Anderson Silva, Jon Jones, Brock Lesnar, Junior Dos Santos, Frank Mir, Jose Aldo, Roy Nelson, Frankie Edgar, Rashad Evans, Cain Velasquez, Dan Henderson, George St-Pierre, Michael Bisping, Johny Hendricks, Ronda Rousey, and this is merely scratching the surface.
It’s become the holy grail for MMA fighters, offering riches and prestige to rival most other sports. It’s the future. And it’s here.