What Is MMA: A History and Style Guide

The Ultimate Fighting Championship set the course

MMA Fighters
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Modern mixed martial arts competition, or MMA, has only a short history, as the first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) event took place on Nov. 12, 1993. The event is known for featuring the blend of styles and has helped MMA's popularity grow. 

The More Distant History of MMA

In a sense, all martial arts styles and therefore martial arts history in general has led up to what we now refer to as MMA.

Along with this, those that practice fighting techniques have been testing their skills against one another likely before history even began to be recorded. Still, Greek Pankration, a fighting event that became a part of the Olympic Games in 648 B.C., is the first documented full contact, few rules combat competition in history. Pankration events were known for their brutality; even more so were the Etruscan and Roman Pancratium events that arose from it.

More recently, there have been many examples of full combat fights designed to measure one style against another. One of the more notable occurred in 1887 when then heavyweight boxing champion John L. Sullivan took on Greco-Roman wrestling champion William Muldoon. Muldoon reportedly slammed his adversary to the canvas in just a couple of minutes. Reinforcing this, many other reported matches between famous strikers and grapplers also took place in and around this time, with grapplers often demonstrating a significant advantage over their striking or stand up fighting counterparts.

Interestingly, MMA style competitions also turned up in England in the late 1800s via Bartitsu events. Bartitsu pitted Asian and European fighting styles against one another. The inclusion of the Asian fighting styles made them somewhat unique for the time period.

In the early 1900s, full contact combat with mixed styles began happening in a variety of places.

However, there were two spots that were perhaps more noticeable and noteworthy. First, there was vale tudo in Brazil, which began in the early 1920s. Vale tudo was born of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and the Gracie family. 

The Origins of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

In 1914, a Kodokan Judo master by the name of Mitsuyo Maeda taught Brazil’s Carlos Gracie (Gastao Gracie’s son) the art of judo in appreciation of his father’s help with business in the country. This was an amazing turn of events as the Japanese tended to hide jujutsu and judo from the Western world. From there, Carlos’ youngest and smallest brother, Helio, refined the art that had been taught to Carlos into one that used less strength and more leverage in order to suit his more diminutive frame.

What came of this was Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a grappling art that taught practitioners how to utilize joint locks and choke holds to their advantage on the ground. In addition, one of Helio’s major accomplishments was in refining how fighters could compete from their backs by utilizing a technique called the guard.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu performers, one of which was Helio Gracie, did exceptionally well in mixed style vale tudo matches in Brazil.

In addition, there were mixed martial arts matches being put on by Antonio Inoki in Japan in the 1970s.

One of these took place between Inoki himself and famed heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali on June 25, 1976. In reality, it appears that this 15-round draw, which netted Ali $6 million and Inoki $2 million, was staged. Further, several rules were put into place to help Ali just before the fight went off (including a rule that only allowed Inoki to kick if one of his knees were down). However, the match certainly generated a lot of interest in mixed style competitions.

Eventually, all of this led to the first UFC event in 1993.

The Birth of Mixed Martial Arts 

History had forgotten that wrestlers had done very well in past mixed martial arts matches. Besides, much had changed. The mainstream United States had almost no idea whatsoever about the Gracie’s vale tudo exploits in Brazil. This led to the following age-old question: Which martial arts style was most effective?

That was the question that the original UFC competition and founders Art Davie, Robert Meyrowitz, and Helio Gracie’s son, Rorion, set out to answer on Nov. 12, 1993. The event, which pitted eight fighters against one another in a single elimination, one-day tournament, was seen on pay per view and came to the masses live from the McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Colo.

The tournament had few rules (including no decisions, time limits, or weight classes) and fighters in it with a variety of martial arts backgrounds. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (Royce Gracie, son of Helio), Karate (Zane Frazier), Shootfighting (Ken Shamrock), Sumo (Telia Tuli), Savate (Gerard Gordeau), kickboxing (Kevin Rosier and Patrick Smith), and professional boxing (Art Jimmerson) were all represented.

The event showcased Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, as Royce defeated three fighters via submission in less than five minutes combined. A total of 86,592 spectators witnessed his dominance via pay per view. In fact, the 170-pound Gracie won three of the first four UFC tournaments, proving in the eyes of many that his style of fighting was king.

Interestingly, Royce was chosen by the Gracie family to compete in the competition because of his diminutive size. Given this, if he won—which the family believed that he would— then the Gracies felt there would be no choice but to accept Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as the greatest fighting art in the world.

The UFC and MMA Blackout

The founders of UFC competition, particularly Rorion Gracie, believed that MMA should be conducted with fewer rules to make it more lifelike.

Thus, groin strikes, headbutts, and pulling hair were allowed. However, when Senator John McCain came across the event, one that he labeled “human cockfighting,” he worked hard and successfully to get it banned from pay per view and sanctioned in many states. This MMA blackout resulted in the UFC almost going bankrupt. Furthermore, it allowed Japan’s PRIDE Fighting Championships, a now defunct organization, to rise up and become popular.

MMA Resurgence

Since the blackout, MMA and the UFC have instituted rules designed to help their appeal in the United States. Gone are the days when head butting, hair pulling, and striking to the groin were legal. Along with this, Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta bought the failing UFC in 2001. They formed Zuffa as the parent company of the organization and appointed Dana White as president. Frank’s ties to the Nevada State Athletic Commission, of which he was once a member, helped him to get the UFC sanctioned in Nevada once again (along with the rules changes). With that and the return of pay per view, the sport began to make a resurgence.

In 2005, the organization aired the Ultimate Fighter Reality television show (TUF) for the first time on Spike Television. Competitors on the show (up and coming fighters) trained in a house together with either Randy Couture or Chuck Liddell as coaches. Then they fought in a single elimination style tournament, with the winner set to receive a six figure UFC contract. The light heavyweight battle between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar during the show’s finale is widely considered to be one of the greatest MMA fights in history.

What’s more, the show and the fervor with which Bonnar and Griffin fought each other, is often given substantial credit for boosting MMA’s popularity.

MMA Today and Female MMA Competition

Though the UFC is still by far the gold standard organization when it comes to the sport of MMA, there are many other organizations out there. Some of the more popular are Affliction, Strikeforce, and the WEC. MMA is also seen on television regularly and enjoys excellent pay per view buy numbers, especially via the UFC.

Interestingly, the now defunct EliteXC organization made history when their event EliteXC: Primetime became the first MMA event to be put on major American network television. The organization also did a lot to help the growing interest in female MMA, by broadcasting female MMA matches on both CBS and Showtime. In fact, one of the organizations’ big draws was the ever-popular Gina Carano.

Basic Goals of MMA

Depending on the MMA organization, the rules of mixed martial arts combat may be slightly different. Regardless, MMA is a sport where combatants attempt to either defeat their adversary via stoppage (submission or (T)KO) or by decision. Decisions are rendered by judges and are based on the criteria of winning the fight.

Characteristics of MMA

MMA matches are characterized by the variety of martial arts styles from which it draws. Specifically, matches often go through a variety of scenarios including stand up fighting (punches, clinch work, knees, kicks, and elbows), throwing or takedowns, and ground fighting (ground control, submissions, and submission defense).

MMA Training

Since MMA fighters come from a variety of backgrounds, their training regimens do differ. However, all successful MMA fighters must train to fight both on the ground and on their feet. Most practice submission fighting, wrestling, and kickboxing to a significant degree due to their past effectiveness in competition.

Another very important aspect to MMA training is conditioning. MMA fighters must be in outstanding shape to fight for what sometimes amounts to 25 minutes over five rounds.

Some Martial Arts Styles That Contribute to MMA