Combat sports have been a major source of entertainment for centuries. Combat sports or MMA can date their history all the way back to ancient Sumer, to as early as 3,000 BCE. The thrill and excitement of contestants in no holds barred contest has been one of the most popular human pastimes throughout our history.
Today, Mixed Martial Arts is a multi-billion dollar industry, and has become one of the most widely watched sports world wide. But how did Mixed Martial Arts come to be the sport that it is today? Read the below and you will almost become a MMA historian.
The Very Beginning Of Mixed Martial Arts
While historians have been able to trace the origin of combat sports back to ancient Sumer, in 3,000 BCE. The origin of what we know as MMA, perhaps, is more similar to the ancient Greek tradition of Pankration. Whereas the Sumerians had developed boxing, the Greeks dared to be a little more advanced.
Pankration comes from the ancient Greek word meaning ‘All of the Power’. It was first introduced in the Olympic Games in the year 648 BCE. Pankration employed a no holds barred submission rules system. The combatants would use boxing, wrestling, grappling and submission techniques to achieve victory. Sounds pretty familiar right?
This sport of legend was said to have been practiced by Ancient Greek heroes like Hercules, and Theseus. Pankration is believed to have caught on so well in Greece in large part due to it’s ‘total contest’ combat quality. It married the best of both worlds in boxing and wrestling.
Pankration was so popular in fact, that it was even practiced by soldiers in the Greek armies. Such as the Spartans, and the Macedonian Phalanxes. Pankration was truly a warrior sport. It is even believed that King Philip II, the Father of Alexander the Great, was a Pankration practitioner.
The Ancient world even saw forms of Mixed Martial arts in China. In the form of Leitai. Leitai was a form of combat sport that mixed traditional Chinese Martial Arts, with boxing and wrestling. It was practiced on an elevated platform, where combatants would fight to submission, throwing their opponent off the platform, or even death in rare cases.
So as historians research the history of combat sports, it becomes clear that the ancient world was fascinated by it. The thrilling contest of warriors to prove dominance in sport can be found across continents, in many different forms. From the traditions of Pankration, and Leitai, the appeal of no holds barred combat sports spread across the world.
Mixed Martial Arts In The Modern World
Mixed Martial Arts continued to evolve in practice and grow in popularity since its time in antiquity. It took on various forms and styles, from Europe to the Americas. Perhaps the earliest version of MMA that we see in the modern era, was French Savate. A style of boxing that incorporated tactical kicking.
In the mid 19th century, professional French Savate fighters began to test their skills against professional English boxers of that era. Employing their kicking style against the traditional boxing, they sought to test the strength of their combat sport against the most popular combat sport of the era.
This sparked quite a lot of interest in Europe around that time, as boxing had been considered the primary combat sport in Europe up until then.
Around the same time, across the world in the USA, there were also reported contests of professional boxers testing their skills against professional wrestlers. Where famous American boxers would take on renowned Judo practitioners, and famous wrestlers in highly publicized organized fights.
Fast forward to the early 1920’s in Brazil, where Vale Tudo was on the rise. Vale Tudo is a term that has been widely used to describe full contact combat sports.
The term Vale Tudo finds its roots as a side show act in circuses across Brazil. It continued to develop and grow in popularity across the decades into the early 1960’s, where it was then known as a style vs. style combat sport.
Vale Tudo was the featured term on the Brazilian television show ‘Heroes of the Ring’. Hosted by the famous Gracie brothers, Carlson and Carley, (But we will get back to this later).
MMA Spread Into Japan
Along with Vale Tudo, and the Heroes of the Ring, Mixed Martial Arts had begun to grow in Japan as well. In the form of Shooto and Pancrase. In 1985 professional shoot wrestler Satoru Sayama developed Shooto. What he described as a New Martial Art.
Shooto was perhaps one of the earliest forms of professional association MMA. In 1995 the Shooto Organization hosted the Vale Tudo tournament. The integration of Vale Tudo into Shooto brought about the introduction of legalized face strikes in grappling situations. This had been previously banned in Shooto. Bringing a whole new level of competitive brutality to the modern combat sports genre.
Pancrase Inc. was another organization promoting MMA in Japan in the early 1990s Deriving its name from the ancient Pankration, Pancrase was a ‘no gimmicks’ no holds barred MMA contest. Pancrase was most popularized by the champion UFC fighter, Ken Shamrock.
Mixed Martial Arts Comes To The USA
It all started with The Gracie Challenge.
The Gracie Family is widely credited with being the forefathers of what we now know as modern MMA. They had earned their fame on the Brazilian television show, Heroes of the Ring, in the early 1960s.
But perhaps the largest, and most widely known influential factor to the rise of Mixed Martial Arts, was The Gracie Challenge.
The Gracie Challenge was first issued in the early 1920s by the Judo practitioner Carlos Gracie. It was a challenge issued in an attempt to prove to the world that the Gracie Family Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was better than any other form of martial art. He would later be joined in this challenge by his brother Helio, and other members of the Gracie Family.
The Gracie Family, over the years, would take on opponents of various martial arts disciplines, and often much larger physical stature. While suffering a few losses, they would go on to mostly dominate their way across practitioners of boxing, karate, judo, and wrestling.
In 1978, the eldest son of Helio Gracie, Rorion, would take the Gracie legacy to North America, moving to Southern California. Paying his bills doing work in minor television and movie rolls, Rorion would become a disciple of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Doing whatever he could to gather students of his family art, and teach them from his garage.
Rorion would begin to slowly build the reputation of Gracie Brazalian JiuJitsu in The United States. Almost 10 years after moving to The United States, Rorion would be joined in California by his brothers, Royce, Rickson, and Royler.
Royce and his brothers would continue to take up fights in the name of The Gracie Challenge in the United States. In 1993, teamed with promoter Art Davie. Rorion and Art would go on to create The Ultimate Fighting Championship.
What is famously known today as The UFC.
The Formation of The UFC.
UFC 1 was designed to be the ultimate combat sports battle royale. It featured an 8-man tournament style, and little to no rules. No weight classes, no rounds, no judges. It was the ultimate test of style vs style. The only rules, were no eye gouging, and no groin shots. The winner would receive a $50,000 grand prize.
Hosted in Denver, Colorado. With 7,800 in attendance. The beginning of a dynasty was born when Royce Gracie would defeat Dutch Karate practitioner Gerard Gordeau with a rear-naked choke.
But the rise of the UFC as the largest platform for MMA in the world, was not exactly without opposition. In 1996, the UFC drew the unwanted attention of Sen. John McCain. Who had seen recordings of previous UFC tournaments, and aimed to block the hosting of future UFC events. He viewed the sport as “Human Cockfighting” and far too brutal and barbaric for modern society and sports.
36 states would go on to ban the no holds barred format of combat sports. Forcing the UFC to host the UFC 12 event in Alabama. This would cause a huge financial strain on the organization. Dwindling Pay Per View purchases, and low attendance numbers, were on the horizon.
Over the next dozen tournaments, The UFC would attempt to convert from a fighting tournament, to a certified sport. They would gradually come to introduce rule changes such as the addition of gloves, and implementation of weight classes.
The banning of fish-hooking, hair pulling. and strikes to the back of the head. As well as the addition of timed rounds. All of this was an attempt to rebuild the image of the UFC from a brutal fighting spectacle, to a recognized sporting event.
Meanwhile, across the globe, a business competitor was on the rise.
If you want to read more about how UFC has evolved over time, get the full report on How UFC Has Evolved From The Humble Beginning.
Pride FC, And The Rise Of MMA In Japan.
Evolving in 1997 from Pancrase, and the Union of Wrestling Forces International, came Pride Fighting Championships. Pride FC was conceived when professional Japanese wrestler Nobuhiko Takada, and Rickson Gracie were set to fight against one another.
At the time, Rickson was considered to be the champion of the Gracie Family Jiu-Jitsu. The event drew over 47,000 spectators, and drew mass media attention across Japan and the world. Rickson Gracie would go on to defeat Nobuhiko Takada in the final seconds of the first round.
Over the course of the next several years, Pride FC would become the face of MMA. Hosting dozens of world class events. From the attendance of upwards of 71,000 fans in 2002, to taking Pride FC overseas to The United States, to host Pride 32 in Paradise, Nevada. Pride FC was quickly becoming the number one brand in professional MMA.
But the destiny of Pride FC was doomed to fail.
Pride FC would eventually fall on troubled times. Facing speed bump after speed bump, they would eventually lose their television contracts, and close all operations in October of 2007.
The Resurgence Of The UFC.
Having shifted their focus from violent spectacle, to reputable sport, the UFC was still facing financial crisis. Pay Per View subscriptions were down, and the business was struggling. The UFC had to make a change.
They would eventually shift their focus to television, and attempt to capitalize on the rise of reality television. The UFC would launch the reality television contest, The Ultimate Fighter. The exposure of The Ultimate Fighter series lead to a rising interest in the UFC as a sport across the United States.
With the show putting the UFC back in the spotlight, Pay Per View numbers exploded. UFC 52 was a smash hit, shattering previous viewership benchmarks. The UFC would continue to climb in Pay Per View buys, and eventually eclipse 1 million paid viewers in UFC 66.
The UFC would even go on to acquire the Japanese rival Pride FC after they closed their doors in 2007.
The UFC was well on its way to becoming a Mixed Martial Arts juggernaut. It would eventually make partnerships with networks such as ESPN, and become the most recognized organization in Mixed Martial Arts.
MMA Around The World Today
The UFC is not the only host of Mixed Martial Arts tournaments. far from it. Across the world there are a multitude of professional organizations that have evolved, and carved their own place in the sport of MMA.
Organizations around the world are working to further MMA as a sport, and advance the popularity of MMA well into the future.
Some organizations that are pushing the envelope of the sport are companies such as Bellator, which means ‘warrior’ in Latin. Bellator is a professional MMA promotion company that was founded in 2008, and has since hosted 222 events as of June 2019.
Bellator is a rising competitor in the MMA scene. In 2018 Bellator secured a broadcasting deal with DAZN to broadcast their main events to a much broader audience, pushing Bellator to new heights as a contender in the MMA promotion market.
OneFC is another major player in the MMA scene. The Singapore based martial arts promotion company hosts events in Muay Thai, kickboxing, grappling, and other forms of martial arts.
They broadcast all across the globe, and according to Forbes is one of the largest martial arts organizations in the world. In 2012 OneFC signed a 10 year deal with Fox Sports Asia for broadcasting rights. Ensuring that OneFC will continue to grow and expand their hold in the MMA market.
The Invicta Fighting Federation is an all-professional, all-female MMA organization, and another rising player in the MMA scene. Founded by MMA executive powerhouses Janet Martin and Shannon Knapp.
Invicta Fighting Federation aims to prove that women have just as strong of a presence in the MMA world as men, and can compete at the highest level. Invicta has even made partnerships with UFC Fight Pass to bring their up and coming platform to the spotlight.
Mixed Martial Arts has been dubbed the worlds fastest growing sport. From its humble, and ancient beginnings. To underground fights in the wake of political scandal.
To becoming one of the top-10 most watched sports in the world. Mixed Martial Arts has continued to be on the rise year-over-year. With top competitors now earning top tier athlete salaries, MMA has earned its spot as one of the most practiced, watched, and respected sports world wide.