The History and Evolution of Modern Mixed Martial Arts

From being called “MMA” to “to that UFC fighting thing”, the sport of mixed martial arts is a remarkable sport that has been, and continues to be misunderstood and stereotyped.  Yet also at the same time mixed martial arts has become the fastest growing sport of the last decade, been able to display strategic athletic variation, and broadened the perception of the sport to garner mainstream success. The history and definition of this sport is one that is just as unique as the sport itself. The concept of freestyle fighting goes back thousands of years to humanity’s inherent nature to compete and protect themselves.

“Two men were put on this earth, one threw a punch and a third guy came over and watched. And that happened before anybody ever threw or kicked a ball. We’re all human beings and we all ‘get’ fighting.”- Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White.

Modern mixed martial arts is not a discombobulated street fight, it is the synergistic and seamless blending of multiple fighting styles to strategically defeat an opponent, and is not construed by any specific set of limitations except for safety rules. This is a brief history and evolution of modern mixed martial arts…read on below.

UFC 1- Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Fighter Royce Gracie v. Boxer Art Jimmerson- Photo Credit: Markus Boes.

In the beginning…

The typical understanding of martial arts in general is that they are regionally based and construe themselves to a particular focus and rules. For instance: Kung Fu and Russian Sambo are very different in formulation and strategy. While this is true that many regions have all developed their own atypical styles, the fact remains that all martial arts share the same the goal: physically incapacitating an opponent for sport or protection. It is these same regional martial arts that were the basis of the ‘style war’ that shaped the original scope of the first UFC tournaments, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet. The phrase ‘martial art’ literally means ‘art of warfare’, and the term ‘martial’ is derived from Mars, the Roman God of war.

One of the first recognitions of mixed martial arts fighting as a competitive sport dates back to 648 B.C. with the Greek sport of Pankration, which literally translates to ‘all powers/strengths’. It was the hybridization of the existing sports of boxing and wrestling, and had no rules. Pankration was first devised as a combat fighting styled used to train spartan soldiers for close quarters unarmed combat, it was from this that it was regulated and evolved into the most popular event of ancient olympics. The sport of Pankration shared many definitive characteristics similar to modern combat sports- safety rules (eye gouging, biting and tapout), age classes, rounds, submissions (chokes, armbars, and various joint locks), takedowns,  hybrid strikes, and specific strategies.

Pankration Fight- A headlock with strikes is utilized to stop a takedown. Photo Credit- Marie-Lan Nguyen

Combat sports have always been a prominent fixture of human nature and society as a whole, not only within ancient and wartime focus, but also within modern history as well. Examples range from President Abraham Lincoln favoring wrestling matches to settle disputes, to the rein in popularity of boxing throughout much of the twentieth century.

Vale Tudo 

In the beginning of the twentieth century in Brazil, a Japanese immigrant taught the Gracie brothers a form of Japanese Judo that they adapted to a form of ground fighting system now known as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. In the 1920’s the Gracie’s opened a gym to begin teaching their new art form, and in order to draw attention and showcase their new self perceived superior martial art the Gracie’s began to hold tournaments and sideshow fights called ‘vale tudo’ matches. Vale tudo translates quite frankly into ‘anything goes’ and encompassed everything from style v. style fights to the ‘Gracie Challenge’ where fighters could bet and win money by defeating the Gracies in an open bout.  The ‘anything goes’ name of vale tudo refers to the rules and break from the standard limitations found in many mainstream martial arts competitions in existence. The basis was that any fighter who thought he was better could compete with their fighting style or method and was welcome to fight regardless of weight or limitation. The overall success of the Gracie Challenge and explosion of vale tudo, which still remains popular in Brazil today, led to the inception of global mixed martial arts competition. Still today the overall modern structure of mixed martial arts competition is directly derived from Brazil’s Vale tudo.

Masahiko Kimura v. Helio Grace in a Gracie Challenge Match. All rights reserved.

The Globalization of Mixed Martial Arts

In the early 1990’s business advertising entrepreneur Art Davie and Rorion Gracie partnered to create the a pay per view event that would broadcast various styles of combat pitted against each other. The structure of the competition was an eight man single elimination tournament in a caged octagon ring, with single round fights to the finish (only way to win was by severe cut, tapout, knockout or throwing in towel) and no weight classes. Further specifications were that there were no gloves allowed, the only safety rules consisted of no biting or eye gouging, and the winner received $50,000. Styles represented ranged from boxing to brazilian jiu jitsu to sumo wrestling. Rorion’s hand picked younger brother Royce Gracie represented the family and won the championship. The event was an incredible success despite its limited pay per view showing and exposure, drawing an astounding 86,592 television subscribers on pay-per-view.

Copyright and All Rights Reserved to the UFC and Zuffa LLC

After UFC 1 came subsequent rapid successions of tournaments that grew in consistency and size with the added momentum  of the sport. Yet with this success came controversey and marked criticism. The origin marketing and format of the UFC was based upon pure brutality and violence. It’s format provided over the top prefight disclaimers of excessive violence, boasted of having no rules (allowing: hair pulling, headbutting, groin strikes and fish-hooking.), and utilized the tagline “There are no rules!”. The ‘sideshow’ brutality marketing and excessively violent structure negatively effected the public perception of the sport and typecasted it as simply a glorified street fight. This public perception also attracted the negative attention of the United States legislature and athletic commissions who began very public campaigns to ban the events in their states. The negative media reached it’s nadir when Senator John McCain publicly addressed the UFC as “human cockfighting” and called for it’s cessation.

The decline of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s viability, exposure and legality as well as reported mismanagement resulted in a dire bankruptcy situation by the end of the decade. At the same time former boxing manager Dana White contacted his friends Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta who were the executives of Station Casinos in Las Vegas at the time, and began to propose the purchase of the UFC. In 2001, the UFC was purchased for $2 million dollars and was placed as a subsidiary of the company Zuffa LLC, which is translates from italian to brawl/fight/scuffle. The UFC underwent a rapid and aggressive reorganization that would validate and legitimize the sport of mixed martial arts as a global sport. The UFC incorporated strict safety rules, required gloves, weight classes, enacted strict refereeing and judging, drug testing, corporate sponsors, recruitment of elite martial artists, athletic commission validation, and a drastic revision of the company’s marketing scheme. No longer was this a division of competing traditional arts but athletes now combined incredible combinations of various skills sets in order to strategically pick each other apart through their own knowledge and athletic ability. The ability to adapt, learn and advance one’s skill set became the paramount qualities of a mixed martial artist.

At the same time, competitive mixed martial arts in Japan with the partnership of another Gracie, Rickson Gracie, had began to surge in popularity throughout the late 1990’s and early 2000’s with the advent of the Pride Fighting Championships. Learning from the earlier mistakes of the UFC, their sport oriented rules and marketing, along with an incredible assortment of elite fighters lead to their accelerated growth.

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By the mid 2000’s the UFC had legitimized themselves as the next generation not only of combat sports, but also helped mixed martial arts as a whole become the world’s fastest growing sport in popularity. In 2005 the UFC launched a presently on going and highly popular reality show ‘The Ultimate Fighter’, which enabled the public to become aquatinted with new showcased fighters as they fought for entrance into the UFC. In 2007 the UFC purchased and merged the Pride Fighting Championship into their expanding roster of elite fighters. In 2011, the UFC completely merged the newly purchased World Extreme Cagefighting company and thus expanded their available fighter weight class repertoire to almost all aspects humanly possible, ranging from 135 to 265+ pound divisions. Further recent expansion in 2011 has seen the purchase of domestic rival ‘Strikeforce’ which has been allowed to operate as a separate entity but is slowly being merged into the UFC with fighter transfer over the course of this year.

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The current state of mixed martial arts continues to evolve and grow at a whirlwind rate. Recently this year Bellator, a smaller domestic fight production company was purchased by media giant Viacom in expected efforts for expansion. This mainstream legitimization can only be further exemplified by the upcoming ‘UFC on Fox’, which is an incredible seven year broadcast deal that will kick off with the showcasing of the heavyweight championship between Cain Velasquez vs. Junior Dos Santos bout on November 12, 2011. Fox as you may well know is the same network that provides coverage of the NFL, MLB, Nascar and college football.

Mixed martial arts is an exciting, dynamic and incredible sport that has unparalleled cross over appeal with other sports. It’s popularity and elite athletes have permeated all levels of society world wide and has solidified itself as a unifying sport that can only continue to grow.

Mixed martial arts has also created revolutionary opportunities for self defense, defense against bullying and boosting of self esteem, as well as created an unmatched fitness opportunity that anyone, on any level, can train recreationally and enjoy. This is the brief evolution and history of mixed martial arts.

– Papa Swole

(This is an original post copyright to, credited to the aforementioned author. Its reproduction is strictly prohibited. All rights reserved to the original authors of any quoted or embedded material)

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