MMA – From Pit-Fighting to Fight Island

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The History of Mixed Martial Arts

As a sport, MMA has roots stretching back thousands of years. Ancestral forms of the sport have existed in both Han Dynasty China and Ancient Greece, where a mix of wrestling and boxing, known as Pankration, was featured at the 33rd Olympiad in 648 BC.

Emerging during the 20th century, modern MMA grew primarily out of the tendency for practitioners of different martial arts to challenge each other to inter-discipline fights. Often seeking nothing more than prestige and bragging rights for their chosen practice, it was this kind of competition that spawned the first true “mixed” martial arts contests.

The “Gracie Challenge” is a particularly important example of this trend. Starting as early as the 1920s, Carlos and Helio Gracie sought to demonstrate the effectiveness of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu by competing against martial artists from a range of disciplines. This, in turn, helped fuel the growth of Brazil’s famous Vale Tudo subculture. This underground fight scene saw rival gyms across Brazil pit their fighters against one another. And led to some of the first inter-discipline fights to attract crowds of eager spectators.

However, this tradition was by no means limited to Brazil. In 1963 for instance, a no-holds-barred fight between boxer Milo Savage and legendary judoka Gene Lebell became the first inter-discipline fight broadcast on television. In that same year, three Japanese Kyojushin Karate experts travelled to the famous Lumpinee Boxing Stadium to compete against Thailand’s top Muay Thai fighters.

Naturally, these more personal bouts gained little attention outside the realm of hardcore martial artists. However, when Rorion Gracie brought the “Gracie Challenge” to California in the late seventies, this all began to change. Alongside Art Davie, Rorion worked to televise this Gracie tradition, founding a small organisation called the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). In 1993, the UFC held a one-day, eight-man tournament to determine the world’s most effective martial art.

The Wild West

Royce Gracie choked out Dutch kickboxer Gerard Gordeau in the final of UFC 1 – Bleacher Report/Holly Stein/Getty Image

At least in the Western world, this was the general public’s first encounter with MMA. And it is fair to say that the reception was less than welcoming. Many saw the sport as cruel and inhumane, amounting more to bloody spectacle than sport. John McCain for example, one of MMA’s most prominent “haters” from this period, publicly branded the UFC as “human cockfighting” – a term that has only recently begun to lose its grip on the sport. Apparently oblivious to the fact that cockfighting was, at the time, legal in Arizona, McCain began a personal crusade against the sport. In 1996, the senator convinced 36 states to outlaw “no-holds-barred” fights.

This campaign dealt a crippling blow to the public image of MMA. And, oddly enough, such perceptions were captured perfectly by the TV-show FRIENDS. In one episode, UFC fighter Tank Abbott, who was known as a “pit-fighter” and winner of over 200 street fights, makes a short cameo in which he is shown having essentially no teeth and brutalizing Monica’s delusional boyfriend.

A sport is defined by its rules, and the public reaction to the emergence of MMA stemmed largely from the complete lawlessness of the early UFCs. The organisation outlawed biting and eye-gouging, but groin shots, hair-pulling, and head-stomps were apparently fair game. There weren’t even weight classes, and this anarchy led to some ridiculously brutal bouts.


Ken Shamrock and Tito Ortiz at UFC 40 – sportskeeda

However, the pressure placed on the UFC by people like McCain forced the organisation to adapt. The organisation began to modify its rule-set to become more palatable to the casual observer, and state authorities. Between UFC 12 and UFC 21, the promotion introduced weight classes and five-minute rounds; made gloves a requirement; and banned groin strikes, hair-pulling, and strikes to the back of the head. These changes helped MMA move from the realm of spectacle into that of sport. By the year 2000, such efforts had gone a long way towards legitimizing the practice of fighting.

This, however, was a slow process. In fact, it wasn’t until 2002 that MMA’s journey towards acceptance began to pick up pace. While the UFC was being hounded by McCain, a promotion known as PRIDE emerged out of Japan. The company had found great success after commissioning a fight between beloved Japanese pro-wrestler Nobuhiko Takada and Rickson Gracie, another icon from the Gracie dynasty. This inspired the UFC to commission a similar fight between UFC champion Tito Ortiz, and then pro-wrestler Ken Shamrock.

Thanks to Shamrock’s pulling power, not to mention the high-profile feud between the two, the bout garnered attention from mainstream media outlets like ESPN and USA Today. Such publicity had so far eluded MMA as a sport. However, this newfound attention helped the UFC present its newly moderated form of MMA to a much larger audience. In fact, the success of UFC 40 may well have saved the UFC from bankruptcy.

Publicity, PR, and The Ultimate Fighter

The cast of UFC 1 included fighters like Josh Koscheck, Diego Sanchez and Kenny Florian – The Athletic

This increased publicity helped the UFC to rid itself of the taboos that had plagued it since the 1990s, kickstarting a process that only accelerated in the coming years. However, MMA was by no means an overnight success, and the UFC was still struggling financially. Reporting losses of around $34 million since they purchased the UFC, financial pressures forced Zuffa to reconsider their strategy. In January 2005 the UFC made its first foray away from the pay-per-view model, and onto television. With the first season culminating in the classic war between Forrest Griffin and Stephen Bonnar, The Ultimate Fighter was an instant success. Hosted by Spike TV, The Ultimate Fighter gifted the UFC a level of exposure that was vital in educating potential fans about the sport. Its popularity helped propel the sport towards wider acceptance.

Thanks to the increased visibility afforded by the show, PPV buys began to explode. Over the next few years, the UFC would break its PPV records almost annually. This newfound success allowed the company to lobby state athletic commissions across the US. Such action not only started the process of legalizing the sport, but sparked a nationwide debate that brought a huge amount of media attention to MMA events, athletes, and organisations. This publicity only pushed MMA closer to the mainstream, with Chuck Liddell gracing the cover of ESPN The Magazine, and Roger Huerta appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2007.

Thanks in part to the success of Brock Lesnar’s pro-wrestling crossover, not to mention the UFC’s purchase of Strikeforce, and the rise of popular champions like Georges Saint-Pierre and Anderson Silva, the promotion was able to carry this momentum into the 2010s. After a long journey, MMA was nearing ever closer to the mainstream of sports entertainment.

The Modern Era

Aldo VS McGregor – Wikipedia Commons

Having been the world’s fastest-growing sport for several years, MMA, or at least the UFC, had established itself fairly well by 2014. However, thanks to some residual prejudices against “cage fighting;” constant competition with the boxing industry that has for so long held a monopoly on combat sports; and a somewhat steep learning curve; MMA was still far from being a mainstream sport. Largely, this remains true today, and few non-fans can name an MMA fighter the same way they can a footballer or a boxer.

Only recently, with the help of two athletes in particular, has MMA started to overcome this final barrier. The first, Ronda Rousey, is of the defining athletes of the 21st century. The first UFC women’s champion, Rousey headlined 3 separate fight cards garnering over a million PPV buys. She has featured in Sports Illustrated, and since retirement has appeared in blockbusters like The Expendables 3, and Furious 7. The second, Conor McGregor, is consistently breaking PPV records and has headlined 4 of the UFC’s top 5 PPV events. The former double champ has reached a level of fame and notoriety never before seen in MMA, that reached its climax with McGregor’s record-breaking fight against Floyd Mayweather. This next-level celebrity-status has helped drive MMA further into popular culture.

The super-stardom reached by these athletes has helped MMA shake the prejudices that have clung to it since the 90s. Today, MMA is legal in every state. Cageside seats at the UFC are packed with world-famous celebrities like Zac Efron, Demi Lovato and Leonardo Di Caprio. As shallow a metric as this is, the gradual appearance of these characters highlights society’s fairly recent acceptance of MMA – not only as a legitimate sport but as a potentially popular one. Just 10 years ago, the idea of a private UFC island would have seemed impossible. Now, crazy as it may be, it is shockingly believable. Perhaps MMA fighters will never be as well-known as boxers. Still, wherever the sport is headed, it’s sure to be a wild ride.

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