About Mixed Martial Arts

It took 12 years for mixed martial arts (MMA) to become the sport it is today. Born as a pay-per-view spectacle in November 1993, this once renegade combative contest evolved from a bare knuckle “style vs. style” freak show to a full-fledged mainstream sport. No more ninjas; this modern day MMA showcases a new breed of professional athlete well-versed in striking, grappling and conditioning. The athletes make the sport and have evolved right along with it. Strikers like Georges St. Pierre and Anderson Silva are just as adept at submitting people as they are at knocking people out.

From bad boys like Tito Ortiz to comedians like Forrest Griffin to iconic figures like Randy Couture, this sport is filled with athletes who appeal to people from all walks of life. With the debut of The Ultimate Fighter in 2005 on Spike TV, the average person was able to see what the sport had to offer, and it was the colorful cast of characters that truly connected with the audience. Pay-per-view numbers have been going up ever since. MMA has become a fixture on television; there are trading cards, action figures, paintings and even a museum. The sport is a lifestyle, something that boxing and many other sports never achieved. It is a worldwide phenomenon of fans, athletes, fight promotions, gyms, sponsors and media—all harmoniously working in a way no one saw coming.

First it was War of the Worlds, and then it became known as The World’s Best Fighter. But by the time it debuted, it was The Ultimate Fighting Championship. There were few rules, no weight classes and no gloves; SEG (the company that formally owned the UFC) pushed the raw no-holds-barred agenda because they saw the UFC as a viable, but short-lived pay-per-view entity—not a sport. Traditional martial arts came out against it, often spewing mythical minutia in karate rags knowing there would never be anything to come of it. UFC 2 fighter Johnny Rhodes, a kenpo stylist who used good ole fashioned streetfighting to batter karate practitioner Fred Ettish, said, “I think it (UFC) hurt traditional martial arts because it exploited it because you’re taught to do just the opposite. Being in that really makes you rethink self-defense.”

And despite the flack from the traditional martial arts community, one martial art did emerge from the Octagon that would make the single biggest impact on martial arts altogether: Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Rorion Gracie, who co-created the UFC along with Arthur Davie, Robert Meyrowitz and Campbell McLaren, was always looking for a way to spread the art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu (Gracie jiu-jitsu), but aside from helping out movie stars, he couldn’t seem to move the art out of his own garage. With the UFC, he could put the art to the ultimate test using his brother Royce to combat heavier opponents with more martial arts experience. The audience marveled at all the black belts, bulging muscles and crazy characters, but by the time the show was over, they remembered Royce Gracie and his strange-looking grappling moves. Soon Brazilian jiu-jitsu schools popped up all over the place and Rorion was joined, not only by his brothers, but many more Brazilian masters to spread the art across America.

By the time Royce left in 1995, the UFC was a commercial fad that made its way into a two episode arc of Friends and the Russell Crowe outing, Virtuosity. Brad Pitt was a fan, but the media never really got it right, often spreading misinformation about what really happened in these so-called no-holds-barred events. But the UFC was relatively safe because it was being held in states without sanctioning bodies, including Colorado and Oklahoma. The rogue contest couldn’t win many high profile friends on a state or federal level, while Arizona Senator John McCain became something of a Darth Vader. In a letter McCain drafted to Wyoming Governor Jim Geringer on June 6, 1995, McCain said, “The ‘Ultimate Fighting Championship’ is a disturbing and bloody competition which places the contestants at great risk for serious injury or even death, and it should not be allowed to take place anywhere in the United States.” UFC 6 took place on July 14, 1995 in Wyoming as planned.

Two years later the UFC was dead…at least on the majority of the cable universe. The events were scaled down with low-paid fighters traveling like gypsies from small venues in Alabama and New Orleans hoping to keep the sport alive. Japan and Brazil, both of which held MMA matches prior to the UFC, saw a rejuvenation of fandom, namely with Japan’s Pride Fighting Championships. Back at home, the media quit talking about it, McCain moved onto other issues and things looked grim.

The Internet kept fandom alive. Before the multitudes of websites and magazines, there was The Combat List that kept thousands of fans up to date with what was going on in the sport. The Underground Forum took over as a fan-friendly way to connect and it still lives today courtesy of MMA Worldwide columnist Kirik Jenness. Eddie Goldman, a TapouT Magazine columnist, can also claim to be the first MMA journalist who was often times one of the only people to cover the shows during the so-called “dark years” of the UFC.

It took several years to mature past the one-dimensional martial arts styles, but it also took several years before the sport was called mixed martial arts (MMA). Mixing martial arts was nothing new as pankration was introduced to the 33rd Olympiad in 648 BC. Pankration, meaning “all strength,” was a way to find the best wrestler amongst boxers and the best boxer amongst wrestlers according to one Greek Scholar. And yet, the sport was called vale tudo (meaning “anything goes”) in Brazil where matches took place in the 1950s due to the Gracie movement of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. It was also called shoot fighting or shoot wrestling in Japan as part of a harder form of pro wrestling. Indeed, the sport went by many names including: no holds barred, free fighting, ultimate fighting, pancrase and no rules fighting. And even though it is a mouthful, “mixed martial arts” stuck and became the universal term for the sport throughout the world.

The in-cage or in-ring fighting evolved too. In the beginning, Royce Gracie led the wave for Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Then Dan Severn and Mark Coleman brought wrestling, which led to more ground fighting in the UFC, but many of the wrestlers didn’t know how to finish. When Maurice Smith knocked out Conan Silveira, people took note that striking did have its place in MMA. Then Maurice Smith outlasted Mark Coleman proving that conditioning was just as important. Frank Shamrock, who literally learned MMA from the beginning without any prior fight knowledge, quickly submitted Kevin Jackson at UFC Japan in December 1997, and gave many MMA historians a glimpse of the first mixed martial artist. Since that time, rules have been changed for various reasons to keep a level playing field including more weight classes, 4-ounce gloves, no shoes and a list of rules that became known as the “unified rules.” Jutaro Nakao vs. Tony DeSouza, which took place on the ill-fated UFC 33: Victory in Vegas, actually led to a rule change whereby the referee could restart the action for inactivity. That event had six of the eight fights to a decision and even ran over the allotted PPV slot. Fighters quickly realized that putting on a show to entertain the crowd is often times more important than winning because that’s what sells tickets.

Mixed martial arts is a young sport where things continue to happen that signify change. But it is the only professional sport where fans can really connect with the fighters, often times having a beer with them after the fights if they happen to be at the same bar. The humbling experience that got many of these fighters to where they are today is the same reason they stop and take pictures, sign autographs and don’t leave fans waiting. Fighters like Chuck Liddell, BJ Penn, Quinton Jackson and Gina Carano are far more than just household names; they are superstars that people follow religiously through guest appearances, movies, TV shows, videogames and mass merchandising. And though the UFC is often-times the only promotion synonymous with MMA in the hearts of new fans, it’s important to recognize the grassroots movement, the regional promoters like Sven Bean, Monte Cox and Terry Trebilcock and the MMA media (on and off the Internet) that has worked so tirelessly to keep fans connected. There are local MMA events to be found in almost every state and the local fighters who make $1,000 could be the world champions making over a million in a few years. The evolution of MMA as a sport was a fight in itself. Now it is up to you to carry on that torch by educating people on why mixed martial arts is the greatest sport of a new generation.

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