The similarities between mixed martial arts and the timeless art of professional wrestling are many and they are obvious. So obvious, in fact, that it makes some MMA fans and practitioners a little bit nervous. They don't like being compared to professional wrestling, a farcical mock combat sport that many look down their noses at.
But harmonies between the two sports run deep, and not just surface connections and the visual deja vu of overly muscled men grappling in their underwear in front of thousands of screaming fans. The connections, instead, reach into the very heart of mixed martial arts, to the actual techniques and submission art that separates the scientific sport from the mere street fight.
Mitsuyo Maeda and the Art of Combat
The first foundation of mixed martial arts as a science is Gracie Jiu Jitsu, a grappling art that allows a smaller but smarter man to best an ignorant giant in a one-on-one battle to the finish. It's as graceful as you can imagine a fighting art being, a constant confirmation of the power of nature, of physics and gravity and a stark reminder of the frailty of the human body. It's an art the family has helped spread to the world, slowly and inexorably replacing the hoariness of hokey Eastern arts with a model of efficiency and beautiful brutality.
Activate, if you will, the darkest parts of your brain, the home of thoughts and urges you would never share with family or friends. In this dark place, stretch your imagination to its limits, searching for ways to twist the limb or limit oxygen to the brain. And no matter what you come up with, it's likely the Gracie family has beaten you to the punch.
In this they had a little help. The family would become famous for its challenge matches over the years, culminating with the ultimate extension of the Gracie Challenge called the Ultimate Fighting Championship. To the student of history, this is no surprise. After all, the man who taught the family who would go on to teach the world was himself a fighter of worldwide renown, an athlete and grappler who made his living traveling the globe and challenging its citizens to a fight as part of professional wrestling troupes or clinics in the mysterious Eastern arts of judo and jujitsu.
At first glance, I'm certain Mitsuyo Maeda's challenge was considered laughable to many. He stood just a smidgen over 5'4" and weighed a mere 140 pounds. But once they locked up with the spritely Japanese judoka, all laughter came to a screeching halt. He threw men to the ground all over the world, from Japan to the Americas to Europe and back again to the new world, where eventually he settled in Brazil.
Maeda was nearing 40 by the time a young Carlos Gracie saw him at the Teatro de Paz in Belem, Brazil, past his prime but still able to put on quite the show. Enough of one, at least, to impress a 17-year-old kid who became his student.
Maeda was the perfect teacher if your ultimate goal was becoming the most feared family in Brazil, something the Gracies managed over the course of not just one, but two generations. Maeda had seen it all in his travels, from French savate to western boxing and catch wrestling. Who better than Maeda to help devise the perfect combat art?
The Catch Wrestling Connection
Some of the greatest advances in human history were discovered and created independently at roughly the same time, sometimes across countries and continents. And while the development of mixed martial arts is hardly the creation of calculus, it may be fair to say that Masakatsu Funaki and Rorion Gracie are the sport's Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Isaac Newton respectively.
Just a little more than a month before Gracie's now iconic UFC debuted in Colorado, Funaki's Pancrase promotion held it's first show at the Tokyo Bay NK Hall on September 21, 1993. Featuring almost exclusively rogue professional wrestlers from the dying Pro Wrestling Fujiwara Gumi promotion, Pancrase was the purest expression of shootstyle wrestling its founders could imagine.
For years Japanese professional wrestlers had battled against the obvious—that wrestling was phoney, a hard hitting side show and a wondrous display of athleticism sure, but a show nonetheless. Led by the industry's greatest star, Antonio Inoki, they fought hard against that perception.
Inoki cherished the illusion of legitimacy. When he broke from the wrestling establishment one of his first moves was to import Karl Gotch, a man the Japanese would later call "the God of wrestling." A Belgian Olympian in 1948, Gotch was still just a mere plaything for established wrestlers at the famed Snakepit in Wigan, England.
It was there, underneath a rusting tin roof, that he learned catch as catch can wrestling, a particularly painful and rigorous expression of the sport complete with bone breaking submissions, itself a descendant in form and function of the ancient Greek grappling arts that were part of Pankration. Gotch was arguably the most dangerous unarmed man in the world—and Inoki wanted some of what Gotch had to rub off on his young and developing wrestlers.
Gotch wrestled Inoki himself in the main event of the Japanese star's first show out on his own, testing his stardom at the marketplace in Japan and passing with flying colors. But Gotch was already 47 years old at the time. His key role in the growth and development of Japanese wrestling, and eventually mixed martial arts, wouldn't be in the ring. It would be behind the scenes at first, teaching the craft of catch as catch can to a generation of young Japanese wrestlers.
Inoki was obsessed with wrestling's place in the martial arts hierarchy. He developed the World Martial Arts Championship in the 1970's and wrestled against some of the world's best legitimate martial artists, men like Willie Williams, Everett Eddy and judo gold medalist Willem Ruska. Despite being worked matches, the competition of proven legends helped give Inoki, and by extension pro wrestling, some much-needed credibility.
Even that wasn't enough for Inoki, who thought it was key that wrestlers be respected, not just as entertainers, but as martial artists.
"I remember all the stories from the old-school guys at New Japan about when they used to take out ads in the newspaper saying professional wrestling was the strongest of all martial arts," Inoki protege and former UFC champion Josh Barnett said. "And karate guys, judo guys would show up at their dojo saying 'we don't believe that. We think that's crap. And we're going to come in and beat you and show you otherwise.' Gotch or Inoki would go Osamu Kido, go wrestle that dude and just tear him apart. They never lost. They beat everybody up who showed up at their gym."
As wrestling in Japan became increasingly more theatrical, some of Gotch's top students balked. Led by Akira Maeda, Yoshiaki Fujiwara, Satoru Sayama and Nobuhiko Takada, they created shootstyle, a form of professional wrestling designed to blur the lines between real and fake. Combining Gotch's teachings on the mat with the pizzazz of kickboxing, it was combat ballet, hard hitting enough to make your think twice about its legitimacy while maintaining the story arcs and narrative of traditional pro wrestling.
To a pro wrestling purist, it was manna from heaven. For Funaki and Minoru Suzuki, it was just a start. They took shootstyle to its logical extension with Pancrase—matches with the structure and rules of professional wrestling, but with no predetermined endings.
Soon Takada and Maeda would join the fun, forming Pride and Rings respectively. Sayama would transition his own creation, Shooto, from an amateur sport to a professional fight promotion. Everywhere you looked it appeared to some that pro wrestlers were abandoning their sport for a new fad. To others, it looked more like taking back what was theirs by right.
The New Wrestling
In the New York offices of the Semaphore Entertainment Group, producer Campbell McClaren had a problem. The company was looking desperately for a new hit for the pay-per-view market but nothing was sticking. They had done rock concerts, kids programming and even an Andrew Dice Clay concert after his fall from the heights of fame.
Besides pornography, only two things worked in the marketplace—pro wrestling and boxing. Imagine McClaren's surprise then, to be handed a combination of the best of both, an idea for a unique fight show called "War of the Worlds." McClaren immediately flew creator Rorion Gracie and his indefatigable pitchman Art Davie to New York to discuss what would become the Ultimate Fighting Championship further.
"I made a reservation at Smith and Wollensky, which is a famous steakhouse, because I figured tough guys eat meat. Rorion, it turned out, was a vegetarian," McClaren remembered. "Mortal Kombat was out at this time and I thought if the the karate experts would wear the karate pants and the judoka is in a judo gi, if everyone is wearing their national costume, that's going to look great. I thought , visually, if you watched this show it would be like nothing you've ever seen."
McClaren was selling spectacle, in part because that was all he had. When it came time to produce the first print ad for the UFC there was no art to include with the sales patter. There were no previous fights to play off of, no heroes to exploit.
"We didn't know what to put a picture of in it," McClaren said in a 2006 interview. "The Octagon wasn't even built by the time we needed to make the ad. The fact that we did any buys for the first one was amazing."
In the Gracie family, McClaren and Davie, who would become the UFC's first matchmaker, had the perfect pro wrestling-style good guy. Rorion's younger brother Royce was a babyfaced underdog, a family man who used science and skill to defeat his larger and brawnier adversaries. As his foils the promotion found pro wrestler Ken Shamrock, Hawaiian street fighter Kimo and mustachioed wrestler Dan Severn, oversized opponents right out of central casting.
"We were into the spectacle but we quickly realized we had to have real fighters or else there was really a chance that things wouldn't be good," MCaren said. "And that's why with UFC 3, 4 , and 5 you see the real upgrade. More Brazilians start coming in to it and Oleg Taktarov, even a guy like Tank Abbott who we played up as a street fighter was actually a pretty well trained guy and a smart guy."
It's All About the Brand Stupid
Over the next 20 years, the UFC rarely diverged from its roots as a wrestling style spectacle. Even as SEG gave way to Zuffa and the new ownership team of the Fertitta brothers and Dana White, the wrestling-style promotion never truly went away.
Hidden deeper under a sports facade, the new UFC followed its WWE brethren in one very important way—the brand became bigger than any of the individual stars. There are no wrestlers or UFC fighters comparable to Floyd Mayweather Jr. or Oscar De La Hoya, boxers who write their own rules and march to only their own drummers. WWE sells the WWE—and the UFC set out to follow that same path:
World Wrestling Entertainment provided inspiration. Fertitta and White had pored over its public filings when they first bought the UFC. Now they copied the WWE's model. "[WWE] had mastered the ability to use television to suck people into a story line," Fertitta says. And story lines fueled pay-per-view buys. So the UFC came up with one of its own, tailored to the reality-TV boom of the time: They envisioned a show about a group of fighters living together as they duke it out for a contract.
Like the WWE, which at its height featured owner Vince McMahon in a key television role, the UFC placed White front and center. With the brash and bald company president leading the way, both on The Ultimate Fighter reality show and company press junkets, the UFC quickly developed a reputation as having the best bang for your buck in the whole combat sports game.
They relied, at their apex, less on main event talent than even the WWE. The UFC sold a card from top to bottom. If the main event was a bust, they all but promised, something else on the card would wow and amaze. Unlike boxing, where only the hardest of hardcore fans watched anything but the main event, the UFC sold a four- or five-hour experience.
"We would sell arenas out without even saying who's fighting. Because we are selling the UFC brand, not the fight," UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta told students at his alma matter the University of San Diego. "...There was no brand in professional boxing, no value, no company and nothing to show for it...there is no other industry of that magnitude where no brand exists around the sport."
When the UFC has highlighted individual fighters over time, it's always been in the context of a blood feud. The most successful pay-per-view events in UFC history, without exception, were over the top grudge matches. Football and basketball, for the most part, sell excellence. From furious former training partners like Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz to bitter rivals Frank Mir and Brock Lesnar, the UFC sells anger. And a lot of it.
Over time, individual fighters have also appropriated the tools of the wrestling trade for their own benefit. It's no coincidence that former pro wrestlers Ken Shamrock and Lesnar, along with wrestling wannabe Ortiz and broad characters like Liddell and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson were the most successful at gaming the system.
They became the sport's biggest stars without always being the biggest talents. Welterweight Matt Hughes had the pedigree and a resume that reeked of excellence. But it was Ortiz and Shamrock, warts and all, who sold the tickets. They understood what fans wanted to see—and gave it to them.
Most notable in his recent success has been journeyman Chael Sonnen, a veteran of 17 different fight promotions before joining the UFC for the first time in 2005. After losing two of three fights he washed out. There was, simply put, no demand to watch a Chael Sonnen fight.
When he got a second chance in 2009, Sonnen took a different tack. Gone was the respectful amateur wrestler, a conservative with dreams of politics and a career after fighting in real estate. In his place was the loudest and most egregious trash talker in the sport's history.
No topic was off limits for Sonnen, who often targeted family, friends, nationality and even ethnicity in hilarious diatribes that sometimes bordered on being uncomfortable. He's stolen material, shamelessly, from pro wrestling icons and commissioned his own title belt to carry around with him to press conferences and events, despite never winning a UFC title in the cage. He's silly and goofy and a little angry—and, beyond a shadow of a doubt, it's worked wonders for his career.
"Coming from a wrestling background, he tried to take a more humble approach. Over the last couple of years he's taken a little different approach... Whether they hate him or they love him, they know who he his," longtime training partner Matt Lindland told me last year. "They want to see him fight either way. I think it's important that he learned how to do that. This is what it takes in this industry. It's an entertainment industry. The promoters decide which fights are going to sell more tickets and those are the fights they put together. It's about building hype and putting on a show."
Sonnen, clearly, is the prototype the UFC would like its fighters to follow. Maybe not his most over-the-top shenanigans, but his brash truth-to-power and fearless challenges to his contemporaries are traits being encouraged of everyone who steps into the cage, particularly in the five minutes they have to sell themselves to the world, and to announcer Joe Rogan, after a win.
Sonnen is part athlete and part huckster, master of the double-leg takedown and the double entendre. To some, Sonnen is an innovator, helping combine athletics and entertainment in a fresh and exciting way. But he's really something else entirely, a throwback to a time when wrestlers had to really be able to go while also providing enough of a show to bring in a crowd. Sonnen is an old-school wrestler and the UFC is old-school pro wrestling—whether it knows it or not.