Why MMA Is the Purest Professional Sport

Dustin FilloyFeatured ColumnistJune 23, 2013

Even for a critic, it's not far-fetched to suggest that a professional MMA bout represents the world's most pure athletic endeavor, especially considering the sport's roots.

Derived partially from the world's oldest sport, wrestling, and from the ancient Greek martial art, Pankration, MMA embodies the primal nature of one-on-one combat more accurately than any other sport.

The rules have changed since the days of Pankration, but the purpose of an MMA fight remains the same: to measure an athlete's grit and physical prowess by pitting two trained competitors against one another, in a ring or an Octagon, with only a referee regulating their actions.

With so many ways to win or lose, it's inevitable that intimate details about fighters rampantly get revealed during the course of a typical MMA scrap.

Fans first got a candid look at the lives of pro mixed martial artists when the UFC unveiled its reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, in 2005. 

The Ultimate Fighter broke ground in the mass media for MMA, illustrating the tremendous amount of hard work and dedication that goes into training for MMA bouts.

The Ultimate Fighter also exemplified the fact that the most cerebral and most well-prepared fighters would almost always prevail, even when pitted against superior athletes. 

But long before The Ultimate Fighter, back to the times of the UFC's inception in 1993, countless throwbacks to the times of ancient Greece found homes in the Octagon.

These bona fide pros carefully monitored their diets and sleep cycles and then conducted grueling training camps in the months preceding their fights, only to get permission to partake in frightening tests of will.

It's not a team sport, but fighters have always grown while working cohesively in their training camps. And with help from their peers, they often resemble Spartans on fight night.

But once the bout's opening bell sounds, a fighter ultimately relies on his or her own skill set to generate excitement for a fanbase that constantly yearns for gladiatorial entertainment.

In the heat of war, even the most premier coaches and teammates can't help an unprepared or over-matched fighter from getting embarrassed or possibly even injured. 

Any fan who witnessed Gabriel Gonzaga's headkick knockout of Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic, or Frank Mir's vicious kimura of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, must know that the wellbeing of each fighter is on the line in every bout.

It's these cold realities of the sport, however, that fuel the arguments of the sport's harshest naysayers.

 Although it's evolved into a tremendously successful company, the UFC still wouldn't win a popularity contest against mainstream leagues like the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA or the NHL.

So if it's not the world's most in-demand sport, what factors make MMA purer than sports that include a bat, a ball or a puck?

There's a logical reason why wrestling, one of several disciplines incorporated in MMA, traces its origins to between 100 and 200 A.D. There's also a rational explanation why team sports didn't exist when wrestling spawned.

Wrestling hatched when a group of Greeks decided to measure each other's valor in the form of organized competition. With scarce amounts of clothing and equipment available, intense grappling matches in skimpy attire made for extremely captivating sporting events.

Eventually, the Greeks grew bored with wrestling and decided to assess each other's physical fortitude under a more extreme set of rules.

Blending elements of wrestling, boxing and submission fighting, Pankration was formed and later introduced in the Greek Olympic Games in 648 B.C. 

Pankration remained an Olympic sport for over 1,000 years, until being scrapped in 393 A.D.

Centuries later, elements of the ancient sport amazingly spill over into modern-day MMA.

Longtime UFC welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre offered his opinion on how MMA could get closer to its roots of Pankration on a recent episode of The Joe Rogan Experience. St-Pierre suggested that the UFC should abolish rounds and allow competitors to fight until their bouts get finished.

There's a lot of things I would change in the sport. First of all the time: There's no time, no rounds. I believe it's stupid, the rounds. We want to see who's the best man. Let them fight...Why are there rounds? Why are we trying to be like boxing? We're not boxers. They did rounds to be like boxing to be accepted as a sport.

Just mastering one of the eight major disciplines practiced by mixed martial artists—amateur wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, catch wrestling, judo, karate, boxing, Muay Thai and Taekwondo—requires extraordinary discipline, athletic ability, guidance and, most importantly, time.

But dominating a particular weight class at the highest levels of the sport—like Anderson Silva, Jon Jones or St-Pierre have—entails several intangible qualities.

Silva, Jones and St-Pierre may not represent the best in each particular facet of MMA, but they've soared so high because they each possess a rare desire to become the toughest fighter on the planet.

And because perfecting their preparation rituals translates to success in the Octagon, "The Spider," "Bones" and "GSP" have each immersed themselves in constant states of preparation.

The feeling never subsides for these rare breeds, and guys like Silva, Jones and St-Pierre only fear the day when they realize a man their own weight can make them taste defeat. 

Silva, Jones and St-Pierre have each essentially made MMA a lifestyle rather than an athletic venture, a decision that all aspiring MMA champs must eventually make.

St-Pierre's longtime trainer, Firas Zahabi, talked about the frenetic pace that GSP keeps up during his training camps and the odds of the longtime welterweight champ retiring before the age of 35 on an episode of Sherdog Radio's The Cheap Seats.

I think so because his training camps are not sustainable forever. His training camps are very difficult. I’ve done a lot of training camps. I could tell you the energy, time and money and hours spent doing a GSP training camp is ridiculous. It’s borderline insane. There’s a lot of effort going into preparing him for his fights. Can he live this lifestyle for another four or five years? I don’t know. Because it’s not a balanced lifestyle. It’s not a balanced lifestyle for him.

Regardless of when St-Pierre, Jones and Silva each decide to retire, top-tier MMA fighters will always be lurking in the shadows, looking to take the most radical measures to take their places.

In a sport as pure as MMA, it's a travesty that the value of most fighters gets minimized to wins and losses, but it seems that it's always been that way—even thousands of years ago in Greece.

After all, unlike baseball, football or hockey, in which losses don't draw much comparison to reality, a setback in MMA can result in the questioning of one's guts. That fear both torments and drives all pro mixed martial artists.