An awful lot has changed in 20 years.
Twenty years ago, Royce Gracie swept through the first Ultimate Fighting Championship in what was essentially an extended advertisement for Gracie Jiu Jitsu. How did we get from Royce Gracie's basic methods to the rounded skill set employed by Cain Velasquez or Jose Aldo?
When I was asked to write this piece, I thought that it would be fairly easy. I was obviously not thinking. This is a subject to which we could devote a sizable tome, but I will here attempt to do it in a few thousand words.
Today we will take a brief look at the development of mixed martial arts strategy from UFC 1 onward.
Royce Gracie and the Grappler's Dominance
UFC 1 confirmed that in a bout of pure grappler against pure striker, more often than not the grappler will win. Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie had easily submitted their opponents while the rest of the tournament was made up of ugly, clumsy brawls.
If UFC 1 didn't fix this idea in the minds of viewers, UFC 2, 3 (though Gracie dropped out before the final), and 4 certainly did, as Royce Gracie swept through the competition time and again and remained undefeated.
Gracie's success was due to two factors.
Firstly, almost no-one was familiar with the ground game; even those who were had not trained it in as methodical an environment as Gracie had with his family. Ken Shamrock leaping back on a leg from Gracie's guard and allowing Gracie to come up on top of him is the perfect example of this.
The second factor was that almost no-one in the tournament had any idea of how to prevent or break away from the clinch or to stuff a shot. Knowing that Royce Gracie wanted to clinch, most went in expecting to have to knock him out before he did so.
The most important point that these early UFC bouts proved was that if a man doesn't want to throw strikes with you, and instead wants to grab ahold of you, you have a very small window in which to knock him out. If you can't break the clinch or stuff the takedown, you have almost no chance.
The Gracie method was pretty well expected by UFC 4, but nobody found a counter to it. He would throw that bizarre push kick to the knee or a front kick to the face, then charge in behind it and duck into the clinch or a takedown. In the event of a real struggle, Gracie would pull guard.
At UFC 5, Gracie's involvement in a superfight with Ken Shamrock and not being entered into the tournament gave Dan Severn chance to shine. The great wrestler was able to manhandle his way to the final, where he won by an Americana.
The Rise of the Wrestler
It was now that the UFC, and mixed martial arts competition, began to resemble in many ways what we see today. As wrestlers began to learn to defend submissions from the top, and even apply a few of their own, they became the dominant force in mixed martial arts.
Gracie excelled because almost no-one he fought knew how to stop him taking them down, and the ones who did (Ken Shamrock, Dan Severn) struggled to deal with his skill from the bottom. From UFC 5 onward, the list of tournament winners reads like an amateur wrestling scrapbook.
Dan Severn, Don Frye, Mark Coleman and Mark Kerr each won the UFC tournament twice. The superfights were almost exclusively contested between grapplers who had succeeded in previous tournaments.
There were successes who weren't wrestlers, such as the sambo master, Oleg Taktarov, and arguably the first complete mixed martial artist, Marco Ruas, but the trend was overwhelmingly in favor of the wrestler.
This era continued to impress that one great truth in mixed martial arts and set it in stone:
Whoever can control where the fight takes place owns the fight.
Even between wrestlers there was of course a great deal of variation. Some liked to shoot and others preferred the clinch. Mark Coleman could double-leg a horse, Dan Severn did a better job once he had a hold on his opponent.
The Ground-and-Pound Game
Not having the submission savvy of men like Royce Gracie or Ken Shamrock, the great wrestlers of the UFC tournaments primarily relied on hitting their opponent while they held them down. No-one was quite as frightening in the early days as Mark Coleman.
Coleman could hit hard. He didn't have much of a gas tank, but he could hit often enough and with enough authority that he could grind his opponents down on the mat. Dan Severn was always a terrifying specimen, but he seemed reluctant to hit hard when on the mat. Coleman was a better wrestler, with none of these scruples.
When Coleman's victim tried to stop him punching them, by reaching for his hands, Coleman would start butting them with his head. We often forget just how effective butting is, but a quick review of Coleman's bouts will remind you why it remains such a dangerous technique.
A perfect example is that of Brian Johnston, who was doing an excellent job of holding Coleman close and smothering his offense. All it took was a couple of butts by Coleman, and he was released back up to punching range, whereupon he pounded out his man.
At UFC 15, head butts (along with a host of other activities) were banned in an effort to make the UFC less controversial and more along the lines of an actual sport. Coinciding with an ACL replacement, Coleman's success rapidly dropped off in the UFC, but on moving to PRIDE FC, where knees to the head of a downed opponent were legal. He enjoyed a career resurgence and provided some brutal knockouts from the front headlock and north-south positions.
The Defensive Guard
Before strikers began learning to sprawl, something which took a long time, the guard took on the role of the most important position in the bout. For the men who couldn't out grapple on the feet with the great wrestlers, the guard was the equalizer.
Around the same time that Mark Coleman was dominating the UFC, a Dutch kickboxer named Bas Rutten was ruling over the competition in Pancrase, a Japanese promotion.
Rutten had entered the organization with little submission experience and had faltered against submission fighters such as Masakatsu Funaki and Ken Shamrock. While Rutten was able to starch the lesser wrestlers in the organization, his realization that the guard was his most important tool turned his career around rapidly.
Rutten eventually came to the UFC, but one of his Pancrase stable mates found success with similar tactics before Rutten made the move.
Maurice Smith is one of the truly remarkable success stories in MMA. Arguably the best kickboxer that the US has ever produced, there was still nothing to suggest that he could beat Mark Coleman in an MMA match. Smith's 5-7 record in MMA was particularly discouraging.
Meeting Coleman at UFC 14, at the height of Coleman's headbutting, double legging, face pounding powers, Smith had a huge task ahead of him. What Smith did have, and Coleman had shown to lack, was cardio.
Through the first round, Smith weathered the storm. From his guard he effectively shut down Coleman's strikes and used the lock down from half guard to keep Coleman's weight off of him and out of the head butts. Controlling Coleman's head and posture masterfully, Smith avoided the soul-sapping beating which Don Frye had suffered from his own closed guard.
Smith threw up no submission attempts—he simply controlled and exhausted Coleman, and scrambled when he was in a bad spot. In the two extension rounds, Coleman could hardly stand, while Smith was breathing hard but was more than happy to open up with his jabs and low kicks. Smith won the decision and momentarily bucked the great trend of grapplers beating strikers. But he had done so as a rounded mixed martial artist.
Bas Rutten was able to exhaust Tsuyoshi Kohsaka and Kevin Randleman from underneath shortly afterward. Similarly, Frank Shamrock was able to do the same against a much bigger, strong Tito Ortiz in arguably the best fight in UFC history, TKOing Tito in the fourth round.
This was an incredible step forward from the days of fighters simply holding closed guard and hoping for a referee to insist on a stand up as Igor Vovchanchyn and other non-wrestlers did.
Sprawl and Brawl
The more popular method of dealing with wrestlers was to face them head on. Many strikers tried to pick up the wrestling game to the extent where they could stuff a good wrestler's takedown attempts, and most utterly failed.
In PRIDE FC Mirko Cro Cop Filipovic had great success, but in the UFC the man to watch was Chuck Liddell.
We began the article, and indeed the UFC, with the rule that it is extremely hard to knock a man out before he clinches you. What Liddell and other successful strikers have done so well in recent years is force an opponent to keep attempting the clinch or shot.
The more times an opponent is forced to attempt a shot or clinch, the more they exhaust themselves and the better you can come to know their timing and habits.
Liddell could stuff the best of them, and when that failed he didn't simply hold his guard, he worked his way up. A pioneer of the wall walk, Liddell would seemingly ignore his opponent's offense on the ground and begin wriggling his way toward and then up the fence.
Nowadays, the successful strikers have realized that actively trying to stuff takedowns is an awfully exhausting process. Some fighters will feed the single-leg takedown and hop to the cage for balance such as Jose Aldo and B.J. Penn. Others will use space and backpedal, avoiding engaging at all and baiting their opponent to rush in and be countered, such as Lyoto Machida and Anderson Silva.
Of course, the truly wonderful thing about MMA is that there still exist the simple ground-and-pounders. The strikers with a great guard, and the striker who wades forward and hopes to sprawl in time. The process of evolution in mixed martial arts has not been about shedding layers, but of accumulating them.
The Fighters of Today and Tomorrow
Bill Bryson observed that it is a common misconception that biological evolution marches toward a pinnacle such as man. The evolution of the fight game is not dissimilar. It is not working toward a final point or peak. There is no final form or perfect fighter.
As fighters learn new techniques, older ones get neglected or forgotten and then return with as much efficacy as they had on the day they were invented.
I am often asked what direction I think the fight game will take in years to come, and I have no answer for that. I don't think there is one. What is so exciting about mixed martial arts now, 20 years after the first UFC event, is that there still exists a vast number of styles and strategies.
We have takedown artists and ground-and-pounders. We have guard passers and guard pullers. We have runners and ring cutters, clinch fighters and wall walkers. We have guys who jump off of the fence as if it were the floor, and we have stallers. We have exciting fighters, and we have guys who you hope to see lose more than anything.
The side kick we laughed at when recalling Royce Gracie two years ago is now a commonplace technique in the arsenals of Jon Jones and Anderson Silva. Keith Hackney's rolling axe kick attempt has been replicated numerous times in the cage (though no knockouts yet). We even had a 205-pound champion who was using karate to fluster people.
After 20 years of constant evolution, you cannot point to any one factor that combines the current crop of the UFC champions except that they are good in every area. Each has his own approach and methods. This is not art versus art but fighter versus fighter and preparation versus preparation.
The UFC and MMA have been through a lot in two decades, and there's a hell of a lot more on the way.
Pick up Jack's eBooks Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking from his blog, Fights Gone By.
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