Modern mixed martial arts and everybody that benefits from it owes a lot to the legendary Gracie family of Gracie Jiu Jitsu. It was a series of videos called 'Gracies in Action' which featured members of the Gracie family defeating proponents of other martial arts that inspired business man and Gracie student Art Davie to come up with the idea of a super tournament pitting various styles of martial arts against each other. He pitched this idea to Rorion Gracie who bought in American screenwriter John Milius and the stage was set.
In the beginning they came from everywhere. Sumo's, Shootfighters, Karate champs, and Kickboxers descended on the ring in a brutal no rules; no holds barred 8 man tournament. Ok you got me; there were a couple of rules. Headbutts, sure. Kicking an opponent on the ground, no problem. Groin strikes were frowned upon but not disallowed. The only rules were no biting, or eye gouging, that's it. The fights continued until finished with an un-limited amount of 5 minute rounds and no referee stoppages.
Because there were no time limits, there were no judges present. Of course due to a lack of rules, the open weight class and the fact that no gloves were worn, not a single fight in the tournament went beyond 4:18. These warriors were paid $1000 each with the winner reportedly taking home $50K.
Some interesting facts from the early days...
In the very first fight at the "Ultimate Fighting Championship - War of the Worlds" Savate fighter Gerard Gordeau kicked a downed sumo Teila Tuli in the face sending 1 of his teeth flying into the crowd (and past rep's from sponsor Gold’s Gym, who immediately cancelled their sponsorship) in a well documented scene. What is not known by many, is that Gordeau also ended up with 2 of Tuli's teeth stuck in his foot and following doctors advice left the teeth in place (for fear of a cut opening) and preceded to fight twice more before being submitted in the final by Royce Gracie.
At UFC 1 Art Jimmerson entered the ring against Royce Gracie wearing only 1 boxing glove on his left (jab) hand.
At UFC 2 Patrick Smith had beaten Scott 'the ninja' Morris senseless, in one of the worst beat downs ever seen; but due to the lack of a referee stoppage rule 'Big' John McCartney was helpless to do anything and glared over at Morris' corner, who looked away and refused to throw in the towel. With Morris basically unconscious, Smith thankfully decided to stop beating on him, got up and walked away ending the fight. This fight was the basis for referee stoppages being brought in to the UFC. On a side note - Ben Perry, the announcer on UFC 2, was famously quoted referring to Scott Morris, "We don't know much about him, because he is a ninja."
At UFC 3, Keith Hackney squared off against Sumo master Emmanuel Yarborough, who could curl 315lbs. Hackney gave up 9" in height and 400lbs in weight, but still delivered 41 hammer fists, punches and forearms to the downed sumo on the way to ending the fight.
At UFC 8 Gary Goodridge performed perhaps the most devastating KO ever seen in MMA, when he trapped his hapless opponent Paul Herrera on the ground in a 'goose neck' where both of Herrera's arms were locked and preceded to smash his face in with 8 devastating elbows ending the fight in 13 seconds. While Goodridge would have appeared to most fight fans as a world class martial artist, he was actually an arm wrestling champion who had attended 2 lessons of the Korean freestyle martial art - Kuk Sool Won and was offered status as a 4th degree black belt and a free gi to represent the school in the UFC. Supposedly the goose neck was the only submission he had learnt.
Ken Shamrock only had 3 ‘real’ fights before entering UFC 1, all in Pancrase. It was decided he would be given the title of ‘#1 Shootfighting Champion of Japan’, along with a dozen more wins on his record (which were in reality, toughman fights) to build his stats and help promote Pancrase.
Legendary bar room brawler Tank Abbot (considered by many to be the pioneer of the modern MMA glove) was in the house for UFC 5 but got so drunk he lost his front-row tickets and ended up sitting high in the rafters. His discipline of ‘Pit-Fighting’ was a made up term by Art Davie to use instead of ‘streetfighter’. (Scott Ferrozo received the same title).
As you can imagine the early days of the UFC were more comparable to the Wild West, than an organised sport. Fights were unsanctioned, rules were few and vague, equipment and clothing were not standardised, sponsors rarely hung around for very long, and media coverage was generally very negative, drawing the attention of a formidable adversary in Senator John McCain whilst the UFC was still in it's infancy.
In 1996 after watching footage of the early UFC tournaments, Sen. McCain described the sport as 'human cockfighting' and immediately started on a campaign to crush MMA which included writing letters to all 50 US governors asking them to ban the 'sport'. As a result, the UFC was dropped from the major cable pay-per-view distributor Viewer's Choice, and from individual carriers such as TCI Cable. Thirty six states enacted laws that banned 'no holds barred' fighting, including NY, who enacted the ban on the eve of UFC 12 (to be held in NY), dealing a massive blow to the promoters and forcing an emergency relocation to Dothan, Alabama.
The pressure placed on the UFC actually led to the evolution of the sport, with increased co-operation with state athletic commissions and a re-formatting of the rules to remove the less palatable elements. By UFC 14 weight classes had been introduced, along with mandatory gloves and a bevy of new rules including, no hair pulling, groin strikes, head butting, fish hooks or kicking a downed opponent. By UFC 15 other types of unsavoury striking were added to the list, and by UFC 21 the introduction of the standardised 3 x 5 minute rounds was implemented, re-branding MMA as a genuine sport, rather than a spectacle.
All of this was fine and jolly but the bigger picture required U.S sanctioning of the UFC (and the other up and coming organisations) to really begin to grow as both a sport and a business. Despite the UFC continuing to work with state athletic commissions, events were only being held in smaller regional areas and it was not until another organisation, the International Fighting Championships secured a fully sanctioned MMA event in New Jersey on September 30th 2000, that the UFC finally received full sanctioning for UFC 28 under the New Jersey State Athletic Control Boards "Unified Rules". Still the problems continued...
With the UFC on the brink of bankruptcy from its long sanctioning battle, along came the saviour. Dana White Enterprises (starring Dana White) conducted aerobics classes in the Las Vegas area. DW was a sports fanatic and amateur boxer, who being the budding entrepreneur that he was, also managed a couple of promising young MMA fighters in Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell. Upon hearing about the financial plight of the UFC, DW contacted an old buddy who happened to be a former Nevada state athletic commissioner, Lorenzo Fertitta.
Within a month Lorenzo and his older brother Frank had purchased the UFC for the bargain price of $2 million under newly created parent company Zuffa, LLC and installed DW as the president. After securing their future, the UFC had finally arrived and with it came the golden age of fighters with names like Mark Coleman, Vitor Belfort, Andrei Arlovski, Frank Shamrock, Tito and Chuck, Pat Militech (founder of the legendary Militech Fighting Systems) Randy Couture, Pedro Rizzo, Pete Williams, Jeremy Horn, Matt Hughes, Wanderlei Silva, Evan Tanner, Jens Pulver and Mikey Burnett among others.
Along with the new breed of fighters came further evolution of the sport. The 'old school' brawlers with no submission training like Tank Abbott and Scott Ferrozzo had no place in the modern game; in fact by this point Ferrozzo had already retired after being beating convincingly by a much smaller Vitor Belfort, and Tank would not win again in the UFC. MMA was evolving everywhere, and even though Tank left the UFC his only wins in his last 10 fights have both come over fellow brawlers Wes "Cabbage" Correira and Mike Bourke.
The most successful fighters were fusing the most successful martial arts into styles of their own. Randy Couture developed dirty boxing, a fusion of wrestling and boxing and used with great success by himself and Tito Ortiz. Vitor Belfort had the complete package, with black belts in both Judo and BJJ coupled with impressive boxing skills and lightning hand speed. No longer could anyone be successful with just 1 weapon, no matter how impressive that weapon was.
All the best fighters had become proficient on their feet and capable on the ground. Hall of fame legend Mark 'The Hammer' Coleman was a collegiate and Olympic wrestling superstar who basically invented ground and pound and had considerable success in his early days winning both UFC 10 and 11. But as time went on and styles evolved his lack of a genuine striking discipline caught up with him.
Through the history of MMA almost every major style of martial arts has graced the octagon. Today the pretenders and aesthetically pleasing martial arts have been found out and all that remains from the myriad of styles available from around the world are these; boxing, kickboxing, and muay thai as striking weapons; and wrestling, judo and Jiu Jitsu (predominantly Brazilian) utilised in ground games.
Don't get me wrong, a background in Kyokushin Karate like GSP or even a laughable martial art like Capoeira (Anderson Silva) can be incorporated into your personal style with great success, but at the end of the day only the above martial arts have stood the test of time. In fact you could simplify things further into 3 styles of fighter, strikers (Shane Carwin) wrestlers (Randy Couture) and ground fighters (Frank Mir). No matter the base style, almost all exponents of MMA cross train at every opportunity.
Modern superstars like Anderson Silva and Georges St. Pierre are so well rounded that it is impossible to think of anyone that has come before them that could be a legitimate threat, outside of the standard 'punchers chance' or lucky submission. The sport had evolved enormously by the time the Iceman, Tito, and Vitor Belfort were running amok in the middleweight and light heavyweight divisions, but even they would struggle against the best fighters running around today, as sadly Chuck (one of my favourites) keeps discovering.
Just like in other professional sports, there are now managers, dieticians, sports psychologists, and entire armies of trainers and training partners for individual fighters and many of the top fighters have started their own gyms.
The great debate rages over when (as opposed to whether) MMA will overtake boxing as the premier combat sport in the world, with many believing it has already done so. Boxing's cause is not helped by the fact that in the glamour division (Heavyweight), 3 of the 4 major championships are held by the Klitschko brothers who have repeatedly stated they will not fight each other. In general boxing is more popular with the over 35's, and MMA more popular with the younger generations, which presents a simple equation where as time moves on MMA should start eating further into boxing's share of the pie.
Personally I prefer boxing; however after growing up with superstars like Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Lewis, Holyfield and Tyson, I'll be the first to admit that the top MMA fighters today are far more exciting than the equivalent boxers. Another argument carried by the world's most excited fight fan Joe Rogan is this "boxing is the art of punching; MMA is the art of fighting."
As DW loves telling everyone, MMA is the fastest growing sport in the world. Well the Phil Ivey's and Gus Hansen's of Poker would argue with that; however most of us don't consider guys who sit on their arses for days with Ipod's in their ears, whilst munching potato chips and slinging casino chips to be a real sport, so DW is probably right.
Is there room for further evolution in the sport? Of course, however the Wild West days are behind us and from here on in it is all fine tuning...