MMA History: The Eras and Fighters That Have Defined a Sport

T.P. Grant@@TP_GrantAnalyst IDecember 23, 2010

A Look at MMA History: The Eras and Fighters That Have Defined a Sport

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    Mixed Martial Arts is one of the fastest rising sports in the world. A combat sport to end all combat sport it brings levels of excitement that is unmatched in almost any other sporting context.

    It also remains a very misunderstood sport in many parts of the world and its history is a mystery to many fans.

    This is my best effort to compile a history of the sport that isn't in book form, so put aside a good 10-15 minutes and enjoy.

The Vale Tudo Era (Brazil, 1920s-1960s)

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    In Brazil, in the early 20th century small side show fights began to gain popularity at circuses and other gatherings. Called Vale Tudo it pitted two fighters against each other with minimal rule, the earliest documented example is in 1928. 

    Boxers, Capoeira practitioners, Luta Livre (freestyle) fighters, and then in the 1930s, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighters.

    When Mitsuyo Maeda brought the recently streamlined Japanese art of Judo (at the time called Kano Jiu-Jitsu, for more on the History of Jiu Jitsu) and began instructing the Gracie family, the Gracies wished to test their skills.

    These Vale Tudo matches do not much resemble modern MMA matches and where not considered a "sport" in themselves. Often for the crowd it was purely for entertainment, while the fighters sought to test themselves and their skills. It was the perfect venue for the Gracies to continue to grow and refine their skills.

    Now if your wondering why this article seems to focused on the Gracies, it is because it is impossible to tell the story of Mixed Martial Arts without the Gracies, so ingrained are they to birth of the sport.

    Vale Tudo match rules varied from fight to fight, some had next to no rules while others where little more than mixed grappling events. The only method of victory was to finish the other fighter, so events that did have set time limits ended in draws if that limit was reached.

    It was a baptism by fire for MMA's first family, the perfect venue for them to hone their skills, and all the time larger and larger crowds gathered to watch the Gracies fight.

Helio Gracie

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    Masahiko Kimura (Left) and Helio Gracie (Right)

    The brothers Carlos and Helio Gracie are hailed as the founders of the Brazilian style of jiu-jitsu. While both are equally revered in jiu-jitsu circles, it was Heilo's fighting career has become the stuff of MMA legend. 

    Helio was sickly as a youth and learned jiu-jistu by watching Carlos train, but as he grew older he became healthy enough to train himself. Helio seemed determine to proved that just because he lack physical size and strength meant nothing compared to his skill with jiu-jitsu.


    Helio fought many in vale tudo and grappling matches, almost always against much larger opponents. But it was the 1951 match with legendary Judoka Masahiko Kimura that would cement Helio as a legend.


    Kimura held a significant weight advantage over Helio and boasted before hand that if Helio last three minutes, Kimura himself would declare Helio the victor. In the 13th minute of the match, Kimura secured a reverse ude garami shoulder lock and when Helio refused to tap Kimura broke his arm.


    Carlos Gracie stepped in and forfeited the match on behalf of Helio, but Kimura left extremely impressed with Helio and his style of jiu-jitsu. Kimura invited Helio and Carlos to come train at his Judo academy and bestowed on them the rank of 6th Dan blackbelt in Judo.


    The Gracies declined but renamed the reverse ude garami shoulder lock the Kimura in honor of the Judoka's victory.


    In 1955, Helio fought a match against one of his own students, Caldemar Santana. The match lasted a continents 3 hours and 42 minutes.


    Helio is one of the great legends in martial arts and certainly his name is firmly written on the corner stone of Mixed Martial Arts.

“Boxer Vs. Judo-Karate Black Belt” Challenge Match (Salt Lake City, Dec 2, 1963)

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    Outside of Brazil, martial arts were beginning to encounter each other all over the world.

    Young men the world over had traversed the globe in the Second World War. Western soldiers stationed in Japan as a peacetime force began training karate and judo and bringing it back to the United States.

    The dominant combat art in the West was boxing, and students of combat arts began to ask which style was superior. Writer and promoter Jim Beck asked that very question when he gave an open challenge: any judoka that could defeat an elite boxer he would pay $1000 of his own money.

    Gene LaBall, an American Judo champion, accepted the challenge. He was opposed by Milo Savage, a formerly top ranked boxer. No kicks were allowed, but both fighters worn gis and fight was to end when one fighter was unable to continue.

    LaBell threw Savage to the ground in the 4th round and secured a gi choke. At this point in history the tapout was not an expression of combat known worldwide and Savage was render unconscious as he had no idea how to make the choke stop.

    This is the first sanctioned MMA match in the United States.

Shootfighting (Japan, 1970s)

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    Japan has long been a hotbed of different martial arts; most notably Karate and Judo and in the 1970s Japan gave birth to a new martial art.

    Karl Istaz, also known as Karl Gotch, was a very accomplished amateur wrestler, competing in the 1948 Olympics in both the freestyle and Greco-Roman events. But it was when he became a professional wrestler that he achieved true fame. During his time in professional wrestling Istaz trained in catch wrestling and even the Indian style of wrestling, Pehwani.

    Istaz traveled to Japan and there he taught his wrestling skills to a number of Japanese pro wrestlers. Antonio Inoki was one of them, and he combined western wrestling skills called "shooting" or "hooking" with his own Karate skills. Inoki took this new art and began hosting fights between those he trained.

    The matches where fought in a wrestling ring, fighters were allowed to kick, knee, headbutt and throw elbow strikes to the entire body expect the groin. Since they wore no gloves closed fist strikes were only allowed to the body and strikes to the face had to be done with an open hand. All the grappling was no gi and all submissions were permitted.

    Shootfighting continues to this day and in Japan is synonymously with Mixed Martial Arts, and this early shootfighting was the beginning of all Japanese mixed martial arts.

The Garage Challenges (Los Angles, 1980s)

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    During the late 1970s and 1980s elements of the Gracie family began moving to the United States. Rorion was one of the Gracies that traveled to Untied States, he ended up spending a great deal of time in the U.S. and began giving lessons.

    Rorion traveled around looking for a martial arts academy in the Los Angles area that would allow him to teach a class. Rorion was turned down everywhere he went and sometimes the owner of the school was outright hostile. In some cases Rorion would be challenged to a fight and Rorion, being the oldest son of Helio, couldn't turn down a fight.

    Rorion's string of victories over irate academy heads earned him a small group of followers and he began instruction with his extended family out of a garage. Rorion's classes grew and many students came over from other martial arts. The instructors of these students didn't like losing students to what they saw a soft martial art and would often come challenge the Gracies to fights. Soon the challengers expanded to simply guys looking to prove how tough they were or other martial artist eager to test their skills.

    The Gracies began recording these encounters and using them to show the effectiveness of their family art.

    While the Gene LaBall match and Ali's matches against wrestlers are the first instants of MMA-like matches in the U.S. there was never much demand for fights of that nature.

    But the Gracies sparked the American interest in style vs style matches that really proved to the genesis and driving force of American Mixed Martial Arts. That spark would grow into a full blow blaze in just a few years time.

Pioneer Era: Pancrase (Japan, 1993)

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    This Japanese promotion was founded in late 1993 by by professional wrestlers Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuk and its name was meant to be a play on the Ancient Greek combat sport Pankration. The promotion was meant to showcase the growing sport of Shootfighting in Japan but attracted fighters from around the world.

    The rules were the same as shootfighting, they also added the idea of five "rope escapes" from submissions, in which a fighter was allowed to grab the ropes to escape submission holds.

    Pancrase matches were know for fast action, the colorful shin guard boots, and man thongs.

    It produced some of the first MMA's first stars, including the charismatic champion Bas Rutten, who would become famous for his larger than life personality and unforgiving liver shots. 

    Pancrase is the first successful promotion that is built around MMA and approaches it as a sport. Its ability to draw in fighters from varied backgrounds helps grow this new sport into a huge success in Japan.

Ken Shamrock

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    Former pro wrestler turned pro fighter, Ken Shamrock had a deep background in Shootfighting and was the headliner for Pancarse's first fight card. Shamrock had an amazing career in Japan, amassing a 16-3 record in Pacrase and becoming their first champion.

    He became MMA's first fighter that fans loved to hate and he was involved in the sports first rivalries:

    and, of course, Shamrock/Tito

    Shamrock became a star in the United States when he appeared on the very first UFC card, and despite his loss to Royce Gracie he won many fans and introduce American audiences to the pain of leg locks.

    Shamrock was one of the sport's most successful early fighters. While MMA would pass him by, Shamrock was a force to be reckoned with in the 90s, boasting a 23-5-2 record and championships in the two biggest promotions of the decade.

Pioneer Era: The UFC (United States, 1993)

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    Back in the United States the Gracies had opened an academy in L.A. but they were looking to expand across the country. The popularity of kung fu movies had given the vast majority of Americans unrealistic views of martial arts and many disregarded ground fighting. 

    Remembering the effectiveness of the challenge matches Rorion Gracie in conjunction with businessmen Art Davie and Robert Meyrowitz decided to start a martial arts tournament that pitted different styles against each other.

    Together they called their tournament the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and on Nov 12, 1993 UFC 1 was held.

    They intended it to be a huge, entertaining infomercial for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and what they created was destine to become the most dominate MMA promotion in the world. 

    The UFC originally had no rules, time limits and was fought in a one night tournament format. Contestants were not required to wear any safety gear and fights could only won via stoppage. 

Royce Gracie

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    Royce Gracie was the hand picked champion of the Gracie family in the first UFC's, selected over the more talented and accomplished Rickson because it was thought his smaller size would make his wins that much more impressive.

    And impressive he was, Royce introduced American fight fans to the ground game in an unforgettable way, using submissions to defeat opponnets twice his size. Royce is considered to be one of the very best fighters from the Pioneer Era and crediting with bringing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to the atteniton of Americans.

Mark Coleman

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    Mark Coleman invented "Ground-and-Pound." This former NCAA Champion and US Olympic Team member took people down and beat the tar out of them with punches and headbutts.

    He used that strategy to become the first UFC Heavyweight Champion and Pride 2000 Openweight Grand Prix winner.

    Before Coleman, wrestlers were not given the same respect as jiu-jitsu and submission grappling fighters, but Coleman opened the door for wrestling to become the most dominant base in the sport.

    If headbutts were still allowed, it's possible Mark Coleman would still be the UFC.

The Cross-Train Era, The UFC (U.S.,1997)

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    By 1997 the term "Mixed Martial Arts" had been coined and it was growing into a true sport. After being banned in many states in the early 90s, the rules of MMA began to become more formalized. The UFC instituted tighter rules, creating weight-classes, use of gloves and general safety rules. This process was well underway in 2001 when Zuffa, headed by Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta, bought the UFC and then continued the process.

    That purchase of the UFC shows another important trend, MMA was becoming a business. As money came into the sport, fighters started seeing it as a career rather than just a venue to test their skills. Once fighters saw it as a career they began training in multiple disciplines rather than just dogmatically following one.

    Fighters began to combine skill sets to play to their strengths. Strong wrestlers began to train in jiu-jitsu so they could defend submissions and pass guard, and then either work for submissions or do damage with strikes. Matt Hughes made a dominating career out of combining strong wrestling and jiu-jitsu, and Tito Ortiz was famous for his takedowns and ground-and-pound.

    Strikers began to train in wrestling in order to defend against takedowns and keep fights standing. Maurice Smith is credited with being the first true "sprawl and brawler."

    This era produced huge stars, great fight and helped launch MMA into the view of main stream sports fans.

Frank Shamrock

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    Frank Shamrock, the adopted brother of Ken Shamrock, marks a transition in the evolution in MMA.

    Frank Shamrock is the first fighter who took training in multiple disciplines to another level. By the time Shamrock came to the UFC, he had blended kickboxing with his already dangerous submission grappling. Shamrock's goal was to take fighters out of their strength, to force grapplers to stand and strike and then to submit strikers.

    And it worked very well, from 1997 to 2006 Frank Shamrock went 11-0-1, with 5 submissions, 3 KOs, the UFC belt and four defenses of that belt.

    After Frank's original retirement in 1999 as UFC Light Heavyweight Champion, fighters all around MMA began pushing themselves to become more well rounded and gave birth to a whole new kind of MMA fighter.

    Fighters were no longer kickboxers, wrestlers or BJJ specialists; the mixed martial artist was born.

Chuck Liddell

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    In the United States, in the late 1990s and early 2000s ground fighting dominated the UFC.

    Matt Hughes, Tito Ortiz, and Randy Couture all used their wrestling to dominate opponents and strikers were not seen as relevant fighters.

    Chuck Liddell brought striking back in the U.S. by perfecting "Sprawl-and-Brawl."

    Liddell, both a trained kickboxer and wrestler, used his wrestling ability to keep fights standing and then crushed his opponents who were normally very decorated ground fighters with very little to offer him in striking.

    Liddell had one of the most dominant runs as a UFC champion ever and is regarded as one of the best strikers in the history of the sport. Liddell also represents MMA's first cross over star, appearing in TV Shows and music videos and become known to people who were not MMA fans.

The Cross-Train Era, Pride FC (Japan, 1997)

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    The Pride Fighting Championships held their first event in the Tokyo Dome on October 11, 1997. The card was headlined by the man who had been benched for UFC 1 in favor of the smaller Royce, Rickson Gracie.

    Pride FC was destine to become Japan's premier MMA league. Its business model was geared more towards entertainment than sport with less rules and wider weight-classes.

    Pride became know for its white boxing ring, fighter entrances, kicks and knees to the head of grounded fighters, Grand Prix tournaments, and giving the winners giant checks.

    Many accused Pride of hosting too many freak show fights and making non-competitive match ups, but it became one of the most beloved MMA promotions of all time.

Wanderlei Silva

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    If there is one word to describe Wanderlei Silva, it is "violence." Silva became the first global star of MMA, with fans in Japan, the United States, and Brazil because of his hype aggressive style. The fewer rules, the better Wanderlei seemed to fight. Headbutts, head stomps, soccer kicks, Wanderlei seemed to just really enjoy beating the s*** out of people.

    From dropping Tito Ortiz and then literally chasing the UFC Champion around the cage, to knocking out the legendary Japanese fighter Sakuraba, to leaving a broken Rampage Jackson draped over the ropes, Silva has left a legacy of haunting visuals.

    Silva remains one of the most popular fighters around the world to this day and each of his fights are still an event, but nothing will ever match his amazing 20-4-1 streak through Pride FC.

The Ultimate Fighter 1 Finale: Griffin/Bonnar (April 9, 2005)

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    Dana White calls this the single biggest and best fight in UFC history, and it was a great fight to be sure.

    Coming off the first season of the reality TV show The Ultimate Fighter, two likable fighters headed into the Light Heavyweight finals: Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar.

    The result has been called everything from MMA brilliance to sloppy boxing, but one thing is agree upon, it was must watch TV. Spike recorded record numbers for an MMA fight. This fight brought droves of new fans and media attention.

Fedor Emelianenko Vs Mirko "Cro Crop" Filipovic (August 28, 2005)

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    While Bonnar/Griffin was a surprisingly great fight, Fedor vs Cro Cop was a fight MMA fans could not wait to start.

    In the early 2000s the heavyweight division was often just a sideshow when compared with the more talented and entertaining fighters in the lighter weight-classes. Even the champions at heavyweight were considered lesser fighters than their smaller fellows.

    In Pride in 2005 MMA had its first premier collision of heavyweights. Fedor Emelianenko has countless fans and hordes of detractors, but his exciting fights and finishing skills made his fights must-watch.

    Cro Cop was a very accomplished kickboxer who had shown enough wrestling ability to stay on his feet long enough to land his legendary kicks.

    They met while both fighters were at the top of the game and it was the first MMA heavyweight fight that felt like a true clash of greatness.

    Fedor's place among all-time heavyweights is hotly debated, but his victory over Cro Cop cemented his place as the best Heavyweight of the Cross-Training Era.

The Era Of The Mixed Martial Artist (2006)

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    2006-2007 marks a very important transition in MMA history, this is the point in which the old guard of MMA fighters began to fall by the wayside and the next generation of fighters began to take over.

    Matt Hughes, Chuck Liddell, and Rich Franklin all were considered elite champions and all found themselves suddenly and thoroughly out-classed by their challengers.

    Fighters entering into MMA in 2006 are more athletic and more well-rounded than those who came before them.

    Mixed martial arts had become the premier place for NCAA Champion wrestlers and Jiu-Jitsu World Champions to ply their trade and make money, leading to an influx of athletes not seen before in the sport. 

    To meet this influx of wrestlers is a new breed of fighters, who have grown up in the sport and have been training in Mixed Martial Arts since their early teens instead of starting in their mid-twenties.

    The MMA heavyweight division is undergoing a renaissance, fighters are more athletic, younger and more skilled than ever before and many of them had their first pro fights in this time period.

    We have just seen the very beginning of this Era, as fighters like Jon Jones, Phil Davis, Jim Miller, Cain Velasquez, Rick Story, Anthony Pettis, and others continue to grow we will see this sport taken to new heights.

The UFC Stands Alone (2007)

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    In October of 2007, Zuffa bought out and ended Pride FC thus leaving the UFC unchallenged as the only global MMA promotion. Since then American MMA has dominated the MMA world and Japanese MMA has fallen on hard times.

    MMA has move further down the path of being a sport and less geared towards pure entertainment. I think in the long run this will be very good for MMA because the spirit of competition is what will cause detractors of the sport, even if they don't like it, to respect its place among other combat sports.

    The UFC has also pushed their product further into the main stream media than any other promotion. Major sport media outlets the world over now have MMA beat writers, event coverage, columnists and now ESPN even has a regular MMA Live show.

    But Pride has been sorely missed by its hardcore fans and its DVD's will forever be treasured items.

Georges St. Pierre

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    Georges St. Pierre is really the primer "mixed martial artist" and the fighter that all future greatness will be measured against. His first amateur fights came as a teen and he has trained in mixed martial arts for the majority of his life.

    St. Pierre has submitted submission specialists, out wrestled NCAA champions and has out struck strikers. His raw athleticism has translated to greatest and most complete skill set the sport has ever seen.

Now Its Your Turn!

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    The story of Mixed Martial arts can't be told with out mentioning the internet community of fans, who mostly spend their time debating pound-for-pound lists and trolling each other, but important none the less.

    I am aware that my lists is far from complete. I am already over 20 slides and if your still reading at this point, kudos to you, you don't have ADHD.

    I mean I have yet to mention Dan "The Beast" Severn, or Don Frye or Randy Couture!

    So hit up the comment line and add your own piece of MMA history! A story about your favorite fighter, a link to a video or picture, it doesn't matter.

    Thanks for the read and have a great holidays.