When MMA Gets Weird: The Strangest Combat Sports Events

Steven Rondina@srondinaFeatured ColumnistJune 15, 2018

When MMA Gets Weird: The Strangest Combat Sports Events

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    MMA is great, but few will deny that things tend to blend together. Between the UFC and other promotions such as Bellator, Strikeforce and WEC, fans have been constantly barraged with the same ol', same ol' of two dudes with shaved heads and bad tattoos punching one another in a cage for decades.

    This fact isn't lost on combat sports promoters, either, as each one scrambles for some way to separate their product from the rest. Sometimes, those new wrinkles go from small oddities to standard fare in MMA. Other times, they die upon arrival.

    Over the last 30 years, there have been many strange new takes on MMA that have left fans scratching their heads. Bleacher Report's Steven Rondina and Nathan McCarter are here to recount 10 of the wackiest variants that have ever sullied televisions.

Team Fighting Championship

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    What Is It?

    Many promoters have tried to apply traditional team-sports concepts to MMA over the years, but none have succeeded. Though fighters will train together and corner for one another, the sport's individual nature means they'll never be able to compete on the same side.

    But what if MMA weren't an individual sport?

    Enter: Team Fighting Championship. Featuring two squads of five fighters throwing down in an enormous ring, it allows the athletes to work alongside one another in ways fans haven't seen.


    Is It Any Good?

    The fact that fans hadn't seen it before...well, that was probably a good thing.

    From a spectator perspective, 10 men fighting at once is too much motion to follow. It's impossible to watch any one of the skirmishes and, as a result, plays out like a scene from Looney Tunes (the ones where fights are portrayed as a cloud of dust with limbs randomly poking out).

    As for the sport itself, it doesn't afford anyone the opportunity to shine.

    No matter how well-trained or physically gifted a professional fighter might be, two-on-one situations are almost impossible to deal with. Because of that, these five-on-five contests are almost exclusively determined after the first elimination, as the free man blindsides an opponent to create a two-on-one, which inevitably leads to a three-on-one, and so on. 

    The cherry on top of this awful sundae is how easy it is to imagine things going wrong. MMA fans have seen many fights go on for a few punches too long and are well aware of the kind of damage a late stoppage can do. Because of that, five fights at once is a recipe for disaster.

Bare Knuckle FC

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    What Is It?

    Bare Knuckle FC is a new, legal, sanctioned venture. Hand wraps are the only protection allowed. No ground game. No kicks. No elbows or knees. Just a straight-up bare-knuckle brawl with clinch work allowed.

    The first event took place June 2 in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and featured a few notable combatants such as Bec Rawlings and former UFC champion Ricco Rodriguez.

    Five two-minute rounds help speed the action along. The fighters on the inaugural night came out swinging. Four bouts finished within two minutes, and two of those were done in under a minute. The ones that went longer were also worthwhile.


    Is It Any Good?

    In both boxing and MMA, there has long been an argument that gloves don't protect fighters but rather only serve to protect the hands for prolonged beatings. Well, Bare Knuckle FC gives you what it would be like without the padding. And it was exciting.

    Perhaps one of the best bits from the event was the extended clinch work allowed, unlike in boxing. The Rawlings vs. Alma Garcia bout was a good example of why this can be a good thing under this format.

    This sport likely won't have a wide audience, though. The perception of the brutality involved will limit its appeal, as will the lack of ground game the UFC has helped popularize to showcase a "well-rounded fight." Still, the promotion can serve a niche.

    Bare Knuckle FC harkens back to the glory days of the UFC. It's raw, gritty and features fighters who will bite down and go out on their shield. It's exciting.

YAMMA Pit Fighting

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    What Was It?

    Is the UFC not violent enough for you? Well the problem (as if that were a problem), according to UFC founder Bob Meyrowitz, is the cage itself!

    Having a rigid fence allows fighters to stall the action with clinch work, you see. And the 90-degree angle at which the cage meets the mat? Well, that obviously gives an unfair advantage to fighters who want to keep the fight on the ground! That's according to Meyrowitz, at least.

    The solution to those non-issues? Have everyone compete in a gigantic bowl-shaped arena: the YAMMA pit! With an incline separating the mat from the cage, fighters will be forced closer together and unable to clinch. That should make for nonstop action, right?



    Was It Any Good?

    Wrong. YAMMA Pit Fighting was a disaster. From the promotion to the roster to the core concept, nothing worked out.

    The April 2008 debut card largely flew under the radar for MMA fans, with the only buildup being an almost unending stream of withdrawals from the event's top talents. As for the handful of fans who did tune in? They didn't get what they were promised.

    The upturned perimeter of the cage prevented fighters from clinching, yes, but the edges made grappling exchanges static affairs. Any off-center action forced the two closer together, limiting opportunities for submissions from below or ground-and-pound from above. And all the while, fighters were frequently tripping during striking due to the pit's uneven footing.

    It's anyone's guess why the promoters didn't see this coming, given how many fights were turned into awkward stall-a-thons. One has to imagine they never gave the bowl cage a test run before the event.


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    What Was it?

    Have you ever arm wrestled a friend and thought to yourself, "I wish I could roundhouse kick him upside the head right now?" If so, this is the promotion for you!

    XARM featured two men arm wrestling, but instead of just trying to torque their opponent's knuckles onto a table via pure strength, both are allowed to punch and kick each other along the way. Ensuring matches finish and the competitors don't break grip, their hands are taped together and their belt lines are tethered to the table.

    Despite the fact that the "X" in XARM presumably stood for "X-treme" (or maybe even "X-treem"), the rules didn't end there. Matches were contested across three one-minute rounds under the 10-point must system, with competitors gaining points for successful pins and cleanly landed strikes and losing points for lacking aggression.


    Was It Any Good?

    Meyrowitz loses a lot of street cred for his part in founding the UFC because of his involvement with YAMMA. This goes doubly for fellow founder Art Davie and XARM.

    As you likely guessed, 2008's XARM was silly at best and kind of stupid at worst. There was no real opportunity to demonstrate any sort of skill or technique, since competitors could do little more than throw short punches. On the rare occasion where a fighter would try something different (like a flying armbar over the table), the confusing rules saw it waved back and the action restarted.

    The result is an almost endless stream of big dudes hunched over, bopping one another. That's just not entertaining for any length of time.

Hip Show: Arena Combat

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    What Was It?

    Hip Show: Arena Combat was a 2014 Russian TV show that blended MMA with something like American Gladiators. That is about the best descriptor for the show.

    Teams of two would enter and try to score points with striking, takedowns, ground-and-pound or holding an obstacle for 10 seconds. Oh, yeah, there were obstacles. Knockdowns and submissions were worth even more points. Eliminate a member of a team? Here's five points.

    An elimination would not be the end of the round. No, then a two-on-one situation would occur. It was a MMA blend to hit a different game show-type of audience.


    Was It Any Good?

    Quite frankly, no. The concept of MMA meets American Gladiators sounds thrilling, but the failed Battle Dome show that aired in 1999 with Terry Crews playing T-Money was better.

    American Gladiators was fun, as it combined raw physicality with legitimate obstacles and games. Hip Show was silly. It had a novelty factor that made it interesting for a short YouTube clip, but try sitting down and watching a full episode.

    You'll be asleep by the 10-minute mark.

Ganryujima Martial Arts 'Moat Fighting'

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    What Is It?

    Ganryujima, for those not up on their East Asian geography, is a small island in the Japanese archipelago. The promotion named for it, Ganryujima Martial Arts, takes that fact to heart.

    With its fights featuring a modified rule set and taking place on an elevated, circular platform surrounded by mist, Ganryujima has a different look and feel from anything else in MMA today.


    Is It Any Good?

    Unlike most everything else on this list, yes!

    Granted, Ganryujima is not a traditional MMA promotion. Even looking past the fact that bouts are contested above a "moat," its rules are essentially structured to force fighters into stand-up contests, largely removing grappling from the proceedings. Its roster is built around that fact, too, almost exclusively featuring competitors with striking backgrounds.

    Still, from an entertainment perspective, it's hard to complain about deadly accurate karate masters taking on high-flying capoeira practitioners in a striking battle. Add to that the promotion's over-the-top theatrics, and you have a fun watch, if nothing else.

M-1 Medieval

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    What Was It?

    M-1 is a notable promotion in MMA. Most fans remember it as the promotion that housed Fedor Emelianenko after his PRIDE days were over. The medieval bouts started as something to do during intermission and breaks during M-1 events.

    After fans encouraged the contests, M-1 decided to make it an event all on its own.

    Historical Medieval Battles is a Russian sport that had already been around for a number of years. M-1 merely adapted it to MMA for its events and gave the participants a platform. Stabbing with the (blunt) sword is a strict violation of the rules, which are similar to MMA's. That doesn't mean you can't swing and hit your opponent with the weapon, but thrusting it in the stabbing motion is forbidden. A trio of three-minute rounds help get you to a winner.


    Was It Any Good?

    Not particularly.

    If it had stayed as a time killer during actual MMA events, the appeal would've been there. But watching a full event with knight fight after knight fight? Why not just watch actual MMA, where fighters have more mobility and avenues to...fight?

    Watching men restricted with pounds of armor lumber around the ring is quite boring. A knight fight sounds fun until you realize just how limited the bouts turn out to be. It was a novelty act that got its 15 minutes of fame until people realized they could just watch MMA.

Tag Team MMA

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    What Was It? 

    Exactly what it sounds like: tag team MMA.

    ZST in Japan, founded in 2002, may be the most prominent promotion to have attempted the format.

    Unlike something like Hip Show, which featured teams, this was more traditional MMA. No obstacles. No "King of the Mountain." This was team MMA. It's a concept taken straight from the pages of professional wrestling but without the storytelling effectiveness.


    What It Any Good?

    ZST had moderate success, but it wasn't good.

    ZST even pulled in names fans may recognize. The likes of Jeff Curran and Rich Clementi teamed up for a bout. It had more structure and could be taken a bit more seriously, although the concept of tag team MMA is still a bit strange.

    Whereas wrestling tag teams ascended to the heights of the sport, tag team MMA is a novelty that almost isn't even worth that title. There are way more entertaining things from an absurdity perspective and way more entertaining things from a sporting perspective.

    There is no big call for this format to return in the MMA space. 

WWF Brawl for All

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    What Was It?

    The former WWF's Attitude Era was filled with talent and people who had a drive to come up with the next big idea during the Monday Night Wars against WCW. One such idea was the Brawl for All.

    It was scheduled to be a 1998 shoot tournament. Who was the toughest man in the WWE? "The World's Most Dangerous Man," Ken Shamrock, decided not to participate even though the former UFC champion was on the roster. However, another former UFC title-holder, Dan Severn, did compete but withdrew after a first-round win over The Godfather

    In the end, 16 men participated in the contest. Three one-minute rounds featured a scoring system that included points for most punches, takedowns and knockdowns. The winner was to win $75,000.


    Was It Any Good?

    The rules were silly, and the fighters, while tough, were not that skilled.

    But, for my money, it was good. In the sense of getting a good chuckle during a strange era of professional wrestling. Who didn't like seeing the guise stripped away for a brief second for a shoot tournament?

    Perhaps the best part of the event was Bart Gunn's upset run toward the overall win. He made it past Bob Holly before knocking out the favorite, Dr. Death Steve Williams. He then KO'd The Godfather and Bradshaw. It was an unlikely run from someone who had been without direction, and he gave us the only knockout finishes other than Dr. Death's first-round fight.

    But it ended poorly for Gunn, too. WWE decided to pit him against Butterbean in a boxing match at WrestleMania 15. It ended how most thought it would. Swiftly.

Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki

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    What Was It?

    In 1976, Muhammad Ali was in dire straits. With his boxing career winding down and a divorce from his second wife looming, the legendary pugilist needed cash. Fast. Ali found that much-needed capital in the world of Japanese professional wrestling, where he was scheduled for a high-profile match with Antonio Inoki.

    According to legend, Ali was initially on board for a worked match but, for whatever reason, an audible was called, and it was turned into a shoot match. A shoot with rules designed to heavily favor Ali, no less.

    Though Ali could stand and throw hands comfortably, Inoki was barred from takedowns, submissions or standing kicks. The only offensive option available to the wrestler were kicks while he had one knee on the ground. So he made the most of that one tool.

    For 15 rounds, Inoki scooted around the ring on his back and kicked Ali in the leg. The boxer had no real answer and did little more than try to avoid damage. The fight was called a draw...albeit a draw where Inoki walked away fresh while Ali was carried out by his team.


    Was It Any Good?

    As one might expect, 15 rounds of Inoki sliding around the canvas and bicycle-kicking Ali wasn't especially entertaining. Ali threw just six punches during the fight, while Inoki made no attempt to engage Ali while standing, resulting in a contest so uninteresting that the crowd at Tokyo's Nippon Budokan erupted in derisive chants and frequently tossed things into the ring.

    Making matters worse? Despite the fact that the contest was set up to protect Ali, the numerous kicks to his legs resulted in blood clots that seriously hindered his mobility and nearly required amputation.

    All that said, from a historical perspective, Ali vs. Inoki is hugely important, jump-starting the fascination with mixed rules contests that would eventually birth MMA. For those who threw down cash to watch it at the time, though, it was dreadful.