Mixed martial arts (MMA) is a sport based on full-contact combat. Participants may use fighting techniques from any discipline they choose, including striking styles like boxing, karate and Muay Thai as well as grappling styles like jujitsu, judo and wrestling.
At the beginning, MMA fighters generally stayed within their individual disciplines. The strikers tried to knock out the grapplers, and the grapplers tried to submit the strikers. Viewers were attracted to the new sport of MMA to try to satiate their curiosity about which martial art was the best.
Over time, less effective fighting styles began to disappear as fighters clustered around disciplines that showed concrete results. Fighters started training in more than one martial art and even began to mix striking and grappling styles. As the lines between combat disciplines blurred, the modern sport of MMA was born.
The ancient Greeks were prolific inventors. They came up with some of the most important ideas of modern times, including philosophy, geometry, democracy and, yep, MMA.
The original Olympic Games of the ancient Grecian Empire included a contest known as pankration. Pankration began as combat training for the Greek army. It soon gained enough attention to become a major Olympic event.
Pankration included combinations of boxing, wrestling and grungy street fighting techniques. Fighters could strike downed opponents, but eye poking and biting were not allowed. A pankration match finished when one fighter either signaled defeat or got knocked out.
Although pankration was one of the ancient Olympics’ most loved sports, a number of fighters died during public matches. The Grecian Olympic Games were eventually banned by a Roman Emperor, which seemed to deal the sport of pankration a knockout blow. But just like a good fighter, it’s hard to keep a good combat sport down.
Mixed, full-contact combat came back to life in Brazil in the early 1920s. A pair of siblings known as the Gracie brothers started a jujitsu school in Rio de Janeiro, where they began issuing newspaper advertisements with what soon became known as the infamous “Gracie Challenge.”
The challenge invited fighters from any discipline to come by the Gracie school and take on the brothers and their students in no-holds-barred combat matches. Although the advertisements warned readers that participation may end in broken bones, combatants flocked to the Gracie school to accept the challenge.
Gracie combat matches were known as “Vale Tudo” or “Anything Goes.” They soon grew to be so popular that the brothers had to move them to the country’s largest soccer stadiums just to be able to seat the throngs of curious onlookers.
As this modern MMA began to attract international attention, critics initially shunned it as a bloodthirsty, anarchic pastime. But MMA, like its fighters, proved to be remarkably resistant. Rule changes and stronger regulation allowed it to gradually replace its uncouth image with a more refined yet still thrilling picture of a world-class fighting arena for the best combatants in the world.
Start and Development of the UFC
The UFC officially began in the 1990s when the Gracie family came to the USA to launch a showcase of their fighting skills. That showcase, which eventually became known as UFC 1, was held in Denver, Colorado in 1993.
Just like the ancient sport of pankration, the only two rules were against eye poking and biting. Royce Gracie, son of one of the original Gracie brothers, represented the Gracie family. He ended up beating all challengers and emerged as the first official UFC champion.
From its Colorado caged ring, UFC 1 was televised via cable pay-per-view to over 80,000 viewers. By UFC 3, there were over 300,000 people watching.
All the public attention soon caught the eye of lawmakers and politicians. Senator superstar John McCain tried to pass a bill that would ban the sport, calling it “human cockfighting.” UFC managers responded quickly with new regulations to lower the sport’s risk of serious injury.
They added weight classes to decrease the danger to lighter fighters. They increased the list of fouls, banning more moves with a high risk of permanent damage. They also made the sport more watchable with time limits and rounds.
These changes seemed to address lawmakers’ fears, and the UFC was soon accepted for regulation by some of the same official bodies that oversaw US boxing matches. In 2007, John McCain himself declared that the UFC had made “significant progress” and dropped his criticism of the sport.
The UFC struggled a bit commercially during its early years. In the 2000s, it held a fight trilogy between all-star fighters Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell. The fights went viral around the world.
The Couture-Liddell trilogy rocketed both the UFC and MMA itself to international celebrity status. It was soon inundated with the planet’s top fighters from every discipline imaginable, and the modern UFC was born.
Regulations and Rules
From its contentious beginnings through its rise to worldwide popularity, the UFC has made continual progress toward a safer, more standardized MMA fighting environment. By the late 2000s, most of the rules we still follow today were in place and approved by official US and international regulatory bodies.
These rules, known as the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts, regulate competitors’ uniforms, gear, bout length and fighting etiquette. MMA participants must wear fingerless gloves with a regulated amount of padding. They may not use headgear or shoes.
Most strikes, throws and grappling moves are legal, whether from the ground or from a standing position. Illegal moves include eye poking, head butting, pulling hair, groin strikes and biting. Fighters may not hit their opponent’s spine, throat or the back of their head, and downward blows with the elbows are prohibited.
Some moves are legal from certain positions and illegal in others. These include kicks and knee blows to the head when an opponent is on the ground. Referees can punish violations with warnings, point deductions or disqualification.
Except for championship fights, MMA bouts involve three rounds of five minutes each. Fighters get one minute of rest between rounds. Championship fights include two extra periods for a total of five rounds.
Fighters can finish an opponent by knockout or submission. Submissions may be either verbal or via hand tap. A technical knockout may be declared by a referee or official attending physician if they deem it unsafe for a fighter to continue.
If a fight ends with no fighter able to finish the other, the winner will be declared by a judging panel of three experts assigned by an official athletic commission. Judges look at the fighters’ aggressiveness, control and effective striking and grappling to determine the winner.
Development of Multidisciplinary Fighters
In its early days, most MMA fighters stuck with one discipline. As the sport progressed, fighters realized that bringing a multidimensional game to the cage could give them an edge over their competitors.
Combatants began cross-training in more than one martial art. Strikers began to learn grappling techniques, and grapplers started learning to strike. Grappling soon combined with striking to launch the new MMA technique of “ground and pound,” which saw fighters pounding their opponent with strikes after grounding them with a takedown.
Most MMA fighters today come to the sport having trained heavily under one main discipline but with plenty of complementary skills in their arsenal from multiple other disciplines. This new multidisciplinary style gives fighters many tools they can use to neutralize the strengths of their opponents. It also makes MMA one of the most unpredictable sports on the planet.
Today’s multidisciplinary MMA attracts the best finishers in the world. The creativity and smoothie-style mixed training of its athletes has made MMA one of the most thrilling sports to watch. Its unpredictable nature almost guarantees that fans will see something new every time they tune in.
Where MMA Is Today
The modern MMA is now one of the planet’s biggest sports. As a spectator event, MMA matches are growing in popularity faster than almost any other sport in the world.
Besides the UFC, MMA fans can also enjoy Bellator battles in the USA, ONE Championship fights in Asia and many more. Matches are officially sanctioned and regulated across all 50 US states and many other countries.
This massive recent uptake in both viewers and competitors has resulted in an almost exponential growth in MMA training camps, technique sharing and strategizing. Celebrated UFC commentator and podcaster Joe Rogan estimated that MMA has evolved faster since the 1990s than it did in all the preceding centuries of its history.
Today’s MMA fighters include both top-level strikers who also grapple and world-class grapplers who also hit hard. Classical fighters who stick to one strict discipline have almost disappeared from the highest levels of MMA.
These modern gladiators come together on a canvas surrounded by an eight-sided cage known as the Octagon. Its incremental rule changes and governing improvements have turned MMA into a well-regulated sport. These evolving boundaries have managed to find a happy medium that prioritizes the safety of its athletes without taking away from the electric thrill of full-contact combat.