The Complete History Of MMA

It’s hard to imagine that MMA was once deemed a sport only for savages, with octagons banned across countless cities and grainy copies of UFC 1 on VHS being seen as forbidden goods. So, how did it become so incredibly popular today? What trajectory has it taken and where are its origins? The History of MMA begins from ancient, Eastern backgrounds and developed through Japan before experts began to spread their knowledge Westwards. In Brazil, the Gracie family began to hone their own form of Jiu Jitsu, whilst other fighting forms evolved across the globe. This culminated in 1993 with the signalling of UFC 1, whereby the world first got to see a televised tournament of different fighting styles, with very few rules. Attacked and criticised, UFC managed to survive the animosity and grew into the juggernaut we see today.

The Complete History Of MMA

Mixed martial arts (MMA) is the fastest growing sport in the world. While the memberships multiply and the pay per views increase, it’s perhaps time we stop to explain just what it’s all about, and where it came from.

The first thing we need to know is that mixed martial arts are now a strictly regulated sport that combine the most effective techniques of all traditional martial arts and modern combat sports. This is done in a way that protects the integrity of the athlete, while guaranteeing entertainment for the public.

The fighters who face each other in a cage have knowledge of at least three combat disciplines, in addition to a very complete physical conditioning and a specifically balanced diet that allows them to absorb the blows, cushion the falls and defend the locks. Strength, flexibility and agility are the indispensable physical qualities. Constancy, courage and heart, the spiritual.

First of all, we must clarify that the athletes are never alone in the cage, a referee closely controls all actions and stops the fight in case one is in danger. Together with the referee, the other highest authority in the cage is the doctor. He evaluates any cut or wound and decides if it can continue or not.

What is it?

So how does the combat develop? There are three rounds of five minutes, and one minute of rest between each. Roughly speaking, we can differentiate three areas of action: the long distance, where the kicks and kicks play; the body to body, where they look for throws and demolitions; and the ground, where levers and throttles are applied.

But what makes MMA exciting is the freedom to combine all these techniques. A boxing cross can follow a roundhouse kick, a judo throw can follow a Jiu-Jitsu lever. The only limit to the athlete's creativity is a list of fouls that includes fingers in the eyes, blows to the neck, and kicks to the head on the downed opponent, among other penalised actions.

And how does a fight end? There are several modes. One: medical intervention. Two: the knockout (KO), which can be pure, when a blow causes unconsciousness, or technical when the athlete stops presenting an intelligent defence. Three: the submission, which can be pure (tap-out), when the fighter gives up hitting the canvas twice in a row, verbal (when he screams) or technical (when he cannot touch or scream but the referee decides that his health is in danger).

If the three rounds (five when they are title fights) come to an end without either KO or submission, it goes to the cards. Three judges stationed at different angles of the cage punctuate each round separately, 10 for the winner, 9 or less for the loser, based on the effectiveness of the striking, grappling, aggressiveness and control of the cage.

Direct Descendents

So now we know how it is seen and conducted today, how about we trace the origins of MMA? For that, we must go back to ancient Greece... more precisely to the year 648 BC, when its predecessor, the bizarrely named Pankration, was included for the first time in the Olympic Games.

The term pankration (ancient Greek for "all powers" or "all abilities") is currently used as a synonym for professional wrestling. But in classical Greece, however, it was a sports competition of the Ancient Olympics, a combination of ancient Greek boxing, wrestling and submissions. Thus, Pankration is likely, the most legitimate predecessor of modern Mixed Martial Arts.

You might be asking what a Pankration match was like. Well, in classical Greek, the wrestlers wrapped their hands with bandages in a way that later crossed into boxing and other combat disciplines with fists. Apart from punches, other legal methods were kicks, crushing, swipes, dislocations and even "dirty tricks”, like throwing sand at the opponent's eyes or hitting the genitals. Tripping, catching the opponent and throwing himself at him were very common practices as well. Attacks such as hitting a low kick to the opponent were perfectly allowed, so you could say that these fights were precursors to early MMA.


Pankration travelled to India, due to Alexander the Great and his clever tactic of recruiting athletes as soldiers. He did this because he knew they were not only strong but also disciplined and had combat knowledge. It was Buddhist monks on their travels through India that harnessed many aspects of Pankration for their own self-defence and this knowledge was then spread across to China. There, it gave rise to Asian martial arts such as Judo, Kung Fu, and Karate.

The natural branching of people into new lands meant that these arts were developed and built upon, often creating a new style or form of martial art. One such example is that of an expert in judo, who travelled the world to spread his teachings, who ended up in Brazil. This was an act that would have far-reaching consequences, giving birth to the art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

A Gracie Revolution

It is unquestionable that the father of modern MMA was a Brazilian: Helio Gracie, who studied traditional Japanese Judo and Jiu-Jitsu with the Japanese master, Mitsuyo Maeda. Gracie developed a new modality: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which expanded the possibilities to unprecedented levels regarding the fight on the ground.

To test the effectiveness of the new system, Helio and his family launched the Gracie Challenge, which invited representatives of any other discipline to measure themselves against them. Thus arose the first "Vale Tudo" of Brazil, tournaments similar in spirit to modern MMA, but completely different in terms of regulation. Other than bites or attacks on eyes and testicles, it was anything goes.

From those primitive “no holds barred” rules (where the honour of the fighter and the effectiveness of their art were put into play) to the modern MMA (where millions of dollars are put into play in sponsors and merchandising) the competition regulations have varied a lot.

This minimalist Brazilian artform, guaranteeing a freedom of action, continued to evolve, just as other martial arts gained traction also. Through the 1960’s and 1970’s, Kung Fu attracted much attention, as did the rise of Bruce Lee and his Jeet Kune-Do principles. Many Westerners had never seen such moves before, and this opened a huge gap in the market for schools to open and people to connect with a range of martial art disciplines. It was clear that global consciousness was shifting...

The Importance of UFC 1

Today, Mixed Martial Arts is the fastest growing sport in the world, widely displacing boxing and generating more currency in the US than classics like the NBA.

But it was already in 1993 when the Gracie family exported this type of combat to America. After the success obtained in Brazil, they wanted to try their luck in that country. Thus, the Gracie family organised a competition of different fighting styles to teach the effectiveness they had with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. They wanted to show the whole world their discipline, hoping to have the same good reception they had in their country.

Thus, on November 12 of that same year, in Denver, Colorado, the first event of mixed martial arts produced by the UFC took place. The event consisted of a tournament of eight combatants from different disciplines (Boxing, Sumo, Taekwondo, Savate, Kickboxing, Wrestling and Jiu-Jitsu), who would face each other in an eliminatory way. UFC 1 was the event that gave the starting signal to the current MMA. Under the slogan Find the Ultimate Fighter, the world wondered which combat style may be hiding incredible potential. Each round lasted 5 minutes and there were no round number limits. You could only win by submission, KO or throwing in the towel.

Thus, one of the most important mixed martial arts companies was created, the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

What did it teach us?

That night, in the octagon of the McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, it became clear which were the most dangerous fighting styles, as well as other theories related to contact sports.

The first battles of the MMA were very hard and the brutality extreme. So much so, that in many cities it was forbidden to broadcast this type of combat. The first combat, between Sumo and Savate styles, showed that speed and precision are more effective than weight and mass. The fight ended in less than 30 seconds with the victory of the practitioner of the French Savate discipline - through a brutal kick to the face of his rival.

As the first round progressed, it became clear that the mastery of a “ground game” was a basic necessity to win the victory, since it reduced the randomness of simply squaring up to one another for a beating. But it could also be seen that the fight on the ground was an unspectacular art for the public of the 90s, who expected to see kicks, knockouts and blood.

Soon excuses appeared from the sports that had suffered the most during the tournament. Some had a lot of credibility, such as certain fighters who fought, were not exactly the greatest exponents of their sport, while Royce Gracie, winner of the tournament, is the grandson of the very creator of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Carlos Gracie.

However, it was clear that this martial art was clearly superior to the rest, in a combat without rules. As a result, there were many fighters who took note of the Gracies, starting to combine Jiu Jitsu with other hitting disciplines, giving rise to the superstar fighters we are used to seeing today in the octagon.

Undoubtedly, MMA is today one of the disciplines that generate untold excitement and has become one of the most profitable businesses on the martial landscape.

How has it become a global phenomenon?

The early years of the UFC were tough because of the brutality of a newborn and unprofessional sport. No gloves of any kind were used and there were few restrictions or security measures, resulting in the American public strongly attacked the sport. In fact, UFC was banned on Pay Per View (PPV), while pornography remained perfectly legal. Senator John McCain came to define the UFC as "human cockfighting," although twenty years later, many original detractors recognised that it was now a legal and professional sport.

Fortunately for fans of MMA, in 2001 the Fertitta brothers (Las Vegas millionaire owners of several casinos) took over the UFC rights and completely renovated it to become the global phenomenon that it is today. They lost tens of millions of dollars along the way and risked a whole lot more, but never gave up the struggle.

It was worth it. Currently, the company generates hundreds of millions of dollars each year and is considered the largest sports franchise in the world, with a brand value that could be around 3 billion dollars, according to its president, Dana White.

A further turning point of the UFC - from which it began to grow exponentially - was a reality TV show produced by the company itself, The Ultimate Fighter, in which participants fought each week to reach a final in which they could get a six-figure contract with UFC. The final fight between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar, on open television, was so good that people phoned their friends to put the TV on and watch it. This is how the global phenomenon that is today was lit up and continues to burn bright.

The growth of UFC (particularly women’s events too) has been huge in the last decade, and it has expanded beyond the borders of the United States, being very successful in Canada, Brazil, Mexico and the United Kingdom, also holding events in Germany, the Arab Emirates and even in China. Their events are the ones that move the most masses and money worldwide. Likewise, the professionals who compete in the matches they organise are treated like big stars with very high salaries.

MMA has now gained full-blown legitimacy and is no longer seen as a bloodthirsty sport for brutes. Surely, it can only grow further still, inspiring the next generation of highly trained, skilled fighters to compete in the legendary octagon.