History of MMA

A lot of people probably think that MMA began on November 12th 1993 when the UFC held its first ever event, but the roots of the sport can actually be traced back to 648 BC. The sport of Pankration, a sport that combines both boxing and wrestling, was introduced in the Olympic Games that year.

Although knockouts were common, most Pankration competitions were decided on the ground where both striking and submission techniques would freely come into play. Pankratiasts were highly skilled grapplers and were extremely effective in applying a variety of takedowns, chokes and punishing joint locks.

There are obvious parallels between Pankration and modern martial arts, but the Greek version of the sport had a slightly darker side. The Spartans were taught to use these techniques with the sole purpose of fighting and killing on the battlefield. As a result, the Spartans were banned from participating in Pankration competitions.

Although Pankration is widely regarded as the earliest example of MMA, the sport seemed to have fallen by the wayside for the best part of 2,000 years and the next recorded instances of MMA style competition didn’t occur until the end of the 19th century.

The first major encounter between a boxer and a wrestler in modern times took place in 1887 when heavyweight world boxing champion John L. Sullivan took on Greco-Roman wrestling champion William Muldoon and was slammed to the mat in two minutes.

Although MMA has advanced significantly under the leadership of the UFC, it is interesting to note that, wrestlers are still getting the better of boxers. It is possible that the match between Sullivan and Muldoon was broadly similar to the recent fight between Randy Couture and James Toney.

In the early 20th century, there were a number of competitions in Japan called Merikan because locals felt it was an American style of fighting. The rules varied wildly with contests sometimes settled according to the number of throws as well as by knockout or submission.

In 1935, Helio Gracie made headlines in Brazil for a brawl with a gymnastics teacher. The court took a dim view of this activity and sentenced him to a custodial sentence. Helio was subsequently pardoned by the President.  Gracie’s fighting career officially began in 1932 when he submitted professional boxer Antonio Portugal in 30 seconds. The same year, he fought American professional wrestler Fred Ebert for fourteen rounds. The doctor eventually stopped the fight and Helio had to undergo an urgent operation the next day.  Helio was very successful as an MMA fighter due to his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.  

In the 1960s and 1970s, MMA began to make its way into the consciousness of the world through the movies of Bruce Lee. Although the term mixed martial arts would not be coined for another 30 years, Lee was actually demonstrating many of the techniques and his philosophy is still relevant today. Bruce Lee believed that, “The best fighter is not a Boxer, Karate or Judo man. The best fighter is someone who can adapt to any style, to be formless, to adopt an individual's own style and not following the system of styles." Modern MMA has proven Lee’s point because no fighter can survive with only a single style. The key for success of MMA athletes is to possess a well-rounded game of striking, takedowns, and grappling.

Pankration was a bit more primitive than today’s sport of MMA in that there really were only two rules in Pankration; no biting and no eye gouging. Due to numerous rules to protect the fighters, the sport of MMA today has had an outstanding safety record for the last 20 years. There are many other differences; for instance, Pankration bouts were always fought outside, the contestants would be naked, and they would not be constrained by a cage or ring. The use of chokes and holds was nowhere near as sophisticated as it is in modern MMA. Interestingly, an early version of the rear naked choke appears to have been popular in Pankration. A Pankration bout could be ended via submission, but instead of a tap, the fighter would raise his index finger to signal defeat.

The two men behind the UFC, President Dana White and Chairman Lorenzo Fertitta, have led the revolution of modern MMA. They are responsible for turning the sport of MMA into a mainstream sport watched by millions of fans around the world.  Today, it is widely accepted that the most effective combination of arts for MMA are Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Wrestling, and Boxing.  Muay Thai is known as the most devastating striking art while Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is considered the most effective grappling art.  Wrestling is an excellent art to dictate where a given fight takes place.

So while the popular perception is that MMA is a modern sport, it is actually at least 2,669 years old. Next time you find yourself sitting there watching the UFC, you might like to pause and reflect that, in 648 BC, fight fans in Greece were doing more or less exactly the same thing!

Evolve Mixed Martial Arts® is Asia's premier brand of MMA academies. With World Champions in Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Mixed Martial Arts, Boxing, and No Gi Grappling, Evolve MMA is the top martial arts training organization in Asia. It ranks among the best martial arts academies in the world.