Wednesday, November 26, 2008

History of MMA and the UFC

Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA, is a full-contact sport combining many different martial arts and techniques. In 648 B.C. the Greeks brought a sport called Pankration to the Olympics, which combined an aggressive blend of boxing and wrestling. This style of fighting gained popularity in Rome, too, and lasted for about 1000 years at Olympic events before being abolished. With the rise of the Roman Empire, boxing and wrestling replaced MMA. Since then traditional martial arts remained popular in Asia.

It wasn’t until 1925 in Rio de Janeiro that MMA made a comeback in the western hemisphere thanks to the Gracie family, who founded a new fighting style called jiu-jitsu. Two Gracie brothers, Carlos and Helio, adapted this new style after learning judo from a family friend who was a Japanese judo master. They opened an academy in Brazil that became immensely popular, along with vale-tudo matches. Vale-tudo means “anything goes.” Many of these matches were fought in soccer stadiums with sell-out crowds. Carlos and Helio beat many champions in other fighting styles from Japan and the United States. Soon vale-tudo fighting became the second-most popular spectator sport in Brazil behind soccer. Leagues and organizations formed all over Brazil, and its ticket sales today are still only second to soccer. The popularity in Brazil attracted fighters of various styles, such as boxing, Muay Thai, and wrestling, to compete against one another.

Carlos and Helio passed on Brazilian jiu-jitsu or Gracie jiu-jitsu onto their sons, who taught this fighting style in the United States. During the last few decades MMA spread throughout Brazil, Europe, and Japan. In the United States, it didn’t gain exposure and popularity until 1993 thanks to the establishment of an organization called the Ultimate Fighting Championships, or UFC. Art Davie, a California advertisement executive who took classes with Royce Gracie, was the brainchild of the UFC. It featured several fights broadcast on pay-per-view. Royce became the first UFC champion and developed a cult following.

In 1997, PRIDE Fighting Championships became the Japanese equivalent of UFC. Just like Brazil, Japan had its own style of MMA fighting called shoot wrestling, which began in the 1970s and gained popularity the following decade. With the establishment of these organizations, fighters had to be world-class athletes with many fighting styles. One can trace this type of all-encompassing fighting philosophy back to Bruce Lee, who believed “the best fighter is not a boxer, karate or judo man. The best fighter is someone who can adapt to any style.” Some fighting styles, however, have proved more effective, such as boxing and Muay Thai when standing, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu and wrestling when on the ground.

It took a while for Americans to accept MMA. Although admired by some, in particular males between the ages of 18 to 34, many Americans criticized the violence of this new sport. One of the reasons was the fact that UFC had basically no rules for the first six fighting events. There were no weight classes or weight limits, no rounds or time limits, no judges, and no mandatory safety equipment. The only rules were no eye gouging, biting, fish hooking. Fights could end only with a referee’s stoppage, a knockout, or a submission, where one fighter tapped his hand as a signal he is submitted. Fights took place in an octagonal cage called “The Octagon.” In one of these first events, a 200-pound karate fighter beat a 600-pound sumo wrestler. Senator John McCain was one of the biggest opponents of MMA, calling it “human cockfighting.” As the political and public outcry grew in the late ‘90s, states began outlawing MMA. This caused the UFC to lose its pay-per-view providers.

This was the reason the UFC was sold to Zuffa LLC for a mere $2 million in January 2001. Zuffa LLC is a Las Vegas media and casino management company owned by two brothers, Frank Fertitta III and Lorenzo. Boston native Dana White, who has a boxing and jiu-jitsu background, is a long-time friend of the Fertitta brothers. So after White convinced them to buy the UFC, he became the president. This trio made drastic changes that have led to the extreme popularity of the UFC and MMA in America. Some of the changes included rounds, time limits, five different weight classes, protective gloves, and judges. Most importantly, 31 fouls were instituted in the official rule book, such as no “groin attacks of any kind.” With the promotion of martial arts rather than no-holds-barred events, the UFC returned to pay-per-view in 2001. More and more state athletic commissions began lifting the bans on MMA. The UFC fighters were now not just well-rounded, but some of the best conditioned athletes in the world, training six or more hours per day, everyday. Most of them seem brighter, too, than the original UFC fighters. (According to Sports Illustrated, “Around 80% of the fighters have college degrees.”) Meanwhile, White has become as well-known as any UFC fighter and for good reason. White is bald, wears tight shirts over his chiseled torso, has a vast knowledge of the sport, and adamantly speaks the gospel of MMA while habitually dropping the F-word.

More than 600 fighters registered for an open tryout at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Rosemont, IL for Season 9 of the television series, "The Ultimate Fighter."

Capitalizing on UFC’s popularity, the Fertitta brothers partnered with Spike TV to create a MMA reality show called The Ultimate Fighter. Now in its 8th season, this show features up-and-coming MMA fighters who are coached by a current UFC fighter. The losers are eliminated from the competition with the final winner earning a six-figure contract to fight with the UFC. There is no faster and easier way to get into the UFC than to win this reality show. The tryouts for the 8th season were in a Chicago suburb. A record 600-plus fighters signed up for the tryouts which began at 9 a.m. and finished the next morning at 3 a.m. It’s obvious the UFC is here to stay. In 2007, Zuffa LLC, the owners of the UFC, bought PRIDE, merging contracted fighters from both promotional organizations.

More than 600 fighters registered for an open tryout at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Rosemont, IL for Season 9 of the television series, "The Ultimate Fighter," setting a record attendance. "At the end of the day it is a television show that's looking for great fighters," said Brian Diamond, Spike TV senior vice president of sports and specials. "And for it to be entertaining to the audience overall, you have to have a little personality."

The popularity of UFC has helped smaller organizations and promoters host fights in bars, gyms, and arenas across the country. More states are legalizing MMA events. Illinois just lifted its ban this year, and the Chicago area has hosted big events in the last few weeks like UFC 90 and the IronHeart Crown XII. “Because there is no universal sanctioning body for the mixed martial arts, the rules vary slightly between different promotions,” according to the IronHeart Crown, a top Chicago MMA promoter. “Dangerous or excessively brutal techniques are universally banned.” But how safe is MMA compared to other combat sports such as boxing? According to a recent study by John Hopkins University School of Medicine: “The overall injury rate in MMA competitions is now similar to other combat sports, including boxing. Knockout rates are lower in MMA competitions than in boxing. This suggests a reduced risk of traumatic brain injury in MMA competitions when compared to other events involving striking.”

Where it goes from here is anybody’s guess, but in the sporting world, MMA is here to stay.

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