Mixed martial arts (MMA) is one of the fastest rising sports that is very popular all across the world. But despite the fact that UFC events have been around for just a couple of decades, the sport itself has been around for much, much longer. In fact, how old is MMA actually?
The earliest records of MMA go all the way back to Ancient China and the art called “Shuai Jiao”. This was the first form of combat that mixed grappling and striking together. However, ancient Greeks also had their own version of wrestling and boxing called “Pankration” which is often seen as the precursor of modern MMA. But what about the modern history and the Gracie challenge, Shooto, and UFC?
In this article, we will dive deep into the ancient and modern history of MMA, and bring you all you need to know about it.
The ancient history of MMA
Although it is easy to determine how the modern form of MMA came around, the earliest records are not that clear. One thing is for sure, the sport exists since ancient times and the earliest origins go back thousands of years. If you look back in history, many nations have had their own versions of mixed martial arts concepts.
For example, one of the earliest forms was the Chinese martial art called “Shuai Jiao”, which emerged during the Han Dynasty around 200 BC. Other sources suggest that Shuai Jiao has existed for over 6,000 years. What is sure, however, is that Shui Jiao was a mix of various styles of wrestling, grappling, joint locks, and Kung Fu kicks and punches.
But for most experts and historians, the exact origins of modern MMA actually come from the sport called “Pankration”. Back in ancient Greece, Pankration was introduced at 33rd Olympiad in 648. It was a sport where fighters were allowed to mix wrestling and boxing skills together to compete in a freestyle match. According to mythology, the god named Theseus was the one who invented Pankration to beat the “Minotaur”. Theseus used wrestling and boxing skills to beat a beast that had a head and tail of a bull, and the body of a man.
The rules of Pankration were very simple. Athletes could use all kinds of takedown techniques, holds, and punch each other both on the feet and on the ground. Just like in modern times, biting, gouging eyes, or striking the groin area was not allowed. Pankration matches were brutal, dangerous, and for some fighters, even deadly.
But on the other side, Pankration was the most popular sport of that time and fighters were seen as heroes and enjoyed the status of a god in ancient Greece. The events stood for the ultimate test of strength and technique, or in modern-day language, Pankration champion was “The Ultimate Fighter”.
The modern history of MMA (early development)
Throughout ancient history all the way up to the 19th and 20th centuries, there had been many hybrid martial arts and military systems that might be precursors to modern MMA. Japanese jujutsu or Bartitsu are just one of many martial arts that incorporated grappling and striking. But, MMA as a form of competition was yet to emerge, and it came in many stages.
One of the very first “style vs style” matches took place in 19th century France. It was a form of the tournament where French savate fighters (style of kickboxing), took on bare-knuckle boxers who came from England. This was one of the first times the world witnessed a cross-style fight under the special rules. The other example was the fight between a savate fighter and a Judo master that took place in 1905.
But, the 1920s are often seen as the starting point of modern MMA fighting that we know today. On one side of the world, the Gracie family used Judo as a base to create what they thought is the ultimate system called “jiu-jitsu”. On the other side, the Russians created a military system called “Sambo”, a unique mix of wrestling, jiu-jitsu, and boxing. Sambo is really important to mention because the sports version is a direct precursor of modern cage fighting.
The Gracies, on the other side, were very confident about their system, so much so that they created a famous “Gracie Challenge”. Fighters from all parts of the world, all styles of fighting, could come in, defeat a Gracie black belt in a freestyle match, and win a huge prize. The Gracies would compete, and in most cases, beat fighters from judo, kung fu, wrestling, boxing, and kickboxing in these 1 on 1 matches. The matches would take place behind the closed doors in their gym, outside on the streets in the middle of the day, or in legal mixed martial arts events like Vale Tudo.
Speaking of which, Vale Tudo translates to “everything goes” and it stands for the first version of MMA. It was developed in the 1920s as a platform where fighters from various martial arts fought 1–1 under limited rules, almost none actually. It was a wild and barbaric period that contributed a lot to what would later become known as the sport of MMA.
The modern history of MMA (present form)
The key moment came in the 1970s when Rorion Gracie moved to the US to spread BJJ. His mission was also to promote freestyle Vale Tudo matches to the new market, and of course, continue the famous “Gracie Challenge”. During this time, the interest in this type of combat sports entertainment was clearly on the rise.
The best example was the exhibition match between a famous wrestler Antonio Inoki and boxing legend Muhammad Ali which took place in 1976 in Japan under special rules and ended in a draw. The fight itself is often seen as a precursor to modern MMA and was watched by a staggering 1.4 billion people. This many people wanted to see who was a better fighter between a wrestler and a boxer? That was a clear sign that MMA is about to explode.
Sure enough, the world didn’t have to wait long to get the first-ever legal mixed martial art event. On March 20, 1980, in Pennsylvania, “CV Productions Inc” held the first MMA event called “Though Guy Contest”. The name would later be changed to “Super Fighters”, and these events were very brutal. As a result, Super Fights got banned in all US states after just 10 events.
Nine years later in 1989, Japan would come up with their first MMA promotion called Shooto, which is often seen as the first modern MMA organization, very close to what we have today. Just a couple of years later in 1993, Japan would get another promotion called “Pancrase”, founded just two months before the UFC.
Following the rising trend of mixed martial arts, Rorion Gracie and his partner founded a “War of the Worlds (WOW)” promotion in 1993. Their main goal was to organize events similar to Pancrase but in the US. WOW would partner with SEG, and produce the first-ever UFC event on November 12, 1993, called “UFC 1”. The main goal of the UFC was to find out which martial art is the most effective by matching fighters from different fighting backgrounds.
UFC enjoyed instant success but also faced a lot of struggles because of the lack or rules and regulations throughout the 90s. The biggest moment came in 2000 when the “Unified Rules of MMA” got created. This is also seen as a moment when MMA officially became a combat sport.
Is MMA legal in all countries?
MMA is legal in most countries across the world. But, there are a couple of countries where the sport is yet to receive a full legal status. For example, MMA is not illegal in countries like France, India, or Norway. But these countries do not recognize it as an official sport due to the lack of regulations.
Or in other words, MMA exists on paper but doesn’t enjoy the same status as other sports like soccer or boxing for instance. Promotions like the UFC or Bellator are not allowed to come to these countries and promote events. However, the public interest is more than present and it is just a matter of time before MMA will become fully legal in these countries. The sport and interest in it are simply too big for MMA to remain “illegal”.
Who was the first one to use the term “MMA?
Despite the fact that the sport of MMA has been around since ancient times in many shapes and forms, the term mixed martial arts (MMA) actually emerged in the early 90s. The first person who used it was the TV critic, Howard Rosenberg, who used the term “MMA” while reviewing the UFC 1 event. However, the president and CEO of “Battlecade Extreme Fighting”, Rick Blume, was the first promoter who adopted the term MMA.