Mixed Martial Arts: Ultimate Sport, or Ultimately Illegal? Part 1 of 3.

By guest author Donald F. Walter, Jr.
Published 12/8/03

Part 1: A Brief History of MMA

Donald Walter fighting the guard pass in submission grappling

Don (in the gray T-shirt) is a senior at Hampden-Sydney College, in Hampden-Sydney, VA. This article is his political science thesis. He plans to attend law school in Baltimore, Maryland. He trains in Brazilian jiu-jitsu with John Rallo (in black) and Rocky Marcantoni at Team GroundControl Baltimore, a Team Renzo Gracie affiliate. 

I. A Brief History of Mixed Martial Arts

In 648 B.C.E., the Greeks introduced the sport of pankration into the Olympic Games. The word pankration is a combination of two Greek words, pan, meaning “all,” and kratos, meaning “powers.” This is an accurate depiction of the sport itself, as it was a potent mixture of Hellenic boxing and wrestling. The sport only truly had two rules: no biting and no eye gouging, though even these techniques were allowed by the Spartans. The bouts could end only when one competitor was knocked unconscious, or submitted to his opponent by raising his hand. Often times, these matches would last for hours, and sometimes ended with the death of one, or even both competitors. The sport became the most popular event in the Olympic Games, and across the Hellenic world.

The matches took place in an arena, or “ring” which was a square approximately 12 to 14 feet across, which the Greeks hoped would encourage close-quarter combat. The matches also featured a referee armed with a rod or switch he used to enforce the rules, which were often broken by opponents that were overmatched. Common techniques included punches, joint locks, choke holds, elbow and knee strikes, and kicks. Kicks to the legs, groin and stomach were quite commonly used. Standing strikes such as these were common, though the overwhelming majority of pankration bouts were settled on the ground, where submission holds and strikes were both accepted practices. Pankratiasts were renowned for their grappling skills, and would employ a variety of grappling techniques, such as takedowns, chokes and joint locks, often to great effect. Strangulation was the most common cause of death inpankration matches.

Ancient Greek pankratiasts became heroes, and the subject of numerous myths and legends. These include the legends of Arrichion, Dioxxipus, Polydamos and even Hercules was believed to be a pankratiast. Alexander the Great sought out pankratiasts as soldiers because of their legendary skills at unarmed combat. When he invaded India in 326 B.C.E., he had a great number of pankratiasts serving with him. This is believed to be the beginning of Asian martial arts, as most Asian martial arts trace their history to India at around this time. Pankration is the first recorded form of what would later come to be known as mixed martial arts, and is the closest any society has come to allowing a truly no-holds-barred unarmed combat sport.

Following the decline of pankration in Greece, which coincided with the rise of the Roman Empire, mixed martial arts fell by the wayside in favor of other combat sports. Sports such as wrestling and boxing became the dominant forms of combat sport in the West, while traditional martial arts swelled in popularity in Asia. This remained the case for centuries until 1925 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, when the sport of mixed martial arts experienced a revival from a peculiar source.

In order to fully understand the reemergence of mixed martial arts, it is necessary to take a brief look at the history of the Gracie family of Brazil. In 1801, George Gracie immigrated to Brazil from Scotland, and settled in the Para province of northeastern Brazil. His family grew and flourished, and in the early 1900s, a Japanese man named Mitsuyo Maeda immigrated to the same area. The Japanese government had plans to establish a colony in the area, and Maeda was a representative of the Japanese government. He quickly became close friends with Gastão Gracie, a political figure in the area, and grandson of George Gracie. Gastão used his power and influence to assist Maeda and his agenda of establishing a Japanese colony.

In addition to Maeda’s political prowess and skills, he was also famous in Japan for another reason: Maeda had been a renowned champion of the Japanese martial art of judo. Maeda, or Count Koma, as he was known in Japan, offered to teach Gastão’s son the art of Judo. Maeda trained Gustão’s son, Carlos, in judo from the time Carlos was 15 until he was 21, when Maeda returned to Japan. With Maeda gone, Carlos began to teach his brothers, Helio, Jorge, Osvaldo and Gastão, Jr. the art as Maeda taught it to him. The Gracie brothers were not bound by the tradition that Japanese practitioners of the art so rigidly upheld, rather the brothers began to adapt the art to suit themselves, and to make it more practical. It was in 1925 that Carlos took his brother Helio, who was 11 years younger than Carlos, to Rio de Janeiro, where they opened a jiu-jitsu academy.

As Carlos and brother Helio continued to advance and perfect their art in their new academy, Carlos concocted a brilliant marketing scheme to draw attention to the fledgling academy. He issued what is now famously known as the “Gracie Challenge.” As he explained, “I had to do something to shock the people.” He began the “Gracie Challenge” by taking out an advertisement in several Rio newspapers. The advertisement, which included a picture of the slight Carlos Gracie, information on the academy, and stated “If you want a broken arm, or rib, contact Carlos Gracie at this number.” This effectively began the revival of professional mixed martial arts in the Western world, as Carlos, and later his younger brother Helio, followed by the sons of both men, would take on all comers in vale-tudo matches. These matches closely resembled the pankration matches of Ancient Greece, and were participated in by representatives of area karate schools, professional boxers, capoeira champions, and various others that sought to prove that they were better than the Gracies.

As word of these matches spread through Rio de Janeiro, the public craved these matches. As a result, these matches began to be held in Brazil’s large soccer stadiums, and attracted record crowds. The first of these professional fights was between Brazilian Lightweight Boxing Champion, Antonio Portugal and Carlos’ younger, smaller, and much frailer brother Helio. Helio won the match in less than 30 seconds, effectively elevating himself to the status of Brazilian hero. At the time, Brazil had no international sports heroes, and Helio filled that void for the Brazilians.

As word of these matches spread to Japan, the great martial arts champions of Japan sought to participate in this new form of competition against the Gracies, who the Japanese thought were defiling their traditional arts. Japanese champions flocked to Rio de Janeiro to do battle with Helio Gracie, who was always out weighed by his opponents, often by more than 100 pounds. He defeated many great Japanese fighters, and in a trip to the United States, Helio defeated the World Freestyle Wrestling Champion, American super heavyweight Fred Ebert. One-hundred-thirty-five pound Helio continued to defend the Gracie name and their martial art, often against opponents weighing as much as 300 pounds, from 1935 until 1951, fighting over 1000 fights, until Carlos’ son, Carlson, and later Helio’s sons Rolls, Rickson and Rorion took over the roll of family champion in upholding the “Gracie Challenge.”

The new combat sport of vale-tudo fighting became immensely popular, quickly rising to become the second most popular sport, in terms of ticket sales, in Brazil behind soccer. This is a status that the sport still enjoys today. Leagues and organizations were soon formed and events began to be held regularly all over Brazil. The fights featured practitioners of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, muay Thai kickboxing, luta livre wrestling, boxing and various other styles. As these events, and as a result, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, grew in popularity in Brazil, the Gracies branched out to the United States.

In the early 1980s, Helio’s oldest son Rorion, came to the United States to teach Brazilian, or Gracie jiu-jitsu as he preferred to call it, in California. Like his father and uncle before him, he issued the infamous “Gracie Challenge” in his new home, but added a new twist. Rorion offered $100,000 to anyone who could defeat him, or one of his brothers, in a vale-tudo match. These matches again brought Brazilian jiu-jitsu much popularity. As Rorion realized the potential this style of fighting offered to spread his family’s art, he sought to create an organization that would promote this sort of fighting in the United States.

After years of hard work, and promoting his family’s art and his idea for an American vale-tudo league, Rorion Gracie met Art Davie, a salesmen who had first become interested in this style of fighting during a trip he took to Thailand where he witnessed an underground mixed martial arts event. Davie utilized his connections in the television industry to set up a meeting for himself and Rorion Gracie with Bob Meyrowitz, who was president of Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG), a corporation that specialized in putting on live pay-per-view sporting events. Together, the three men established the “Ultimate Fighting Championship,” which held its first event in 1993. The first “Ultimate Fighting Championship” (or UFC as it is more commonly known) event sold 86,000 pay-per-view buys, and by the third event, the buy rate was up to 300,000 pay-per-view buys per show. This secured a place for the sport of mixed martial arts in the United States, but this place was not a reputable one.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship had introduced a form of fighting which it dubbed “no-holds-barred,” or NHB fighting. The first six Ultimate Fighting Championships had very few rules. In fact, there were no weight classes, no time limits or rounds, and no mandatory safety equipment. The only rules were that fighters could not eye gouge, bite, or fish hook, and fights could only end with a referee’s stoppage, knock out, or submission, which could be signified verbally, or by a “tap out,” where the fighter must tap the mat, or his opponent three times with his hand or foot to signify that he submits. The event took place in an octagonal cage, dubbed “The Octagon.”

The format of the event was that of a one night tournament, where competitors would fight several bouts in one night, in a single elimination style tournament until a champion was named. The lack of weight classes became an obvious problem from the outset, when 415 pound Hawaiian sumo wrestler was allowed to fight 216 pound Dutch kick boxer Gerard Gordeau. This scene was later repeated in the third UFC event, when 6-foot-8inch tall, 600 pound sumo wrestler from New Jersey, Emmanuel Yarborough, was allowed to fight 5-foot-11-inch tall, 200 pound karate fighter from Illinois, Keith Hackney.

Another problem that quickly became obvious was the lack of time limits, and judges. By UFC IV, most of the competitors had caught on to Royce Gracie’s success, and had begun to learn grappling techniques. As a result, the fights became longer and longer. It reached a point where the fights were running over the allotted pay-per-view time slot, and the UFC was losing fans, as they viewed the long periods of ground fighting as boring. SEG realized that it had to do something, so in 1995, at UFC V in Charlotte, North Carolina, the UFC instituted a 30 minute time limit, but did not have judges. Thus, when the much anticipated Royce Gracie-Ken Shamrock rematch ran over the 30 minute time limit, it was ruled a draw. The fans were outraged. This resulted in the use of judges beginning with UFC VI to decide the outcome of fights that outlasted the time limit.

As the UFC gained popularity, it became a pertinent political topic, as Arizona Senator John McCain launched a campaign against the UFC. As a result, in 1997, pay-per-view carriers dropped the Ultimate Fighting Championship events from their line-ups. This was partially SEG’s fault, as they had marketed the UFC as a blood sport, by drawing attention to the negatives that surrounded the event. SEG’s marketing of the event boasted that it was a “no rules,” or “no-holds-barred” fighting event, where anything could happen, even death. This was a successful marketing scheme in the beginning, as it drew attention to the sport from curiosity seekers, but it later backfired politically. As the political uproar began, and Sen. McCain became an outspoken champion of the abolition of the sport, states began to outlaw mixed martial arts competition. This forced the UFC to move its events from state to state, until the pay-per-view providers dropped the events from their services. In the words of UFC ring announcer, Bruce Buffer, this caused the UFC to “basically go underground.”

The Ultimate Fighting Championship remained a fringe oddity, without pay-per-view coverage, and banned from all but a handful of states for several years, until the franchise was purchased by Zuffa, LLC. Zuffa, a Las Vegas based media and casino management company owned by Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, took over the UFC franchise with the intention of returning it to its former popularity, and eventually gaining the sport mainstream acceptance. The Fertittas and Zuffa president Dana White sought to turn the UFC into a “good, clean sport with actual rules,” which would allow the sport to eventually become sanctioned. This would be a huge step for the UFC, as “sanctioning provides a legitimization for the sport,” according to Bruce Buffer.

Dana White and the Fertitta’s work came to fruition in 2001, when the UFC returned to pay-per-view, with record buy rates, and record ticket sales at their live events. The new and improved UFC returned with a stricter set of rules, which included rounds, time limits, five weight classes, a list of 31 fouls, and 8 possible ways to win. Also, the UFC fighters were drastically different from those that entered the Octagon in 1993. Current UFC fighters are among the best conditioned athletes in the world. Often, fighters train for more than six hours a day, which is comparable to, and often more than the amount of time boxers and other professional athletes spend in training on a daily basis. Also, fighters work on strength and conditioning, in addition to their striking and grappling skills.

The difficulty of mixed martial arts training can best be summed up in the words of two of the sport’s stars, as former UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia says “Mixed martial arts training is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life,” and UFC light-heavyweight contender Chuck Liddell stated that mixed martial arts training is “more rigorous training than almost any other sport.” The new breed are well-rounded fighters, versed in numerous styles of combat, and equally at home on the mat, as standing and trading punches and kicks. Among the new breed of fighters are former Olympic medallists, NCAA champions, Pan American games medallists, and even a long list of former NFL football players, and boxing champions. Many of these fighters are college graduates, and several are graduate school students.

Today, the UFC’s pay-per-view buy rates are rising quickly, as are ticket sales at their live gates. Fighters now spend five to six years fighting in smaller events, building their resumes to compete in the big show. Fans continue to flock to the sport looking for the excitement and intensity of the purest form of one-on-one competition on the planet today. Mixed martial arts is also currently the fastest growing sport in the United States, as mixed martial arts events and training centers spring up all over the country, and the money the sport is making continues to grow at a nearly exponential rate.

Read Part II. An Overview of the Conflict between the States’ Police Power and Personal Liberties

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