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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

MMA history: A CliffsNotes version

It would require possibly 10 separate blog posts to fully explain the long and complex history of Mixed Martial Arts. But consider this a crash course for the curious interested in learning about the sport’s past in a quick, convenient summary.

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For those not in the know, MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) is an acronym for a rapidly growing combat sport that found its beginnings in 1993 when a family of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu specialists, known as the Gracies, hosted North America’s inaugural Mixed Martial Arts pay-per-view television event. Coined "The Ultimate Fighting Championship," it was more or less an open challenge to martial artists of all styles from around the globe to attempt to defeat a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu specialist for a $50,000 grand prize.

Brawlers of all walks — from Sumo wrestlers to Karate experts — heeded the call, but in the end, the Gracie family dominated the event by way of one of its youngest family members at the time, Royce Gracie. Many longtime MMA fans and analysts often refer to the debut UFC event as an infomercial for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. And the event and the success of the BJJ style of fighting set the mark for future competition and laid the foundation for what we know today as professional Mixed Martial Arts.

The phenomenon America witnessed by way of Royce Gracie in Denver at the McNichols Sports Arena on Nov. 12, 1993, was a complex and historically twisted form of physical combat born from an even more confusing and international genesis. Ancient Greece, Japan, Thailand and Russia are but four of the many cultures that contributed to what MMA has evolved to in 2008. And it was originally a friendship between Scottish and Japanese immigrants in Brazil during the late 1800s that bridged the ancient Japanese fighting style of Jiu-Jitsu with the Western world, and laid the foundation for what the Gracie family unleashed on the international martial arts community in the early ’90s.

This early version of cage fighting and the spectacle itself was already popular in Brazil for nearly a century before its birth in the United States. Known in South America as Vale Tudo (Portuguese for “anything goes”), this Brazilian flavor of fighting appealed to spectators hungry for something beyond the one-dimensional format of Western boxing, or even the two dimensions of organized kickboxing at the time. In Vale Tudo, literally anything did go. Not only could a fighter punch and kick but he could also utilize joint manipulation and chokeholds. Not to mention that the original Vale Tudo fights were bare-knuckle affairs. With time, a once unpredictable and chaotic fighting event evolved into a standardized sports format with a judging system and a more humane set of rules. Kneeing the head of a downed opponent and eye gouging were two of several moves that became blacklisted.

The upcoming Sept. 6 event in Georgia is not the UFC’s first visit to the state. Augusta was the host city of UFC 11 on Sept. 20, 1996, which was televised on pay-per-view to a national audience. This was during the beginning of an era known in Mixed Martial Arts circles as the “dark ages” — a period when fight promoters and organizations found themselves swimming upstream against a current of backlash and moral protest over what was perceived as cheap and simple violence.

Athletic commissions around the country began to oppose MMA with encouragement from moral leaders, and by the middle ’90s, this opposition resulted in a drift toward the financial red zone for organizations like the UFC. It wasn’t until 2000 — when the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts was instated by the New Jersey Athletic commission via the California Athletic Commission — that the MMA pendulum began to swing in a more positive direction. Gone were the days of no weight classes and groin strikes, giving way to a far more structured form of fighting. What was once a free-form brawl began to resemble a legitimate and organized sport.

Meanwhile in Japan, an MMA organization and competitive peer of the UFC evolved into what became known as PRIDE Fighting Championship. Bouts were equally as exciting as any UFC event, but different on the surface. PRIDE utilized a boxing-style ring as opposed to a cage, and had a different set of rules that were a bit less restrictive than those finally settled upon in the States. And for years, many MMA fans seemed to embrace PRIDE fighters as the upper echelon of the martial arts world. But the year 2007 would toss doubt on such claims, with notable PRIDE fighters such as Shogun Rua and Mirko Cro Cop losing decisively in the UFC octagon. And there were previous moments of crossover between the two organizations, with American fighters traveling to Asia to compete. (One of the most famous UFC/PRIDE comparisons was UFC champ Chuck Liddell’s TKO loss to Quinton Jackson at PRIDE’s Final Conflict in November 2003.)

Now enter the reality television craze of 2005. UFC President Dana White struck a deal with MTV-owned SPIKE TV and launched the first season of "The Ultimate Fighter" reality show to widespread praise. The first season of "The Ultimate Fighter" was built on the same reality TV model as MTV’s "Real World," but ended each episode with a three-round MMA fight. The accidentally brilliant idea of interrelationship roommate dramas settled at the climax of each show with a fight proved to be a success, and resulted in the popular television show now reaching its seventh season as of spring 2008, with an eighth season to launch in the fall.

There are a few moments in modern MMA history that analysts cite as important and possibly even essential to the sport’s survival today. One of these moments was the finale fight of "The Ultimate Fighter" Season One, between former Georgia resident Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar. The two unknown MMA fighters were set up for a battle with the winner walking away with a UFC fight contract. For one of the first times in television history, casual viewers were allowed to see a UFC production on cable without paying the typical $30 to $40 cover charge. And the people tuned in. Luckily, for MMA in general and the UFC as a business, all the stars were in alignment the night of April 9, 2005. Griffin and Bonnar fought a fight that was so passionate and courageous that people still refer to it today as if it was one of the greatest televised fights ever. And maybe it was. In the end, the two fighters impressed Dana White so much that he gave both of them fight contracts.

Now, three years later, Griffin sits atop the light heavyweight division as the current champion. It was a fairy-tale story that the public followed closely. The UFC’s reality show brought new fans to the sport of MMA. For the first time, a larger female audience began to tune in and the television ratings climbed at an ever-increasing rate. Cable television made stars of guys like Forrest Griffin and expanded the UFC brand into living rooms around the world. The mouthpieces for the MMA industry and Dana White in particular claim that Mixed Martial Arts is the fastest growing sport in the world among males ages 18 to 34. And the obvious advertising frenzy would signal that there must be some substance to such claims. The UFC went from small, regional sponsorships just a few years ago to giant corporations such as Harley-Davidson and Budweiser by 2008.

Stay tuned to Fresh Loaf. Next time, we’ll discuss MMA’s battle with mainstream morality.

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