The History of MMA – The Most Rapidly-Growing Sport - Combat Sport Events

The History of MMA – The Most Rapidly-Growing Sport

The History of Mixed Martial Arts dates back to thousands of years and can be traced as far back as 648 BC. Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) has become the fastest-growing sport for a reason. The increasingly popular of the anything-goes style of fighting has crossed over in recent years to the casual fan base and has also become on par with boxing.

Although a relatively new sport MMA has deep historic roots that date back thousands of years. In this article, we take a step back in time to see where exactly MMA originated and how it became the billion-dollar empire that it is today.

MMA Origins and The Forms of Its Existence At Early Stages

MMA origins are challenging to trace and come out with accuracy. MMA has had many variations but was officially broadcast and recognized as MMA on Friday 12 Nov 1993 when UFC ONE took place.  

One of the first forms of MMA is claimed to take its origins from Han Dynasty in ancient China where warriors mixed the wrestling and kung fu fighting styles. Chinese soldiers used versatile techniques – throwing, punching, making locks, etc. Initially, this form of martial art was called Shuai Jiao. To get a deeper understanding of the origins and the history of MMA we will start at the very beginning. 


Pankration statue

MMA owes its origins to the ancient Greeks. As far back as 648 BC, a sport called Pankration was first introduced to the Olympic Games. This brutal full-contact contest was used as training for the Greek armies. 

Adopting a combination of street fighting, boxing, and wrestling, Pankration proved to be both brutal and popular. Kicking, punching, kneeing, and hitting opponents were actively encouraged, the rules only forbade eye gouging and biting. 

Matches would end when one of the fighters accepted defeat or was rendered unconscious, many fighters died from injuries sustained during bouts.

Pankration quickly became a firm favorite of those attending, remaining a mainstay of the Olympic games until 393 BC when Roman Emperor Theodosius banned the Olympic Games altogether, bring to an end to the popularity of Pankration as a competition. Despite this, Pankration gave rise to Mixed Martial Arts in perspective. 

Vale Tudo

The concept of a mixed discipline combat sport didn’t resurface until the early 20th century, in Brazil. Two brothers named Hello and Carlos Gracie launched a combat sport known as Vale Tudo (anything goes in English). 

Mitsuyo Maeda, a Japanese judōka, in 1914 came to Brazil and brought with him his blend of Judo and wrestling.

Mitsuyo started teaching this hybrid martial art to a small group of people. One young student was Carlos Gracie. 

Gracie Jiu-Jitsu

gracie-family-gracie history

Carlos involved his large family in the teachings and began building an enterprise on this particular style of fighting. 

When they opened an MMA school in Rio de Janeiro in 1925, the brothers attracted much attention by issuing a call to the public to take part in what became known as The Gracie Challenge. Welcoming all challengers to fight them following a set of rules which resulted in fights that closely resembled Pankration. 

Using their newly developed style of Jiu-Jitsu, now known as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, they would breeze through competition.

These were to prove so popular that they soon booked large soccer stadiums to accommodate their fans.

To read more about the Gracie Family check out this article here. Gracie Jiu Jitsu.

Luta Livre

Luta Livre

Luta livre on the surface looks quite similar to Brazilian jiu-jitsu however, there are differences. Luta livre has more emphasis on leg locks and also allows striking. Athletes would also compete with no-gi while Brazilian jiu-jitsu athletes would compete with a gi.

Luta Livre is said to be the rival of BJJ. While they both originated around the same time they took different paths to develop into their own style.

To read more about Luta Livre visit our article here on Luta Livre.

UFC Background and What Exactly Gave Rise to UFC?

The whole history of UFC started with Gracies and the jiu-jitsu background and has grown into a worldwide competition. But did they predict such a crazy success? Let alone know that it would eventually be a hugely successful franchise, the Ultimate Fighting Championship we know and love today, an organization that remains the leading promoter of mixed martial arts worldwide. The early concept of the UFC events was to invite leading fighters of different disciplines the face off against each other. Starting from the UFC origins, witnessed fights where kickboxers fought wrestlers and masters of karate faced Judo champions. 

The event was governed by similar rules to those of Pankration, the only actions that were outlawed were eye gouging and biting. Royce Gracie would eventually be crowned champion of the first UFC. Broadcast on Pay-per-view television it attracted nearly 90000 viewers. By the time UFC 3 was introduced to tv more than 300,000 people tuned in.

When Was the UFC Founded: How The Competition Grew Into Global Championship

Royce Grace vs a Boxer at UFC 1

The Gracie family first introduced their Brazilian jiu-jitsu to the US in the early 1990s. This became the background that America needed at that time to grow it into a full-scale UFC as we know it today. So, when was the UFC founded? Officially, it is 1993 – the year when Hello’s son Royce was invited to represent the family at the first UFC hosted in Denver, Colorado in 1993.

The history of UFC shows that later the Ultimate Fighting Championship aggressively marketed itself as a sport where anything could happen. But its brutality was not to the taste of many people, foremost among its opponents was a politician named John McCain, he referred to MMA cafe fights as being the equivalent of human cockfighting and fought to have the sport outlawed. 

By 2001, the Ultimate Fighting Championship was under new management, they took the steps necessary to bring it to a more mainstream audience. In addition to the introduction of weight classes, time limits, and rounds, they proposed a stricter list of fouls that were explicitly designed to attract more viewers. But it also has the added benefit of decreasing the lousy publicity the championship was attracting.

The addition of these new rules attracted more skilled proponents of the martial arts, as well as boxers and wrestlers. These new fighters took a far more professional approach to their diet and training regimes, MMA had graduated from the realm of street fighting to the stage where it was regulated by the same bodies that governed boxing. Foremost among these with a New Jersey state athletic control board and the Nevada State Athletic Commission, under their regulation the UFC was offered a considerable boost in credibility, It even resulted in one of its strongest opponents McCain admitting in 2007 that the sport had made significant progress.

Despite its popularity, the UFC didn’t make any money in its early years. It wasn’t until the early 2000s when they were lucky enough to have two of the biggest names ever to step into the octagon on their books, that their fortunes began to change. Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture drew millions of viewers, as the popularity of these two fighters skyrocketed so too did the prestige of the UFC. The battles fought between these two giants of MMA at UFC 43, 52, and 57 are still famous today, attracting millions of viewers on YouTube. In 2001, American businessman Dana White became the president of UFC. Along with Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta who founded Zuffa the same year when they bought UFC, Dana White was popularizing Mixed Martial Arts through the reality show The Ultimate Fighter. It was so until UFC was sold to several investors for 4 billion dollars. 

Boosted by this popularity MMA ever graduated to the realm of reality TV. Airing the first episode of their show The Ultimate Fighter back in 2005. It featured celebrity fighting coaches and their teams of combatants all living under the same roof, training and fighting together. The ultimate prize was for the winner to receive a UFC contract.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship has been instrumental in the implementation of standardized rules in mixed martial arts across the globe. The rules that exist in the US are now implemented in promoted fights worldwide.

Each follows strict standards known as the unified rules of mixed martial arts. Foremost among these rules was that fighters can only compete in the fenced area or a ring. They are required to wear padded fingerless gloves but they cannot wear headgear or shoes.

Exciting additions to rules include those surrounding grappling which allows a fighter to launch attacks while on the ground or standing. It also introduced rules for kicking, throwing, and striking an opponent. Groin attacks, eye-gouging, hair pulling, and biting have remained strictly prohibited.

Added to the list of illegalities were throat strikes, spinal strikes or the back of the head, and downward elbow strikes. If a fighter is found to be in violation of the rules referees were empowered to deduct points, make issue warnings or disqualify an offending party.

The unified rules system also regulated the time that Fighters could spend in the octagon, normal fights were limited to 3×5-minute rounds with a minute break in between. The only exception to this would be a championship bout these would take place over 5x 5-minute rounds. Victory could be attained by either knocking out your opponents or by your opponent’s submission. Should the fight go the distance a panel of Judges decides the winner?

The introduction of weight classes in MMA was essential to its legitimacy. These may vary from region to region. But the upper weight limits of the levels remain the same. The UFC recognizes 9 weight classes, strawweight under 115lb, flyweight under 155lb, bantamweight under 130lb, featherweight under 100lb, lightweight under 155lb, welterweight under 170 lb, middleweight under 185lb, light heavyweight under 205lb, and heavyweights under 235 lbs. While the UFC itself doesn’t have a class for super heavyweights this does exist in other competitions.

Since its establishment the UFC has based to self in Las Vegas Nevada, it has run dozens of events every year throughout the history of UFC all around the globe. Its pay-per-view events are broadcasted in over 130 countries around the world. Founded in 1993, it was purchased by Zuffa Inc in January 2001 for a mere two million dollars. Under the guidance of President Dana White, its popularity rapidly expanded to the stage that its estimated word count reached over 4 billion in 2016.

There are numerous other professional MMA organizations around the world, foremost among these is a California and bases company called Bellator MMA, another leading organization that’s the One championship based out of Singapore. But despite the competition, the UFC remains a preeminent position in the industry. They’ve gone so far as to buy out rival organizations in the last 10 years. Even though they promised to keep these organizations operating independently, this has failed either by accident or design, resulting in their top fighters being absorbed by the UFC.

Who were MMAs most notable Champions

Daniel Cormier winning MMA titles

We’ve already mentioned Royce Gracie, who rose to fame in the 1990s, famous for his unique brand of Jiu-Jitsu and his ability to fight from the flat of his back. Winning most of his bouts through submission by targeting his opponent joints. His ability to take down much bigger opponents was central to the early popularity of MMA.

The clashes between Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture became famous for their brutality in the early 2000s. Couture had a background in Greco-Roman, and Freestyle Wrestling, Liddell, on the other hand, was one of the first true proponents of mixed martial arts. Combining wrestling, boxing, karate, and kickboxing to considerable effect. Their trilogy of fights between 2003 and 2006 grabbed the attention of the US public launching the popularity of MMA to even higher levels. Anderson Silva another Brazilian MMA fighter another of the most skilled fighters ever to step into the octagon, he excelled in MMA combined Brazilian jiu-jitsu, boxing, Muay Thai, and taekwondo to terrible effect. He will always be remembered for his UFC debut bout lasting only 49 seconds when he knocked his opponent out cold.

Bruce Lee was another strong figure in the history of MMA. The renowned Bruce Lee was ‘rewarded’ with the statue in Hong Kong as not just a sportsman but the man who combined the physical and philosophical aspects of judo, karate, and MMA. 

In more recent years MMA has courted controversy once again, much of which is down to the antics of an Irish fighter called Conor McGregor. McGregor will go down for being one of the hardest strikers ever in the lower weight divisions, but his behaviour outside the ring has brought a lot of unwelcome attention to MMA and the UFC. Despite this recent bad publicity the popularity of the sport has continued to go from strength to strength.

MMA History infographic

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