Combat sports are as old as humanity itself, it is impossible to put a firm date on the first combat sport. One of the first recorded combat sports created by the Ancient Greeks, Pankration, resembled mixed martial arts. While the practice of Pankration disappeared during the Roman Empire and there is no connection to the development it is a landmark moment in combat sports history and marks the start of the series.
We then moved to the Middle Ages to track the evolution of two martial arts on opposite sides of the world. The Samurai of Japan and Knights of Europe were faced with similar problems, combating armored opponents. Both Knights and Samurai spent their lives mastering combat, learning how to fight with a wide variety of weapons and fighting unarmed. Strikes were largely ineffective against armored foes, so both warrior cultures developed grappling based arts: Japanese Jujitsu and European Catch Wrestling. In these arts warriors who found themselves tangled with an enemy would take their enemy down and then use the advantages granted by gravity and position to kill their prostrate opponent.
The series then followed Japanese Jujitsu's transformation into Judo at the hands of Jigoro Kano, and then its migration to Brazil with Mitsuyo Maeda, who then taught Judo to Carlos Gracie. The Gracie family took Judo and ran with it, creating their own style of the art. The Gracies decided to test their new found skills in what was then a side show at Brazilian events, Vale Tudo. Translating as "No Rules", these matches were one of the direct forerunners of modern MMA and in it the Gracie's and their students would forge their martial art against Luta Livre fighters.
The rivalry with Luta Livre stretched over sixty years, spanning three generations of Gracies: from the inspiring Rolls Gracie, to the innovations and competitive fire of Carlson Gracie, all the way to the riotous show down between Renzo Gracie and Eugenio Tadeu. As the rivalry intensified many fighters looked to gain an edge on their competition, and some turned to the newly migrated art of Muay Thai in an effort to expand their skill set.
European Catch Wrestling on the other hand came into contact with many other forms of wrestling on European sailing vessels during the ages of exploration and colonization. Also wide spread was the practice of performing pre-scripted matches for entertainment purposes. Then an exceptional wrestler named Karl Gotch who had a love of real fights, known as shoot-style wrestling, traveled to Japan. He trained several pro wrestlers there and imbued in them a love of shoot wrestling as well.
Japan was searching for a new fight sport in the 80's and 90's and it was Karl Gotch's legacy that helped create that sport. Satoru Sayama, a Gotch student, would found Shooto and Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki, Students of the Pro Wrestling great Antonio Inoki who learned from Gotch, would create the Pancrase Hybrid Fighting promotion. Pancrase was founded as a pro wrestling promotion that featured shoot style matches, but some matches were works.
The United States was also searching for something new in the mid-1900s from martial arts. Soldiers coming home from the Second World War brought with them different martial arts from all over the world. Questions began to rise about how these arts would fair against the traditional western arts. So the U.S. dabbled in mixing martial arts with a few matches pitting boxers against different kinds of styles.
Then in the 1978 Rorion Gracie moved to the United States, bringing with him Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Rorion struggled to find acceptance in the American martial arts community, and decided to invoke the Gracie Challenge. It was simply an open challenge, lay down a certain amount of money and Rorion would match and then fight to see who won the money. Rorion, and his family and students, won all their matches and often would let the challenger keep their money but would keep a video of the fight.
These challenge matches help Brazilian Jiu Jitsu grow in California but Rorion wanted it to spread to the entire U.S., so he looked for a way to raise the challenge matches to national awareness. A student of his put Rorion in contact with a man named Art Davie and the Ultimate Fighting Championship was born.
The series then tracked the two growing hotbeds of what would become MMA in the U.S. and Japan. Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie fought for the first time at UFC 1, and after that they both became stars of the sport. Royce remained in the UFC and won two more UFC tournaments, becoming the first dominant champion in the promotion's history. While Shamrock would return to the United States for UFC 3, he spent much of the next few years in Japan, becoming the champion of Pancrase.
Shamrock and Gracie would finally rematch at UFC 5, and while Shamrock dominated much of the match it was ruled a draw as per the rules of the UFC at the time. At this point Shamrock departed Pancrase to fight in the UFC, which opened the door for a Dutch kickboxer named Bas Rutten to win the King of Pancrase title. The Gracies departed the UFC, leaving Shamrock to dominate the UFC.
It was during this time that the political campaigns against the young sport began, and the UFC fought to remain legal by instituting new rules and regulations. This fight left the UFC near death and cut into their profits deeply, almost killing the sport. Many of the UFC's stars, including Ken Shamrock left for the greener pastures of Professional Wrestling. A new generation of MMA fighters emerged and Ohio State wrestler Mark Coleman beat the tar out of just about all of them at UFC 10 & 11.
And this is as far as the series reached in one year. There is still a great deal to discuss in 2013 including: Erik Paulson and Shooto in the 90s, a new generation of UFC stars emerging in the dark ages, the Frank Shamrock alliance with Maurice Smith, non-UFC promotions in the U.S., and the birth of Pride.