MMA Origins: American Experiments

A short aside from the developing lines of Mixed Martial Arts evolving out of the lines of Japanese Judo and the European Catch Wrestling. The United States of the early 1900s was a young nation coming of age, and it had a love for all things sport. At the time the term of "the big three sports" would have referred to baseball, horse racing and boxing.

The sport of boxing was about 50 years from being separated from other combat arts with the Marquess of Queensberry Rules which were introduced in 1866. These rules removed all wrestling from matches, instituted the three minute round and made gloves mandatory. While not immediately enforced in every boxing match, these rules slowly filtered through the world of pugilism and created the sport of boxing as we know it today. Catch and Amateur Wrestling were also popular in the United States and these arts combined with boxing and fencing made up the vast majority of martial arts in America.

That all changed with the ending of the Second World War. A whole generation of American young men traveled to Europe and Asia and had their eyes opened to the greater world of martial arts. Those stationed in the Pacific islands after the war ended had plenty of free time when not on peace keeping duties, and many U.S. troops filled that time by going to local martial arts academies. Karate and Judo were the most popular choices.

When these soldiers came home, some of them brought the arts home with them. They opened schools or found schools already established and began training students in the United States. At this point, boxing and amature wrestling were firmly established as the combat sports in the United States, but Judo and Karate became extremely popular alternatives. As they grew, the establishment began to resent the new competition. Arguments would rage about judo vs boxing or karate vs boxing.

In 1963, a man named Jim Beck issued an open challenge in Rouge Magazine for any judoka to take on a boxer. In his article titled "The Judo Bums" Beck clearly confuses Karate with Judo, but claims that any boxer could beat any Judo man. The proposed match would have a $1000 cash prize for the winner and that cash prize drew the attention of Gene LeBell, a U.S. Judo champion who also had international success. LeBell contacted Beck and the match was set for December of 1963 in Salt Lake City.

When Gene arrived he was surprised to find it was not Beck he would be fighting, but rather former Top 5 Light Heavyweight Boxer Milo Savage. The rules were set that both men would wear gi tops, and Gene was forbidden from using kicks or karate chops and the fight would have an unlimited number of rounds and only stop with a finish. Milo would wear fingerless leather gloves and is accused of both wearing brass knuckles under his gloves and greasing. Gene suspects that Milo learned some Judo for the match as he was able to stop some takedowns, but in the 4th round, Gene threw Milo to the mat, took the boxer's back and applied a choke.

Milo passed out and Gene Lebell became the winner of the first sanctioned Mixed Martial Arts fight in the United States.

Here is a fantastic video made about Lebell and the match by the FightNerd, the whole thing is amazing but if you just want to hear about the match skip to 2:35 :

After the jump, Muhammad Ali's foray into MMA...

Despite its historic place now, at the time the Lebell vs Savage match was barely a blip on the U.S. sporting map. Both the martial arts and boxing would go on to continue to grow in popularity as both would welcome their biggest starts to the American stage. For the martial arts, the mid-1960s witnessed the rise of Bruce Lee in the U.S. conciseness. His movies caused an explosion in interest in Asian martial arts. Meanwhile the iconic sporting star of Muhammed Ali would launch boxing to the top of the global sporting world.

In 1976, Ali was a year removed from his epic third match with Joe Frazier and had dispatched three challengers rather easily. He was looking for something to make headlines with and when Japanese professional Antonio Inoki reached out to him for an exhibition match, Ali agreed.

The agreed upon match was originally a "work", meaning that outcome would be predetermined. Inoki was a student of the transformative catch wrestler Karl Gotch, and was a skilled grappler. Inoki was know for liking "shooting" or having live matches and when Ali saw Inoki grapple live he became concerned that Inoki would go off script. Many think this was Inoki's intention and Ali requested several rules of the match be changed two weeks before the match.

The new rules removed all grappling from the match and limited the strikes Inoki could throw, most importantly leg kicks could only be thrown if Inoki had one knee on the mat. The referee would be the only man really qualified to over see a boxer vs grappler match, none other than Gene Lebell.

The result of these new rules was Inoki staying outside of Ali's range and diving forward with leg kicks on Ali and then laying on his back while Ali offered to help him up. In short, it was MMA's first real clunker of a fight.

While the fight took place in Japan, it did draw interest in the United States because of Ali's star power. It was declared a draw but Ali suffered major damage to his legs and passed on the press conference to be taken directly to the hospital. It is claimed that this fight had a serious impact on Ali's mobility for the rest of his career and Ali never recorded another knock out win after this match as his decline started very suddenly.

These early forays into MMA did show an U.S. interest in this idea of match style against style, but it wouldn't be until the 1990s that another serious experiment in MMA would take place for American audiences.

More Reading on Early U.S. MMA

Happy Belated Birthday Gene LeBell

Gene Lebell Official Stories

The Joke That Almost Ended Ali's Career

MMA Origins:

Exploring Fight Sport's Ancient Roots

Getting Medieval

Vale Tudo and the Original MMA Rivalry

Carlson Gracie Changes Jiu-Jitsu and Vale Tudo

Catch Wrestling Travels To Japan

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