Just over two years ago the MMA Origins series was started, and while the pace of articles has slowed a little it continues to show examples of the history of the sport of Mixed Martial Arts: it's roots in martial arts history, the growth of promotions and fighters, and the evolving nature of the sport.
This article will provide a summary of the entire series with links to the individual articles that will provide much greater depth on that subject, including videos, pictures, stories, and links to sources.
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 tangling 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 the transformation and migration of the two arts. Jujitsu would be transformed into Judo by Jigoro Kano in the late 1800s, and then travel to Brazil. Catch Wresting was spread around the world by the European empires of the 1700s and 1800s and expanded as it encountered other local wrestling traditions. In Brazil it resulted in a style known as Luta Livre, which became the primary rival of the Gracie family's style of Judo, which became known as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
As Vale Tudo gained popularity, more styles entered in the fray and Carlson Gracie helped guide a new generation of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fighters in these increasing heated contests. In the 1970's fiery pro wrestler Karl Gotch brought his own competitive style of wrestling to Japan and became a star there. His students, inspired by Gotch's competitive spirit, would go on to start their live match leagues.
In the United States in the mid-1900's, soldiers returning home from tours during and after the second world war began to bring home different martial arts and teach them to students, the most popular being karate and judo. Curiosity on how these arts would fair against boxers resulted in the first two sanctioned American dabblings in MMA.
In Brazil the Luta Livre and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu rivalry spanned into a third generation and almost became a full on gang war as fight events had riots in the stands that spilled out into street fights. One member of the Gracie family stayed mostly out of the Vale Tudo ring but still had a huge impact on the development of MMA. Rorion Gracie made it his mission to export Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to the United States, so he set up shop in California and took challenge matches to prove the worth of jiu jitsu to skeptical American martial artists.
While Rorion was carving out his place in the California martial arts scene and BJJ and Vale Tudo fighters did battle in and out of the ring in Brazil, Japan was experimenting with mixed rules competitions and pro wrestling promotions were slowly becoming more and more real.
Two pro wrestlers, Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki, students of the Pro Wrestling great Antonio Inoki, who himself was a student of the legendary Karl Gotch, set up a Shoot (live) match promotion named Pancrase.
Just a few weeks later Rorion Gracie, looking to expand on the attraction of the Gracie Challenge, held a martial arts tournament he and few other promoters organized and named the Ultimate Fighting Championships. UFC 1 was a huge success as a pay-per-view commodity and kicked off the American market for what was then called "No Holds Barred" fighting.
UFC 1 had two runaway stars: the winner Royce Gracie, and Ken Shamrock. Both represented direct lineages of the founding arts as Royce hailed from Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Shamrock had learned Catch Wrestling in Japan. After UFC 1, Shamrock returned to Pancarse and became the first champion of that promotion. Meanwhile Royce remained in the UFC and turned away a line of increasingly larger and better prepared challengers to win two more UFC tournaments.
Eventually Shamrock returned to the UFC to face Royce again. Their match ended in a draw, but the Gracies withdrew from the promotion after UFC 5. Shamrock would become the sport's top fighter for a few years before leaving for the greener pastures of professional wrestling.
It was around this time that fighters that were skilled in more than one area of fighting really began to emerge. Arguably the first well rounded Mixed Martial Artist was Erik Paulson, who fought his first MMA fight in Japan's Shooto promotion prior to UFC 1. In Brazil fighters began to train in Muay Thai in addition to grappling in the 1990's. In Pancrase, after Ken Shamrock left, kickboxer Bas Rutten developed into a feared submission artist and used his diverse skill set to become the King of Pancrase.
The UFC also began to see fighters with diverse skill sets, but the evolution was cut short as Mark Coleman used pure wrestling and aggression to batter the UFC into submission. During this time period the UFC faced serious legal battles, and were adjusting their rules in a seemingly futile struggle to remain legal. These legal troubles badly hurt the UFC's ability to pay fighters and the promotion struggled to hold on their new champions.
The series took two asides, one more relevant than the other. The Russian military began to rethink their military hand-to-hand program and turned to, among other things, Judo. They developed a system known as Sambo, and the sport known as Combat Sambo is form of jacketed MMA. For Memorial Day the series looked at how the growth of MMA impacted the American military.
The series returned to Japan for the start of an MMA super power. Japanese pro wrestlers, seeking a chance to prove they were still the best fighters on the planet, sought a match with Rickson Gracie. They ended up getting more than they bargained for, but the affair lead to the inauspicious birth of Pride FC.
The series finished with a two-part look at the alliance between Frank Shamrock and Maurice Smith. Together they would change how fighters trained for competition in MMA. First Smith demonstrated with the proper training a striker could be successful at the highest levels of MMA. And Shamrock combined the lessons in conditioning Smith gave the MMA world with a well-rounded skill set to become the most dominant figure in the sport.
That is as far as the series has come thus far. The rate of articles has slowed down as my depth of research has gotten greater and the increasing frequency of UFC events had reduced the amount of time I've had to devote to these pieces. In 2014, I very much hope to start covering non-UFC American promotions like Extreme Fighting, the continued growth of Pride, and the deepening struggles of the UFC during the Dark Ages.