Mixed Martial Arts is one of the biggest sports on the planet at current – ONE Championship averaged 29 million viewers per event in 2019 (according to their CEO Chatri Sidyodtong) the UFC was involved in the largest sports acquisition in history when it sold to WME-IMG for four billion dollars and the sport has generated superstar athletes like Conor McGregor who have surpassed the sport and became household names. Not bad for a sport that was widely banned and compared to human cockfighting in the not too distant past. But how did this global phenomenon come to be the sport it is today?
Competitions between different styles of martial arts have been pretty common throughout history. In ancient China you could find no-holds-barred fights that combined forms of wrestling, boxing and Chinese martial arts, known as Leitai. Ancient Greece had an olympic sport called Pankration, involving grappling and striking that isn’t too dissimilar to techniques used in modern MMA – the only banned attacks were biting and gouging.
Throughout the 19th and 20th century there were a range of different developments that pushed towards the direction of Mixed Martial Arts. In Europe there was the rise of Savate in France, which Savateurs testing their new techniques against more traditional styles, such as a highly publicised bout between Jacques Cayron, a professional boxer and Savateur, and Mochizuki Hiroo, a karate fighter. Cayron won the match when he knocked Hiroo out with a hook. Catch wrestling rose in popularity, eventually branching into ‘shoot’ competitions where fighters competed and ‘show’ fights, which developed into what we now know as professional wrestling. In the early 1900’s Russia Sambo began to develop and rise in popularity, while in Brazil the Gracie’s were developing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. All these developing styles of martial arts involved combining elements from different disciplines and building a foundation of interest in Mixed Martial Arts, but its the efforts of the Gracie family and Vale Tudo where modern MMA has its roots.
Vale Tudo, or ‘Everything Goes’, were (as the name suggests) no-holds barred competitions that rose to popularity in Brazil, largely helped by the ‘Gracie Challenges’ – an open invitation from the members of the Gracie family to other martial artists to come and fight them to see who’s martial art was superior. These underground style competitions continued to push the legend of the gracies, and in 1970 Rorion Gracie emigrated to the United States and continued the tradition of the Gracie challenge, and then began organising Vale Tudo fights himself, and helping found the UFC in 1993. In November of 1993 the UFC held their first event, where Royce Gracie shocked the world by dominating the competition with his BJJ. From 1993 until today the UFC has grown rapidly in popularity, breaking PPV records and spawning both superstars and rival promotions. In the process MMA became cemented as one of the most popular sports in the world.
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