History of MMA

History of MMA Mixed Martial Arts

Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is nothing new. The only thing new about MMA is the money and media exposure that the sport has recently enjoyed. Before the introduction of modern weaponry into warfare every successful culture whether Eastern or Western had it’s own form of martial arts or it could not survive. Most civilizations developed combat sports as well. Martial sports were developed for entertainment during peace time and to keep warriors fit and ready for war time. 

The only reason why martial arts are associated with Asia is that Asian countries tended to preserve their fighting forms more than the Western countries where the martial arts were not passed on from generation to generation as successfully. When warfare went toward firearms and away from hand to hand combat the Western cultures tended to embrace those weapons instead of the martial arts.

Although most cultures have had MMA in some form or another I’m going to explore the history of the fighting arts of Egypt, Greece, Thailand, the Phillipines, Japan, Brazil and the United States.

The Great Pyramids have engraved hieroglyphic inscriptions of Egyptians fighting and practicing martial arts that date back to 3,000 B.C. Mural paintings in the tombs along the Nile show the same. There are reports of empty hand fighting techniques that were trained by the soldiers of Mesopotamia and Sumer (3,000 B.C. to 2,300 B.C.).

Ancient Wrestling Artwork Ancient Boxing Artwork

By 700 B.C. (the time of the Greek city-states) wrestling, boxing and other combat sports were already a part of the Olympiads. Greek Pankration was introduced into the Olympic Games in 648 B.C. The Roman gladiators were first practitioners of pankration (a martial sport that combined boxing and wrestling techniques). Thus the term “pankration” which is based on two Greek words: pan, meaning “all,” and kratos, meaning “powers.”

There are records showing that martial arts were practiced in China as far back as 200 B.C. In Siam (Thailand) Muay (a martial art) was used for warfare and became a spectator sport. These Muay contests became an important part of local festivals and celebrations, and were used as entertainment for kings. It is now known as Muay Thai (the national sport of Thailand) and conforms to many international boxing conventions. In the early days of Muay Thai, however, there were very few rules. Underground MMA matches in Thailand have continued to this day and have few or no rules.

Filipino Boxer

The Philippines had several forms of martial arts and combat sports including boxing (Panantukan), grappling (Dumog), foot fighting (Sikaran), and weapon- based arts (Kali and Escrima). Before the Americans entered the Philippines around 1898, the Filipinos would settle their differences with duels using swords. In the 1930’s, in an effort to make it more humane, the duels became full-contact bouts where the combatants used rattan sticks. At close range, striking with the butt of the weapon, punches, elbows, knees and kicks were allowed as were grappling, submissions, sweeps and throws.

It looked much like modern MMA but the combatant would hold a stick in the right hand and punch with the left hand. A winner was declared only when one of the fighters was either killed or no longer able to continue. These events were also held in Hawaii by immigrant Filipinos in conjunction with cock fights up until Hawaii became the USA’s 50th state in 1959. Many Filipinos who were skilled in Kali and Escrima migrated to California to work as farm laborers but became boxers instead because there was more money in boxing than farm work or “anything goes” stick fights.

Japanese Shooto (Shoot Wrestling) is a highly developed combat sport derived from Sambo, Catch-As-Catch-Can Wrestling, Muay Thai, Judo and Jiu Jitsu. Created by Satoru Sayama (a famous Japanese pro wrestler) in 1983-1984, Shooto already resembled modern MMA with highly developed striking and grappling.


It predates the first UFC by about nine years and was a precursor to the Pride Fighting Championships (Pride FC). Pride FC’s first event was held at the Tokyo Dome in 1997 and became one of the world’s most popular MMA organizations in the world for about ten years. Pancrase is another MMA fight organization in Japan that was founded in 1993 by professional wrestlers, Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki.

Japan has a long tradition of MMA that dates back way before any of these modern events, however. In the early 1900’s, MMA fighting, which featured jujutsu masters versus boxing practitioners, for example, was very popular throughout Japan, Europe and Brazil. The Japanese would send their best fighters overseas to compete in these events.

The United States of America being a “melting pot” of many ethnic cultures has a long tradition of martial arts and combat sports dating back to it’s inception. Even George Washington, the first president of the United States, was involved with Irish Collar and Elbow Wrestling. Other US Presidents such as Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt practiced American folk wrestling styles as well.

Farmer Burns Martin Farmer Burns Frank Gotch

Famous American grapplers include Martin “Farmer” Burns (1861-1937) and Frank Gotch (1878-1917) who professionally competed in wrestling and “anything goes” matches in traveling carnivals taking on all comers to please the crowds. They were both practitioners of Catch-as-Catch-Can wrestling which originated from American “Rough and Tumble”, European “Collar and Elbow” and “Lancashire” wrestling as well as from Japanese JiuJitsu and Indian Wrestling (Pehlwani). The term “Rough and Tumble” refers to American street-fight-style matches dating back to the early 1700’s which allowed boxing, grappling, eye gouging, groin strikes, hair pulling etc. There were no rules. A winner would be declared only after a knockout or a submission. These brutal bouts were often referred to simply as “boxing matches.”

Bruce Lee Photo

Developed in America by the infamous Bruce Lee in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Jeet Kune Do (a mixed martial art based on Kung Fu, Boxing, Muay Thai, Wrestling, Jiu Jitsu and others) is considered by many to be a big influence on modern MMA. Dana White, of the UFC, credited Bruce Lee as the first to practice MMA in America.

Brazil is well known for being the birthplace of Vale Tudo (No Holds Barred) matches. In the early 1900’s Mitsuyo Maeda, a Judo champion immigrated from Japan to Brazil to establish a Japanese colony there.

Maeda befriended Gastão Gracie and began to teach Gastão’s son, Carlos Gracie the art of Judo. In 1925, Carlos and his brother Helio opened a Jiu Jitsu school in Rio de Janeiro, issued an “open challenge”, and began to take on all comers in more than 1,000 freestyle Vale Tudo matches.

Gracie Family Photo

Brazilian practitioners of various different martial art styles came to take part in the matches as did many of the greatest Japanese martial arts champions of the day. The matches eventually became so popular that they were held in large soccer stadiums and became the second largest spectator sport in terms of ticket sales in Brazil.

Helio Gracie’s eldest son, Rorion Gracie moved to the United States in the early 1980’s and along with his brothers Rickson, Royce and Royler held up the “Gracie Challenge” by taking on all comers. Rorion offered $100,000 to anyone who could defeat him or one of his brothers in a Vale Tudo style match. This definitely got the Gracies noticed within the martial arts community in America.

The Gracies were gaining notoriety in the American martial arts community however, Rorion still dreamed of bringing Vale Tudo fights to mainstream America in order to help promote Gracie Jiu Jitsu. He eventually did just that after, along with Art Davie and Bob Meyrowitz, he created “The Ultimate Fighting Championship”, a “no holds barred” event for pay-per-view television.

The UFC became a big success almost overnight. Although the tag line “There are no rules!” and the brutality of the sport drummed up a lot of interest, it also drew a lot of criticism. In many states it was eventually outlawed and dropped from most cable networks.

Zuffa LLC eventually bought the UFC for $2,000,000, instituted new rules, secured Nevada Athletic Commission sanctioning in 2001 and landed it back on pay-per-view television. This was exactly what the UFC needed to go big. MMA quickly became the fastest growing sport in America and eventually emerged into the mainstream. In 2006, the UFC’s yearly pay-per-view revenue exceeded that of Pro Boxing and the WWE following the creation of the Ultimate Fighter reality show which aired on Spike TV starting in 2005. This helped to garner mainstream media coverage for MMA and thrust it into the spotlight eventually appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine. The UFC eventually acquired two of its major competitors, Pride FC and the WEC making it the largest MMA organization in the world.