The Evolution of
Mixed Martial Arts

by Mark Jordan


Mixed Martial Arts is a brand new term coined only recently with the rise in popularity of fighting competitions such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and Pride Fighting Championships. The promoters of these so-called "mixed" martial arts tournaments would have you believe that they have invented something new; something never done before.

The fact is, the concept of Mixed Martial Arts, also referred to as MMA competitions, have been around since the beginning of time! From the Prankration contests of ancient Greece, to the Gladiators of Rome, the Jousting games of Medieval Europe, all the way up to the World Championship Boxing matches of today, Man has always conceived new methods of combative sports as a way to test their fighting skills.

The question is, "Is it the style of the contestant that is a "mixed" martial art, or is it that the tournament is open to any or all (mixed) martial arts?"


The Contest

Previously referred to as "No Holds Barred" or "anything goes" contests, today's Mixed Martial Arts fighting styles are featured in a combat sport in which two competitors attempt to achieve dominance over one another by utilizing a wide variety of permitted martial arts techniques; including punching and kicking (as in boxing or karate), and grappling (as in wrestling and judo). A win is secured as the result of a knockout or submission; that is, one fighter indicates that he can no longer continue the fight.

Over the past 100 years or so, public fighting contests became more and more regulated by government agencies in an effort to not only reduce the death and injury rate from these fights, but also as an attempt to sterilize our civilized society from the brutality of the past. The burden of regulation forced most competition formats to become so specialized that they could include punching and kicking, or grappling, but not both.

As evidenced by the continued popularity of insane spectacles such as "professional wrestling" (which is neither professional nor wrestling, but that's another issue), it became obvious that our civilized society is not quite ready to be purged of it's thirst for blood and violence. Thus we have seen a recent "re-birth" of the old No-Holds-Barred, or mixed martial arts contests.

Of course, terms such as "No Holds Barred" aren't really an accurate description of the modern sport, with its formalized rules and banned techniques that were developed for the fighters' safety. But that wasn't always the case...


A Return to the Past

One of the earliest forms of widespread unarmed combat sports with minimal rules was Greek Pankration, which was introduced into the Ancient Olympic games around 648 B.C. Pankration was an ancient form of unarmed hand to hand combat that apparently only had one rule: competitors had to stay within a circle drawn on the ground. Archaeological evidence in both art and writing shows that this form of competition was popular among the ancient Greeks for more than a thousand years prior to the Golden Age of Greek civilization and the original Olympic games.

Further evidence suggests that Greek Pankration was actually borrowed from an even older form of ancient Egyptian "unarmed contest" and blended with a Greek combative style of the time. As you can see, the mixed martial arts form of fighting is not new. It has truly been around since the beginning of history, and before.



It is widely believed that such forms of unarmed combat were not only practiced for entertainment purposes. Many stories were told in ancient writings of challenge matches where one fighter simply wanted to test his skills against another. Still other stories describe how this form of combat was used to "settle disagreements" as a form of dueling. Of course, these unarmed duels usually proved to be just as deadly as armed duels.

Some form of no-holds-barred competitive events took place throughout every period of human history all the way up to the modern era. Abundant records exist describing both armed and unarmed contests throughout the Roman era and all across the ancient world including Afghanistan, Indian, China, Africa, and even Europe and the British Isles. Each local style may have had some nuances based on its cultural development, but for the most part, everyone was using pretty much the same techniques.

When traveling from one adjoining country to the next, one would observe very little difference in the fighting styles of different locations. This could be attributed to a similarity of cultures, as well as the exchange of ideas between neighbors. However, if you were to move across vast geographic regions, the differences between cultures and their fighting styles would appear more pronounced. By going from, what seemed at the time, one end of the Earth to the other, from Europe all the way to Japan, the fighting styles appeared as different as night and day.

[Side Note: Click on this link to learn why Japanese hand-to-hand combat evolved differently than that of other locations, and why it was already considered one of the best mixed martial arts.]


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The Modern Era

Up until the late 1800's, all of the different local forms of unarmed combat were simply one man against another man, using the same popular style and the same rules or "cultural etiquette". But a major development was about to change all that. The dawn of the Industrial Age brought about a phenomenal upsurge in world travel. Now, almost anyone could afford to visit just about any country on Earth, and get there in a relatively short amount of time. Exposure to other cultures and customs became almost a "national pastime" for many countries and people around the world.

This shrinkage of the globe spurned a major change in the concept of unarmed combative competition. Instead of one man testing his fighting skills against another man with similar skills, a worldwide competition arose which became a contest of one cultural fighting style against another. In other words, it was no longer about one man bettering another man, it was a contest of Eastern fighting styles against Western styles (and everything in between). So, the concept of the Mixed Martial Arts Contest was born.

Mixed martial arts contests were originally based around the concept of pitting different martial arts and fighting styles against each other in a competition with minimal rules, in an attempt to determine which system would be more effective in a real combat situation.



In the late 1800's, showmen representing a huge range of fighting styles including Western boxing and various wrestling styles, as well as Eastern styles such as Judo and Chinese boxing, fought one another in tournaments and music-hall challenge matches throughout America, Europe and Asia. These matches, designed to test one style's effectiveness against another (not specifically the individual fighter), soon became spectator favorites.

The problem with a true mixed martial arts contest is that each martial art had its own rules to pit one fighter against another in a "fair" fight. However, for a karate fighter to fight a wrestler according to wrestling rules would spell disaster for the karate fighter, and vice versa. In order to pit two different styles, you would have to toss out the rule books.

These "no rules" mixed martial arts bouts provided for great entertainment for the crowds, as most turned into brutal and bloody spectacles of ultimate violence. However, over time, the fighting styles of the competitors in these events began to look more alike than different. As is usually the case in these types of formats, two things happen:

  1. Fighter's learn each other's tricks (strengths) and weaknesses. They train for it, and soon everyone is doing the same things. It is no longer individual, and certainly not mixed martial arts. It becomes its own singular style!
  2. Rules begin to creep in which further define how the matches will be conducted, thus defining the style. Most martial artists will no longer compete because the rules are stacked against their method of fighting.

This is exactly what happened to these mixed martial arts contests in the late 1800's and early 1900's.


The Development of Catch Wrestling
(Catch-As-Catch-Can)

As the "Mixed Martial Arts" showmen began to learn each other's best techniques, all of the different styles began to look the same. Fighters from all over the world, once representing their specific martial art, now became contestants in a tournament format between fighters all of the same basic style called Catch Wrestling.

Catch Wrestling developed from a variety of styles, most notably the regional wrestling styles of Europe, particularly the British Isles, and Asia. Traveling fighters and European tournaments brought together a variety of folk disciplines including the Indian variety of Pehlwani, as well as Chinese boxing and Judo from Japan. Each of these disciplines contributed to the development of catch wrestling in their own way.

Catch Wrestling is undoubtedly the predecessor to the mixed martial arts of today. Originally called "Catch & Hold" wrestling, it became known as "Catch-as catch-can", or just Catch Wrestling. Catch wrestlers often employed a technical submission called a hook, which could end a match within seconds. As a result, catch wrestlers were often referred to as "hookers".

Catch wrestling became immensely popular across both sides of the Atlantic, especially in the carnivals and other public exhibitions in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th century, that is, after the US Civil War, up until the Great Depression. The carnival wrestlers would challenge the locals as part of an "athletic show" and the locals would have their chance to win a cash reward if they could defeat the carnival strongman by a pin or a submission.

Although catch wrestling did not normally include kicks and blows, the carnival wrestlers had to learn to deal with the worst possible scenarios of unarmed assault, as the local tough guy may feel compelled to use any means necessary to win the prize, or to avoid being embarrassed in front of the hometown crowd.


Catch Wrestling and Judo

Catch wrestling is credited as one of the two disciplines involved in the 20th century's first major cross-cultural clash of styles in Mixed Martial Arts contests. This rivalry started with a match occurring between the American catch wrestler Ad Santel and the Japanese Tokugoro Ito, a 5th degree black belt in Judo.

The match in 1914 was one between two prime representatives of their respective crafts. Ito was hand-picked by the Judo Kodokan and expected to win. However, Santel easily defeated Ito and immediately proclaimed himself to be the World Judo Champion. It probably wasn't the defeat that embarrassed the Japanese as much as Santel's boasting. The response from Jigoro Kano's Kodokan was swift and came in the form of another challenger, 4th degree black belt Daisuke Sakai. Santel handily defeated this Kodokan Judo representative, as well.

The Kodokan tried to stop the legendary hooker by sending men like 5th degree black belt Reijiro Nagata (who was defeated by Santel by TKO). Santel also fought to a draw with 5th degree black belt Hikoo Shoji. The challenge matches stopped after Santel, yet to taste defeat at the hands of any Kodokan representative, willingly gave up on the claim of being the World Judo Champion in 1921 in order to pursue a career in full time professional wrestling.

The impact of these mixed martial arts performances on Japan was immense. The Japanese were fascinated by this Western form of catch wrestling and a steady stream of Japanese fighters traveled to Europe in order to either participate in various tournaments or to learn catch wrestling at European and American schools.

Judo, once considered by the Japanese as the "perfect martial art", now found itself in second place in popularity with the public. It only managed to survive by appealing to the nationalistic attitude of the Japanese people as being the "civilized" method of fighting, as opposed to the crude, vulgar and foreign method of catch wrestling.

In the West, the vogue for professional wrestling died out after the First World War, but remained popular in Japan. By the time it began to reemerge in the U.S. in the 1960's most people now looked to Japan as the source for training in this previously, uniquely Western Martial Art. Many American Catch Wrestlers went to Japan to practice, test, and refine their fighting skills. Some even began to teach their styles in Japan.

The isolation of Japan for five decades meant that Eastern and Western styles had begun to once again diverge. But again, these differences in styles didn't last long. Starting from 1976, one of these professional wrestlers, Antonio Inoki, would go on to host a series of mixed martial arts bouts against the champions of other disciplines. This resulted in a renewed interest and unprecedented popularity of the clash-of-styles no-holds-barred bouts in Japan. Thus, the evolutionary process began again.


A New Evolution of Mixed Martial Art Fighters

In the 1970's, two major streams of "professional" wrestling began to emerge from Japan: "shoot", which refers to the fact that the fighters actually competed, and the techniques are applied for real, as opposed to a "show" of shoot-style professional wrestling matches, which feature predetermined outcomes, as in American professional wrestling.

Along with the popularity of these mixed martial arts tournaments came another synthesis of Catch Wrestling with those styles pitted against it: Freestyle wrestling, Greco-Roman wrestling, Karate, Muay Thai and Judo. These various styles soon evolved into a new style with its own rules known as Shoot wrestling.

Shoot wrestling is very popular in Japan. It is one of the highest viewed spectator sports with fan following rivaling that of Sumo wrestling and Baseball. Another name given to this basic style is Shootfighting.

Shoot wrestling practitioners, or Shoot Fighters as most are called, offered a balance of striking ability and catch wrestling based submissions resulting in a generally well rounded set of skills. The shoot wrestlers were especially successful in Japan, where the martial art initially dominated other arts.


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The Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC)

But once again the issue would be raised: "Can a wrestler beat a boxer?" This time, the question came from the country of Brazil. As was the case with most martial arts in Brazil, fighters were typically skilled in just one discipline (e.g., boxing, judo, or karate, etc.) and had little experience against opponents with different skills.

One group of martial artists who practiced a style they called Brazilian Jiu Jitsu believed theirs was the best martial art. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is actually just another synthesized form of Japanese Judo and catch wrestling. But Brazilian Jiu Jitsu had proven very effective in mixed martial arts bouts in Brazil, and they were anxious to take their style worldwide.

[Side Note: Click on this link to learn more about the effectiveness of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Techniques outside the competative format.]

In 1993, the UFC was started as a mixed martial arts tournament to find the world's best fighters no matter their style, and was based upon Brazilian vale tudo (anything goes) fighting. The tournament, just as those in the U.S. and Europe a century before, was supposed to feature the best athletes skilled in the various disciplines of all martial arts, including karate, jiu-jitsu, boxing, kick-boxing, grappling, wrestling, sumo and other combative sports, facing each other in no holds barred combat to see which martial art was truly the best. The winner of the tournament would be crowned the the "Ultimate Fighting Champion".



Actually, most of the competitors were NOT the best in their fields, although some of these "unknown" fighters performed surprisingly well. But, despite the controversy, the first event was an instant success, drawing 86,592 television subscribers on pay-per-view to witness Royce Gracie and his Brazilian Jiu Jitsu take the first UFC crown.

Although there was a limited number of rules, the UFC was initially known as no holds barred fighting and these mixed martial arts contests were often violent and brutal. Early UFC fights were less sport than spectacle, which led to accusations of brutality and "human cockfighting" by opponents.

As political pressure mounted, the UFC reformed itself, slowly embracing stricter rules, becoming sanctioned by athletic commissions, and marketing itself as a legitimate sporting event. Dropping the no holds barred label and carrying the banner of mixed martial arts.

It is worth noting that the term no holds barred was used originally to describe the wrestling method prevalent in catch wrestling tournaments during the late 19th century wherein no wrestling holds were banned from the competition, regardless of how dangerous they might be. The irony is, UFC wasn't "created" to be a bloody spectacle of NHB fighting, but simply a test to prove that grappling was better than striking! The first few competitions seemed to indeed prove that. But further contests made such a conclusion appear premature.

As UFC competitions gained popularity, those fighters with a base in striking became more competitive as they began to acquaint themselves with takedowns and submission holds, leading to some notable upsets against the dominant grapplers. Subsequently those from the various grappling styles learned from each other's strengths and shortcomings and added striking techniques to their arsenal. This overall development of increased cross-training resulted in the mixed martial arts fighters becoming increasingly multi-dimensional in their skills.


So What DID the UFC Prove?

Well, the UFC certainly didn't prove one martial art was superior to another. If that were true, one martial art would have won every time. That certainly was not the case.

The original format, designed to find the "best martial art", eliminated all of the purely striking based arts. It became immediately evident that even minimal defensive skills against strikes, allowing the fighter to move in on the striker, rendered all purely striking arts useless, in favor of the grappler.

What people don't seem to realize is that the original UFC also eliminated all of the purely grappling styles as well. Wrestlers and Judo players were often embarrassed by good strikers. Just as pure strikers had only trained against other strikers, pure grapplers had only trained against other grapplers. Most had no effective defenses against strikes, and it showed!

All that remained were fighters well versed in both striking and grappling skills, and those were few, indeed. By the early 2000's, only three basic styles of fighters remained within the UFC format: Amateur wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Shoot wrestling. But none of them remained pure forms of these arts, as they all added new skills (namely striking skills) to their arsenal. Thus, the term, mixed martial arts.

So, UFC had proved that one must possess all skills in order to be an Ultimate Fighter. Point taken, we're done! Right? That should have been the end of it. But, no, the contests continue. However, if you have noticed, all of the contestants, no matter what background they claim, are doing pretty much the same things. It is no longer a Mixed Martial Arts Contest. Now, it is the contestants who are Mixed Martial Artists!

Just as with Catch Wrestling, as all the fighters began using the same skills and there was very little discernible difference in their styles, UFC has become a style of its own.


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The Cycle Revolves Again

Just as with Catch Wrestling a century before, rules were implemented that defined the style of the contestant. The goal of implementing rules was partially motivated to clear the stigma of "barbaric, no rules, fighting-to-the-death" that UFC matches had obtained. The safety of the fighters is something that has developed during the history of mixed martial arts from a brawl to a regulated sport.

Time limits were established to avoid long boring fights on the ground with little perceivable action. No time limit matches also complicated the airing of live events. Similar motivations produced the "stand up" rule, where the referee can stand fighters up if it is perceived both are resting on the ground or are not advancing toward a dominant position.

The UFC no longer conducts REAL fights! They are orchestrated contests designed solely for the benefit of the viewer. In other words, it has become "all about the spectator", not about the fighter, or the art. Why? Money!

Ticket sales, TV rights, sponsor promotions; it all spells MONEY.

We have seen the evolution over and over again since the beginning of the "cultural clash". What starts as a test of one style against another, evolves into a style all its own.

The UFC and other similar mixed martial arts competitive formats have already completed this cycle. Will they survive? Who knows? Despite what the promoters say, the numbers are dwindling at UFC events. With nothing left to prove, only those interested in the new format remain.

It will eventually go the way of catch wresting, evolve and absorb until someone comes up with a new name for the same old fighting style. Right now, it is called Mixed Martial Arts. What will it be called next year?




American Kenpo - Mixed martial arts are common throughout history. Find out how even a pure art can be considered a "mixed" martial art.


Combat Jujitsu - Combat Jujitsu is used by US Military Special Operations Forces! It is the deadliest martial art known to man, and would certainly be considered among the Ultimate Mixed Martial Arts.


Alljujitsu.com Home Page - What are the best mixed martial arts for self defense? Don't waste your time on different types of martial arts. Find out why traditional Japanese Jujitsu is the world's most effective martial art!


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