I may be new to Cosas Totum, but this subject certainly is not. Mixed Martial Arts, MMA, is one of the few sports that slowed very little in 2020. MMA is not a sit down with the family and a bowl of chips to enjoy a match type of sport and likely never will be. However, thanks in large part to Friends episode The One with The Ultimate Fighting Championship ,The UFC is a fairly well known commodity. In fact, The UFC is so synonymous with MMA that it’s often easier to say someone does UFC than MMA. I can’t help wondering why that may be, as MMA has been around in some form since the ancient Greeks, I’m talking BCE ancient, practiced Pankration. So, why is it that a sport that has been around for thousands of years was only legalized for professional competition in New York five years ago?
A New Look in Combat Sports
Hot on the heals of Tipper Gore’s fight to make America pure again, in 1993 a fellow named Art Davies presumably hopped up on violent music took the idea of a one night only, eight person tournament of no-holds barred fighting. There is an interview with Davies saying his initial vision for the event was a moat of alligators and razor wire around the top of the now famous UFC octagon. As I understand it the 1980s were a wild time and boxing was still massive draw with names like Mike Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Roberto Duran. How does one take boxing to the next level? Add wrestling, kicks and knees, submission grappling and remove all rules other than biting and eye gouging.
Looking back it makes sense that Semaphore Entertainment Group, SEG, the folks responsible for the Jimmy Connors vs Martina Navratilova pay-per-view tennis match, was the only partner Davies and company could find. I digress, its November 12, 1993 and the stage is set for what became known as UFC 1: The Beginning.
The fight that would change the face of sports forever just so happened to be the first bout on the card. In order to showcase the opposing styles angle of the tournament 6’5″ 200lb Gerard Gordeau a Dutch kickboxer took on the 6’2″ 420lb sumo wrestler Teila Tuli. Despite the massive difference in weight Tuli rushed in caught an uppercut to the jaw and then had a tooth kicked right out of his mouth a mere 26 seconds into the inaugural fight. As if that wasn’t wild enough for one event a very meme-able Art Jimmerson, a professional boxer, was so confident in his ability he wore one boxing glove in his match against Royce Gracie.
If the name Gracie sounds familiar that’s because Royce (pronounced Hoyce because Portuguese) was the winner of UFC 1 and his unlikely win brought some exposure to Brazilian Ju-Jitsu or BJJ. Royce’s ability to out maneuver his, often times larger, opponents using leverage and technique instead of brute force was something an American audience had never seen. Sure wrestling is a big sport in the US and technique is important no matter the sport, but what wrestling has that UFC 1 did not have was weight classes.
The decision to forgo weight classes and let drastically different sized men fight one another might have been the single craziest thing about the early UFC days. It did, however, prove that a scrawny 170lb BJJ practitioner could easily handle a 215lb highly skilled wrestler with his superior fighting style. I don’t care how strong you are if someone cuts of the blood supply to your brain it’s night night time and if they break your arm it’s probably time to call it a day. This one bout gave Brazilian Ju-Jitsu the street cred it needed to become one of today’s most widely practiced martial arts and a must have skillset for any aspiring mixed martial artist.
One Bad Apple
UFC1 was a relative success considering the circumstances. The UFC had made the decision to continue with events despite the original plan being a one off wild night of fights and call it quits. At UFC 2 a well known figure in the MMA world “Big” John McCarthy was brought in to a mainstay referee and after the event started implementing some rules for fighter safety. In 1996 Senator John McCain was quoted as saying that MMA was “human cockfighting” and that he would fight to have it banned from television. This was clearly a setback to an organization in it’s early stages trying to do what it could to cooperate with state athletic commissions while also trying to appease the fans. Unfortunately in 1997 at UFC 15 while building on the new rules set in hopes of legitimizing the sport a well timed crowd shot gave the general public the face of MMA fans, the “Just Bleed” guy.
Ah, yes, the Just Bleed Guy, the exact mascot the UFC did not need or want. I’ll leave it to you if you want to read more into him as he’s a pretty interesting character and has been interviewed many times for his meathead antics at UFC 15. I will say that the UFC was facing an uphill battle already and JBG made that hill a little steeper. I suppose I should jump ahead or this will take way too long to get through considering the subject matter.
Right the Ship
In April of 2000 a draft of unified rules was set to be signed off on in California followed by New Jersey and the first government sanctioned MMA event was to be held in New Jersey in September of 2000. So, the events are now sanctioned, there are rules in place for fighter safety and fairness in judging, sounds pretty legitimate to me and it was, but SEG had run out of money making all of this happen. In classic savvy businessman fashion brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta along with their business partner turned UFC president Dana White purchased the UFC for only $2 million, recognizing that the name was worth far more. Now with some capital to spend and a former boxing promoter running the show things were looking up for the once underground sport and promotion.
What really brought the sport to widespread prominence was the 2005 cable TV hit reality show The Ultimate Fighter generally referred to as TUF. There is nothing more appealing to a fight fan than sticking 16 trained fighters in a house together knowing that they’ll be fighting at some point. There was drama, kind of, there were drunken escapades and most importantly there was the legendary finale with Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar. That fight was co-headliner, but even for hardcore MMA fans it’s often difficult to remember that there was another fight after those two slugged it out and a new star was born in Forrest Griffin.
The New Age
Seven years after TUF Season 1 premiered a young woman named Ronda Rousey entered the UFC when the smaller promotion Strikeforce was acquired. If you haven’t heard of Ronda I honestly don’t know how that’s possible. She was one of the first truly massive names in the sport. She was heavily promoted by the UFC and mainstream media outlets. Ronda’s success in Strikeforce and her amateur career was nearly perfect as an Olympic bronze medalist. Rousey was a true force to be reckoned in terms of pay-per-view buys, television appearances, film acting rolls and all around star power for MMA.
Shortly after her arrival the biggest star that MMA has ever seen arrived in the UFC from Ireland. Conor McGregor brought with him a level of swagger and celebrity usually only seen in boxing or the big three NFL, NBA, and MLB. Between Ronda and Conor the UFC and MMA in general have garnered more mainstream success than ever before. Their events are aired exclusively through ESPN and ESPN+ making it hard to imagine the UFC getting any bigger. Somehow though, MMA still is not as widely accepted as boxing or wrestling and it seems that may never change. The popular opinion of mixed martial artists as just violent and blood thirsty isn’t true, however, we can’t forget that these are people that both enjoy and get paid to beat the bejesus out of each other.