Modern mixed martial arts competition emerged in American popular culture in 1993 with the founding of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Initially based on finding the most effective martial arts for real unarmed combat situations, competitors of various arts were pitted against one another with minimal rules or concern for safety. In the following decade, MMA promoters adopted many additional rules aimed at increasing safety for competitors and to promote mainstream acceptance of the sport. Following these changes, the sport has seen increased popularity with pay per view reach rivaling boxing and professional wrestling.
Some of the earliest forms of widespread unarmed combat sports with minimal rules were the Shardana and Egyptian freefighting, followed from Greek pankration, which was introduced into the Olympic Games in 648 B.C. Greek pankration was less violent than Etruscan and Roman pancratium, perhaps one of the best pastimes of the Roman Colosseum. Even as late as the Early Middle Ages, statues were put up in Rome and other cities to honour remarkable pankratiasts of Rome.
No-holds-barred events reportedly took place in the late 1800s when wrestlers representing a huge range of fighting styles, including various catch wrestling styles, Greco-Roman wrestling and many others met in tournaments and music-hall challenge matches throughout Europe. In the USA the first major encounter between a boxer and a wrestler in modern times took place in 1887 when John L. Sullivan, then heavyweight world boxing champion, entered the ring with his trainer, Greco-Roman wrestling champion William Muldoon, and was slammed to the mat in two minutes. The next publicized encounter occurred in the late 1890s when future heavyweight boxing champion Bob Fitzsimmons took on European Greco-Roman wrestling champion Ernest Roeber. Reportedly, Roeber suffered a fractured cheekbone in this bout, but was able to get Fitzsimmons down on the mat, where he applied an armlock and made the boxer submit. In Europe, around the 19th century, the Italian Giovanni Raicevich, skilled in Greco-Roman wrestling defeated Akitaro Ono, a Japanese heavyweight fighter skilled in Jujutsu, Judo, and Sumo, throwing him on the mat by one-arm shoulder throw. In 1936, heavyweight boxing contender Kingfish Levinsky and veteran professional wrestler Ray Steele competed in a mixed match, which Steele won in 35 seconds. Another early example of mixed martial arts combat was the martial art of Bartitsu, founded in London in 1899, which was the first martial art known to have combined Asian and European fighting styles, and which saw MMA-style contests throughout England, pitting European and Japanese champions against representatives of various European wrestling styles.
Mixed style contests such as boxing vs. jujutsu were popular entertainment throughout Europe, Japan and the Pacific Rim during the early 1900s. In Japan these contests were known as merikan, from the Japanese slang for "American [fighting]". Merikan contests were fought under a variety of rules including points decision, best of three throws or knockdowns, and victory via knockout or submission.
The movement that led to the creation of the UFC and PRIDE was rooted in two interconnected subcultures. First were the vale tudo events in Brazil, followed by the Japanese shoot wrestling shows. Vale tudo began in the 1920s with the "Gracie challenge" issued by Carlos Gracie and Hélio Gracie and upheld later on by descendants of the Gracie family. In Japan in the 1970s, a series of mixed martial arts matches were hosted by Antonio Inoki, inspiring the shoot-style movement in Japanese professional wrestling, which eventually led to the formation of the first mixed martial arts organizations, such as Shooto, which was formed in 1985. The concept of combining the elements of multiple martial arts was pioneered and popularized by Bruce Lee in the late 1960s to early 1970s. Lee believed that "the best fighter is not a Boxer, Karate or Judo man. The best fighter is someone who can adapt to any style." His innovative concepts were recognized in 2004 by UFC President Dana White when he called Lee the "father of mixed martial arts. Recognition of its effectiveness as a test came as the United States Army began to sanction mixed martial arts with the first annual Army Combatives Championships held by the US Army Combatives School in November 2005.
The sport reached a new peak of popularity in North America in the December 2006 rematch between then UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell and former champion Tito Ortiz, rivaling the PPV sales of some of the biggest boxing events of all time, and helping the UFC's 2006 PPV gross surpass that of any promotion in PPV history. In 2007, Zuffa LLC, the owners of the UFC MMA promotion, bought Japanese rival MMA brand PRIDE, merging the contracted fighters under one promotion and drawing comparisons to the consolidation that occurred in other sports, such as the AFL-NFL Merger in American football.
In the early 1990s, three styles stood out for their effectiveness in competition: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, amateur wrestling and shoot wrestling. This may be attributable in part to the grappling emphasis of the aforementioned styles, which were, perhaps due to the scarcity of mixed martial arts competitions prior to the early 90s, unknown to most practitioners of striking-based arts. Fighters who combined amateur wrestling with striking techniques found success in the standing portion of a fight, whilst Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu stylists had a distinct advantage on the ground: those unfamiliar with submission grappling proved to be unprepared to deal with its submission techniques. Shoot wrestling practitioners offered a balance of amateur wrestling ability and catch wrestling-based submissions, resulting in a well-rounded skillset. The shoot wrestlers were especially successful in Japan. As competitions became more and more common, those with a base in striking became more competitive as they acquainted themselves with takedowns and submission holds, leading to notable upsets against the then dominant grapplers. Subsequently, those from the varying grappling styles added striking techniques to their arsenal. This overall development of increased cross-training resulted in the fighters becoming increasingly multi-dimensional and well-rounded in their skills. The changes were demonstrated when the original UFC champion Royce Gracie who had defeated many opponents using Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fought the then UFC Welterweight Champion Matt Hughes at UFC 60 and was defeated by a TKO from 'ground-and-pound'.
The rules for modern mixed martial arts competitions have changed significantly since the early days of vale tudo and Japanese shoot wrestling and UFC 1 and even more from the historic style of pankration. As the knowledge about fighting techniques spread among fighters and spectators, it became clear that the original minimalist rule systems needed to be amended. The main motivations for these rule changes were protection of the health of the fighters, the desire to shed the image of "barbaric, no rules, fighting-to-the-death" matches, and being recognised as a sport.
The new rules included the introduction of weight classes; as knowledge about submissions spread, differences in weight had become a significant factor.
Small, open-fingered, gloves were introduced to protect fists in punches, reduce the occurrence of cuts (and stoppages due to cuts) and encourage fighters to use their hands for striking to allow more captivating matches. Time limits were established to avoid long fights with little action where competitors conserved their strength. Matches without time limits 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 that both are resting on the ground or not advancing toward a dominant position.
Gloves were first mandatory in Japan's Shooto promotion and were later adopted by the UFC as it developed into a regulated sport. In the U.S., state athletic and boxing commissions have played a crucial role in the introduction of additional rules because they oversee MMA in a similar way to boxing. Smaller shows may use more restrictive rules because they have less experienced fighters. In Japan and Europe, there is no regulating authority over competitions, so these organizations have greater freedom in rule development and event structure.
Victory in a match is normally gained either by the judges' decision after an allotted amount of time has elapsed, a stoppage by the referee (for example if a competitor can not defend himself intelligently) or the fight doctor (due to an injury), a submission, by a competitor's cornerman throwing in the towel, or by knockout.
The need for flexibility in the legs combined with durability prompted the creation of various fighting shorts brands, which then spawned a range of mixed martial arts clothing and casualwear available to the MMA fan.
The techniques utilized in mixed martial arts competition generally fall into two categories: striking techniques (such as kicks, knees and punches) and grappling techniques (such as clinch holds, pinning holds, submission holds, sweeps, takedowns and throws). As mixed martial arts has no international sanctioning body, rules may vary between promotions. While the legality of some techniques (such as elbow strikes, headbutts and spinal locks) may vary, there is a near universal ban on techniques such as biting, strikes to the groin, eye-gouging, fish-hooking and small joint manipulation.
Today, mixed martial artists must cross-train in a variety of styles to counter their opponent's strengths and remain effective in all the phases of combat. For instance, a stand-up fighter will have little opportunity to use their skills against a submission artist who has also trained in take downs. Many traditional disciplines remain popular as ways for a fighter to improve aspects of their game.
Some styles have been adapted from their traditional form, such as boxing stances which lack effective counters to leg kicks and takedowns, or Judo techniques which must be adapted for No Gi competition. It is common for a fighter to train with multiple coaches of different styles or an organized fight team to improve various aspects of their game at once. Cardiovascular conditioning, speed drills, strength training and flexibility are also important aspects of an MMA fighter's training. Some schools advertise their styles as simply "Mixed Martial Arts", which has become a genre in itself.
While mixed martial arts was initially practiced almost exclusively by competitive fighters, this is no longer the case. As the sport has become more mainstream and more widely taught, it has become accessible to wider range of practitioners of all ages. Proponents of this sort of training argue that it is safe for anyone, of any age, with varying levels of competitiveness.
A sprawl-and-brawler is usually a boxer, kickboxer, Thai boxer or full contact karate fighter who has trained in wrestling to avoid takedowns to keep the fight standing. Often, these fighters will study submission wrestling to avoid being submitted, should they find themselves on the ground. This style can be deceptively different from traditional kickboxing styles, since sprawl-and-brawlers must adapt their techniques to incorporate takedown and ground fighting defense. Chuck Liddell and Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipović are examples of sprawl-and-brawl fighters.
Wrestlers may use clinch fighting as a way to neutralize the superior striking skills of a stand-up fighter or to prevent takedowns by a superior ground fighter. The clinch of a Muay Thai fighter is often used to improve the accuracy of knees and elbows by physically controlling the position of the opponent. Wanderlei Silva and Anderson Silva are examples of effective clinch fighters.
Ground-and-pound is a ground fighting tactic consisting of taking an opponent to the ground using a takedown or throw, obtaining a top, or dominant position, and then striking the opponent, primarily with the fists. Ground-and-pound is also used as a precursor to attempting submission holds.
This style is used by wrestlers or other fighters well-versed in submission defense and skilled at takedowns. They take the fight to the ground, maintain a grappling position, and strike until their opponent submits or is knocked out. Although not a traditional style of striking (it was first demonstrated as an effective technique by UFC and PRIDE grand prix champion, Mark Coleman), the effectiveness and reliability of ground-and-pound has made it a popular tactic. Today, strikes on the ground are an essential part of a fighter's training. Randy Couture and Tito Ortiz are examples of effective ground-and-pound fighters.
Submissions are an essential part of many disciplines, most notably catch wrestling, judo, Sambo, pankration, Army Combatives, MCMAP and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Josh Barnett, BJ Penn, the brothers Antônio Rodrigo and Antônio Rogério Nogueira, Shinya Aoki and Fedor Emelianenko are examples of submission grapplers.
This was the third verified fatality in MMA. The first in MMA competition was the 1998 death of Douglas Dedge in an unsanctioned fight in Ukraine. There are unconfirmed reports that Dedge had a pre-existing medical condition. The second was the 2005 death of a 35-year old man only identified as Lee in South Korea. This took place in an unsanctioned event in a restaurant called Gimme Five.
A study by Johns Hopkins University concluded, "the overall injury rate [excluding injury to the brain] in MMA competitions is now similar to other combat sports [involving striking], including boxing. Knockout rates are lower in MMA competitions than in boxing. This suggests a reduced risk of traumatic brain injury in MMA competitions when compared to other events involving striking.