UFC: The Early Years

In this day and age, mixed martial arts is on a meteoric rise into absolute mainstream acceptance.  The sport many fans have grown to adore in modern times actually started long ago.  Many believe MMA started with the birth of the UFC.  Some even confuse the two acronyms as being one in the same.  Nothing could be further from the truth.   

Mixed martial arts  has been contested dating as far back as the Olympic games in 648 B.C    In this  case,  MMA  equaled Pankration.  Pankration is  Greek  meaning “all powers”.  It was a style of complete hand to hand combat.  Pankration was comprised of both boxing and wrestling which in theory made it a form of MMA.

Pankration was so revered in these times that its practitioners were sought after by Alexander the Great.  Alexander wanted the best fighters for his army.  Even the Spartans were adept at this  style of combat.  It is quite impressive that theories held  long ago by the most feared of warriors remains effectively in practice today. 

While Pankration may have been a starting point, MMA obviously had a long way to go before becoming  the fastest growing sport in the world. 

One crucial step for today’s version of MMA started with a Judoka named Mitsuyo Maeda.  Some refer to Maeda as the father of not only Brazilian Jiu Jitsu but MMA.  Maeda traveled to Brazil in the early 1900’s.  It was there that a young Brazilian name Carlos Gracie would witness a Judo presentation by Maeda.  Gracie’s interest led him to become a student.

Under the tutelage of Maeda, Carlos learned what would become the roots of his own adaptation.  Carlos and his brother Helio adapted from  Maeda a style of martial arts that  permeates the world of MMA, Gracie Jiu Jitsu also known as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.  Armed with BJJ, the foundation for the UFC began with a simple challenge, “The Gracie Challenge”.

Any man, of any discipline was welcome to test his style against any Gracie.  The fights were Vale Tudo matches.  Value Tudo is Portuguese meaning “anything goes”.  In their eyes nothing was more dominant  and they wanted to market their style through true tests of combat.  They succeeded.

Close to a century later, it was another Gracie, Helio’s son Rorian who brought the Gracie Challenge to the U.S.  Rorian still accepted challenges.  While the Gracies felt their style was the most dominant, of course there were others who felt the same.  To prove once and for all, Rorian created the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

In 1993 the world of combat sports would change forever with the inception of the UFC.  A no holds barred tournament of fighters  from across the world, of varying styles.

With the UFC came truth in combat.   Smashed were theories one style was more dominant than another.  This wasn’t a regimented martial arts tournament, this was true combat.  Common misconceptions were replaced with undeniable reality.

Along with the UFC Rorian developed the Octagon as a canvas, and hand picked his paint brushes in fighters from across the globe, his mediums their varying styles.  He painted us a masterpiece that will withstand the test of time.  One of those fighters was his younger brother Royce another was a young Ken Shamrock. 

The first UFC champion Royce Gracie did not claim victory without a higher purpose.  His dominance in the first UFC was  an extension of a family tradition of exacting Gracie Jiu Jitsu on any  individual who dared oppose them.  It was the beginning of an evolution.

The first UFC event was shown on PPV.   The no holds barred aspect was a design to market absolute brutality.    Sadly, it was not until years later that fans would truly come to understand and appreciate the centuries of technique,  tradition, and  discipline that enveloped the competitors.

As the UFC grew, so did the spotlight on its practices.   What one person calls  “a ballet of violence” another calls “human cockfighting”.

That latter perception brought the organization to its knees.  Senator John Mccain took the moral fight to the UFC. 

Mccain urged Governors nationwide to ban the UFC.  36 states obliged him.  Finding venues and PPV providers that would allow an event became increasingly difficult.  Video became an outlet to gain revenue for the company.  Even still, between UFC 23 and 29, management was not even able to secure video for those events. The time period is aptly refered to as the “dark Ages” of UFC and the organization was forced to adapt. 

Unfortunately for the UFC this opposition by politicians walked hand in hand with the emergence of the Pride Fighting Championships.   Pride was held primarily in Japan where rules and regulations were more loose.  With fighters like Fedor Emeliananko, Pride commanded respect and demanded attention.

The fact that the UFC was being forced into refuge and had to tone down their approach made Pride more enticing to a rabid fan base that was rapidly growing.  The UFC had been rocked badly but somehow managed to stay in the fight.

Changes had to be made.  Notable changes over history include the end of tournament style events, weight classes,  the use of padded gloves, stricter time limits, available attacks were limited.  Overall the UFC had to evolve from blatant outright no holds barred to a more regimented mix of martial arts. 

With a more safety conscious set of rules the UFC was able to gain head way with athletic commissions which was paramount to its survival.  It was not only the emergence of a more timid UFC that did the trick.  The fights still had to sell.

With this forward momentum came the emergence of high profile fighters.  When guys like Tito Ortiz and Chuck Lidell brought their brand of fight to the UFC, people tuned in not only to see a fight but see these guys in particular fight.  These were times when a young exciting fighter could  make a name for himself. 

The legends of today were nothing more than rookies, but they took the UFC on their shoulders and carried it as far as it could go.  Names like Couture, Hughes, and Penn had captured the hearts of those who were no longer just spectators, they were fans.

Along with its new found acceptance came more publicity.  That was not enough though.  A crucial change for the UFC  was the purchase of the brand by Zuffa.  A company created by brothers  and casino owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta.

The Fertittas were urged to purchase the failing company by their  associate Dana White.  Combined with the Fertittas connections in the Casino industry, and a more acceptable rule base, Zuffa was able to secure sanctioning in the state of Nevada.

This was the first step to bring the  rocked UFC back to its corner and get it ready for the next round.  The next step was a move that no one saw coming.  For a struggling brand that revolved around PPV and video sales, a groundbreaking change was about to take place.  Zuffa was about to secure a partnership with Spike T.V. that would skyrocket the sport and the the UFC to heights unlike it had ever known.

An atomic bomb was about to explode  that would push the UFC over the brink of success and plunge it into the mainstream.  An event was on the horizon that would forever change both the UFC and the sport itsself.