When the book is written on the history of Mixed Martial Arts there’ll be a handful of eras that will have to be referred to. Every sport goes through them. And this past weekend gave us the beginning of an era in MMA via one fight: Mauricio “Shogun” Rua vs. Johnny “Bones” Jones.
It happens with every sport. In baseball there was the Dead Ball era, followed by the segregated era, et al, continuing to this day in the post-Steroids era of professional baseball. The NFL has gone from the days of leather helmets, small crowds and a semi-professional atmosphere to being the biggest sport in the world with some of the best athletes in the world. Every time a sport becomes officially part of the mainstream great athletes come aboard. It’s the marking distinction of a sport’s true mainstreaming.
MMA has gone through a couple cycles already in less than two decades and now we’re seeing the one that puts it on par with every other professional sport: The Elite Athlete Era.
When the UFC first started you could call it the Playground era as in finally figuring out what would happen in classic playground arguments. Could an amateur wrestler take on a kick boxer and win? Could a karate master navigate successful through the water against a judoka? Featuring martial arts experts and a handful of men from the burgeoning fight scene at the time, what was then No Holds Barred fighting resembled a caged & televised version of <I>Fight Club</I> more than it did an actual sport. It was a freak show, more or less, but it stumbled onto something powerful. Something deep inside humanity wants to know who the best at any particular thing.
The better man wins the leadership of his country. The better businessman makes the most money. The better cyclist wins the Tour de France. And the best fighter is the baddest man on the planet. It’s human nature to want to be better and that’s what the early UFC tapped into; this essential part of humanity at wanting to see who exactly is the best fighter regardless of discipline.
From here with regulation and weight classes one can call it the Organizational era. This is when things like agreed upon rules come about. MMA has the Unified Rules and there aren’t many variants across the board. The base rules are always the same but some slight variants, usually involving knee and elbow strikes, can vary depending on the country and organization. Every sport goes through this as well; someone needs to put down rules and regulations. This is when we see MMA go from being a freak show to its beginning to resemble MMA of today. And then we had the most recent era of fighting: The Pride Era.
With Pride Fighting Championships we see where MMA really begins to take shape. While the UFC was struggling to stay afloat MMA was flourishing in Japan and this is where most of the sports stars truly were. To be on top of Pride was to be on top of the MMA world. One thing stood out about Pride the most: that it was a bunch of great fighters but not necessarily great athletes.
One of the things that stand out about watching old Pride DVDs is that the athletic ability isn’t first rate across the board. You have the best athletes out of guys who have spent their lives in a dojo or on a wrestling mat but you don’t see too many guys in that ring who you’d think “man, they could do great in another sport too.” It was something never really acknowledged; great conditioning and training can take you far in MMA nowadays but it took you further 10 years ago.
With its doors closing due to a buyout, most of the great fighters from that organization came to Zuffa. The best of both worlds came together and with the sport catching on like wildfire the UFC had gone from being banned from most PPV providers to having its own show on ESPN. And for a while we wanted to stay in that Pride era, memories of Fedor knocking out giants and the wars between guys like Quinton Jackson and Mauricio Rua etched in our memories. We want to remember back then, when guys were great martial artists first and athletes second, and then this past weekend Johnny “Bones” Jones showed us that MMA has finally hit the mainstream: the elite athletes are taking over.
In three years Jones has gone from a fighter on the local circuit, trying to make a living, to being the UFC Light Heavyweight champion and almost unquestionably the best in his weight class. To get there he beat the guy at one point considered the best fighter in the world. He isn’t the first of the old era stars to be shoved aside, either. Chuck Liddell went out on his shield. Mirko Filipovic was the most feared striker in the world at one point and now he’s being knocked out regularly. Fedor was finished. Twice. The old guard is being beaten down by new blood and the one thing that keeps popping up from this new crop is their athletic credentials.
Jones was a junior college wrestling champion. Frankie Edgar, Gray Maynard, Chael Sonnen, Rashad Evans, Cain Velasquez, Brock Lesnar, Phil Davis, Ryan Bader, C.B. Dolloway, Mark Munoz, and an armload of others all had distinguished careers at top schools in amateur wrestling. And it’s not like many of these guys only could wrestle; one imagines that a seven foot wing span could’ve served Jones just as easily as a receiver in the NFL or that mammoth guys like Lesnar and Velasquez are athletic enough to have been able to be in the NFL if they’ve have concentrated on that instead. Looking up and down the new era of UFC stars you see a wave of elite athletes training to fight instead of in something else.
It’s hard to argue that an Olympic wrestler like Ben Askren isn’t the athletic equal of elite boxers, etc. As MMA continues to progress and the ability to be financially successful in the sport becomes even better than it is now you’re going to see plenty of guys who would otherwise play in the NFL, NHL or professional soccer get into the fight game. It’s the same that happened to every other sport in its progression.
It’s no longer good enough to be the best athlete in a dojo anymore. To be successful as a fighter now you have to have a lot of intangibles, including things like heart, but you have to have first rate athletic credentials before anything else. The Pride Era of being a great martial artist above all is over. Welcome to the era of Elite Athletes competing to see who is the best, which is what a mainstream sport has at its heart.
Tags: Brock Lesnar, Cain Velasquez, Chuck Liddell, Fedor Emelianenko, jon jones, Mirko Cro Cop, Mixed Martial Arts, shogun rua, UFC 128