In 648 BC the sport Pankration was introduced into the Olympic Games. It can be described as a combination of boxing and wrestling and the match began standing but most often came to a close on the ground where many different kinds of locks and strikes were used. Over time Pankration grew to be the most popular Olympic sport in the ancient world.
Modern mixed martial arts (MMA) is a sport that has similarities with Pankration due to the combination of techniques. The core of MMA consists of boxing, as well as kick boxing and muaythai (thai boxing), wrestling (free style and Greco-roman), grappling (Brazilian jiu-jutsu) and judo. Although Pankration was significantly different from MMA in the sense that the ancient sport largely lacked rules, the athletic challenge that comes from combining a wide range of techniques spurs just as much interest today as it did in ancient times.
Tracking the influences of MMA into modern times we find a surge of popularity of similar sports in Brazil in the early 20th century. Practitioners from that era, particularly the Gracie family, brought their experience into the USA, influences which then became the seed for modern MMA.
A first version of the type of MMA that we see today surfaced in the early 1990′s. Promoting matches with practitioners from different disciplines like karate, boxing, wrestling and the like, many match-ups at this time sought to identify the most effective style of martial art. As interest grew and a sport developed the athletes started training in more than one discipline to gain further competitive advantage. In the late 1990′s the American professional promoter Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) adopted the New Jersey State Athletic Commission’s rules (the Unified Rules of MMA), and modern-day MMA came to be established with the introduction of weight classes, time limits and sanctioning.
Mixed martial arts – a technical sport
MMA is a sport designed for sparring and competition. The ambition is to attain the highest athletic level possible, with as few technical limitations as possible, while still ensuring a low level of risk for the practitioners. Within eastern as well as western martial arts all practitioners are fostered in the spirit of respect, humility and fair play, a value base which MMA shares given that it sprung from both these traditions.
An MMA athlete needs to be well rounded in the three main elements of combat; standing, ground and the transition in between them, and master a large number of techniques of various kinds. Prominent athletes have often had a very successful career in other sports before starting to train and compete in MMA. Attempts have been made to count the number of techniques used but there is no absolute number – for each element there are hundreds. MMA can be described as the most “natural” of all martial arts as the athlete has an almost infinite number of ways to defend himself – for instance; if weak on the ground he can steer the match towards standing. If the opponent is offensive using a certain technique you are not limited to respond with the same technique but can utilize whatever technique is the most efficient for you in any given situation. The sport being so complex, demanding great skills to master it, and at the same time so intuitive, is probably what makes it attractive for practitioners and spectators alike.
Mixed martial arts today
MMA has had a tremendous expansion over the last years with an increase in the number of practitioners on all levels as well as followers and spectators. It is often referred to as the world’s fastest growing sport and there are positive examples of growth everywhere around the globe.
In terms of following the popular MMA Websites receive more than a million visitors a month, and the sport is also very popular on TV. The UFC, being the largest professional promoter, broadcasts in 150 countries and 22 different languages worldwide.
Mixed martial arts – a grass roots movement
Given the tremendous popularity of professional MMA the recreational side is rarely discussed, but no less important. Just as the number of athletes increases so do the number of recreational practitioners around the world. These are people who have found that MMA is an exciting and well-rounded form of exercise (although recreational MMA being more restricted than professional MMA for obvious reasons). In the countries where MMA has a strong hold the recreational grass roots movement is expanding rapidly. The “target group” of MMA is very wide – everything from those who previously did other martial arts and want to develop as athletes, to those who have tried numerous sports and find MMA new and stimulating, and young people just getting to know sports in general. As for the young finding MMA one have been able to observe a social aspect of the sport as well, seeing that MMA in some urban areas seem to fill an important role of “home away from home” for disadvantaged youth. There are plenty of examples where the structure, discipline and fellowship of the MMA club have had a positive impact in the lives of troubled youths, much like other easily accessible sports, such as football and boxing, have done for generations.
Click here for the Safety ladder, a description of the progression of MMA from the recreational to the elite level.
The challenges of MMA
At the same time as MMA sparks an interest with thousands of new followers and athletes every year, the sport is facing challenges as well as opportunities. There are several widely spread misconceptions that hinder its development, the most dominant one being that there are no rules and that the sport consequently is seriously dangerous. Here we can see how some of the early history of MMA casts a shadow over the present. Another factor likely contributing to this negative image is that one needs a basic understanding of the techniques in order to understand and enjoy a match. With absolutely no understanding an MMA match might seem quite chaotic rather than advanced. This is however not a challenge that is limited to MMA – all sports demand this basic understanding, and every new sport will naturally face a period where attention must, through conscious effort, be turned into understanding and then liking, in order to keep growing. Imagine if you had never seen a tennis match – didn’t know that hitting the ball outside the lines meant out, didn’t know that returning a ball travelling at 190 km/h is extremely difficult etc., would you enjoy it? Those representing the sport in various positions have an important role to play in promoting the true image of MMA through positive educational efforts, and as such the IMMAF aims to be prominent.
Click here for a fact sheet on MMA and safety where we discuss and refute the some of the most common misunderstandings of MMA.