“Inventing MMA: Martial Arts Between Culture, Media and Sport”
By Dr. Kyle Barrowman
Introduction: Traditional Thinking
In the Preface to his recent monograph The Invention of Martial Arts, Paul Bowman identifies an important link between current trends in martial arts studies and prior investigations in cultural studies scholarship of “invented traditions” (Bowman 2021: 7-11). For Eric Hobsbawm, co-editor of the landmark anthology The Invention of Tradition, an invented tradition is “a set of practices normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules … which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behavior by repetition” (Hobsbawm 1983: 1). Bowman’s investigations into martial arts histories and practices are often oriented by the notion of invented tradition (cf. Bowman 2015, 2017, 2019, 2021), but he is by no means the only martial arts studies scholar who has approached the history and evolution of martial arts from this perspective. From tai chi (cf. Wile 1996; Frank 2006) and kung fu (cf. Judkins 2014; Judkins and Nielson 2015) to taekwondo (cf. Gillis 2008; Moenig 2015) and capoeira (cf. Griffith 2016; Delamont, Stephens, and Campos 2017), myriad historical investigations have been and are being conducted in an effort to more accurately trace the historical developments that have contributed to the forms in which martial arts practices and belief systems exist today.
This essay will proceed in much the same manner. In what follows, I will explore the invention of what is referred to today as “mixed martial arts,” or “MMA.” Specifically, I will endeavor to prove that what we know today as MMA came into existence within a very specific cultural, political, and media context vis-à-vis the emergence of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in the early 1990s and the ensuing political battles throughout the remainder of the decade over its legitimacy as a sport. For his part, Bowman has stressed the importance of the mediatization of martial arts; as he writes, “while more studies of martial arts are being animated and organized by the important insight that martial arts are ‘invented traditions,’” it must be acknowledged that such invented traditions “are also invented (in) traditions of media representation” (Bowman 2021: 11). In this vein, I will argue that MMA is an invented media tradition. Though the UFC held its first event on November 12th, 1993, and though to many people “UFC” and “MMA” are synonymous, it is my contention that it was not until May 17th, 1996 – during the pay-per-view broadcast of UFC 9, which opened with commentator Bruce Beck welcoming viewers to “the most physical, the most powerful, the most provocative mixed martial arts competition in the world” – that MMA was invented.
Inventing MMA I: Learning from History
During the pay-per-view broadcast of UFC 40, Joe Rogan took a moment during the bout between Chuck Liddell and Renato Sobral to historically contextualize the rapid rise not just of the UFC, the premiere MMA organization in the world, but of MMA in general. As he told broadcast partner Mike Goldberg that November night in 2002: “Since the UFC came around, martial arts have evolved more than they have in the last 700 years.” Joe Rogan may not be a martial arts studies scholar, but the historical claim that the UFC ignited a rapid evolution in the martial arts world is indisputable. In the nearly three decades since the UFC first exploded onto the scene, plenty of histories have been written that have sought to trace the roots of MMA back through influential figures like Bruce Lee and Gene LeBell to the “Gracie Challenge” and Brazilian vale tudo matches all the way back to the ancient Greek Olympic Pankration (cf. Gentry  2011; Krauss and Aita 2002; Snowden 2008). Though such historical surveys are interesting and often insightful, I intend to conduct a different sort of historical investigation. In what follows, I intend to explore the conceptual history of MMA. That is, my analytical focus will be on how and why the concept of MMA emerged when and as it did.
With respect to the notion of invented traditions, Hobsbawm observed that often traditions which seem to be old if not ancient actually turn out upon investigation to be “quite recent in origin” (Hobsbawm 1983: 1). This is one of the elementary lessons that we have learned from recent scholarship in martial arts studies. As Bowman observes, it is important to “put the word out there that some of the most well-known ‘ancient’ martial arts emerged in their present forms during the twentieth century,” to acknowledge, for instance, that “all styles of karate, aikido, taekwondo, and Brazilian jiujitsu” are “twentieth century inventions” (Bowman 2021: 9). This also applies to MMA. Though there are several historical precedents – from the ancient Greek Pankration through Brazilian vale tudo matches up to the pre-UFC Japanese organizations Shooto and Pancrase – which taken together are important points on the martial arts timeline leading up to the invention of MMA, it would be inaccurate to use the concept of MMA to characterize any of them. By the same token, it would also be inaccurate to use the concept of MMA to characterize the initial UFC events, specifically the events prior to UFC 9, which is when the term “mixed martial arts” was first uttered on the air.
Understandably, the latter claim will strike some as heterodox. If the UFC has existed since 1993 – and if vale tudo matches predate the UFC by decades, to say nothing of the ancient Greek Pankration – would it not be more accurate to say that it was merely the concept of MMA that was invented in 1996? In other words, can we not make the claim that MMA the thing itself has existed since 1993 (if not since the ancient days of the Pankration) while MMA the concept has only existed since 1996? At the risk of being polemical, my answer is a resounding “No.” There was not a definable set of ideas and practices which existed for decades (much less millennia) and which merely awaited a name. To put it bluntly, it is wrong to refer to the first few UFC events – or even the first few Extreme Fighting or Shooto or Pancrase events, to say nothing of the earlier vale tudo matches or the ancient Pankration – as “MMA events.” Strictly speaking, that is not what they were.
In the early days of the UFC, there were myriad terms formulated to identify what the fighters were doing and what the viewers were watching, from “ultimate fighting” and “freestyle fighting” to “reality combat” and “no holds barred” competition, all of which differ significantly from MMA. Historically speaking, it was no holds barred, acronymized as “NHB,” which ultimately served as the primary pre-MMA three-letter acronym for the sport. (This is true for American organizations, at least. In Japan, the catch-wrestling-oriented organization Pancrase preferred the term “hybrid wrestling.”) It was not until the term MMA was introduced to replace NHB that there developed the definable set of ideas and practices that we associate today with MMA, and to project the contemporary concept of MMA back through history problematically distorts both the concept in and of itself and the historical evolution of martial arts and combat sports.
But I do not want to get ahead of myself. Differentiating between things with reference to a concept that I have yet to define is bad scholarly form. Since the preceding discussion presupposes an answer to an important question that I have yet to address – namely, “What is MMA?” – I want to begin by providing a working definition. As it is most commonly understood and used, the concept of MMA as we know it today refers to a combat sport in which athletes who train in wide varieties of striking and grappling arts pit their skills against one another. For conceptual specificity, we can break this concept down further. The most important “units” that have been integrated in the concept of MMA are striking arts, grappling arts, and the rules and conventions of sports. The key to the concept of MMA, however – the conceptual common denominator – is the “mixed” part, the part about athletes who are trained in wide varieties of striking and grappling arts competing against other athletes similarly trained in wide varieties of striking and grappling arts.
On the basis of this definition, my earlier comments will hopefully appear less controversial. It should be easy now to differentiate between MMA proper and something like Pancrase, in which the majority of fights were catch wrestlers all with the same skill-sets competing against one another. Likewise, it should be easy to differentiate MMA proper from something like the early Brazilian vale tudo matches, in which the majority of fights were challenge matches between jiujitsu practitioners and practitioners of other styles such as judo, luta livre, or capoeira. It should even be easy to differentiate MMA proper from the initial UFC events, in which the majority of fights were style-versus-style bouts between practitioners of particular styles – Brazilian jiujitsu, catch wrestling, boxing, karate – competing against other practitioners of particular styles. Contrary to the historical perspective according to which MMA emerged fully-formed the moment that the UFC came into existence, it actually took several years into the UFC’s existence for there to occur inside the Octagon a true revolution in martial arts. But the most interesting part of this particular saga is how this learning curve was merely the final curve on a very long track of martial arts history.
Going back through martial arts history with the benefit of hindsight, one of the things that I find exceedingly fascinating is how the same lesson had to be learned over and over again by countless individuals before it could become common knowledge and before it could inform common martial arts practice. The lesson to which I am referring is learning the value – indeed, the necessity – of cross-training, which speaks to the “mixed” part of MMA. This is one way that we can register the power of concepts, of their utility in organizing and facilitating the communication of knowledge. Going all the way back to the days of the Pankration – which, following the introductions into the Olympics of boxing and wrestling, consisted of truly no holds barred fights, sometimes to the death – Philostratus observed that the champion would be “the best wrestler amongst boxers and the best boxer amongst wrestlers” (quoted in Gentry  2011: 4). Clearly, it did not take until the 1990s for people to learn the value of cross-training. Yet, for whatever reason(s), it literally took thousands of years for the concept of MMA to emerge.
This is significant because the terms that preceded MMA all indicate very different conceptions of the combat taking place and by extension of the training required for such combat. The most popular pre-MMA term, as I mentioned, was NHB. As ring announcer Rich Goins intoned at the beginning of the very first UFC event broadcast, the UFC was a “landmark martial arts event” in which “8 of the deadliest fighters in the world will meet in no-holds-barred combat.” Given the cultural landscape of early 1990s America, it makes sense why NHB took hold. First, the 1990s pay-per-view market was all about extremes. Pay-per-view was where you could watch uncensored versions of R-rated movies like Total Recall, which were promoted as “Action Attractions”; where you could watch stuff like “The Hot Body International Bikini Challenge,” which was promoted exactly the way that you think it was promoted; and, of course, where you could watch boxing events like Tyson/Spinks and Holyfield/Foreman and professional wrestling events like WrestleMania. The UFC fit in perfectly, plus the language of “no holds barred” comes from the already-established world of professional wrestling. There was even a movie released in 1989 by the (at the time) World Wrestling Federation starring Hulk Hogan called No Holds Barred, which debuted at #2 at the box-office that year behind Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
So, initially, the way that people conceptualized the UFC was basically “no rules fighting.” As one of their famous ad campaigns, which even made it into a Friends episode which revolved around the UFC, made it a point of disingenuously stressing: “The rules are…there are no rules.” If we think of this as the first pass at conceptualizing the sport, we can say that the comparative lack of rules was the first defining characteristic meant to hold together the conception of UFC competition. In this sense, it is hard to fault people like John McCain for going after the UFC as “human cockfighting”: From the advertising side of things, they were really hammering the violent spectacle drum – and when I say “they” I am referring primarily to Campbell McLaren, who saw the UFC as a real-life version of the Mortal Kombat video games and who really wanted to play up the life-or-death gladiator angle – so it was only a matter of time before they started getting some political pushback. I will elaborate on this in the following section. The point to be made here is that even though there was no concept of MMA in place during the first few UFC events, it was nevertheless a relatively quick learning curve for the combatants. It did not even take a full event for the people involved to recognize what was happening. Beyond the “There are no rules!” hype machine, it was clear, even absent the ability to articulate it precisely, what was happening inside the Octagon.
Speculating about the semi-final match-up at UFC 1 between grappling standouts Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock, the martial arts icon Bill “Superfoot” Wallace, the lead commentator for the event, asked his fellow commentators if perhaps the submission experts would cancel out each other’s grappling and if perhaps there was a striking advantage to be exploited, which is exactly how their rematch at UFC 5 played out with Shamrock exploiting his striking advantage and blowing up Gracie’s eye with a right hand late in the fight; Kathy Long, a former kickboxing champion and fellow commentator on the UFC 1 broadcast, had earlier mentioned that Shamrock was “one of the more well-rounded fighters” in the tournament, and indeed Shamrock was well-versed in striking, wrestling, and submissions; and most notably, Superfoot postulated that, for the Gracie/Shamrock semi-final bout, it would come down to “the whole conglomerate,” to “being able to use everything.”
Again, UFC commentators are not scholars, nor are they necessarily gifted wordsmiths. Even so, Superfoot managed to articulate the basic principle of MMA competition while calling the very first UFC event: To win, fighters must be able to offensively utilize and defensively protect against a diverse array of martial arts techniques. Philostratus observed this as a spectator of the Pankration. Superfoot observed it as a UFC commentator. The knowledge was there, the evidence was available for all to see, but without a way to integrate this knowledge in the form of a specific conceptualization of martial arts training and combat, people were forced to learn this lesson the hard way time and time again.
For one classic example of an individual martial artist learning this lesson, consider the (in)famous – perhaps even apocryphal – fight between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man (cf. Bowman 2017). So the story goes, it was as a result of this challenge match that Lee began to reevaluate his approach to martial arts, eventually leading him to the creation of Jeet Kune Do (cf. Barrowman 2019; Jennings 2019) and even to becoming for many in the MMA world the “father” or “grandfather” of MMA. To my mind, the specifics of this encounter between Lee and Man notwithstanding – it has been endlessly debated whether Lee quickly and thoroughly trounced Man, or whether it was a difficult fight that Lee won by the skin of his teeth, or whether Man actually got the better of Lee – it is a significant historical event because there is something archetypal about it. That is, the reason that the story of this encounter, of Lee’s painful realization of the inadequacy of his thinking about/training in martial arts – and his ensuing martial and philosophical evolution, which included a newfound desire to learn as much as he could from as many disciplines as possible, from boxing and fencing to choy li fut and judo – is so well-known and oft-repeated is because it has the form of an archetypal martial arts experience: The experience of realizing that for all of your knowledge and training there is still so much that you do not know and cannot do.
This archetypal experience was discussed at UFC 1 by Jason Delucia. Delucia fought in and won the alternate bout at UFC 1. Had any victorious competitors been unable to continue in the tournament, Delucia would have been entered into the tournament and would have fought in their place. While that did not happen, the victory at UFC 1 earned Delucia a spot in the UFC 2 tournament. By this time, Delucia had already challenged Royce Gracie in one of the most famous of the pre-UFC Gracie Challenge matches. Coming from a background in aikido and kung fu, Delucia survived admirably due to his strength and conditioning, but he never threatened Royce and he ultimately gave up after Royce got him in a mounted triangle and punched him into submission. After Delucia’s own submission victory at UFC 1, he explained in his post-fight interview that his experience fighting Royce had a big influence on him and had “altered” his fighting style; he explained that he was “both a stand up and a ground fighter now.” In fact, in his first fight at UFC 2, Delucia finished his opponent with a mounted triangle, the exact same way that Royce had finished him in their challenge match.
Early UFC competitor Pat Smith had a similar experience. Smith was a longtime taekwondo and karate practitioner and an accomplished kickboxer. At UFC 1, he fought Ken Shamrock, who took him down in seconds and who submitted him with a heel hook with relative ease. Smith was devastated by that loss and was determined to learn from his mistake. After winning his second fight of the night at UFC 2 – the infamous ground-and-pound massacre of the ninja Scott Morris – Smith explained in his post-fight interview: “Last time, Ken Shamrock got a hold on me that I didn’t know how to get out of – same thing would’ve happened to him [that is, Smith would have submitted Morris had he not been able to dispatch him so easily via ground and pound]. I’ve been working on my groundfighting.” In the space of one event, Smith went from being a striker who knew nothing about grappling to being a mixed martial artist who, in his three victories at UFC 2 before losing to Royce Gracie in the finals, actually won two fights by submission and only one with strikes – and the one that he won with strikes, against Scott Morris, saw him successfully counter a body lock takedown very similar to the body lock takedown that Ken Shamrock used to put him on his back at UFC 1.
To return to Joe Rogan’s remark about martial arts evolving more after the emergence of the UFC than it had in the previous 700 years, the point that he was making was that the UFC was the catalyst that ignited a paradigm shift in the martial arts. As the final link in a historical chain that stretched back millennia, the paradigm shift catalyzed by the UFC literally changed the essence of what it means to be a martial artist. For as long as anyone could remember, the essence of the martial arts was mastery. A great martial artist was a master of his or her art, or even a grandmaster. The most feared person was not the most muscular, or the fastest, or the one who hit the hardest. The most feared person was the most experienced: The little old man who had been doing aikido for 50 years, the monk who had been studying kung fu for 70 years. The guiding principle was: You find a style and you devote your life to it. You do not do anything else. You do not learn wing chun and taekwondo. You become a wing chun master. This even permeated the early days of the UFC. Even up to UFC 6, in the course of hyping the Superfight championship match between Ken Shamrock and Dan Severn, Bruce Beck referred to them as “masters of their disciplines.”
But this was precisely the salutary effect of the Gracie Challenge and, ultimately, of the UFC: Mastery is not the be all end all. Styles and disciplines are not sufficient in isolation. It is not a matter of this style or that style – it is a matter of how to use everything that is available to you to do what you are the best at as effectively as you possibly can. As commentator Brian Kilmeade observed during the UFC 2 broadcast: “One of the keys to being successful … is to have more than one discipline at your disposal.” The lesson of the early UFCs was not that everyone should stop training what they had been training and start training Brazilian jiujitsu exclusively just because Royce Gracie was winning with it. Rather, the lesson of the early UFCs was that everyone should incorporate Brazilian jiujitsu, or at least some form of grappling training, because it will make you a more effective fighter overall. Obviously, as I demonstrated with reference to the observations and experiences of Philostratus and Bruce Lee, it did not take until the 1990s for anyone to realize this. It did take until the 1990s, however, for everyone to realize this. And this paradigm shift was a direct result of the UFC.
Inventing MMA II: The Politics of Pay-Per-View
In the preceding section, I traced a brief history of martial arts training and competition in which the value of cross-training and diversifying one’s skill-set was a lesson that individual martial artists had to learn the hard way over and over again in the absence of a way to conceptually organize their knowledge about training and combat. On the basis of this history, one could argue that the invention of MMA was inevitable. Martial artists just needed time. If enough martial artists learned this difficult lesson enough times, someone would eventually put two and two together and conceptualize training and combat in a way that would allow martial artists to integrate this knowledge and transform their ways of thinking about and practicing martial arts. Without a crystal ball, such speculation is ultimately pointless. Nevertheless, I must admit that, even without a crystal ball, I do not find this particular argument very convincing, for it only takes into account one side of the historical coin. If on one side of the coin is the martial side, on the other is the media side. It is true that there was a kind of natural evolutionary trajectory which stretched from the Pankration to the UFC. But MMA did not emerge when and as it did naturally. It was helped along considerably by the political battles that were waged over its media existence.
When the UFC was invented, things like longevity and sustainability simply were not on the agenda. Rorion Gracie wanted an advertisement for jiujitsu and a platform to celebrate his family while Art Davie and Campbell McLaren wanted to cash-in on a controversial pay-per-view spectacle. The idea of trying to turn the UFC into a legitimate sport did not seriously enter the minds of anyone involved with the UFC until John McCain launched his political crusade to take the UFC off of pay-per-view and have it banned in all 50 states. To be sure, when it comes to the political pressure that was put on the UFC in the late 1990s, it is very easy to paint McCain and the cable companies that kicked the UFC off of pay-per-view as evil corporate goons and corrupt politicians out to collect cheap political points for railing against bloody cage fights. However, it is worth acknowledging the fact that, unfair though a lot of the attacks on the UFC at the time were, the outcome of these political battles was the invention of MMA.
In the mid-1990s, as the UFC was fighting for its pay-per-view life amidst scathing attacks in the news media and in costly court cases, the two figures who turned out to be the architects of the sport’s future were “Big” John McCarthy – a former Los Angeles Police Department officer and a student of Rorion Gracie’s who was brought in by Rorion to referee UFC 2 – and Jeff Blatnick – a former Olympic gold medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling and longtime commentator of NCAA and Olympic wrestling on NBC who was brought in as a UFC commentator at UFC 4.
Through two years and seven events, the UFC had managed to carry on with very little outside interference. Not surprisingly, the moral police came out right after the first event aired, but there was no “official” backlash until after UFC 7 in September of 1995. This was the first event to be held in New York, which drew a lot of new eyeballs to it, including those of influential Senator John McCain, a longtime boxing advocate referred to by promoter Bob Arum as “The Boxing Senator.” McCain became aware of the UFC at this time and immediately launched an all-out assault to take it off the air. For the next event, which the UFC planned for February of 1996 in Puerto Rico, rather than spending fight week promoting the show they wound up spending most of their time in court. The Mayor wanted the UFC to be prohibited from putting on their event, but the case judge maintained that no laws were being broken and that there was no legal reason to keep UFC 8 from going on as planned.
Even though the UFC came out victorious in Puerto Rico, Blatnick and McCarthy saw the writing on the wall. The violent spectacle push had finally caught up with them and they knew that if they did not chart a new course for the UFC then it would not survive much longer. In Puerto Rico, Blatnick and McCarthy had a brainstorming session regarding a potential new course, and Blatnick was adamant that NHB had to go. The UFC was never no holds barred to begin with, so it was not an accurate designation. Added to which, the concept had terrible connotations. In short, NHB was out. But if the goal was to legitimize the UFC, then what should the sport be called?
It turns out that, ahead of refereeing UFC 2, McCarthy had to file forms with the LAPD to get permission to work as a referee, and when he wrote on the form that he was going to ref a “martial arts contest” he was asked what kind of martial arts would be featured. Since McCarthy had no idea how to describe the UFC, he just added in front of “martial arts” on the form the word “mixed.” Remembering that, he suggested the term “mixed martial arts” to Blatnick, and Blatnick loved it. It was Blatnick – who in 1998 would be made the Commissioner of the UFC – who spearheaded the “MMA” push, and once they had the term everything quickly fell into place and MMA rapidly evolved into what we know it to be today.
At the very next event after that brainstorming session, at UFC 9 in May of 1996, Bruce Beck announced to the world that the UFC was “the most physical, the most powerful, the most provocative mixed martial arts competition in the world.” Two events later, at the Ultimate Ultimate 1996 tournament in December, correspondent Tony Blauer explained: “The cross-training element is probably the newest thing to come out of the UFC, which is probably not just an event anymore but emerging as its own combat system. The fighters now are looking at grappling [and] striking … so they come in as multi-faceted fighter[s].” At UFC 13 in May of 1997, one year after the concept of MMA had been established, the newly-arrived “Phenom,” Vitor Belfort, explained in his pre-fight interview segment his “philosophy of fighting” in the following terms: “I’m a complete fighter … You can’t just do one thing, you know? You need to open your mind and try to do whatever your opponent gives to you … You need to be ready for everything.” Finally, at UFC 15 in October of 1997, Bruce Beck remarked how “the whole concept of … fighting today is to cross-train, to work on different aspects of your game,” to which Blatnick responded: “Without a doubt. The Ultimate Fighting Championship when it started was sort of a discipline against discipline and what it has evolved into is well-rounded fighters. Take what works, discard what doesn’t, use anything from any discipline.”
Conclusion: Rethinking Tradition
In sum, the combination of the “natural” evolution of UFC competition, with fighters learning to cross-train and diversify their skill-sets from experience – more often than not the archetypal experience of being stuck in a situation where what you know is ineffective/insufficient – and the “unnatural” media-related politicking that was necessary to combat the crusade to get the UFC taken off the air and banned in the US, resulted in the invention of MMA. Regarding the invention of martial arts broadly speaking, the history of MMA is a paradigm case of the need for martial arts studies scholarship to negotiate the space between, using Bowman’s terminology, “media and materiality”: Focusing merely on the evolution of martial arts training and combat vis-à-vis cross-training would be to fall into the trap of “habitus-focused approaches [which] overlook more complex matters both of history and culture, as well as … effects of media supplements [on] our lives” (Bowman 2021: 214-215). In order to properly study martial arts history, especially recent martial arts history in our media-saturated world, the ability to work through both concrete historical events/practices and media representations is essential.
From this perspective, the combination of cultural histories of martial arts training and competition on the one hand and of media and politics on the other producing an unprecedented revolution in martial arts knowledge and practice seems nothing short of miraculous. From another perspective, however, this is the ordinary, everyday power and utility of concepts (cf. Barrowman and Channon 2017). Concepts allow us to integrate knowledge and to more effectively navigate the world in which we live – to “word the world” in Cavellian parlance (cf. Cavell 1979, 1990) – and the concept of MMA has allowed us to integrate knowledge and experience related to martial arts training and combat. For as shocking and invigorating as the early UFC events were, history proves that the real revolution with regard to MMA was a conceptual one.
About the Author
Kyle Barrowman is a media and cinema studies lecturer in Chicago. He received his PhD from Cardiff University. He has published widely in and between film studies and philosophy, on subjects ranging from authorship, genre theory, and aesthetics to skepticism, perfectionism, and ordinary language philosophy. His research interests in martial arts studies include international histories of action and martial arts cinema and the sport of MMA. His research is available at the following address: https://depaul.academia.edu/KyleBarrowman.
This essay was originally conceived and delivered as a presentation at the Fifth Annual Martial Arts Studies Conference at Chapman University in 2019. I am grateful to Paul Bowman and Andrea Molle for the invitation to participate in that conference, as well as to Ben Judkins for the opportunity to post an essay version here at Kung Fu Tea. I am also grateful to Paul Bowman, Alex Channon, Martin Meyer, and Qays Stetkevych, whose questions and comments related to and beyond this material with respect to how we think about the history and evolution of MMA helped me to transform my original conference presentation into the present essay.
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January 15, 2021 at 9:04 am
I think what UFC provided was a lot of eyeballs. These style vs style fights weren’t happening in isolation, behind closed doors or even small audiences. Fighters who had been training in silos were losing in a very public way. It was the size of the audience that made the different.
January 15, 2021 at 3:05 pm
Hello, Rick. Thank you for commenting on my essay. I would definitely agree that having a large audience was an important factor, but it was not the only factor. I do not even think that it was the biggest factor. After all, not only was the ancient Greek Pankration a large spectacle, and not only were early Brazilian vale tudo matches large spectacles (the challenge match between Hélio Gracie and Masahiko Kimura, for example, was held at the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro in front of 20,000 people, while later there was a Rio TV show broadcast called “Heróis do Ringue” (“Heroes of the Ring”) featuring such bouts), but even the Japanese organizations Shooto and Pancrase were enormously popular in Japan, especially the latter with its professional wrestling connections. If anything, while the fact THAT the UFC was being seen, and being seen by a lot of people in and beyond the martial arts world, is obviously an important piece of the puzzle, it was WHAT was being seen and WHEN it was being seen and even BY WHOM it was being seen that proved to facilitate such a quick and large-scale transformation of thinking about and practicing martial arts.
January 18, 2021 at 1:41 am
Thank you for the essay. Nice insights in to the early days. I agree with your point that the current MMA is more a creation of cultural and political circumstances than mere mixing of fighting styles. There have been multiple cases of mixing different styles in the past, Choy Li Fut or the Emei styles for example. The evolution of Musashi’s style is another example.
What MMA has done is that it has evolved to suit the needs of the cultural and political situation. The ruleset was introduced to make the sport acceptable, and the fighting styles evolved to suit the rules. I’d go even further and argue that MMA in it’s current form is not a mix of styles anymore. It’s becoming or already become a unique style of fighting suitable for a very specific purpose, just like any other style in the past.