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Definition: mixed martial arts from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(1990) : a contact sport that allows a wide range of fighting techniques including striking, kicking, and grappling


Summary Article: MIXED MARTIAL ARTS from Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia of History and Innovation

Mixed martial arts (MMA) is a modern combat sport. The “mixed” refers to interdisciplinary competition under a rule set that permits an expansive list of striking and grappling techniques. MMA is also known as no-holds-barred (NHB), extreme fighting, cage fighting, submission fighting, and ultimate fighting.

MMA rules allow for matches that may suddenly shift through a number of ranges, from kick-boxing, to wrestling clinches punctuated by inside striking, to dynamic throws to the ground, to ground grappling with strike-filled flurries and submission attempts, and then back to the feet— all in a matter of seconds.

Striking techniques typically permitted include open- and closed-hand strikes, elbow strikes, knees, and kicks, while grappling techniques typically include throws, takedowns, chokes, and joint locks. Competitors may come from many martial backgrounds, but common styles include Brazilian jiu-jitsu, wrestling, judo, Muay Thai, kickboxing, karate, and professional boxing. While MMA began as style-versus-style matchups, the exposure to these many different martial arts, coupled with the sport's evolution toward uniform rules, has led to MMA being increasingly taught as its own distinct style of martial arts.

For safety equipment, MMA competitors wear mouth guards, groin protection, and light open-fingered gloves (4 to 7 ounces, 113 to 198 grams) that allow both grappling and striking. For apparel, shoes may be permitted, but briefs or shorts are often the only attire allowed. Matches are held in a boxing ring or fenced cage enclosure and last from three to five rounds. Length of rounds ranges between one to five minutes each. Methods of winning, except for submission, are similar to those of professional boxing and include knockout, technical knockout (includes referee, doctor, and corner stoppage), and judge's decision. Submission, meaning an indication that a competitor surrenders, may be verbalized but is generally signaled by tapping an opponent or the floor repeatedly with the hand.

Mixed martial arts are not new. The ancient Greeks and Romans had pankration, a mixed martial arts sport involving punching, kicking, and some of the same prohibitions, such as no fish-hooking (placing fingers in the mouth and pulling the cheeks) or gouging (pushing fingers into the eye socket). Matches between boxers and wrestlers were also popular during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Mark Hewitt (2005) has documented approximately ninety mixed matches in North America that pitted catch-as-catch-can wrestlers, judo players, jujutsu stylists, and boxers against one another under varying rule sets during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There were also boxing vs. judo matches in Japan, the Philippines, and the Territory of Hawaii, plus Vale Tudo (“anything goes”) matches in Brazil.

However, while owing a debt to past mixed-style matches, the chief influence on modern-day mixed martial arts is the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC) begun in November 1993. With UFC's pay-per-view (PPV) events being broadcast in over a hundred countries, and its recent purchase of several of its major competitors (notably Pride and World Extreme Cagefighting), there is no single MMA organization that currently approaches the influence of the UFC. The UFC, in turn, owes its origins to the Gracie family of Brazil.

Rorion Gracie (1952-) began teaching Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in the United States during the early 1970s. In 1979, Gracie moved to California, and began teaching Brazilian jiu-jitsu out of his garage. In 1986, he was picked to be one of the three fight choreographers for the Mel Gibson (1956-) movie Lethal Weapon (Warner Brothers, 1987). This led to an interview in Playboy (Jordan 1989) in which the author labeled Gracie the “toughest man in the west.” Soon afterwards, Gracie met advertising man Art Davie, and between them, Gracie and Davie developed the idea of a mixed-styles tournament to showcase Gracie Jiu-Jitsu (Krauss and Aita 2002).

Gracie Jiu-Jitsu began in Brazil in the late 1910s, when traveling judoka and professional wrestler Mitsuyo Maeda (1878-1941) introduced Gracie's uncle Carlos (1902-1994) to judo (which was known in Brazil as jiu-jitsu). Maeda had experience at Japanese university jujutsu and Kodokan judo, and newspapers described him equally as a judo or jiu-jitsu man. Since Maeda made his living as a professional wrestler, marketing was likely the biggest factor in the choice of presentation to the media.

Carlos Gracie was a talented wrestler, and along with his brother Hélio (1913-2009) and his son Carlson (1935-2006), he and his sons and nephews made the Gracie name synonymous with jiu-jitsu in Brazil. The Gracies emphasized groundwork and specialized in closing with an opponent and bringing him to the ground to work for a choke or joint lock. As a consequence, generations of Gracies and their students fought challenge matches using this strategy.

Armed with a video showing dojo-storming matches done by the Gracies and using the name “War of the Worlds,” Rorion Gracie and Davie pitched the UFC idea to cable television executives. Eventually, the idea was sold to Campbell McLaren of Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG), who figured that the show could make a profit selling to just 100,000 homes (Cerone 1993).

The first UFC took place on November 12, 1993. Rickson Gracie (1958-) was the logical choice to represent the family style, but after Rorion discovered Rickson teaching students outside Rorion's Gracie Academy, Rorion instead chose another brother, Royce (1966-), to showcase Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in this event (Gentry 2002).

The event began as an eight-man tournament. Each participant was paid $1,000 to show, with the tournament winner promised $50,000. Each fight was scheduled for five rounds of five minutes, and it took place in an octagonal chain-link cage with a sprung floor. The UFC cage was a compromise from more extravagant suggestions, to include barbed wire pits and crocodile-filled moats. Professional wrestling had used cages using chicken wire since at least 1937, and the UFC adopted cages for the same reasons that professional wrestlers did—the cage kept participants from falling out, reduced the amount of debris that spectators could throw into the ring, and gave the impression that the participants were unwillingly imprisoned and forced to fight their way out. MMA competitors were quick to seize upon advantages offered by the cage. For example, they could hold on to the links. This led to rule changes, and today, competitors are limited to using the cage as a tool to force a clinch when standing or in forcing an opponent on the ground against the cage to gain a better position for striking (Downey 2007).

The first UFC was advertised as “no rules.” In practice, gouging, biting, and groin strikes were restricted techniques, at least in the sense that fighters could be fined for using them. Nonetheless, it was a spectacularly dangerous event, with men of wildly varying abilities and weights fighting one another. At the same time, it equally spectacularly accomplished Gracie's goal, which was to showcase Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.

Toward that end, the initial lineup pitted Royce Gracie against professional boxer Art Jimmerson (1963-). To fight Jimmerson, Gracie took the traditional family approach by closing, taking him to the ground, and submitting him.

In a similar sequence, Japanese submission wrestling-trained competitor Ken Shamrock (Kenneth Kilpatrick, 1964-) faced kickboxer Pat Smith (1963-) in his preliminary matchup. Shamrock had fought previously in a similar Japanese mixed fighting promotion called Pancrase, with his most recent match in that system taking place just days before the inaugural UFC.

In Japan, the origins of MMA date to the 1980s. During the 1970s, Japanese Brazilian professional wrestling innovator Kanji “Antonio” Inoki (1943-) realized that there was a market in Japan for “strong style” matches, meaning matches in which the results were predetermined, just as in professional wrestling, but in which the combative techniques were more realistic. Toward that end, Inoki founded New Japan Pro Wrestling in 1972. Over time, Inoki's stable of wrestlers—most trained by Japan's “God of Pro Wrestling,” Belgian wrestler Karl Gotch (Karl Istaz, 1924-2007)—extended the trend for strong style matches into full-blown MMA. Thus, in 1986, a semi-retired professional wrestler, Satoru “Tiger Mask” Sayama (1957-), opened a gym in Japan in which he taught an ancestor of MMA that he called Shooto. This was essentially submission wrestling, taught as a martial art. A promotion led by Sayama under the same name, Shooto, began holding legitimate MMA matches in the mid-1980s and continues today. In 1991, professional wrestler Akira Maeda (1959-) started a similar promotion called RINGS. RINGS started with Shooto-style matches but with prearranged outcomes, same as is done in pro wrestling. However, later in the decade, RINGS switched to MMA, thereby straddling that blurry line in Japan between worked (predetermined) shoot-style matches and legitimate shoots (meaning matches in which the results are not determined in advance).

In 1993, pro wrestlers Masakatsu Funaki, Minoru Suzuki, Yoshiki Takahashi, and Yusuke Fuke formed a Japanese promotion called Pancrase. Pancrase allowed kicks and open-hand strikes while standing: open-hand strikes were more acceptable to Japanese audiences than were strikes with fists, probably because open-handed strikes were common in both professional wrestling and sumo (Krauss and Aita 2002).

This brings us back to Ken Shamrock. In high school, Shamrock had wrestled and boxed, and afterwards, he participated in Original Toughman and pro wrestling matches. He was subsequently hired to work in a short-lived Japanese pro wrestling promotion called Universal Wrestling Federation (UWF). While wrestling in Japan, Shamrock met Suzuki and Funaki, and when Suzuki and Funaki went to Pancrase, Shamrock went with them.

During his preliminary UFC bout with Smith, Shamrock made short work of him, submitting him via heel hook (leg lock submission) after a quick takedown.

In the semi-finals, Gracie fought Shamrock. Both played the techniques that worked in the past, but Shamrock's experience in worked matches did not prepare him for Gracie's chokes. Gracie then went on to win the tournament.

Although the first UFC performed well in the ratings, it paid a price for its hype. In November 1985, an organization called Battlecade (owned in part by Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, 1930-) tried to organize a similar show in Brooklyn, New York. New York State Senator Roy Goodman (R-Manhattan, 1930-) said no, saying MMA was “human cockfighting” (Liff 1995). Syndicated columnist George Will (1941-) got into the act a week later, describing the sport's customers as including “slack-jawed children whose parents must be cretins” (Will 1995). A week after that, U.S. senators John McCain (R-Arizona, 1936-) and Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado, 1933-) sent letters to state governors asking them to prohibit this “repugnant blood sport” (Brooke 1995). McCain also began using his position as head of the Senate Commerce Committee to pressure pay-per-view corporations to drop Ultimate Fighting shows (Wertheim 2009).

The upshot was that MMA promoters began facing expensive legal battles wherever they went, and the last-minute venue and rules changes were analogous to the problems that prizefight promoters had faced a century before. For example, in Michigan, SEG was forced to institute last-minute rule changes that included a ban on striking with the closed fist. The Supreme Court of Michigan, in order to make that determination, viewed past UFC matches, and in its published opinion, Kelly v. SEG Sports Corp. 1997 WL 37475 (June 4, 1997), the court remarked that it was the first time that its members had performed legal research at Blockbuster Video.

During this period, the popularity of MMA was sustained largely through video sales and the Internet. Web sites became the virtual gathering place for tens of thousands of fans to discuss events that relatively few could see firsthand (Wertheim 2009).

However, web sites generated no income for MMA and its promoters. So, toward avoiding legal problems while still making money, promoters began staging MMA events at Native American casinos. This proved reasonably lucrative and also attracted the attention of the gaming industry. The question was, if MMA were legalized, and introduced into New Jersey and Nevada casinos, would MMA prove as lucrative as professional boxing? Members of the gaming industry apparently believed that it would, because in September 2000, the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board instituted its Mixed Martial Arts Unified Rules of Conduct (N.J.A.C. 13.24A and N.J.A.C. 13.24B). California and Nevada soon enacted similar legislation, and after that, MMA was a legal sport, subject to essentially the same requirements as professional boxing.

In 2001, casino interests purchased ownership of the UFC brand from SEG. The UFC's new owner, Zuffa LLC, was based in Las Vegas, and its financing was provided by the gaming industry billionaires Frank J. Fertitta III and his brother Lorenzo. The Fertittas' holdings stretched across the United States, and their guess that MMA could be profitable for the casinos proved correct. The first MMA show sanctioned by the Nevada State Athletic Commission took place at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino (an MGM property) on September 28, 2001. While official attendance was just 7,238, pay-per-view sales took the total gate to $816,660 (Nevada State Athletic Commission 2009).

Rebranding MMA began soon after. Cable television was used to do this, and the process included developing a UFC-owned reality show called The Ultimate Fighter (Spike TV, January 2005-present). The premiere was slotted so that it followed Spike's telecast of the World Wrestling Entertainment promotion called Raw (Larson 2005), and it soon proved to be among Spike's most popular shows. Zuffa also sought corporate sponsorship for its UFC brand. In January 2008, motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson became a major sponsor for the UFC, and a month later, brewery giant Anheuser-Busch, a longtime advertiser at boxing matches, also partnered with the UFC. Since then, Zuffa's earnings have reportedly reached hundreds of millions of dollars per year (Miller 2008), and the name “ultimate fighting” has become a generic brand name of the kind more commonly associated with soft drinks than professional wrestling acts.

Other promotions having significant corporate ties also contributed to the commercial success of the MMA. For example, King of the Cage (KOTC) was started in 1998. King of the Cage is considered a minor league circuit for MMA fighters. Its shows were funded by a promotion called ProElite, which in turn was owned by the cable network Showtime (a CBS affiliate). Similarly, World Extreme Cage Fighting (WEC) was started in 2001. Zuffa bought WEC in December 2006, and today, WEC is geared toward developing lighter-weight fighters.

The market demographic for the UFC is white males aged 18-35. The UFC does not perceive large pay-per-view sales from African American viewers (Wertheim 2009). Nonetheless, African Americans are frequent participants in UFC events, and in March 2008, Black Entertainment Television introduced its own MMA reality show, Iron Ring. In this show, the concept was that celebrity hip-hop and sports figures would pick teams of MMA contestants to compete against one another. A year later, in April 2009, Bellator Fighting Championships, a promotion aimed at the Hispanic market, made its debut on ESPN Deportes (Gross 2009).

Today, MMA is marketed internationally, and schools and professional promotions can be found in many countries. MMA remains very strong in Japan, and two of the longest running promotions, Shooto and Pancrase, continue to regularly organize major events. South Korea also has several large promotions and its own reality show. In China, the Art of War promotion has imported fighters from Europe and Japan and boasts of its satellite television availability across East Asia. Mexico and Canada hold professional MMA events, and Brazilian fighters travel internationally. In Western Europe, Netherlands turns out many fine MMA practitioners, to include Bas Rutten (1965-), as does Eastern Europe, where locally developed champions include the Ukrainian heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko (1976-).

Although MMA is being used to sell beer around the world, it has not experienced globalization and commodification in quite the same way as other martial arts and combative sports. First, MMA was always intended to borrow techniques from anywhere. Second, it was developed specifically to attract male television viewers aged 18-35. In that regard, MMA is unique. At the same time, however, less blatantly commercial users have begun appropriating MMA for their own purposes. For example, fans have created enthusiastic on-line communities, and amateur participants down to high school level find agonistic competition and dream of fame and fortune (Porter 2008).

One of the more interesting noncommercial appropriations involves the U.S. military. Since the mid-1990s, the U.S. military has been interested in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and MMA. Although learning to drop to the guard (a supine position on one's back) is less than ideal in military scenarios, learning to take down and hold prisoners is very useful during peacekeeping operations. In addition, teaching and promoting martial arts has been shown to have a positive effect on morale. Thus, by styling MMA as a training aid, the U.S. military is capitalizing on the popularity of MMA within the age groups from which it recruits.

Another interesting appropriation involves women. Although the UFC steadfastly refuses to hold women's events, Japan has held significant women-only events. For example, Smackgirl has been holding women's only events since December 2000. In the United States, some smaller promotions, such as Hook N Shoot, run by a former pro wrestler and UFC announcer named Jeff Osborne, have also been holding women's events since March 2001.

Part of the promoters' resistance to female participation involves the presentation of masculinity that MMA represents. The market for UFC is the male demographic, aged 18-35. At the same time, a mixed martial art match is an intimate encounter. Its language (submission, mount) has sexual connotations, and the activity prominently features scantily clad but muscular competitors swapping sweat, breath, and blood while grasping one another tightly. The promotions also present the actions of physically beating, dominating, and submitting an opponent as quintessentially masculine activities. Introducing female MMA practitioners simply underscores the inherently homoerotic elements of MMA, while at the same time providing undeniable evidence that women are capable of engaging in the same kinds of aggressive physical activity as men. Presumably, this is not what cable executives believe young male drinkers of Bud Light want to pay money to see on late-night TV.

From the standpoint of safety, the record of MMA appears consistent with other striking sports. In contrast to professional boxing, only a few deaths have been reported, and of these, just one of these deaths (Sam Vasquez in October 2007) was the direct result of injuries received during a match sanctioned by an athletic commission. Nonetheless, injuries to the hands and face are common, occurring in more than a third of all participants (Bledsoe et al., 2006). The current trend favoring striking intensive matchups and restarts for slow action bouts may work to increase the injury rate. As in boxing, the general risk of injury appears to rise with the age of the participants.

See also: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu; Fighting Arts of the Hellenic, Hellenistic, and Roman Eras (in Volume I); Commodification of Leisure; Globalization of Martial Arts; International Boxing; Professional Wrestling; Television and the Martial Arts; The Internet and the Martial Arts; Military Unarmed Fighting Systems in the United States; and Action Design for Professional Wrestling (in this volume).

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  • Couch, Jason
    Copyright 2010 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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