The first Mixed Martial Arts event I ever saw was a UFC one. It was purely by accident and a total fluke that I even watched it. I was in my mid-twenties and still in school. At the time I had studied two styles of Kung Fu and kickboxing.
I was at a girlfriend’s house watching TV when we stumbled upon it: The Ultimate Fighting Championship. She had one of those not-so-legal cable TV black boxes: a small black box that connected to your television, which would allow you access to every movie channel and pay per view. It had been advertised as a no-holds-barred, ‘anything goes’ fight; an event where martial artist from different disciplines from all over the world would gather and fight it out to see which martial art was the best. It scared me because I actually thought someone was going to die. I had to watch it though. I just had to know what was going to happen.
Growing up studying Martial Arts, the big question among us was always ‘what if…?’ What if a Kung Fu master fought a boxer? What if a Sumo guy fought a karate guy? What if King Kong met Godzilla? What if Muhammad Ali fought Superman, or more apt, as far as the history of MMA goes, what if Muhammad Ali fought Antonio Inoki?
Throughout the years I have attended several Martial Arts competitions. These competitions are usually conducted much like a sport. There are judges, scoring, points and fouls, along with medals, trophies and pizza parties. The First UFC didn’t seem to resemble much of a sports competition. The rules seemed rather ambiguous: groin strikes and head butts were allowed, and the combatants wore pretty much whatever they wanted to in the cage. The roots of the UFC had very little to no mixing of the Martial Arts. It was a competition between styles and disciplines, it was the movie Enter the Dragon: a blood sport come to life. The emphasis of the first UFC was to decide which Martial Art was the best. Or better put, it was really to prove the effectiveness of Brazilian jujitsu, particularly Gracie ju-jitsu.
In fact, the UFC originally served as a platform for the Gracie family to highlight Gracie jujitsu. At the time of UFC One, the Gracie’s were venturing out of Brazil into the United States with their jujitsu schools. They wanted to show the world what their Martial Art was capable of and had the UFC serve as a launching pad to establishing successful jujitsu schools in the United States. The Gracie family was also infamous for taking on all challengers from any school or Martial Art dating back to the 1920’s. The first UFC was a Gracie Open Challenge on Pay Per View. In fact, there is a long history of challenges and competitions between disciplines and schools. These challenges are usually the plot line and narrative to most old Kung Fu movies.
What was the transition point where MMA went from an exhibition to a legitimate sport? To some, it may seem that the roots of its legitimacy began in 2000 when the first unified rules of MMA were formed in New Jersey and California. Prior to the first UFC, there had been a handful of hybrid fighting style promotions out of Japan. They classified it as hybrid fighting, where by the combatants competed in contests that combined kickboxing and grappling. Shooto and Universal Wrestling Federation or UWFI respectively, can be considered the first hybrid, true MMA organization. I know that a lot of MMA purists loathe the comparison between MMA and professional wrestling, but as far as the beginnings of MMA as a sport or concerned, the roots are deep within Japanese professional wrestling.
Shooto is considered the first true MMA organization in the world according to Sherdog.com. The word ‘shooto’ is a derivative of the term ‘shoot’ or ‘shooter,’ referring to a wrestler who can shoot, or fight legitimately. A “shooter” is a person that has the ability to fight for real within the context of pro-wrestling. Within the professional wrestling lexicon, the term ‘shoot’ refers to a real fight, as opposed to a “worked” or staged fight. In Japan, Shoot fight organizations arose from a group of professional wrestlers deciding to shoot or fight for real.
Shooto was created by former professional wrestler Satoru Sayama (Tiger Mask) in 1986. Shooto was not just the name of the organization but also a Martial Art style of fighting in its own right, developed by Sayama. Sayama created Shooto as a sport competition whereby the combatants would compete in a shoot style fight. The first Professional Shooto event was held in 1989. This style wasn’t so much of a stretch for these Japanese professional wrestlers, as many, if not most, had a martial art or amateur wrestling background.
Early Shooto rules allowed punches to the body and open hand palm strikes to the head. All forms of grappling were allowed. The Shooto promotion had its first professional event in 1989, at which time gloves were implemented into the rules allowing punches to the head. Shooto also established a class system based on the experience level of the fighters where the amateurs would work their way up from D to A class level fighters. An A Class, or professional level contest, consisted of three rounds, each five minutes in duration. Strikes to the head were allowed and submissions were legal. Except biting. No one ever allows biting. Unless it’s between two consenting adults.
The UWF or UWFI was another hybrid fighting organization that branched out of the new Japan pro wrestling promotion. Once again, these professional wrestlers wanted to have contests in a more realistic and true fighting style. The UWF came into existence in 1983, disappeared in 1986, and came and went a couple of times until re-launching again in 1992 as the UWFI (Union of Wrestling Forces International) a shoot-style wrestling promotion that claimed that their championship was the “real” Pro Wrestling World Heavyweight Title.
In retrospect, these bouts were hard-hitting and some may have been legit, but history has proven that it wasn’t much more real than the pro wrestling organization it spawned from. The UWFI back in the 1990’s was littered with a litany of professional wrestling ‘names’ that might sound familiar to a pro wrestling and MMA fan. Names like, Big Van Vader, Kazushi Sakuraba, Dan Severn, Bob Backlund and The Iron Sheik.
The presentation and look to both Shooto and UWFI seemed to resemble much more of a sports/professional wrestling presentation than the way the first UFC’s were billed. They were more ‘sports competition’ than a ‘blood sport.’ The confines of a Shooto and UWFI competition seemed familiar: a squared circle boxing/wrestling ring. The UFC, in contrast, was in a cage, probably leading to the human cockfighting comparison.
One thing I have realized is that Mixed Martial Arts has a complex global history. Martial arts go back centuries. ‘No-holds-barred’ fights go back to the late 19th and early 20th century, before wrestling became a predetermined foray into faux fisticuffs, when it was a legitimate sport.
Frank Gotch, considered the first Pro Wrestling Champion (1908-1913) took part in mostly legitimate contests. Gotch competed in true grappling competitions known as ‘catch-as-catch-can’ or ‘catch’ wrestling. Catch wrestling came out of Britain in the late 19th century as a hybrid submission-grappling system derived from the Middle East, Asia and parts of the British Empire.
Martial Arts have a millennia of styles clashing as cultures interacted and intertwined. Shaolin Kung Fu has its origins in Ancient Martial Arts from India. Mixed Martial Arts as a modern sport however, definitely has its early beginnings and deepest roots within professional wrestling.
It’s hard to dispute that MMA, as a contemporary sport resembling what we know as the current product, sprouted from the seeds of Japanese Pro-Wrestling. In fact, the business practice of modern MMA operates the same as a wrestling promotion. The UFC as a business resembles much more the WWE than the NFL or NBA. As much as the MMA purist disdains the comparison, I’m afraid that MMA is Pro Wrestling’s ‘legitimate’ love child. Appropriate enough for me, as I came to writing for the MMATorch via PWTorch.
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