Every era becomes easily identified by the trends occurring within it. The ’60’s had hippies and psychedelics; the ’70’s had Disco; and so it continues into the new millennium. Most recently, we’ve witnessed an attraction with all things “reality”. One of the biggest phenomena has been the popularity of Mixed Martial Arts. Generally viewed as the most violent of all contact sports, MMA has become the fastest growing sport in the world. With its tougher-than-nails image being expertly marketed globally, it has generated most of its appeal by glorifying violence as athletic competition.
The beginnings of MMA can be traced all the way back to ancient Greek culture (approximately 648 B.C.), and the introduction of pankration as an Olympic sport.
Pankration is the combination of the two Greek words “pan” (translated as “all”) and “kratos” (translated as “powers”), used to describe the numerous techniques allowed in this form of combat. These matches consisted of two opponents, governed by one referee and could only conclude when one of the combatants were knocked unconscious, or surrendered by a submission maneuver. Though pankration involves striking, it is primarily a grappling discipline.
MMA would come to resurgence in Brazil (over 2500 years later) as two brothers, Carlos and Helio Gracie, opened a jiu-jitsu academy based on developments made to their training in judo. They were the first westerners trained in the Japanese discipline, with Carlos having learned from the Japanese judo champion Mitsuyo Maeda. To gain respect as martial artists, the brothers began to issue what became known as “The Gracie Challenge”- an advertisement claiming Carlos could submit a fighter of any discipline in a “vale tudo” match. The matches known as “vale tudo”- Portuguese for “everything is allowed”, became the culmination of various forms of martial arts. By combining multiple martial disciplines, the offensive and defensive techniques of Brazilian jiu-jitsu proved to be dominant against many other styles of hand-to-hand combat. These matches attracted the attention of fighters worldwide and propelled the Gracie family to the top of the martial arts community.
Today’s top purveyor of MMA, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, was originated in 1993 by Helio Gracie’s eldest son, Rorion, as a platform for Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Together with Art Davie, a salesman, and Bob Meyrowitz, the president of a pay-per-view entertainment corporation, the first event was held in one night as a single-elimination tournament with no weight classes, no time limits or rounds, and very few rules. The victor was none other than Rorion’s younger brother Royce, submitting three fighters, including two world-class champions in the tournament. This event sold 86,000 pay-per-view buys, which secured its place as a spectator sport in the United States.
Currently, the UFC achieves one of the largest followings in professional sports. Average attendance to UFC events is approximately 15,000, with the North American record for attendance to an MMA event (19,079) set at UFC 68 in Columbus Ohio. According to L. Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated,
“UFC events do bigger pay-per-view numbers than any pro wrestling event or boxing card this side of Mayweather-De La Hoya. (UFC’s 2006 PPV revenues were almost $223 million, compared with $177 million for boxing on HBO and $200 million for WWE.)” (“The New Main Event”, 1).
The present UFC administration, which took over in 2001, has legitimized MMA with numbers like these, and also by instituting athletically commissioned rules and regulations governing such events.
Ever since the commercial explosion of Michael “Air” Jordan, athletics have become an effective method of marketing and advertising for both athletes and products. Public fascination with high-profile athletes has drawn much attention to the products associated with their profession, as well as their lifestyle. Anything from beverages and nutritional supplements, to clothing lines and footwear have found a newly viable market for advertisement through MMA sponsorships. At UFC 78, middleweight fighter Karo Parisyan entered the fight displaying a banner for a newly released video game- his sole sponsor for the event. The UFC’s website itself is filled with advertisements for alcohol, automobiles, and the latest DVD releases; all which have very little to do with the sport in general. As the audience for MMA continues to grow, so does the profitability of promotion through sponsorships.
With the entertainment industry concentrating on “reality-based” spectacles, the MMA has capitalized on this trend by appealing to the public’s curiosity through the creation of its television show The Ultimate Fighter in 2005. The show is primarily a breeding ground for MMA fighters aspiring to obtain a UFC contract, but also serves as a back-drop to an upcoming championship title match, with the two competitors serving as coaches to the contestants of the program. Each episode documents the living conditions and daily occurrences of its participants as they train and compete against each other in a six-week tournament to eventually determine who is awarded the contract. This candid approach to promotion has garnered much attention for the sport and the UFC in particular. It has also familiarized the viewing public with many of the athletes as recognizable personalities to ambassador MMA globally.
With the world becoming accustomed to the athletically reputable identity of MMA, we can begin to see its violent nature glorified in other forms of entertainment. In the latest edition to the “007” films, Casino Royale, we are witness to the protagonist
James Bond engaging in hand-to-hand combat informed by MMA. Beyond his usual karate chops and judo throws, Bond performs grappling maneuvers and even administers a jiu-jitsu style chokehold to overcome his adversary. The movie Romeo Must Die, released in 2000, foreshadowed this shift in cinematic action plots by featuring three UFC champions performing MMA in a pivotal fight scene as nemeses to the title character. Modern combat-based video games, including the popular Tekken series, have also come to include fictional entities disciplined by MMA methods such as “vale tudo”and muay Thai kickboxing.
For all the positive strides MMA has made in the past ten years, there still remains a negative connotation to the sport as barbaric. Many still perceive it to be much more violent than most professional athletics commissioned in the United States. Other contact sports- such as boxing- which are regulated by one solitary discipline now seem civil when compared to MMA. This appears even truer given the fact that 85% of all MMA fights end by knockout, and almost all submissions are designed to break bones or render opponents unconscious. Granted, in regulation bouts, bones are rarely broken and unconscious opponents are quickly revived- though these occurrences are eagerly awaited by all patrons. The excitement of seeing a match come to a violent conclusion at the expense of one competitor is still a major factor to the overall attraction surrounding the sport and its allure.
The future of MMA will be exponentially successful with its constantly evolving methods as a business and as a sport. Mixed martial artists will become some of most revered athletes in the world according to the intensity of training and competing in the sport. Given statistics point to the public continuing to substantiate MMA by supporting the events, the competitors, as well as the companies sponsoring the entire movement. The powerful blow MMA has dealt to all entertainment will soon have everyone submitting to its overwhelmingly cultural influence for years to come.
Walter Jr., Donald F. ” Mixed Martial Arts: Ultimate Sport, or Ultimately Illegal?” 12 Aug 2003. http://www.grapplearts.com/Mixed-Martial-Arts-1.htm
Zuffa LLC. “History of The Ultimate Fighting Championship” 2007.
Wertheim, L. Jon. “The New Main Event” 25 May 2007.
Trembow, Ivan. ” UFC 68 Breaks North American Attendance Record”. 15 March 2007.