FEATURE: The Evolution of MMA from Pankration in Greece to Mixed Martial Arts going mainstream on U.S. PPV

By Jess Houser, MMATorch contributor

Photo Credit Wade Keller © MMATorch

Ten years ago today, MMATorch.com ran a story on the evolution of MMA. Check it out below.

Two opponents circle each other, looking to strike. A missed punch, a slam to the ground, and the application of a submission hold signal the end of the fight for one of the combatants. Sound familiar? It should, but instead of this fight taking place in the Octagon, or a ring, it took place outside and over two thousand years ago.

The place is ancient Greece and the sport is Pankration. Pankration is the direct ancestor of today’s sport of MMA. These contests were grueling and vicious. The only rules were no eye gouging and no biting. A Pankration fight could end via knock-out, submission, or death. Bouts often lasted hours, with no rounds or rest periods. If a bout went past sundown, the fighters would then made to stand and alternate delivering undefended blows until a winner was determined.

The best pankratists were elevated to an almost mythical status. Dioxxipus, for example, was said to have never lost a bout, and no one would challenge him. According to one myth, he challenged a fully armored and armed Macedonian soldier to a fight and defeated him. Alexander the Great sought out pankratists to serve in his army. During his campaigns in India, the pankratists are sometimes credited with being the basis of the Asian martial arts which trace their heritage to India at the same time.

Pankration was more than just a sport, it served as the basis for all Greek combat training. The Romans used the techniques of Pankration as the basis for all Gladiator training as well. Pankration was all but forgotten after the fall of the Roman Empire. Boxing and wrestling survived as the favorite combat sports of the Western world. The numerous forms of traditional martial arts flourished in Asia, but Pankration as a fighting form and combat sport was dead.

In Brazil, during the early 1900s, the seeds for the modern era of MMA were planted. A representative of the Japanese government, Mitsuyo Maeda, was in the area and befriended the grandson of a Scottish immigrant, Gastão Gracie. Gastão, was a local politician and used his influence to help Maeda succeed in setting up a Japanese colony in the area. Due to their friendship, Maeda offered to teach Gracie’s son Carlos the Japanese martial art of Judo. In Japan, Maeda also went by the name Count Koma, and was a very well known Judo champion.

For six years Carlos studied under Maeda, until Maeda left to return to his native Japan. After Maeda’s departure, Carlos began to teach his brothers, Helio, Jorge, Osvaldo, and Gastão, Jr., the art of Judo in the same ways he was taught. The Gracie brothers began to adapt the art of Judo to a more practical form. Being Brazilian they were not bound by the long standing Japanese Judo traditions.

In 1925, Carlos and Helio relocated to Rio de Janerio and opened their first academy. They worked to advance and perfect the art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. In order to draw more attention to their small academy, they began issuing “Gracie Challenges.” They would take out an ad in the local newspapers stating that if someone wanted a rib or arm broken to contact them and come by the academy. Once word got out about these “Gracie Challenges,” fighters of all styles started to flock to the academy and fight the Gracie brothers. These fights soon became wildly popular in Brazil, and the sport of Vale-Tudo (“anything goes” in Portugese) was born.

The first professional Vale-Tudo fight was between Brazilian Lightweight Boxing Champion Antonio Portugal and Helio Gracie. Helio was smaller and younger than his brother Carlos, who was a slight man himself. In less than 30 seconds, Helio won the fight and a new Brazilian sports hero was born. Helio was always outweighed by his opponents, by more than 100 pounds in some occasions.

Word of these fights spread around the world. Many Japanese martial artists came to fight the Gracies, whom they believed were defiling their arts. Helio defeated many of these great Japanese champions. The World Freestyle Wrestling Champion, American super heavyweight Fred Ebers also fell to Helio. The sons of the Gracie Brothers continued to uphold the family tradition of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and dominance in the Vale-Tudo competitions.

Eventually the Gracies branched out to America. Rorion, Helio’s oldest son, came to America in the early 1980s to teach Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He preferred to call it Gracie Jiu-Jitsu at this time. In the tradition of the Gracie family, Rorion started offering his own version of the “Gracie Challenge.” Instead of promising a broken rib or arm, Rorion offered $100,000 to anyone who could beat him in a Vale-Tudo match. As was the case in Brazil, these “Gracie Challenges” brought Brazilian (or Gracie) Jiu-Jitsu, much popularity. Many of these matches were videotaped, and no on has ever claimed the $100,000 prize.

Rorion realized that these matches were becoming wildly popular and saw an opportunity to spread his family’s art through this type of fighting. Rorion spent years promoting his family’s art and trying to start a Vale-Tudo league in America. After all those years of hard work, Rorion met Art Davie. Art Davie was a salesman, with connections in the television industry, who became enamored with MMA after a trip to Thailand where he saw an underground MMA fight. Davie and Rorion had an idea for showing Vale-Tudo matches on pay-per-view. Davie began to use his connections in the television industry to help make this happen. [See MMATorch.com’s interview section for Wade Keller’s interview with Art Davie from 1995.]

Davie arranged a meeting with Bob Meyrowitz, president of Semaphore Entertainment Group. Semaphore Entertainment Group was a company specializing in presenting live pay-per-view sporting events. The idea of the Ultimate Fighting Championship was born out of this meeting. They devised a tournament style event, where the only rules were No Biting and No Eye Gouging. There would be no time limits, and fights could only end by submission or knock-out. The winner of this event would win $50,000. The first UFC event was to be held in Denver, Colorado on November 12, 1993. The seeds were planted in early 1900s Brazil, and this event would be the fruits of that labor. It would be when America was introduced to Royce Gracie.

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