Mixed martial arts (MMA) is one of the world’s fastest-growing sports, and if you’ve ever watched a fight, it’s easy to see why. They’re fast-paced, exciting, and sometimes even thrilling.
A full-contact combat sport that borrows liberally from more traditional martial arts, MMA reached mainstream popularity in the U.S. only within the past two decades. Now, new fans and athletes are being introduced to MMA every day.
Interested in learning more about this sport? Here’s what you need to know.
How to describe the sport
In essence, MMA is a combat sport that involves two competitors facing off in a ring. Domination requires three general tactics. These are control, finishing holds, and striking—techniques that resemble ones used in a range of other martial arts. Think about what you typically see in disciplines like boxing, karate, judo, jujitsu, and wrestling.
Participants are permitted to punch, kick, or throw their opponent. Chokes and takedowns are also ways fighters can try to disable their opponent. When one fighter is knocked out or has had enough and concedes the match, victory is declared for the other. Like related sporting events, an end to the match can also be called by the referee, a fighter’s cornerman, or the fight doctor.
MMA is sometimes described as “anything goes” or “no-holds-barred” fighting, but this is not really an accurate description of the sport today. In the early days of modern MMA in the 1980s and ’90s, fights could indeed be brutal. It wasn’t uncommon for fighters to stomp on toes, pull hair, and employ other strategies you might see in a street brawl.
However, it wasn’t long before the major MMA promotions—like Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC)—developed more formal rules and outlawed certain techniques during fights. Gradually, MMA became more regulated, while still retaining its reputation for exciting fights. Not surprisingly, it quickly rose in popularity among sports spectators.
The origins of mixed martial arts are in Greece, at the time of the Greek empire. In the 600s BC, armies were trained in a type of combat sport that looked like boxing, street fighting, and wrestling together. As with modern MMA, kicking and hitting were permitted, while biting an opponent or gouging their eyes was not allowed. When a participant was knocked out or acknowledged defeat, the match was over. Some players still lost their lives during a fight.
This ancient combat sport was called pankration, and it was incorporated into the Olympics of that era, until it was banned by the Romans a few hundred years later.
Modern MMA-type fighting emerged in the 20th century. In Brazil, a sport that was introduced at a Rio de Janeiro jiu-jitsu school in 1925 was called vale tudo in Portuguese, or “anything goes.” Crowds in the country would pack soccer stadiums to cheer on challengers.
The famous martial artist, actor, and director Bruce Lee also played a key role in the global development of MMA. He pioneered a style of fighting that he called Jeet Kune Do, a hybrid of various martial arts. It was based on his philosophy that the best fighters are “formless”—they can adapt to any style. The 1976 Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki fight (“The War of the Worlds”) is also sometimes described as a pivotal event in the modern development of MMA, since it pitted a boxer (Ali) against a wrestler (Inoki); the fight ended in a draw.
In the West, the MMA really took off in the early 1990s with the creation of the UFC, now the largest MMA promotion in the world. The founders of UFC were inspired by the Brazilian Gracie family, who were known for teaching their own brutally effective style of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Fighters trained in Gracie jiu-jitsu defeated several other martial artists, including practitioners of karate, kung fu, and kickboxing.
Accordingly, the first UFC match, which took place in Denver, Colorado, in November 1993, was designed as a contest to see which martial art was better. Other early UFC matches followed this format. This meant that wrestlers would fight boxers and judokas would take on kickboxers, for instance.
The sport today
Today, MMA is not so much a matchup of martial artists from different disciplines, but its own distinct combat sport.
Over the years, the fighting styles characteristic of MMA have changed to include only three specific approaches. These are amateur wrestling, which uses takedowns and clinches, submission wrestling, which focuses on positioning on the ground and submissions; and finally, kickboxing, which employs striking. The skillsets used in these three disciplines prepare participants for ground fighting, clinch fighting, and stand-up fighting. Having expertise in all three fighting styles makes it easier for fighters to identify and exploit an opponent’s weaknesses and gain the upper hand in fights.
There are hundreds of MMA promotions around the world, but UFC is unquestionably the dominant one, with the highest-rated fighters. Worth upwards of $4 billion, UFC promotes events in 12 weight divisions, including eight men’s divisions and four women’s. In the US, pay-per-view UFC events are streamed on the ESPN+ channel—dozens of live events are produced each year. Tune in to the next one and enjoy the fight!