Mixed Martial Arts

Mixed martial arts (MMA) is a combat sport in which a wide variety of fighting techniques are used, including striking and grappling. Modern mixed martial arts tournaments as a popular phenomenon emerged in 1993 with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, based on the concept of pitting different fighting styles against each other in competition with minimal rules in place, in an attempt to determine which system would be more effective in a real, unregulated combat situation.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, mixed martial arts events implemented additional rules for the safety of the athletes and to promote acceptance of the sport, while maintaining as much of the original no-holds-barred concept as possible. Since these changes, the sport has grown rapidly, to the point of setting pay-per-view records.

The history of the modern MMA event can be traced to the Gracie family’s vale tudo martial arts tournaments in Brazil starting in the 1920s, and early mixed martial arts matches hosted by Antonio Inoki in Japan in the 1970s.

The fighting concept of combining various combat disciplines gained popularity in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the emergence of Bruce Lee and his theories of mixing various martial art styles.

The sport gained international exposure and widespread publicity in the United States in 1993, when Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighter Royce Gracie dominated the Ultimate Fighting Championship, sparking a revolution in the martial arts, while in Japan the continued interest in the sport resulted in the creation of the PRIDE Fighting Championships in 1997.

Overview: Though rules have been adopted, there is no general sanctioning body for the sport, and the sets of rules vary according to the laws of individual organizations and localities.

It was thought that Olympic recognition would be forthcoming for the 2004 Summer Olympics, held in Athens, under the banner of pankration. However, the International Olympic Committee was unconvinced that Greece could handle the total number of sports proposed. To placate the IOC, the organizers removed all new medal sports and pankration missed out.

The techniques utilized in mixed martial arts competition generally fall into two categories: striking techniques (such as kicks, knees and punches) and grappling techniques (such as clinch holds, pinning holds, submission holds, sweeps, takedowns and throws). Some unarmed hand to hand combat techniques are considered illegal in most or all modern competition, such as biting, eye-gouging, fish-hooking and small joint manipulation. Over the last ten years, strikes to the groin have become illegal in all sanctioned organizations. The legality of other techniques such as elbows, headbutts and spinal locks vary according to competition or organization.

A victory in a bout is normally gained by the judges’ decision after an allotted amount of time has elapsed, a stoppage by the referee or the fight doctor (in the event that the competitor is injured or can no longer defend himself intelligently), a submission, by a competitor’s cornerman throwing in the towel, or by knockout.

While competition in the sport is occasionally depicted as brutal by the media, there has never been a death or crippling injury in a sanctioned event in North America. The only verified fatality in competition is the 1998 death of Douglas Dedge in an unsanctioned fight in Ukraine. There are unconfirmed reports that Dedge had a pre-existing medical condition.

History Pre-modern: One of the earliest forms of widespread unarmed combat sports with minimal rules was Greek pankration, which was introduced into the Olympic Games in 648 B.C. Pankration, the most extreme combat sport, spread throughout the Roman Empire, participated in by free citizens. Even as late as the Early Middle Ages, statues were put up in Rome and other cities to honour remarkable pankratiasts.

No-holds-barred events reportedly took place in the late 1800s when wrestlers representing a huge range of fighting styles including various catch wrestling styles, Greco-Roman wrestling and many others met in tournaments and music-hall challenge matches throughout Europe. The first major encounter between a boxer and a wrestler in modern times took place in 1887 when John L. Sullivan, then heavyweight world boxing champion, entered the ring with his trainer, Greco-Roman wrestling champion William Muldoon, and was slammed to the mat in two minutes.

The next publicized encounter occurred in the late 1890s when future heavyweight boxing champion Bob Fitzsimmons took on European Greco-Roman wrestling champion Ernest Roeber. Reportedly, Roeber suffered a fractured cheekbone in this bout, but was able to get Fitzsimmons down on the mat, where he applied an armlock and made the boxer submit. In 1936, heavyweight boxing contender Kingfish Levinsky and veteran professional wrestler Ray Steele competed in a mixed match, which Steele won in 35 seconds.

Another early example of mixed martial arts combat was the martial art of Bartitsu, founded in London in 1899, which was the first martial art known to have combined Asian and European fighting styles, and which saw MMA-style contests throughout England, pitting European and Japanese champions against representatives of various European wrestling styles.

Boxing vs. jujutsu contests were popular entertainments throughout Europe, Japan and the Pacific Rim during the early 1900s. In Japan these contests were known as Merikan, from the Japanese slang for “American [fighting]”. Merikan contests were fought under a variety of rules including points decision, best of three throws or knockdowns, and victory via knockout or submission.

Professional wrestling died out after World War I and was reborn in two streams: “shoot”, in which the fighters actually competed, and “show,” which evolved into modern sports entertainment professional wrestling.

Modern: Modern mixed martial arts tournaments are rooted in two interconnected movements. First were the vale tudo events in Brazil, followed by the Japanese shoot wrestling shows. Vale tudo began in the 1920s with the “Gracie challenge” issued by Carlos Gracie and Hélio Gracie and upheld later on by descendants of the Gracie family.

In Japan in the 1970s, a series of mixed martial arts matches were hosted by Antonio Inoki, inspiring the shoot-style movement in Japanese professional wrestling, which eventually led to the formation of the first mixed martial arts organizations, such as Shooto, which was formed in 1985. The concept of combining the elements of multiple martial arts was pioneered and popularized by Bruce Lee in the late 1960’s to early 1970’s. Lee believed that “the best fighter is not a Boxer, Karate or Judo man. The best fighter is someone who can adapt to any style.” His innovative concepts have been recognized by UFC President Dana White, who called him the “father of mixed martial arts.”

Mixed martial arts gained significant international exposure and widespread publicity in the United States in 1993, when Royce Gracie won the first Ultimate Fighting Championship, sparking a revolution in the martial arts. In Japan in 1997, the continued interest in the sport eventually resulted in the creation of the PRIDE Fighting Championships.

The United States Army began to sanction Mixed Martial arts when the US Army Combatives School held the first annual All Army Combatives Championships in Nov 2005.

The sport reached a new peak of popularity in the December 2006 rematch between then light-heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell and former champion Tito Ortiz, rivaling the PPV sales of some of the biggest boxing events of all time, and helping the UFC’s 2006 PPV gross surpass that of any promotion in PPV history. In 2007, Zuffa LLC, the owners of UFC, bought PRIDE, creating strong ties between the sport’s two largest promoters, and drawing comparisons to the consolidation that occurred in other sports, such as the AFL-NFL Merger in American football.

Evolution of fighters: As a result of sporting events, martial arts training, information sharing, and modern kinesiology, the understanding of the combat-effectiveness of various strategies has been argued to have evolved more in the ten years following 1993 than in the preceding 700 years.

The early years of the sport saw a wide variety of traditional styles—everything from sumo to kickboxing— and the continual evolution of the sport has gradually eliminated less effective techniques and “pure” styles, usually because specialized fighters were lacking in skills to deal with broader techniques.

In the early 1990s, three styles stood out for their effectiveness in competition: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, amateur wrestling and shoot wrestling. This may be attributable in part to the grappling emphasis of the aforementioned styles, which, perhaps due to the scarcity of mixed martial arts competitions prior to the early 90s, had been neglected by most practitioners of striking-based arts.

Fighters who combined amateur wrestling with striking techniques dominated the standing portion of a fight, whilst Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu stylists had a distinct advantage on the ground: those unfamiliar with submission grappling proved to be unprepared to deal with its submission techniques. Shoot wrestling practitioners offered a balance of amateur wrestling ability and catch wrestling based submissions, resulting in a generally well-rounded set of skills. The shoot wrestlers were especially successful in Japan, where this style initially dominated others.

As competitions became more and more common, those with a base in striking became more competitive as they acquainted themselves with takedowns and submission holds, leading to notable upsets against the then dominant grapplers. Subsequently, those from the varying grappling styles learned from each other’s strengths and shortcomings, and added striking techniques to their arsenal. This overall development of increased cross-training resulted in the fighters becoming increasingly multi-dimensional and well-rounded in their skills.

Phases of combat: Training: Today, mixed martial artists train in a variety of styles that have been proven effective in the ring, so that they can be effective in all the phases of combat. Although fighters will try to play to their particular specialties, they will inevitably encounter all kinds of situations; a stand-up fighting specialist will probably get taken down at some point and a submission artist might need to fight standing-up for a while before he can execute a takedown. A mixed martial artist might train in a particular style to enhance his or her skills in the phase of combat that that style targets. Typical styles, known for their effectiveness, that have been trained prior to the mixed martial arts career, and that are trained individually to enhance a particular phase of combat, are:

  • Stand-up: Boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai, and/or forms of full contact karate are trained to improve footwork, elbowing, kicking, kneeing and punching.
  • Clinch: Freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling, Sambo, and Judo are trained to improve clinching, takedowns and throws, while Muay Thai is trained to improve the striking aspect of the clinch.
  • Ground: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, shoot wrestling, catch wrestling, Judo, and Sambo are trained to improve submission holds, and defense against them. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, pankration, and styles of amateur wrestling are trained to improve positioning and maintain ground control.

Many styles have to be adapted slightly for use in the sport. For example, several boxing stances are ineffective because they leave fighters vulnerable to leg kicks or takedowns. Similarly, Judo techniques have to be adapted to an opponent not wearing a judogi. Usually, modern fighters do not train in any particular style, but either train in multiple styles with multiple coaches, or train in teams with other athletes focusing specifically on competition.

Energy system training, speed drills, strength training and flexibility are also important aspects of an MMA fighter’s training. Mixed martial arts competition is very demanding physically, and the athletes need to be in top condition to be successful.

While mixed martial arts was initially practiced almost exclusively by competitive fighters, this is no longer the case. As the sport has become more mainstream and more widely taught, it has become accessible to wider range of practitioners of all ages. Proponents of this sort of training argue that it is safe for anyone, of any age, with varying levels of competitiveness.

Strategies: The following are various nicknames applied to different fighting styles. Although fighters are usually much more versed in one fighting style such as Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, wrestling, Judo, and other martial arts, the following terms are used to describe how a particular fighter is attempting to accomplish a particular victory. For instance, BJ Penn and Fedor Emelianenko score victories both striking, “ground and pounding,” and submitting, depending on the strengths of their opponents. Furthermore, some styles are not complete styles; rather, they are merely phases in a fighter’s game.

Sprawl-and-brawl: Sprawl-and-brawl is a stand-up fighting tactic that consists of effective stand-up striking, while avoiding ground fighting, typically by using sprawls to defend against takedowns.

A sprawl-and-brawler is usually a boxer, kickboxer, Thai boxer and/or full contact karate fighter who has trained in wrestling to avoid takedowns and tries to keep the fight standing. Usually these fighters will study enough submission wrestling so that in the unfortunate event that they are taken down to the ground, they can tie their opponents up and survive long enough to either get back to standing or until the referee restarts the fight. This style is deceptively different from regular kickboxing styles, since sprawl-and-brawlers must adapt their techniques to incorporate takedown and ground fighting defense.

Clinch fighting: Clinch fighting and “Dirty boxing” are tactics consisting of using a clinch hold to prevent the opponent from moving away into more distant striking range, while at the same time attempting takedowns and striking the opponent using knees, stomps, elbows, and punches.

The clinch is usually utilized by wrestlers that have added in components of the striking game (typically boxing), and Muay Thai fighters. Often, wrestlers that have added the striking game are partial to strikes from within the clinch, particularly wrestlers who have already developed a strong clinch game. In the case that an exchange on the feet does not go in their favor, they can bring the fight to the ground quickly as their true expertise lies in wrestling, so they are ultimately less timid about trading blows. Through the use of Greco-Roman clinching techniques and Muay Thai strikes, neck clinching and body locks clinch fighting could be used to devastate ill-prepared opponents.

Wrestling components include pummeling and underhooking arms along with “bodylocking” the waist. Pummelling is commonly learned as a drill and is similar to the “snaking hands” drill used for practicing the neck or “plumb” clinch. With pummeling, the back of the head – not the neck – is used for greater leverage.

Muay Thai typically employs the plumb clinch where the back of the head is held. From here one can knee, wrestle, stomp the feet and calf, or perform Greco-Roman style trips using the feet and knees as leverage, much like trips and slams in Greco-Roman wrestling. Thai boxers will also clinch or bodylock the waist and either perform throws or force the opponent to the floor using their chin into the opponents chest as the force and the bodylock as the fulcrum, with the legs providing thrust.

Ground-and-pound: Ground-and-pound is a ground fighting tactic consisting of taking an opponent to the ground using a takedown or throw, obtaining a top position, and then striking the opponent. Ground-and-pound is also used as a precursor to attempting submission holds.

This style is used by wrestlers or other fighters well-versed in defending submission holds and skilled at takedowns. They take the fight to the ground, maintain a grappling position, and strike until their opponent submits, is knocked out or is cut so badly that the fight can not continue. Although not traditionally considered a conventional method of striking, the effectiveness and reliability (as well as recently-developing science) of this style is proven. Originally, most fighters who relied on striking on the ground were wrestlers, but considering how many fights end up on the ground and how increasingly competitive today’s MMA is, strikes on the ground are becoming more essential to a fighter’s training.

Submission grappling: Apart from being a general martial arts term, submission grappling is also a reference to the ground fighting tactic consisting of taking an opponent to the ground using a takedown or throw, obtaining a dominant position, and then applying a submission hold to defeat the opponent. Some submission grapplers are also content to work from the bottom position because they are confident that they can find a way to secure a submission. They will sometimes fall back into the guard position, dragging the opponent with them. This is known as “pulling guard.”

Submissions are an essential part of many disciplines, most notably Catch wrestling, Judo, Sambo, Pankration, Army Combatives and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Fighters with a strong background in these sports often use submission grappling as a tactic to win their fights. An example of a submission grappling tournament is ADCC.

Lay-and-pray: “Lay-and-Pray” is a derogatory term for a strategy sometimes used by fighters who can take an opponent down but are not adept at finishing moves such as the strikes of Ground-and-Pound or Submissions to continue offense from the gained position. They seek to maintain control of positioning and smother any offense by the opponent, yet mount little or no offense themselves, hoping for a decision win. In some MMA organizations, fines can be imposed for lay-and-pray techniques when the referee determines that the fighter is stalling. Less commonly, the term has been applied to a defensive strategy in which a striking-based fighter who has been taken down and seeks to cause a stalemate in the action by tying up the opponent and “praying” for the round to end or a stand up by the referee so that they can continue with a striking offense.

Rules: The rules for most mixed martial arts competitions have evolved since the early days of vale tudo. As the knowledge about fighting techniques spread among fighters and spectators, it became clear that the original minimalist rule systems needed to be amended.

One of the main motivations for these rule changes included the protection of the perceived health of the fighters—this was motivated by a desire to clear the stigma of “barbaric, no rules, fighting-to-the-death” matches that MMA obtained because of its vale tudo and no holds barred roots. It also helped athletes avoid injuries which would otherwise hamper the training regimens that improve skill and ability and lead to better fights in the future. The changes were also made for entertainment value—they promoted good fighters involved in action-packed fights rather than unskilled “street brawls.”

Weight classes emerged when knowledge about submissions spread. When more fighters became well-versed in submission techniques and avoiding submissions, differences in weight became a substantial factor. Weight classes can vary widely between organizations.

Headbutts were prohibited in many MMA organizations because it was a technique that required little effort and could quickly turn the match into a bloody mess; in short the visible cuts created were disproportionate to the amount of actual damage. Headbutting was common among wrestlers because their skill in takedowns allowed them to quickly transfer bouts to the ground where they could assault opponents with headbutts while not being required to alter their position.

Small, open-fingered gloves were introduced to protect fists in punches. Although some fighters may have well conditioned fists, others may not. The small bones in an unprotected and unconditioned fist are prone to injury when it hits a torso or forehead with power. Gloves also reduce the occurrence of cuts (and stoppages due to cuts) and encourage fighters to use their hands for striking, both of which enable more captivating matches.

Time limits were established to avoid long fights on the ground with little perceivable action. Matches without time limits also complicated the airing of live events. Similar motivations produced the “stand up” rule, where the referee can stand fighters up if it is perceived both are resting on the ground or are not advancing toward a dominant position.

In the U.S., state athletic and boxing commissions have played a crucial role in the introduction of additional rules because they oversee MMA in similar ways as they do for boxing. Small shows usually use more restrictive rules because they have less experienced fighters who are looking to acquire experience and exposure that could ultimately lead them to getting recruited into one of the larger, better paying promotions.

In Japan and Europe, there is no regulating authority over competitions, so these organizations have greater freedom in rule development and event structure.

In general, a balanced set of rules with organization-specific variances has been established and is widely used, and major rule changes are unlikely, allowing for fighters in one organization to transition to others easily.

Ways to victory: Although rules differ among promotions, these are the basic regulations which most will follow.

  • Knockout: as soon as a fighter becomes unconscious due to strikes, his opponent is declared the winner. Since ground fighting is allowed, the fight is stopped to prevent further injury to an unconscious fighter. In some promotions, knockout is not a valid method of victory.
  • Submission: a fighter may admit defeat during a match by tapping three times on his opponent’s body, on the mat or floor, or by verbal announcement.
  • Technical knockout: the referee may stop a match in progress if a fighter becomes dominant to the point where the opponent is unable to intelligently defend himself from attacks, appears to be unconscious from a grappling hold, or appears to have developed significant injuries, such as a broken limb. If a fighter’s ability to continue is in question as a result of apparent injuries (such as a large cut), the referee will call for a time out and a ring doctor will inspect the fighter and stop the match if the fighter is deemed unable to continue safely, rendering the opponent the winner. However, if the match is stopped as a result of an injury from illegal actions by the opponent, either a disqualification or no contest will be issued instead. In order to avoid doctor stoppages, fighters employ cutmen, whose job is to treat cuts and hematomas between rounds to prevent them from becoming significant enough to cause a doctor stoppage. A fighter’s cornermen may also announce defeat on the fighter’s behalf by throwing in the towel during the match in progress or between rounds.
  • Decision: if the match goes the distance, then the outcome of the bout is determined by three judges using the 10-point must system. The judging criteria are organization-specific.
  • Disqualification: a warning will be given when a fighter commits a foul or illegal action or does not follow the referee’s instruction. Three warnings will result in a disqualification. Moreover, if a fighter is injured and unable to continue due to a deliberate illegal technique from his opponent, the opponent will be disqualified.
  • No contest: in the event that both fighters commit a violation of the rules, or a fighter is unable to continue due to an injury from an accidental illegal technique, the match will be declared a no contest.

Common fouls:

  • Headbutting, eye gouging, hair pulling, biting or fish-hooking.
  • Attacking the groin or trachea, or striking the back of the head, spinal area, or kidneys.
  • Clawing, twisting, or pinching the flesh.
  • Small joint manipulation (control of three or more digits is necessary).
  • Attacking an opponent on or from the break, or who is under the care of an official.
  • Intentionally exiting or throwing your opponent out of the area of combat.
  • Holding the ring ropes or fence.
  • Spitting on the opponent or referee.
  • Timidity—in some promotions fighters can be penalized for lack of aggression or faking an injury.
  • Use of abusive language when inside the area of combat directed at either the opponent or the official.
  • Spiking another fighter on their head if not thrown.