How Did MMA Become So Popular Today?

Lance Cpl. George R. Lockhart (right), radio r...
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Demand for MMA-style sporting events has been apparent throughout history. Although the modern, professional version of MMA that you see on television has its roots in the late 1980s and 1990s, the sport has existed in some form since the Greco-Roman era. Here is a quick look into the history of MMA and how it got to where it is today.

During the ancient Olympics, a fighting sport included grappling and striking. Early variants of MMA also appeared in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Bartitsu, a fighting art developed in 1898, featured a range of martial art styles mixed into one system, and its practitioners organized MMA-style contests throughout England.

Bruce Lee, intentionally or not, also popularized the sport after famously saying the best fighter was able to “adapt to any style, to be formless, to adopt an individual’s own style” and not follow just one “system of styles.” Other martial arts superstars such as Jackie Chan trained rigorously in various styles and acrobatics. The great martial arts films helped change perspectives on martial arts – adding much prestige, but also making them much cooler than before. Such films not only boosted the popularity of martial arts tenfold but also introduced a new fighting philosophy for existing martial artists to consider.

For years, the biggest, most undisputed fighting sport was, and probably still is, boxing. Boxing’s greatest fighters, such as Ali or Frazier, almost ruled the world with their popularity and influence. The sport’s vast appeal meant other fighting sports stood little to no chance of competing with it.

Traditional martial arts tournaments are, of course, unpopular on television. They are not flashy or exciting except to those well versed in the sport, and they are often too formalized for the average viewer. MMA completely avoided this. Instead, it took martial arts legends and threw them into the ring. The result was a varied and interesting sport, with an entertainment value not so dependant on the viewer’s knowledge of martial arts.

MMA provided a strong alternative to boxing, yet emulated boxing’s most appealing aspects at the same time. The atmosphere of the ring was retained, as were knockouts, and MMA’s greatest champions were heavily popularized. Yet no longer were fights just flurries of fists – fighters specializing in significantly different fighting styles gave the sport freshness and variety.

Finally, MMA has now become an internationally recognized sport, even featured on prime time television on Fox, but it wasn’t easy. When the UFC first started, it received many complaints over the “no holds barred” style of rules of mixed martial arts; back then, the only fighting techniques disallowed were biting, eye-gouging, and groin strikes. Senator John McCain even led a campaign to ban the sport, calling it “human cock fighting.”

However, the UFC and state athletic commissions have since cleaned up the rules of the sport. MMA is now heavily regulated, and for good reason. Barbaric fighting practices such as fish-hooking or small-joint manipulation are now banned, meaning the sport is safer, more skillful, and very much acceptable to mainstream media. The sport is even being considered for the Olympics.

All this shows that MMA is becoming a mainstream, widely-recognized sport. Not everyone is going to like it, and there are still some obstacles to overcome before MMA is on the level of football or soccer, but it is getting there.

William Barnes is a huge MMA fan. When he’s not watching the latest UFC event, he is probably writing for The MMA Fan Guide, an MMA site by MMA fans, for MMA fans.

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