How Mixed Martial Arts Has Changed Since UFC 1

UFC Logo
UFC Logo

Since the beginning of televised mixed martial arts (MMA) fights in the United States with UFC 1 on November 12, 1993 in Denver, Colorado, MMA and the UFC have seen an amazing transformation in both its fights and its fighters. As a fan of boxing and its history, but somebody who also appreciates MMA, the transformation in so short a time has been quite fascinating to watch. A boxing match that took place 100 years ago is not so different from a boxing match that took place yesterday. However, in terms of technique and style, the typical UFC or MMA match is quite a bit different than those that took place less than twenty years ago. Yes, they look basically the same to the uneducated, but they are quite different. Both style and strategy have changed drastically over a very short span of time.

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UFC 1

This isn't meant to be a history of MMA so much as an analysis of how it has changed, so I won't be exhaustive with the detail of every fight I discuss.

UFC 1 was a tournament-style bout in which eight men started out in four separate bouts with the winners going on to another match until two men were left and a champion was crowned in a final bout. The original purpose of these fights was to pit one style against another to see which was superior in a one-on-one bout. In the video, Royce Gracie fights Art Jimmerson in a bout featuring Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu versus boxing.

Anybody who watches MMA today could easily guess the outcome of the fight. Gracie won the fight easily and ultimately the tournament. Today, the idea that any fighter with only boxing as his skill could enter an MMA fight and be competitive is ludicrous, though James Toney did try recently and was dominated by Randy Couture.

Though many fights were competitive in the early days of the UFC (particularly since there were no weight classifications), the main point of the whole thing seemed to be to showcase competing styles and see which one was better.

There was also the excitement of pitting a much smaller fighter with superior skills against a larger one with inferior skills. This happened many times until weight classifications were introduced, the fight between Royce Gracie and Kimo being one of the classics. That being said, raw fighters with brute strength and steel chins have been and continue to be a draw in MMA, though their longevity in the sport is usually short.


Kimbo Slice vs. Tank Abbott

One-Dimensional Brute Strength

The fight between Tank Abbott and Kimbo Slice, which took place in 2008, shows how brute strength can succeed to some degree in MMA, but also how it fails. Abbott, a feared participant in early MMA bouts for a style classified as "street fighting" gets dominated by Kimbo. In some respects, there will always be an appeal to the hard-chinned, chisled brute in MMA, but ultimately, that type of fighter cannot survive and will not survive as MMA evolves. The best fighters in MMA must be well-rounded, even in the heavyweight division. Sure, any strong fighter has a puncher's chance, but it will rarely be the case that another one-dimensional fighter like Abbott or Kimbo will rise in the MMA. There will be a lot fewer Kimbo Slice's and a lot more Brock Lesnar's in the future.

The Interesting Case of Chuck Liddell

Anyone who has been following MMA for the past few years knows that Chuck Liddell has been the face of the sport. He is an exciting fighter whose style basically guaranteed a dramatic ending to most of his fights.

It's that style, I think, that says a lot about where MMA has come and where it is going.

Liddell is primarily a stand-up fighter with virtually impenetrable take-down defense. During his title run, his style forced fighters with superior grappling skills to fight him standing up. This generally resulted in him knocking them out. Fighters like Tito Ortiz and Randy Couture lost to Liddell even though they were more well-rounded.

Although Liddell possessed more skills than any boxer, he still succumbed to the fate of most boxers, which was that somebody faster or stronger came along and knocked him out and beat him at his own game. Basically, he couldn't adjust to a fighter with superior stand-up skills. Including losing his title, Liddell has been knocked out several times and his career is basically over.

It has become obvious to most fighters that those that wish to succeed cannot rely on one specific style to overcome all obstacles.


Ground n' Pound vs. Stand-up

As the MMA has evolved, the fighters who are emerging as the most successful are the ones who have both a strong ground game and a strong stand-up game. Rarely does a successful fighter emerge these days who isn't skilled in many different martial arts tactics. Interestingly, where early MMA fights were dominated by those who could take the fight to the ground and dominate using their grappling skills, more MMA bouts now seem to resolve themselves with the contestants on their feet because most participants are so skilled on the ground, particularly defensively.

This is the dance that is going on in MMA right now as fighters look for any weakness. Those with superior skills in both stand-up and grappling, who can alter their style to combat their opponents weaknesses, are the ones who are succeeding.

Georges St. Pierre
Georges St. Pierre

Georges St. Pierre

There are many tremendous fighters in MMA, but perhaps the best is Georges St. Pierre, whose overall skills have helped him dominate the middleweight division.

During his emergence and eventual ascension to the championship, Pierre has demonstrated the kind of tenacity and development necessary to succeed in today's MMA. He is equally skilled fighting standing up or fighting on the ground and although he has lost the occasional bout, he continues to improve in both areas and now seems virtually unbeatable by anyone in his division. Like any fighter who trades punches with another fighter, Pierre may lose (the loss to Matt Serra is a good example), but overall, his skills give him an excellent chance to beat most anyone.


The Future of MMA

Grappling dominated MMA early on and has evolved as fighters have developed their skills in all facets of mixed martial arts. As a result, today's successful fighters have fewer weaknesses. Ironically, that has resulted in more stand-up fighting in many bouts. While these fights may look like simple boxing matches to the untrained fan, they are the result of increasing skill among the participants and a recognition by many that striking is the easiest way to victory.

I suspect there will be an ebb and flow to MMA as it evolves, with periods of grappling dominating then shifting back to striking. Ultimately, it should continue to be a very interesting sport.

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