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How Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) Has Changed Since UFC 1

Updated on August 13, 2020
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I have a BA in history and creative writing and an MA in history. I enjoy politics, movies, television, poker, video games, and trivia.

UFC Logo
UFC Logo

The First UFC Was Way Back in 1993. Things Have Changed.

Mixed Martial Arts has become incredibly popular around the world since it first debuted in the U.S. in 1993. That match occurred on November 12, 1993. That was UFC 1. Since then both fights and fighters have changed dramatically.

I am a fan of boxing and also like MMA. Boxing has changed little in a hundred years. However, MMA has changed dramatically since its debut.

This transformation in a sport over so little time is fascinating. I hope to show the differences between 1993 and now. Also, I want to look to the future. What can we expect from MMA?

Do you prefer the style of the current UFC or of an older UFC?

See results


This isn't meant to be a history of MMA. It's meant to be an analysis of how the UFC has changed during its short history. Thus, I can't be exhaustive discussing fights. I will use specific fights as examples.

UFC 1 was a tournament-style bout in which eight men started out in four separate bouts. The winners went 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. The organizers hoped to see which style 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. James Toney, a very accomplished boxer, did try recently. Randy Couture beat him easily.

Many fights were competitive in the early days of the UFC. However, that was because there were no weight classes. The main point of the whole thing seemed to be pitting competing styles against each other.

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.

One-Dimensional Brute Strength

The above fight between Tank Abbott and Kimbo Slice took place in 2008. It demonstrates how brute strength can succeed in MMA to some degree. However, it also shows how it can fail.

Abbott was a feared participant in early MMA bouts. He fought using a style classified as "street fighting". This basically means you're tough and strong. Here, he gets completely dominated by Slice.

There will always be a fascination with super-strong brutes with hard chins. However, that kind of fighter cannot survive in MMA any longer. The closest thing MMA has to that these days is Francis Ngannou. However, Ngannou is simply raw. He has skills and would demolish Kimbo Slice. Even Ngannou understands he needs to evolve as a fighter.

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. Though even Brock Lesnar didn't have enough skill to continue in MMA.

Kimbo Slice vs. Tank Abbott

The Interesting Case of Chuck Liddell

Anyone who has followed MMA for knows that Chuck Liddell was the face of the sport for a certain amount of time. He was 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's past and its future.

Liddell was 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. 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, several fighters knocked Liddell out. He suffered a fate similar to many boxers who slow down.

But let's be honest. No matter how good a fighter, once your skills diminish, somebody is going to come along and beat you. Somebody will beat Jon Jones eventually. Somebody will always come along and beat the best.

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

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.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Allen Donald


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