MMA is pretty mainstream nowadays. But I remember when I first started seeing the sport, around 1999. There they were, two guys in the UFC battling it out inside a caged octagon. It was creepy, rules were scarce; I always knew there were these "Vale-Tudo" (literally: anything goes) matches in Brazil, but I wasn't very interested in it. In fact, I wasn't interested in fighting at all. No boxing, no kick-boxing, no karate or other martial arts.
And the first UFC events were pretty barbaric. A thing that caught my attention, right from the start, were the submissions. Slick manoeuvres on the ground that made your opponent tap or risk getting choked out or getting a broken limb. It was, at the beginning of it all, Royce Gracie. A thin guy from Brazil who didn't actually look like a fighter. His family had been doing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for generations, and they were eager to show the world the effectiveness of their fighting art. Sure enough, Royce Gracie was able to get larger opponents to the ground, and then he was simply able to apply these weird techniques to win matches. The ground was like an ocean, Gracie's opponents didn't know how to swim, and Gracie himself was the shark. The first legend was born. The moment when he triangle choked Dan Severn? Legendary.
Who's better? A boxer or a karate fighter? A sumo practitioner or a jiu-jitsu black belt? A kick-boxer or a taekwondo master? A wrestler or a Kung-Fu athlete? Only in a setting with limited rules could these answers be tackled. Jiu-jitsu caught my eyes and it did three things: it showed that, when it comes to REAL fighting, not all martial arts are created equal; it showed that the fighting game had a "ground" side to it; and it did the utmost biggest revolution in martial arts since Bruce Lee. MMA - Mixed Martial Arts - was born.
Understandingly, the UFC came under fire. Fighters didn't wear gloves, and rules weren't exactly protective in order to ensure the safety of fighters. The UFC went underground and almost disappeared.
At the same time, in Japan, Antonio Inoki created Pride FC. Similar in rules to the UFC, Pride's matches took place inside conventional rings. These two federations are indeed the backbone of MMA. The attention of japanese fans was captured through the inclusion of some well-known japanese pro-wrestlers in matches. The biggest of them was Takada, Japan's Hulk Hogan. Takada was to face, in the first ever Pride event, the other jewel of the Gracie family: Rickson Gracie. Rickson won easily via armbar, and Pride FC was on its way.
By now, I was clearly hooked on the sport, catching Pride FC and UFC events, getting to know the stars and their styles of fighting. There was the slick Sakuraba, who was a grappling wizard. Mark Kerr and Mark Coleman were takedown specialists and brutal ground 'n pounders; also, they looked fearsome in their physiques. Ken Shamrock was coming back to the sport after his WWF/WWE stint. Igor Vovchanchin was a hard hitter. Wanderlei Silva was just coming onto the scene. Tito Ortiz was grabbing headlines as a "disrespectful punk" (Ken Shamrock, the Lion's Den) but also as a future champion. Frank Shamrock had beaten him and looked like the complete package.
In 2000, Pride FC had its big open-weight tournament. Mark Coleman won it, but the 90-minute marathon between Sakuraba and Royce Gracie grabbed the spotlight. In the end, Sakuraba outlasted Gracie... the "Gracie Killer" was born (he beat 4 Gracies, an outstanding feat at the time).
When the UFC was still somewhat underground, trying to legalize its operation in the US, Pride FC unveiled its first ever championship matches. At heavyweight, the BJJ wiz Antonio "Minotauro" Nogueira beat Heath Herring and at middleweight Wanderlei "The Axe Murderer" Silva beat Sakuraba. These two would rule their divisions with an iron fist.
The UFC and the Nevada State Athletic Commission came to an understanding. Open-handed gloves were to be worn, weight divisions created, certain safety rules came into play and rounds were introduced. Just in time.
Tito Ortiz was LHW champion and he had a score to settle with Ken Shamrock. Ortiz dominated... and dominated. Randy Couture lost his HW championship and seemed finished for good, as age doesn't stand still. A hillbilly called Matt Hughes had just won the middleweight championship... and we all know how that turned out; he was trained by Pat Miletich, a UFC legend. In Pride, tv commentary was made by Bas Rutten. That being said, former fighters were sticking around.
Chuck "The Iceman" Lidell burst onto the scene when beating the then highly-regarded Vitor "Phenom" Belfort. He was on a collision course with his former friend and training partner Tito Ortiz. But before that, he had to get past... Randy Couture, who returned, down in weight at LHW. Couture beat Lidell and Ortiz, and cemented his status as being another legend of the sport. A former HW champion who turned LHW champion? Incredible.
Around this time, another revolution in the sport occurred. Traditionally, guys coming from a boxing background stuck to striking while guys coming from a grappling background stuck to grappling. In reality? If the grappler was able to take the striker down, he would emerge victorious; if the striker was able to stay on his feet, the grappler would be in deep trouble. This was highly dangerous for a fighter, no matter how good. How to avoid this? Cross-train in various disciplines. Train striking (punches, kicks, knees, elbows), wrestling (takedowns and takedown defenses), grappling (positioning, submissions and their defenses), cardio (lots of it). Hybrid fighters were born or, better, full Mixed Martial Arts emerged. A fighter had to be complete, to succeed in the game.
Minotauro was finally upstaged by a certain russian named Fedor. Fedor was, and is, invincible. Chuck Lidell finally outgunned Randy "The Natural" Couture (even if Couture did come back to win the HW title again!). Frank Mir broke Tim Sylvia's arm. Minotauro beat the massive Bob Sapp and later submitted Mirko Cro-Cop; Cro-Cop learned submissions. Wanderlei Silva demolished Quinton "Rampage" Jackson... twice. New federations and organizations emerged (Cage Rage, IFL, WEC, etc), some bigger, some not so big.
Fedor won everything. Wanderlei too, at least until Dan Henderson caught up with him. K-1 introduced a "Heros" (misspelled on purpose) platform: events and matches with MMA rules. And Genki Sudo, for all his wackiness, was amazing.
The UFC created "The Ultimate Fighter" a reality show to determine the new UFC stars. The idea was great. Forrest Griffin, Stephan Bonnar, Rashad Evans, Joe Stevenson, Michael Bisping, were just some of the names that came out of that show, in its several seasons.
With Fedor dominating, new fighters emerging, and Dan Henderson capturing the MW crown, Pride FC went up for sale. Zuffa, the same company that owns the UFC, bought it. Things seemed great, as cross-promotional matches were in store. The failure to land a tv deal deemed the end for Pride FC. During its heyday, Pride FC was bigger than the UFC. A pity.
Former Pride FC fighters came into the UFC, and many have been having difficulties adjusting to the cage (and some of their ages aren't exactly helping, are they?). But Quinton "Rampage" Jackson was crowned the new LHW champion, by destroying the popular Chuck Lidell. Matt Hughes and Georges St. Pierre were involved in 3 great matches. Tito silenced Ken. Frank Mar came back, and it's ugly. Tim Sylvia recovered from his broken arm, and it wasn't that ugly. Anderson "The Spider" Silva left Cage Rage to demolish the UFC's MW division; in Pride FC, Silva was once submitted in one of the greatest moments ever, by Ryo Chonnan. Former WWE champion Brock Lesnar decided to try MMA out. Boxing champion Floyd Mayweather may be next.
MMA is mainstream, and far better than other fighting sports. The abundance of techniques involved is staggering. These guys are real athletes who are truly complete fighters, the total packages.
Thanks for the memories... and much, much more is yet to come.