MMA might seem like a ubiquitous mainstay of sports entertainment at local bars and restaurants, but only a few decades ago it was known mostly through limited VHS tapes– at least in the US. So how exactly did MMA get to become the juggernaut that it is and what can this tell us about where MMA goes from here?
Though current fans might know of MMA primarily through UFC, Bellator, or another organization, the sport, its modern roots can be traced back to catch wrestling popular at circuses. During the 60s and 70s, Bruce Lee helped popularize the philosophy of MMA in his Jeet-Kun-Do style that actively sought to use only the most effective techniques of a style without being chained to any specific philosophy or form.
This is also around the time that the first mixed-martial art fights started to gain the attention of the casual audience through major events that featured fighting stars like Muhammad Ali. That said, it was only in the early 90s that promotional organizations began to take notice of MMA’s potential leading to the development of Pancrase followed shortly thereafter by UFC.
Speaking of Pancrase and UFC, the spectacle that we see today only loosely resembles the rough production affairs those promotional companies could afford in their inception. However, UFC stood out even in these early years for its focus on not just MMA as a style but the classic notion of testing one fighting style versus another to see which one came out on top.
Harkening back to the romantic notion of competing martial arts schools, the first UFC tournaments were structured less as individual bouts and more like the iron-man tournaments of its time where fighters engaged in multiple fights throughout a night or couple of days. It is in these early tournaments that the nascent philosophy of MMA began to take root as Royce Gracie’s BJJ stole the show, winning 3 of the first 4 tournaments.
Rise of UFC
While those early tournaments did well broadcasting the message of MMA and expanding its visibility, they were also some of the most brutal televised fights in recent memory and earned the ire of fighting organizations across the US. By the late 90s, the future and current president of UFC, Dana White, saw the writing on the wall and reorganized the UFC into a more traditional fighting sport structure.
In doing so, Dana White made it so that UFC could be broadcast on standard cable channels and could host significantly more fights across the US. However, it was still the major Pay-Per-View events that continued to fuel both UFC and MMA’s awareness and popularity in public opinion.
In the mid-2000s, the UFC began its Spike TV series “The Ultimate Fighter,” a reality TV show where the contestants would train and compete to be named the Ultimate Fighter and earn a contract fighting for the UFC. Not only did this move bring the idea of UFC to millions of people across the country, but it also led to a surge in MMA with gyms and regional organizations opening up everywhere.
This is also the time that UFC’s parent company, Zuffa, began buying or merging with various other promotional companies in a move that will cement UFC’s position for decades to come. That said, the Great Recession stymied some of those early gains MMA saw as gyms began to close and potential fighters were unable to train– a state that MMA has yet to reclaim.
Shortly following UFC’s introduction to cable networks, MMA quickly became one of the most popular and watched sports in the US with their Pay-Per-View productions generating up to a million individual purchases. While UFC and various other promotional companies saw an increase in popularity and viewership, the gains in the general MMA community were modest compared to the leaps prior.
Still, UFC continues to be one of the biggest and most effective spokespeople for MMA with the fight between MMA darling Conner McGregor and 5-Division champion boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr drawing 50 million viewers. Over the 2010s, MMA also expanded its audience and appeal further by increasing support for women’s MMA with participation levels getting close to equal for men and women.
As it stands, no other fighting event can compete with MMA for larger Pay-Per-View events and even shows well on casual cable events. UFC’s continued acquisition of competing promotional companies allows it to expand its reach into new markets and advertise MMA with a professional appeal it could not boast just a decade prior.
Still, MMA has a long way to go before it can compete with football as an interest in the US, but there is a path for it catching up to the NBA or NHL in both viewership and profits. Even now with the threat of a global pandemic, MMA continues to increase its accessibility and recognition as one of the few sporting events that can continue to host events to people eager for organized sports.
While MMA had humble origins with performance and brutality, the current evolution of the sport maintains its upward trajectory, though its speed has tempered a bit. Not only does this mean that you can regularly enjoy MMA content, but there is probably a gym nearby that trains fighters if not actively competes in regional events.
There is no reason to believe that, through the UFC, MMA will not continue to gain more renown and increase its popularity to the point that the average person knows who the champions are at any given moment.
Niko Bellic, also known as the MMA Sentinel, is a blog writer and avid martial arts fan. Obsessed with the practical, real-world applications of MMA, his mission is to help as many people on their martial arts journey as he can.