Thoughts on MMA Evolution
Early Prize Ring
The first coherent attempt to test the fighting skills of the day (standup wrestling and pugilism) in a sporting context against one another. Fighters were limited to fistifighting in standup and above-the-waist takedowns, but no groundfighting. However, this does represent the most accurate test of martial arts skills that would exist for quite some time.
Example Fighters: Mendoza, Cribb, Belcher, Pearce, Spring, Ward, Bendigo, Crawley, Mace, Caunt, Johnson, Jackson
First Mixed Matches
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, several boxer vs. wrestler, boxer vs. jiujitsu, and jiujitsu vs. wrestling bouts took place under modified rulesets. The boxer-wrestler bouts included such notables as Fitzsimmons and Johnson, but in general were not as widespread as MMA, and rules varied. They were, unfortunately, "novelty" matches, and wore off as soon as wrestling became fake and jiujitsu declined in popularity.
Example Fighters: Barton-Wright, Tani, Uyenishi, Yamashita, Miller, Dinnie, Hackenschmidt, Gotch, Burns, Fitzsimmons, Sullivan, Kilrain, Johnson
Age of Abstractions
During the mid-20th century, combat sports took something of a downward plunge as they retreated into their own specialized niches. Aside from rare exceptions like the Gracie challenge matches and Gene Lebell's battle with Milo Savage, combat sports were more insular. Boxing lost its grappling component, wrestling became a costume drama, karate (recently introduced) disallowed excessive contact, and judoka did not compete with other styles as readily. On the other hand, various martial arts DID get the opportunity for exposure on a wider (world) stage.
Example Fighters: Liston, Marciano, Foreman, Geesink, Bluming, Ruska, LeBell, Helio Gracie, Kimura, Lewis, Wallace, Norris, Mullins
Tentative Steps to Reality
From the 70's to the 90's, steps were taken to try to test the martial arts that had been specialized during the earlier periods. Karate became "Full Contact Karate", which morphed into American kickboxing. That, in turn, led to a kickboxing craze when Western full contact karateka met and were mostly destroyed by Muay Thai practitioners. Critics opined that kickboxing was the martial art of the future.
Example Fighters: Wilson, Cunningham, Lewis, Wallace, Urquidez, Dieselnoi
The Awakening--Early Modern MMA
The first Ultimate Fighting Championship ushered in the era of style vs. style matchups, and for the first time various fighting disciplines were able to consistently test themselves against one another under relatively neutral conditions. Gracie Jiujitsu, Sambo, Judo and wrestling seemed to be dominant here. Bareknuckles were used.
Example Fighters: Shamrock, Gracie, Abbott, Taktarov, Severn, Howard, Jennum, Ruas
The Spectacle--MMA STarts Organizing
With the introduction of early Pride FC matches, and more regulations in the UFC to improve rulesets, the dominance of the wrestlers and grapplers continued, but steps were being taken to turn MMA into something moderately closer to a sport. Fighters took the first steps toward creating the great training camps that would later dominate the MMA game (Lions' Den being an early prototype of what was to come). Cross-training was still quite limited, but at least now the fighters had a better idea of what they were up against.
Example Fighters: Rickson, Sakuraba, Frye, Coleman, Sakuraba, Goodridge, Vovchanchyn
The Sport of MMA
With increasing regulations and two relatively healthy competing sanctioning bodies, MMA became far more well-rounded than it initially was. Fighters began to become well-versed in more of the arts, and fighting began to take on a modern appearance. Pride crowned its first champions--Silva and Nogueira, both of whom were strong in one area (striking and grappling, respectively) whilst not necessarily weak in any other. This is the point at which the top-level fighters have become truly "mixed" martial artists, and MMA begins to assume its own character as a distinctive style (a blend of Muay Thai, Boxing, Freestyle, Catch, and BJJ).
Example Fighters: Silva, Crocop, Nogueira, Silva (the other one), Sylvia, Herring
We're at one of the closing stages of the evolution of MMA. With well-rounded MMA books becoming available (of which Penn's is the best example), the sport assuming mainstream appeal, more gyms popping up everywhere, the titles unifying, and a truly integrated fight game, we're near the end of the road. In times to come, fighters will be increasingly versatile and well-rounded athletes, with fewer and fewer glaring stylistic weaknesses to exploit. The first generation of purpose-built "Jacks of All Trades" are already coming off the production lines, and there are many more to come.
Example Fighters: Penn and Fedor are the best examples of the new, well-rounded bunch.
Any Future Developments?
One. I think that more martial arts that had previously been non-contact or non-sparring (Wing Chun, non-Tomiki Aikido, Shotokan, various other Kung Fu styles, some Jiujitsu styles) will implement increasingly "realistic" training and fighting competitions geared toward emphasizing their own unique styles. There are also a few martial arts (Worstel-Konst, vintage Japanese Jiujitsu, Pugilism, Bartitsu) that can be reconstructed. In time, these too can be integrated into the MMA curriculum. In the end, all martial arts will be a part of MMA, and MMA will be the totality of martial arts.
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Boxing News 24 Forum 2013