When you think of popular sports, you immediately assume hundreds of years of tradition and development has led to the point where the game is global in its popularity today. In Ireland the Gaelic Athletic Association began on 1884 to organise and bring formal rules to the gaelic sports like hurling, football and handball. These sports were already hundreds of years old by the time the GAA was set up. The Football Association in England was formed in 1863 and is the oldest football association in the world. While variations of the games existed before this, the FA laid down the ground rules for the game that is played by 250 million players in over 200 countries today, making it the world’s most popular sport.
And then there’s fighting. For many it’s still not considered a sport. But, for those in the know, Mixed Martial Arts is the fastest growing sport in the world and one of the most popular. What some people might find surprising is the MMA is also steeped in history that date back to the ancient Olympics in Greece.
Check out the Infographic inspired by this article: UFC Infographic – From Warrior Tradition to Global Digital Domination!
Pankration – ‘Total Combat’
Pankration was a sporting event introduced into the Ancient Greek Olympic Games around 648 BC. Based on historic artefacts and artwork, evidence suggests that pankration, in both its sporting form and its combative form, may have been practiced in Greece from as early as 2000 BC. In Greek mythology, it was said that the heroes Heracles/Hercules and Theseus invented pankration as a result of using both wrestling and boxing in their confrontations with opponents. Theseus was said to have utilized his extraordinary pankration skills to defeat the dreaded Minotaur in the Labyrinth. While Heracles killed the Nemean lion using a pankration choke hold.
In Greek, the term pankration means “all strength, might, power” and “total combat”. The rules were limited to things you couldn’t do like biting and gouging of the opponent’s eyes. After that everything else was permitted. Pankration continued to be part of the Ancient Olympic Games until the emperor Theodosius suppressed them in 394 AD. Greece was now part of the Roman Empire and fell under the campaign to impose Christianity as the religion of the Empire. With all it’s mythological heritage the Games were too ungodly to be allowed continue.
Banned for the first time
Centuries later a movement was created to reignite the Olympic movement. In 1895 Pierre-Hector Coullié, archbishop of Lyon, voiced his official decision on the reinstatement of sports to Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the Modern Olympic Games, by stating “Nous acceptons tout, sauf le pancrace / We accept all, except pankration”.
And so Pankration and fighting as a sporting spectacle were taken underground. Throughout the twentieth century small disparate strands were growing around the world that would eventually re-launch Pankration or Mixed Martial Arts as we know it today.
In Brazil the Gracie family in the 1920’s began experimenting with the Japanese martial art Jiu Jitzu. Helio and Carlos Gracie would eventually create the art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. They immediately set about trying to popularize their hand to hand combat system by challenging other prominent martial artists. The Gracie Challenge was born.
As more and more Gracie Academies started to spring up around Brazil, black belts from the academies would welcome ‘total combat’ matches with martial artists from other disciplines to show the power of BJJ. Led by Gracie family members the Gracie Challenge became so popular that events were held in arenas to allow spectators view the contest.
Decades later Helio’s son Rorion was teaching BJJ out of his garage in Torrance, California. While he had a steady stream of students, the numbers weren’t providing him with a sustainable means of living. He needed to reach out to the masses to promote his family’s fighting system and try and make so real money while he was at it.
Birth of a Sport
In Denver, Colorado in 1993 Rorion successfully broadcast an infomercial for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. It would be an eight man elimination tournament taking fighters from different styles including his brother Royce Gracie to represent BJJ. The infomercial was to be called the Ultimate Fighting Championship. It was broadcast live on Pay-Per-View television across the US and sold on VHS after the event.
What started out as a publicity stunt for a martial art that night turned into a global sporting phenomenon. Many people believe modern Pankration or Mixed Martial Arts began in November, 1993 at UFC 1. Royce Gracie sweep all before him and the $50,000 prize money.
Coincidentally, over in Japan Mixed Martial Arts was beginning to evolve from the vibrant traditional martial arts and professional wrestling scene. The Shooto organisation, created in 1985, held the first professional MMA event in Japan in 1989 and is still active today.
Pancrase hybrid wrestling was formed in April 1993 by two Japanese professional wrestlers Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki who were disillusioned with the scripted outcomes to matches. They created something similar to Shooto and rolled it out to the mainstream media in Tokyo who lapped it up. The ripples created by the UFC, Shooto and Pancrase began to roll around the world gathering momentum. While the mainstream media were slow to accept MMA, there was a burgeoning underground movement forming. MMA traveled different paths from the 1990’s.
To the brink and back again
In the Far East, particularly Japan, the sport went from strength to strength. Pride Fighting Championship was created in 1997 and by the mid 2000’s was regularly selling out 40-50,000 seater stadia. MMA fighters were massive celebrities and were getting well paid for their fights and with endorsement deals.
In the US, MMA and the UFC struggled to breakout from their underground stronghold. Banned in nearly every US state, the UFC was on the point of extinction in 2001 before being bought by the current owners Zuffa LLC. Led by Dana White and the Fertitta brothers, Lorenzo and Frank, Zuffa poured tens or millions of dollars to try and ignite the UFC and MMA. Their underground support was unwavering but the mainstream media establishment kept the doors firmly closed.
2005 was a seminal year in the history of the UFC. In a last ditch ‘Hail Mary’ play the UFC created and produced a reality show, The Ultimate Fighter. The show featured up and coming MMA fighters living together in a Las Vegas mansion. It followed them as they trained and competed against each other for a prized six figure contract with the UFC. The show was broadcast on Spike TV including the Finale between Stephan Bonnar and winner Forest Griffin.
For three rounds, Bonnar and Griffin battled in a non-stop, ‘tooth and nail’ now legendary fight. To many critics and fans it showed the true competitive nature of MMA. It also showed the deep respectful nature within MMA as both fighters celebrated together as if knowing they had taken part in something historic. Though he lost, Bonnar was also rewarded with a UFC contract and would go on to have a long career with the organisation.
Watched by millions on Spike TV, the TUF Finale between Griffin and Bonnar is celebrated as the turning point for the UFC and MMA in west. However, there was other things going on that have helped popularise the sport, which continue today.
In February 2005 YouTube came into being. Around the same time the digital phenomenon of social media was growing in popularity. While the mainstream media and the authorities were forcing MMA and the UFC underground, the fans were gathering online to discuss and share the love for MMA.
With support grass roots growing, the UFC began to slowly crawl their way back from the brink. It was still another six years before the UFC penned its deal with Fox Sports in the US. The first event for television was UFC on Fox: Velasquez vs. Dos Santos. The broadcast peaked at 8.8 million viewers and had an average audience of 5.7 million. It became the most watched MMA event of all-time and the most watched combat sports event since 2003’s HBO bout between Lennox Lewis and Vitaly Klitschko.
In between the TUF Finale in 2005 and the Fox deal in 2011, the UFC and MMA had become an internet sensation. Because of the lack of coverage by mainstream media websites and fan forums became the number one place for MMA fans to find out about their sport. While mass media websites enjoy popularity with the traditional sports, MMA fans have stayed loyal to the MMA websites that were bringing them news when the sport was underground. In fact many mass websites still don’t cover MMA today.
YouTube, video sharing websites and social media also had a huge role to play. As MMA coverage on TV was scant to say the least fans would upload coverage, albeit sometimes illegally, where people could view past events. Social media made it easier for fans to find each other and connect with the fighters and organisations in MMA.
Global domination through Digital Media
Today the UFC is an established brand globally. It produces more than 40 live events annually that consistently sell out some of the most prestigious arenas around the globe. UFC programming is broadcast in 129 countries and territories to nearly 800 million TV households worldwide in 28 different languages.
In addition to the multi-year broadcast agreement with FOX in the U.S., the UFC has a variety of multi-year broadcast agreements with some of the biggest networks throughout Europe, Middle East and Africa, including BT Sport, TV12, C More, Abu Dhabi Media, Setanta, VGTRK, NOVE Sport, FOX Netherlands and Kombat Sport. The TV deals have only come in the last few years but the popularity has been growing before the mainstream media were paying attention. Rather than get bogged down with the lack of attention the UFC embraced the digital media and created a loyal following of online fans.
Fighters are awarded social media bonuses each quarter for creating engaging content with their followers. Their YouTube channel is regularly updated with original content and free fights from their back catalogue. The latest venture is a digital platform. ‘Fight Pass’ subscribers around the world can now legitimately see UFC fights and other content regardless of whether there is a TV deal in their region or not.
The revolution doesn’t have to be televised
In every new region the UFC enters there are a throng of adoring fans to greet them. Without fail this catches the mainstream media by surprise every time. They must think ‘How can this be so popular if we’re not covering it?’ For most traditional sports the fans grew up watching their game on TV. MMA fans live on the internet, which at one time was the only place you could find out about the sport if you weren’t in the arena.
The success of the UFC is proof positive that we are living in a new age of communication. Twenty years ago mainstream media coverage was essential for a sport to survive and thrive. In the last ten years the UFC has proved you can not only survive without it you can thrive by using digital solutions to reach your fans as an alternative.