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A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Mixed Martial Arts Competition
By Erich Krauss, Bret Aita, Mary Williams
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2002 Erich Krauss and Bret Aita
All rights reserved.
From the Arena to the Ring
Over two thousand years ago, in the dusty arena of the Greek Olympics, a hero named Arrachion engaged a dangerous competitor in no-holds-barred, hand-to-hand combat before a crowd of thousands. After a lengthy and brutal battle, Arrachion got caught in a crushing choke hold. His pride and valor would not let him submit, however, and even as he found himself fading to black he struggled to put his foe away. When nothing else presented itself, he seized his adversary's toe and wrenched it back. The pain made his opponent submit, but not soon enough. As the fighters were untangled, Arrachion was discovered to be dead, apparently of asphyxiation—but because his opponent had submitted first, the deceased Arrachion was declared the victor, and his memory has lived on through the ages.
For thousands of years, soldiers have tested their hand-to-hand combat skills in war, transforming their bodies into effective and deadly weapons. Although there were those who survived to become heroes, the bloodstained battlefield was a harsh proving ground, and eventually the ways of war were turned into sport so combatants could test their skills and live to tell the tale. The participants in these man-to-man spectacles were limited to the brave, and a new kind of hero was born. Spectators clamored by the thousands to behold them in action. Images of broken arms, knees to the face, and powerful choke holds spawned daydreams of competition, victory, and glory.
Even in our modern technological world, where battles are won with the touch of a button or the pull of a trigger, the need to experience the rush of hand-to-hand combat persists in both warriors and their fans. In Brazil, they call these competitions vale tudo. In Japan, it's called submission fighting. It sprang up in the United States as no-holds-barred and was later dubbed mixed martial arts. Whether combatants battle it out in cages, rings, back alleys, or warehouses, their reasons are usually the same: to discover what works and what doesn't, to test their personal limits, and to answer the age-old question, "Who is the toughest?"
This anything-goes style of hand-to-hand competition is documented as early as 648 BC with the introduction of pankration, a combination of boxing and wrestling, into the Greek Olympics. "Pankration" means "all-powers," or "all-in-combat," and it originated when fighters in both boxing and wrestling began refining their skills, seeking a new level of competition. This is not to say that these individual sports weren't already vicious. Boxers, unlike today's pugilists, were allowed to punch their opponents unmercifully while they were on the ground. Wrestlers learned various joint manipulations to inflict as much pain upon their opponents as possible. In both boxing and wrestling, there were no time limits, no rounds, and no weight classes. The bouts were decided when a fighter either submitted or was rendered incapable of continuing the match.
The pankratiasts of yore took man-to-man combat one step further. They synthesized the techniques of the boxer's strikes and the wrestler's groundwork into a lethal and individualistic fighting style. The only rules in pankration were no biting and no gouging of the eyes, and the matches were often brutal. Many ended with the champion being permanently disabled and the loser dying. On the upside, however, there was immeasurable glory and honor involved. The victors of these games were treated like mythical heroes, their lives and deeds depicted on pottery and immortalized in stone carvings.
Tales of pankration champions are shrouded in legend and poetic license. One story is of the charismatic Milo of Crotona, who achieved a level of popularity comparable to that of modern-day martial artist Bruce Lee. He engaged in all sorts of public displays of skill, and it was rumored that Milo built up his unusual strength by lugging a calf on his back every day until it became a bull. Stories recount how Milo would tie a cord around his head and hold his breath, creating such a rush of blood to his skull that the pressure would snap the cord.
Unfortunately, Milo's tendency to constantly test himself led to his demise. One day, he happened upon a dying tree that someone had begun to separate with wedges. He got it into his head that he could pull the two halves of the tree apart. As he attempted this, the wedges slipped out and the tree halves snapped together, pinning Milo. Apparently, trapped like this in the forest, the legendary fighter was eaten alive by wolves.
Yet another account is of a pankratiast who would attack his opponents with a straight-hand strike to the gut. His fingernails were hard and jagged, and he used them to cut into his challengers. Once his fingers were under the skin, he thrust his hand deep and proceeded to extract their bowels. Victory in these matches was secured by submission, by knockout, and often by death. Many times, fighters chose to assure their wins by the most conclusive option available.
Perhaps the most famous pankration fighter, however, was Dioxippus. His reputation in battle was so daunting that no one dared fight him. He was a close friend of Alexander the Great, and it is conjectured that through his training of both the Greek and the Roman armies pankration spread throughout Europe and eventually made its way over the Himalayas with Alexander's forces. There is a theory that pankration's deadly effectiveness, mixed with the religious and meditative practices of the Chinese, became the root of Asian martial arts.
Pankration lasted until the height of the Roman Empire. Although it continued on in the Greek Olympics, in Rome it had mutated into a gladiatorial blood sport, for which warriors donned bladed gloves and fought to the death. But in the fourth century AD, when Christianity took over as the official religion of the conquering Roman Empire, both the gladiatorial games and the Greek Olympic games, with their pagan ancestry, were done away with. And so went pankration. It's fortunate that the sport had already been established throughout the known world, sowing the seeds for what would surface nearly three thousand years later as mixed martial arts (MMA).
Submission wrestling competitions began to emerge in America in the late nineteenth century. Traveling carnivals featured "athletic shows," in which brave audience members could take on one of the carnival's wrestlers. If the challenger could last in the ring with this hired gun for a predetermined amount of time, he received a cash prize. But seldom did challengers walk away victorious, and seldom did they walk away unscathed. These nomadic wrestlers were brutal diehards, dedicated to the art of wrestling. They were kings of the ring, and they were far from being the type of men one might imagine today when the words "professional wrestler" are spoken. Their style was called "hooking," named after the submission tactics they used called "hooks" (Sam Chan. "The Japanese Pro-wrestling / Reality Based Martial Art Connection." 15 Feb. 1998. BJJ.org. 21 Feb. 2001.
In hooking, there was a hierarchy of skill. Traveling with most carnivals was a journeyman, a somewhat capable wrestler who was pitted against nonthreatening challengers. Above him was the shooter, the more proficient wrestler who took on the difficult opponents. And then there was the master of the art, the submission-wrestling guru known—for better or worse—as the "hooker."
Hookers knew all the tricks of the trade, and the carnival was their domain. They policed the matches of their underlings to ensure that a desperate challenger did not resort to biting or gouging. They settled territorial disputes, and because they were often faced with skilled opponents looking for an easy buck, they had to refine their art continually in order to stay on top of their game (Tony Checcine. "Catch History." Tony Checcine's Catch Wrestling. 18 Feb. 2001.
Although the popularity of these athletic shows began to fade in America in the early part of the twentieth century, the art of hooking survived. It was introduced to Japan in 1914, when legendary wrestler Ad Santel defeated a fifth-degree black belt in judo. The Japanese opponent had claimed to be the Japanese judo champion, so after the match Santel crowned himself world judo champion (Chan). His declaration embarrassed the founder of judo so severely that he sent another student to challenge Santel and restore honor to the Kodokan, the world-renowned judo dojo in Japan. But once again Santel was victorious, and a few years later he extended a challenge to the entire Kodokan, daring its members to contest his claim as champ. He went on to secure more victories, and because of these matches, a fascination with Western submission fighting erupted in Japan.
The legendary wrestler Karl Gotch made a further impression on the Japanese with his exceptional hooking talent. Already a European wrestling champion, Gotch had moved to the United States in 1959 to continue to promote his skills. But because he was a reality-based wrestler, he wasn't accepted warmly in America, where pro wrestling had become mostly staged matches known as "works" or "worked" fights (Chan). Gotch did not adhere to predetermined outcomes, and many American pro wrestlers feared both him and his submission skills. Searching for a new platform, Gotch went to Japan, where he quickly earned the title "God of Pro Wrestling."
Among Gotch's admirers were many of the athletes participating in the Japan Wrestling Alliance (JWA), an organization founded by a former sumo professional and devoted to promoting worked matches. Gotch's hooking style changed their conception of wrestling, and many went on to become his students. Satoru Sayama, Yoshiaki Fujiwara, Antonio Inoki, and Akira Maeda were the most famous of his pupils. Several of these wrestlers were already proficient in a variety of martial arts, such as muay Thai (a form of kickboxing that utilizes devastating elbow and knee strikes), judo, karate, and sumo. Combining their backgrounds with Gotch's hooking, they developed their own hybrid-fighting styles, and each would have a direct impact on contemporary MMA competition.
Japan's most famous wrestler, Antonio Inoki, was kicked out of the JWA in 1971 when it was discovered that he was plotting to take over the promotion. This did not halt his ambition, however, and he went on to form one of Japan's most popular wrestling organizations ever: New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW). The first NJPW match was held in March of 1972, and its popularity inspired Inoki's contemporaries Sayama, Maeda, and Fujiwara to join.
NJPW was catapulted into the spotlight in 1976, when Inoki staged a mixed martial arts tournament. It was an extravaganza the likes of which had never before been seen in Japan, and although the fights were, for the most part, worked, the concept of pitting style versus style helped to elevate Japanese pro wrestling still further. For the event, Inoki scoured the globe and rounded up some of the world's most respected fighters, including Olympic judo gold medalist William Ruska, boxer Chuck Wepner, and world kyokushin karate champion Willie Williams (Steve Slagle. "Antonio Inoki." Professional Wrestling Online Museum. 3 Feb. 2001.
The bout did not live up to the fans' expectations, however. Ali's training camp suspected that Inoki would use his submission tactics and try to turn the fight into a real match, so rules were established that barred Inoki from using any hooking techniques or suplexes (Chan). The result was a long and boring fight that ended in a fifteen-round draw. But this tournament, along with the NJPW's adoption of many martial artstechniques, specifically low kicks and judo throws, forever changed pro wrestling in Japan (Chan). Many wrestlers were now inspired to bring more realism to their matches, and their fighting styles became more applicable to MMA combat.
In response to this interest in realism, Akira Maeda left the NJPW and formed the Universal Wrestling Federation (UWF). Sayama, Fuji-wara, and Nobuhiko Takada (a student of hooking) quickly followed suit. Although the UWF bouts had predetermined outcomes, making them essentially worked, the techniques applied during the matches were delivered with full force. This became known as "stiff" wrestling. But the UWF did not stop there. Real matches were eventually arranged between certain wrestlers and boxers, moving Japanese pro wrestling still closer to MMA competition.
This evolution was not rapid enough for some wrestlers, who were eager to test their skills in full-on MMA warfare. On September 2, 1985, in a match between Maeda and Sayama, Maeda purposefully kicked Sayama in the groin (Chan). Sayama abandoned any plan for a predetermined outcome and laid into Maeda with full force. The match became violent, and thousands of spectators got their first glimpse of MMA fighting. It was breathtaking.
Sayama was promptly fired from the UWF for his extreme retaliation. For the time being, he was finished participating in staged matches. He founded Shooto in 1987, a completely legitimate organization with no fixed fights, and he brought true MMA competition to Japan. Later, he organized the first Japan open vale tudo (anything goes) tournament, drawing the acclaimed jiu-jitsu tactician Rickson Gracie over from Brazil to fight (Chan).
The same year that Sayama founded Shooto, Maeda, having returned to the NJPW, had another outburst during a worked fight. On November 27, 1987, he once again purposefully kicked a rival wrestler, but this time the damage he inflicted was much more serious. He broke three bones in his opponent's face, and he was fired the following March because no wrestler was willing to enter the ring with him (Chan).
Not to be stopped, Maeda and Takada formed a new UWF in April of 1988. But their organization suffered without a young and dynamic fighter. To solve this problem, they convinced two of the more popular wrestlers, Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki, to leave NJPW for the new UWF (Chan). Despite this talent, the UWF ultimately failed, and it disbanded in 1990. Several spin-off promotions stepped in to fill the void. Maeda started an organization called RINGS, which put on half-worked, half-real matches. But the most notable of the UWF splinters was Pancrase.
Pancrase was the brainchild of a businessman named Ozaki, who combined forces with Suzuki, Funaki, and wrestler Karl Gotch with the intention of creating the most realistic fighting promotion possible. Although the rules were not as loose as those of the soon-to-emerge Ultimate Fighting Championship in America, it was a far cry from the fixed matches of pro wrestling. There were no weight classes. A competitor could strike his opponent with a closed fist to the body, and an open palm to the head. A fighter could also kick, knee, and elbow— but knocking an opponent out with strikes was not always the choice method of achieving victory. With master submission fighters like Funaki, the emphasis of Pancrase was on technique, with much of the action occurring on the ground. If, however, a fighter found himself in trouble, he could work his way to the edge of the ring and cling to the ropes. The referee would separate the fighters and the match would be restarted standing. This reprieve was called the "rope escape," and it was a remnant of the organization's pro wrestling roots.
Excerpted from BRAWL by Erich Krauss, Bret Aita, Mary Williams. Copyright © 2002 Erich Krauss and Bret Aita. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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