A brief history of MMA

Posted: Friday, January 18, 2008

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, boxing ruled America.

Men like John L. Sullivan, Jack Dempsey, Jack Johnson and James J. Braddock filled giant stadiums at a time when disposable income proved scarce.

Those fighters gave way to Rocky Marciano, Joe Lewis and Floyd Patterson, who beget Muhammad Ali, Smokin' Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Larry Holmes and young Mike Tyson.

In 2000, Lennox Lewis became the last undisputed heavyweight champion. Boxing has struggled to maintain its popularity since.

For many fight fans, the allure of a mixed martial arts battle surpassed a traditional boxing match in terms of action and excitement. The triangle choke, ground 'n' pound and guillotine submissions of the MMA arena enthralled a new audience eager to fill the void boxing left behind with its fractious sanctioning bodies and lack of compelling stars.

The outfit chiefly responsible for the increase in MMA's popularity is the Ultimate Fighting Championships. The UFC's pay-per-view events rivaled both boxing and professional wrestling.

The UFC started in 1993 as a simple quest to see who is the world's best fighter. Karate experts, Olympic wrestlers, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu artists and even sumo masters entered an eight-sided ring enclosed by a chain-link fence to see who was the baddest in the land.

The fights in the early days of the UFC proved both brutal and mesmerizing. Think about "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" when the crowd chants "Two men enter, one man leave."

That's about what UFC was like in its infancy - except for the sledgehammers and chainsaws.

Combat aficionados, however, knew something was afoot. Watching trained judo and kung fu technicians practice their craft, finding ways to get their opponents to submit and creating counters for those maneuvers offered fans not only exciting action, but a physical chess match between trained warriors.

The blood and brutality, though, generated a loud and powerful backlash. One of MMA's biggest critics was Arizona Sen. John McCain. The current Republican presidential candidate famously decried the sport as "human cockfighting," as states shied away from hosting or sanctioning this fledgling sport.

The UFC truly took off in 2001, however, as brothers Lorenzo Fertitta and Frank Fertitta III, along with president Dana White, took over the organization. Since the takeover, UFC exploded in popularity and evolved into a massively successful commercial enterprise.

Fighters like Chuck "The Iceman" Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson became as recognizable, if not more recognizable, as big-time boxers Floyd Mayweather, Oscar De La Hoya and Bernard "The Executioner" Hopkins.

The UFC further endeared itself by creating weight classes, codifying the rules and having live fights on basic cable network Spike TV. Instead of a free-for-all, the UFC became a structured environment with champions.

UFC eventually purchased popular Japanese fighting league PRIDE FC, along with the World Extreme Cagefighting. American offshoots such as the International Fight League, King of the Cage, BodogFight and EliteXC - along with numerous regional organizations - cropped up since the UFC boomed in popularity.

Alaska got in on the action in 2004 with the Alaska Fighting Championships. The AFC fights under similar rules to the UFC and hosts bouts at Anchorage's Sullivan Arena. The organization hosted its 43rd event on Wednesday.

• Contact sports editor Tim Nichols at 523-2228 or sports@juneauempire.com.

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