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History of Mixed Martial Arts

In 648 B.C.E., the Greeks introduced the sport of pankration into the Olympic Games. The word pankration is a combination of two Greek words, pan, meaning “all,” and kratos, meaning “powers”. The sport was a mixture of Hellenic boxing and wrestling. The sport only had two rules: no biting and no eye gouging, though even these techniques were allowed by the Spartans. The bouts could end only when one competitor was knocked unconscious, or submitted to his opponent by raising his hand. Often times, these matches would last for hours, and sometimes ended with the death of one, or even both competitors. The sport became the most popular event in the Olympic Games, and across the Hellenic world.

Common techniques included punches, joint locks, choke holds, elbow and knee strikes, and kicks. Kicks to the legs, groin and stomach were quite commonly used. Standing strikes such as these were common, though the overwhelming majority of pankration bouts were settled on the ground, where submission holds and strikes were both accepted practices. Pankratiasts were renowned for their grappling skills, and would employ a variety of grappling techniques, such as takedowns, chokes and joint locks, often to great effect. Strangulation was the most common cause of death in pankration matches.

Ancient Greek pankratiasts became heroes, and the subject of numerous myths and legends. Alexander the Great sought out pankratiasts as soldiers because of their legendary skills at unarmed combat. When he invaded India in 326 B.C.E., he had a great number of pankratiasts serving with him. This is believed to be the beginning of Asian martial arts, as most Asian martial arts trace their history to India at around this time. Pankration is the first recorded form of what would later come to be known as mixed martial arts, and is the closest any society has come to allowing a truly no-holds-barred unarmed combat sport.

Following the decline of pankration in Greece, which coincided with the rise of the Roman Empire, mixed martial arts fell by the wayside in favor of other combat sports. Sports such as wrestling and boxing became the dominant forms of combat sport in the West, while traditional martial arts swelled in popularity in Asia.

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This remained the case for centuries until 1925 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, when the sport of mixed martial arts experienced a revival from a peculiar source.

In order to fully understand the reemergence of mixed martial arts, it is necessary to take a brief look at the history of the Gracie family of Brazil.

It was in 1925 that Carlos took his brother Helio, who was 11 years younger than Carlos, to Rio de Janeiro, where they opened a jiu-jitsu academy.

As Carlos and brother Helio continued to advance and perfect their art in their new academy, Carlos concocted a brilliant marketing scheme to draw attention to the fledgling academy. He issued what is now famously known as the “Gracie Challenge.” As he explained, “I had to do something to shock the people.” He began the “Gracie Challenge” by taking out an advertisement in several Rio newspapers. The advertisement, which included a picture of the slight Carlos Gracie, information on the academy, and stated “If you want a broken arm, or rib, contact Carlos Gracie at this number.” This effectively began the revival of professional mixed martial arts in the Western world, as Carlos, and later his younger brother Helio, followed by the sons of both men, would take on all comers in vale-tudo matches. These matches closely resembled the pankration matches of Ancient Greece, and were participated in by representatives of area karate schools, professional boxers, capoeira champions, and various others that sought to prove that they were better than the Gracies.

As word of these matches spread through Rio de Janeiro, the public craved these matches. As a result, these matches began to be held in Brazil’s large soccer stadiums, and attracted record crowds. The first of these professional fights was between Brazilian Lightweight Boxing Champion, Antonio Portugal and Carlos’ younger, smaller, and much frailer brother Helio. Helio won the match in less than 30 seconds, effectively elevating himself to the status of Brazilian hero. At the time, Brazil had no international sports heroes, and Helio filled that void for the Brazilians.

As word of these matches spread to Japan, the great martial arts champions of Japan sought to participate in this new form of competition against the Gracies, who the Japanese thought were defiling their traditional arts. Japanese champions flocked to Rio de Janeiro to do battle with Helio Gracie, who was always out weighed by his opponents, often by more than 100 pounds. He defeated many great Japanese fighters, and in a trip to the United States, Helio defeated the World Freestyle Wrestling Champion, American super heavyweight Fred Ebert. One-hundred-thirty-five pound Helio continued to defend the Gracie name and their martial art, often against opponents weighing as much as 300 pounds, from 1935 until 1951, fighting over 1000 fights, until Carlos’ son, Carlson, and later Helio’s sons Rolls, Rickson and Rorion took over the roll of family champion in upholding the “Gracie Challenge.”

The new combat sport of vale-tudo fighting became immensely popular, quickly rising to become the second most popular sport, in terms of ticket sales, in Brazil behind soccer. This is a status that the sport still enjoys today. Leagues and organizations were soon formed and events began to be held regularly all over Brazil. The fights featured practitioners of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, muay Thai kickboxing, luta livre wrestling, boxing and various other styles. As these events, and as a result, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, grew in popularity in Brazil, the Gracies branched out to the United States.

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