"While different forms of unorganized, no-rules, unarmed combat predate history, civilization, and the human species itself (apes have been observed engaging in hand-to-hand combats), the earliest documented, organized, minimal-rules fighting event was the ancient Greek pankration, which was introduced into the Olympic Games in 648 B.C.Greek pankration later inspired the more violent Etruscan and Roman pancratium, an event showcased at the Roman Colosseum. Even as late as the Early Middle Ages, statues were put up in Rome and other cities to honour remarkable pankratiasts of Rome.

No-holds-barred reportedly took place in the late 1880s when wrestlers representing a huge range of fighting styles, including various catch wrestling styles, Greco-Roman wrestling and many others met in tournaments and music-hall challenge matches throughout Europe. In the USA the first major encounter between a boxer and a wrestler in modern times took place in 1887 when John L. Sullivan, then heavyweight world boxing champion, entered the ring with his trainer, Greco-Roman wrestling champion William Muldoon, and was slammed to the mat in two minutes. The next publicized encounter occurred in the late 1890s when future heavyweight boxing champion Bob Fitzsimmons took on European Greco-Roman wrestling champion Ernest Roeber. Reportedly, Roeber suffered a fractured cheekbone in this bout, but was able to get Fitzsimmons down on the mat, where he applied an armlock and made the boxer submit. In Europe, around the 19th century, the Italian Giovanni Raicevich, skilled in Greco-Roman wrestling was defeated by Akitaro Ono, a Japanese heavyweight fighter skilled in Jujutsu, Judo, and Sumo, throwing him on the mat by one-arm shoulder throw. In 1936, heavyweight boxing contender Kingfish Levinsky and veteran professional wrestler Ray Steele competed in a mixed match, which Steele won in 35 seconds.Another early example of mixed martial arts combat was the martial art of Bartitsu, founded in London in 1899, which was the first martial art known to have combined Asian and European fighting styles,and which saw MMA-style contests throughout England, pitting European and Japanese champions against representatives of various European wrestling styles.

Mixed style contests such as boxing vs. jujutsu were popular entertainment throughout Europe, Japan and the Pacific Rim during the early 1900s.In Japan these contests were known as merikan, from the Japanese slang for "American [fighting]". Merikan contests were fought under a variety of rules including points decision, best of three throws or knockdowns, and victory via knockout or submission.

After the popularity of professional wrestling waned after World War I it split into two genres: "shoot", in which the fighters actually competed, and "show," which evolved into modern professional wrestling.
In the late 1960s to early 1970s the concept of combining the elements of multiple martial arts was popularized in America by Bruce Lee via his system and philosophy of Jeet Kune Do. Lee believed that "the best fighter is not a Boxer, Karate or Judo man. The best fighter is someone who can adapt to any style."[attribution needed] In 2004 UFC President Dana White would call Lee the "father of mixed martial arts.""

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