The Early Days of MMA

“In the beginning I was out there fighting on pure instincts, but when they took away headbutts, I had to learn a lot of other skills.”
– Mark Coleman (from the documentary “Smashing Machine”)

It’s hard to believe it but it’s been 19 years since Royce Gracie, the skinny Brazilian in white pijamas, stepped into the cage at UFC 1 and brought the art of jiu jitsu to the attention of the American public. It seems this one event sparked a passion in the minds of many extraordinary athletes that are now high level accomplished BJJ black belts. From reading and listening to interviews, many of them started the same way with a naive optimism: “Hey, that looks easy enough, I can do that.” And with those words began their journey. Many of them quit, but enough stuck with it that BJJ has now infiltrated most corners of the United States.

Lots of BJJ practitioners romanticize those early years of MMA, because (they argue) jiu jitsu at that time was more practical and “pure”. It was more about “self-defense”, or how to defend against, control, and submit your opponent. Royce Gracie exemplified that idea in the early UFCs.

As the sport of BJJ evolved, point-based tournaments emerged and the human chess aspect of jiu jitsu captured the attention and focus of many BJJ academies. Just like in judo, the question of applicability of a technique in a street fight became rarer in the acadamy. Sure “modern” jiu jitsu is still a combat art, but among many practitioners, the focus has shifted to jiu jitsu solely for the sake of jiu jitsu.

I’m a fan and practitioner of sport jiu jitsu and sport judo. I compete often, and I enjoy it for its own sake. When I’m competing, I don’t think “I wonder if this x-guard will be an effective technique in a bar fight scenario.” That said, I enjoyed and miss the time when MMA was less a sport, and more of a brawl. Athletes were not well-rounded, or especially prepared for everything they were to face. It was much more like a street fight, a battle of wills amidst a chaos of punches, kicks, takedowns, and highly unpolished submission attempts.

The above thoughts were brought on by watching a documentary on Mark Kerr. He is the big-hearted brawler, opposite in style and spirit from the elite technicians of today (e.g. Anderson Silva). It made me miss those days, when MMA seemed like an unexplored landscape, and so the fighters were truly stepping into the unknown. It was a battle not a sport, and in that way seemed more pure.

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