Note: This timeline of MMA’s history is extremely abridged for the sake of brevity. If you’re interested in the topic, Jonathan Snowden’s Total MMA and Shooters, and Clyde Gentry’s No Holds Barred cover MMA history in detail better than I ever could.
By Matt Saccaro
684 BCE: Pankration—a hybrid martial art whose name means “all powers”—is introduced into the Olympic games.
19th century: Various mixed rules contests take place throughout the United States, ultimately morphing into what we now call professional wrestling. (Seriously, I can’t recommend Shooters enough for information about this phase of combat sports’ evolution.)
1898: Edward William Barton-Wright invents Bartitsu–a martial art combining boxing, judo, savate, and stick fighting and one of the first dedicated “mixed martial arts” in the entire world. This mixing of styles occurs 42 years before the birth of Bruce Lee, the so-called “father of MMA.”
1905: President Theodore Roosevelt conceptualizes MMA on a whim in a letter to his son, Kermit. “With a little practice in [jiu-jitsu], I am sure that one of our big wrestlers or boxers, simply because of his greatly superior strength, would be able to kill any of those Japanese,” he says in reference to watching a Japanese grappler submit an American wrestler named Joseph Grant.
1914: Judo ambassador and all around tough guy Mitsuyo Maeda arrives in Brazil. In the coming years, he’ll begin teaching the Gracie family judo techniques, planting the seeds for BJJ.
Early-mid 20th century: Vale Tudo competitions emerge in Brazil, and ultimately gain popularity. The Gracie family rises to prominence and enjoys success in these “everything allowed” contests.
1963: Gene Lebell fights Milo Savage in North America’s first televised mixed-rules fight.
1960s: Bruce Lee founds Jeet Kune Do and makes loads of movies. While these films raise awareness of the martial arts in general, they warp America’s perception of hand-to-hand combat for decades. Fighting becomes flashy kicks and punches–the antithesis of real unarmed combat–to much of the nation.
1985: Shooto is founded. The promotion holds its first professional event four years later.
September 1993: Pancrase holds its first event.
November 1993: The UFC holds its first event.
2000: The Unified Rules of MMA are developed.
2001: Zuffa purchases the UFC from the Semaphore Entertainment Group.
2005: The Ultimate Fighter ushers in an age of unparalleled growth and popularity for MMA.
2007: Zuffa purchases Pride, signaling the end of an era and the beginning of Zuffa’s complete domination of MMA, for better or for worse.
2010: James Toney invents the side-check kick.
2014: The UFC product begins to stagnate due to over-saturation, repetition, and a general lack of superstars. Hardcore fans begin to lose interest. Ratings tumble. The future is bleak but there might be reason for cautious optimism.
MMA History According to Zuffa
685 BCE-1960 CE: There is a great void in all martial arts. Boxers do not wrestle. Wrestlers do not box. Judo fighters don’t even know what a kick is. The art of fighting is mired in complete and total darkness. Innovation is nowhere to be found. Not a soul on earth has ever even begun to think about mixing styles.
1960s: Bruce Lee founds Jeet Kune Do and in doing so becomes the first man in human history to combine the tenets and techniques from different fighting systems.
1969: Dana White is born.
1973: Bruce Lee passes away and the concept of “mixed martial arts” dies along with him.
1987: Ronda Rousey is born. She armbars the doctor who pulls her from the womb.
1993: The UFC is founded and holds their first event. Something about a guy named Gracie.
1994-2000: The original owners of the UFC (those who shall not be named) nearly kill MMA by not introducing a single reform into the sport. Not only is the UFC “human cockfighting” under their tenure, but it’s worthy of every other unpleasantry in the entire universe.
2001: Zuffa purchases the UFC, rescuing it (and MMA by extension) right as it was about to disappear from the face of the earth once and for all. The UFC’s new owners introduce rules to the sport—a novel concept that had never, ever been tried in MMA until then.
Early 2000s: Dana White saves MMA. We’re not really clear on when this happened, just that it did.
2005: The UFC Light Heavyweight title is bestowed upon Chuck Liddell with divine blessing. Dana White invents The Ultimate Fighter, which ushers in an age of unparalleled growth and popularity.
2006: The UFC becomes bigger than the NFL.
2007: Zuffa purchases Pride, signaling the beginning of MMA’s new golden age analogous to the NFL’s golden age after the AFL-NFL merger.
2010: The UFC becomes bigger than soccer. Riots break out in the UK when Michael Bisping loses to Wanderlei Silva.
2011: Jon Jones faces his toughest test ever.
2012: Ronda Rousey signs with the UFC and instantly becomes the biggest star the sport has ever seen. Jon Jones faces his toughest test ever.
2013: Ronda Rousey travels back through time to invent the Olympic Games. She wins the UFC Women’s bantamweight championship the night of her return. Jon Jones faces his toughest test ever (seeing a pattern?).
2014: Nico Fertitta is offered a football scholarship from Notre Dame and addresses his haters. UFC Fight Pass goes live and immediately sets the standard for all digital distribution networks. Jon Jones faces his toughest test ever.