No rules, no scores, no time limits. With those words, the first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) launched onto our screens 30 years ago.
The shock value was evident from the very first fight – a pairing between a sumo wrestler and a savate fighter that saw the latter literally kick the teeth out of the former. From that sensational beginning, the brand exploded and is now the largest Pay-Per-View event in the world.
It’s also become synonymous with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), popularizing the fighting style throughout North America. For many viewers, watching UFC was the first time they’d seen BJJ in action and it was hard not to be impressed seeing these fighters quickly and efficiently destroy much larger opponents.
The origins of the UFC
UFC began with an idea – to create a mixed martials event with zero restrictions. The contest was a single-night tournament billed as a way to let fighters from all disciplines, from karate to wrestling, battle it out in the famous Octagon. Legendary BJJ fighter Royce Gracie racked up some legendary wins in the first few tournaments which helped build momentum and publicity.
Soon Gracie was dominating the competition, then came UFC 4. That year, the tournament ran too long for its Pay per View slot, meaning viewers missed the end of an intense battle between Gracie and wrestler Dan Severn. It was a huge blow to the UFC’s reputation and prompted a change in ownership and direction.
The competition underwent another shift in 2001 when it was restructured into a more organized enterprise, headquartered in Vegas. In 2016, the UFC franchise was sold in a landmark $4 billion deal – the largest ever financial acquisition of a sports property.
The brutal, no-holds-barred approach was a feature, not a bug, of the early UFC which relied on jaw-dropping violence to pull in viewers. Fighters weren’t there to earn points or get a belt, they were there to win – by whatever means possible.
And there were scant protections in place. Early UFC didn’t have any requirements for mouthguards or gloves. There were no banned moves, and no weight classes. A fight ended when someone tapped out, or was so catastrophically hurt that the referee was forced to call it.
Inevitably, this led to some hard-to-watch moments. Who can forget Royce Gracie ripping off Kemo Leopoldo’s ponytail in UFC 3, or Corey Hill’s horrific leg break at UFC: Fight For The Troops?
In response to incidents and injuries like these, rules began to creep into the famously no-rules competition. Hair pulling, stomping, back head strikes, fish hooking, and other dangerous moves are now banned from the sport which formally adopted the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts in 2009.
In recent years, the UFC has been working hard to clean up its image. The event now has weight classes, a judging criteria and women began competing in 2013.
The UFC’s impact on BJJ and other martial arts
Big names like Conor McGregor, Ronda Rousey and Brock Lesnar have helped introduce the UFC to a new generation but the standout stars of the competition are no longer BJJ fighters, they’re mixed martial artists.
This trend towards blending different martial arts styles began with fighter Georges St-Pierre. A legend in MMA circles, St-Pierre was one of the first to incorporate moves from every discipline to adapt his style to the fight. This changed the game significantly, but didn’t diminish the effect of Jiu Jitsu on UFC.
Watch a fight today and you’ll still see BJJ moves dominating. Disciplines like Muay Thai, boxing, and wrestling are all effective ways to overpower an opponent but when the pros want to finish a fight, they bring out the Jiu Jitsu.
Interested in MMA? Start with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu! Innisfil Brazilian Jiu Jitsu offers a free, introductory training session for anyone new to the gym. We also run weekly adult and youth classes where the focus is on staying safe, having fun, and learning to unleash your inner BJJ badass. Get in touch today to find out more or book a class.