As the sport of mixed martial arts, and more specifically the Ultimate Fighting Championship, moves into its third decade, I take this opportunity to examine its origins.
The UFC's inception was very much borne out of public curiosity in how martial arts disciplines would fair against each other. Of course, this topic had already been broached in films such as Enter the Dragon with Bruce Lee and Bloodsport starring Jean-Claude Van Damme; the latter not all too dissimilar to the format of the early UFC events. In fact, those early shows were more directly influenced by a certain video game than by martial arts movies themselves. Mortal Kombat (although itself inspired by martial arts movies) influenced the UFC fight night format and saw karatekas versus boxers versus sumo wrestlers, and so on.
Meanwhile in Japan, mixed martial arts was growing too, also out of popular culture. Professional, or pro, wrestling combined sport and entertainment and was hugely popular in Japan in the 1950s with the 'Father of Puroresu' Rikidozan controlling the TV ratings. His protégés, Antonio Inoki and Giant Baba went on to dominate the pro wrestling scene from the 60s onwards and it was in 1976 at the Nippon Budokan arena in Tokyo that perhaps the most famous of cross-disciplined fights took place between Inoki and Muhammad Ali. Fast forward to 1997 and Pride Fighting Championships was borne as Japan's most popular MMA organization, essentially a 'real' version of pro wrestling, with new kid on the block Kazushi Sakuraba as its superstar.
As mixed martial arts grew globally, people were discovering the sport, not as a consequence of its popular culture roots, but as an entity unto itself. However, MMA in the early years in the US was facing obstacles due to its underground and violent brand positioning and saw a dark period in the pop culture wilderness. In Japan though Pride Fighting Championships was propelling fighters like Mirko Filipovic, Wanderlei Silva and Bob Sapp to stardom, from endorsements, commercials and movie roles - that is until its demise following the yakuza scandal. American MMA and notably the UFC then came to the fore, legitimizing itself through better regulation, stronger branding and interesting side projects, including a reality TV series. This explosion into the mainstream saw fighters like Randy Couture, Quinton Jackson and Gina Carrano, to name a few, star in blockbuster movies such as The Expendables, The A-Team and Haywire.
The sport of MMA is now well and truly established - and although mixed martial artists like Anderson Silva have noted Bruce Lee as an influence - it is no longer relying on popular culture to shape its being. Instead, it is being mirrored by popular culture and this, along with the opportunities, will carry on developing as MMA expands internationally and continues to evolve.