The truth about mixed martial arts

Mixed martial arts have become a mainstream sport, followed by more than millions of spectators around the world, with champions who have also been outside the ring. There are still many prejudices, but the resonance of the sport deserves an in-depth look at the history and current identity.

What are mixed martial arts?

The mixed martial arts enthusiast knows it, he's used to it and with the agility of an Anderson Silva he dodges the shots - slow and predictable, you have to admit - and responds with an interesting combination of fact-checking, statistics and history. The mixed martial arts were all of the above and even worse, an unregulated and very violent niche fight, but thanks to the efforts of the industry's leading league, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), they have become a mainstream sport, broadcast worldwide and with athletes known and followed by millions of fans. How did the UFC pass in fifteen years from being the league of the outcasts to having space on the BBC and to multiply its turnover tenfold?

Mixed martial arts: back to the origin

Mixed martial arts are born from the Brazilian tradition of Vale Tudo (i.e. everything), where the challengers came from different martial arts and fought each with their own style and where the only prohibited shots were bites, scratches, fingers in the eyes and blows to the genitals. In the 1990s, Rorion Gracie - heir to a renowned Brazilian family of Jiu-Jitsu wrestlers - emigrated to the United States, opened Jiu-Jitsu's first gyms and in 1993 organised the first mythological Ultimate Fighting Championship.
The first UFC was everything that was said before: few rules, no weight category, comic book violence. The victory could only be declared for KO, surrender or death of the opponent and for intervention of the doctor. Nobody died but the evening's ladder included the meeting between a Dutch karateka and a 200 kg sumo wrestler and ended with the doctor intent on extracting the wrestler's teeth from the feet of the karateka. Don't try it at home. Hard to believe, but in the late 1990s the UFC was on the verge of bankruptcy, banned from cable TV, swollen with steroids and with a particularly fierce and tenacious enemy: Senator John McCain.

A new beginning for mixed martial arts

In short, McCain's struggle was so bitter as to push the UFC to a radical change, brought about by the new leadership of the Fertitta brothers. The Fertitta brothers gathered the sports commissions of some fundamental states for sport - Nevada, Texas, Florida - and gave them the task of drawing up regulations compatible with TV rights and the protection of wrestlers. The commissions sewed and adapted the Olympic regulations of free wrestling, Greek-Roman, boxing, taekwondo and judo and created the unified rules for mixed martial arts.

Many still believe that in the mixed martial arts there are no rules, a prejudice rooted in the bad reputation of the early years, but today there are 31 failures that can lead to the curtailment of points or disqualification.

In modern matches, for example, you can't kick an opponent with at least one knee on the ground, and you can't hit the throat, spine and nape of the neck, as well as those that were originally forbidden to eyes and groin. In short, there will be few fighters with a past in krav maga.
At the same time, the variety of combinations that are granted to fighters to inflict damage and score points are far more than 31. To be clear, Jiu Jitsu alone provides over 2500 moves and, adding to this number the techniques borrowed from the other four martial arts, we understand why MMAs are called "human chess". A match is sometimes so complex and intricate that it seems incomprehensible, but some fighters have such a brilliant talent that they are appreciated by newcomers. This is the case with the aforementioned Anderson Silva, a Brazilian over 40 with an almost supernatural ability to dodge shots. Anderson Silva by someone simply can't be hit.
The variety and brutality of the techniques allowed - such as ground and pound, where an athlete rides on the chest of an opponent who lands and punches him in the face - are essential components of the sport and lead to often surprising results.

Mixed martial arts outside the ring

There is no doubt that despite the 31 bans, mixed martial arts are a sport with relatively few rules in the ring, but looking at what happens outside the ring we can't say the same. Medical checks are much stricter and more stringent than any other fighting sport. There have been seven cases of deaths in combat in the history of mixed martial arts, but none in a UFC tournament and athletes regularly undergo brain and cognitive tests to check their health and prevent serious damage. But Fertitta's masterpiece is the fight against doping.
Mixed martial arts have a problem with doping. The UFC solution was to hire the best anti-doping expert available, the former federal Jeff Novitzky - that of the Lance Armstrong case, for instance - to prepare an anti-doping plan. Novitzky defines that program as the best anti-doping program in professional sport and the runner-up is very far away. All UFC athletes are randomly tested on any day of the year, regardless of whether a match is close by or not. Since the program began - about 70% since full implementation - one of the fans' favourite activities is to make a comparison between the sculpted physicists of some athletes a few years ago and those much less defined today.

Don't think UFC is the only league in the vast MMA universe. Of the 3,000 or 4,000 matches a year, only about fifty are UFC-certified. It is in these minor championships that the great wrestlers like Conor McGregor have made - and sometimes broken - their bones. At low levels the sport is very different, but the standard imposed by the UFC of the Fertitta brothers is a guide for everyone.

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