If you have watched Mixed Martial Arts since its inception, then you know the sport is a world away from what it used to be. The UFC wasn’t a sport in the beginning, and it took years before it was embraced by the mainstream. Rorion Gracie created the UFC almost 27 years ago as an eight man tournament. His intention was to prove to the world that his families fighting system was the best. The best way for the family to do that was to host a tournament where, Royce, the youngest, and least skilled brother took on fighters from different systems in a no-holds-barred tournament. The first tournament turned the martial arts community on its head. Most martial artists at that time believed striking styles like Karate and Kickboxing were the best. After Royce won the first few UFC tournaments, many martial artists gave up their current system to study grappling.
This write up is about the evolution of stand-up fighting in Mixed Martial Arts. For those who can remember, stand up fighting in the UFC used to be a joke. If someone entered the Octagon representing Karate, Kenpo, or kickboxing you knew they were going to lose to the first grappler they squared off with. The grappler didn’t even have to be a Gracie, just anyone with high school wrestling on their resume. And, ironically, when two stand up fighters squared off, what took place was anything but a representation of their “style.”
The first four UFC’s showed us what fish hooking, groin smashing, headbutting, and eye gouging looked like. The stand-up fighters who managed to win some matches made up for their lack of skill with savagery. I call this the Brawling Era because of the lack of technical skill, and/or ethics.
Notable stand-up fighters from the Brawling Era:
• Gerard Gordeau (UFC 1)
• Patrick Smith (UFC 1, 2, 6)
• Keith Hackney (UFC 3, 4, Ultimate Ultimate 1995)
• David “Tank” Abbot (Debuted UFC 6, active from 1995 – 2013)
The Sprawl and Brawl Era:
Marco Ruas introduced the world to Luta Livre in UFC 7. Luta livre is a Brazilian no-gi martial art that blends striking with catch wrestling and Jiu-Jitsu. Marco Ruas was an expert in Lute Livre and Muay Thai. When he chopped the 6’8”, 330 lb. Paul Varlens down with low kicks to win the tournament, the MMA community learned the value of Muay Thai. I mark this as the beginning of the sprawl and brawl era. Sprawl and brawlers are fighters who have the grappling ability to avoid take downs and keep the fight standing. Pure grapplers began to lose their dominance during this era. This type of fighting is still used, but it is beginning to fade because fighters have gotten more mobile.
Notable stand-up fighters from the Sprawl and Brawl Era:
• Marco Ruas
• Pedro Rizzo
• Maurice Smith
• Wanderlei Silva
• Mirko Cro Cop
• Bas Rutten
The Karate Era
We can’t speak of Karate in MMA without mentioning Lyoto “The Dragon” Machida. Heads exploded when Lyoto entered the scene. Before Machida, it was far gone conclusion that anyone representing karate in MMA was a fool. Memories of flailing karate black belts and rolling thunder kicks that missed by a mile were still in MMA fans minds. All that changed when Machida, a master of Shotokan karate, was able to use the styles elusive footwork and powerful punching to his advantage. For a time, no one thought Machida could be stopped. Machida gave karate back its respect. People understand now that a karate black belt can be dangerous if they know how to grapple. There are a lot of champions with black-belts in karate. You can include George St. Pierre, Uriah Hall, and Chuck Liddell to the list. But the fighters below best showcase the signature karate style, which uses a bladed stance, sidekicks, elusive footwork, and fast straight punches.
Notable stand-up fighters using Karate:
• Lyoto Machida
• Steven Thompson
• Michelle Waterson
• Raymond Daniels
• Guy Mezger (Guy Mezger wasn’t well known as a karate fighter in his day. But he had a long history in point fighting and full-contact karate before joining the Lion’s Den.)
The Hybrid Era
This era was ushered in by Anderson Silva. I use the term “hybrid-striker” because these are fighters who’s striking style combines the best of Muay Thai, Karate, and Kickboxing. It is the most current evolution of striking in MMA. These fighters use distance and footwork to avoid taking damage. On top of it all they have the bone crunching power of a Muay Thai fighter.
• Anderson Silva
• Connor McGregor
• Israel Adesanya
• Robert Whittaker
MMA is a combat sport that evolves faster than any other. I have no doubt in my mind we’ll see some new fighting strategy change the direction of the sport in 5-10 years. If you want to add a fighter to one my lists just leave a comment.
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat." - Teddy Roosevelt