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Looking back on the UFC-then and now

By Jessica Militello

Participants in some of the original UFCs square off in this dated match.The UFC recently marked the 28th anniversary of their first fight card on November 12, 1993. At the time, the promotion had entirely different owners and was a fight to the death with virtually no rules in a quest to see which style of martial arts could defeat any opponent, regardless of their weight or stature. The first promotion was intended to really highlight Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, with fighters like Royce Gracie using grappling skills that at the time were never before seen or heard of by the average viewer and sometimes even the referee couldn’t always distinguish a submission when it happened, even when a fighter was tapping out. 

As UFC 269 approaches, it’s interesting to look back at all of the ways that professional mixed martial arts has really developed over the years and become the mainstream combat sport that it is today by taking stock of then and now, and many of its great strides and some interesting points in the almost three decades of the UFC’s evolution.

Fighter IQ and technical skills

In the UFC’s first days, grappler vs striker bouts could not have been more literal. At the advent of the promotion, fighters like boxers and kickboxers would rely solely on their skills and the rules while going against someone like a Jiu-Jitsu grappler, or sometimes even a straight-up sumo wrestler. Since the point was to answer the question of the martial arts ages of which art is the best to defeat any other art out there, fighters would come out in their Gi’s or boxing gloves and shorts and use the best skills they had to try to defeat an opponent. Since there were almost no rules, these fights would often last less than 5 minutes and in many cases, end in a much more gory fashion than MMA fights of today. These days, MMA fighters know they need to be well-rounded, and regardless of their striking or grappling skills, they have a toolbox of everything from kicking and striking, to jiu-jitsu and wrestling to be the best equipped for a fight. 

Tournament style to scheduled bouts

Considering there were practically no rules and the fights often ended in just minutes, it's almost unfathomable to imagine the winners of these fights were getting back in the octagon within hours of going to war with an opponent. Still, the competition was named The Ultimate Fighting Championship for a reason. If you look at the cards from back then, fighters will go two or three times in the same evening. As fights later became regulated and given more focus on safety, it would seem the first UFC fighters might scoff at the idea of preparing for a single bout for weeks in advance and fighting just one opponent on the night of. Still, luckily, today's pro fighters don't have to take unnecessary brain damage or injuries by getting back in there more than once on the same night. And that's not to say that today's fighters wouldn't have the ability, but today's UFC promotion is far more educated on keeping fighters safe than making them fight to the death in an evening.

No holds barred to regulated

Thinking of how barbaric the first fights were, it really is no wonder there was such an outcry to ban the UFC as it originated in the 90s. The regulations, if you even want to call it that back then were as follows: no doping probes, no holds barred, no mandatory gloves or uniforms, no judges’ scores, no time limits on rounds because the fights ended so quickly, and the only way a fight was considered over was if an opponent was knocked out, tapped out, or the fighter’s corner stopped it. There was little to no intervention from a ref, let alone stepping in to protect a fighter after it’s obvious they took enough damage, and a doctor stoppage likely wasn’t even a coined term at that point. In these fights, a downed opponent could literally get kicked in their face, and it was fair play back then. Thankfully, when the UFC was bought over by Zuffa in 2001, common decency prevailed and fights became regulated to protect the fighters including fighting rules, gloves being worn, and anti-doping regulations. Today, referees are usually damned if they do, and damned if they don’t when it comes to the way they make their calls or if they stop a fight, but in the interest of protecting a fighter’s life and their future as a fighter, the UFC has certainly traveled lightyears from their original days when refs were there more for show than for protection.

Fighting as a career

While fighters still get in the octagon and go to war with each other, the UFC has advanced in a way that professional MMA fighting can become a career for fighters that it might not have in the years since the UFC first came about. With focus on a fighter’s safety, continued discussions on better pay, and even more recent talk of medical benefits, fighter’s can get into the octagon and pursue their passion without getting permanently maimed for the pure sake of entertainment as it once was in year’s past. It will be interesting to see how pro MMA further develops in another 30 years.