A Brief History of Combat Sports –

In 648 B.C.E., the Greeks introduced the sport of pankration into the Olympic Games. The word pankration is a combination of two Greek words, pan, meaning “all,” and kratos, meaning “powers.” This is an accurate depiction of the sport itself, as it was a potent mixture of Hellenic boxing and wrestling.

The sport only truly had two rules: no biting and no eye gouging, though even these techniques were allowed by the Spartans. The bouts could end only when one competitor was knocked unconscious, or submitted to his opponent by raising his hand. Often times, these matches would last for hours, and sometimes ended with the death of one, or even both competitors. The sport became the most popular event in the Olympic Games, and across the Hellenic world.

pankrationThe matches took place in an arena, or “ring” which was a square approximately 12 to 14 feet across, which the Greeks hoped would encourage close-quarter combat. The matches also featured a referee armed with a rod or switch he used to enforce the rules, which were often broken by opponents that were overmatched. Common techniques included punches, joint locks, choke holds, elbow and knee strikes, and kicks. Kicks to the legs, groin and stomach were quite commonly used. Standing strikes such as these were common, though the overwhelming majority of pankration bouts were settled on the ground, where submission holds and strikes were both accepted practices. Pankratiasts were renowned for their grappling skills, and would employ a variety of grappling techniques, such as takedowns, chokes and joint locks, often to great effect. Strangulation was the most common cause of death in pankration matches.

Ancient Greek pankratiasts became heroes, and the subject of numerous myths and legends. These include the legends of Arrichion, Dioxippus, Polydamas and even Hercules was believed to be a pankratiast. Alexander the Great sought out pankratiasts as soldiers because of their legendary skills at unarmed combat. When he invaded India in 326 B.C.E., he had a great number of pankratiasts serving with him. This is believed to be the beginning of Asian martial arts, as most Asian martial arts trace their history to India at around this time. Pankration is the first recorded form of what would later come to be known as mixed martial arts, and is the closest any society has come to allowing a truly no-holds-barred unarmed combat sport.

Following the decline of pankration in Greece, which coincided with the rise of the Roman Empire, mixed martial arts fell by the wayside in favor of other combat sports. Sports such as wrestling and boxing became the dominant forms of combat sport in the West, while traditional martial arts swelled in popularity in Asia. This remained the case for centuries until 1925 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, when the sport of mixed martial arts experienced a revival from a peculiar source.

Helio-ClippingIn order to fully understand the re-emergence of mixed martial arts, it is necessary to take a brief look at the history of the Gracie family of Brazil. In 1801, George Gracie immigrated to Brazil from Scotland, and settled in the Para province of north-eastern Brazil. His family grew and flourished, and in the early 1900s, a Japanese man named Mitsuyo Maeda immigrated to the same area. The Japanese government had plans to establish a colony in the area, and Maeda was a representative of the Japanese government. He quickly became close friends with Gastão Gracie, a political figure in the area, and grandson of George Gracie. Gastão used his power and influence to assist Maeda and his agenda of establishing a Japanese colony.

In addition to Maeda’s political prowess and skills, he was also famous in Japan for another reason: Maeda had been a renowned champion of the Japanese martial art of judo. Maeda, or Count Koma, as he was known in Japan, offered to teach Gastão’s son the art of Judo. Maeda trained Gustão’s son, Carlos, in judo from the time Carlos was 15 until he was 21, when Maeda returned to Japan. With Maeda gone, Carlos began to teach his brothers, Helio, Jorge, Osvaldo and Gastão, Jr. the art as Maeda taught it to him. The Gracie brothers were not bound by the tradition that Japanese practitioners of the art so rigidly upheld, rather the brothers began to adapt the art to suit themselves, and to make it more practical. It was in 1925 that Carlos took his brother Helio, who was 11 years younger than Carlos, to Rio de Janeiro, where they opened a jiu-jitsu academy.

As Carlos and brother Helio continued to advance and perfect their art in their new academy, Carlos concocted a brilliant marketing scheme to draw attention to the fledgling academy. He issued what is now famously known as the “Gracie Challenge.” As he explained, “I had to do something to shock the people.” He began the “Gracie Challenge” by taking out an advertisement in several Rio newspapers. The advertisement, which included a picture of the slight Carlos Gracie, information on the academy, and stated “If you want a broken arm, or rib, contact Carlos Gracie at this number.” This effectively began the revival of professional mixed martial arts in the Western world, as Carlos, and later his younger brother Helio, followed by the sons of both men, would take on all comers in vale-tudo matches. These matches closely resembled the pankration matches of Ancient Greece, and were participated in by representatives of area karate schools, professional boxers, capoeira champions, and various others that sought to prove that they were better than the Gracies.

As word of these matches spread through Rio de Janeiro, the public craved these matches. As a result, these matches began to be held in Brazil’s large soccer stadiums, and attracted record crowds. The first of these professional fights was between Brazilian Lightweight Boxing Champion, Antonio Portugal and Carlos’ younger, smaller, and much frailer brother Helio. Helio won the match in less than 30 seconds, effectively elevating himself to the status of Brazilian hero. At the time, Brazil had no international sports heroes, and Helio filled that void for the Brazilians.

As word of these matches spread to Japan, the great martial arts champions of Japan sought to participate in this new form of competition against the Gracies, who the Japanese thought were defiling their traditional arts. Japanese champions flocked to Rio de Janeiro to do battle with Helio Gracie, who was always out weighed by his opponents, often by more than 100 pounds. He defeated many great Japanese fighters, and in a trip to the United States, Helio defeated the World Freestyle Wrestling Champion, American super heavyweight Fred Ebert. One-hundred-thirty-five pound Helio continued to defend the Gracie name and their martial art, often against opponents weighing as much as 300 pounds, from 1935 until 1951, fighting over 1000 fights, until Carlos’ son, Carlson, and later Helio’s sons Rolls, Rickson and Rorion took over the roll of family champion in upholding the “Gracie Challenge.”

The new combat sport of Vale Tudo fighting became immensely popular, quickly rising to become the second most popular sport, in terms of ticket sales, in Brazil behind soccer. This is a status that the sport still enjoys today. Leagues and organizations were soon formed and events began to be held regularly all over Brazil. The fights featured practitioners of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai kickboxing, lucha libre wrestling, boxing and various other styles. As these events, and as a result, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, grew in popularity in Brazil, the Gracies branched out to the United States. In the early 1980s, Helio’s oldest son Rorion, came to the United States to teach Brazilian, or Gracie jiu-jitsu as he preferred to call it, in California. Like his father and uncle before him, he issued the infamous “Gracie Challenge” in his new home, but added a new twist. Rorion offered $100,000 to anyone who could defeat him, or one of his brothers, in a vale-tudo match. These matches again brought Brazilian jiu-jitsu much popularity. As Rorion realized the potential this style of fighting offered to spread his family’s art, he sought to create an organization that would promote this sort of fighting in the United States.

After years of hard work, and promoting his family’s art and his idea for an American vale-tudo league, Rorion Gracie met Art Davie, a salesmen who had first become interested in this style of fighting during a trip he took to Thailand where he witnessed an underground mixed martial arts event. Davie utilized his connections in the television industry to set up a meeting for himself and Rorion Gracie with Bob Meyrowitz, who was president of Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG), a corporation that specialized in putting on live pay-per-view sporting events. Together, the three men established the “Ultimate Fighting Championship,” which held its first event in 1993. The first “Ultimate Fighting Championship” event sold 86,000 pay-per-view buys, and by the third event, the buy rate was up to 300,000 pay-per-view buys per show, Securing a place for combat sport in modern television.

Today, Boxing, Wrestling & MMA pay-per-view buy rates are rising quickly, as are ticket sales at their live gates. Fighters now spend five to six years fighting in smaller events, building their resumes to compete in the big show. Fans continue to flock to the sport looking for the excitement and intensity of the purest form of one-on-one competition on the planet today. Mixed martial arts is also currently the fastest growing sport in the United States, as mixed martial arts events and training centres spring up all over the country, and the money the sport is making continues to grow at a nearly exponential rate.

This speech was given as a farewell tribute to Marquette University wrestling at a gathering in Milwaukee, WI. on 11-3-01 by Ohio State Head Coach Russ Hellickson, and if after reading this your not moved, then perhaps Kocosports just isn’t for you.


Ancient Greek – Egypt Wrestling Contract from A.D. 267

From the ancient walls of Samaria and from Hieroglyphics written on the tombs of Egyptian Kings, we know that wrestling is a sport of the ages. It touches the lives of all who participate in it and many times even those who just observe it. Who can forget the emotional victory of Jeff Blatnick over cancer before his gold medal win in Los Angeles in 1984 or the heart rendering upset victory of Rulon Gardner over previously undefeated wrestling icon Alexander Karelin in Australia at the 2000 Olympics.

You can see the impact of the sport in the eyes of even its youngest combatants. Perhaps in apprehension of that very first one on one or that glorious twinkling elation that comes from the first victory over the vanquished foe. And for those who stay the course for a career, their eyes reflect a passion that penetrates deep into their very soul, a look that impacts for a lifetime and yes a look that makes them what they are.

Here is an image that I want to leave with each of you tonight:

I am Wrestling! Do not weep for me!!

Weep for those who will never experience me.

Weep for those who will never feel the exhausting pain of my training,

Weep for those who will never sense the bond of Camaraderie that once established, will never wane or die.

Weep for those who will never comprehend the demands of my discipline

And most of all, Weep for those poor souls who will never miss me, because they never knew me.

I am Wrestling! Do not weep for me!!

I have been experienced in virtually every culture and civilization known to mankind.

I have been contested in over 150 documented forms in written history.

There is no Nation on this planet that throughout all time, has not experienced me.

I am Wrestling! Do not weep for me!!

Look to those seated around you and think of the qualities that make them what they are:

Accountability, responsibility, persistence, fortitude, strength, compassion, work ethic, ingenuity, determination, integrity, honesty, focus, diligence, and resolve. Wrestling is not the only place they could acquire these, but By God they all reside here!! And if you live with me long enough these will become you.

I am Wrestling! Do not weep for me!!

No political agenda or political interpretation can ever destroy me. My merit and my worth is no threat to any cause, but rather through my values, I am a model for others.

I am Wrestling! Do not weep for me!!

Celebrate what I am, celebrate what I have been, celebrate what I represent, and celebrate the many ways I have impacted your life. I will survive this test as I have survived others, I am forever etched into the very fiber of all mankind.

The world needs me.
Time is on my side.
History guarantees me!

Additional Viewing:

Video: The History of Pro Wrestling

Video: Kings of the Ring – The History of Boxing

Video: The Origins of the UFC