The Most Influential Martial Arts Bouts Of The Past Century: Part One
The evolution of martial arts throughout history has been the product of conflicts and contests between fighters, styles and even nations. Whether on the field of battle or as gentleman warriors, competing in the ring to prove (and improve) their skills, the greatest martial artists in history have been defined as much by their opponents as by their own abilities.
With technology bridging the gaps between peoples, cultures and geographical regions, the past century has seen a blurring of boundaries between varied styles from all over the world. This has led to an unprecedented level of contact and competition between the masters, novices and journeymen of a wide diversity of styles.
It could be said that the popularity of the UFC and the advent of mixed martial arts have simply been the inevitable outcome of this century-long competition between, and cross-pollination of different martial arts.
Over the next two posts, we’re going to look back across the past 100 years to tell you about the fights that we think have done the most to influence the ongoing evolution of martial arts.
Masahiko Kimura vs. Hélio Gracie (1951)
Proud member of possibly the most influential martial arts family of the twentieth century, the Brazilian Hélio Gracie was, along with his older brother Carlos, one of the co-founders of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu – now more commonly known as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ).
Continuing a tradition started by Carlos, Hélio issued what was known as The Gracie Challenge to highly touted Japanese martial artist, Masahiko Kimura – widely considered the top Judoka in the world at the time.
The purpose of The Gracie Challenge was to prove the superiority of BJJ over all other martial arts, and had been issued to boxers, wrestlers, karateka and more over the decades – usually with the Gracie coming out on top.
The match took place in front of 20,000 people at Brazil’s Maracanã Stadium and it drew such attention that Kimura was reportedly informed by the Japanese embassy that he would not be welcomed back to Japan if he did not win.
The match started with Kimura executing varieties of throws, while Gracie countered with impact-absorbing forward rolls. The mat was too soft for Kimura to score the knockout he was originally planning to attempt, and Gracie’s rolls negated all but the aesthetic value of Kimura’s initial attacks.
It was in the second round that Gracie proved his determination, while ultimately Kimura proved his technical superiority.
Again, throwing his opponent to the ground, Kimura followed, pinned him and began advancing his position. Struggling to get out from under his heavier opponent, Gracie soon found himself caught in an armlock. Kimura twisted the limb back on itself, attempting to force the tap out.
In an incredible display of determination, Gracie continued to fight for a better position. Kimura responded by twisting the arm back, breaking it. Still, Gracie refused to surrender and his arm was broken a second time before his brother, watching from ringside, could take no more and threw in the towel on his behalf.
The fight has remained one of the most acclaimed contests of a bygone era of martial arts – especially among mixed martial artists and BJJ practitioners. The submission that won the match – gyaku-ude-garami – is today known as a Kimura when used in Mixed Martial Arts or BJJ, in honour of the man who shattered The Gracie Challenge.
Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki (1976)
At the time of their monumental meeting, Muhammad Ali was the reigning WBC/WBA heavyweight boxing champion while Antonio Inoki was a professional wrestler with a legitimate background in catch wrestling (an aggressive form of submission grappling that employs techniques from Judo, BJJ and more).
The impetus for the bout was a challenge issued by Ali in which he, in characteristically bombastic fashion, declared that he would pay one million dollars to any Japanese fighter that could beat him. Inoki accepted the challenge, and the bout was scheduled for the 26th of June at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo.
A great deal of confusion surrounded the rules under which the bout would be contested, and even until today there is speculation about exactly what rules were eventually agreed upon. Worried about their client’s image, Ali’s handlers were apprehensive about rules that would allow Inoki the full range of his grappling techniques, and persistent rumours have it that the rules were such that Inoki would not be permitted to throw, tackle or grapple Ali, and would only be allowed to use kicks if he had one knee on the ground.
These limitation led to a farcical fight that saw Inoki spend a majority of his time on his back, kicking at Ali’s legs from the ground. For his part, Ali was unable to muster much offense against his grounded opponent and only threw a total of 6 punches across the duration of the 15-round match – the first one came in round 7.
The match was ruled a draw due to points docked from Inoki for allegedly illegal attacks, and is seen as possibly the most embarrassing moment of Muhammad Ali’s career. He suffered several blood clots in his legs, and the possibility of amputation was discussed at one point – his mobility would be affected for the remainder of his career.
While it was hardly a glorious moment for anyone involved, the fight did inspire Inoki’s students to found Pancrase, Japan’s first MMA organisation and the direct inspiration for PRIDE Fighting Championships – the UFC’s only real rival in early days of MMA.
Rick Roufus vs. Changpuek Kiatsongrit (1988)
It was a match that saw East meeting West in a clash of styles that would forever redefine how European and American audiences viewed the striking arts.
At the time, American kickboxing was at the height of its popularity, and no competitor was more admired than the hitherto undefeated Rick Roufus – still considered to be one of the greatest American kickboxers of all time.
For his part, Changpuek Kiatsongrit was a Muay Thai fighter hailing from Thailand at a time when Muay Thai was still relatively unknown in the West.
Weighing in at 70kg (compared to Roufus’ 93kg) Kiatsongrit had trouble finding opponents on the Bangkok Muay Thai circuit where he’d spent the early part of his career, because most competitive bouts tended toward the lower weight classes.
This dearth of local competition drove him abroad, setting him up for his own personal date with destiny – and Rick Roufus.
A special rules match was organised – allowing for the low kicks that were integral to Muay Thai but completely absent from American kickboxing – and the two men entered the ring across from one another in November of 1988.
Suffering a broken jaw and a first-round knockdown, the much smaller Kiatsongrit bounced back to win the bout by KO in the fifth round.
The KO came by way of low kicks which battered and bruised Roufus’ legs to the point that he was unable to leave the ring under his own power, and had to be carted out on a stretcher. Televised and broadcast to a mass American audience, it was the West’s first large-scale exposure to the effectiveness of Muay Thai and the lethality of the unassuming low kick.
That’s it for now. Come back next month for Part 2, where we’ll cover the most influential fights of the modern era of martial arts – including some of the most influential matches between the mixed martial artists that would go on to make the UFC what it is today.