The Most Influential Martial Arts Bouts Of The Past Century: Part Two
Last month, we took you on a journey through martial arts history.
We looked at some of the most influential clashes between martial artists of the last century and if you were paying attention, you might have noticed that these fights tended to be style vs. style.
Boxing took on catch wrestling and Muay Thai faced off against American kickboxing. This concept of testing different fighting styles against one another has long sparked the imagination of martial arts aficionados, and the early pioneers who tested their arts against one another were blazing the trail for the mixed martial arts phenomenon that has since captured the world’s attention.
Mixed martial arts is an ongoing evolution of combat tactics and techniques, and has become a style in and of itself – albeit, one that continues to draw inspiration from the world’s wealth of martial arts.
It is only fitting then, that as our look at the history of influential martial arts matches get closer to the present day, we find MMA taking centre stage with its merging and cross-training of styles.
Royce Gracie vs. Ken Shamrock I (1993)
In 1993, Rorion Gracie – eldest son of the famed Hélio – co-founded the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
Inspired by his uncle Carlos’ famous Gracie Challenge, Rorion hoped to prove, on a bigger stage than ever before, that his family’s style was the greatest fighting art in the world. The UFC, with its limited early rule set and no time limit, provided the perfect platform.
His younger brother, Royce, was to be the centrepiece of this plan and he entered the first UFC competition in November of 1993.
In those early, Wild West days of MMA, fights had no time limit and few rules. They were contested in a tournament format, with each fighter competing multiple times in the same night. Ken Shamrock, was the second of Royce’s three opponents for the night.
Coming from a submission wrestling background, Shamrock was more than happy to oblige Royce with ground fighting. That turned out to be a mistake.
Handily defending against a takedown, Shamrock rolled to his back to attempt a heelhook. Exercising the positional awareness that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) places so much importance on, Gracie outmaneuvred Shamrock, took his back and tapped him out with a rear naked choke, just 57 seconds into their match.
While it was an easy win for Gracie, this fight was the beginning of what would become the UFC’s first major rivalry – one that would result in 3 fights fought over the course of 24 years. The event opened the world’s eyes to the effectiveness of ground fighting and positioned BJJ as the gold standard of submission grappling in MMA.
It also awakened fighters to the importance of training across styles.
Shamrock would go on to prove the value of cross-training in the pair’s second meeting when, having focused on BJJ submission defence, he managed to fend off Gracie’s submission attempts and fight the grappling master to a draw over the course of 36 minutes.
Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar (2005)
When Stephan Bonnar and Forrest Griffin met in the UFC cage in April of 2005, they proved that in the martial arts, a warrior’s heart is as important as his technique.
The bout came at a time when the UFC was fighting to survive.
For over a decade, the organisation had struggled along at the fringes of the sports world – fan attention was inconsistent and few major television networks wanted to touch a sport that had been described as “human cockfighting”.
In an effort to garner mainstream attention and respect, the UFC produced a reality show called The Ultimate Fighter (TUF).
A tournament-style television series, TUF pitted two teams of fighters against one another in a series of matches that would then culminate in a finale between the season’s two top mixed martial artists.
The show was a last-ditch effort to gain the level of success that had eluded them for over two decades. It was also hoped that the show would attract the sort of advertising deals that would shore up the financial losses the company had experienced over that time.
By the time Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar stepped into the cage, Spike TV, the broadcaster of TUF, was considering not renewing the contract and dropping the show altogether. This may have been the last nail in the UFC’s coffin, and could have signalled the end of the sport altogether.
In what has come to be known as “the fight that saved the UFC” Bonnar and Griffin heartily exchanged jabs, knees and kicks at a gruelling pace for fifteen minutes. They were each beaten and bloodied, but neither surrendered an inch of ground. The atmosphere was electric, and everyone in attendance new that something amazing was happening.
By the end, the audience was roaring their satisfaction, Forrest Griffin was announced the winner by way of the judges’ decision, and Spike TV executives decided to renew TUF for another season. The UFC was saved, and mixed martial arts would survive to become the global phenomenon that it is today.
Gina Carano vs. Julie Kedzie (2007)
Before Ronda Rousey became the face of women’s MMA (WMMA), there was Muay Thai crossover, Gina Carano.
Carano’s combination of beauty, charisma and martial arts skill was unique in the world of WMMA and she brought the full package when EliteXC became the first major MMA promotion to broadcast a women’s fight to a large North American audience.
Coming in with an undefeated professional record, Carano’s polished Muay Thai overwhelmed her opponent and earned her a lopsided decision victory.
While the fight itself was not particularly remarkable, it marked a turning point in the mind-set of the traditionally very masculine MMA community and fanbase. Suddenly, a woman was representing MMA on the covers of magazines, on television and on radio. Carano became the face of WMMA, but she was also one of the most popular figures in the sport as a whole.
When Carano met Kedzie, the UFC had long had a policy, forbidding WMMA from ever having a place in the promotion. It was only when Carano proved that women’s fighting could entertain and draw attention that their tune started to change.
Eventually, Carano’s popularity propelled her to an ill-fated match against Brazilian monster, Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos.
Cyborg swiftly flattened Carano and took Carano’s torch to become an almost mythical figure herself. Today, she fights under the UFC’s banner – an opportunity she, and many others, would likely never have gotten if not for the trail blazed by Carano and Kedzie.
That’s it for our martial arts tour of yesteryear. We hope you enjoyed reading it as much as we enjoyed writing it.