There are a lot of people who have contributed to the sport of MMA over the years and they will be remembered for a long time.
However, there are a few men who come to mind that had the biggest impacts on the sport, whether as someone who helped it along or blazed trails long before promotions like the UFC first came into existence.
This top ten list is here to explore those who helped along MMA in its’ infancy and also helped MMA long before it came into existence:
~ 10 ~
There is no way one could compile a list such as this and not put the President of the UFC on it. White first started out in the MMA industry by managing fighters such as Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz before convincing his childhood friends, the Fertitta brothers, to buy the limping promotion. Yet things didn’t turn around immediately and it took one last ditch desperate effort of creating the first season of The Ultimate Fighter to finally bring the promotion from the brink of death to the success it has now become today.
Granted he doesn’t have the cleanest mouth in the industry nor does he have the best temper, and honestly I could create a top ten list just based on White’s flaws, but that’s not what I’m talking about today. By no means is White perfect, but he does have a drive for the sport and that same drive is what made the UFC successful.
~ 9 ~
The late Jeff Blatnick made more contributions to getting the sport regulated than the above mentioned Dana White. Blatnick was named commissioner of the UFC at UFC 17 (a position that no longer exists) and began a phase of creating more rules and turning it into more of a sport rather then the spectacle it was in the early days.
He worked with long time referee “Big” John McCarthy on the effort as well as current matchmaker Joe Silva and succeeded in getting the Unified Rules of MMA used by the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board. In fact the term “Mixed Martial Arts” is traced to Blatnick who coined it in order to get away from the term “No Holds Barred” as it had been referred to up until that point. Towards the later part of his life Blatnick spent much time as a judge for various athletic commissions.
~ 8 ~
One of the original co-founders of the UFC, Rorion Gracie is one of several Gracie family members responsible for getting the family name into the public. Rorion’s video tapes of various BJJ students taking on fighters of other disciplines to prove BJJ was the superior style is what motivated Art Davie to approach Rorion and John Milius about creating the first UFC tournament.
Rorion was responsible for handpicking his younger brother, Royce Gracie, to represent the Gracie family to show the world that technique could overcome power and brawn. UFC 1 was successful in that regard when Royce won all three of his matches by submission. Later on Rorion left the promotion due to several disagreements, but his legacy is set in that regard.
~ 7 ~
Edward William Barton-Wright
Not many people in the mainstream know his name, but MMA owes some origins to this man. Edward William Barton-Wright lived from 1860 to 1951 and in 1895-1898 he worked in Japan where he learned forms of Jiu jitsu and Judo. Upon returning to England, he combined both disciplines into his own system of fighting he aptly titled, “Bartitsu” which would later integrate British boxing and French Savate.
He also established arguably the first MMA gym called the Bartitsu School of Arms and Culture Center which like modern MMA gyms, taught various fighting disciplines and included physical therapy. He even organized some tournaments similar to the Gracie Challenge of pitting Bartitsu fighters against other fighting disciplines and it became so popular that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle incorporated it into the character of Sherlock Holmes.
~ 6 ~
This man is the namesake of the equivalent of the Heisman Trophy of wrestling, aptly named the Dan Hodge Trophy. Dan Hodge is an early example of a crossover athlete as he had a successful career as a college and Olympic level wrestler (he was never taken down in college, a feat not even four time undefeated college wrestler Cael Sanderson can claim) and was also so successful in boxing that had he not pursued professional boxing, he may have also become an Olympic boxer.
He also had his try at prowrestling, gaining some titles there. Hodge has actually been quoted as saying that had MMA been around during his athletic years, he probably would’ve done well in it. Not only was he successful in several different fighting disciplines, but even at the age of 81 he’s still so freakishly strong that he can crush an apple with one hand, not even something most of the athletes he overseas as Chairman of the Oklahoma Professional Boxing Commission (also regulates all professional MMA in the state) can probably do.
~ 5 ~
Like the aforementioned Barton-Wright, Frank Gotch lived around the turn of the century. During that time prowrestling was a legitimate sport in which the athletes took a while to train (similar training time to a modern MMA fight) and promoters took a long time doing their job in promoting the fights. There also weren’t promotional titles as there are now, instead there were titles like the American Heavyweight Championship, which was the first Gotch won.
However, he set his sights on something bigger, being the World Heavyweight Champion, which he gained by beating Georg Hachenschmidt. He went on to hold the title for five years and only when he retired did he vacate it. His influence can be felt because of his mastery of things like the toehold and laying the foundation for catch wrestlers in MMA such as Ken Shamrock and Josh Barnett.
~ 4 ~
It is because of this man that BJJ exists. Mitsuyo Maeda was a judo practitioner and No Holds Barred fighter. After having traveled the world demonstrating judo in the USA, Europe, Central and South America, Maeda settled in Brazil. It was during that time he began teaching the sons of Gastao Gracie judo, which included Carlos Gracie and later Helio Gracie. These teachings would serve as the basis for BJJ as we know it and because of that would lead to the aforementioned founding of the Ultimate Fighting Championships.
~ 3 ~
This is the man who essentially created Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. Because of his smaller stature compared to his brothers (something future son Royce would also experience) Helio Gracie realized that many judo moves didn’t work with his build so he began experimenting with the skills he and his brother Carlos learned from Maeda and from that he came up with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
He then went onto compete in at least 19 professional fights in the name of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. It was during one of those fights that he was put in an armlock and refused to tap to one Masahiko Kimura (yes the Kimura lock is named after him) who basically had to destroy Helio’s arm to end the match. During UFC 1 and UFC 2 Helio was present in Royce’s corner coaching him to victory and drew the ire of Dan Severn when at UFC 4 Severn realized upon making eye contact with Helio who simply shook his head that under no circumstances and no matter how much Severn battered his son that he would throw the towel.
~ 2 ~
Not many casual fans in American know about him but in Japan this man is essentially the MMA Godfather. Antonio Inoki almost single handed laid the foundations for MMA in Japan. His shoot fights during the 1970s and 80s against fighters of various disciplines demonstrated the art of catch wrestling in an attempt to prove it was the superior style. The most high profile of these events was a fight against world champion boxer Mohammad Ali, which ended in a draw, but certainly was a historical moment in the sport.
Inoki’s influence can be felt in so many ways, from the catch wrestlers Josh Barnett, Ken Shamrock, and Kazuyuki Fujita to the promotions Shooto, Pancrease, Rings, Pride, and Dream, to the crossover events he has put in his promotion New Japan, then later Inoki Genome Federation, to the recently revived Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye New Years shows, Antonio Inoki’s legacy will be felt as long as MMA is alive.
~ 1 ~
This is the man Dana White has referred to as the “Forefather of MMA.” Bruce Lee is a name recognized by anyone and everyone in fighting circles. Though he is known mostly for his martial arts films, Bruce Lee was first and foremost an active martial artist. His own experiments with various fighting methods resulted in his going from strictly practicing Wing Chun, which he learned from famed Grand Master Ip Man, to developing his own fighting style called Jeet Kune Do.
This philosophy of “the style with no style” essentially laid the ground work for the modern martial artist and created the culture of wanting to see the original style versus style match ups, leading to the formation of the UFC.
Anyone else that you think heavily influenced modern MMA? Leave a comment!