Early Roots and the Gracie Clan
Mixed Martial arts is a modern sport created from dozens of ancient traditions. In ancient Greece the sport of Pankration flourished. It was similar to MMA with a few extra brutal touches courtesy of the ancient world. All strikes were legal except eye gouges. Submissions and ground and pound were allowed. There were not time limits, or weight classes or even a ring.
The modern roots of the sport stem largely from the Gracie family and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. The family champion Rickson Gracie, was dominating the early Vale Tudo fights in Brazil. Before crossing the ocean to kick off PRIDE in an effort to spread his family’s art in Japan..
This left younger, smaller, unassuming Royce Gracie to represent Jiu-jitsu in America. The Gracie clan helped organize a tournament to prove the superiority of Gracie Jiu-jitsu to the American public. Fighters of many styles were invited, but few actually understood what this would actually look like. The bell rang and a 6’6” 250lb Dutch karate champion scattered a sumo wrestlers teeth across the announcers table. This was the opening fight of first UFC tournament.
Royce gave up half a foot, and 80lbs to the Dutchman in the final. Gracie would choke that giant out to win the tournament. In fact would win three of the first four tournaments. With nothing but his family’s Jiu-jitsu training, and a traditional gi on his back.
Jiu-jitsu still plays a pivotal role in the modern game. But the martial arts world was quick to adapt to the Gracie’s sorcery. The mortal enemy of the black belt, became the wrestler. There are an endless number of global wrestling traditions as old as time. From California to Kazahkstan, wrestling is a universal human activity. Wrestling is in near every educational institute in the US, while many of the eastern and former communist Bloc countries had well funded state wrestling programs.
Problem for all these skilled athletes was, they had no professional outlet. There were million bad ass wrestlers across the world with no way to make a buck off it. These guys started filtering into MMA to pay the bills. Soon they started taking over.
Men like Dan Severn and Ken Shamrock didn’t like getting choked out in the early days.
So they started training to defend against the submissions. Once they could avoid the armbars and chokes of the black belts, they started thinking offense. The wrestler’s skill set meant they were usually in the dominant position on top.
It’s around this time and around the giant hands of monster wrestlers like Mark Coleman and Kevin Randleman, we see the first consistent use of MMA gloves. These 4 oz fingerless gloves are small enough to grapple with, protective enough for ground and pound. The gloves helped protect their hands as the wrestlers started to dominate and pound out the Jiu-jitsu guys. Still a viable tactic today, just ask Khabib.
Then came the kick boxers. The changing of the guard was a foot to the face. UFC champion Mark Coleman was called “The godfather of ground and pound” he looked unstoppable until he ran into a man named Maurice Smith. Smith learned enough of the ground game, to avoid participating in it completely.
Maurice survived and stalled out Coleman before landing the head kick that won him the championship and changed the game. With striking becoming viable, the evolution arms race was on. Everyone started learning everything. What was once a hundred styles had blended into MMA. Which is now very much a style all it’s own. But a style that can be wildly variable between fighters within the same sport.
Broadly speaking, an MMA fight can be divided into three phases of combat based on how much control either fighter has over the other. These are:
- Free Movement Phase – neither fighter has a grip (i.e., striking)
- Clinch Phase – at least one fighter has a grip, but they are still standing (i.e., clinching)
- Ground Phase – at least one fighter has a grip, and both are on the ground (i.e., grappling)
Of course, during a fight, the lines blur between these phases – which is the entire appeal of the sport for both fighters and fans – but understanding them as separate phases helps organize the way fighters train, allows them to improve weak areas, and maximize safety.
The free movement phase focuses on striking, so the training looks more like boxing or kickboxing. The ground phase focuses on grappling, so the training feels more like wrestling or jiu-jitsu.
The clinch phase bridges the gap and gets included in the training of the other two phases. But is still it’s own game entirely. As each phase requires different skills, each phase then requires specific training equipment to develop those skills.
For centuries boxing and Muay Thai have been perfecting their training and technique. MMA largely takes it’s striking training from these two. Slight adaptations have been made to account for things like the 5 minute rounds and the probability of a grappling exchange. Other wise the training for an MMA fighter and a Muay Thai fighter when striking is VIRTUALLY identical.
That said the vast majority of MMA gear a fighter comes across is striking related. It’s because the striking game is inherently less controlled and more damaging than grappling, Let’s take a look at the basic protective gear a fighter should have when training their stand up game.
These are the classic padded mitts seen on the likes of Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali. While much larger and less dexterous than the open-fingered gloves you will use for MMA, the extra padding is necessary to protect both your delicate hands and your training partner’s head while developing your striking game.
Gloves come in several sizes. Sizes range from between 8-18+oz. the gloves on the lower end of the scale are almost entirely fight gloves. They are used a limited number of times for competition and either discarded or relegated to use on the heavy bag. Most sparring leading into a boxing match takes place in 14-16oz gloves.
Most heavy bag work should use a quality padded glove as possible for added protection of your hands. Weight plays a factor as well. Larger fighters should use larger gloves in general. More padding will help safely absorb the extra power they produce.
Not all gloves are created equal. Just because two gloves look alike doesn’t mean they are remotely similar. Cheap gloves have less protective padding and will degrade prematurely. Lower quality materials tend to fall apart. For any fighter who plans on sticking with it for the long haul, investing in good boxing gloves is essential.
This padded helmet helps protect the fighters face and head during sparring. The greatest danger in live striking training (or fighting) is concussive force to the brain. A fighter can only take so many and it’s far better to save it for the fight.
However, don’t overestimate the value of headgear. There is still some debate about how much protective effect headgear provides. In fact, Olympic boxing recently eliminated headgear from competition for this reason, while other studies claim it still does some good. The only safe punch for sure is a missed one.
Headgear is a matter preference. Some swear by it. Some refuse to even consider it. You should be wearing head gear when sparring for a pro match. If only to protect from any headbutt or elbow that could possibly cause a cut, and put off the fight.
Hand wraps have been a part of boxing since the ancient Greek Olympics. For good reason.
The weakest link in the entire punching chain is your hands and wrists. It doesn’t take much to injure those delicate bones when throwing them hard as possible. Hand wraps are there to support and tighten the wrist and fist.
A poorly landed punch can lead to jammed thumbs and sprained wrists. Hand wraps limit the motion of these joints when striking. Which helps to prevent injuries. Hand wraps should be worn whenever you plan to hit something as hard as you can.
As with the hand, the small bones of the foot are susceptible to damage. Shin guards protect a fighters feet and shins during sparring. Most fighters aim to land kicks with the the mid-lower shin because it is sturdier and more dangerous. However, the shin has a limit too, so protective gear is a good idea for hard training. A little bit of padding to the distribute the power on a shin to shin collision can save you a traumatizing hospital trip. Just ask Anderson Silva.
Also, the shin guards help protect your training partner, which is especially important early on. A veteran kick boxer or muay thai guy learns to control their kicks. This skill can take months to years to master and is vital to sparring safely. Before a new fighter gains this control, shin guards should be mandatory.
This protects your teeth. Most people realize you need to wear this while striking, but you also should wear it while grappling. Even though grappling is inherently safer than striking, it’s still highly dynamic. You could get a knee or an elbow to the face at any time and be spitting out chicklets. Plus, you need to wear it for competition, so you better get used to it, especially when you are breathing hard.
On that note, you can also use the mouthpiece while conditioning, running, or weight training. The point is to get so used to breathing with the mouth guard in that you won’t even notice it when you’re sparring or competing.
The grappling focused sports like wrestling and BJJ generally disallow cups as they are uncomfortable and in some cases provide an advantage to the wearer. However, it is required in MMA competitions (for men), so you need to learn how to deal with it.
That doesn’t mean you need to wear it all the time, but you need to train with it often enough that it becomes an after thought. Besides, nobody wants a round kick vasectomy.
Grappling training generally refers to everything other than striking, where the fighters have a grip on each other. This is anything from a wrist grab all the way to the full back mount. In this case, the fighters either want to escape back to free movement or fight for a dominant position to end the match via choke, submission, or strikes.
Since the goal of this phase is to attain (or escape) positional control, that is the main focus of grappling training. That means that striking is not the priority here and the required safety equipment can adjust accordingly for training purposes.
In most cases you can’t show up at a grappling tournament or MMA fight in any old pair of shorts. Pockets are forbidden at most grappling events because it becomes very scary when a finger or toe gets stuck in an opponent’s pocket. One false move and say goodbye to using that digit for a while.
The best fight shorts will be pocketless and loose enough to allow a full range of motion. This is important for any style. You’ll appreciate the extra mobility weather you are throwing a head kick or throwing up a triangle. They come in many styles but utility matters more in the ring.
The fingerless gloves used for MMA competition allow for grips, holds, and chokes that would be impossible with full-size boxing gloves. Even though you may not be striking every time you grapple, you need to train with the gloves to get used to the limitations they impose on your grip.
The rear-naked-choke you can apply bare-handed becomes a lot more difficult once you add the gloves. You have to practice with them so you know how to adapt when the time comes. It’s generally advisable to use a bit larger gloves than 4oz fight gloves. By using heavier 6 oz gloves your hands are even better protected while striking without limiting a grappler’s range of motion.
Rash Guard/Compression Shirt
This is a skin-tight shirt grapplers wear while training. It makes training much more comfortable for a few reasons. First it helps minimize a lot of the superficial scuffs and scrapes of grappling, This is for much more than vanity though.
Rash guards help protect again skin infection. Grappling is very up-close and personal. Even in the best of circumstances, skin infections are a reality to lifelong grapplers. The scuffs and scrapes can leave openings in the skin for these infections. A rash guard can help protect your upper body until you can hop in a shower after training with some antibacterial soap.
This isn’t really a piece of training gear, but you’re going to need something to put all your stuff in once you get it. A nice zip-up duffel bag should provide all the space a fighter might need to keep their equipment together, organized and dry.
It beats scrabbling together all your equipment at the last second before you leave for the gym. Nobody wants to miss the warm ups because you forgot what you did with your hand wraps or mouthpiece. Keep it all organized with a bag and make it to class on time.
Investing in Quality MMA Gear
Even if you bought the lowest quality gear you can find, you’re still going to be spending some money. So why not spend a little more to get gear that is actually going to last? 1 well crafted piece of equipment will be cheaper than the 3 cheap ones you’ll replace it with.
The other benefit of quality gear is safety. It’s hard to notice at a glance, especially as a beginner, the difference between low- and high-quality equipment. The only thing you really have to go on is reputation and price. Higher-quality gear is made with advanced construction techniques, top-quality materials, and includes multiple layers of padding when necessary to provide you with maximum protection.
This sport is dangerous enough. Don’t make it more dangerous by wasting your money on inferior protective gear. Invest in your own health and safety by purchasing quality equipment.
Every profession has it tools.
You wouldn’t set foot on a construction site without a hard hat and some steel toes. You wouldn’t start cooking without a knife and tongs. The gloves and gear of MMA are the the tools of the fighters trade. If you plan to stick with the sport for any length of time, it makes sense to invest in high-quality gear that is going to last over the long haul.