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A narrative I commonly see is that grappling was only widely appreciated in America due to the success of Gracie Jiujitsu in the first few UFCs of the 1990s. Supposedly, people expected boxing, kickboxing, and similar striking sports to dominate because these sports had bigger audiences and more cultural significance.

However, it occurred to me that wrestling became widely practiced as a school sport throughout the 20th century, and people must've at least been generally aware of wrestling's merits considering the cultural significance of the Olympic games.

So where does the truth lie? Was wrestling really regarded as "just a sport" that couldn't stand up to the "real fighting" in striking sports? Did people respect grappling but simply had no idea how foundational it is to unarmed combat? Or was this narrative made up?

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Wrestling and judo were not unknown, but particularly outside of Olympic season generally weren't featured much. Pancrase, shootwrestling etc. were largely a curiosity among pro wrestling enthusiasts.

BJJ was featured in movies like Lethal Weapon but exploded after UFC1.

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No American won gold in Olympic Judo prior to MMA, but this is unlikely to be related to MMA, and more to multiple generations of training, Jimmy Pedro's silver and then the two gold medals of his student, Kayla Harrison. By contrast, Americans have performed well in Olympic wrestling, likely because the art has been a fixture in Western culture for longer.

People don't like me suggesting this, but my understanding is that the sport of MMA became viable when the Gracies realized you need to put it in a cage to give grappling equal viability. (You'll notice that a lot of takedowns and ground fighting takes place against the cage.) Compare that to the Ali vs. Innoki exhibition match in a boxing ring where Inoki wouldn't stand up the entire fight, presumably b/c of the possibility of being knocked out.

It's a great thing that grappling is now fully integrated into contemporary martial practice, but the efficacy in unrestricted spaces seems overstated, and utilization in a street combat scenario where there may be multiple attackers is not a good strategy.

One of the benefits of grappling is that it allows competitors to "fight" to a determinative conclusion (pin or submission) without serious injury. Peter Lorge suggested in Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century that Mongolian wrestling was promoted among Chinese troops from the early Qing to allow fighting without diminishing combat readiness.

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  • The Gracies and other grapplers won plenty of vale tudo fights in boxing rings. The game changes but grappling works just fine in that context. Apr 21 at 5:54
  • @DaveLiepmann I don't doubt it! They are one of the great families in the history of the arts, and their contribution to modern martial arts is arguably more significant than any other. And my sense is it was a process of development over at least three generations, which offers great insight into the development of martial arts in general in any system.
    – DukeZhou
    Apr 23 at 3:04
  • @DaveLiepmann I accept the downvotes, but even my comment in the answer should not be taken as a disavowal of BJJ, rather a nod to the Gracie's acumen which led to this new ultimate fighting sport, which continues to evolve!
    – DukeZhou
    Apr 23 at 3:10
  • My point is about grappling in boxing rings and unrestricted spaces, not the contribution of any family. Early Japanese MMA has quite a bit to say on the topic. Apr 23 at 5:17
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    There's a lot of conflicting explanations for Inoki's odd apprah against Ali, but the most believable one to me was a contractual prohibition on leg takedowns and standing kicks.
    – BatWannaBe
    Apr 23 at 9:50

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