One of the saddest things about having been born too soon is that by the time no-rules fighting came along, I was hopelessly old, sick and damaged. Sure, there were various "martial arts" when I was young. I tried the most popular, karate-only to discover it had more in common with ballet school than fighting. They didn't do full contact in standard karate classes back then. You were supposed to pull your punches and kicks, so you never found out if you could hurt anyone or not. Bart Simpson said it all in the episode where he pretends to go to the Mall's karate dojo, reacting to Sensei's claptrap about inner peace by saying, "Dude, I already know how not to hit a guy."
Fiction came before fact in the genesis of no-rules tournaments. Long before real full-contact inter-style competitions began, dozens of Hong Kong movies focused on imaginary secret tournaments in which fighters of different styles were lured to the mysterious East and forced to fight each other to the death: sumo vs. karate, judo vs. kickboxing, boxers against capoeira masters, aikido gurus against wrestlers. Despite the fact that every one of these movies made money from the hordes of dreaming nerds around the world, it wasn't till the late eighties some entrepreneur in the US got the obvious idea of doing one of those tournaments for real.
The first few tournaments were just about the most exciting TV I'd ever seen. You could see what worked and what didn't. Some martial arts were revealed as the frauds they'd always been, especially the ossified, ritualized Oriental shit I'd wasted my time on. Kung Fu, Karate and all the other no-contact ballets were as much use in the Bloodsport ring as a raincoat against a shotgun. The idiotic karate guys went down in the first round, every single time. Sumo was even worse. I've yet to see a Sumo win a single combat. One of the most savage inter-style fights I ever saw pitted a tall skinny Dutch kickboxer against a spherical Asian Sumo. The Dutchman's first kick knocked the Sumo against the ropes; his second landed right in the poor fat man's mouth and knocked out half his teeth.
Some of the old verities were confirmed: wrestlers almost always beat boxers, for starters. Boxers were hopeless once the grapplers had shot in past their guard. Shocked that the ref wasn't pulling them apart, they succumbed to simple chokeholds or more abstruse submission holds, and exited the ring in the first round.
But though grapplers soon eliminated "strikers" (boxers, kickboxers, karatekas), it soon became clear that not all styles of grappling were equal. The clearest verdict of the early tournaments was the absolute superiority of the Gracies and their family-owned martial art, "Brazilian Jiu Jitsu." The story went that Pa Gracie befriended a Japanese refugee in Rio, who showed him some Jiu Jitsu joint-breaking holds. Pa taught them to his innumerable sons and then took the family down to the beaches, inviting all comers to take on his progeny. Within a few years, the Gracies could beat anyone in the world. In the first tournament, Royce Gracie, who weighed in st 182 pounds, fought and beat a half-dozen men in a row, all of them much bigger than he was. You can keep your Tiger Woods; that was the most stunning sport win I've ever seen.
The only problem with the Gracies' style was that it wasn't good tv. Royce (pronounced "Hoyce") would circle a kickboxer or wrestler twice his size, then, when the guy threw his first punch, shoot inside and take his opponent down to the mat. Once on the mat, it was all over. It might take a minute (at the most), but soon the giant would be grimacing and slapping the mat to announce that as far as he was concerned, the war was over. And Royce would let go of the monster's wrist or ankle, amble out of the ring, and relax till it was time to face the next victim.
The Gracies were unbeatable for years. It took that long for other aspiring thugs to learn their system. By 2000, everybody who had a hope had learned the Gracie techniques. For the first time, betting on the Brazilian wasn't a sure thing. The martial arts had to produce results, and it did them all good. Kickboxers learned to wrestle, Judoka learned to punch, and as for kung fu and karate...well, they survived, but only because there's one born every minute.