PHILADELPHIA MMA — A BRIEF HISTORY
The history of mixed martial arts (MMA) in Philadelphia is a rich one, dating back to the early 1980s. Although famously known for its extensive boxing legacy, Philadelphia has emerged as one of the “mightiest little cities” in the sport.
The Early Years
In 1979, Bill Viola, a karate black belt and promoter, founded CV Productions, the first MMA promotion in the United States. CV Productions held its first event, the “Battle of the Tough Guys,” in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on March 20, 1980. The event was a success, and CV Productions went on to hold over 130 more events in the next few years. Although not explicitly based on Philadelphia, its proximity to the city meant that many Philadelphia area hopefuls would compete and find success on these early shows.
In 1980, CV Productions rebranded its events as the “Super Fighters League” (SFL). The SFL was the first MMA league in the United States, and it helped to popularize the sport. The SFL featured some of the top MMA fighters in the world, including Frank Shamrock, Royce Gracie, and Ken Shamrock! These have now become household names associated with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (the UFC).
Banning MMA in Pennsylvania
In 1983, the Pennsylvania State Legislature banned MMA in the state. This occurred long before the later, more visible push from Senator John McCain to ban the sport of MMA nationwide. This ban would exist for over 25 years! Pennsylvania would actually become one of the last states to lift the ban on MMA in February of 2009. Fun Fact: Coach Jackson Galka was the first MMA fight on the first all-professional MMA event ever in Pennsylvania!
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Philadelphia — the roots of MMA
Early in the sport of MMA, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was king. Royce Gracie had demonstrated the lethal effectiveness of the sport in the first UFC and it took many, many years for the rest of the MMA world to catch up to what he was able to do in the cage. For many years, the Jiu Jitsu and MMA (or “NHB, No Holds Barred”) worlds were basically superimposed upon one another. Most BJJ practitioners did not train exclusively in grappling, but also in more street fighting related skillsets that did include some rough striking. It wouldn’t be until much later, in the mid 2000’s, that the sport of BJJ would begin to really differentiate itself from MMA and come into its own in the United States.
Steve Maxwell was an early pioneer of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in the Philadelphia area. Nearly every Philadelphia based Jiu Jitsu school can trace some relationship back to Maxercise, the first Jiu Jitsu academy in the city.
The lineage of North Star Jiu Jitsu passes through Balance Studios, and then up to Maxercise initially.
Despite the proliferation of BJJ and Kickboxing gyms in the Philadelphia area now, prior to the early 2000’s these facilities were rare and those that practiced the arts were part of a very small, underground community.
The Ultimate Fighter Reality Show and the mainstreaming of MMA
In 2005, The Ultimate Fighter debuted on Spike TV to a large (and largely uneducated) crowd. For the first time, people from all over the world could get an inside look into the sport, the athletes, and the human drama that makes combat sports so compelling. From there, MMA became mainstream and interest in training exploded.
It was right around this time that some of the current Philadelphia MMA institutions arrived. For example, Balance Studios is one of Philadelphia’s longest running schools, and has produced dozens of affiliates and over a hundred BJJ Black Belts.
Many of the current academy owners and coaches had at one point trained and competed together in the early to late 2000’s at one of the few, early gyms or another!
Modern Day MMA in Philadelphia
With each generation of athletes moving through the ranks and some then getting into coaching or running their own successful programs, the overall level of MMA in this city has skyrocketed over the years. New students have access to resources that were unthinkable even a decade ago: Black Belt instruction, professional kickboxing instruction, and entire libraries of techniques and skills available for free at their fingertips online.
In addition, the standard of amenities, service, and cleanliness at MMA gyms has improved as well. North Star MMA, for example, boasts over 5,300 square feet of training space with 3,000+ square feet of mat space, a changing room, and three bathrooms(!).
New students can accomplish in one year what others before them accomplished in multiple years. The level and standard of everything in this city has simply gone up to exceptional levels.
In the early 2000s, “average” people training in combat sports for recreation or fitness would have been somewhat unthinkable — only the truly dedicated had been on the mats, honing their craft. But now, MMA has become about as common and respected a healthy hobby as yoga, pilates, running, cycling, or anything else could be. People from all different walks of life, with different goals and aspirations, can come together under one roof to challenge themselves to become better people.
If you are reading this and have any interest in training, I encourage you to reach out to your local school and get some more information immediately. You will be surprised at how accessible and friendly the training is, and how much you can grow in even a short amount of time at the facility.
MMA in Philadelphia in the future and beyond!
MMA has only gained in popularity with the passing of every year. Athletes who began training as children many, many years ago are now entering the sport and pushing the limits of everything we thought was possible.
We can expect standards and professionalism to improve in time, and more accommodations made for different types of people who might want to participate in the sport, but at different levels of commitment and contact.
One thing is for certain — Philadelphia is, and will remain, one of the toughest cities on the planet!