It started off as a way for martial artists to test their various styles against one another, but it has evolved into one of the most popular sports on the planet.
MMA is slowly turning into a part of mainstream culture in many parts of the world, and it seems to be on course to eventually replace boxing as the premier combat sport.
Funnily enough, MMA-style events have been around for thousands of years, even though many seem to think the concept was created a few decades ago.
MMA-style fights can be dated as far back as 648 BC, when the martial art 'Pankration' became a part of the Greek Olympic Games. Unfortunately, it's hard to determine when exactly Pankration -- also referred to back then as pammachion\pammachon, which means 'total combat' -- was developed, since Greek mythology claims it was formed by Hercules and Theseus (you know, those guys who used to run around naked slaying monsters).
What we do know for sure if the fact that ancient Pankration did have a lot in common with modern MMA, with punches, kicks, joint locks, and throws being utilized. Simply put, everything besides biting and eye gouging was allowed in ancient Pankration, much like the early days of modern MMA.
Of course, the two sports also have a few differences.
While today's MMA fighters compete inside cages or rings while moderately clothed, Pankratiasts competed oiled-up and naked inside pits. While deaths are rare in today's MMA (even in the earlier days), fatalities were a normal part of ancient Pankration.
Over time, travelers from various parts of the world picked up techniques from Pankration, and some believe many of the traditional martial arts in the world are derived from it.
Unlike Pankration, most traditional martial arts specialized in a particular aspect of fighting, with practitioners of each style thinking theirs is superior. This led to the development of many incomplete styles
While they were obviously others who mixed multiple traditional styles before him, Bruce Lee deserves a lot of credit for changing how many martial artists think and train. He didn't buy into the theory that any style was superior to another, urging martial artists to train in multiple styles.
Lee's prowess as a martial artist and popularity/mystique as an actor carried his philosophy a long way.
The Gracie family also played a significant role in the development of modern MMA, as they modified traditional Jiu Jitsu into what is now known as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. At that point in time, there weren't many martial artists who trained intensively on the ground like the Gracies did, and that was apparent during the first UFC tournament in 1993.
Royce Gracie was the smallest guy heading into the UFC 1, yet he had a distinct advantage over all of his opponents. Royce knew what to do in order to avoid the punches and kicks they would try to hit him with, while they didn't know how to stop his takedowns and submissions.
It quickly became obvious many martial artists at the time were unfamiliar with ground-fighting, and the undersized Royce made quick work of his opponents, winning the first two UFC tournaments. He used the exact same strategy every fight: clinch, takedown, submit.
BJJ was definitely the dominant martial art during the early stages of MMA, but -- not to take anything away from the Gracies -- it wasn't because it was superior to other styles, but rather, because most fighters didn't know how to deal with it.
As MMA grew, combatants became more educated about BJJ, shifting the balance of power. Strikers realized they could do well against grapplers by mastering defense against takedowns and submissions. Guys like the UFC's Chuck Liddell helped bring strikers back, frustrating grapplers by complimenting their stand-up skills with solid takedown defense.
Today, MMA fighters are well versed in every aspect of fighting, as there is no longer room for one-trick ponies.
At this point, it appears MMA is destined to be a part of mainstream sports, and it might even find itself back in the Olympics someday.
A few more world-class mixed martial arts organizations besides the UFC would probably improve the odds of MMA reaching the popularity levels of established sports like soccer and basketball, but overall, the future looks bright.