Folk wrestling exists in many forms and in most cultures, and can be considered a cultural universal. The Ancient Olympic Games were largely composed of sports that tested skills related to combat, such as armored foot races, boxing, wrestling, pankration and chariot racing, amongst others. Combat sports are first recorded during the Olympic games of 648 B.C. with pankration. Pankration allowed competitors to use all striking and grappling techniques. The only rules for this sport in its origin were no biting and no eye gouging. A winner was decided by submission, unconsciousness, or even death of an opponent. It is a common occurrence for matches to last for hours. Pankration grew in popularity during the Hellenic Period. Matches were in small square arenas to promote engagement. This tradition of combat sports was taken even further by the Romans with gladiators who would fight with weapons, sometimes to the death.
Through the Middle ages and Renaissance the tournament became popular, with jousting as a main event. While the tournament was popular amongst aristocrats, combative sports were practiced by all levels of society. The German school of late medieval martial arts distinguished sportive combat (schimpf) from serious combat (ernst). In the German Renaissance, sportive combat competitions were known as Fechtschulen, corresponding to the Prize Playing in Tudor England. Out of these Prize Playing events developed the English boxing (or prizefighting) of the 18th century, which evolved into modern boxing with the introduction of the Marquess of Queensberry rules in 1867.
Amateur boxing was part of the modern Olympic Games since their introduction in 1904. Professional boxing became popular in the United States in the 1920s and experienced a "golden age" after World War II.
The creation of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is attributed to the Gracie family of Brazil in 1925 after Asian martial arts were introduced to Brazil. Vale-tudo, wrestling, muay thai kickboxing and luta livre gained popularity. Modern Muay Thai was developed in the 1920s to 1930s. Sambo was introduced in the Soviet Union. Modern Taekwondo also emerged after the Japanese occupation of Korea and became an Olympic sport in 2000. Sanshou as part of modern wushu was developed in the People's Republic of China since the 1950s. Kickboxing and full contact karate were developed in the 1960s and became popular in Japan and the West during the 1980s and 1990s. Modern Mixed Martial Arts developed out of the interconnected subcultures of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and shoot wrestling. It was introduced in Japan in the form of Shooto in 1985, and in the United States as Ultimate Fighting Championship [UFC] in 1993. Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts were introduced in 2000, and the sport experienced a peak of popularity in the 2000s. With the popularity of MMA hitting its peak in the 2000s it allowed for multiple brands and promotions to become established and form legitimate businesses. The most well-known promotion for MMA is UFC as of 2016, this is due to being able to purchase most of the other competitors such as Strikeforce on March 11, 2011 and World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) in late 2006 and later merged with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) after its final fight on December 16, 2010. There are still other promotions working, such as Bellator MMA, ONE Championship and many others.
A photo of Connor McGregor, Jose Aldo and Dana White at a press conference for the fight between McGregor and Aldo. This shows the two fighters posing for media, increasing revenue and interest in the fight.
Popularity of combat sports by gender
Males have been the gender that will often react, enjoy and seek out combat sports due to being a male dominated sport. For many years combat sports were a male only sport with the first recorded female combat sport event in the United States of America on March 28, 1997. A study conducted by Greenwell, Hancock, Simmons and Thorn during 2015 reported that men had more experience in watching and seeking out MMA events unlike women. With this interest in combat sport, companies and promotions such as UFC or Bellator MMA have aimed advertising towards the male demographic as combat sports was more prevalent within that gender.
Today athletes usually fight one-on-one, but may still use various skill sets such as strikes in boxing that only allows punching, taekwondo where punches and kicks are the focus or muay thai and burmese boxing that also allow the use of elbows and knees. There are also grappling based sports that may concentrate on obtaining a superior positionas in freestyle or Collegiate wrestling, using throws such as in judo and Greco-Roman wrestling, or using submissions as in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Modern mixed martial arts competitions are similar to the historic Greek Olympic sport of pankration and allow a wide range of both striking and grappling techniques.
Combat sports may also be armed and the athletes compete using weapons, such as types of sword in western fencing (the foil, épée and saber) and kendo (shinai). Modern combat sports may also wear complex armour, like SCA Heavy Combat and kendo. In Gatka and Modern Arnis sticks are used, sometimes representing knives and swords.