We often speak of the "modern era" of MMA in a confident, off-hand manner as if everything in today's sport has changed from the early days of 1990's MMA. We talk about cross-training, a "new generation of athletes" raised on MMA who don't have a native style, etc. etc.
Despite all that, the reality, as evidenced by Saturday's Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix, is that things haven't really changed all that much. In the old days of MMA there were a few styles that worked -- Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Dutch kickboxing, American catch wrestling by way of Japan, Russian Sambo and good old fashioned brawling.
Looking at Saturday's two quarter-final bouts, exponents of four of those styles will be making a case for supremacy, the Russians all fought in the February installment. Let's look at how the fighters break down.
Style: Dutch Kickboxing
1990s Analogue: Bas Rutten
Holland is a tiny country that's had an outsize impact on combat sports. Starting with the gangster-kickboxer Jan Plas who trained Japanese Kyokushin Karate and brought modern kickboxing to Holland in 1978 with the opening of his Meijiro Gym in Amsterdam. Plas' student Rob Kamen added a big helping of Muay Thai to his repertoire and became one of the greatest kickboxers of all time.
The Japanese pro-wrestlers who created the proto-MMA events like Pancrase, Shooto and Rings paid close attention and recruited many Dutch fighters to compete in their promotions. None more successfully than the legendary Bas Rutten who became the King of Pancrase and later the UFC heavyweight champion. Rutten pioneered the template that Dutch fighters have followed ever since: devastating Muay Thai/Kyokushin striking combined with effective submission grappling.
Alistair Overeem is currently the most fearsome living exponent of that style. He's the first fighter to hold a major MMA title and the K-1 kickboxing championship at the same time. He's got excellent striking technique, awesome power and the submission skills to finish a stunned opponent with a nice range of holds.
Style: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
1990s Analogue: Royce Gracie
This one is too easy. Everyone knows the story of Rorion Gracie bringing his family's Jiu Jitsu style to the U.S. in the 1990s and co-creating the UFC. Rorion chose his younger brother Royce as the family's champion and the rest is history. Royce made a convincing case for the effectiveness of jiu jitsu and submission fighting as a whole and changed the way the world thinks about fighting and the martial arts.
The origins of Brazilian jiu jitsu lie in the global melting pot of the early 20th century when a Kodokan trained Judoka named Mitsuyo Maeda traveled to North America to compete on the catch wrestling circuit and represent Judo on the international stage. Maeda traveled across the U.S., to Europe and eventually fought his way down to South America, absorbing considerable lessons from the wrestlers he competed against along the way. By the time he taught Royce's father Helio and uncle Carlos, he was a state-of-the-art fighting machine. Helio further modified the art to work better for a smaller, weaker fighter and the rest is history.
Fabricio Werdum is a product of the impact of MMA on jiu jitsu. After the Gracies had become international stars, interest in jiu jitsu skyrocketed in Brazil and a sporting system of competition was organized. No longer the secret family system of the Gracies, Brazilian jiu jitsu grew by leaps and bounds as a new generation of better athletes competed in events like the Mundials and the Abu Dhabi submission grappling tournaments. Werdum is not only a BJJ world champion and ADCC medal winner, he's also added a serious Muay Thai striking arsenal to his game by training at the famous Chute Boxe academy -- home of BJJ's bitterest rivals in the 1990s.
Style: Catch Wrestling
1990s Analogue: Ken Shamrock
In the early UFC's Royce Gracie's biggest rival was American grappler Ken Shamrock. Ironically, Shamrock had learned his submission grappling in Japan, where he fought for the Pancrase promotion. Even more ironically, the Japanese wrestlers who taught Shamrock were part of a lineage going back to English-American catch wrestling -- a fighting art forgotten in its home countries.
Shamrock learned catch wrestling from Masakatsu Funaki who learned from Yoshiaki Fujiwara and Antoni Inoki students of the great Karl Gotch, a student of Billy Riley's Snakepit in Lancashire, England. Ken's adoptive brother Frank took catch to new heights of success in his epic late 1990's UFC championship run. Japanese fighter Kazushi Sakuraba used his catch skills to beat numerous Gracies in Pride Fighting Championships and earn the nickname "The Gracie Hunter".
Barnett learned his brand of catch from Pancrase competitor Matt Hume and at the UWF Snake Pit directly from Billy Robinson, one of the last wrestlers to train at the original Lancashire Snake Pit. Unlike the Shamrocks, Barnett has proudly flown the catch wrestling flag throughout his career. The tournament is possibly his last chance to return to the top levels of the sport after a career that has been dogged by failed steroid tests and blown opportunities.
1990s Analogue: David "Tank" Abbott
As exciting as the intellectual ferment of early MMA was with skilled technicians like Gracie, Shamrock, Dan Severn, Oleg Taktarov and Marco Ruas dominating the action, when brawler Tank Abbott came in and started clowning fools with pure power and a bad attitude, fans went crazy. Abbott had some collegiate wrestling experience and boxing training, but the techniques he used were purely power based and damn they worked.
Tank never won a UFC title, but he carved out a niche for fighters who are pure expressions of brawn over brains, power over precision, and attitude over experience. Rogers, a big burly man who worked in the tire department at Sears until just a year or two ago, epitomizes that style of fighting.
Rogers went 7-0 before quitting his day job and blitzed Andrei Arlovski to score his biggest MMA win. He later took the great Fedor Emelianenko into the second round, giving him a much tougher fight than former UFC champs Tim Sylvia or Andrei Arlovski in the process. Rogers lost badly to Alistair Overeem and is looking to prove he belongs in the top ranks of the sport by doing well in the Strikeforce tournament.