‘Modern Warriors’: The MMA/Gladiator Connection

Gladiator Art

(Well, that’s what you get for leaving it in the hands of the judges.)

Friends, Romans, CagePotatoans, lend me your ears. We’re all familiar with the UFC’s famous gladiator introduction. And if you’re familiar with it, you probably want them to change it. Guess what? It ain’t happening. Dana White (along with most Americans) is fascinated by that era of Roman history and its various dramatic representations, be it in the movie Spartacus, HBO’s Rome or the upcoming movie The Eagle. One can’t help but be infatuated with their tales of valor, violence, and debauchery. We can all go peruse Wikipedia and learn about the roots of MMA in pankration, so there’s no need for us to delve into its lineage and bore you.

Let’s take a quick look at gladiators. Many of them were slaves or prisoners condemned to fight, though there are some who volunteered for the job. While most gladiators’ non-fighting lives were rife with pain and sorrow — I mean, they were slaves after all — stepping into the arena was seen as a blessing, a chance to showcase their skills, a place to hear the cheers of the crowd and the love of the people. Some gladiators were as popular in the arena as the Senators themselves. While outsiders saw combat as barbaric and violent, it was a necessary evil to the combatants in order to attain glory.

For the gladiator, it wasn’t always about winning or losing, though losing could prove to be fatal; it was also about getting the crowd behind you. Most people aren’t aware that many gladiatorial contests were worked (like wrasslin’) in order to garner fan support. Look at it like Chris Lytle making a deal to try and win Fight of the Night. If you fought valiantly, the crowd cheered — unless you kept losing. We’ve all seen that “thumbs up or thumbs down” scene in Gladiator; well that wasn’t exactly accurate, but it wasn’t too far off from the truth. Your life was potentially in the hands of the official over the games and if they weren’t entertained, you died.

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It’s obvious how MMA fighters can relate to that, fighting for next to nothing in front of blood-lusting crowds who cheered if you were proven worthy. Especially more recently with your contract status being held on by a string following an unexciting fight, many fighters choose to go out on their shields rather than play it safely. MMA fighters are called “modern day gladiators” and the name fits. In fact, here’s a short-list of fighters who have been directly inspired by Roman society and the gladiators.

• Ross “The Gladiator” Pointon – Remember him from The Ultimate Fighter Season 3? The Brit who loved to drink? Recipient of one of the worst gashes in MMA history? He went 6-10 in MMA and is now seemingly retired, but at least he won his last fight.

• Lucio “Spartan” Linhares – He had a brief stint in the UFC, losing in a rhyming last name battle to Rousimar Palhares as well as Yushin Okami. He’s 21-6 overall and has won his last two outside of the Octagon.

• Alessio “Legionarius” Sakara – Sakara is probably most famous for his passion for body art. You may also remember him from the Houston Alexander fight where we found out that Houston Alexander is for real, or at least was at one time. Legionarius actually had a career as a pro boxer, sports an MMA record of 15-7-0-1, and is currently on a three-fight winning streak. He returns at UFC on Versus 3 against Rafael Natal.

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• Vinicius “Spartan” Kappke de Queiroz – He fought at UFC 120, and was immediately bounced out for steroid use. The Chute Boxe product faced Rob Broughton in his sole Octagon appearance, losing by third-round RNC.

• Marcus “Maximus” Aurelio – A lightweight fighter who had a few fights in the UFC, losing to Evan Dunham, Clay Guida, Tyson Griffin, and Hermes Franca. Despite his submission skills and BJJ blackbelt, he most recently dropped a decision to Shinya Aoki last September.

• Roman Mitichyan – Yes, technically this isn’t a nickname, but I had to include him. He was the contestant on The Ultimate Fighter who had the meltdown in the doctor’s office after being told he couldn’t fight. (“I’m not a poosie” is still said around my house.) He’s 7-3 and was cut from the UFC after losing to George Sotiropoulos.

• It’s not only fighters, Bellator is Latin for “warrior” and their logo is a Roman centurion. And the Gladiator Challenge promotion is even more obvious about their admiration of ancient sport-violence.

Of course all didn’t end well for the gladiators and fans of the games. Outside pressure from Senators and magistrates led to disfavor of the contests in legislative circles. In addition, the increase in the popularity of Christianity in the Roman empire caused many to judge the games through a newer eye. Constantine I, best known to the uneducated as a character in a 2005 Keanu Reeves movie of the same name, was the first Christian Roman Emperor and the first to ban gladiator contests, stating “In times in which peace and peace relating to domestic affairs prevail bloody demonstrations displease us. Therefore, we order that there may be no more gladiator combats.”

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Politicians pushing their moral values upon the people, telling them what’s good for them by banning certain things. Sound familiar? While MMA lacks the deaths and gore of Roman gladiator combat, we still have detractors in positions of power trying to tell fans that our sport isn’t good for us. Hopefully, MMA doesn’t go the way of the gladiators.

We’ve discussed how current MMA draws from gladiator culture. Recently, representations of the era in pop culture have clearly been drawing inspiration from MMA — and for good reason. I know, everyone thinks the Gracies invented Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and all the holds therein, but that’s not necessarily true. Fighters have been using those techniques for centuries. The above video is from the Starz acclaimed series Spartacus (which is the shit, by the way), about the events preceding the famous slave revolt. This particular scene is where the owner of the “ludus” (gladiator training school) named Batiatus has made a wager with a smug punk rival of his to have his best warrior fight in the streets. I don’t want to spoil the clip, but the reason why we included it here is there’s a sequence that is remnant of a very famous sequence in MMA history. It is, of course, violent and vulgar, so if you are averse to that, close your eyes and ears.