So just who do you think invented the modern sport of mixed martial arts? Dana White? The Gracie family? Bruce Lee? Well you’re all wrong according to Aaron Banks, who says he came up with the idea back in 1977 and the UFC has been copying him ever since.
Prior to White, Banks, known by the title “Great Grandmaster,” was probably the most successful and well-known promoter the martial arts has ever seen. In the 1970s and early 1980s, he staged a circus-like event called “The Oriental World of Self-Defense” at New York’s Madison Square Garden, which aired every year on ABC’s Wide World of Sports and featured an eclectic melange of board breaking, karate kata exhibitions and kung-fu demonstrations, as well as more… let’s say “unique” performances, such as people hanging themselves with a noose or allegedly catching bullets in their teeth.
“Ronald Duncan (a popular master of ninjutsu) said he wanted to catch flaming arrows. I told him ‘go for it’,” says Banks. “But he missed and the arrow hit a seat in the audience. Fortunately the person sitting there was in the bathroom. A guy from the Garden came down and said ‘Are you crazy? You can’t do that!’ So no more flaming arrows.”
Just like today’s audiences, the crowds back then were impatient with the more subtle and elegant displays of martial artistry (and really, who can stay awake while watching a tai chi long form?) and instead craved action. So Banks began exploring the idea of “mixed” martial arts by holding matches featuring boxers vs. kickboxers, judoka vs. wrestlers and karateka vs. kung fu practitioners.
Finally, he says he decided to go all in with the idea by staging what he refers to as a ketsugo match between Butch Bell and Kasim Dubur, a pair of local martial artists who held an intense dislike for each other. In a three-round “anything goes” match that supposedly featured everything from headbutts to groin shots, Dubur was declared the winner by decision.
“It was bloody, gruesome, disgusting… the audience loved it!” says Banks.
Unlike nowadays, when New York State law bans professional MMA competition and the athletic commission threatens to come down like a ton of bricks on anyone promoting a pro match, Banks says the athletic commission and Madison Square Garden couldn’t have cared less what kind of fights he was staging back in the 1970s as long as he sold tickets.
Banks was even going to stage an entire ketsugo tournament but had a change of heart when he says he realized the event was just too dangerous. Though he doesn’t regret “creating” mixed martial arts, he feels he inadvertently spawned an abomination by inspiring the UFC to steal his idea and pervert the true meaning of martial arts.
Listening to Banks recount his own journey through the martial arts world is akin to listening to your grandfather tell how lucky you kids are that you didn’t have it as tough as he did in the old days. He began training in Shotokan karate in 1958 with a former Marine drill sergeant named John Slocum before moving on to train with the noted goju karate master Peter Urban.
“I had over 300 dojo fights. There was no protective equipment. We made contact with each other, lots of contact. There was a lot of blood on the floor at Slocum’s and it was even worse with Urban,” he says. “We never complained about it, though. I learned the hard way; the real way!”
But Banks made his true mark in martial arts as a promoter. He began staging increasingly large karate tournaments in New York during the 1960s, eventually importing the top fighters of the day, like Chuck Norris from California, to appear at his events. By the time he created the Oriental World of Self-Defense and moved to Madison Square Garden, he was drawing crowds of 20,000 people.
Probably no martial arts event since then has ever drawn such large audiences… until the UFC came along. But Banks is no fan of the latter promotion.
“They’re capitalizing on martial arts but they shouldn’t even call it martial arts. Martial arts are a science. They call it mixing but that has nothing to do with science. These are true arts but what they do – it’s like taking a Rembrandt painting and scribbling on it,” insists Banks, who still stages martial arts shows featuring performers rolling around in broken glass and laying on beds of nails as cinder blocks are broken on them.
But Banks goes a step further in his criticism saying that all the current UFC events are fixed.
“There’s no way people choking each other out like that is real. It has to be scripted. The promoters are just in it for the money. I wasn’t in it for the money or the glory. Nowadays people are just jumping on the bandwagon. But if you do that, you are denying yourself the true way of the arts.”
And a chance to be shot by a flaming arrow.
About the author: A freelance writer and long-time martial arts practitioner, Mark Jacobs is the only person ever to win both a Nobel Prize for literature and a UFC championship. Though perhaps best known for his piloting of the final space shuttle mission, Mark prefers to be recognized for his work with starving blind orphans in Ethiopia. He is also known for a rather bizarre sense of humor and only a partial grasp on reality. Visit his website and click on the links to buy one of his books before he goes broke.