MMA then and now - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

MMA then and now

Kaynan Kaku Kaynan Kaku
Egan Inoue Egan Inoue
T. Jay Thompson T. Jay Thompson
Tommy Waters Tommy Waters

By Stephanie Lum - bio | email

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - From ultimate fighter reality shows, 'Tap Out' t-shirts, to the rise of BJ Penn, it's hard not to notice the growing popularity of mixed martial arts. Today, millions pay to watch MMA fighters take each other down.

"MMA is blowing up big time. I think it's the fastest growing sport or one of them for sure," said Penn Fitness Center instructor Kaynan Kaku.

Mixed martial arts wasn't always so mainstream. There was a time when you couldn't watch ultimate fighting on TV and a time when the sport that combines boxing, jiu jitsu, kick boxing, wrestling and judo was considered a barbaric blood sport.

The very first ultimate fighting event in Hawaii took place in a dive bar near the Honolulu Airport in 1995. At the old Gussie La Mours, men fought bare fisted, in street clothes, there was no such thing as weight class and no rules.

"It was kind of like this bar room fighting. You had more of the rough neck guys and motorcycle guys showing up in there," said former MMA fighter Egan Inoue.

Promoter T. Jay Thompson called the state's first ultimate fight "No Holds Barred Fighting".

"It became so popular, we did monthly events," said Thompson.

In 1996, Thompson moved the fights to a bigger venue, under a different name: "Superbrawl".

"Vitor Belfort, Frank Shamrock, Pat Miletich, Tim Sylvia, Josh Barnett, Falaniko Vitale, Kimo Leopoldo, Jason "Mayhem" Miller and Wesley "Cabbage" Correira. These guys all got their start in Superbrawl," said Thompson.

No one captivated the audience and sold out the Blaisdell, however, like Egan Inoue, a local fighter skilled in muay thai, Brazilian jiu jitsu and boxing.

"All the submissions, the chokes and the arm locks that you see. I always compare that to playing chess. You're playing chess with your body," explained Inoue. "When I am doing jiu jitsu, you're setting up moves on someone four or five moves away. So, I move my body this way, you move your body and fall into my game."

Inoue rose to become a five-time "Superbrawl" world champion.

In 2004, another local fighter made headlines. BJ Penn won the UFC welterweight title and later, the lightweight title.

Still, MMA couldn't shake off the images from its violent beginnings and in 2006, Representative Tommy Waters introduced a bill to ban it.

"I'm not sure if there's any socially redeeming qualities in ultimate fighting," said Waters.

Parents raised concerns about kids getting hurt reenacting ultimate fight scenes in makeshift rings. It sparked a debate and those for and against weighed in.

"Mixed martial arts falls for me in the negative, I don't think it falls in the positive," said actor and martial artist Jason Lee. "A lot of the martial arts' traditional sense that gets abandoned in gladiator style competition, is a lot of humility, the ability to cultivate life than to take life and the ability to hurt than to heal."

"To ban a sport like mixed martial arts; that could be the worst thing you could do to all of the kids right now. My gym is a place for kids to go to to stay out of trouble and focus on being the best they can be," said UFC champion BJ Penn.

In the end, MMA survived but was forced to change.

Long gone are the days of fighting bare fisted. Today, fighters are required to wear gloves, and must undergo health screenings and blood tests for HIV and hepatitis. Licensed medical professionals must be at ringside, and starting in July, the state will even begin regulating amateur MMA.

"We'll have a true sanctioning body that will come in, over see it just like it is in Las Vegas and the other states and that will only legitimize the sport," said Thompson.

With the door wide open on MMA, Thompson said the sport is blowing up.

"Now, you're getting Olympic trained athletes, guys from the NFL and the kids are starting to train younger," said Thompson.

There are more local venues giving up and coming fighters a chance to step in the ring and follow in the footsteps of those who came before them.

Inoue is now retired. He teaches martial arts and spreads awareness about MMA in the community. After organizing the first fight in Hawaii 15 years ago, T. Jay Thompson is still promoting fights and is currently working with UFC's President Dana White to one day bring a major UFC event to the Aloha Stadium.

"It could happen if the people of Hawaii pushes for it. Who knows, it could be BJ Penn versus Georges Saint Pierre all over again," said Thompson.

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The future of MMA

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