MMA vs UFC: What’s the Difference? (4 Differences Explored)

Have you heard someone confusing the terms UFC and MMA, or are you unsure yourself about the difference between them?

In this article, we’ll look at both in terms of what they are, their origins, and why they’re so often confused.

MMA vs UFC: What’s the Key Difference?

Short answer: MMA is an acronym for the sport known as Mixed Martial Arts, whereas UFC is an acronym for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which is a business that promotes the sport of MMA.

This is not the only difference though. Here’s a list of the main differences:

  1. Separate entities – MMA is a sport and the UFC is a business promoting MMA.
  2. Origins – The UFC was founded in 1993 and MMA originated in Ancient Greece at the 33rd Olympiad in 668 BCE (2,690 years ago).
  3. Term origins – The UFC helped promote the widespread use of the term MMA from 1996 onwards.
  4. Rules – The UFC was influential in the creation of the Official Unified Rules of MMA, but doesn’t use the same weight class divisions.

What Is MMA?

MMA stands for Mixed Martial Arts and is a full-contact fighting sport, which includes different types of combat sports from around the globe, centered on grappling, ground fighting, and striking.

The different types of combat sports involved in MMA include Brazilian jiu-jistu, boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, muay thai, taekwondo, judo, karate, and many others.

While all martial arts are legal in MMA, there’s a long list of illegal moves present in the Official Unified Rules of MMA, which negates the use of some martial arts in MMA.

However, although the Official Unified Rules of MMA are considered the de-facto global MMA rules, MMA promotions such as ONE FC which are based in Singapore use their own rule set, where they allow normally illegal strikes such as knees to the head of a grounded opponent.

This means MMA can be slightly different depending on where in the world it’s taking place, as the sport is still in its infancy compared to sports like boxing or wrestling.

Where Does MMA Originate From?


The first known origins of MMA originated in Ancient Greece in the form of a sport called pankration.

It mainly featured the formulated traditions of boxing and wrestling, but athletes were also allowed to kick, lock, and choke their opponents; meaning early elements of jiu-jitsu were involved despite it not being a martial art yet.

Pankration was first used at the 33rd Olympiad in 648 BC and had only two rules: no biting and no gouging.

Athletes would fight until one was badly hurt and couldn’t continue or they surrendered by raising their index finger.

Qin Dynasty

As mentioned above, MMA involves techniques from many different combat sports, and while some of these sports like wrestling originate from around 15,000 years ago, a more modern form of MMA originated in the Chinese Qin dynasty, which lasted from 221 BC to 206 BC (15 years), around 2243 years ago.

Here, they held Lei tai – a sport without rules featuring wrestling, boxing, and various Chinese martial arts. Lei tai was a bare-knuckle MMA tournament fought on an elevated arena, where opponents would fight until one either surrendered, was pushed from the stage, or died.

Bruce Lee

In more modern times, Bruce Lee is considered the father of MMA, after he bridged the gap between the East and West through martial arts films, and founded the philosophy known as Jeet Kune Do (1960s & 70s).

Jeet Kune Do was a precursor to today’s MMA, as it’s a philosophy advocating fighters not to restrict themselves to one martial art, but to incorporate the most useful techniques from many martial arts into their own personal fighting style.

Therefore, Bruce Lee can be considered the reason behind the martial arts action movie craze from the 70s to the 90s, and likely the reason many MMA promotions started and became so popular, so quickly.

MMA on Modern Television

There were many smaller MMA precursors in the 20th century, but another substantial moment was the first televised MMA match in 1963 between Milo Savage and Gene LeBell.

Milo was a professional boxer and Gene was a judo, wrestling, and karate fighter who’d previously won judo nationals.

Gene went on to win the fight in the fourth round via a choke, which hugely boosted the popularity of MMA.

This would then lead to another televised cross-combat bout between boxer Muhammad Ali, and Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki in 1976.

The rules of the fight were too restrictive for each fighter and the fight ended in a draw.

However, because of Ali’s global popularity, the fact he entered a ring against a wrestler led to an increased interest in martial arts and MMA around the world.

Where Does the Term MMA Originate From?

Even though MMA originated thousands of years ago, it was never actually called mixed martial arts. The exact date MMA was coined is unknown but it was first used by critic Howard Rosenburg, in his review of UFC 1 in 1993.

Although the origins of the term are debatable, it was Jeff Blatnick who made the term mainstream as he continually used it during commentary from 1996 onwards, starting at UFC 10.

He started using the term as he believed it would help the UFC in rebranding its image away from the stigma surrounding the promotion and no-holds-barred fighting.

Jeff would go on to work with the various State Athletic Commissions in order to help establish the Official Unified Rules of MMA.

This is one of the reasons UFC and MMA are often confused, as the UFC brought around the coining of MMA and popularized it.

What Is the UFC?

The UFC is the number one MMA promotion who are based in America and holds events worldwide where they showcase MMA through 12 different weight class divisions under the Official Unified Rules of MMA.

These weight class divisions are separated by 8 divisions for men and 4 divisions for women.

They’re owned by Endeavor Group Holdings, which took majority ownership of the UFC in 2016 after the Fertitta brothers agreed to sell the promotion for $4 billion, who had bought the UFC in 2001 for a small price of $2 million.

Endeavor later became 100% owners in 2021 after buying out the other shareholders for a price of $1.7 billion.

Were There Any Popular MMA Promotions Before the UFC? (UFC Origins)

The UFC is considered the first major MMA promotion as they were founded 8 years before the Unified Rules of MMA were established. However, there were a few MMA promotions before the UFC, and two of the biggest were:

Vale Tudo

Founded in 1920s Brazil, Vale Tudo had very similar intentions to the UFC, as both were using MMA and were looking to prove which martial art was the best.

Also, like the UFC, Vale Tudo was used as a synonym for MMA in Brazil during the 20th century.

Vale Tudo was started by the Gracie family, with Rorion Gracie also co-founding the UFC.

During the 20th century they held shows in circuses across Brazil called Vale Tudo, and it eventually made it to TV during the 1960s, but was soon canceled after someone’s arm was broken live.

Vale Tudo from then on remained an underground MMA culture, and although it featured MMA, the Gracie family always wanted to show the superiority of their jiu-jitsu.

The Gracie family even held a public vale tudo event which was also known as jiu-jitsu vs martial arts.


Founded in 1985, this promotion featured submissions, takedowns, and striking with all limbs; eventually introducing vale tudo to the Shooto promotion in 1994 as a form of MMA with fewer rules.

Shooto is still present today and is one of Japan’s biggest MMA promotions, holding amateur and professional fights.

How Did the UFC Help Develop MMA?

The UFC was founded in 1993 and its first event held was a no-holds-barred tournament, which they used as a way to find and showcase the most effective martial art.

So despite the first UFC events allowing all combat styles, the original UFC fighters were one-dimensional and most fights involved one fighting style against another – such as wrestler vs boxer, kickboxer vs judo, or Bjj vs karate.

Throughout the 90s, UFC events received a lot of criticism for the no-holds-barred style of fighting and were the catalyst for commissions and organizations to start thinking about how MMA would need major reform for it to become a real sport.

This happened in 2001 when the Official Unified Rules of MMA were introduced and the UFC was one of the first promotions to adopt these new rules.

Not only this, but the UFC worked closely with the State Athletic Commissions who put together the rules for MMA.

The new rules cleaned up MMA and turned it into a professional sport by implementing new illegal moves, judging criteria, weight classes, and much more. 

This meant non-sport martial arts such as Krav Maga were now incompatible, as most of their effective moves were now considered illegal; such as kicks to the groin.

The UFC also helped develop the elite modern style of MMA by taking the global language of MMA and turning it into big business.

They’ve continually reinvested into the promotion by putting on better shows each year, and by building out the UFC Fight Pass which has 20,000 + fights from many different martial arts promotions, plus an unparalleled amount of MMA content.

Essentially, the UFC showcased MMA in its most raw, naked, and amateur form, and was hugely influential in the molding of MMA as a sport, and in developing the modern style of elite MMA we see today.

This is the reason they became the Photoshop of the MMA market and why many people confuse the UFC with MMA.

MMA vs UFC: What Rules Are Different?

MMA promotions have largely abided by the Official Unified Rules of MMA since 2001, and the UFC is no different. The MMA rules feature an extensive list of rules, but not all of them need to be fully adopted.

The only difference is that the UFC uses 9 possible weight classes, where men compete in 8 of these divisions and women compete in 4, making 12 total UFC divisions.

On the other hand, MMA rules have a total of 15 possible weight classes before you consider dividing them into men’s and women’s divisions.

The UFC has less because the rules don’t state how many weight classes an MMA promotion has to have, meaning they’re able to add or take away any division as they please.

The UFC has added 7 extra weight class divisions since 2010, the men’s bantamweight, featherweight, and flyweight divisions followed by the women’s bantamweight, strawweight, flyweight, and featherweight divisions.

MMA vs UFC: The Bottom Line

Ultimately, there aren’t too many differences between MMA and UFC because they’re different entities, but the biggest difference is MMA is a sport and the UFC is a promotion showcasing that sport.

Despite MMA originating over two thousand years ago, it’s easy to see how people confuse the two because the UFC is the major reason for the rising popularity of the sport and also making the term MMA mainstream.

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