Competitions in the vein of MMA existed before the UFC, but for a long time, it was an absolute jungle. There was nothing even resembling a unified set of rules, and fights were put on by independent promoters, usually without any oversight by an athletic commission.
One of the most high profile match-ups to come out of this era happened in In 1976, when boxing legend Muhammad Ali (then the heavyweight champion) and wrestling icon Antonio Inoki faced off in a mixed rules bout in Japan.
Unfortunately, this match-up was anything but straightforward. According to some stories, Ali was under the impression that the fight would be a worked pro wrestling-esque match, while Inoki had been informed that it would be a real fight.
When Ali's camp found that out, they demanded the rules be changed to protect their fighter and his lucrative boxing career. After Ali's representatives threatened to call it off, a huge set of restrictions were placed on Inoki. Despite being a submission wrestler, he would not be allowed to grapple, throw, or tackle Ali, nor could he throw any kicks unless he had a knee on the mat. A final demand stipulated that the rules could not be made public before the fight.
These rules resulted in one of the most strange spectacles in sports history.
At the start of the fight, Inoki immediately attempted to slide tackle Ali, then spent the rest of the fight on his back, kicking at Ali's legs. Ali threw a total of six punches during the entire fight, and spent most of his time attempting to avoid Inoki's kicks. Inoki at one point managed to get Ali to the ground, but the fight was restarted soon after.
All told, the match was declared a draw, but Ali's legs took a huge beating. His legs became swollen and bloody, leading to an infection and blood clots that would bother him for the rest of his career.
And as a bizarre footnote to an already weird story, Ali and Inoki eventually became close friends.
"It was 1976 when I fought Antonio Inoki at the Budokan," Ali said after Inoki's final wrestling match. "In the ring, we were tough opponents. After that, we built love and friendship with mutual respect. So, I feel a little less lonely now that Antonio has retired. It is my honour to be standing on the ring with my good friend after 22 years. Our future is bright and has a clear vision. Antonio Inoki and I put our best efforts into making world peace through sports, to prove there is only one mankind beyond the sexual, ethnical [sic] or cultural differences. It is my pleasure to come here today."