I was ten years old when the UFC debuted on pay-per-view from the McNichols Sports Arena, in Denver, Colorado, on November 12th, 1993. Myself, like many other intrigued fans, were being drawn in by this concept that seemed right out of a Bruce Lee movie. Or even better, a little more apt for the time, a real-life version of Mortal Kombat.
Here’s what we knew.
We knew that there would be 8 fighters competing in a single night, to determine the best all-around fighter in the world. That meant that the winner of the night’s competition would have to compete three times before capturing the trophy.
Set with no weight classes, no rules (aside from no biting, and a few other safety assurances), and featuring a karate fighter, a savate expert, a kick boxer, a boxer, a shoot fighter, a Jiu-Jitsu practioner, and a sumo wrestler, UFC 1 had all the makings of a made-for-ppv freak show to an uninformed audience.
The label of ‘freak show’ was exactly what the originators of the first UFC didn’t want. That is why the original mastermind of the tournament, Art Davie, sought out the most respected names in martial arts to have a helping hand–the Gracie Family.
With the help of Rorion Gracie, son of Helio, and brother of eventual tournament winner, Royce, the early UFC struggled with ideas for the debut event.
They wanted something the world had never seen before, they wanted it to be edgy, they wanted to have an audience and of course make profit, but more importantly they wanted to show the world who the best fighter in the world was. Maybe that’s why early plans for a moat filled with water (and possibly alligators) was discussed and quickly nixed in the early planning phases. Yup, you read that right.
So as Gracie and Davies planned the original event, the logistics got ironed out, and the date was set. Every fighter who competed at UFC 1, had a respectable fighting background. Zane Frazier, Gerard Gordeau, Kevin Rosier, and Patrick Smith, were all more or less stand-up oriented fighters, with backgrounds in karate and/or kickboxing. Along with these four, you also had famed shoot-fighter Ken Shamrock who had made a name for himself fighting in Japan, and professional boxer Art Jimmerson. Rounding out the field were sumo wrestler, Teila Tuli, and the “little skinny Brazilian,” the aforementioned, Royce Gracie.
Gracie, was methodically chosen by the family to make a point to the viewing audience and those in attendance that night. Royce wasn’t even the best fighter in the family at the time. That honor went to his older brother, Rickson. Rickson, who fought with about 30 extra pounds and had a rumored record of something like 350-0, was far too big and imposing to achieve the goal the Gracies had set out in mind.
Previously it was mentioned how UFC 1 was a medium to showcase the best fighters in the world–well, that’s not entirely true–UFC 1 was a showcase for Gracie Jiu Jitsu.
The Gracies, who were helmed by patriarch Helio Gracie, had been showing the world the art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for decades. In fact, his matches with Japan’s Kato, during the 1950’s were some of the earliest MMA fights, as we know them today. Gracie had many fights during the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, and up until his death in 2009, at 95 years old, was still teaching classes at the Gracie Academy in Rio de Janiero.
So it was with that history, that Rorion and his family set out to show the world that Gracie Jiu-Jitsu was the dominant style in martial arts. With Rickson being far too big and imposing, the family chose the frail and gaunt looking Royce to show the world that ‘size doesn’t really matter.’
When you ask anyone about UFC 1, or any of the early UFC’s for that matter, you will commonly get an answer that sounds something like this, “Well, I just couldn’t believe that this little Brazilian was just climbing peoples backs, and choking them out his collar. I had to watch.”
Gracie went on to win those first two UFC tournaments, and in the process established a sport, his family, and his sporting legacy. Royce Gracie accomplished that night what the family had wanted–they proved you didn’t have to be the biggest, to be the best. With controlled aggression, and a calm mind and body, the art of Jiu-Jitsu could essentially let an opponent defeat themselves. With no time limits in those early UFC’s, it was only a matter of time before the opponent tired, and the submission would be there for the taking. After all, with Helio having gone almost four hours in a fight in 1952, the Gracie name was synonymous with toughness and conditioning.
However, it wasn’t as important as to who won those early tournaments, as much as what they did for the sport–what the Gracies did for the sport.
Before UFC 1, the best fighters in the world were movie stars, boxers, or your local pub’s tough guy. Only a select few actually knew what would win in a street fight. With UFC 1 the world got to see this fighting style that wasn’t as ‘sexy’ or marketable as karate, tae-kwon-do, or any other traditional style–and they got to see it dominate larger opponents.
For the next 15 years the world of No-Holds-Barred fighting (the term ‘mixed martial arts’ didn’t come around until much later) played catch up to the Gracie family.
From 1993-1997 every fighter in the world spent their time on a Jiu-Jitsu mat. If you were going to make a living fighting, then you had to know what to do with the submission game. So as world class wrestlers like Dan Severn, Mark Coleman, Mark Kerr, Kevin Randleman, Randy Couture, and others, scrambled to catch up, the era of Jiu-Jitsu was thriving. Simply for the fact, if nothing else, that very few people actually knew what they were doing when it came to the submission game.
However, by around 1997, the top-level wrestlers in the world had now learned enough about submissions, that they were starting to make waves in the MMA world. Fighters like the aforementioned Randy Couture and Mark Coleman, and fighters like them, dominated the fighting world. They had caught up enough, stylistically, that their immense talent and staggering athleticism was far too much for any striker, or submission grappler to contend with. So from about 1997-2002 you had the era of the wrestler. From PRIDE FC in Japan, to the UFC in America, most of the world’s top fighters were high level wrestlers.
After all, these were guys who never thought they were going to make a living fighting. For a wrestler at the time, it was high school, then college, and if you were lucky, the Olympics. After that it was, get a day job, or join the WWF. But with MMA, wrestlers, and their freakish athletic prowess, now had an outlet to showcase their talents, and for many unlucky opponents during that time, that prowess was on full display.
In 2002, the guard started to change. No longer were wrestlers dominating the landscape like previous years. Now wrestlers had to compete with world class stand-up fighters who had caught up to both the submission game, as well as the wrestling portion–at least enough to stave off offense from either discipline.
So it was from 2002-2006, names like Wanderlei Silva, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, and Chuck Liddell dominated the fighting landscape. These were fighters with solid backgrounds in wrestling, submissions, and most importantly, striking. They had learned enough and caught up to MMA, so that they could now dictate where the fight takes place–and if there is one thing that a wrestler or submission artist hates–it’s getting hit.
For the strikers, this was a time of brutal knockouts, intimidating fighting styles, and some of the best fights in MMA history. But this was also the last time period of ‘style dominated’ fights and fighters. By 2006, everyone had caught up.
We are now living in the era of the ‘complete mixed martial artist.’ A fighter now has to be, not only proficient, but world-class in all aspects of fighting, and that‘s where UFC 1 brought us. From Jiu-Jitsu, to kickboxing, boxing, wrestling, sambo, and everything in between–if you want to be a Champion in today’s age, then you better bring a pad and pencil and a propensity for getting punched in the face–because you’re going to be putting in work.
Look at fighters such as Georges St-Pierre, Jon Jones, Cain Velasquez, Jose Aldo, or Anderson Silva. These men are the gold standard for the new breed of MMA fighter. They have every base covered, and they can fight you anywhere the contest may go. And as much as some may miss those early days, the future of MMA is far better off today, without one dominant fighting style.
Are their more effective styles than others in MMA? Sure, probably. After all, if a world class wrestler, who also can strike (maybe not a world class level though), can determine where the fight happens, isn’t he at an advantage? See, that’s where MMA starts to get fun. Now, the style match up still matters, but it’s more about who the better fighter is.
And that’s what the Gracie family wanted. Sure, they are a cocky bunch, who think Gracie Jiu-Jitsu is the gold standard in MMA, today. And they may be correct. If you look at it with clear eyes, the world of MMA was playing catch up to them for the early part of the sport’s young history. This is what the Gracies wanted from the start, though. They didn’t mind so much if they were beaten, they just wanted a sport where the best fighters could showcase their skills and be labeled the ‘best in the world’ at what they do.
That’s what UFC 1 allowed. It allowed for everyone in the world, for the first time, be able to see all these different styles compete against one another. Sure, the first UFC had it’s fair share of moments. Whether it be Tuli’s tooth flying out during the first fight of the night, or Art Jimmerson and his one-handed boxing glove approach, there were plenty of moments that seem a little silly and outdated by today’s standards.
The UFC and it’s inaugural event changed the sporting world. It planted a seed in the collective conscious of society that harkened back to the early days of fighting. Not necessarily and animal instinct to see human beings fight, but more a respect and healthy curiosity as to what would really happen if Bruce Lee fought Muhammad Ali.
Now, we aren’t at that level of MMA quite yet. After all, Manny Pacquiao is still in boxing and Dan Henderson is still in MMA. But I’ll tell you what, we aren’t that far off either.
With the historical context of fighting, the growth of MMA is unlimited. Think about it, Greco-Roman Wrestling goes back to the first Olympics. Muay Thai goes back thousands of years in eastern Asia. Jiu-Jitsu goes back thousands of years to Japan and Brazil, respectively. Karate, Sambo, boxing, and all other fighting styles have rich tradition and history all across this world. Fighting is universal.
So with all this history, the growth of the UFC, and with the upcoming UFC on FOX, this Saturday, I ask you this. What’s to stop MMA from being the biggest sport in the world before 2020?
Absolutely nothing, the hard part is over.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this 5 for 5 series. I know it wasn’t an entire history of our sport, or even a concise one at that, but I just wanted to share this passion with as many of you as I could, in a way that I thought would be fun and interesting. These were just a collection of personal moments and history, that I thought best showcased what got us here today. I sincerely hope all of you tune in on Saturday for Velasquez vs. Dos Santos on FOX. Because if you don’t, you’re definitely going to be missing sports history.
For a complete recap and the other four days of my “5 for 5” series, click here.