Georges St-Pierre trained with UFC legend Royce Gracie on Wednesday. (Getty)
LAS VEGAS – The thick, dark, curly mop of hair he had on Nov. 12, 1993, is gone. Royce Gracie's hair is closely shaved now, and there are more than a few flecks of gray in it.
The gray hair and the balding head, though, are the only obvious signs of age. He still has the lithe, lean physique that he had when he unexpectedly won UFC 1 at McNichols Arena in Denver two decades ago.
On Wednesday, Gracie made a surprise appearance at the open workouts for UFC 167, grappling for a few moments with welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre.
Gracie has long been St-Pierre's idol, and the champion's brilliant blue eyes were dancing as he talked about the chance to lightly grapple with his hero.
"Having a chance to kind of work out with him, move a little bit, was an incredible honor for me," said St-Pierre, who will defend his title against No. 1 contender Johny Hendricks on Saturday in the main event of UFC 167 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. "It made my whole trip. It made my whole day."
The UFC owes its very existence to Gracie. It is now a multi-billion dollar a year business which promotes fight cards around the world. Its events are available in 882 million homes worldwide and are broadcast in 28 languages.
The concept of the UFC was developed by Gracie's older brother, Rorion. Rorion Gracie wanted to prove the superiority of his family's brand of jiu-jitsu and organized an event that matched fighters representing a series of martial arts disciplines.
Royce was the smallest, and most non-threatening looking man in the original eight-man field. And that was exactly the point.
Rorion had hoped that people watching his 175-pound brother beating up on much larger men with sculpted physiques who were experts in other forms of fighting would help sell Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.
Royce submitted Art Jimmerson, Ken Shamrock and Gerard Gordeau to win the first UFC event and a new sport was born.
It was like getting an opportunity to pitch to Babe Ruth. This was the pioneer of the sport, the man that dozens of current UFC stars say inspired them to take up the sport.
Gracie clearly enjoyed his moment in the limelight once again. The sport evolved, and eventually passed him by, as Matt Hughes showed when he dominated Gracie and eventually stopped him late in the first round at UFC 60.
But at the first UFC, no one knew where the sport was headed, or if there would be another event. There were few rules and no one knew for certain what would happen, even those who believed so fervently in jiu-jitsu.
A teen-aged St-Pierre, who had been bullied in school growing up in St-Isidore, Quebec, by much bigger students, was in awe when he saw what Gracie did in that first UFC.
"I was watching the tape back then and I thought someone could die," St-Pierre said. "We didn't know. It was unknown. These guys had heart; they were so courageous stepping into the cage at that time. This was unknown and they were the pioneers. I don't think I would have had the courage to do that at that time. It was too much unknown and I probably would have stayed at school."
Eventually, fighters learned that they needed to be well-rounded and that they couldn't expect to survive long with only one skill, no matter how well-developed it might be.
Gracie blazed a trail, and now sees the sport hitting the mainstream.
"When little kids come up to you, I'm talking 8, 10-years old, and say, 'One day I want to fight in the UFC. Can you hook me up?' It's like, you know then that the UFC made it," Gracie said. "Kids grow up thinking they don't want to be a basketball player. They don't want to be a football player. They don't want to be a soccer player. Today, they say they want to be a UFC fighter. You know it's mainstream now."
[Yahoo Sports Radio: Georges St-Pierre expects tough match against Johny Hendricks]
It was never going to have anything more than a cult following until some of the major problems with it were fixed: Adding a long list of rules and separating the fighters into weight classes made it safe and sane and allowed it to appeal to a broader audience.
But there remains a soft spot in the hearts of many for seeing those fights matching a giant against an ordinary looking man like Gracie.
Gracie said, "I'm a product of my father's work. I just did what I learned from him."
And that meant being successful in spite of seemingly overwhelming odds.
But then as now, there was no satisfying some people. He spoke of his 2004 match in PRIDE against the sumo wrestler Akebono (a.k.a. Chad Rowan) as an example.
"When I fought, there was no time limit and no weight divisions," he said. "When I fought Akebono – 6-foot-8, 490 pounds – before the fight, everybody was like, 'Man, you're crazy. Are you out of your mind? How are you going to fight a man that big. There's no way you can take him down. You can not punch him out. You're out of your mind.'
"After the fight, everybody was like, 'Oh, come on. He was big and fat.' Really? Walk up to someone 6-foot-8, 490 pounds and slap him in the face. You see how slow he is."
Then he broke into that wide, toothy grin of his that has become so familiar over these last two decades, and he nodded his head knowingly.
A while later, he walked off the stage – gone, but among this crowd, he'll never be forgotten.
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