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On November 12, 1993, everything most Americans thought they knew about fighting was thrown out the window.
At the time, most people figured that the marquee heavyweight boxer, the imprisoned Mike Tyson, was the baddest man on the planet. But there were people with amateur wrestling backgrounds who thought otherwise, figuring that a wrestler could take a boxer off his feet and once he got him there, the boxer’s weapons were useless.
Bruce Lee movies and the TV show "Kung Fu" had another camp believing in the invincibility of board-breaking karate practitioners or people who used flashy kicks.
And some favored kickboxing, with more points of attack, as being a superior fighting form than boxing.
Jiu-jitsu was something advertised in the back of low-rent magazines, and most people, not knowing any better, considered it another form of karate or kung fu.
Basically, almost everyone was clueless.
Rorion Gracie, the son of Helio Gracie and nephew of Carlson Gracie, the stars of the brutal, no holds barred Vale Tudo competitions in Brazil, which had a heyday in the 1950s, had more than just a clue.
He wanted to bring the style of fighting that made his family famous in Brazil to North America. Gracie met Art Davie, a martial arts enthusiast, who pitched the concept to Bob Meyrowitz, who had made millions producing the King Biscuit Flower Hour radio show. Meyrowitz's Semaphore Entertainment Group was on the ground floor in pay-per-view, usually promoting concerts.
The concept sounded intriguing. Gracie, Meyrowitz, and their associates came up with an eight-sided cage, the octagon, and billed their creation, the legalized street fight, as the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
STARTING FROM SCRATCH
That UFC was nothing like today's marketing juggernaut. There was no such thing as a mixed martial artist. The term mixed martial arts wasn’t developed until many years later.
Campbell McLaren, who Meyrowitz put in charge of marketing the project, in no way believed this was the ground floor of a new sport. In fact, he told people, "The last thing we want is for this to be a sport."
The first show was booked for McNichols Arena in Denver and the secret local promoter of the event was Zane Bresloff, who had to keep his name quiet for fear his regular bosses, the folks at the World Wrestling Federation, would find out about his involvement.
It was billed as anything-goes fighting, to the finish, banned in 49 states (it was actually not banned anywhere – that would come later). On the first show, there were no gloves worn, and everything was legal except biting, attacking the eyes and attacking the groin.
The second show saw the rules modified somewhat: You could attack the groin.
It was billed as world champions from eight fighting sports, although credentials of fighters were often exaggerated and records, and even heights and weights were often outright made up. They would have a one-night tournament with the only way to win being via knockout, submission or a fighter’s corner throwing in the towel. On the eventual videotape release of the show months later, it was billed as the only way to win being knockout, submission, or death. While that may have helped sell tapes, in the long run, that type of promotion was Semaphore’s undoing.
The winner was to receive $50,000. The matches had unlimited five-minutes rounds and no judges. None of the fights went five minutes, as it turned out, and most of the participants didn't have a clue what they were getting into.
The lone exception was Rorion's younger brother, Royce Gracie, who became the UFC's first superstar. Studying under his father from childhood, in many ways the original UFC was designed by Rorion, although his partners weren't fully aware of it, to be an infomercial for Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.
Rorion picked the competitors. He avoided picking powerhouse heavyweight wrestlers, and in particular, wrestlers who had studied jiu-jitsu.
The local favorite was Patrick Smith of Denver, billed as having a 250-0 record, and claiming to be impervious to pain, and that no wrestling hold could hurt him. He was billed as a Tae Kwon Do champion, but he was actually a mediocre boxer who had won a martial arts tournament.
Royce Gracie, who had never won anything of substance in Brazil, was billed as the world light heavyweight champion in jiu-jitsu. At 176 pounds, he was the smallest man in the tournament, by design, since the idea was to show that technique was more important than size in fighting, and that a skinny man who looked like he could easily be broken in two by these heavyweights could subdue them all.
Gerard Gordeau, a savage streetfighter from Holland who had done some high-profile pro wrestling matches in Japan, was billed as the World Savate champion.
Art Jimmerson was a cruiserweight boxer who at the time had a national ranking.
Teila Tuli was billed as a 425-pound sumo wrestling champion, although he was closer to 350 and never even competed in the high-profile Japanese sumo circuit.
Kevin Rosier was a well-known kickboxer in the '80s, who held one of the dozens of world heavyweight championships the sport had, although past his prime by that point.
Zane Frazier also did some kickboxing, and was advertised as a champion.
And the final entrant was Ken Wayne Shamrock, an American who was a pro wrestling star in Japan. Shamrock's bodybuilder-like physique made him look like what everyone thought an Ultimate Fighting champion should look like. He was billed as the World shootfighting champion.
Shamrock and two other pro wrestlers, frustrated at older stars holding them back, decided to create a pro wrestling circuit, called Pancrase, where the matches would be real. While he had trained in submissions with pro wrestlers for a few years, he had actually only had a few real matches, all under essentially pro wrestling rules with submission finishes, which included no closed fists or even rope breaks.
Shamrock was the only true risk in the tournament for Royce Gracie, in that he knew submissions. But his two months of real fighting experience weren't expected to be able to rival Gracie's lifetime of experience taught through generations.
About 7,800 fans in attendance, and another 80,000 homes on pay-per-view, saw something unlike anything they had ever witnessed. Some expected spectacular moves like in a martial arts movie, since the idea of this tournament was similar to movies that had been done in the past.
The matches, legitimately, were picked at random, with one exception. Rorion wanted Royce to face the boxer first to make a point, since in the U.S., people thought in a real fight, a boxer would knock everyone out, and he knew differently.
Gordeau and Tuli were up first, and as Tuli blindly charged forward, Gordeau kicked him in the mouth. Teeth went flying. After a bare-knuckle punch to the stunned Samoan, the fight was called in just 30 seconds. Tuli's face was battered. Gordeau had a broken hand and a broken foot. The crowd was stunned and confused.
Rosier and Frazier were next. The two kickboxers ended up on the ground, where neither had much of a clue of what they were doing. Rosier, the second-biggest man in the tournament at 275 pounds, managed to get up and stomp Frazier in the head until he was finished.
Although gloves were supposed to be banned, Jimmerson came in wearing a boxing glove on his left hand. Gracie took Jimmerson down, and Jimmerson panicked and started tapping before a hold was even applied.
The local favorite, Smith, faced Shamrock, and after a big staredown, Shamrock took Smith down and clamped on a heel hook in 1:51. Smith tapped, got up, and wanted to fight again. Yes, the local star, who had bragged he could feel no pain and no hold would have any effect on him, was already out.
With a broken hand and broken foot, Gordeau faced Rosier, who was still gassed out from his first match. It only took Gordeau 1:03 to pound Rosier into tapping.
What everyone expected to be the championship match was next, and became the beginning of one of the great family rivalries. Shamrock took Gracie down and went for the heel hook. Gracie reversed quickly, got the mount, and choked Shamrock out in 57 seconds. Shamrock, having no idea what had just happened, had to be calmed down backstage in the dressing room.
The championship match was almost a formality. Gordeau had no ground experience, and Gracie took him right down and choked him out.
BACK FOR MORE
When the show was over, the decision was that if the first show came close to breaking even, they would do another. In fact, the first show did come close to making money. The second show, another tournament won by Gracie, but with Shamrock not involved, made a profit.
A controversial third show on September 9, 1994, in Charlotte, was really the night UFC was put on the map, seemingly for good. It was built around a tournament designed for Shamrock and Gracie to meet in the finals. Shamrock came in with a torn ACL. But Gracie took an early beating, and had to resort to both hair pulling and knees to the groin (both legal at the time), to hold off the bigger and stronger Kimo Leopoldo. Kimo gassed and tapped out to an armbar, but became an instant superstar just for giving Gracie a tough fight. Gracie took a beating, and was dehydrated and seeing double, and dropped out of the tournament.
Shamrock made it to the finals, and then, claiming he only came to get revenge on Gracie and didn't want to risk his career for any other reason, dropped out. Steve Jennum, an Omaha police officer and alternate became the unlikely champion.
The controversy paid off. By the fourth show, on December 16, 1994, in Tulsa, UFC drew a turn away crowd of 5,857 live, and with 240,000 buys, it was the biggest non-boxing sports pay-per-view event in history (for the sake of this terminology, pro wrestling is not a sport).
Gracie won his third tournament, making Dan Severn submit with a triangle choke, the first time such a move was used in UFC competition. It was also the last time Gracie ever won a match in UFC.
But the evolution of fighting and the show’s popularity became UFC’s biggest obstacles. Newspapers and television shows started covering the story of the UFC, with its popularity being written as the latest sign of a decadent society.
The smoking gun was on that VHS sleeve, "You can win by knockout, submission or death." Plus, as fighters started to actually learn the game, fights started getting longer, and after a few shows went past their allotted three hours on pay-per-view, time limits were put in. After too many inconclusive finishes in key fights, judges were put in.
At this point, Rorion Gracie sold his stake in the company to Meyrowitz. Gracie knew with the combination of bigger men and better athletes discovering the game, more people learning ground fighting, and time limits and judging, that it was better for Gracie jiu-jitsu for Royce to leave as the invincible ruler of the cage.
The original UFC's popularity peaked in 1995. There are a number of factors that led to the collapse and near demise of UFC only two years after it seemingly established it was here to stay.
The key was political pressure causing, one-by-one, almost all the key cable systems to pull the shows, killing the key pay-per-view revenue stream. A series of bad main events didn't help. And the early lure, the idea of proving, in a real anything goes fight, what style would win, had run its course.
It would take another decade and a change of ownership and direction to bring UFC back to the forefront.