UFC 1: The Beginning
Mixed martial arts competition arguably began, in the modern sense, with the challenge matches of the Gracie family, especially it’s most famous patriarch, Helio Gracie. His sons, Rorion and Royce, would go on to bring the Gracie name and style of jujitsu to widespread attention in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Helio and his elder brother Carlos initiated the Gracie Challenge, which effectively boiled down to an open invitation to anyone brave enough to test his skills against a Gracie. Since the early half of the 20th century, this challenge – and the Gracie’s impressive winning record – made them legends in Brazil. Clyde Gentry, a fan of MMA and the UFC in particular, provides further detail in his book, No Holds Barred. As Gentry describes it, the Challenge took off in America when Benny ‘the Jet’ Urquidez got involved. Urquidez was willing (at least at first) to back up a karate instructor friend of his who had agreed to fight Rorion. However, Urquidez decided against following through after a friendly sparring session with Gracie demonstrated the efficacy of the Brazilian. A second opportunity arose when a documentary film crew contacted Rorion, hoping to set up a challenge match with a kickboxer: the man in question turned out to be Urquidez.
Wrangles over rules meant the match fell through a second time, but did create sufficient hype that would eventually lead to Rorion choreographing a fight between Mel Gibson and Gary Busey in 1987’s Lethal Weapon. Further exposure came with the September 1989 Playboy article by Pat Jordan, entitled ‘BAD’, dubbing Rorion Gracie “the toughest man in the United States”. Jordan described Gracie jiu jitsu – now more commonly known as Brazilian jiu jitsu – as “a bouillabaisse of the other martial arts: judo (throws), karate (kicks, punches), aikido (twists), boxing (punches) and wrestling (grappling, holds)”, though he could have more simply defined it as judo with a highly refined focus on groundwork. Jordan also provided one of the early citations of the “most real fights end up on the ground 90 percent of the time” statistic, which would be oft-repeated in later years.
Jordan’s article generated plenty of interest among Playboy readers, along with a follow-up on the Gracie Challenge in Karate Kung Fu Illustrated. Arthur Davie, who worked for advertising firm J & P Marketing, was one of those readers. He thought he saw business potential in the Gracies, leading him to travel down to the half-built Gracie Academy in Torrance, California during 1990. There he saw Royler Gracie engage in a challenge match, easily despatching his karate trained opponent. This inspired Davie to take lessons himself, making friends with fellow student, film director John Milius, in the process.
A year later, Chuck Norris brought Carlos, John and Rigan Machado – also members of the Gracie clan - to Encino in order to teach. Carlos Machado had previously been helping out at the Torrance academy, but moved away to start his own school: according to Gentry, this aggravated Rorion. Helped by Norris’ influence, the new academy got plenty of attention, it’s success enabling the Machados to open up a second school in December 1992, located over at Redondo Beach.
Meanwhile, Art Davie had left J & P Marketing. In 1991, he worked with Rorion Gracie to produce the seminal Gracies in Action tapes, using a direct mail order scheme to good effect. Buoyed by the success, Gracie and Davie came up with a plan to bring the Gracie Challenge into a wider arena, pitching the idea to John Milius. The film-maker proved equally excited by the concept, leading the three to develop a detailed plan by October 1992. Davie’s initial name for the competition was ‘War of the Worlds’, which in 1993 he presented to the Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG), having exhausted all other alternatives. The proposal, together with the Gracies in Action tapes and the Playboy article, reached programmer Campbell McLaren and vice-president of marketing, David Isaacs. They convinced SEG head Robert Meyrowitz to go with the event, who trusted McLaren’s judgement.
Conan the Barbarian director and Gracie student John Milius had the rather melodramatic original concept of a 20 foot circular pit surrounded by Greek statues. Greg Harrison was then contacted by SEG's Michael Pillot, but due to workload constraints passed the project on to Jason Cusson, a film set designer working with Harrison at the time. Cusson developed the Octagon design we're familiar with today, which has since become a staple of the sport as a whole (although according to Gentry, Kage Kombat - a promotion from Irvine, California - lays claim to the first use of an Octagon-style ring: their tagline afterwards would become “From the Octagon Originator! Not the Imitator”). SEG’s Michael Abramson was responsible for changing the name from ‘War of the Worlds’ to the ‘Ultimate Fighting Championship’. As Abramson related to Gentry, “Ultimate tested very well because it implied that there was nothing beyond that”. Following some quibbles with the Viewer’s Choice distribution network over providing a show rundown – “We couldn’t for the life of us project what the quarter-hour breakdowns were going to be like because we didn’t really have a clue”, according to Campbell McLaren – the date for UFC I was eventually set for 12th November 1993, at the McNichols Arena in Denver, Colorado.
Newspapers focused on the apparently brutal nature of the UFC in the run-up to the event, sensationalism which was not helped by McLaren’s “there are no rules!” approach. John Milius, billed as ‘creative director’ for his contribution to designing the Octagon, attempted a more measured appraisal, stating that "Everybody finds an angle to make a big fuss…This has been done for 60 years in Brazil, and nobody dies. People get killed in boxing every year, they break their necks playing football. This is no more violent than boxing. It actually goes back to ancient Greece, where it was enjoyed along with poetry and theatre by Alexander the Great."
Chuck Norris was first choice as commentator, but despite his close connections to Brazilian jiu jitsu, he was not convinced the event would go ahead. So instead, kickboxing and point-fighting legend Bill ‘Superfoot’ Wallace took the job, supported by another successful kickboxer, Kathy Long, with NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown completing the core line-up. Unfortunately, Wallace had no previous experience behind a microphone, revealed immediately as he began the event with a loud belch. The mistakes continued throughout the night, calling post-fight interviewer Brian Kilmeade ‘Kilmore’, the name of the event the Ultimate Fighting ‘Challenge’, repeatedly mispronouncing the name of competitor Teila Tuli, renaming announcer Rich Goins ‘Ron Goins’ and referring to ‘the ropes’ on several occasions, despite their absence from the Octagon design.
The only informed member of the commentary team was the smooth Rod Machado, a Royce Gracie student, who joined Wallace at the commentators table later in the event to lend some technical knowledge to Gracie’s fight. Machado increased the statistic from the Playboy article, remarking at around 35 minutes into the broadcast that “95% of the fights, according to PD (police department) studies, end up on the ground”. Unlike Wallace, Machado was an experienced speaker, normally better known for his expertise on flying planes rather than Brazilian jiu jitsu. He had been an flight instructor since 1973, and a teacher at numerous flight revalidation clinics and safety seminars from 1977 onwards. After the UFC, he continued to be a major voice in the flight industry, with columns in specialist magazines - see his site here.
UFC I began with a preliminary fight to determine the alternate, which didn't make it to the later tape release. Jason DeLucia defeated Trent Jenkins with a rear naked choke: DeLucia would enter the main draw in UFC II. He did not feature in UFC I, as unlike subsequent UFCs, no-one pulled out. There were several fighters who were sufficiently injured to have done so, but all the competitors fought on regardless, most notably Gerard Gordeau.
Gordeau had a legitimate martial arts record, one of the few men in the tournament who actually looked like a professional fighter with sharp kicks and punches. He had been Dutch Karate Champion from 1978 to 1985, European Savate Champion from 1988 to 1991 and a World Savate Champion in 1992, with an overall competitive record of 27-4. On top of that, Gordeau also had plenty of experience as a bodyguard and bouncer at illegal raves and the underground porn business.  Upon entering the ring, some later claimed that it appeared this tall, blonde, tattooed fighter was making a Nazi salute, but it was in fact a traditional part of Savate. As discussed here, the Nazi link was dubious, especially given Gordeau's Jewish background.
His first opponent was the 410lbs Teila Tuli, a sumo wrestler from Samoa. According to the Rocky Mountain News, Tuli won the national junior sumo championship during his first year in Japan (where he was known as Takamikuni), then went on to reach the Makushita class. He also had a bad boy reputation, allegedly laying waste to a number of Japanese policemen outside a bar after it ran out of beer.
As soon as the bell rang, Tuli rushed across the octagon: shrugged off by Gordeau, Tuli lost his balance and stumbled into the fence. The prone Tuli immediately received a kick to the face (sending his tooth flying past the representatives from Gold’s Gym), shortly followed by a right hook. The fight was over in 26 seconds. Gordeau not only broke his hand in the process, but also embedded two of Tuli’s teeth in his foot.
Zane Frazier, a fourth degree black belt in kempo, had made his name beating up Frank Dux, the infamous ‘inspiration’ behind the highly dubious ‘true story’ of Bloodsport. He faced Kevin Rosier, an experienced kickboxer who had fought in over 200 competitions and won numerous titles (including World Championships), but since retiring in 1990 had “ballooned to a staggering 345lbs.”
Like Gordeau, Rosier had also worked as a bodyguard (including music luminaries like Debbie Harry among his clients) and a bouncer, although at rather more reputable locations than the Dutchman – for example, the Marriott, the Hilton and Mulligan's on Hertel, all dance clubs in Buffalo. He entered the UFC on three weeks notice and had a two-hour root canal operation the day before.
The second fight of the main draw turned into a prolonged brawl, Frazier eventually gassing out as Rosier laid into him with wild haymakers against the fence. Frazier’s corner threw in the towel as their fighter ended the match huddled in a corner, Rosier stomping on his head (although as Rosier later told Gentry, “I pulled back like professional wrestling and put [my foot] down so it looked more dramatic”). Neither man left the octagon unscathed, Rosier dislocating his jaw and Frazier suffering a severe asthma attack.
The third fight of the main event matched up Royce Gracie, the smallest man in the competition, against “King” Arthur Jimmerson, an accomplished boxer. He was the WBC tenth-ranked cruiserweight contender, with a respectable record of 29-5 and judged by Ring magazine to have provided the fight of the year in 1988. However, he was also being paid over $20,000 just to show up, having been concerned that the lack of rules might lead to serious injury and the end of his boxing career. On top of that, according to Gentry, a friend of Jimmerson’s had recently come into a great deal of money, making Jimmerson a salaried employee at $100,000 a year.
After seeing the injuries suffered by Rosier, Frazier and Gordeau, Jimmerson was told by his manager to throw in the towel at the first sign of trouble. Gracie had barely started to secure a hold before Jimmerson tapped. The St. Louis Dispatch commented later that “it's a logical - and more profitable - extension of Jimmerson's recent fights against ex-kickboxers and ex-retirees”, seeing it as a continuation of Jimmerson’s tendency to pick easy pay-cheques.
Gracie himself had been drafted in as a second choice: initially Rickson Gracie was supposed to represent the family, but following disagreements with his father Helio and brother Rorion (like the Machados, due to training people on the side, according to Gentry), it was agreed Royce should enter instead, with Rickson as his trainer.
The final quarter-final match introduced a future UFC legend, the muscular Ken Shamrock. He had fought stiff-worked (meaning that while the ending was still decided in advance, the wrestlers would fight for real up to that point) pro-wrestling matches over in Japan as part of Akira Maeda’s Universal Wrestling Federation during 1990, later moving to Yoshiaki Fujiwara’s breakaway Professional Wrestling Fujiwara Gumi (or ‘group’). Shortly before entering the UFC, Shamrock competed in the inaugural Pancrase event, cutting it even finer when he fought in yet another Pancrase fight three days before the 12th November. Shamrock’s spandex trunks brought some comments at the time and after the event, but he was merely wearing the pro-wrestling style attire common to the Pancrase organisation.
He easily overcame his opponent, local boy Pat Smith, a kickboxer who like Shamrock was in good shape. He sported a ridiculously inflated record of 250-0, though had achieved some success in kickboxing, also having recently won that year’s Sabaki Challenge, a kyokushin karate event. However, he was no match for Shamrock, who soon forced Smith to tap from an ankle lock. Smith took defeat badly, as did the partisan crowd: according to Gentry, there was a certain degree of animosity even before the fight. Smith’s entourage had taunted Shamrock with “You’re going down! He’s going to fucking kill you!”, prompting Shamrock to remember that “It wasn’t satisfying enough that he tapped out, because he was still talking, so I didn’t want it to end there. I wanted to keep going. The satisfying thing would have been to nail him in the mouth and beat on him.”
Returning for the semi-finals despite his broken hand and badly injured foot, Gordeau battered Rosier with a flurry of punches and kicks that drove the bigger man into the fence, in a position reminiscent of Zane Frazier. Gordeau also finished the match in the same way, stomping on the helpless Rosier – however, the tough Dutchman (who later became infamous for his career-ending eye gouge on Yuki Nakai) probably did not pull the strike.
Shamrock and Gracie looked to be the most interesting fight of the night, both men having demonstrated their submission skills. As Shamrock was by far the more heavily built, he looked as if he could provide Gracie with a real challenge. However, Shamrock was unprepared for chokes, his stiff-worked wrestling experience acting against him – Gracie managed to catch the ex-pro-wrestler in a rear naked choke. “[The UWF] didn’t emphasize chokes because it was entertainment and the action had to continue, so moving from arm bars to leg locks to rope escapes would be much more exciting than getting a guy’s throat and choking him”, explained Shamrock.
That left the relatively fresh Royce Gracie - who had progressed without even getting hit, let alone injured – against the broken hand and wounded foot of Gerard Gordeau. According to the commentary team, Gordeau was the one man Gracie had been worried about. Before the fight, Helio Gracie was presented with a plaque proclaiming him a ‘Grandmaster’, while his son Rorion attempted to talk up Helio’s considerable contribution to the fledgling UFC. The crowd was less than impressed, roundly booing both Helio and Rorion’s speeches, eager to get on to the final bout.
Once again, the fight was a straightforward victory for Gracie, taking Gordeau down then choking him out. Gordeau allegedly bit Gracie’s ear while they grappled (a cut can be clearly seen on Gracie’s ear, so this may have been true), which led Gracie to ‘punish’ him by holding the choke a little longer than normal, ignoring Gordeau’s increasingly frantic taps. For his part, Gordeau felt he had been cheated, later telling Gentry that “The doctor went to the Gracie camp and told them that I broke my hand and foot and because Gracie knew everything, he blocked the good side of my body…you only see him grab my left side." Gordeau went on to an infamous loss against Yuki Nakai in 1995, and is now teaching in his native Holland, at a place called Kamakura.
Whether or not there is any truth to Gordeau's claims, Gracie was the champion. He spent his victory speech praising his family rather than his own efforts, further enhancing his image as a man battling for family honour. It would not be long before he had the chance to do so again in UFC II.