Oldest man to compete in the UFC still fighting the good fight

Friday, November 25, 2011

Back when the UFC had no rules, no gloves, and you had to fight three times in one night, martial artist Ron Van Clief steppd up. Although he lost in his first fight to eventual tournament winner Royce Gracie, he was 51 years old, a record that remains to this time, and will never be broken.

He also served as commissioner of the pre Zuffa UFC 1994-1995.

At age 68 he still trains hard, and has a young son with his wife Simina.

His biography The Hanged Man will go on sale next month.

Van Clief was profiled in a Sherdog piece in 2009.

Living in the Virgin Islands, three days a week, Van Clief will pull a two-mile swim, and the other three days of the week he’ll do a routine of calisthenics that’d make most people puke. It includes 1500 reps of crunches, a couple hundred push-ups and chin-ups. And 250 squat thrusts.

“On weekends I teach my classes, and that’s outside, right on the beach,” said Van Clief. “We’ve got some Gracie and Machado guys down here. It’s quite wonderful. We’re just starting up a Virgin Islands mixed martial arts association and having an event down here next year.”

Van Clief, who grew up in Brooklyn, began studying martial arts locally and then with grandmaster Peter Urban in 1959. Traveling to Hong Kong in 1966, Van Clief was introduced to an up-and-coming martial artist, Bruce Lee, whose disdain for centuries-old traditions of the arts, and emerging stardom in the states in “The Green Hornet” television series, marked him as a good man to know.

“Bruce called me ‘The Black Dragon.’ I didn’t realize ten years later I’d be making a movie named that. Lee was a very interesting man. He didn’t have the same ego that other guys had then, and today. There’s too many master and grandmasters. Bruce said ‘You’re only as good as your last workout.’ If you have a big fat belly… what kind of example is that for your students? I’ve always tried to stay fit. He was into sizing down your arsenal into economical and tactical (parts), which was totally correct. Even dealing with herbal supplements, he was way ahead of his time.”

“He was a mixed martial artist, he was grappling back then.”

“I think if he put his mind to do it, he would’ve been an excellent lightweight, as good as any of the lightweight MMA guys around. He was tough, he really was tough. Most people didn’t realize that, he could take it and dish it out. It’s kind of rare in any weight division.”

“I saw (the UFC) on TV and I had to. You understand? There was no way I could not do it. There was no way. How could you be a serious marital artist and not try the Octagon? It was a beautiful thing. There’ve been guys who ragged on me ever since I went into the Octagon, guys like (karate legend) Joe Lewis who said ‘you’re gonna get your ass whipped.’ That’s not important.

“I trained really hard for three months, boxing, muay Thai, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, everything. One week before I went to Oklahoma, I broke my ankle against Leon Stevenson, a 6’4, 245-pound guy. He hit me with a suplex, my left ankle hit the frame of the mat. I broke my ankle one week before I fought in UFC 4. I could’ve quit. I couldn’t wear a shoe, it was unbelievable.”

“My student was giving me a massage on the dressing room floor before the fight and couldn’t even touch it. But how could you not fight? It was such a wonderful experience. A wonderful experience. Win, lose, draw, you step in, you hung in there for four minutes with Royce Gracie, thirty years younger? Really beautiful. What better way to end your career?”

“I was appointed by Rorion and Helio Gracie, they wanted someone that was a real statesman in the martial arts. It was great, I had the opportunity to set up a lot of the cards.

“I was a co-producer and production coordinator, getting the fight coordinators together, and restructuring the event and making it more comedic, more entertaining, telegenic. I brought in the bad guys like Tank Abbott, I started the ‘Superfight’ concept. And then I left. I got tired of way it was going. One time, I saw Tank Abbott beat up Pat Smith in an elevator with his three bodyguard goons. It was horrible what they did to him. Of course, the UFC didn’t want any police involved. I got disheartened over that. I went to court, I faced McCain, and he called me a pit bull. I represented the UFC in all those cases to get events going.”

“I’ve been in the (movie) business for almost forty years. Worked on ‘Die Hard with a Vengeance.’ In the ‘Capital Conspiracy’ with Charlie Sheen, I drove a motorcycle down an escalator. I worked on 200 films and retired in 2008. I still get residuals from shows like ‘The Sopranos’. In ‘Oz,’ I was (series’ star) Said’s roommate; in the opening credits you can see me smacking him in the face. I was on at least 20 episodes of that show.”

“Cross-training is what we were missing before. Today’s fighters are just so well trained now, and (there are) many different facets of MMA, the striking, the takedowns, locks, ground-and-pound, it’s become a global sport. It’s quite wonderful how point tournaments and tae kwon do are dead. They’re boring to watch and they’re not exciting. They do not represent fighting, or sparring, really. Maybe the sport, but not fighting.”

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