A lot has changed since UFC 1, but one thing remains the same - the iconic Octagon. But who invented it?
The conventional wisdom is that the Octagon was conceived by Conan director (and Gracie student/father in Law) John Milius. However, there are a lot of contenders.
Many, many years ago a student at my MMA gym in Western Massachusetts said he had just talked to the owner of a fencing business two towns over, and the guy said he built the original Octagon. Another time at an early UFC, I met a lively individual with a heavy South Carolina accent, who said he was a Gracie, and built the early Octagons, as "Uncle 'Ho-ryan' asked me to." Kazja Patschull, who was once married to singer and actress Appolonia Kotero, posted on the UG for a decade that HE had invented the Octagon.
Then writing for ESPN, in 2013 Jake Rossen wrote a must-read piece for all old-school MMA fans, on the origin of the Octagon.
The answer as to who is the Father of The Octagon is complex, with a number of the figures potentially owning parentage, including:
•Art Davie, UFC co-founder;
•John Milius, movie director;
•Michael Pillot, SEG producer;
•Greg Harrison, production designer;
•Jason Cusson, art director; and,
•Greg "Kazja" Patschull, character.
Despite the murky origins of the Octagon, some facts are nearly universally agreed upon. First, Rorion Gracie and Art Davie conceived of the UFC, and didn't want a ring. They brought in movie director John Millius for creative input.
Further, Gracie and Davie cut a deal with Semaphore Entertainment Group to put on a PPV show centered on no rules fighting. SEG producer Michael Pillot tasked production designer Greg Harrison with design of the enclosure, who in turn put art director Jason Cusson in charge of constructing it.
The final design was an eight-sided cage.
Although Milius was at the time unavailable for comment due to health issues, his friend Leonard Brady was prepared to swear in court that the conventional story is correct - that it is Milius's design.
"He came up with that key idea," said Brady. "He told Rorion, 'No, make it an octagon, a chain-link fence.'"
However, Gracie has no recollection of the conversation, and Brady's account comes only from Milius.
So if it wasn't Milius, who was it?
SEG producer Michael Pillot says he suggested the octagonal shape.
"I said, 'We need an octagon,'" recalled Pillot. "That happened in a meeting with Rorion and Art. I felt like you should go from four sides, like in boxing, to eight."
However, Davie has no recollection of this conversation.
Further, Greg Harrison, who all agree was charged with designing the fighting area, says bluntly that the design is his.
"(Pillot) didn't come up with the idea of an eight-sided octagon-shaped fighting surface," said Harrison. "And didn't provide any input to my Octagon design or any of my other UFC designs. He never provided any input to any of my set designs. He was a producer."
While claiming the shape is his, Pillot concedes that the actual design is not.
"No one but Greg should take credit for this design," said Pillot.
All agree that the first Octagon was fabricated by art director Jason Cusson. Cusson claims his inspiration came from Chuck Norris's 1980 film "The Octagon", and that he invented the Octagon.
"I had no martial arts background," said Cusson. "The reason there's an Octagon is because of Chuck Norris."
"(Harrison and I) were working together," said Cusson. "He told me he was busy, so we brainstormed. I said, 'How about an octagon? There was this martial arts movie ...' It was that easy. Greg was the point man on the project, but the actual design of the thing came from me."
Production designer Harrison bluntly discounts that telling.
"It's interesting that all of the people claiming to have conceived the Octagon aren't designers, yet somehow they all came up with the Octagon design," said Harrison.
It would seem on balance that production designer Greg Harrison is the likely father of the Octagon, except for one inconvenient fact.
On February 21, 1993, many months before SEG contacted Harrison, Greg "Kazja" Patschull put on a martial arts demonstration and pro wrestling show called "Cage of Rage" at UC Irvine, in an eight-sided cage. The concept behind the worked exhibitions was at least in part style vs. style, as indicated by performer names like "Kenpo Kid", "Savate", and "Samoan Streetfighter". Other names, like "Clothesline Clayson" and "Urban Warrior" are more typical of mainstream professional wrestling.
Art Davie and Rorion Gracie were in the audience.
"I was interested to see if anyone had figured out how to stage a no-holds-barred event in California," said Davie. "I brought Royce Gracie with me. When Royce saw it was a 'work' and not a 'shoot,' he got bored quickly and we left within 20 minutes. To this day, I don't remember what Kazja's ring looked like."
Kazja, often dismissed as a UG troll, isn't buying it. He's adamant that the Octagon was his design.
"All I need to say is what I created in 1993," said Patschull. "I created it for the sport."
Here is a scene from Shootfighter: Fight to the Death, where Kazja plays a character called Skeeter, and fights in the same cage used in his "Cage of Rage" show. The movie even has Willaim Zabka (Johnny from The Karate Kid franchise) in it.
The masterpiece was released on May 5, 1993. UFC 1 was held on Nov 12, 1993.
Parallel development is a thing. But still, guys representing different martial arts, (mimicking) fighting in an area with an eight-sided fence, that was watched by two UFC founders, that's one remarkable coincidence.