MMA Origins: UFC 1

Author's Note: This article has been updated in anticipation of the 20th Anniversary of UFC 1 to include more information from more sources, cited at the the bottom of the…

By: T.P. Grant | 11 years ago
MMA Origins: UFC 1
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

Author’s Note: This article has been updated in anticipation of the 20th Anniversary of UFC 1 to include more information from more sources, cited at the the bottom of the article.

In this series we’ve tracked the growth of two martial arts central in the creation of modern Mixed Martial Arts. Starting with the empty hand art of Jujitsu practiced by the Samurai and the grappling of European Knights in the Middle Ages to their modern renditions of Judo and Catch Wrestling. We followed the arts as they switched hemispheres to transform into modern fighting styles. Judo, molded in the hands of the Gracies, turned to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, a gi based grappling style ideal for no holds barred fighting. And catch wrestling was transported to Japan by Karl Gotch, where it became the jacket-less fighting sport of Shootfighting. These two styles, unaware of each other, would finally collide in a match up in the making since the 1500s.

Rorion Gracie had been living in the United States fifteen years and in that time he had established a firm foothold for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in Southern California. He had gone from teaching one-on-one lessons out of a garage to heading up an academy that was bursting at the seams with students. But this growth had been hard fought, literally. The established martial arts community in California was resistant to this new comer, and Rorion had revived the Gracie Challenge to prove his art’s worth.

Even though the art was growing in California, east of the Rocky Mountains few Americans had even heard of Jiu Jitsu, much less had access to a school. The largest problem he had was the preconception of the American people, mostly due to movies and television shows, that the martial arts Eastern striking arts that involved flashy kicks and loud kiai. Rorion wanted a way to show the whole United States how effective Brazilian Jiu Jitsu really was and thought of the televised Vale Tudo matches in Brazil.

To that end Rorion took whatever publicity he could get, which included a Playboy interview which ran in 1989 under the title of simply “Bad.” The article detailed the Gracie family, Jiu Jitsu, and some of their exploits in fighting. The article caught the attention of Art Davie, a marketer who had been told by a client to find a way to reach young males, but to use an avenue other than boxing. Davie was intrigued by this story, reminding him of arguments he had while he was a marine with other enlisted about which martial art would win when paired against another.

Davie reached out to Rorion, and while an ad campaign never came about, he did help Rorion sell his Gracies in Action tapes to help spread awareness of Jiu Jitsu. The tapes were effective, and sold well, but both Rorion and Davie wanted to take it to another level. They sat down with one of Rorion’s students, a filmmaker named John Milius.

Together the three began to devise a show that would bring Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to the masses.Something akin to the Vale Tudo matches that had made the Gracies so popular in Brazil, and the challenge matches they had used in California to spread their name. It was to be a tournament, featuring representatives from different styles fighting to see whose style would prevail.

In meetings they puzzled the finer details. Everything from what fighters would wear, to the rules, to the fighting surface, to the name of the event. They attended every sort of fighting event and show, from Karate tournaments to pro wrestling matches scouting for talent and inspiration.

The origins of the Octagon are in some dispute as there are claims they witnessed a pro wrestling event that took place in an Octagon, while other accounts have Gregory Harrison sketching for Art Davie. While it is unclear where the idea for an eight sided cage came from, a cage was always the idea. There was some debate on if the cage should be electrified and if a moat around the cage would be a good idea however.

The name was another point of debate. Early on Rorion’s idea of “The War of the Worlds” was the choice, and the production company to host the event was named War of the Worlds (WoW) Productions. They got as far as designing a logo that featured Roman and Greek style columns and fighting statues before it was changed to the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

The UFC needed someone to air their show however, and the medium of Pay-Per-View television was still fairly new. But pitching a fighting event that was highly likely to be declared illegal in most states proved difficult. HBO and Showtime turned Davie down immediately, and Davie went down the list of PPV providers until he reached Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG).

Davie spoke to programmer director Campbell McClaren about it, and he was interested, as his company was really interested in testing the waters of what would sell on PPV. Davie sent McClaren a Gracies in Action tape. McClaren showed the tape to a few co-workers in his office and by the time the tape was done his office was full of people who just wanted to see what was being watched.

McClaren’s superior Bob Meyrowitz needed a bit more convincing, but he consented and the UFC had a PPV home for at least one event.

Rules were a huge point of contention, and Rorion firmly believed that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was the most effective martial art for real fighting, so he wanted the matches to be as close to a street confrontation as possible. He insisted there could be no time limits or rounds, but he was eventually talked down to an unlimited number of five minute rounds.

Fights had to be won via knock out, submission or a corner throwing in the towel, the referee did not have the power to stop a fight. Only a bare-bones set of rules were implemented: no groin shots, no eye gouging and no biting (groin shots would be legalized for the second UFC). The format would be a one night tournament featuring eight fighters, the winner getting a cash prize of fifty thousand dollars. The event would be held on Pay-Per-View TV for just under fifteen dollars.

Then there was the issue of who was to represent Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Originally the choice was Rickson Gracie, and for quite a while that was the plan moving forward. Then tensions outside of the planning of the UFC began to mount between Rorion and Rickson, and Rickson left to start his own school. Things soured between the two and Royce was elected to replace him, Rorion said it would make for a better show as Royce was less imposing that Rickson. There was outrage, and Jon McCarthy, a police officer and student of Rorion’s, said things got so heated that Rorion came to him requesting a gun because he was afraid he would be attacked by his brothers.

But Helio Gracie, the patriarch of the family put an end to the bickering and cooler heads prevailed. In the end it was agreed Royce would represent the Gracie family and his brothers Rickson and Royler would corner him.

Finding other fighters for this event was rather difficult, as it was hard to explain exactly what the event would be, and they didn’t have a highlight reel to show prospective fighters. As a result, it was a bit of a mixed bag as the UFC would get legitimately good fighters, and some past their primes with impressive sounding resumes. And this early rendition of the UFC was not afraid to pump up accomplishments with pure fabrication.

For boxing, they found Art Jimmerson, who was a 26-5 as a professional and had won an IBC Light Heavyweight Championship and fought for the NABF Light Heavyweight title. But Jimmerson had been out of fighting for a bit, and didn’t really have a full understanding of what kind of event he was preparing for, and actually tried to withdraw on short notice.

Kevin Rosier was a heavyweight kickboxing champion and knockout artist, and when the UFC recruited him they thought they were getting a large, tone fighter they had seen in video and pictures. But when they first met him after he agreed to be in the event, he was enjoying a pizza and a beer in the gym and had clearly let his weight slip.

Zane Frazier was a multiple time international Karate point sparing champion and was recruited by Rorion. At a local karate tournament Rorion witnessed an altercation where Frazier took an attacker to the ground and effectively dominated him. Rorion and Davie then witnessed a scuffle between Frazier and Bloodsport star Frank Dux. After a heated exchange, punches were thrown, and Frazier emerged the better. Davie was sold after that encounter and Frazier was invited to be apart of the UFC.

Patrick Smith, a moderately accomplished American kickboxer with black belts in Tae Kwon Do, Kenpo Karate, and Hapkido. Gerard Gordeau, kickboxer from the Netherlands, was very skilled in Karate, French Savate and the Dutch style of Muay Thai, who was at the tail end of a fairly accomplished career and was now doing time as a pro wrestler and a bouncer.

Teila Tuli was an American born sumo wrestler, one of the first to have success in competition in Japan, and was known for his rough-and-tumble attitude. And then there was Ken Shamrock, trained in Japanese Shootfighting, a derivative of Catch Wrestling, and Ken specialized in submission grappling and who had begun participating in live fights just about a year before UFC 1.

All in all, it was a less than jaw dropping collection of fighters. But considering that none of them really knew what they were getting into aside from the Gracies, it was about as good as could be expected. When the fighters first met in the lead up to the event, Davie was extremely impressed with Shamrock, thinking he would run rough-shot over the rest of the fighters. The fighter who made the least impression was Royce. The scrawny 26-year-old just faded into the background during fighter meetings, work outs, and promo tapping sessions. Other fighters viewed him with curiosity due to his relation with one of the organizers, but none of them viewed him as a threat.

The tension and nervousness in the lead up boiled over in the rules meeting the night before the event. Chaos broke out as fighters objected to rules that outlawed gloves and hand-wraps. Things devolved into heated arguments until Tuli stood and shouted “I came here to fight! I’ll fight anyone who wants to fight. See you tomorrow.” and then stormed out. His burst of bravado cowed the rest of the fighters into compliance, and they all left to try to get some sleep.

So it was on November 12, 1993 with a huge Colorado snow storm looming over the arena, the first Ultimate Fighting Championship event took place on Pay-Per-View.

The first fight of the night as actually not aired live and was an alternate bout between Jason DeLucia and Trent Jenkins. DeLucia was a kung fu fighter from Boston who had come to L.A. to try to challenge Steven Seagal to a fight, but unable to even get a response from the movie star, DeLucia took the Gracie Challenge instead. In the Gracie Academy DeLucia was choked by Royce Gracie, and began to study Jiu Jitsu. He asked for a chance to be included in the event and for a rematch with Royce, he was told that if he won this fight he would be given a spot in the next UFC tournament.

The fight looked something like a movie martial arts match as both DeLucia and Jenkins threw flying, spinning strikes and when the match hit the ground DeLucia quickly secured a rear naked choke to win in under a minute. It was a flashy, bloodless start to the night.

Then the first broadcast fight of the night set the tone of what was to come, when Gordeau faced off with Hawaiian born Sumo Wrestler Teila Tuli. The Hawaiian enjoyed a 200 lb advantage over the Dutchman and early in their match the sumo wrestler charged forward. Gordeau gave ground and threw a short uppercut that staggered Tuli, who fell against the cage.

Gordeau paused for the barest of moments and then threw a vicious head kick that sent Tuli’s teeth flying into the crowd and sliced open the Dutchman’s foot. He followed it up with a smacking right hand to the eye and the referee jumped in, called time to allow a doctor to look at Tuli and the fight was stopped.

Gerard Gordeau lands a head kick on the kneeling Teila Tuli

Even the commentating team made up of Bill Wallace for play-by-play, American female kickboxing great Kathy Long and NFL superstar Jim Brown was in momentary shock by the violence of the first match. This was unlike anything American audiences had seen before. Neither the Boxing vs Judo match of the 1960s nor Ali’s fight with the Japanese Pro Wrestler had reached this level of violence, and this was just the opening seconds of the UFC PPV. This was truly Vale Tudo, or No Holds Barred, fighting come to the United States.

The fight sent shock waves back stage as well, the fighters aghast at the damage caused to both fighters. Tuli’s face was a bloody mess and Gordau’s right hand was likely broken, and his foot gashed from Tuli’s teeth. Even Ken Shamrock, a veteran of Pancrase’s live fights, was surprised. He had been convinced he would be approached and told the fights were to be “worked” at the last minute. At this point Pancrase did not allow closed fist strikes, so for Shamrock these were uncharted waters as well.

The next fight paired kick-boxers Kevin Rosier and Zane Frazier against each other in the UFC’s first slobber-knocker of a stand up war. Frazier started strong, but after a few minutes both fighters faded, and Rosier landed several overhand rights and finished the fight with head stomps.

Next up was Royce against the boxer, Art Jimmerson who famously was allowed to wear one boxing glove into the Octagon due to it being part of his sport’s attire and as a part of the last minute negotiations to keep Jimmerson in the event. While many remember Royce as the clear underdog in this tournament, the commentary team was very educated in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and clearly predict that Jimmerson would be hurt by the limitations of boxing.

Jimmerson was nervous back stage and going over how he would work Gracie on the outside with the jab, which is why he wanted the one glove. He was with John McCarthy, a student of Rorion Gracie, backstage. McCarthy had actually wanted to compete but had been told Royce would be the only Gracie trained fighter allowed in the event. Jimmerson, knowing McCarthy trained with his opponent, asked how Royce would try to defeat him. McCarthy demonstrated a simple takedown and armlock to the boxer. When Jimmerson’s reaction was pure panic, McCarthy knew he had made a mistake. Jimmerson, already on the fence about how committed he was to this event, told his corner to throw in the towel at the first sign of trouble.

Once in the cage, Jimmerson froze in front of Gracie and didn’t throw strikes. Royce took the boxer down, and easily took the mount. After trying futilely to escape, Jimmerson panicked and tapped out.

Royce Gracie takes the mount against Art Jimmerson

The final quarterfinal match featured Ken Shamrock against the imposing Patrick Smith. Both fighters were impressive physically, but Shamrock was easily able to take Smith down and attack for a footlock. Despite Smith’s later claim that he felt no pain, he screamed as he tapped out to Shamrock’s heel hook. This set up a semi-final in which Brazilian Jiu Jitsu would come face to face with Shoot fighting for the first time. It is a true clash of MMA’s most dominant early forms of fighting.

Heading into the match Shamrock was clearly confident, believing that nobody at this event was anywhere near the level of competition that he faced in Japan in Pancrase matches. The match between Royce and Jimmerson had not been impressive in the least, and Shamrock thought that because Royce wore a gi that he was a traditional martial artist and thus an easy victim.

Shamrock’s shoot fighting style was a grappling style that did not use a gi, emphasized foot locks and was not focused on positional dominance. In short, it was very similar to the Luta Livre fighters that the Gracies had been battling for the better part of forty years. They had been adapting their martial art for years to deal with aggressive, catch wrestling based grapplers. Japanese shoot fighting was in its infancy and had never encounters an art that was at once so similar in terms of technical ability on the ground, and dissimilar it its emphasis on positional grappling.

So in the match when Royce pulled guard, and Shamrock dropped for a foot lock, Royce was expecting the attack and used Shamrock’s momentum to carry him to the mount position. This is a classic example of the idea of a fighter putting submission before position, Shamrock surrendered the top position in a hasty effort to lock up a submission. Then as Shamrock attempted to force his way to his feet, Royce flowed from his mount to side turtle and once Royce had his weight firmly on Shamrock, he locked up a gi choke to end the match.

UFC 1: Ken Shamrock vs Royce Gracie via UFClatino

This first meeting between the Gracies and the Japanese-influenced branch of Catch Wrestling went to the Gracies through superior preparation. Their losses against Luta Livre fighters had born fruit here as Royce was clearly prepared for Shamrock’s style of grappling. While very gracious in defeat, Shamrock was clearly baffled by what had just happened to him, saying at one point “I’m not used to this kind of stuff.”

In the other semi-final Gordeau quickly overwhelmed a tired Rosier, first with leg kicks and then with elbows for the stoppage. It was another grueling match for the already battered and hurt Gordeau. His hand and foot were broken, and his foot had a serious laceration on it. That cut from Tuli’s teeth would later become infected, forcing Gordeau to be hospitalized for days. But none of that stopped the Dutchman from coming back to the Octagon one last time to face Royce Gracie. 

In the final match Royce was able to clinch with Gordeau, take him down and easily apply a rear naked choked for the win. Royce would hold on to the choke well after the tap, later saying that Gordeau had bitten his ear earlier in the fight, and he wanted to teach the Gordeau a lesson.

The UFC was a smashing success for Rorion Gracie, it inspired a whole generation of American martial arts to begin training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and turned Royce Gracie into an American martial arts icon. It had the unintended side effect of creating huge American interest in not just Jiu Jitsu but No Holds Barred fighting as well. It seemed for almost every person that wanted to do Jiu Jitsu, there was another who was more interested in No Holds Barred fighting.

While UFC 1 sparked interest, in the mid-90s the promotion would remain little more than a very elite tough man competition when compared with what was happening in Japan and Brazil.

For more MMA analysis, history, technique, and discussion be sure to follow T.P. Grant on Twitter or Facebook.

For more information on the creation of the first UFC:

Johnthan Snowden’s Total MMA: A fantastic resource of MMA history, I highly recommend it.

For more on the individual fighters of UFC 1 check out Zane Simon’s excellent UFC 1 Fighter Redux

The Sherdog Rewind features fantastic interviews, many of them dealing with MMA History and speaking directly to many of the people these articles deal with, below are the interviews I drew on.

Campbell McLaren

Rorion Gracie

Clyde Gentry

For those that don’t know, Clyde Gentry is an MMA writer who has published one of the most complete histories of MMA in print.

Share this story

About the author
Related Stories