MMA Origins: Extreme Fighting blazes trail for MMA in the US

The development of Mixed Martial Arts as a sport was a long and meandering process with many different starting points, several dead ends, and…

By: T.P. Grant | 9 years ago
MMA Origins: Extreme Fighting blazes trail for MMA in the US
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

The development of Mixed Martial Arts as a sport was a long and meandering process with many different starting points, several dead ends, and just as many forks as there are confluences.

This series examined some of the UFC’s tinkering with rules up to UFC 12, and a failed experiment with a new MMA rule set in the World Combat Championships, but now we will look at a promotion that made huge strides in rules years before those same rules would appear in the UFC and become standard for American MMA promotions.

Donald Zuckerman has worn a lot of hats in his professional life: lawyer, boxing manager, movie producer, nightclub owner, music talent manager, and in the early 90s he was looking for something new to dig his teeth into. So when Richard Crudo, a cinematographer and director, approached him with a video of Vale Tudo fights and an idea, Zuckerman saw an opportunity. He began to use his connections in the television and promotion world to begin lining up finances around the same time UFC 1 was in the works, but the two projects were totally unaware of each other. With the help of John Sher at PolyGram Diversified Entertainment, a date was set for April of 1994, just a few months after the first UFC occurred in November of 1993.

But then Sher’s major project at PolyGram, Woodstock II, ran off the tracks just weeks before the fight event was planned to happen. The music concert, planned to mark the anniversary of the original Woodstock concert, had an exploding budget and the festival nearly devolved into a riot. Sher was fired, PolyGram pulled their funds, and Zuckerman was back to square one.

Donald Zuckerman, shot here as the film commissioner for Colorado Creative Industries in 2011 by Cyrus McCrimmon of the Denver Post

Bob Guccione, founder of Penthouse, and owner of the skin magazine’s parent company General Media Inc. invested nearly a million dollars in Zuckerman’s fight project. The project had backing again and was ready to go, Battlecade Inc was born. There was just one problem, Zuckerman didn’t know anything about martial arts.

Zuckerman’s connections led him to stuntman, pro wrestler, Judo champion and first man to win a sanctioned mixed rules match on American soil, Gene LeBell. “Judo” Gene LeBell was a towering figure in the American martial arts community and after speaking with Zuckerman, gave him the name of one of his students, John Perretti.

Perretti and Zuckerman hit it off, and Perretti was given the role of match maker. A life long martial artist, Perretti started out in a variety of arts when he was a teenager including Taekwondo and Tang Soo Do. As an adult, Perretti moved to Chinatown to train in Wing Chun for several years, got into kickboxing, competed for a time, and started learning grappling from Gene LeBell.

The first event was planned to go down in New York. In a bold move, they originally booked Madison Garden for the event. In the end, the move proved too bold as it drew the attention of Roy Goodman, a New York State Senator, who moved to shut the event down. It also drew the attention of the SEG’s Bob Meyrowtiz, who also moved to block the event in New York City. Zuckerman fought legally and politically and switched the venue to the Park Slope Armor, but even then it wasn’t enough.

In the end, despite selling out the venue, it was deemed too risky an endeavor and Extreme Fighting moved their event to North Carolina.

Perretti, as matchmaker, was given the job of finding fighters for Extreme Fighting, and it was a job he would excel at, becoming likely the best eye for talent in his era. He held a tryout at his Tao Jutsu Do school in a New York basement, in addition to recruiting a few known commodities.

John Perretti (left) and John Lewis (right) backstage at Extreme Fighting 2

First, Perretti secured two Gracies for his show, Carlson Gracie Jr, son of the legendary Vale Tudo fighter and coach, in addition to Ralph Gracie, brother of Renzo Gracie. He also brought in Carlson Gracie Sr students Marcus “Conan” Silveira and Mario Sperry.

Perretti also brought a fellow Gene LeBell student, John Lewis, who would go on to become part of the so-called “Dirty Dozen”, the first twelve non-Brazilian black belts in BJJ. Igor Zinoviev, a Judo and Sambo fighter, whom Perretti had tutored in kickboxing in New York. Zinoviev was a two time Empire State Games Heavyweight Judo Champion and had Combat Sambo experience.

The term “mixed martial arts”, in the context of this sport, appeared in print in reference to the sport for the first time in the LA Times, in the aftermath of UFC 1. Perretti maintains he used the term to describe his martial arts school for years and that Extreme Fighting in fact was the first to use the term in their very first press release, but I was unable to find a copy to confirm.

Extreme Fighting was the first promotion to really embrace the term and see Mixed Martial Arts as a sport. To push things in that direction Battlecade, in a historic move, instituted weight-classes: Lightweight (-159 lbs), Middleweight (160 – 199 lbs), and Heavyweight (200+ lbs). This made Extreme Fighting the first American Mixed Martial Arts promotion to institute weightclasses, nearly two years before the UFC did the same.

So it was Battlcade held Extreme Fighting 1 in Wilmington, North Carolina. Perretti was in the commentary booth with play-by-play Dave Bontempo. The show also featured movie star Laurence Tureaud, aka Mr. T, doing back stage interviews, and he did not thrive in that roll. The production of the show had several hiccups, playing promo videos for fighters who were no longer in the competition, and some audio issues. The matches took place inside a circular, yellow floored cage.

The first fight of the show was a Lightweight bout that featured Ralph Gracie taking karate and judo fighter Makoto Muraoko, who was announced as the “Game” Shoot Wrestling Champion coming into the fight. Murakoko claimed to have a special technique that would “kill” Ralph in the promo package, but things did not go his way in the cage.

Ralph Gracie vs Makoto Muraoko

But it was Zinoiev who was the run away talent of the event. It was originally planned for him to fight Royce Gracie, and Perretti did engage Royce in talks about it but nothing materialized. Zinoiev was placed in the Middleweight tournament and he impressively blew the doors off his first opponent, Harold German, a boxer.

Igor Zinoviev vs Harold Herman

The really historic moment was Zinoviev’s second fight, in the finals of their four man Middleweight Championship tournament. There he faced Mario Sperry, whose jiu jitsu credentials were highly touted, and the Brazilian easily beat his first opponent to get to the finals.

In the finals, Sperry dominated Zinoviev early, taking the mount several times. Zinoviev was able to escape and even reverse Sperry once, but he was clearly getting the worse of the grappling exchanges. Then when Sperry had a standing rear waist lock he made a very ill-advised leap to take the back. He fell and Zinoviev landed a knee that opened a fight ending cut on Sperry.

Igor Zinoviev vs Mario Sperry

Zinoviev was crowned the Extreme Fighting Middleweight Champion in the first fight in American MMA a non-Jiu Jitsu fighter stopped a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fighter. The fight was seen as way ahead of its time as Zinoviev was mounted multiple times, a virtual death sentence in those days, and escaped each time.

This card also featured John Lewis and Carlson Gracie Jr fighting to a draw as per the rules of that match, where if there was no finish the fight would be ruled a draw, but many felt Lewis had won. Marcus Silveira winning the Extreme Fighting Heavyweight title after winning two fights by stoppage. Compared to the UFC’s of 1995 and Extreme Fighting was an impressive card as its fighters clearly had a better grasp of the blending of skills than many of the fighters featured in the UFC. The UFC at the time put a emphasis on large, marketable fighters and spectacle match making, and the difference was obvious.

While a big success with the fans who had seen the event, Extreme Fighting 1 actually was a net loss for Battlecade, largely due to the last minute change in venue forcing them to give away tickets to fill seats. So it was decided by the Battlecade leadership, Zuckerman and CEO Rick Blume, to avoid the American legal system all together and go to an Indian reservation for the next show.

The Kahnawake Mohawk Indian Reservation in Canada was selected as the site for Extreme Fighting 2. The reservation often played host to kickboxing events and had a strong martial arts community. The Canadian province of Quebec however was not keen on having the event in their boarders, and while legally the reservation was allowed to host the event, the Canadian authorities were going to make it as difficult as possible on Extreme Fighting.

Immigration officials stopped some of the fighters at the airport and a good deal of the production crew. The fighters that did arrive in Montreal were threatened by police with arrest after the event concluded. SEG and the UFC also moved to rent out the arena out from under Battlecade, but Zuckerman’s friendship with Kickboxing promoter Mike Thomas who had strong ties with Mohawks kept that from happening.

The local officials took steps to block the television broadcast off the reservation and Zuckerman had to rush a satellite truck to the site to ensure the event would be broadcast that arrived 30 minutes before the show started.

Extreme Fighting embraced the controversy and the intro video package featured a good deal about the threatened legal action. It featured how UFC 2 veteran Orlando Wiet was successfully intimidated by police to pull out of the event and Perretti calling him a piece of shit, in a very Dana White like role in the promotion.

The event was hit hard by the legal actions, but there was still some serious talent that got in the cage. Ralph Gracie faced decorated American wrestler Steve Nelson to win the Lightweight title.

Ralph Gracie vs Steve Nelson

John Lewis, wearing his recently awarded black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, got a quick and brutal win. Igor Zinoviev faced off with Steve Falkner, a Wing Chun fighter, to defend his Middleweight title.

Steve Falkner vs Igor Zinoviev

The card also featured the professional debut of Carlos Newton, who lost to Jean Riviere.

In another historic move though Extreme Fighting 2 was the first card were MMA fighters were required to wear specific MMA gloves, making it the first North American promotion to require all fighters to wear finger-less, MMA style gloves.

Marcus Silviera took advantage of the addition of gloves and came out looking to show off his expanding skillset in boxing. His coach Carlson Gracie at the time was pushing his fighters to box a bit more and the with addition of gloves stopping a fight on the feet suddenly became much more viable.

Marcus Conan Silviera Vs Carl Franks

It was another watershed moment, similar to when Tank Abbott debuted in the UFC with gloves, for MMA as the impact of gloves on striking was obvious. Fighters could punch without fear of breaking their hands, and standing knockouts became a real part of the game, another step towards the modern sport of mixed martial arts.

In the early hours of the morning after the event Quebec Police, in conjunction with certain officials from the reservation police force, raided the fighter hotel, arresting several fighters right out of bed and put them in jail for two days. Perretti had already flown home, upon hearing it he flew back to Quebec and got himself arrested to be with the fighters.

In the end Bob Guccione of Penthouse pulled some strings to get everyone out of jail, the charges dropped, and gave the arrested fights $1000 each for their troubles.

All in all the second event was a disaster for the promotion. It hurt them badly with the PPV providers as the show proved too short to fill the minimum time for a PPV window due to all the fighter withdraws, something that would haunt to promotion down the road.

In October of 1996 Extreme Fighting made a third effort in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It is most famous for the North American debut of Maurice Smith in his famous upset of Marcus Silveira for the Extreme Fighting Heavyweight Championship.

While Silveira was the heavy favorite Perretti had trained with Smith and knew the strides he was making and a grappler and to this day talks about how he knew what a competitive match Smith was for Silveira. Smith’s expanding skills combined with Carlson pushing Silveira to experiment with his boxing lead to Smith becoming the first striker to knock out a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fighter in American MMA competition.

The card featured other major MMA talents such as Matt Hume and Erik Paulson, both future trainers, squaring off, and Hume winning due to cut stoppage. Ralph Gracie submitting Ai Mihoubi, Igor Zinoviev and the legendarily tough John Lober fighting to a draw.

The card was also the first time an MMA promotion used the format of three, five minute rounds for a contest, which replaced the one fifteen minute round used in previous Extreme Fighting contests.

The spectre of the Canada show still followed the promotion, as did the UFC, siphoning away talent from Extreme Fighting. After his loss to Smith the UFC booked Silveira to fight for them at UFC 15.5 against Kazushi Sakuraba, and the UFC continued to try to lure away the talent from Battlecade.

The final Extreme Fighting show took place on March 28, 1997 in Des Moines, Iowa. It was a card that was going to be an absolute showcase of talent, but injury forced Igor Zinoviev to withdraw and Luta Livre legend Eugenio Tadeu, scheduled to fight Ralph Gracie was unable to attend, scrapping that match. The pushed the show in every way they could think of, including sending Lewis and Ralph to appear on the Jerry Springer Show.

The show did feature Maurice Smith defending his Heavyweight title against Kazunari Murakami. It also featured the pro MMA debut of Olympic Wrestling gold medalist Kevin Jackson, who submitted John Lober in two rounds. Olympic gold medalist Kenny Monday also made his only appearance in MMA, where he finished John Lewis Also Matt Hume defeated a local Iowan fighter by the named Pat Miletich by doctors stoppage, Hume in the midst of a hotly contested fight reopened an injury on Miletich’s nose that he had sustained in training.

But in the end the a strong fourth show was not enough to save Extreme Fighting. The echos of the Canada show still hurt them, as well as the growing opposition to MMA in the cable industry. Extreme Fighting 4 was only carried to 45,000 homes, not nearly enough to keep the promotion afloat. Financial woes at Penthouse meant there was zero safety net, and Battlecade closed up shop just days after Extreme Fighting 4.

While as a promotion Extreme Fighting folded due to pressure from cable companies, financial backers, and the UFC, it is hard to call the promotion a failure. With a fraction of the staff and attention of the UFC, they came very near to replicating their success and out innovated and out scouted just about everyone in the industry.

Extreme Fighting’s rule set that included fights lasting three, five minute rounds with gloves and weight-classes became the bedrock of what would become the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts. At the time these moves were not always popular with fans, who deride Extreme Fighting as not being extreme enough and not delivering the raw action that the UFC provided with their minimal rule sets.

In addition to the rules, Perretti’s match making was very geared towards competitive matches. He wanted top fighters, and avoided mixing in the strip mall, McDojo blackbelts that were common sights in early UFC events. Perretti would train with many of the fighters and get a personal sense for their skills and the results were hard to argue with as Extreme Fighting, in the mid-90’s was home to several matches that were years ahead of their time in terms of the integration of skills in the cage.

Many of his fighters were picked up by the UFC, either immediately or with a year of the demise of Extreme Fighting. Maurice Smith, Carlos Newton, and Pat Miletich would go on to become UFC Champions. Kevin Jackson would get a title shot in the UFC. John Lewis would get two fights in the UFC and play an important role in the Zuffa purchase of the promotion. Ralph Gracie would go on to fight briefly in Pride, but only took three fights after Extreme Fighting collapsed.

Perretti himself was hired by the UFC to become their match maker, after a short stint in promoting submission grappling, and he brought his sport center attitude, and fiery personality to the Octagon.

Igor Zinoviev, likely the best talent in the show aside from maybe Ralph Gracie, went to Japan for a fight in Pancarse and then was offered a UFC title shot by Perretti against Frank Shamrock. Just seconds into the fight however Zinoviev was slammed on to Octagon floor, which at the time was solid wood with a thin mat over it and suffered serious injuries including a concussion and a broken collar bone. The slam ended Zinovev’s promising career.

Extreme Fighting is rarely talked about it today, but is unquestionably one of the more important promotions in the history of the sport and gave Mixed Martial Arts a large push towards becoming a sport.


I’d like to thank former Extreme Fighting and UFC match maker John Perretti for sitting down and talking to me about the promotion, his help was invaluable in the writing of this article.

Aside from watching the events, all which are available for purchase on DVD, I used the following resources to help write this article. I highly recommend them to MMA fans:

I drew from the following books

Johnthan Snowden’s Total MMA

Clyde Gentry III’s No Holds Barred

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

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