Seaton: The Crazy Origin of the UFC

Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA, is a uniquely American sport developed in our lifetime. It’s a billion dollar business these days, and the biggest name in the game is the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC. Today’s fight cards, however, are a far cry from the batshit insanity that was the first Ultimate Fighting Championship.

The idea of a used car salesman turned ad executive, the Ultimate Fighting Championship was envisioned as the ultimate test of various fighting styles. Art Davie loved the idea of seeing who would win an actual fight between a boxer and a wrestler, for example.* Everyone he pitched the idea to turned him down. Davie’s idea finally caught on with a guy who had a vested interest in making such a tournament happen.

Rorion** Gracie was the son of Helio Gracie, a Brazilian sports icon who’d mastered his own unique blend of a Japanese martial art called Jiu-Jitsu. Rorion taught his father’s style with the help of his brothers out of a two-car garage in Los Angeles. The Gracie gym gained a certain notoriety due to an open challenge the family maintained: beat a Gracie and you’d win $100,000. Rorion saw Art Davie’s idea as the perfect way to prove Helio’s “Gracie Jiu-Jitsu” was the most effective martial art in a fight.

The duo started shopping their idea to television companies and eventually found a willing backer in the tiny Semaphore Entertainment Group, who’d previously televised rock concerts and comedy shows. As the idea began to take shape, Davie and Gracie found themselves lacking two key elements: a structure in which the fights would take place and actual fighters.

What we know as the “Octagon” today came from one of Rorion’s students who’d directed a film called “Conan the Barbarian.” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character is seen in the film fighting opponents in a stone octagonal pit. From there, the UFC crew replaced stone with polymer-coated chain link fencing and pads. Go look at the first Octagon on YouTube. The zip ties and gaffing tape holding everything together is quite the sight.

Calling the first eight UFC fighters a “rogue’s gallery” would be an understatement. One was a bouncer in the underground Dutch rave scene with such an intimidating aura  that Art Davie swore the guy moonlit as an assassin. Another was a Hawaiian sumo player banned from Japan after he allegedly pushed a reporter through a plate glass window. One of Stevie Wonder’s former bodyguards even got in on the action.

A Gracie was always going to take the final spot in the eight man tournament. Art Davie thought Rorion’s brother Rixon would enter the tournament. To everyone’s surprise, Rorion tapped his younger, lanky brother Royce as the family representative. He wanted to prove a point with this selection: no matter what size you were, if you were proficient in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu you could easily subdue much larger opponents.

The fighters met for the first time in a cramped Denver hotel conference room for a “rules meeting” conducted by Rorion Gracie and Art Davie. Participants bristled as Rorion rattled off restrictions for what was billed as a “no holds barred” tournament. Biting, eye gouging, and fish hooking were forbidden. If you planned to kick, you couldn’t wear shoes. Finally, taping knuckles was out of the question because Rorion insisted all fights be “bare knuckled.”

Egos and tensions flared until Teila Tuli, the Hawaiian sumo player, strode to the front of the room and signed his contract, no questions asked. Addressing the stunned room, Tuli said “I came here to party. If you guys want to party, sign the contracts.” The remaining seven fighters signed after that. To this day, Art Davie and Rorion Gracie credit Teila Tuli with saving the inaugural UFC from ruin.

If you’ve watched any of the first UFC tournament you know Tuli. He’s the guy who gets his face kicked in about 26 seconds into the first fight. One kick and one punch knocked the big Hawaiian’s teeth into the crowd and opened a gash over one eye.

Rorion Gracie was the only production team member unfazed by the violence. No one on the production team knew what to do. Twenty-six seconds into the first fight and one participant was headed to the hospital. Plus they had two hours of TV time to fill and the first fight ended so quickly. Flabbergasted, the team replayed the event repeatedly until the second fight was ready.

Zane Frazier*** was in the second fight. He had asthma, and the excessive smoke blown by machines plus being in Denver’s thin air meant Frazier was sucking wind not long after his fight began. Frazier’s spouse threw in the towel and the fighter was taken by ambulance to the hospital.

Backstage, everyone was nervous. The event planners budgeted for three ambulances on standby that night. Two were already used, and two preliminary fights remained.

Fortunately the two remaining preliminary fights went without too much issue. A chiseled American shootfighting in Japan named Ken Shamrock made short work of Denver local Pat Smith. Royce Gracie did the same in his first fight against boxer Art Jimmerson, who inexplicably chose to wear one boxing glove so his off hand was free to grapple.

Shamrock and Gracie met in the semifinals. Ken Shamrock claims he’s thought about that fight ever since. At one point in their duel, Shamrock says he saw what Royce Gracie wanted to do and tried to muscle his way out of the Brazilian’s grasp. However, Shamrock claimed his lack of footwear made getting the needed leverage impossible. Gracie ended up choking Shamrock into submission shortly afterward. He still thinks the fight would’ve been different had he worn shoes, but today Ken Shamrock says his initial fight with Royce Gracie made him never take an opponent for granted again.

The finals saw Royce Gracie pitted against Gerard Gordeau, the man who extracted Teila Tuli’s teeth with his foot in the first fight. However, the toll of the first two fights weighed heavily against Gardeau. One foot was bleeding, another broken. The hand throwing the punch that opened up Tuli shattered with the blow.

Gracie, in comparison, was fresh as a daisy and hadn’t taken a single punch. You can probably guess how the fight ended. Royce successfully defended his family’s honor, took home $50,000, and everyone was interested in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.

With over eighty thousand buys at $14.95 a pop, the UFC was definitely a success. Court battles and intense scrutiny from people like the late Senator John McCain left a bad taste in Davie’s mouth, whose stake in the company ended up in the hands of Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, two casino moguls and fight fans who had a friend named Dana White, who possessed a knack for talking people into a building.****

The Fertitas paid two million for the UFC and sold it for four billion dollars in 2016. Mixed martial arts is such a booming sport the UFC is still holding cards during the COVID-19 pandemic thanks to the purchase of “Fight Island,” a private destination for fights in the United Arab Emirates.*****

You can probably find the first UFC on YouTube if you look hard enough. I encourage you to check it out this weekend. It’s a testament to drive, determination, never taking “no” for an answer, and American exceptionalism.

If nothing else, you’ll probably kill a few minutes watching Teila Tuli get his teeth knocked out repeatedly.

*This idea had been tried repeatedly, with one notable example being pro wrestler Antonio Inoki attempting to best Muhammad Ali in a match. Art Davie stealing Inoki’s idea is the first example of cultural appropriation I can remember.

**In Brazil, names that start with an “R” actually are pronounced  “H.” So “Rorion” is pronounced “Horion,” “Rixon” is “Hickson,” and “Royce” is “Hoyce.” Don’t complain to me, I didn’t come up with this.

***This was Stevie Wonder’s former bodyguard, in case you were wondering. You’re welcome.

****From what I understand, Rorion Gracie pulled out after the first UFC when referee “Big” John McCarthy approached Gracie and Davie to tell them, “The next one of these is going to need some more rules, or you’re going to get someone killed.”

*****I swear I am not making this up.

16 thoughts on “Seaton: The Crazy Origin of the UFC

  1. Jeff Blevins

    I miss 15 minute rounds.

    I always viewed moving to 5 minute rounds as a disadvantage to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. One beauty of Jiu-Jitsu is the ability to control an opponent, minimizing damage, while looking for an opening. Beating them at the endurance game and forcing mistakes. Royce won because he did that exactly. Sure, he threw a few punches and kicks to create an opening – but what he really did was win the endurance battle while dominating position. Oftentimes from his back.

    But 15 minute grappling matches don’t sell. They’re boring if you don’t understand the technique and there’s little blood left on the mat (unless you’re Nick Diaz and start bleeding as soon as you step in the octagon).

    1. CLS

      I never understood the arbitrary nature of timed rounds to begin with. In the UFC it’s three five minute rounds for non-title fights. When PRIDE was a thing they did one ten minute and one five minute round. Allotting a specific period of time to beat the piss out of someone just seems odd.

      And Nick Diaz will hold a special place in my heart as the one guy who got so stoned he won a fight against Takanori Gomi Yes, he had something like ten times the accepted limit of THC in his system at the time of the bout, but you’ve got to give him credit for turning marijuana into a performance enhancing drug.

      1. Jeff Blevins

        Diaz (both Nick and Nate) are absolute beasts. I don’t think anyone else in any organization is as skilled at both Jiu-Jitsu and Boxing.

        UFC used to be 15 minutes. I think that they had to switch to weight categories, reasonably timed rounds, etc… just to keep guys like John McCain off their back. It had been banned in a lot of cities prior to that.

        But from the perspective of an untrained fighter, eating fried mayonnaise balls and drinking beer at the bar, watching Dan Severn and Royce Gracie roll around for 15 minutes just isn’t interesting.

  2. Angrychiatty

    Thanks for writing this entertaining piece! Just wanted to be pedantic and say that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu comes from Judo. Specifically, the ground fighting (newaza) of that art, which is somewhat limited per the rules. BJJ expanded this aspect of judo to become BJJ. Japanese Jiu Jitsu is very different and there is no connection between BJJ and JJJ.

    1. CLS

      While you’re definitely being pedantic, the fight nerd in me plus the time I’ve spent on mats practicing both Judo and BJJ appreciates you drawing that distinction. Plus I’m glad you were entertained.

  3. Richard Kopf

    CLS,

    Perhaps we should remember the still living Rulon Ellis Gardner, a former Husker wrestler. He is an American retired Greco-Roman Olympic Gold Medalist. He competed at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics and won the gold medal in 2000, defeating the absolutely fucking terrifying Russian, Aleksandr Karelin in the final. Karelin was previously unbeaten for 13 years in international competition.

    On December 31, 2004, Gardner also fought Hidehiko Yoshida in a judo vs wrestling mixed martial arts (MMA) bout for the Pride Fighting Championships at an event named PRIDE Shockwave 2004. Yoshida, in addition to being an Olympic gold medalist in judo, was a highly successful MMA fighter. Gardner won the bout via unanimous decision.

    Gardner is mild mannered in normal life, so says a female former law clerk of mine who was a good friend of Rulon’s in his Husker days. She now lives n Portlandia which tells you why I hired her and like her so much.

    By the way, I loved your post. It is eclectic in a very weird sort of way which brings to mind a question.

    Have your ever witnessed dwarf fighting? It is a lot fun.

    In this regard, I am a devoted devotee of Mexico’s “lucha libre,” a wildly popular mix of sport and entertainment. It has long featured midgets and dwarves in a deeply demeaning role. Of course, that is precisely why I love it.

    All the best.

    RGK

    1. Jake

      Great reminder on the history of UFC. Speaking of which, I’m predicting Jon “Bones” Jones puts the hurt on “Iron” Mike Tyson in their rumoured bout -no matter what ring they choose. All things being equal, fighting is a young man’s game.

      1. CLS

        Both would have to pass a drug test for the fight to take place.

        Since you mentioned Jon Jones, I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell the story of the pizza named after him.

        Back in 2012 following Jones getting arrested for a DUI, wrestler Chael Sonnen started offering a pizza at his restaurant in West Linn, Oregon. Called the “Jon Jones Special,” the advertisement states it’s “Loaded with Chicken and Full of Cheese.” The pie came with a six pack of beer.

        There’s a reason Sonnen embraces the moniker “The Bad Guy.”

    2. CLS

      Judge, I remember that Gardner/Yoshida fight. That it went to a decision is a testament to Rulon’s ability to effectively immobilize one of the best judoka Japan had to offer.

      It wouldn’t surprise me that Rulon would be mild mannered. I wouldn’t be that aggressive if I knew I could take someone off their feet and beat the living daylights out of them.

      And with regards to your question on dwarf fighting and Lucha, I say heartily, “Viva Mascarita Sagrada!”

    3. Josh Kellemen

      Judge, how can you forget the other MMA/Wrestling great from Nebraska, Matt “The Law” Lindland, who had to sue in federal court to become the US representative at the same Sidney games, and who ended up with a silver medal in Greco-Roman at a lower weight class.

      Also, ff I remember correctly, when the great Pro Wrestling Journalist Dave Meltzer talked to Jack Encarancio for his Sherdog Rewind series on the first 100 UFCs, Meltzer asserted that the Gracies purposefully avoided having any wrestler more accomplished than Ken Shamrock, as they knew an accomplished wrestler would be the best bet to beat a Gracie.

      1. Richard Kopf

        Josh, I am humiliated by your pointed point regarding my failing memory.

        All the best.

        RGK

  4. Jill P McMahon

    Mighty Mouse! 😉

    I don’t have cable anymore, so rarely see recent UFC. I’ll watch Shogun on a Stadium, but the fight quality is generally not as good. but the tag team play-by-play is generally entertaining.

    It’ll be interesting to see who wins that Jones-Tyson matchup if it comes off.

  5. kemn

    Having seen Ken Shamrock at his height in (then) WWF, I’m not surprised he took on the Gracies. Despite all the bad acting and scripted fights, he looked sharp, and vicious.

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