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.