Back in 2013, I wrote a series of 20 pieces in 20 days for MMA Fighting as the UFC turned 20. Did I have six months to write them all ahead of time? No. I literally wrote one piece per day, for 20 days straight. It was like writing a book with a 20 day deadline. Looking back on this, I must have been out of my mind. But, here they are. If you prefer to read on MMA Fighting, here is a handy link: 20 Years in 20 Days by Chuck Mindenhall
- If 20 years all at once is too much, you might enjoy this piece from my days at ESPN instead: Fifty Reasons to Love Mixed Martial arts
Jump to a year:
2013: A countdown in reverse
The improbable anniversary, moats, and the fountain of Swoosh…
The UFC’s history can be broken into four epochs that are all as different from one another as Jens Pulvers eyes: The Spectacle, The Dark Ages, The Reimagining and — finally, after many millions of dollars and blind lunatic faith — The Sport.
The earliest ideas were right in spirit but brutal in everything else. It was conjured from shrewd minds that decided to act on the eternal fight game question: What happens when a boxer fights a karate expert? What happens when a sambo player takes on a judoka. What happens when Bruce Lee crosses Dan Gable, or Mike Tyson faces Chuck Norris? Can Mortal Kombat be a thing of creative nonfiction, if done correctly?
Finally, right before things like “The Internet” began to harvest us, somebody decided to find out. Or, somebodies. It was the curious collective of Rorion Gracie, Bob Meyrowitz, producer Campbell McLaren and Art Davie who imagined the first fight game hotpot. Violence? Violence! They discussed moats and electric fences and barbed wire but settled on simple chain links in which to confine participants.
Naturally Colorado — my native state — was the first to house the UFC back in 1993. The reason being: the Centennial State had a loophole that allowed for bare-knuckle combat without all the red tape. It was the old West. Leadville still had whisky on its breath. The Manassa Mauler (Jack Dempsey) came from the mines, and Sonny Liston — who said he’d “rather be a lamppost in Denver than the mayor of Philadelphia” — cast a big shadow throughout the city. The Sabaki Challenge was an underground effort that for years prepared the Mile High City for the “Octagon,” a name chosen for its ominous ring (and its ominous associations to a 1980 Chuck Norris movie of the same name). Well before then, though, in the late 1980s-early 1990s, late-night television was littered with commercials that showed the crude, insane footage of Sabaki.
We never flinched. “Vale Tudo” felt more like an uppity red wine than anything to balk at.
The first UFC was a combat medley dreamed up in April of 1993 as most likely a one-off, something that should never have had legs to reach 1994, much less something as ridiculous as a 20-year mark. It was a spectacle, ran courageously as a spectacle, in which flirtations of death were the entire romance. It was 10 notches to the extreme of the grim trade of boxing — two men enter, and one man leaves. (This, of course, was always a baloney. The game was never without a referee, even in the gruesome beginning. Always three men left).
But it went on and it went on. The skinny Royce Gracie emerged as a soothing presence in the land of mustached beef and muscle. Through its crudest smoke Gracie’s poise and refinement rearranged our perception of what works in fighting. Already, perceptions were being changed.
Yet right before the turn of the century, the UFC was literally being tamped out into extinction. The old promos that proudly got behind its bloodsport were now only appealing to a basement niche with single naked light bulbs. Politicians, led by senator John McCain, were scrubbing it with sanitizer. Cable providers, which houses the pay-per-views, shut the UFC out. New York, which is liberal in everything other than hybrid fighting (liberal even in piecemeal fighting), all but booted the UFC from Niagara Falls (and from everywhere) back in 1997.
That was a bad moment. Not only did it send the UFC off to backwater Alabama on the last fight out, but other states, cities, vocal leaders and herded cattle followed suit in blacklisting the UFC. The vogue at the turn of the century was to pinch your nose at “human cockfighting.”
That’s why, in the year 2000, the UFC was more synonymous with the courtroom than it was the Octagon. Meyrowitz was tied to a dying animal. The spectacle was in its Dark Ages, and should have petered out. It was like MMA’s e era of Prohibition, only it happened just a dozen freaking years ago when Technicolor TV was already a thing and Destiny’s Child was cranking out hits.
Then…well, then you know the rest. Things turned around. It’s like a momentous blur.
It was the Fertittas and Dana White, the Italian name Zuffa chosen at random, a fed-up Meyrowitz selling the dying franchise for a song (two million bucks)…Atlantic City, Donald Trump with his olive branch, Las Vegas, the construction of the unified rules, the thud of UFC 33…Bruce Buffer, Joe Rogan, indoor pyrotechnics, baby steps to sanctioning, Chuck Liddell and his Matrix tattoo down the side of his Hun-like head…Randy Couture, B.J. Penn, Pulver, The Best Damn Sports Show, Ken Shamrock getting busted up by Tito Ortiz once, twice, thrice…Big John, TUF staked on $10 million of the UFC’s own bleeding bank, and that crazy cast of spritzing wallbangers…Koscheck, Leben, the cult of Jason Thacker, the “do you want to be a f—ing fighter” speech, into Forrest-Bonnar and a fight on free TV, the ridiculous roulette and a million new eyes…further TUFs, Georges St-Pierre, Matt Hughes, Matt Serra, Anderson Silva, the purchase of Pride, the purchase of the WEC and IFL and all fight game acronyms…Marc Ratner breaking into new frontiers, UFC 100, Dana White threatening to jump off the roof of Mandalay Bay with record buy rates…the “don’t leave it in the hands of the judges” maxim…Canada, Toronto, 55,000 people in Maple Leaf blue hues…Australia, sheiks in Abu Dhabi, England, Ireland…fight night media scrums, Lorenzo Fertitta like a silver sphinx and Dana more and more audacious, Brazil, Versus…then FOX, mainstream press, the shrinking of Kenny Florian through the weight classes, followed by the rise of Kenny Florian[‘s hair] as a broadcaster…Cain Velasquez, the lighter weight classes, Edgar, Aldo, Cruz, Barao, flyweights, then the women, Rousey, Tate…Chael Sonnen out of left freaking field, Buffer on magazine covers like James Bond, Jon Jones and Nike and Gatorade and world tours and the brightest spotlights.
It doesn’t make complete sense, the UFC’s trajectory. The thing was built-up, torn down, rebuilt, recast and legitimized, and now it’s casually in the net worth ballpark of “two billion dollars,” according to the reticent Lorenzo Fertitta. Given that it was created and bottled to be a civilization-decaying spectacle, it’s crazy to even write this: In 2013, the UFC is on broadcast television. It is the flagship of FOX Sports 1. We are seeing promos for TUF during the World Series. Jon Jones is wearing the Nike Swoosh.
Jon Jones has his own shoe in a sport that goes barefoot.
If there’s been one constant for the last 20 years, it has been hyperbole. Each fight card is a clean slate of enthusiasm. Illusion has stayed in business as long as regrets. But it’s not illusion nor hyperbole to use Dana White’s running mantra for the last decade: MMA is the fastest growing sport in the world. Given the ashes it rose from, this is a fact.
So, to commemorate 20 years of UFC, this is a countdown to 1993. I’ll work backwards beginning with this long-winded introduction in our present year of 2013. Better to start with these lush times, and head backwards into the wilderness of Rome.
These 20 entries, spread over 20 days leading up to UFC 167 on Nov. 16, will not be comprehensive, as I’m more of a quirkist than a biographer. But I’ll try to hit on key points, of which there are so many to choose from.
2012: FOX, docs and two cards in peril
In 2012, the UFC’s year of mainstream infiltration and global takeover was hindered by injuries, bad math and a card that vanished right before our eyes.
It was almost as if the UFC existed just to arrive at 2012, where it could showcase itself through a national broadcast partner and laugh at two decades worth of naysayers. And there was something legitimately poetic (not to mention fitting) about seeing Cleatus, the broad-shouldered FOX robot, alternating airtime with Nate Diaz and his dual-action middle fingers.
By 2012, the UFC had arrived. But not without a triage unit.
For all the bells and whistles and spray paint to cover the preliminary blood spill before each telecast, there was usually a trail of wounded that disfigured whatever it was that was first intended. Poor Joe Silva was afraid to check his voicemail in 2012, because it was usually a moaning voice at the other end, telling him that the show would just have to go on without him. Behind the scenes, Silva went from matchmaker to makeshift card cobbler on a running loop. Just look at this litany of horror.
Pay-per-views in 2012 became heavily edited fourth and fifth drafts that bumped people like Rich Franklin into starring roles against Wanderlei Silva at UFC 147, in rematches that never occurred to us. UFC 149 in Calgary? It might have been better to just use the spray paint on the camera lens and pretend it never happened. Shawn Jordan and Cheick Kongo essentially engaged in battle at the line of scrimmage for three rounds, which felt like watching a pickpocket toiling to steal our disposable income for 15 minutes. That was, mercifully, the worst of the PPVs that happened.
And that was still one better than UFC 151, which actually didn’t happen.
UFC 151 was the nadir in the year of broadcast television, Murphy’s Law and ultimate suffering. Sokoudjou, a Cameroonian fighter who was always a mysterious figure of unknown potential after knocking out Lil Nog in Pride, injured Dan Henderson’s knee in training. Henderson, who was getting his title shot against Jon Jones and didn’t want to squander the chance, wasn’t exactly forthcoming with this information to Joe Silva. At least not immediately. By the time he fessed up just eight days before his fight, the UFC was left scrambling for a replacement. That’s when Chael Sonnen raised a stoical hand to volunteer, and became the unlikely hero of a card he had nothing to do with.
And that’s when Jon Jones, who turned the fight down, became something other than a 24-year old phenom, and Greg Jackson became a “sport killer,” and Dan Henderson disappeared from contention, essentially, forever. UFC 151 disappeared along with him. And now there’s a hole in the PPV lineage with origins back to Sokoudjou, who was just trying to present himself as a reasonable simulacrum of Jon Jones in an afternoon roll. The fight game, it can be said, is all about fate.
Of course, that all went down in late August. In April 2013, we were still dealing in the Sonnen/Jones saga, after they coached opposite each other on TUF, all because Sonnen had — in a moment of crisis — been so good as to volunteer his services.
The end result was a mini-revival of the Dark Ages (which we’ll get into next week in between the years 1998-2001).
Yet, while all these things were playing out, the flyweights entered the marketplace. To introduce the weight class, the UFC hosted a four-man tournament that began in Australia to crown its first ever 125-pound champion. The entrants were the maestro Ian McCall, the veteran Yasuhiro Urushitani, and two names who’d been masquerading as bantamweights — Demetrious Johnson and Joseph Benavidez. The flyweights were like electrons…no, they were motorcycles swirling around each other in the sphere of death, just a bunch of frenetic energy that strained the naked eye to comprehend what it was seeing. The flies sent play-by-play men into paroxysms, and stoned dudes into fits of giggles.
But as they fought, people began to wonder: Do I like this? Some people didn’t. At least not at first. The idea of a 5-foot-nothing homunculi trading punches wasn’t the swooping allure of big-bodied headhunters. From the privacy of the couch, these guys, for all their technique, looked like flickable paper footballs. But from the first bouts in Sydney, the flyweights went about making us into small-fry aficionados.
“At that time, when the UFC was thinking about the flyweight division, I just came off a loss to Dominick Cruz and it was only a rumor,” says Demetrious Johnson. “I was getting ready to fight Eddie Wineland at 135 pounds, so at that point my mind wasn’t even focused on 125. But then eventually they pulled me out of that fight, and said we’re actually going to do the flyweight division, and you’re headed to Australia.
“I said, Oh, sweet, I’ll be fighting guys who are like 5’3″ and 5’2″, instead of guys who are 5’11″ or 5’9″.”
Of course, Dominick Cruz invented the flyweight division. He’d already set back Johnson, and he’d beaten Benavidez twice, leaving him nowhere to go. And for all the knocks on flyweight power, Benavidez was hell-bent on changing those notions with a second-round knockout of Urushitani.
“Mighty Mouse” and McCall fought at a blistering pace for three rounds. The fight, par for 2012, ended in controversy. Because it was a four-man tournament, the UFC had made a provision to allow for a “sudden victory” round in the event of a draw. Johnson was declared the majority decision winner but, when it was revealed that one of the judges made an error in calculating his scorecard and the fight was actually a draw, the decision was converted into a no contest.
“To get the win, and then go into the back and hear Dana White say, ‘it was a draw,’ man, it sucked,” says Johnson. “But at the same time Dana gave me my show and win money, and we both got fight of the night, so that was great. I was a little frustrated just because I wanted to go on and fight Joseph [Benavidez], but Matt Hume my coach, said, ‘it’s okay, you’ll get to fight Ian McCall again, you get to go to 125 again, and you can do your diet right.’”
They did fight again in June, and Johnson won the decision. He went on to defeat Benavidez at UFC 152 in Toronto to become the first ever flyweight champion, and he’s beaten everybody he’s faced since then.
The rise of the flyweights, and particularly Johnson, was one of the silver linings in a year that was filled with ups and downs (with far more downs than ups).
2011: Business as usual (even as Strikefarce restores itself as Strikeforce)
Here is 2011, in which Zuffa purchases Strikeforce and Clay Guida is relegated to Facebook. vanished right before our eyes.
On a single night in 2011, the best fights of the year took place. Dan Henderson and Mauricio Rua nearly killed each other for five rounds at UFC 139 in San Jose. That fight was a tale of halves — Hendo early, Shogun late.
Happening on the other coast, Michael Chandler and Eddie Alvarez struck a match to the barn using skill, guts and — in a strict manner of speaking — idiocy. No two men with any sense of preservation can be expected to fight the way they did in Hollywood, Florida. No sane men with careers still to go.
Defiantly, though, they did.
The moon wasn’t full that night. It was a standard waning crescent. But somehow the Fight Gods were in an uproar. Even fight game atheists found themselves overwhelmed by the products of Nov. 19, even if it was more chaotic coincidence than anything celestial.
Yet, both those monuments of 2011 came in under the radar because everyone was still sweeping up the confetti from the week prior.
On Nov. 12, the UFC and FOX put on its first broadcast show framed around a single fight, Cain Velasquez versus Junior dos Santos, not out of contractual obligation (that didn’t kick in until 2012), but out of the something like the goodness of giving. Historically, this was the first ever fight night bonus awarded to fans. Dana White and FOX president Eric Shanks were like kids who couldn’t wait until Christmas morning for us to open their gift. This undertaking was so crazy that Clay Guida (at the time unhindered by strategy) and Benson Henderson (pre-Toothpickgate) battled on Facebook, and this didn’t feel entirely like buzzkill.
You might remember the set up. Velasquez had played matador against Brock Lesnar a year earlier at he very same venue in Anaheim, and dos Santos had just smoked Shane Carwin at UFC 131 in Vancouver. It was two bounding momentums colliding on free TV. (Did they mention it was free? This is a gift you ingrates! Gratis!). And what a broadening it was with so much going on. Protective diehard fans were getting territorial by the forced sharing of their sacred product with something as amorphous as “mainstream” and “casual” people (both synonyms for “despicables”). These feelings were roiling underneath all the hoopla whether anyone was admitting it or not.
The fight itself lasted a very ho-hum 64 seconds. Dos Santos hit Velasquez with an end-game right and flew off to Brazil with the belt. It played out as something less than the CliffNotes to the vast and varied sport of mixed martial arts for those getting their introductions. It was more like a pull quote from War and Peace.
And still, none of these were the actual story of 2011.
The real story was Zuffa’s purchase of Strikeforce back in early spring. Strikeforce had burst the seams of its regional presence in San Jose, and was now a clear second to the UFC. When Strikeforce, with all its intriguing parts — Nick Diaz, Dan Henderson, Gilbert Melendez, Luke Rockhold, Ronaldo Souza, Gegard Mousasi, the great Fedor, et al — began shopping itself, Zuffa did what it does at the end of the day and when it is what it is.
It purchased the competition. The partition was about to come down to create a million new previously only dreamed of fights. Was Gilbert Melendez really a top two or three (or one) lightweight? Heaven forefend, we’d be finding out.
Only, you know, we didn’t. Not right away. Showtime was still the hub of Strikeforce, and Dana White and Showtime officials have never been what you might consider BFF. It was a relationship that from the beginning was frigid, before it thawed, before it became glacial.
“At the time [Zuffa purchased Strikeforce], it was exciting,” says Strikeforce’s middleweight champion Luke Rockhold. “You thought about the crossover fights, and you thought about all the possibilities. It was really interesting at first.”
And then it became something else. It became uncertainty. The partition stayed up. Strikeforce was Zuffa’s property, but Dana White was flinging around this cryptic double-speak that sounded something like “business as usual.” Scott Coker, who was the soft-spoken ringleader of Strikeforce, kept saying that they’d have more details in a couple of weeks. The fights went on stoically, but the “it’s a matter of time” mantra caught fire. Strikeforce with no independent future hobbled along for another 18 months, while certain pieces began migrating to the UFC, and others found themselves on the dreaded “black list.” The “black list” was created to protect Showtime/Strikeforce fauna from poaching, which felt like imprisonment to the lingering stars who were forced to ride out the duration.
“Once it started settling in, that some people were stuck and there was no crossing over and none of that was going on, it was kind of disappointing,” Rockhold says. “I felt kind of trapped for a while, so it was a lot of mixed emotions.
“It was sad, too, because we had the PPV opportunity and a lot of things going for Strikeforce. I wanted to see Strikeforce survive and live on. I immediately thought it was going to die. But as a fighter, you always kind of wanted to be in the UFC. That’s my mentality — just being able to prove yourself against the best in the world, and fight those best guys. That was an exciting factor and it definitely played in. I think there were more positives than negatives coming out of it.”
Rockhold won the Strikeforce belt in 2011 in a crazy fight with Ronaldo Souza (who hasn’t lost since). The rematch became the elephant in the room in a division that just didn’t have much depth otherwise.
“That was a tough time,” he says. “You’re waiting around. I had to fight Keith Jardine in my first title defense, and I was pretty upset about that. He’d never fought at 185 and was coming off a draw at 205.
“It was just a matter of when it’s going to happen. You hear all these guys like Daniel Cormier getting merged in and getting the opportunity to make the bonuses and all the little things that come with the UFC. Those guys were rubbing it in with me. The sponsors, and everything was better at the time in the UFC. It was really hard to get sponsors in Strikeforce because everyone knew it was going to die and they didn’t want to break into Strikeforce and pay the tuition and all that when there’s no security in their money.”
Rockhold would end up defending his title twice in 2012, against Jardine and then against Tim Kennedy. Mercifully, at the end of 2012, the partition really did come down. Most Strikeforce fighters were fully integrated into the UFC roster. It was a matchmaker’s paradise. The most notable who didn’t crossover was Fedor Emelianenko, whom Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta have a story about from the time they journeyed to faroff Russia in hopes of coaxing his cathedral calm into the Octagon.
What happened on that fabled visit to Stary Oskol remains a fight game mystery, one that will surely reveal itself, in pieces, throughout future scrums.
2010: ‘Ferrari World,’ Sheikhs and the WEC comes calling
A look back at 2010 — when the WEC was being merged with the UFC, and Anderson Silva was going berserk in Abu Dhabi.
Since the advent of mustached strongmen, the circus has traveled around on the rails and pitched multicolored tents. Part of the attraction was that the attraction came to you. And part of the UFC’s model is similar — the idea is to travel around to whatever sector of the globe is ready to embrace it. Instead of a tent, they pitch an Octagon. And unless you live in the Falklands or in upstate New York, chances are the UFC will end up in your general area sooner or later.
When the UFC decided to go to Yas Marina in Abu Dhabi in April of 2010, this felt by far like the craziest thing the promotion had attempted. It wasn’t that they sold off a minority portion of the company to Sheikh Tahnoon, or that it was headed to the Middle East, or that the event would be held alfresco under the wheeling constellations just like Tunney-Dempsey back in 1927 at Soldier Field…it was that there wasn’t a freaking venue in place.
It was that they were going to build a temporary arena to house UFC 112, and then tear it down a week later.
Therefore, “Concert Arena” was erected as nothing more than ephemera, just a glamorized squat house for the UFC’s visit. If that weren’t enough, it was built within something called “Ferrari World.” You could practically see the Sheikh using $100 bills as kindling for his fireplace while swirling a glass of Henry IV cognac. Laughing. Laughing. (With the flames dancing in his eyes.)
The event in Abu Dhabi was a catalyst for a lot of things. It told everyone that the UFC meant business in taking the Octagon all over the world, not just ports in Europe and Canada. That night on April 10, 2010, the UFC rolled out two title fights like a lush red carpet, and yet neither of them came off even remotely close to what might be considered “reasonable expectation.”
Frankie Edgar fought B.J. Penn in the co-main event, and Anderson Silva — who was originally supposed to fight Vitor Belfort — took on Demian Maia for the middleweight crown. Maia and Edgar were of course the sacrifices. I remember beforehand a very well known MMA journalist telling me, while emboldened by his Guinness, “Edgar might be the first fatality in the cage.” He was of course exaggerating, but the sentiment was there; Edgar didn’t stand a chance.
Turns out Edgar did stand a chance, and in fact fairly dominated the scorecards en-route to taking Penn’s belt. That was the first “say what?” moment in a night full of eye rubbing. The Silva-Maia nightcap was one of the most bizarre main events to ever have pay-per-view customers screaming for rebates. In it Anderson Silva sort of flew off the handle. He mocked and preened and went into theatrics for much of the five rounds he wasn’t even supposed to need in putting Maia away. The performance was so remarkable for all the wrong reasons that Dana White put out a piece of caution on the Jim Rome Show afterwards that said this: He’d cut Anderson Silva if it happened again. Even the greatest living mixed martial artist in the world wouldn’t be suffered such shenanigans.
(This was the context for Silva and his rivalry with Chael Sonnen, who came along at just the right moment right after. Sonnen breathed life back into Silva, just like Silva became a sort of world stage for Sonnen to reinvent himself).
A month earlier, at WEC 47, on March 6 in Columbus, Dominick Cruz defeated Brian Bowles to become the promotion’s bantamweight champion. That night was brimming with the talent of today. Look at the names that appeared on this card before Cruz — Joseph Benavidez, who fought Miguel Torres; Danny Castillo and Anthony Pettis; Scott Jorgensen, who fought Chad George; Chad Mendes and Erik Koch. The card was so stacked that Ricardo Lamas, who fights for the UFC featherweight crown against Jose Aldo at UFC 169, was the first fight on the prelims.
It was just another WEC card.
Zuffa owned the WEC, but at this point had kept the two organizations separate. The WEC had the smaller weight classes. The UFC had everything else. By October of 2010, with the UFC growing and holding more events and needing more star power to carry them, Dana White announced that the promotions would be merging. This was significant for two reasons. One, it meant existing undersized UFC lightweights could fight at 145 pounds without leaving the UFC. And two, it meant people like Cruz, Pettis, Demetrious Johnson, Benson Henderson, Benavidez, Mendes, Lamas and poster boy Urijah Faber would finally showcase their wares for those who avoided eye contact with the WEC’s blue cage.
The WEC would bring over a world of talent to the UFC.
“That was the goal — it was always to find the best fighters,” says Reed Harris, who was the general manager and face of the WEC. “We worked very hard at that. When I came into the office, I never would hear people say, ‘hey the lighting on that show was fantastic.’ Inherently I knew it was all about the fights, and that it’s all about the fighters. So we spent a lot of time looking at them, and went down to Brazil to find Jose Aldo. We did a lot of things that a lot of people didn’t do in trying to find the best people.”
Jose Aldo. The man who made Americans figure out the correct order of the vowels in Nova Uniao.
“The first time I saw Jose, he jumped out of the cage, and I took him in back with his manager Andre Pederneiras — and I’m a guy who rarely raises his voice, because that’s just not who I am — but I was yelling at him,” Harris says. “I read him the Riot Act. Little did I know he didn’t have any idea what I was saying, but he knew I was mad.
“The next show, I was in the cage after he won, and he looked at me, ran towards the door, stopped and then sat down,” Harris says. “He looked up at me and smiled, kind of like a f— you, and ever since then I’ve liked him. Now we’re very close. We spent a lot of time together.”
Harris is now the Vice President of Community Relations with the UFC. Aldo is the long-tenured featherweight champion who is hovering the top three space of most pound-for-pound lists. At UFC 142, after Aldo knocked out Chad Mendes, Aldo disappeared into a sea of his countrymen once again. And once again, Harris was right there tapping his foot with his arms crossed.
“I yelled at him to get back in the cage,” he says. “That’s his place, right? I wasn’t mad at him for doing it. It was crazy. I actually got punched in the crowd. Not on purpose. The guy who punched me looked at me like he was in shock because he was trying to grab Jose. It was just very chaotic, and I yelled at him to get back in for safety reasons.”
That Harris is now scolding Aldo outside of the UFC Octagon instead of outside the WEC blue cage marks the evolution of the times. At some point along the way, Harris knew that the bantamweights and featherweights he’d helped along, not to mention his crop of high-powered lightweights, would all be migrating to the UFC. The thing was inevitable.
“I think at some point it was just decided, look, the UFC is going to be the dominant brand in this sport forever,” he says. “Especially when all of us were watching these lighter-weight fights including Dana and Lorenzo and Frank [Fertitta], and they were seeing that they were entertaining and that people were interested. So why not add to the brand? Why not make the brand even stronger?”
On Feb. 1, 2014, at UFC 169 in Newark during Super Bowl weekend, the WEC’s elite will be on display. Renan Barao and Dominick Cruz will unify the bantamweight belts, and Aldo will defend his title against Ricardo Lamas.
2009: The UFC comes full circle, thanks to one daring adventurer
UFC 100 was monumental for a lot of reasons. But the work of Bruce Buffer that night, who unveiled the single greatest stunt on the single biggest stage, was particularly exquisite.
Maybe it wasn’t actually the case, but at UFC 100, Frank Mir looked about as happy to hear the referee say “alright, now bring it on” as a clay pigeon might upon hearing the word “pull.” It was Brock Lesnar at the other end, after all, restrained for one long last second before the shackles would come off and the rivening could commence. The only thing we required as spectators was Mir’s courage in the ordeal
And that was how we celebrated 100 events in the UFC. By feeding Frank Mir, who’d defeated Lesnar famously a year and a half prior in Lesnar’s ballyhooed debut at UFC 81, to His Sworded Thorax. A record-breaking number of households paid for the courtesy. Mir hung around until the second round, but he wore the macabre scene on his face by fight’s end.
Lesnar, ever eloquent in such matters, described it as extracting the horseshoe that had been lodged in Mir’s hind region. That was right after he began somewhat rabidly frothing about the mouth, and just before he said he was going to drink himself some Coors Light (while standing on the Bud Light emblem) and, heck, if we’re keeping it real, maybe even “get on top” of his wife later that night.
It was a lot to digest.
And that piece of theater was the crescendo moment in the UFC’s PPV numbering system, which is now careening off towards UFC 1000 and beyond. Georges St-Pierre had dominated Thiago Alves in the co-main event even with a torn groin muscle for half the bout. And Dan Henderson, to the gratitude of patriots from the Puget Sound to the Everglades and on up through the Adirondacks, knocked Michael Bisping out with a ridiculous right hand. “To this day people thank me for it,” Henderson says.
(Note: Why Bisping was circling into that power right now becomes the problem of future generations to solve).
All of this was fine in the wholesome sense. But, at the same time, all of this paled next to the hair-raising moment just before Lesnar was loosed on Mir. That was when Bruce Buffer, the evangelist of the Octagon who whips everyone into a frenzy with his introductions, pulled off the unthinkable.
The Buffer 180º — which Buffer himself modestly called a “whip turn” before fans apothesized it — was always more than we could ask for. But Buffer chose UFC 100 to unveil the Buffer 360º, a ridiculous maneuver of lithe acrobatics and aerial illusion, and he stuck the landing while pointing his cue card right between Brock Lesnar’s blond eyebrows.
Game. Set. Match.
“You know, when you do something that’s different and out of your realm, you want to pick the right time,” Buffer says. “So with that being the case, there was no other event. It would have to be UFC 100. And I didn’t tell anybody when I was going to do it. If you watch Joe [Rogan]’s video after, he thought I wasn’t going to pull it off, but I saved it for exactly the last precise moment when I was right in front of Brock Lesnar’s face.”
Buffer goes into depth about the Buffer 360º in his captivating book, It’s Time!, but words become such paltry things next to The Thing Itself. Why? There are very few moments in the fight game where flawless execution and…what, destiny (?)…come together as if cosmically ordained.
It was Joe Rogan that began challenging Buffer to attempt the stunt to begin with, after putting out a backstage video where Buffer dreamed it into existence. Then a million fans began echoing Rogan’s need to see it. The thing caught fire as the video went viral. From there the Buffer 360º became not only a matter of when and where, but of courage and mettle.
So what did Buffer do? He embraced the biggest stage the UFC had had to that moment…and, for a few brief moments, spun in levitation like a genie materializing from a bottle. It was a thing of cocktail elegance and grace.
“I knew what I was going to do,” he says. “The thing is, I don’t rehearse. I don’t plan. I like to go out there and be organic and improvise off the energy I feel from the crowd, whether it’s 50,000 or 20,000 or 10,000 people in the audience. But that night was electric. I couldn’t have for a better script as far as a screenwriter writing a movie of how it came off…it came off perfectly in my opinion. And Joe wrote me an email after that said, ‘not only did you do it, but you did it in front of the biggest, baddest man on the planet.’”
There are obvious hazards for such undertakings. Remember, Buffer tore his meniscus while doing a “grounded 360” at UFC 129 in Toronto. He was playing injured that night with a bad ankle, and as he went into his bunny hop at the end, his knee gave out. Stoically, Buffer didn’t miss any events. How’s that? As the writer Frank Curreri once said, “if Michael Buffer is fine bottle of Bordeaux, then Bruce Buffer is a shot of Jack Daniels.” That’s how.
There will of course be other monuments. UFC 200 should take place in 2016. But don’t expect to see the Buffer 540º, or even the 360º again. That bold feat is now frozen in time forever in 2009.
“I’m not an acrobat,” Buffer says. “I don’t want to say anything, because again, if something’s going to happen believe me it’ll happen because I decided for it to happen at that exact moment. But the aerial thing, the airborne stuff, that’s over.”
Over, but not forgotten.
2008: The man who first met Mr. Jones
Between UFC 87 and UFC 88, the UFC’s light heavyweight division shifted. The Chuck Liddell era came to a close just as Jon Jones snuck onto the scene at UFC 87. The man he fought was Andre Gusmao, who to this day wonders about the buzzsaw he met…
Jon Fitch was already well on his way to becoming a verb when he fought Georges St-Pierre at UFC 87 in Minneapolis. To get “fitched” meant to spend three rounds on your back staring up at the ring lights in a state of helplessness, using peripheral vision to try and avoid incoming elbows and icepicks. He was the quintessential grinder, always gritting his teeth and snarling.
St-Pierre, though, would not get fitched, not that night nor ever. He would be the dictator of wills, and win a hard fought decision that left both men bruised and in tatters. The hype around UFC 87: Seek and Destroy not only belonged to GSP in that defense against Fitch, but also to the hometown colossus Brock Lesnar, who fought in the co-main event against Heath Herring. Lesnar brought the blitzkrieg to Herring that August night back in 2008.
It was a night of moving fortunes.
In hindsight, who’d have known at the time that A) this would be Herring’s last fight in the UFC (or anywhere) or B) that this was the high-water mark for Fitch. He would live perennially in the No. 2 space behind St-Pierre after the loss until Johny Hendricks crashed a left hand through him at UFC 141. It was a mercy measure. By batting Fitch back, Hendricks allowed UFC matchmaker Joe Silva to loosen his tie.
That same night, there was an alternate on the undercard who’d been booked only after a series of injuries to more familiar names. That was Jon Jones, a generic sounding warm body who had alliteration working for him but little else. He came in ultimately as a replacement for Tomasz Drwal to face Andre Gusmao, who was also making his promotional debut, having just knocked out Mike Ciesnolevicz in the IFL. Not too many people paid attention.
Particularly Gusmao, an unsuspecting Brazilian fighter who trained under Renzo Gracie in Manhattan. Gusmao didn’t know it then, but he was the proverbial steak being slid under the door for the 21-year old former junior college wrestling champion from Endicott, New York. He made history that night by going first on the trail of “Bones.”
“I literally knew nothing about him,” Gusmao, now 36, says today. “I just didn’t know. I was supposed to fight one guy and he got hurt, so they put in another guy, I think it was Alessio Sakara, and he got hurt. I think Jones was like the fourth option of guys down the line. They said, your guy got hurt, so we’ve got this guy, he’s a wrestler, you should fight him. I was like sure, I don’t care, I’ll fight him no problem. I literally knew nothing about him, other than he had a couple of fights.”
Jones was 6-0 at the time. He was a one-two-and-shoot fighter, just raw rudiments and length. At least, that’s what he’d shown on the local circuit. But in the UFC, he began freelancing with his striking right off the bat. There were some spinning elbows and flying knees that started trickling in as the fight progressed. Even still, it felt like Jones was leaping into the deep end of things in the fabled light heavyweight division with so few fights under his belt. The following card, UFC 88 in Atlanta, featured a bout between Chuck Liddell and Rashad Evans. Those were the great heights. That’s why Joe Rogan said on the telecast of Jones, “this is a shark tank division to jump into after only nine months in the game.”
Turns out Jones was the shark, and everyone else a school of remoras. Including poor Gusmao, who knew he was in trouble the moment he laid eyes on Jones.
“I’d never seen the guy before, so when I saw him at weigh-ins I was like, man this guy is huge,” Gusmao said. “The first time I saw him was pretty much when we faced off. I hadn’t seen him before. Didn’t know about his height or his reach, nothing. So I was like, s—, because I’m 6-foot-2 and I looked at this guy and thought, wow, this guy’s big — I’m in for a long night.”
Jones used his wrestling, and some crude ground-and-pound. He also cracked Gusmao with spinning elbows and flying knees, which sort of blossomed over the course of the three rounds into something like “we might want to keep an eye on this guy.”
“When the fight was over I was very pissed off,” Gusmao says. “This guy just kept kneeing me, gave me a hard fight. I didn’t do well. One of my cornermen said, you know, this guy’s going to be a champ. I said, no man, I just fought badly. He said, no, this guy’s going to be a champ some day. And then as time went by, and now when I look at it, I’m like Jon Jones is freaking great. Even Renzo Gracie and some of my fans, they’re like, you gave this guy the hardest fight and you didn’t even know who he was.
“At the time I was very pissed off, but these days, I’m like, okay.”
Less than a month later, on Sept. 6, Rashad Evans knocked out “The Iceman” to essentially bring to a close the Liddell era — an era that carried the UFC through the mid-aughts. In the span of four weeks, between UFC 87 and UFC 88, Jones came into existence while Liddell receded into a bygone day. The future barely made a splash, while the past sent shockwaves through the fight world.
And Gusmao? He now runs a gym in Manhattan. In the fight game as in trivia, he’ll always be the guy who found out first about Jon Jones.
2007: The long stretch of L.I.E. between hard luck and gold
2007 was when Zuffa purchased Pride FC and MMA’s first big “superfights” got real. It was also when the UFC visited Houston, where strange things happened.
Zuffa’s acquisition of Pride FC was the first big intergalactic consolidation of fight game stars. Well before we were flirting with hypothetical “superfights” in 2012, the UFC was doing something about it in the spring of 2007. All it took for those icons from Japan — forever separate and living out a beautiful cult dream under the watchful eye of the yakuza — to descend upon the UFC fighters like the Great Wave off Kanagawa was something like $70 million.
Lorenzo Fertitta said at the time, “we will be able to literally put on the fights that everyone wants to see — it will allow us to put on some of the biggest fights ever.”
At UFC 75 in London, newly crowned light heavyweight champion Quinton Jackson — a Pride veteran who’d signed with the WFA before the UFC snapped that promotion up too — welcomed reigning Pride middleweight champion Dan Henderson into the Octagon. Jackson “unified” the belts in front of five million viewers on Spike TV. These were the fights people wanted to see (especially for free, and even on tape delay).
And that fight was less memorable than Forrest Griffin’s rude treatment of Mauricio Rua at UFC 76. When Griffin sunk the rear naked choke late in the third round, he did a hot lap around the cage with his arms thrown up incredulously, as if it’d never dawned on him he could win. The wall was down. The wall was down!
Only a couple of weeks after the purchase of Pride, with all the potential elixirs still in the air, the UFC 69 went down in Houston. The main event was presented to the public as a gift horse to second chances. Matt Serra, who had won the “Comeback” season of the Ultimate Fighter, would get a crack at welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre. People were left to invent intrigue in the fight, because Serra — bless his heart — was vastly outclassed. The Long Islander was built like a hydrant, but there was simply no way. There was no way. Big dogs lift their legs to hydrants. St-Pierre was a 10-to-1 favorite.
“It’s going to sound clueshay,” Serra said in the promos leading up, “but to win that belt would be a dream come true.”
The dream came true. Serra, whom everybody thought would try and do what Matt Hughes couldn’t — that is, taking GSP down — ended up clubbing him with a right. Then hurting him with a left. Then swarming him with a barrage of muscle-intensive end shots that left St-Pierre in the reclining arms of history.
To this day, that Serra KO of GSP is not only considered the greatest upset of all time, but a cautionary tale for the ages from GSP’s perspective. It was Matt Serra who invented the puncher’s chance in MMA, which has made the betting public think twice whenever a lopsided fight gets booked. He provided an example to what’s meant in the whole “four ounce gloves” thing.
Standing in Serra’s corner that night alongside their coach/mentor Ray Longo was Pete Sell, Serra’s longtime friend who’d lost on the undercard to Thales Leites. His face was still bulging with trauma from Leites’ elbows. Yet he stood with Serra anyway, just like he had been since he was 17 years old. And in the elation of Serra’s greatest moment, Sell celebrated with him like a buddy who’d lost all his money at the blackjack table yet was at least watching his friend cash in ten tall stacks of chips.
“I was upset that I lost,” Sell says. “I think it was right before that fight that I had that Scott Smith fight, and in that fight, I won! I won the fight. Then I ran in like an idiot, and I would have hit him with a big uppercut, the first time the whole night I dropped my hands, and that’s when I got caught.”
Turns out 2007 was a year of What Could Have Been for Pete Sell. For Serra, it was the year that was, is, and always will be.
“So against Leites, it was supposed to be my turn,” Sell says. “Things didn’t go my way. I was upset. I was kind of down in the dumps after the fight. But I was in Matty’s corner, and the whole Longo Team, we just stick together.
“And my boy Matty frickin’ knocked out the impossible,” he says. “Everybody at that time had GSP on a pedestal. He was just so unstoppable. I think Matt Hughes got the armbar that time, but that was the only time he lost. After GSP knocked Hughes out a couple of times, it was this guy’s unbeatable. If you look at the beginning of Matt’s career, when he fought Shonie Carter, people were writing that off. He wasn’t that good. People were saying things like Matt Serra has no chin. People were taking a crap on the guy, so it was nice to just see him have his moment when he knocked out GSP. Because nobody in the world thought that would happen. Nobody gave the guy a shot. I was so happy for him that night, what a great feeling.”
In his post-fight interview with Joe Rogan, Serra said his win was “possibly the greatest upset in UFC history, [though] I’m not saying it.” It was. Serra would hold the belt until the rematch at UFC 83 in 2008. Sell would fight Nate Quarry in September, and once again lose a fight that he was on the brink of winning. In 2007, with all the madness going on in the UFC, Sell became the master at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
As for Georges St-Pierre, what happened at UFC 69 in 2007 can now be packed neatly into his greatness. Nobody in the fight game treats complacency with such disdain as St-Pierre does today, and it was Serra that made him compulsive in guarding against it.
2006: Spider and Ice
In 2006, Anderson Silva was served up a plate of Chris Leben…and Chuck Liddell lived as the greatest rock star the fight game had ever known.
In retrospect, throwing Chris Leben in there against Anderson Silva wasn’t very nice. Leben was going to do what Leben does in welcoming Silva into the UFC, which was move forward throwing bombs willy-nilly with his chin flashing neon and wide open for business. He’d already proven himself to be that rare fighter; the more you hit him, the more dangerous he got. When you hit him good, I mean really good, that’s when he bounded forward on those famous toddler legs returning fire, like an indestructible mass of orange hair and nail polish returneth from the grave.
It was almost masochistic, watching him fight. It was certainly masochistic watching him fight Silva.
Silva sniped Leben from afar, from inside, from up high, from down low, from acute, right and obtuse angles, with his knees, fists, open palms and the business end of his elbows. It was fight game geometry, and the whole thing lasted an absurd 49 seconds. Joe Rogan turned up the shower pressure of accolades from the start: “This is a different kind of striker,” he said. His was “a ballet of violence.” And none of it was hyperbole.
Silva wouldn’t lose a bout until the 17th time he entered the Octagon, as a 38-year old boogeyman whose striking reach was still as long as his afternoon shadow.
And if Anderson Silva was the future in 2006, then Chuck Liddell was the glorious present. He was the reason that MMA was the new rock & roll. The robust mohawk and Koei-Kan tattoo down the side of his scalp gave him a pillager’s appearance that just really brought home his brand of violence. The cool icicles on his shorts? They became synonymous with smelling salts.
From 2004 to 2006, Liddell fought seven times. He won by knockout seven times. All of them were in Las Vegas, which was the Chuck Liddell capital of the world. Five of those bouts were title fights. All of them were pressure cookers. Two of them were against Randy Couture. The whole streak was bookended by arse-whoopings of Tito Ortiz. (That part of it, the whippings of Ortiz, felt almost ritualistic).
The “Iceman” was the fight game’s true rock star. It wasn’t just his fighting style; it was who he was and the way he lived. It was the late nights and boozing and velvet ropes and the pandemonium of public outings and adoring women. He walked with a badass hitch, and made his arms into an “X” with a loose pinky hanging out when paparazzi got in his grill. When he won, he threw his arms back and screamed like an alien was about to pop out of his chest. When not doing that, he was falling asleep during live morning talk shows in Dallas to the horror of its sober television hosts, and treating it all just like…eh, what’s for breakfast?
“Yeah, he was a rock star,” says his longtime trainer and friend John Hackleman, who was the first to introduce Liddell to nail polish. “He’d call me up and say, hey, we’re going on a private jet to so and so, and everything else got put on the backburner. And me, just as a trainer, not even the fighter, it was consuming most of my time. He was definitely living like rock star.”
At UFC 57, at Chuck-Randy III in Feb. 2006, Liddell was already the light heavyweight champion after having avenged a loss to Randy Couture at UFC 52. As always in trilogies, the math was showing patterns that corroborated with hunches. At UFC 43 Couture had woke the sleeping giant. At UFC 52, Liddell took the belt and made the first fight feel fluky. By UFC 57, the biker Hun from Santa Barbara was UFC’s version of Goliath, and Couture was in the role of David.
After he beat Couture in the third fight, the after party raged on. And on.
“I made a lot of enemies asking him to reel it in a little, both with the media and the sponsors and promotion and stuff,” Hackleman says. “But Chuck just had so much going on, and you can’t keep track of someone unless they want to be kept track of. My biggest thing was, I’d never even been to an after party. I was so conservative in the way I lived that I just couldn’t believe a fighter would do that kind of stuff. He was anti-everything I was, so I was always the last to know anything. It was hard to reel in that superstardom at that time.”
At UFC 62, in a rematch with Renato Sobral, Liddell waited for “Babalu” to wade in with his strikes to blast him with an uppercut early in the first round. For the next half-a-minute, he stalked him to the fence, peppering him with big shots flung from the hip, then to the ground, where he predatorily — almost casually — finished the job. It was his third title defense.
The after party was epic. And it raged on.
“He still went out a little bit, and that’s an understatement,” says Hackleman. “If I was different in a lot of other ways, like if I was more of a party guy or if I was one of his trainers instead of his trainer since day one, if I was like that I can’t imagine how bad it would have gotten.”
At UFC 66, the “Iceman” hit the high point of his career. That was the night he beat Tito Ortiz in a rematch from UFC 47. The bad blood between them had brought the public’s blood to a boil, too. Liddell exploded with a series of punches to down Ortiz in the third round for his fourth title defense.
Liddell, the legend, celebrated.
“Chuck had all kinds of celebrities who loved him, all these football and baseball players who worshipped him who I don’t even know because I don’t watch those sports,” says Hackleman, who for a decade was asked if he’s Chuck’s dad. “One time, Tony Robbins flew in to visit Chuck, and I look over and Chuck is just texting people and ignored Tony. I was like, what are you doing? I had to take his phone away.”
After 2006, the thing began to fall apart for Liddell. “There was signs that it was coming,” Hackleman says. He lost his next bout to Quinton Jackson at UFC 71, then the following fight to Keith Jardine at UFC 76. The end of the “Iceman” was near. After 2006, he went just 1-5, before retiring in 2010 after getting knocked out by Rich Franklin.
As the Liddell era closed out, Anderson Silva’s just got started. By 2007 they were two ships passing in the night.
And as for Leben, in his rocking chair moments with his grandchildren at his knee, he can truthfully say he fought the spectrum in a year’s time. He went from fighting Jason Thacker in 2005, who had no business taking off his shoes to get in the Octagon, to Anderson Silva in 2006, the greatest mixed martial artist we’ve known.
All challenges that came after fall somewhere in-between.
2005: The Griffin-Bonnar dream, from the footprint of reality
In the spring of 2005, the original TUF had its Finale at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas. When Stephan Bonnar and Forrest Griffin went to war, little did they know that much more than a six-figure contract was at stake.
Reality television has always been more real than we give it credit for. In real life, exploitation can be tolerated in exchange for such things as “visibility.” In reality TV, though, exploitation became the key ingredient to “your big chance,” and that cranks the knob to eleven for vicarious entertainment.
Nobody wants to die anonymous.
To this day the “Ultimate Fighter” franchise works on the tenant that its producers are plumbing the Earth’s great depths for that rarified talent that has gone hitherto undiscovered. There’s ore just under the surface, we’re told. By now, after umpteen seasons, we know we’re in the bargain bins for that talent. Fewer future champions are being made on TUF. At this point we are stockpiling the prelims.
Yet still there’s immense fun to be had watching people grope about for validation in, honestly, the realest of the “real” circumstances. Never mind the boom mics, the culmination of watching people act the fool in TUF is that we get to then watch them punch each other in the face. Other reality shows can’t boast as much.
The original Ultimate Fighter was a time buy that Zuffa did with Spike TV in 2005. It was a roll of the dice that smacked of desperation to position the fight game better into our collective conscience. Had it failed, like so much had between the dozen years of the UFC’s existence, Joe Lauzon would still be fixing computers. And there’s a real chance that so much of what we’ve come to be astonished by (FOX, Toronto, Nick the Tooth) would never have come to pass.
That first season of TUF had all the components, too.
It had Stephan Bonnar, who mysterious disappeared for a couple of shows (turns out he’d fled through the bathroom window in search of hooch and got busted), and to this day we don’t know who stole his beanie. There was Diego Sanchez, summonsing the energy from a lightning storm on the front lawn. There was Josh Koscheck, all peroxide and jocularity, prodding poor Chris Leben…and Leben spritzing on poor Jason Thacker’s bed…and Bobby Southworth mouthing off. Forrest Griffin shaved his head, and people kept getting drunk. There was Nate Quarry, and Kenny Florian fighting six weight classes out of his natural frame, and Mike Swick (who was still smarting about a loss to Leben in WEC the year prior, adding that elephant to the room).
In short, suddenly we had fighter back-story.
And the fights themselves were ridiculous. Even the well-known coaches, Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture, were props for this impromptu set-up. Remember when the contestants competed in games, like carrying Couture and Liddell on La-Z-Boys down the beach in a race? That still feels impossible.
Though there was a lot of talent on the show, even all that talent needed a nudge from time to time to do something as ridiculous as to lay hands on one another with intent to do harm. At one point, at the height of the mutiny going on behind the scenes with all these combustible parts, Dana White had to come down to the training center and have a word with everyone. His “Do you want to be a f—ing fighter” speech now belongs up there with Knute Rockne’s “Win one for the gipper” and The Gettysburg Address in fight game lore.
But it wasn’t until the TUF Finale on April 9, 2005, that the thing really took off. The headlining fight between Griffin and Bonnar was so mystifyingly good, so back-and-forth and frantic in pace and devoid of sound defense, that it created an old-fashioned groundswell. These days we like to think whoever was watching got on their phones and told those casuals who weren’t to tune in, and then those people called others, and those people still others, and pretty soon everyone was alive with the sound of leathersmash with their jaws dropped to the floor at what they were beholding.
“That fight was important,” says the third man in the Octagon that night, Herb Dean. “That’s the fight that got people interested in what we were doing. Those guys brought it, and everything about it kind of went perfect. Dana White, he came out and gave them both the award. It was a great day.”
The award was (and still is) a vague six-figure contract. But in this case, with the fight transcending all expectation, White awarded both men the contracts, because it was the right thing to do. White’s largesse was as central to the payoff as the fight itself. And that fight, with its show of pluck and determination and the willingness to swing freely, became the most valuable single event to ever happen to the UFC.
“When reffing, I can tell when a fight’s exciting, and that one I definitely could,” Dean says. “I was like, okay, these people need to start cheering right now. This is something special. Hardly ever do you see light heavyweights go at it with that type of pace.”
Dean, who came up in refereeing in the King of the Cage beginning in 1999, reckons the first UFC fight he officiated was at UFC 47, when Wade Shipp fought Jonathan Wiezorek. He’s been in the cage for some of the biggest fights on record over the years. He’s seen everything, but he says he had no idea of the magnitude of what he was watching at the Hard Rock Hotel that night.
“I didn’t know it would be that important at the time,” he says. “I remember it was a great fight and I was so happy that for the Finale, that these guys did it as good as it could get, but had no idea it would have that type of importance.
“I’ve been surrounded by mixed martial arts. From the inside I can’t really see how big it’s growing, because it surrounds me all the time. If I’m treading water in a big swimming pool, a little swimming pool, the ocean, the bottom line is your surrounded by water, you know what I mean? So I don’t have a great perspective.”
Bonnar and Griffin are now both tucked away in the UFC Hall of Fame, in no small part because they put on a fight that opened the floodgates to public enthusiasm. That bout, unbeknownst at the time to the fighters themselves, had the greatest stakes in the abstract sense. They were punching for a million futures, and eating punches for a million more.
At the time, who’d have thought that the UFC would grow so big?
“It’s really funny, but I did,” Dean says. “I was upset because it took so long, but maybe I don’t understand things the way I should. In the 1980s, we watched all kinds of things on TV. I’m not trying to take anything away from curling, but we watched people brush ice. I believe that fighting is the purest sport on Earth, because I think that all sports really are a fight.”
2004: When the west was still wild, and 50 was just a number
The year before TUF put the UFC on the map, 2004 was still like the Old West. But have so many strange elements ever come together like they did at UFC 46?
In the age of celebrating milestones, UFC 50 crept by without so much as a doff of the hat — and with 40,000 PPV buys, we all but gave the semi-centennial show the finger on its passing. The event was held in Atlantic City, and featured the 7-0 Georges St-Pierre, a prelim fixture to that point who’d just beaten Jay Hieron, against the dense-necked former champion Matt Hughes, who was already in the UFC record books with five welterweight title defenses.
The bout was for the vacant title, because B.J. Penn — who’d taken the belt from Hughes — had defected to K-1, and the UFC wasn’t about to let him walk with the accessory. Such were the times. That night, Hughes became a two-time champion when he caught St-Pierre in an armbar with just one second remaining in the first round. Had GSP held on that extra second for the clacks? Perhaps the Québécois would have named a day after him by now, like Long Island did for Chris Weidman.
The co-headliner at UFC 50 was a sad thing. An unknown fighter named Patrick Cote fought the company legend, Tito Ortiz. Cote was filling in for Guy Mezger on ridiculously short notice (four days) and was making his promotional debut. Ortiz? Though he was on a two-fight skid, he’d already fought in the UFC 13 times, including twice against Mezger, which brought about the rubber match that wasn’t happening. Cote getting the fight was an act of desperate cobble-work, but it sure fed some intrigue into his biographical details when he became a cast member on TUF 4. Ortiz, of course, won.
The whole thing was barely noticed. In comparison to UFC 100 — an immense dual-title card that had Dana White promising to jump off the roof of the Mandalay Bay if the PPV number topped 1.5 million (which it did, even White wisely didn’t) — UFC 50 felt like the culmination of not much.
“[UFC 50] was not even close to UFC 100,” Dana White says. “UFC 100 was huge.”
UFC 46 in January, on the other hand, was at least something. What it was exactly is hard to pinpoint, but its operating title — “Supernatural” — was certainly on the right track, given the confluence of names and circumstances. Looking back on it now, it’s like clicking through slides of the Old West on a View-Master. At the time, it was just the usual amalgamation of chaos and characters.
Consider the lot.
There were great stories still waiting to unfold, like Matt Serra, who in two years would pull off the upset of the decade, opening against Jeff Curran on the prelims. There was St-Pierre, who in two years would be the Goliath figure that fell to Serra, closing out those prelims. And right in between there was Josh Thomson, who in 2013 — nine years later — would find himself fighting for the UFC belt.
For all those, there was Karo Parisyan, who is now a UFC pariah for violations associated with nerves and nerve candy. And Hermes Franca, who lost to Thomson. Franca ended up in jail for sexually abusing an underage student at a Brazilian jiu-jitsu academy. And then there was the granddaddy of fight game folklorists, Lee Murray — you might remember him rolling out to the cage dressed disarmingly as Dr. Hannibal Lecter — who ended up authored a $50-million bank heist in the U.K., and is now serving a 25-year sentence in a Moroccan prison. Dana White would say later on, “he is a scary son-of-a-b—-, and I don’t mean fighter-wise.”
No, the people fighting on UFC 46 weren’t your usual sipping teas.
Heading into UFC 46, the breadth of Murray’s lore was simply that he’d knocked out Tito Ortiz in a bar fight in London in the wee hours after UFC 38. That bit of gossip made its way across the pond well ahead of his fight with Jorge Rivera, who showed up to Vegas so normal as to become conspicuous. It was to the point that Rivera knew he was fighting a myth as much as the man.
“I remember Murray had lots of hype following him,” Rivera says. “He had explosive power in both hands, and he had knocked Tito out in that street fight. So there was a lot of hype.”
After Murray submitted Rivera, Joe Rogan asked him about Tito Ortiz and Murray went into a chest-thumping alpha rant. Ortiz, sitting the front row, made a casual throat-slashing gesture back towards him that signaled his acceptance to the challenge.
“There was a lot going on, but I remember the upsets that night,” Rivera says. “B.J. Penn and Vitor Belfort both won, and with Belfort, it was a weird ending that I didn’t see that coming. I believe that was the fight Vitor announced his sister had been kidnapped.”
It was. Belfort sister Priscilla had gone missing just a few weeks before his title fight with Randy Couture in the main event, and that tragedy hung over the whole thing. Belfort fought anyway, yet the bout itself was a buzzkill, as just 45 seconds in Belfort glanced a punch off of Couture’s eye that scratched his cornea, thus prompting the cageside doctor to call it off.
Couture lost the light heavyweight belt on a fluky ordeal, and Penn — who was a cult figure by this time for his elasticity and Hilo warrior spirit — forfeited the belt he took from Hughes that night when he signed with K-1, setting up the Hughes-GSP fight at UFC 50.
Whatever it was about UFC 46, there something more going on than the usual bouquet of fates.
2003: When the fight world revolved around Bettendorf
Long before Brock Lesnar’s brute force and Cain Velasquez’s relentless pace, there was 6-foot-8 Tim Sylvia — a Bettendorf oddity that crashed out of the Miletich Fighting Systems and into history.
It feels like an old wives’ tale now, but there was a time that the 6-foot-8 Tim Sylvia ruled the heavyweight roost in the UFC. This was of course well before he showed up in Moosin: God of Martial Arts to fight strongman Mariusz Pudzianowski, and eons ahead of his enormously underwatched fourth fight with Andrei Arlovski in Quezon City. It was in 2003, right at that time people began to genuinely question just what was in the water out there in Iowa. Sylvia came out of the Miletich Fighting Systems, stylized by the no-nonsense former welterweight champion Pat Miletich, who had produced the likes of Matt Hughes, Jens Pulver and Jeremy Horn as well.
Miletich had built a fight factory in Bettendorf, which in itself has become memorialized over time like a battle sight of some old war.
Sylvia’s run started at UFC 41, when he fought Ricco Rodriguez for the heavyweight belt. Believe it or not, the chorus of “too soon for a title shot” that guys like Glover Teixeira hear these days stretches back to humanity’s earliest concerns, and that was the case for Sylvia, who had but one UFC victory under his belt from UFC 39. In that fight, Sylvia put a beating on Cabbage Correira at the Mohegan Sun that raised a few eyebrows. With his yeti-like frame, he was either a marketable oddity, or a genuine threat to the throne (and hopefully both).
The scene in Atlantic City that night was one of dissatisfaction, because in the co-main event B.J. Penn and Caol Uno fought to a split draw for the inaugural lightweight belt. Rodriguez, was coming off the biggest victory of his career against Randy Couture at that same UFC 39 card, and was making his first title defense. In his corner was Tito Ortiz, who was omnipresent at UFC events in those days, wearing his own light heavyweight belt backwards around his waist for the fans to get a load of. Nobody hogged spotlight quite like Ortiz when he was at the top of his game.
And in front of Rodriguez was the gangly Sylvia, who was something to the eye. His beard was carefully landscaped, accentuated by the swift lamb chops that stenciled down his cheekbone like a scythe, connecting to the mustache (which itself had plenty of plotlines). His shorts were tight; perhaps too tight. He wore the look of Sturgis, and that look fit into the heavyweight category quintessentially. It was uncanny. Here was a man who fully embodied his nickname of “The Maine-iac.” (To this day a bold choice for its hyphen and cleverness). (And to hear Miletich’s stories years later, a more apt nickname might have been “The Ego Maine-iac,” because Sylvia had an unflinching “me” streak).
Then the beginning of the Sylvia Era got ushered in, whether we were ready for it or not.
Ricco hit Sylvia with a flying knee early, and Sylvia smiled the smile of the afflicted before proceeding to crawl into Ricco’s guard and dropping some paws. A bit later, Rodriquez tried for an armbar, but Sylvia lifted him up casually and dumped him to the ground, like he was shaking off a playful toddler. Sylvia lumbered forward and threw a couple of heavy sandbags that missed awkwardly.
Finally, though, just past the halfway point of the first round, Sylvia threw a big right hand from orangutan distance that crashed into Rodriguez’s chin, and the Miletich clan knew their creation was alive. That shot put Rodriquez on ice, though Big John McCarthy waited to see the follow-ups. Sylvia went to the ground and missed the motionless easy target two out of four times, punching the wooden canvas instead. But it was over. Sylvia was the champion. The next thing we knew Miletich and Horn were descending on the scene and hoisting his bulk onto their shoulders.
“What’s up now?” Sylvia yelled. “What’s up now?”
What was up was his stock. Sylvia went on to defend the title against Gan McGee at UFC 44 before having his arm snapped by Frank Mir nine months later at UFC 48. Though the image was gruesome, he would rebound and end up winning the title against Andrei Arlovski at UFC 59. He would defend the title twice before losing it improbably to Randy Couture, at that time 43 years old, who once again played spoiler to tyranny.
For Rodriguez, the loss to Sylvia signaled the beginning of the end of his time in the UFC. “Suave” spiraled with losses to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Pedro Rizzo from there, and wouldn’t pop up again until a year later in Juárez.
In 2013, Sylvia’s two title defenses as a heavyweight remain tied for the most in UFC history.
2002: Chandeliers and the first historical half
In 2002, the UFC’s first and only half show went down at the Bellagio. And looking back on it, what a night UFC 37.5 was.
In the UFC’s pay-per-view numbering system that has now set a course for infinity, strange things are bound to happen in the timeline. UFC 151, of course, went the way of the Anasazi; one day it just up and disappeared. And in 2002, there was the advent of the first (and last) decimal in the pantheon of whole numbers.
That’s when UFC 37.5 took place in Las Vegas, a show that was crammed in front of Zuffa’s visit to Royal Albert Hall in London for UFC 38 because the marketing was already well underway when the half measure was conceptualized. The reason for the six-bout featurette that would go off without the nuisance of prelims? The Best Damn Sports Show Period on Fox Sports Net. It was all about Fox even in those early aughts, just when exposure was at a premium, and Zuffa was shaking the dirt off of all the preconceived notions about cage-fighting.
Though it was the clubfooted cousin of the usual PPVs, cut in half by circumstance and opportunism, the historical value of UFC 37.5 was high.
The premise was that the best fight from the card, which was headlined by Chuck Liddell and Vitor Belfort, would be showcased in its entirety on the show’s “All Star Summer” celebration. That’s how Robbie Lawler and a St. Louis fighter named Steve Berger broke ground as the first in the UFC to ever appear on free cable television. Lawler, doing what he do, knocked Berger out early in the second round — which meant, the first ever UFC fight to hit the cable airwaves lasted five minutes and 27 seconds all told.
“Who they would show [on TBDSSP] I think was up in the air at the time,” says Benji Radach, who fought Nick Serra that night. “I know they were kind of favoring Lawler, because he had a really exciting fight with Aaron Riley the fight before that when I fought Berger. That was a really good three-round fight, and it was exciting, so it was up in the air but it felt like they were leaning his way. He was an up-and-comer, and he had a lot of power.”
Both Lawler and Radach carry the distinction of having fought on both UFC 37 and the hook, UFC 37.5. Just like in the days of Bronko Nagurski, fighters in 2002 needed only a drink of water and a slap to the rear quarters to turn around and fight again (so long as the commissions said it was cool). As MMA was still new to Las Vegas and Nevada — which the first big hurdle in the UFC’s resurrection from the SEG era — the Bellagio was as good a venue as any to take off the shoes and duke it out.
And what a scene it was.
In 2013 it might seem odd to hold a fight card in a ballroom with cascading chandeliers, where the appetites ranged more towards good sturgeon roe than they do towards heel hooks, but in 2002 the surrounding elegance was…well, it was what it was.
“If I remember right, in that ballroom, there was bleacher seating,” says Radach. “[The UFC] wasn’t quite as professional as it is now, with all the extra hype and everything. But it still was the UFC, and it was still the big show on campus. They didn’t have all the extra little thingies. Now you get this bag and little things in your room, it’s kind of a lot of bells and whistles to go along with the program.”
Amenities aside, there were other “firsts” in play that night in June on the half card. Joe Rogan, who has been converting casual people into defensive hardcores for years with his descriptive work towards such things as gogoplatas, made his debut as the UFC’s color man on the broadcast. Before then he was the backstage guy, interviewing the fighters.
And though most fights on the card ended in knockout or decision, he did get to call his first armbar when Pete Spratt torqued Zach Light’s arm at the midway point of the first round. After that the Serra-Radach fight was a regular Garden of Eden for jiu-jitsuphiles with a microphone.
“First of all I knew Nick Serra was a really good submission guy like his brother, Matt,” Radach says. “I remember him catching me in that triangle right off the bat, and he locked up. And it was right at the beginning of the fight, which is not a good spot to be in, because he’s fresh and he’s got you in a full triangle. Luckily I was able to escape that. I remember that fight I was just trying to stay out of his triangles.”
Radach would steer clear of Serra’s geometric pressure enough to get the decision in the end, just like Liddell would take care of Belfort on the scorecards at UFC 37.5. And Lawler, whose left hand might one day be enshrined in the UFC hall of fame even if the rest of his body is not, made the chandeliers sway to the rhythm of his brand of violence.
2001: The Italian word for fighting (and a touch of evil)
2001 was the changing of the guard in the UFC. That’s when Zuffa took over the company and had its first show at UFC 30 in Atlantic City. After that? Global dominance.
Even for all its bed bugs and misty veils of Aqua Net, Atlantic City was a boon for the UFC in 2001, if for no other reason than it wasn’t Lake Charles, Louisiana. The UFC could put on fights in New Jersey even in the Dark Times when virtually every other state held a crucifix up to it. Donald Trump — himself a rogue figure with occasional foresight — was more averse to conformity than he was to the pack of outliers who fought in the UFC, and his Taj Mahal was home to the last SEG era event to be held in the States.
That was UFC 28, on November 17, 2000, seven years, five days and a million court battles after the belligerent chaos of UFC 1 sent us off on this course.
When the UFC returned to the Taj three months later, at UFC 30, it was a whole new ballgame. After UFC 29 in Japan, the hydra of Dana White and the brothers Fertitta (casino owners Frank and Lorenzo) ignored the circling vultures overhead and bought the UFC. They spent two million dollars for the day’s blackest cloud. And at the time it was like they’d been sold beachfront property in Wyoming. Even the Italian word Zuffa, for all its slick lacquer and shine, felt like a fresh coat of paint on the old jalopy.
Yet the new regime had the audacity to bring with it a plan.
UFC 30 was branded as “The All New Ultimate Fighting Championship,” its poster featuring Tito Ortiz standing arms akimbo, like the top half of a centaur from the mythological past. Same gunslingers, but new vision…and deeper pockets…and inroads to Las Vegas. The Zuffa era kicked off with a pair of title fights. Tito Ortiz against Evan Tanner for the light heavyweight belt, and Jens Pulver against the Japanese import Caol Uno, for the lightweight strap.
All of that was of course window dressing for UFC 30’s real story. On February 23, 2001, Dana White began his journey to becoming the greatest ringleader the fight game has ever known.
“I knew the difference in the aspect that the new UFC were from Vegas,” Pulver says. “For me I was like, okay, if these guys from Vegas are buying this, they have the ability and the options and the desire to get us into Las Vegas. It was great to be in Atlantic City, but Las Vegas is the fight hub. You’ve got to get into Las Vegas. So when they bought it, that was one of the things on the personal side I just got real excited. They weren’t going to buy a company of this magnitude without having at least spoken to the Nevada commission. It made me real excited as a guy living in Iowa and having never been to Las Vegas before.”
Pulver had two shades of eyes and a tactical mean streak in the cage. He fought at UFC 28 when Bob Meyrowitz and company were still the spearheads. That night he beat John Lewis, and earned the heathen’s nickname of “Lil Evil” from Pat Miletich.
“I went with the ‘Lil Evil’ moniker because that was so hard to get,” he says. “I had to knock out John Lewis to get it. I didn’t want to be called the ‘Pulverizer.’ I thought, really, Pulver? Come on. It was actually going to be ‘Grumpy Evil Little Bastard.’ But we shortened it down to ‘Lil Evil.’
‘Lil Evil’ remembers meeting Dana White at UFC 28, as well as first hearing the deeply affluent caramel-toned voice of Lorenzo Fertitta. He remembers also jumping in the Fertitta private plane to go scope out Caol Uno, who was the welterweight champion in Shooto, in his fight against Rumina Sato in Japan. That was one day after UFC 29, the last of the SEG era, also going on in the greater metropolis of Tokyo.
“Yeah, I got to fly to with them to Japan,” Pulver says. “They were getting ready to bring me in and do the Caol Uno fight, and they always said we want the top guys, so we went out there and watched Uno defend his title. That’s how I met Lorenzo, Frank and Dana.
“And I tripped them out because, they had their own plane, and Tito Ortiz, that big boy, he slept the whole flight, but I couldn’t sleep. So I crawled underneath the table and fell asleep. That weirded them out man. I was like the plane’s cat. I circled around, circled around, boomp, plopped down underneath the table where I could sleep. I had a great time. The sky was the limit for the UFC then. For a kid like me to be on a plane flying to Japan, to go with these guys, it was amazing. And you just knew there was going to be change. You knew these guys were going to make this thing explode.”
Uno would come to the UFC, and Pulver would get the better of him at Zuffa’s maiden show. As the fighters walked to the cage, the vibe was different. Zuffa allowed for champions to walk out to their own entrance music at UFC 30 for the first time, rather than the synthy showcase music that had for so long been the soundtrack to the plankwalk.
Pulver walked out to Twiztid’s “Mutant X,” from the Freek Show album.
“I was an Insane Clown Posse freak, so I came out to Twiztid,” he says. “Those lyrics? I was born an accident, off the ripper/free spirit but a mind drifter/vampire labeled me the blood sipper,’ I was like, that’s me.”
The Zuffa Era was upon us.
At UFC 33 in September, just two-and-a-half weeks after 9/11, the company did make it to Las Vegas. It was the first big hurdle in dyeing MMA into the wool, and in reshaping of all those bad perceptions about the UFC. The blowout event featured three title fights, including Pulver against Dennis Hallman. “Lil Evil” finally got to Vegas, but the show itself mortified Dana White and plenty of people who’d dished out their disposable income to watch it. All three title fights (not to mention both the undercard bouts that featured Chuck Liddell against Murilo Bustamante and Matt Serra against Yves Edwards) went to decisions. It was 105 minutes of actual fight time spent in waiting. The time ran over and the PPV cut off, which wasn’t the homecoming Zuffa had imagined.
UFC 33 was the first big clam note in the symphony, but Vegas had been made. And the rest, as they say, was history.
2000: The Monster slips and UFC 29 closes a chapter
The year 2000 was the last of the SEG Era in the UFC. Former UFC owner Bob Meyrowitz remembers some of the kookiness of that last year, including UFC 24, when one fighter took the liberty of knocking himself out.
If it felt like the locusts were next in 2012 as injuries decimated card after card, they (most certainly) issued from Kevin Randleman’s head the night he slipped and jarred them loose backstage in Louisiana a dozen years earlier. That was at UFC 24, when Randleman and Pedro Rizzo were slated to fight for the heavyweight championship. Everything was fine until the moment it wasn’t, which was only a couple of hours before “The Monster” was supposed to roll to the hole.
Randleman, who did Rizzo’s work for him by finding his own black spot, would be 86’d from the card.
In a time when the inexplicable ruled over MMA…when the “anything is possible” motif felt like a temptation to Murphy’s Law or worse…when Bob Meyrowitz’s UFC was constantly facing uphill battles outside of the cage and his enterprise was slipping towards becoming a black market affair…here was Randleman, knocked himself silly backstage during warm up. He was being whisked away in an ambulance with his pupils pooling just as black as an angry cat while people were settling in and slapping high fives in anticipation of his fight.
“Well, it was a strange thing,” Meyrowitz says. “That was in Lake Charles. And again, as was so frequently happening, I was dealing with court issues and got on a plane, and I flew to somewhere and my connection got canceled, and I didn’t make it there in time.
“What happened is that he was jumping up and down getting loose, and he tripped over some piece of equipment and fell down. Unfortunately for him, Dr. Richard Istrico happened to be right there and saw him hit his head. Kevin got up and said he was fine. Dr. Istrico said, you have to go to the hospital and be checked. Unfortunately Randleman threw up on his way, which is a sign of concussion, and Dr. Istrico said he couldn’t fight. Kevin Randleman, as you might recall, was not thrilled with that decision.”
Dr. Istrico at the time might as well have been Dr. Kevorkian, and the 1,400-plus denizens of Lake Charles were already well into their cups when they caught wind of this rancid bit of news. Worse, they were only told at the very end of the show, when everyone was bracing for the dramatic conclusion to the festivities. Last call came early that night, which left everyone in an unsettled state.
And there was Meyrowitz, sitting in an airport lounge on his phone trying to come up with solutions, with a familiar thought hovering over his head: Why? Why, why, why?!
That might have been one of the greatest buzzkills in UFC history, losing a headliner to a concrete floor without even so much as black-and-white surveillance footage to prove it. But that card was still significant in other ways in the UFC’s long strange odyssey. It marked the television debut of Jens Pulver. “Crazy” Bob Cook choked out Tiki Ghosn, too. And Dan Severn, the mustached colossus for so many years in the haphazard days of UFCs single digits, tried his hand at refereeing on the prelims, just two weeks before he terrorized Bart Vale in nearby Corinth, Mississippi in the CFA. He wore red shoes and stripes as he circled around the battle between Shonie Carter and the well-quaffed Brad Gumm.
“Our chief referee of course was ‘Big’ John McCarthy,” Meyrowitz says. “Between McCarthy and Jeff Blatnick, they were determining who could referee and we were looking. And again, we’re talking still at the beginning of the sport. To find people knowledgeable enough to know when to stop a fight, when to jump in, that is really what we were looking for. And we were able to find a few people who were knowledgeable enough, and who were mentally and physically strong enough, to make sure nothing did happen. Dan certainly fit that bill.”
At this point, Meyrowitz’s UFC was on its last legs. The unified rules were drafted not solely to make the sport safer — there was never a significant injury to warrant such a measure going back to ground zero of UFC 1 — but to “satisfy everybody who had ever objected to anything,” as Meyrowitz says. They had cleared a big hurdle by getting the sport sanctioned with the New Jersey State Athletic Commission, but Nevada — the next requirement to get the thing back on television, and out of the “Dark Ages” — wouldn’t budge.
The smaller brush fires were so many by this point that they become almost comical in retrospect.
“I went to court in Rhode Island, and the judge ruled that if we did it like professional wrestling we could do it,” Meyrowitz says, still stupefied by what’s coming out of his mouth. “[That’s like saying] let’s have baseball being played under football rules. Look, one is a real sport, and one is not. You’re dealing with people mostly with no knowledge. I was in court a great deal. Unfortunately lawyers don’t work for free. So we had court in Puerto Rico, court in Rhode Island, court in Detroit, court in New York…and you’re basically dealing with people who knew nothing about the sport.”
The end game for the SEG Era of the UFC came at UFC 29 nine months later, in December of 2000, in Japan. By that point Meyrowitz had lost much of his original staff through attrition, and was bleeding money into a dying franchise. The court battles had taken a toll, and the loss of cable television made it mostly an Internet enterprise. Those times were, without being melodramatic, very dark indeed.
“There was just so much going on by UFC 29,” he says. “For me, as the executive in charge, it had truthfully become so burdensome to do a show. I do a lot of music, a lot of entertainment shows…there’s always drama, always so much that goes wrong. But here there was drama outside of the show.
“I just heard [President Barack] Obama say something the other day, which I thought was kind of funny, he said he apologizes about Obamacare. He said, ‘I never though the easy part was going to be getting it through Congress.’ The easy part was doing the show, which is a very difficult thing to do. But the hard part was all the outside fighting that was going on. Not getting the Nevada State Athletic Commission to approve it was a big blow. That just meant it was going to continue to cost me a great deal of money.”
Sitting in attendance at UFC 29 was Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta, the former a monolithic personality who was tailor-made for the fight game, the latter with deep pockets and even longer arms to fetch the contents. Fertitta, too, was the commissioner of the NSAC up until July of 2000. They struck a deal “almost instantaneously” with Meyrowitz to purchase the UFC, and Nevada would soon add MMA to its fun list of legal depravities. Cable, ditto. The flailing UFC was revived and given new life under Zuffa, which began in February of 2001 at UFC 30 in Atlantic City.
“I guess it was kind of like being in the circus,” says Meyrowitz of his days overseeing the UFC. By early 2001, he passed the baton to Dana White, who, out of thin air, became the greatest ringleader combat sports has known.
1999: Rules and the scale of evolution
In 1999, the 10-point must system from boxing was adopted by the UFC. It was also when Frank Shamrock and Tito Ortiz came together at UFC 22 and put “well-roundedness” into motion.
The earliest signs of rule organization occurred well before UFC 21, when things like fish-hooking were outlawed because Tank Abbott — bless his heart — kept slipping his thumb into poor Oleg Taktarov’s mouth like he were a trophy largemouth bass. That was back at UFC 6, the wild Single Digits when woolly mammoths stalked the earth, and time limits were for p—ies, and scoring systems were happily pointless, and the Gracie’s were flying dangerously close to the sun.
But UFC 21 was the first big step towards “sport-like” structure. The 10-point must system was in play, meaning UFC judges would score an infinitely more layered sport the same as boxing judges did in their sphere. To do that, a hierarchy of scoring emphasis was established, which boiled down to damage, effective striking, Octagon control, aggressiveness and submission attempts. Therein was a mile of gray area, but if nothing else this made officials pay closer attention to what it was they were watching (which set up the firestorm of controversies that would survive well into the Twitter era of open complaint).
UFC 21 was also when main card fights became three five-minute round affairs, and championship fights five five-minute rounds. The championship rounds were born in a cornfield near Cedar Rapids.
And that night in July, in his home state of Iowa — the first to sanction the sport in terms of athletic commissions — Pat Miletich won the inaugural welterweight belt with a decision over Andre Pederneires. Both men would erect temples in which champions gushed forth later. Miletich with his Miletich Fighting Systems, which was all crew cuts and wrestling (and Tim Sylvia), and Pederneires with Nova Uniao, from whence Jose Aldo and Renan Barao sprang.
“The thing I remember was how good he was on the ground,” says Miletich. “His students are slaughtering people in jiu-jitsu now. The only thing I wanted to do was KO or TKO him and get out of there.”
But the first big display of actual hybrid technique might have been at UFC 22 a couple of months later, in the then UFC capital of Lake Charles, Louisiana. That’s when the challenger Tito Ortiz, whom Bruce Buffer introduced as “The bad boy from Huntington Beach, California,” would fight Frank Shamrock, who was the middleweight champion (199 pounds) at the time.
That fight became a portal to modern MMA.
At the time, Ortiz was a wrestling savant/takedown artist who had no fear of Shamrock’s elastic jiu-jitsu, nor his active pectoral muscles. Shamrock, who had been training with Maurice Smith, was adding components to his arsenal like level changes, angles and kicks. They met in the middle in September of 1999 and, because UFC fans weren’t spoiled by cool-headed technique back then, what took place felt like a high-brow/low-brow form of WTF?, before morphing into something like wow.
The contender Ortiz, who was 3-1 at the time in the UFC, dragged Shamrock to the ground early and often. He planted his shoulder into Shamrock’s chin, and went about trying to pound him through the floorboards. Shamrock, though, was putting on a grappler’s cirque du soleil off his back. He was attempting submissions, striking, squirming, retracting and rolling like a beach ball beneath the elephant’s feet. Mostly, though, he was quicksand. He was taking very little damage. Yet to the naked eye Ortiz was on top and doing the gutting. He fended off the submission attempts as he pummeled.
It wasn’t a game of kinetic chess, it was a game of preemptive neutralization.
In the skirmishes on the feet, there were smirk kicks to lead legs, clean jabs, sound combinations, things we take for granted in 2013 (and sometimes even dread). Ortiz, though, went about the double-legs, and kept that going through the bulk of four rounds. And while this was going on, just like with contemporary audiences, the booze and boos teamed up in the fourth round as Ortiz took Shamrock to the canvas again. Shamrock’s frustration had become spectator contagion; his hell became everyone’s. Ortiz went about trying to drop elbows onto Shamrock’s temple just the same, and Shamrock continued to roil under him in altering states of yoga contortion.
Suddenly, though, towards the end of the fourth round, Shamrock roared back to life and reversed Ortiz and ended up on top. It lasted a brief second, but destiny had hit something like a fork in the road. As they got back to the feet, Shamrock blasted Ortiz with a long-suppressed flurry on the fence, before Ortiz composed his wrestling genes and took Shamrock down. Only, this time he left his neck in the constrictive arms of Shamrock and, exhausted, he felt the ghost being squeezed from his body. As Shamrock let the choke go, he landed a couple of big elbows and hammerfists and “Big” John McCarthy stepped in to call the thing off. Ortiz, left in the middle of the cage in a pose of genuflection on the UFC emblem, was done.
It felt like a Houdini trick, what Shamrock did, like he had bided his time for the right moment to turn the tables. He retained the middleweight belt, and in 1999 Frank Shamrock was the UFC’s king.
And that fight further connected the dots between the disciplines, when “well-roundedness” started to become a real thing. In our current day of discipline homogeny with emphasis on preferred techniques, Shamrock-Ortiz would have fit right in. As it was, though, the fight was ahead of its time. Tito and Frankie (as Maurice Smith called him) were already evolved.
And they showed it on Sept. 24, 1999, fittingly on the last UFC card to use the gladiator-centric Roman Numerals, UFC XXII.
1998: Into the heart of darkness (and dial-ups)
In 1998, the UFC was in its Dark Ages. Only a couple of states sanctioned the sport, and those were down South. Otherwise, it was a small flickering flame that stayed alive on Internet forums.
The key demographic in the UFC’s early days — just as it is in the progressive 21st century — was 18-34 year old males. Fighting, which by now we know is part of our DNA, runs best towards the excitable youth. By the time you reach the outskirts of that demo circle — say, 35 years old, right in the TRT wheelhouse in MMA — you lose the target off your back. You become decidedly unkey, even as you belong to the broader television demographic that generously extends to the ripe age of 49.
But that 18-34 demo is accurate, and it’s why so many of today’s UFC first generation (now quadragenians) have fond memories of VHS introductions to the sport, because at the time they were old teens/young twenty-somethings hanging out in a friend’s basement just as the Keith Hackney started pruning the Joe Son family tree. The First Generation had the guilty pleasure of watching the rules write themselves through trial and error back in those early days when “anything goes.”
Because anything went, by 1998 the UFC was well into the Dark Ages as people began to recoup their inhibitions and sober up. The major cable provider at the time had shut down shop with the promotion so that the pay-per-view model no longer had an outlet. At a meeting in Denver, Tele-Communications Inc. executive Leo Hindery said he’d only allow the UFC to return to cable if it could get a big-time athletic commission to sanction the sport. That meant drafting the unified rules, and a lot of spinning wheels.
Senator John McCain, he of the famous “human cock-fighting” accusation, had made the UFC a taboo that only sick minds could embrace. This sentiment spread like red tape to the Yankee north, and west to Nevada. A year earlier, New York pulled the turncoat move of approving the sport, only to change their minds and come up with their own restrictions that including the use of headgear. (This put Dothan, Alabama on the map).
At that point the UFC was relegated to the live experience, which was either in the south or abroad…or on Internet forums, where it grew like a chimera through the lively imagination of fans.
“After New York shut down, from that point on we were trying to get athletic commissions to sanction the sport,” referee “Big” John McCarthy, who was there from the beginning to UFC 70, says. “The very first one was Mississippi at UFC 15, this guy named Billy Lyons, an old, old timer. He first said no, no way at first, then we talked to him. Then he said, well, let me see…okay, yeah, I’ll let this happen. We put on that in Bay St. Louis at Casino Magic, and that was the first time I’d been licensed as a referee through an athletic commission.”
The first show of 1998, UFC 16, was held at the Pontchartrain Center in New Orleans, Louisiana. That night Kimo Leopoldo lost to Tsuyoshi Kosaka, and Frank Shamrock put Igor Zinoviev away forever with a vicious slam that mangled his collarbone.
The next show, at UFC 17 saw the UFC debuts of Chuck Liddell, Dan Henderson and Carlos Newton, all future champions of the UFC, Pride and Strikeforce. Back then, they were all just prelim fodder for Shamrock, Jeremy Horn and Mark Coleman, the grizzled veterans.
As the sport lived day to day — and by this point well within the heart of darkness — commentator Jeff Blatnik was said to have told the fighters and the media that night in Mobile, Alabama to begin referring to it as “mixed martial arts.”
“Blatnik had been saying ‘MMA’ long before that, because when this whole thing with [TCI] and Leo Hindery was going on, most people called the sport NHB, No Holds Barred,” McCarthy says. “That was part of Leo Hindery’s thing, ‘oh, it’s No Holds Barred.’ I told him at the time, no, it’s mixed martial arts. Jeff and I had been calling it mixed martial arts since the Dothan show [in 1997]. That was when the New York commission and all that going on, that’s when it started. No Holds Barred killed us!”
There were holds that were barred by then, of course, most them with back-stories as long and sordid as you’d expect. And John McCarthy authored all the amendments along the way, usually after an incident. Fish-hooking was stricken when Tank Abbott tried to rip Oleg Taktarov’s lips to the ears with his thumb. Hair pulling went back to UFC 3 with Royce Gracie with Kimo Leopoldo, even if gentleman’s agreements took place not do it, as with Guy Mezger and Jason Fairn at UFC 4. Fence grabbing went back to the Ultimate Ultimate of 1995, when Marco Ruas fought Oleg Taktarov, but culminated, McCarthy says, when Wallid Ismail fought Kazuo Takahashi at UFC 12, in a fight where Takahashi held onto the chain links for dear life as Ismail tried to take him down.
Knees to the head still belonged to the future of the sport’s sanitization. That only came about when 6-foot-10, 335-pound Gan McGee nearly decapitated poor Brad Gabriel, 100 pounds lighter than McGee, with his knees in the IFC. To everybody’s horror, that was the first show in the coveted state of New Jersey, the first big commission to take a chance and sanction MMA. UFC 28 was held two months later in Atlantic City.
As for headbutts?
“When I put ‘no headbutts,’ I knew I was f—ing killing Mark Coleman,” McCarthy says. “People laugh at that, saying his head was his hammer. He was so dominant in the fact that nobody could take him down. And if he took you down, and you grabbed his arms he’d start smacking you in the head with his head and make you let go of his arms and it was very effective for him. And I knew when I put that in, that was the guy I was affecting the most. And I felt bad about it, but it was one of those, what’s best for the sport? I’m sorry Mark. Every rule there is, I can tell you who made it up.”
In 1998, a lot of people needed convincing, and most of them didn’t have the foggiest idea about what they were watching. Only pockets of the south was truly aboard, while everywhere else threw a blanket over the cage and turned up the music.
It was so bad in the States that the UFC began looking abroad, out of necessity (which to the winking man was called “globalization”). In late 1998, the UFC went to Brazil for the first time.
“We used the story of Brazil and MMA, and that this was the birthplace of MMA, that it was a national sport there, because nobody in the United States gave a s—,” McCarthy says. “The truth of it was, it was small time in Brazil also, but there was a lot of really great fighters that came out of Brazil. It was kind of building a little bit bigger.”
Brazil itself was becoming a no man’s land. A year earlier, in Rio de Janeiro, Renzo Gracie and Eugenio Tadeu had fought and incited a riot when a pack of luta livre guys (livid from the ticket situation) stormed the cage. That set the ban in place in Rio, which the UFC wouldn’t visit until 2011 with Zuffa. At the time, the UFC went to Sao Paulo.
“It was an achievement to go to Brazil.,” McCarthy says. “I think [then UFC owner] Bob Meyrowitz did it because it was his way of getting out of the United States and all the court costs that were occurring.”
Pedro Rizzo debuted at UFC Brazil, defeating Tank Abbott. But that night in October 1998 is most remembered for Vitor Belfort, at the time 21 years old, blitzing Wanderlei Silva and knocking him out in less than a minute.
“That was a story unto itself,” McCarthy says.
“But I always said at the time, I wish I had a crystal ball, because I don’t know if this was going to be here next year. It was tough. I always believed in it. I believed in the sport and the guys fighting in it, and I always believed people would love it.”
1997-96: The ‘Godfather of Ground & Pound’
Between 1996 and 1997, the UFC was starting to feel some blowback for its ominous marketing campaign. But before the rules began to change, there was Mark Coleman, the original heavyweight champion, and the “Godfather of ground-and-pound.”
Even in the earliest days, the UFC was sending out scouts to unearth tomorrow’s stars. Heading into 1996, the world of wrestling was still woefully under-represented in the Octagon. Royce Gracie was a demigod for his jiu-jitsu work in the original UFC shows, and Tank Abbott sprung forth from the salt mines (that is to say, the bar scene in Huntington Beach, which to this day is a source of combustion between him and Tito Ortiz).
But there weren’t a lot of singlets on display, and realistically, that discipline felt like tapioca to the fight game imagination. Wrestling was available in junior high; we wanted esoteric kung fu and judo and menacing “pit” fighters like Abbott clubbing people into the twitches. There was an appetite for sublime violence, not for cauliflower ear.
Wrestling, as a word, shared a space between fact and fiction, and plenty of actual wrestlers (called amateur) ended up in the scripts (dubbed professional). By UFC 9, heading into his big fight with Ken Shamrock in Detroit, Dan Severn — “The Beast” — had emerged with a mustache and plenty of machismo. He was one of the first big wrestlers to make the crossover to ultimate fighting, going back to UFC 4. He quickly became a fan favorite, and the headlining event against Shamrock in the Motor City came at a time when the pay-per-view needle was moving. UFC 8, which featured Kimo Leopoldo and Shamrock, did over 300,000 buys.
The UFC, for all its ills, was catching on.
And there were plenty of smash-mouth wrestlers out there who asked only to be discovered. One of them was Mark Coleman, a pestle of the cruelest sort who would later become known as the “godfather of ground and pound” for his work in the UFC pre-teens. He has watched the UFC since the first show in 1993, but now in the twilight of his wrestling career, he was, with the harps of heaven being thrummed, approached to compete.
“I went to the Olympic trials, and there was a UFC official there scouting some talent,” Coleman says. “He recruited three guys — me, Tom Erikson and Mark Kerr. Right as we lost, he grabbed us at different times and took us into a room. He brought up UFC 10, about 35 days away. He told me about it, but I already knew about it going back to UFC 1, which is when I fell in love with it. I looked at him and said, I’m in. I’m the man for the job. I don’t care who else you’re recruiting at these Olympic trials, I’ll beat any of them. I told him I will win the UFC — in fact, I’m pretty sure I guaranteed it to him.”
Coleman was selected to compete at UFC 10, which took place in Birmingham, Alabama, on July 12 1996. For that show, the UFC was returning to its popular tournament structure after experimenting with stand-alone battles at UFC 9. Among the behemoths Coleman would inevitably face were Gary Goodrich and Don Frye, both of whom had already experienced the sport that was very proudly banned in 49 states.
And Coleman fit right in. He flourished in the limited rules setting of those early shows, just before scrutiny got ratcheted up a notch. Once Coleman got opponents down, people began watching through their fingers. His was a three-prong assault: Elbows, hammerfists and — lord of have mercy — wince-inducing head butts.
“I was very happy to be part of the very limited no rules day, and I thought that’s when I was at my best,” Coleman says. “People don’t realize that it did take some technique. You had to throw it properly, or you were going to mess yourself up. So there was technique involved, the hard part of my head into the soft spot on his face. And when he goes to block it, I have a right hand, and a left hand.
“I wasn’t great at math, but, you know, three to two…it kind of made sense to me. It seemed a little bit not fair. There was always something open. The rib, the face, or the head butt. He couldn’t block all three. UFC 10 was the right time for me, before everybody caught up.”
UFC 10 was Bruce Buffer’s first time as the master of ceremonies, and that coincided with the start of Coleman’s heyday in the UFC. He won the eight-man tournament, exhausting Goodrich and obliterating Frye on the ground with the aforementioned formula.
Coleman did the same thing at UFC 11, taking out Julian Sanchez, and then Brian Johnston. Because Scott Ferrozzo was injured in his fight with Tank Abbott, Coleman won UFC 11 via forfeiture while putting in a total of 3:25 of cage time.
“I felt right at home in the Octagon from the beginning,” Coleman says. “I was kicking ass in wrestling, which was real similar, but just added a few things. All the moves that were illegal in wrestling were now legal. I loved the fact that there were very, very limited rules. The jewels were even available. I wouldn’t have went there…unless it was desperately needed, in a bad situation. It was legal at the time. I would have had to go to the jewels if needed. But after UFC 10, my confidence was through the roof…maybe too high even.”
The high-water mark of “The Hammer’s” career might have been at UFC 12, at the apt titled “Judgment Day,” which was originally slated to take place in Niagara Falls, New York, but switched last minute to Dothan, Alabama. That’s when politics and general outcry began to truly intervene. With Senator John McCain spreading the word about the UFC as a harbinger of civilization’s ultimate decay, New York’s pulling out was the first domino to fall in the reform of the rules, structure, perception, marketing and everything else that went into the UFC.
Coleman was less concerned with all red tape on the outside as he was his opponent, Dan Severn, the Brawny Man of ursine characteristics and mettle. With UFC 12 being the first to introduce weight classes, which was the first big step out of the spectacle-phase taken by the matchmaker at the time John Perretti, the Severn/Coleman fight was for the inaugural heavyweight belt. Yet the night prior, the whole thing was in doubt with New York pulling the rug out from underneath. Pretty soon they UFC circus was boarding cargo planes and heading south.
“When they said we’re packing it up, it was quick, very short notice,” Coleman says. “All of a sudden we got the notice that New York wasn’t going to allow this. I was so happy when they added, but…we’ve got a backup plan. We’re packing up, and flying to Alabama, and we’re fighting in Alabama tomorrow. I had no problem with that. I didn’t care if we landed at 6 o’clock and fought at 8 o’clock. We did get in around 4 or 5 in the morning, but just that we knew we were going to pull this off, I was ecstatic. I doubt I’d have slept anyway.”
Coleman needed less than three minutes to submit “The Beast” Severn with a neck crank, whether it was in Niagara Falls, Dothan, Alabama, or the dark side of the moon.
“My confidence was so high, I didn’t have any doubt I was going to beat Dan Severn,” he says. “A lot of people thought I took my gloves off because I knew it was going to be a wrestling match. I took my gloves off for the exact opposite reason. I took the gloves off because it was one fight, and I figured bare knuckles was going to do more damage in one fight than the glove. So I took them off.
“Dan Severn is one of the nicest guys, and we’re still friends now, but he would have done whatever it took…even went for my jewels if he had to. He might’ve should’ve did when I had that neck crank. That would’ve been a good time to go for the jewels, but I had them hidden and out of range where he couldn’t get to them.”
That kind of talk would soon be outdated.
By UFC 14, when Coleman suffered the first loss of his career and ceded the heavyweight belt to Maurice Smith in what was the fight of the year, change was underway. That was the card where four-to-six ounce gloves became mandatory (not to protect skulls so much as to protect knuckles). By UFC 15, in October of 1997, the pantheon of strikes was lopped down to size. No longer could you go to the “jewels,” or go to the back of the head, or kick downed opponents.
And no longer could you head butt opponents, the staple in the “Godfather of ground-and-pound’s” arsenal. Coleman had a long career in MMA afterwards in the UFC and Pride afterwards. He had a lot of big moments in Japan.
Yet from July 12, 1996 to July 27, 1997, when the west was still wild, and he was free to improvise his own brutality while the overlords clapped in sync, Mark Coleman was the king of the UFC. And because he was, wrestling took its place in the mixed martial arts.
1995: Tank’s pirate booty and “The Beast”
In 1995, while the UFC was happily embracing the lawless landscape of No Hold’s Barred fighting, Dan Severn was cracking jokes and skulls (often at the same time).
One of the more colorful fighters in the UFC’s short history was Dan Severn, a 6-foot-2, 250-pound construct who was split down the middle between menace and levity. He began wrestling in 1969, and won his first national title in 1972. Yet he’d never been in a street fight ahead of his first appearance in the Octagon in 1994, and to this day he’s never ingested a mind-altering chemical. Severn’s resume is teeming with such dissimilar feats.
In his glorious heyday, though, which began at the age of 36 at UFC 4 and raged on for well over a decade, Severn had a mustache that couldn’t be emulated at Hollywood’s best disguise shops, and an eccentric way of going about business. Still, in the prehistoric days of No Hold’s Barred fighting, when anarchy sold pay-per-views and ended up as VHS tapes, Severn lived up to his nickname of “The Beast” when the cage door locked behind him.
Through it all he had a lightness of being, which was never anything other than unnerving.
“The very first time I ever walked into the Octagon cage at UFC 4, referee John McCarthy had a set format, where he used to talk to the fighter first,” Severn says. “And when he got to the end he’d always say, ‘are there any questions?’ He’d turn to you, then turn to your corner person. So, the very first time, he goes, are there any questions? I couldn’t think of anything. But as he’s turning away, I made the comment, ‘yeah, where did all that money go that my parents paid for piano lessons?’ And he said he heard it, but when he looked back at he thought it couldn’t have come from me because I had my game face on.”
The next fight, just before he blew up Marcus Bossett, McCarthy did the same routine, and this time Severn muttered to McCarthy, “if you would only give me the winning lotto ticket numbers, I wouldn’t be doing this.” McCarthy knew what he heard this time, and later would marvel at this kind of humor just before a potentially gruesome encounter.
“McCarthy said you’re the scariest cat of them all, because you’re out there farting around and these guys are trying to take your head off,” Severn says. “And in those days, even with the two rules — no eye-gouging and no biting — if you really read the contract, it just said your purse would be fined, not truly disqualified.”
By 1995, having been upset by Royce Gracie in the finals of UFC 4 after dominating 15 minutes of the less than 16-minute fight, Severn was a popular figure to the underground sphere of NHB. At UFC 5, he ran roughshod through Joe Charles, Oleg Taktarov and Dave Beneteau to win the tournament.
“For UFC 5, I took out 32 days of my life,” he says. This would prove as historic as Severn’s legacy for joining the 100-fight club in 2007 against Dave Legeno in Cage Rage. Severn, in 127 pro MMA fights, only had two full training camps. The rest of he time he just taught classes. Ahead of UFC 4, he trained in a pro wrestling ring with pro wrestlers, and made up crude submissions by which he would relent only upon hearing them “scream or squawk.”
Though he lost the “clash of the titans” fight with Ken Shamrock in Casper, Wyoming at UFC 6 — a card that signaled the end times for the UFC’s puritanical detractors, selling over 240,000 PPVs — Severn was at the height of his popularity heading into the Ultimate Ultimate in December of that year. That was the only other fight card he put in a training camp for, isolating himself from family and friends in remote Michigan for 35 days.
“Only until the Ultimate Ultimate did you know who your first opponent was going to be ahead of time,” he says. “That was the first time they brought in judges…but there was no criteria for the judges. It was thumbs up, thumbs down…I don’t know what they were doing. To go back in time and look at what was going on then, people are right to be baffled as to what these guys were doing. I was doing battle with the Shamrocks and the Gracies and everything else, and there were no rules or regulations. I call it kind of like the Wild Wild West. Anything goes at that point in time.
“But I will say, my cardiovascular was off the hook at that point. Out of a two-hour PPV, in those three matches I was in the Octagon just over one hour.”
The Ultimate Ultimate that cold night at the Mammoth Gardens in Denver was perhaps Severn’s opus, as the old stevedore went to work piling up bodies. First it was Paul Varelans, who was also known for his work in professional wrestling (much like Severn himself). Varelans went gently, succumbing to a triangle choke.
That brought up Tank Abbott, who back at UFC 5 had one of the most violent knockouts of the UFC’s first decade when he sent sumo John Matua into convulsions with a right hand. The pillager Abbott, ever goading and never short on words, was already dishing out lines of hysteria. He’d said that Severn looked “like Freddie Mercury on steroids,” and that he “hit like a girl,” none of which bothered Severn so much as the unnecessary shot following the coup de grâce that Abbott put on Matua a few months earlier.
“Tank was a character, and he was very brash to me,” Severn says. “When he hit the 400-pound sumo again, as he was laying there stiffening up and basically his body going into convulsions, I was like, you bastard. If you would do that to a man who can’t defend himself, then when I face you, if I can hurt you, if I can injure you or end your career, I’m going to do it. I lost all respect for him.”
Severn battered Abbott for 18 solid minutes.
“I basically embarrassed him out there with how many times I hit him, and how many different ways I hit him,” he says. “I told my corner, keep me aware of time. When I heard them yell out three minutes, that’s when I allowed Abbott to get up to his feet. I had been on the ground the entire time punishing him, and I threw a lot of knees into his sciatic area because I wanted his knees to be wobbly as he stood.
“When my guys yelled out one minute, I tried to pry him off the cage wall because I was going to belly-to-back suplex him onto his head. It might not have ended the fight. He probably would have bounced once or twice and came up swinging or something like that, but I was going to entertain the crowd after going almost a 20-minute match. If done correctly, the belly-to-back suplex is actually quite devastating. And I tell you, if I could have pulled that off, the roof would have exploded off the place.”
That set up a rematch with Taktarov, the Russian who had won the tournament at UFC 6 by taking out Tank Abbott as well.
“I already knew what the Russian mentality was, I’d been to Russia a few times,” Severn says. “I knew I was going to have to half kill my opponent. And basically, I just about did that twice. I think I delivered well over 300 headbutts in that match against him. And 20 or 30 minutes after that match was done they rushed him off to the hospital because his skull was swelling. I popped two Ibuprofen and I was good to go.”
Severn won the Ultimate Ultimate ’95, and avenged his loss to Ken Shamrock at UFC 9 the next spring. That was his eleventh pro fight, when he was 38 years old. He would go on to fight 116 more times, facing all of the 100-fight club members (which included Jeremy Horn, a marvel of existence himself). Only in January of 2013, at the refined age of 54, he did call it quits from MMA competition. He remains one of the fight game’s greatest characters.
And that mustache, just like Bert Sugar’s hat and cigar, will follow him to Valhalla.
1994: The Decline of Western Civilization
In 1994, the UFC was happily embracing its “banned” substance. Keith Hackney was involved in two of the most talked about “spectacle” fights of the day, and the Gracie’s still ruled the roost.
The “spectacle” that was the UFC in the mid-1990s could be boiled down to its crudest essences through Keith Hackney. In the grainy back catalogue of the UFC’s unholy early days, Hackney was the central figure in two jaw-dropping instances that today serve to illustrate just how lunatic things actually were.
At UFC 4, against Joe Son, Hackney sent a series of white-knuckle punches into the “please no” area just below the midriff. The 120,000 people who’d paid for the privilege to watch it curled away from their television sets in horror. That emasculation took place in unsuspecting Tulsa, where the crowd walked out speaking in higher pitches than when they walked in.
Hackney’s liberal use of the “no rules” mantra ultimately crippled the UFC’s efforts in the “Dark Ages” to come. When the UFC was being banned all over the U.S. and political pressure was at its greatest — and TCI, the cable provider at the time, took the television platform away — it was Hackney’s assault on Joe Son’s purple coin purse that Leo Hindery, the head of TCI, cited as the ultimate red flag.
Groin strikes were always an endangered species.
Before that piece of dark theater, though, at UFC 3 in Charlotte, Hackney stood in the cage with the 6-foot-8, 700-pound sumo Emmanuel Yarborough. In today’s world of weight classes and other evening measures, the spectacle of that fight has become almost iconic in pointing out the great distance we’ve come from the sport’s absurd origins. Hackney-Yarborough slings us back to the age of troglodytes when showed next to Georges St-Pierre and his cool headband.
“I picked Keith Hackney at the gym in North Carolina,” Art Davie, who at the time co-owned the UFC with Rorion Gracie, remembers. “I had a drop out, and Hackney had flown out on his own, god bless him, and he wanted to be in the event. And I was watching him in the gym using that tiger paw strike of his up against the bag open-handed, and it sounded like a pistol shot. Finally I turned to him and said, you really want to do this? He said absolutely. I said, okay, you’re in.”
Hackney, a native of Illinois, was 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds — an average sized man, in other words. Yet he looked lilliputian in there against the entire mass of sumo, made all the more distracting by his active mullet and Flashdance sweats.
“I had been chasing Yarborough for two shows,” Davie says. “I actually went out to Disneyland and watched him do an amateur sumo event. I met him in the back, and I talked to him for an hour. He was a very reluctant warrior. He was a corrections officer at a Rahway state prison in New Jersey. That was his gig.
“But Yarborough was a very gentle giant, and he was never wired for this in any way. When we put those two guys together, you saw that it popped the door on the Octagon.”
Davie, who was one of the fight game’s great characters with his Cuban cigars, single malt scotches and penchant for detail, was an ex-Marine and one-time amateur boxer. Going back as far as 1969 he had experimented with the fusion of martial arts, when a buddy of his set him up against a wrestler on the beach one day. “That was at Hampton Bays, Long Island, and we got to talking and sparring a little bit,” Davie says. “He said I could do this, and I said I could do that. He took me down in the sand and made me tap, and I thought, what the hell’s going on here? I never forgot that.”
Davie was further enthralled with the concept of disciplines clashing when Muhammad Ali took on Antonio Inoki in Tokyo back in 1976. So the idea had long been festering in him by the time he became the UFC’s original owner/matchmaker, long before he and Rorion Gracie — who came together by “kismet” — became the Heracles and Theseus of the modern day fight game.
And, along with the Semaphore Entertainment Group’s Campbell McLaren, everyone boldly embraced the taboo of No Hold’s Barred fighting. “When Teila Tuli was asking if he could throw people out of the cage, I was the first person saying, yes! When they asked if we could attack the groin, I said, yes!” The more the sport was “banned,” the more that word “banned” was highlighted in the marketing sense to tempt people to peep inside the tent.
And Yarborough/Hackney was the thing going on inside, which was a true voyeur’s delight. Yarborough in his white pants and rolling slabs of chest, stalking towards the spry cat burglar Hackney, who was pushed by he colossus out of the cage with a shove.
“Later on we needed to find a new way to wire that and bolt that cage door, and we did, we re-engineered it,” Davie says. “But Keith finally got him on the ground and had to slam him I forget how many times, but he broke his hand doing it. That was the end of him in that show.”
Thirty-six times, as a matter of fact, before “Big” John McCarthy came to Yarborough’s aid. Hackney hit Yarborough with an open-palmed “white crane” strike, meant to crush the nose cavity into the brain, as Hackney later pointed out, and then pounced when Yarborough lay like a hillock on the ground. Hackney hit the sumo with a barrage of hammerfists, behind-the-head strikes and swooping knuckle sandwiches to put him away.
Today that fight lives in the annals of UFC history like a black truth.
Yet that was a side attraction to what was supposed to happen in Charlotte. That night in the “New South” was supposed to be about an inevitable rematch between Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie from UFC 1. Instead, Gracie couldn’t continue after his quarterfinals fight with Kimo Leopoldo (exhaustion), and Shamrock couldn’t continue after he defeated Felix Lee Mitchell in the semis. The unsexy battle between alternate Steven “Ninja Cop” Jennum and Harold Howard served as the main event of the evening.
Shamrock and Gracie would end up having that rematch seven months later in Charlotte at UFC 5, which signaled the end for Davie and Rorion Gracie’s run as owners of the UFC. In 1995 they sold the company to SEG and Bob Meyrowitz, who would spend the next six years defending the UFC in court trying to keep it alive.
“Meyrowitz even had to hire a criminal attorney, and a civil attorney, to do the event in Charlotte,” Davis says. “The police went to our fighters, including Jennum — who is a sworn police officer from Omaha, Nebraska — and they said if you fight in this event, there’s a possibility we could be arresting you for assault and battery. He would lose his badge as a cop. The political pressure wasn’t going away, that was another reason for selling. I saw Senator John McCain was in the mix, and he was now grandstanding about it.”
And after UFC 5, when Shamrock fought Gracie to a draw, Davie knew it was time to sell, even if he would remain with Meyrowitz and UFC until early 1998.
“I saw that the Gracie’s were finished,” he says. “I knew that we were moving to rules. At UFC 6 I was going to add judges and we were looking at time limits, because we ran over in Tulsa, and we would run over again in Buffalo at UFC 7. At UFC 5, when I yelled to John McCarthy to stand [Royce Gracie and Shamrock] up in the five-minute overtime, Rorion was furious with me, because when John stood them up, Shamrock smacked Royce and his eye blew up. In all fairness, Royce Gracie didn’t return to the Octagon for eleven years.”
Things were of course far different by then. That event was in Los Angeles at UFC 60, under the cool supervision of sanctioning bodies and with a full set of rules. That wasn’t how the Gracie’s drew it up in the day, going back to Helio and Carlos Gracie in Brazil. The primitive idea was no rules, no weight classes, and no excuses, an idea that had played out long before the advent of the Christian calendar in Greece. Davie, Gracie, Meyrowitz and McLaren tried to stay true to that original formula.
“We were inventing it as we went along,” Davie says. “Nobody had done it. You had to go back to pankration, really. And embracing the ‘banned’ thing was the only way to go. Campbell and I were talking the other night, we called each other on the 20-year anniversary on Nov. 12, and Campbell said, ‘do you think Dana White would have ever been interested in this if we hadn’t promoted it as the end of Western Civilization?’ I said, ‘you’re damn right. He’d have never even noticed it! It would have slid off the chart and he’d have never paid attention.’”
But because they did, he did, and in the fragile construct of events that make up this sport’s short history one could not exist without the other.
1993: And in the beginning, the written word
The train of Gracie’s that headed towards the cage at UFC 1 stretched back 50 years to Brazil. But the origins of the UFC can be traced back to a single article in which the author never saw a residual check.
This whole thing — from skinny Royce Gracie at UFC 1 and a $50,000 tournament prize to Usher dishing Anderson Silva advice in a two billion dollar industry — began with an article. One little all-but-forgotten piece that appeared in Playboy back in 1989. It was an article with a simple hedder, “BAD,” in all caps just like that, written by Pat Jordan.
The focus of the piece was Rorion Gracie, the son of Helio, who was the first in the family to spread the gospel of Brazilian jiu-jitsu in the United States. Like his father and his uncle Carlos, Rorion believed that the Gracie brand of fighting was superior to all others. He believed it so much that he issued a public challenge: he’d fight anyone in the United States — no rules, no time limits, fight to the finish (even if that meant the grimmest outcome) — for a winner-take-it all prize of $100,000. He was a chip off the old block, as Helio issued such challenges 30 years earlier in Brazil.
Jordan went to visit Rorion in Southern California.
“I basically went with a guy that nobody knew about and we were in his garage,” Jordan says. “He had a little tiny stucco house in one of those little burgs off of L.A. I did it and Playboy liked it and it didn’t get a lot of play. It wasn’t one of those stories that changed the world.”
Or did it? Art Davie, the cigar wielding ad-man for Mexican brand beer who four years later co-founded the UFC with Rorion Gracie, read the piece. It was that piece that inspired him to begin conceptualizing a tournament in which a sampling of different combative styles would be brought together under a single roof to discover which one was the best. This was a very old pondering, one that had long lived in the psyche; what would happen in a fight between Bruce Lee and Mike Tyson? There were many colorful insights into the idea, and many variations, but never had there been a platform to get at these curiosities.
Davie had been looking for a way.
“Out of all this research I found the article, ‘BAD,’” Davie says. “My secretary brought it into me one day, and said, you’ve been looking for people who were actually doing this in North America, take a look at this. I read the article. And just about that time I had gotten a job through my headhunter to go to work for a direct response ad agency in, of all places, Torrance. It was kismet.”
Rorion was teaching classes in his garage in Redondo Beach at the time, but was opening up a gym in Torrance. Davie, having realized this from the article, went to meet him, and ended up becoming his first student for the new school. From there the idea of the “War of the Worlds” — the original name — began to spring.
Davie got to know the Gracies, and remembers watching Royler take on karate guy from Compton. That was the night he met director/producer John Milius, who wrote Conan the Barbarian and Apocalypse Now, who was also a Gracie student. Milius introduced Davie to Cuban cigars upon catching him fooling with Macanudos (“Milius had a humidor in the trunk of his car,” Davie says), and allowed Davie and Gracie to use his name as a “creative consultant” in bringing to life what would end up being called the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a name so chosen to dwarf and distance single-dimensional boxing.
As the concept evolved — and Davie and Gracie settled on the Octagon for the cage (sans moats or barbed wire, though these were considered)…and a $50,000 prize was established…and Denver instead of Rio de Janeiro was circled to host the first event on a loophole that allowed for bare-knuckle fighting (as advocated by the Sabaki Challenge, a bare-knuckle karate tournament also held in the Mile High City)…and the commentating crew was made that featured NFL great Jim Brown (“We tried for Chuck Norris, but all he kept saying is, and this is legal?,” Davie says)…and a deal with Semaphore Entertainment Group was consummated on the eve of the first event on Nov. 12, 1993, to bring the underground world of no hold’s barred fighting to your living room for $19.95 — so did history.
“I had driven up in the spring, to Denver, and incorporated WOW Promotions as an LLC, so that we could present this to investors,” Davie says. “I got us an attorney and an accountant. I brought my Glock 17 up there and put it in my safety deposit box at the bank, because I figured on the night of the show I’m going to have a lot of cash and checks.”
Davie had a briefcase with him on Nov. 12 at McNichols Sports Arena, with cash, checks and his Glock, which he left in the hands of his PA, Ethan Milius, John’s son. Milius held onto the case through the quarterfinals and semis, but as soon as Royce Gracie choked out Gerard Gordeau to win the first tournament (and change a millennia worth of foolish western notions about fighting), Davie noticed Ethan Milius cheering without the case.
“I looked over to my left, and Ethan was gone, and no briefcase,” Davie says. “The briefcase had the cash, the checks and the Glock. And I finally found Ethan, and he’s all wide-eyed and excited because Royce had won and I’m screaming at him, where’s the f—ing briefcase? Where’s the f—ing briefcase? He had put it down somewhere, but he ran and got it and brought it back to me and apologized. He’d left it in his excitement. Also, I couldn’t get the guy with the giant check to come out, and I’m screaming for that. Where’s the f—ing giant check? It was pandemonium at that point.”
From there the course of history, and the reason I’m writing this, and the reason you’re reading it, and the reason Dana White traverses the globe in the Fertitta jet. The UFC, which was always meant to be a franchise, not a one-off show, got its legs and headed into the world. The owners embraced the barbaric early days when only eye gouging and biting were forbidden. It sold taboo early, and paid for it in the mid-1990s. From Davie and Gracie to Bob Meyrowitz and SEG, the endless court battles. It was accused of being “human cockfighting” by Senator John McCain, a sentiment echoed by everyone from California to New York, and — though there’s never been a serious injury even in those lawless times — perhaps rightfully so.
It survived because of the addition of rules, of time limits and rounds, of officials and judges and education through the Dark Days when it was banned from television, and there was no more PPV dollar. It survived through the UFC 20s on the Internet, through fan enthusiasm, when shows were only going on in the South. It persevered though litigation. It survived to see unified rules, and sanctioning in New Jersey, just as Zuffa came in 2001.
The UFC carried on through every kind of turmoil, every accusation, even through the early-aughts, as states like Nevada sanctioned it, and the enterprise moved back into pay-per-view. It survived scares, like $50 million dollars of Fertitta money that had been sank into its belief, which to any sane person might’ve seemed like a money pit. It survived Tim Sylvia. It began to flourish with the original Ultimate Fighter, a time buy on Spike that produced “drama” with its fighters by introducing “back story.” Suddenly we cared about emotionally unstable Chris Leben and the cocky Josh Koscheck and, upon God’s green earth, poor Jason Thacker sleeping on damp sheets.
It flourished further when Stephan Bonnar and Forrest Griffin put on the fight to bridge a thousand perceptions in the finale. If that fight doesn’t happen as it did, at just the right time, in just the right setting, maybe there is a fourth ownership group today and Dana White is living under the city viaduct, as he says he might’ve been.
By the 21st Century the UFC wasn’t only a “sport,” a hurdle not many people thought would ever happen, but a rapidly growing sport with stars. Soon we had Matt Hughes, Matt Serra, Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre, Brock Lesnar, Jon Jones, Ronda Rousey. There were Nike swooshes and video games and sold-out stadiums in Toronto, shows in Abu Dhabi, Brazil, Australia, Europe. There was FOX, and FOX Sports 1, which came to life because of the UFC. It’s the ultimate redemption story as much as it is the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
The UFC survived every kind of monkey wrench, criticism, accusation, indictment and daily holocaust. Each person involved was an essential link to the next, just as every event informed the next, and every action spoke for the next. From Art Davie and Rorion Gracie to Bob Meyrowitz and SEG’s Campbell McLaren to Nick Lembo, Joe Silva, “Big” John McCarthy and Jeff Blatnik, who coined the term MMA, to the casino owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, and their one-of-a-kind helmsman, Dana White, it all mattered. One to the next.
And it all started with an article about the Gracie heritage. The wild ceremonies of 2013, when the UFC turns 20, can be traced back to a writer.
“I did the story because the whole Gracie family was unique,” Pat Jordan says. “My story was less about the ultimate fighting than it was about the Gracie family going back to the old man in Brazil. The old man was a wild card. That was one of those offbeat stories that just came and sank until [Davie and Gracie] came up with that idea. I’m glad there’s a whole lot of people making a living off of that story.”