MMA History VII: A New Phase in the UFC

So for this installment I've decided to cover the UFC in 1995 and in the next installment I'll cover what happened in MMA outside the UFC in 1995 (except for Rickson Gracie's return visit to Japan which I've already covered). As always I can't pretend to be writing comprehensive history in a blog post but am trying to give a quick survey of the major milestones in the evolution of the sport.

We've already discussed the way the first UFC amounted to a collision of the Gracie Jiu Jitsu style -- honed in Brazil and Los Angeles in the vale tudo matches and gym challenges of 1980's and early 1990s -- with the Japanese shootfighting style that evolved out of pro-wrestling. The meeting resulted in the triumph of the Gracie style and its emphasis on maintaining dominant position over the shootfighter's tendency to go for submissions without considering position. Rickson's fights in Japan confirmed what his brother Royce showed in the USA.

After UFC 1, Royce went on to triumph over a number of challengers in the next three UFCs. He beat karate fighters, kung fu experts, traditional judokas, big brawlers, and even a 260 pound free-style wrestler. Strikers had yet to make an impact in the UFC. Very few fans in America had yet heard of capoeira stylist Mestre Hulk's shocking win over BJJ ace Amaury Bitetti at the Desafio event on New Year's Day, 1995.

That brings us to UFC V in April, 1995.

I do a detailed run-through the UFC events of 1995 in the extended entry but wanted to do a quick summary and show a couple clips up top. Royce left the UFC and no single fighter would dominate to a comparable extent until Frank Shamrock from 1997-1999. Ken Shamrock was the SuperFight champion and Dan Severn, Oleg Taktarov, and Marco Ruas all won tournaments. But a fighter who never quite managed to walk away with the belt excited the fans like none other: Tank Abbott. A brutal brawler who proved that raw power had a place in the sport. He was also the first fighter to wear modern MMA gloves in the cage.

Shamrock and Taktarov showed submission skills were still essential but Severn made a strong case for the utility of amateur wrestling technique in the cage. Ruas was the first really effective striker in UFC history -- winning the UFC 7 finale with the then novel technique of muy thai leg kicks. But Ruas was also an accomplished student of the ground game, winning with subs as well.

The UFC closed the year with an exciting concept -- an "Ultimate Ultimate" tournament that would feature the toughest fighters from past events. Unfortunately the execution didn't match the concept.

As Matt McEwen of 411 Mania wrote about UFC V:

They had the biggest audience they had ever had - or would in the next decade - for the biggest match up they could possibly put on......and they blew it to put it nicely. It was bad enough that the huge Gracie vs Shamrock showdown was the longest borefest the UFC had seen, but there were not even judges to at least attempt to render a winner. In a much smaller PPV universe, they achieved a milestone with nearly 260,000 buys. A blessing in one way, it was a curse in another. By introducing time limits but not judges, ties were an inevitability, and unfortunately our first one was the biggest fight they had ever put on. On top of that, having that fight be awful turned off a massive amount of those 260,000 people who paid to see the "fight of a lifetime." The UFC had reached a zenith, and a slow downfall was about to begin. On top of disenchanted fans, this was the final UFC that involved WOW, and by extension, they Gracie family. With new rules and time limits that moved the competition outside of their comfort zone, Rorion Gracie and Art Davie sold their interest to SEG, which became the sole owners and operators until they sold to Zuffa. With WOW out of the picture, Royce Gracie, the face of the UFC, left as well. It was essentially a perfect storm of hurdles to try and get past: an angry fan base, new ownership trying to put their stamp on the product, and doing so without their biggest star.

So the first UFC of 1995 saw the bursting of the Royce Gracie bubble of invincibility. It also saw Ken Shamrock turtling in Royce's guard for 30 minutes, thereby inventing the LayNPray. Watch the final overtime period of the Shamrock vs Gracie rematch. That wasn't the only way UFC V pointed to the future. Dan Severn, the wrestler who pushed Royce to the limit at UFC IV, rolled through the tournament.

McEwan continues:

Competition wise, the tournament this time around showed the dominance of the wrestlers was beginning. Dan Severn won, and did so fairly impressively, but even Dave Beneteau - again a lifelong but not elite wrestler - was able to advance out the preliminary ranks and make it to the finals. Strikers were still unable to deal with being taken down, and non-wrestling style grapplers did not seem to have an answer for the pure brute strength and speed a wrestler seemed able to put forth.

Here's a nice little highlight reel of Dan Severn that includes a great deal of his early UFC work. Note all the cage holding and knees to the head, moves that are not legal in modern MMA.

But as McEwan wrote on Severn:

The wrestlers continued their general dominance again, as no one seemed to have an answer for how to deal with Severn's ability. If he had developed any real submission or striking game, Severn very well could have been the most exciting fighter the UFC had seen yet. Instead, with his inability to finish fights, he was quickly becoming a symbol for what was wrong with the UFC at this point. Fans were tuning in to see exciting fights, and wrestlers who could not punch were not delivering.

Severn entered the UFC VI SuperFight a huge favorite over Ken Shamrock. Unfortunately he hadn't learned even the most basic submission defense and fell into a guillotine choke. Meanwhile Oleg Taktarov laid down a strong marker for Russian Sambo with a ballsy run through the tournament. But the story from UFC VI wasn't the Superfight winner or even the tournament winner. It was a man who called himself "Tank".

As McEwan writes :

On July 14, 1995, Oleg returned to The Octagon and became UFC 6 Champion after defeating Tank Abbott in the final. David "Tank" Abbott entered the tournament at 265 lbs compared to Oleg’s 205 lbs. Abbott also boasted a bench-pressing career best of 625 lbs and was classified as a "pitfighter". Pitfighting is illegally-organized street fighting between two contenders who back themselves, usually with an entry fee of $500 each, where the winner takes all. In Tank’s first bout, he KO’d John Matua in 21 seconds. His second bout stretched out to 1.51 over Paul Varelans, after the referee stopped the fight. The championship fight between Oleg and Abbott (video) was another story. Some critics regard this battle as one of the greatest fights ever, with Oleg choking out Abbott seventeen minutes into the bout. "Willpower is most important to me. In my case, I’m not the biggest, or the strongest fighter, but I won my best fights because of willpower." says Taktarov.

Here's good HL reel of Oleg Taktarov that shows both his heart and his slick submissions.

Tank wouldn't return for UFC VII though and the Shamrock/Taktarov SuperFight was a bore, featuring more of the Shamrock LayNPray. Oleg showed a lot of heart but not much else. But an intriguing new fighter made his UFC debut: Marco Ruas.

Ruas sliced through the UFC VII tournament with no real difficulties, although the 6'8" Paul Varelens proved a challenge:

Quick start as Varelans comes right at Ruas. Lots of punches and nice combos with leg kicks by Ruas. The clinch up against the fence and Ruas manages to block Varelans knees. He gets a little distance and bloodys Varelans' nose with a right hand. More leg kicks, and welts are starting to form on the left (front) leg of Varelans, so much so that he switches stances for a bit.

Ruas shoots, but Varelans goes for a guillotine, and even picks Varelans up off the mat trying to cinch it in. He can't do it though, and Ruas grabs the clinch this time. More foot stomps, and Varelans really doesn't like them very much. Ruas tries to take his back, and finally does. He has his hands locked around the big man's waist, and his offense at this point consists of more foot stomps, while Varelans just holds onto the fence to stay up. Not that exciting at this point, as they spend about five minutes in this position.

Big John restarts them eventually, and Ruas starts throwing nasty leg kicks again. By the ten minute mark, Varelans is limping noticeably. They clinch, but Ruas fights him off and lands another leg kick. Varelans finally starts trying to block those kicks, but he is a bit too slow and a lot too late. A HUGE leg kick drops the Polar Bear and Ruas pounces on him with rights and lefts to earn the stoppage victory and the UFC VII championship. Great overall performance by Ruas in victory, and Varelans showed a lot of skill and heart in defeat here.

Here's a Marco Ruas HL clip

So it was an up and down year for the UFC. But fortunately for MMA fans, several other events emerged in the U.S. and globally that would prove just as significant for the history of MMA. Next: What else happened in 1995?

Previous installments of MMA History:

XXII: Catch Wrestling and Kazushi Sakuraba's Early PRIDE Run
XXI: The Amazing UFC Championship Run of Frank Shamrock

XX: Kazushi Sakuraba and Frank Shamrock Emerge at Ultimate Japan
XIX: The Humbled PRIDE of Nobuhiko Takada
XVIII: The Losses of Luta Livre
XVII: The Lion's Den Roars
XVI: Rico Chiapparelli and the RAW Team
XV: Pancrase, RINGS, and Shooto 1996
XIV: Boom and Bust in Brazil
XIII: Coleman Gets His Kicks
XII: End of the UFC Glory Days
XI: Carlson Gracie's Mighty Camp
X: The Reign of the Wrestlers
IX: Strikers Attack
VIII: From Russia With Leglocks
VII: A New Phase in the UFC
VI: A Dutch Detour
V: The Reign of Royce
IV: Rickson Brings Jiu Jitsu Back to Japan
III: Proto MMA Evolves Out of Worked Pro Wrestling in Japan
II: The Ur-Brazilian MMA Feud: BJJ vs Luta Livre and the Style They Never Saw Coming
I: UFC 1 Pancrase meets BJJ

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