Though I've talked in my last two installments about how strikers and wrestlers were making a big impact, they were still challengers to the pre-eminent styles: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Japanese Shoot Wrestling.
At the time skilled grapplers with real fight experience were few and far between. Even fewer fighters could afford to train MMA full-time. The few fighters who could afford the luxury of training with elite coaches full-time dominated MMA. And while several tough training camps existed, by 1996 two had emerged as the most dominant: Carlson Gracie Jiu Jitsu and Ken Shamrock's Lion's Den. I'll talk about the Lion's Den more in an upcoming post.
Carlson Gracie took over from his uncle Helio as the family champion in 1955 and fought some 20 MMA fights in the 50's and 60s. His academies produced the greatest champions of Sport BJJ from the 1970's through the 1990s. Naturally his students played a big role in 1990s MMA. I've already talked about the legendary 1991 Desafio event organized by Carlson's student Wallid Ismail and its 1995 sequel where CG's Amaury Bitetti lost a stunner in the finals. At first they mostly fought in Brazil where they dominated their traditional Luta Livre rivals but soon they began fighting in Japan and the U.S. and proved that they could hang with the best in the world. And unlike the Helio branch of the family (Royce, Rickson, Royler) which clung tightly to its "undefeated" reputation, the Carlson guys were willing to go out there, get their asses kicked and come back for more. There's no better example of that than Bitetti who bounced back from his brutal loss at the 1995 Desafio by taking a last minute offer to fight Don Frye at UFC 9. UFC 7 Champ Marco Ruas had been rumored for the match but dropped out at the last minute. The undersized Bitteti didn't blink and put on a hell of a fight against the much bigger Frye. Well he took a hell of a beating anyhow. You can see the latter half of the fight here. It was a monumental display of heart but also showed that BJJ did not confer invincibility.
I've already discussed Igor Zinoviev's shocking upset of Carlson student Mario Sperry. But true to his mentor's warrior ethic, Sperry got back in there, winning 4 straight in 96-97 including winning an eight-man tourny in Australia beating a field that included the Lion's Den's Vernon "Tiger" White, Elvis Sinosic and Chris Haseman.
Unlike Sperry, Marcus "Conan" Silveira did what he was expected to do and won handily at Extreme Fighting and went on to defend his belt at EFC 2. But then he ran into Maurice Smith. Smith, a kickboxing champ who had been fighting in Pancrase with mixed results proved more than prepared for Conan's power and BJJ. Smith basically wrote the book for strikers in MMA in this fight. He used the defensive grappling skills he had picked up in Pancrase and RINGS and survived 2 rounds of Conan's onslaught, then in the third he fought back to his feet and stalked an exhausted Conan. The video clip below is just the final kick to the head, but its all I could find. ARGGG!
For the main of it, Conan shot in and Maurice shot back, an uppercut and a kick firing in the aftermath of the shoot- and many more kicks, indeed! Silviera developed a welt on his left leg from the accumulation of blows. The one successful clinch and near-mount was defeated as Smith reversed and landed in Conan's guard, striking incessantly, and Silviera's only other shining moment in the bout- a score of uppercuts - rendered impotent by Smith's superb defensive coverage and devastating kicks to the body, backed by shots to the face, and finalised in a series of expertly-explayed Thai leg strikes. The final blow came in the third round, catching Conan completely off guard and sending him reeling back against the fence, utterly disoriented -- out on his feet!
The same month that Smith KO'd Conan, another Carlson student made his debut. Unlike Conan, or even Bitteti who had trained a great deal of boxing, this one had dynamite hands. His name? Vitor Belfort.
Vitor Belfort vs Jon Hess
There's more on Carlson student Murilo Bustamante's epic war with wrestler Tom Erikson in the extended entry.
While it may be a bit stale to the modern MMA fan -- the fight single-handedly makes the case that weight classes are essential -- this old review from Death Valley Driver gives an idea of how it was appreciated at the time:
THE FIGHT: When Erikson wants to take the fight to the ground, he does. Bustamante has no hope of countering Erikson’s jackhammer shoot or Greco Roman power. So the fight goes to the ground early and stays there with Erikson in the guard. And as the minutes tick by, the big Boilermaker still looks fresh, landing sporadic short blows to the face, but Bustamante in unfazed. In fact, it soon becomes apparent that Erikson has no great advantage on the ground against the skillful defensive guard of the smaller Brazilian! Bustamante is so adroit at using his hips and feet to maneuver his opponent that he’s landing solid blows of his own, *from his back*, against a world-class wrestler who outweighs him by at least 50lbs. As the fight approaches 20 minutes, Erikson is growing frustrated by his inability to successfully ‘ground and pound’ this fuzzy little bastard, but he’s doing favorably in the war of attrition. Erikson tries to pass the guard on at least 20 occasions, but can never maintain an advantageous position for long before falling back into the guard. At 30 minutes, there is a break, with a 10 minute overtime to follow. Bustamante’s face is battered by Erikson’s clubbing blows, but remains confidant. Erikson flings Bustamante to the ground, but winds up in the dreaded guard again. In an amazing turn of fortune, Tom Erikson, one of the most feared wrestlers in the world of MMA, simply stands up, takes a step backwards, and dares Murillio to follow him to his feet! Just think about this for a moment - one of the best wrestlers in the world, a man who had been utterly dominant on three separate continents, is REFUSING TO WRESTLE with a man he outweighs by more than 70lbs! Bustamante grins from his back and slowly butt-scoots towards Erikson, beckoning the big American to try his luck in the guard again, but Big Tom stands still as a statute, his hands raised in the classic, ‘Put up your dukes’ pose. Finally, Bustamante clambers to his feet, but immediately collapses as Erikson closes in. Erikson clearly wants Bustamante to stand so that he can utilize his Greco-Roman background and fling the smaller man to the ground, hopefully landing outside the dreaded Bustamante guard. Bustamante has no intention of allowing the bigger man to flip him like a pancake, and flops to the canvas at the first sign of danger. As the minutes tick by, Erikson suddenly develops a strategy. Bustamante can butt-scoot to his heart’s content, but Big Tom isn’t going to be drawn into a groundfight. Instead, Erikson shoots in on the prone Brazilian, lands a few clubbing strikes to the head, and quickly backs out to his feet. After several minutes of this draining hit-and-run, Bustamante is clearly showing the wear and tear of a good whoopin’ on his handsome Brazilian visage. As the clock expires for the 10 minute overtime, the giant Erikson looks winded, but unscathed, while the smaller Bustamante has serious swelling on the left side of his face from those repeated flurries. After 40 minutes of grueling competition, MARS wisely decides there is only one possible outcome for these proud warriors. A draw is announced, but Erikson, clearly in awe of Murillio’s magnificent technique, holds the Brazilian’s hand up to the cheers of an appreciative crowd. One of the most phenomenal displays of dueling techniques ever placed on display in the history of MMA, this match is an absolute jewel for the serious connoisseur of the fighting arts.
Carlson Gracie Heavyweight Carlos Barreto made his MMA debut in 1996 as well taking out Russian champ Mikhail Illoukhine at Universal Vale Tudo Fighting 1, beginning a string of wins and a heady helping of hype. You can watch the whole event here -- conveniently translated into Chinese. After Bustamante's brave performance against Erikson, many MMA fans believed that if the wrestlers' size advantage was neutralized, then BJJ would prove superior. We'll talk about Barreto's first meeting with a big wrestler in a future installment.
In sum, Carlson's team was in kind of difficult spot in the early years of the MMA explosion. They were always expected to win and when they did it was no big deal. Instead the fights that are remembered are their defeats: Igor Zinoviev over Mario Sperry, Hulk over Bitteti, Maurice Smith over Conan. Nevertheless, at the end of 1996 they were a huge force in MMA and with Bustamante as their champion and rising stars in Vitor Belfort and Carlos Barreto, knowledgable fans expected big things from Carlson's camp.
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