Royce Gracie (far right) on stage in Rio with UFC contender Vitor Belfort and champs Anderson Silva, Jose Aldo and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua.
The UFC was originally designed to showcase Royce Gracie and his Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fighting style. Royce's older brother Rorion was one of the co-founders of the UFC and he handpicked Royce, a singularly unintimidating individual, to show that BJJ was truly a martial art whose secrets could empower a smaller weaker man to defeat a larger, stronger one.
Royce certainly offered up proof of concept as he won tournaments at UFC 1, 2, and 4 and battled Ken Shamrock to a thirty minute-plus draw at UFC 5. In the course of those events Royce beat shootfighters, kickboxers, wrestlers, brawlers, kung fu fighters, karatekas and completely turned the martial arts world on its head.
He left the UFC in a dispute over money and didn't return until 2006.
A couple of years after Royce left a desperate SEG owned UFC went to Brazil to avoid scrutiny from American authorities and held and event that saw then middleweight (now light heavyweight) champ Frank Shamrock defeat John Lober in a rematch and young Brazilians Vitor Belfort and Wanderlei Silva go at it.
When Royce returned at UFC 60 he headlined the UFC's biggest ever Pay Per View up to that point. Royce lost badly to Matt Hughes, but his return caught the attention of many casual fans who had watched the early UFC's in the 1990s and tuned out in the dark ages. In conjunction with Tito Ortiz' series of wins over Gracie's old rival Ken Shamrock, Hughes' win over Gracie gave the new generation legitimacy in the eyes of fans.
When Dana White and Zuffa held a UFC press conference to announce their return to Brazil in 2011, Royce was a on the podium with current Brazilian UFC champs Mauricio Rua, Anderson Silva, Jose Aldo and contender Vitor Belfort. Royce told reporters that his return to the Octagon for the event was "in negotiations".
Jake Rossen offers odds on who Royce might face:
Ken Shamrock (10-1)
Good story, terrible fight. Shamrock may be so scorched that he probably can't shoot a takedown, which would mean Royce would try to drag him down in his guard. But Shamrock allegedly owes Zuffa court fees over a contract dispute, and this would be one way of working it off. (Biggest obstacle: Gracie would have to drink a ton of water to weigh in at the minimum 186 pounds for a fight at 205.) Maybe more appropriate for the 20th anniversary of the UFC in 2013, but that assumes Shamrock isn't in traction by then.
Kazushi Sakuraba (12-1)
He split two fights with Gracie, including a 2000 bout that, at 90 minutes, was "The Godfather" of MMA matches. Getting him would require negotiating with Dream/Japan, and although that's not impossible, it's probably not worth the hassle.
Matt Hughes (20-1)
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today ...
He also offered odds on the following: James Toney (60-1), Roy Jones Jr. (100-1), Yoshihiro Akiyama (10-1), Wallid Ismail (3-1).
It's pretty much impossible for me to wrap my head around Royce fighting in 2011 so I can't even speculate on who might be a likely opponent. Of those that Rossen listed, my vote goes with Ken Shamrock if only as a way to help Ken get out of debt to the UFC. Both fighters are so old and shot that it seems like the least dangerous alternative. I certainly have no desire to see Royce battered by a young bruiser like Akiyama.