In the last two articles, MMA Origins has looked at the integration of different skill-sets, starting with the merging of Muay Thai kickboxing with grappling in Brazilian Vale Tudo in the 1980s. Then in the mid-1990s, Bas Rutten added catch wrestling skills to his vicious striking to form a fighting style that allowed him to claim the King of Pancrase title.
American based fighters lagged behind their Brazilian and Japanese-based counterparts for much of the 1990s. Brazilian Marco Ruas had already shown American fighters what a diversely skilled fighter could do with his tournament championship at UFC 7. But in 1996, the American version of the sport then known as "No Holds Barred" or "Ultimate Fighting" would produce its own well rounded champion for the first time.
UFC 8 would feature the debut of Don Frye into MMA. He wrestled with two powerhouse NCAA programs at Arizona State and Oklahoma State. He earned a second degree black belt in Judo and also had extensive boxing training, including a professional boxing victory in 1989. Frye was not the first American-born fighter in the UFC that had a background in several martial arts, but he was the first to use it to maximize his strengths in the cage.
Frye used his grappling experience to put the fight where he had the greatest advantage, and in his early UFC career, that was striking on the feet. Frye was the first wrestle-boxer and used his striking to win his first two UFC matches by KO in under a minute each. He then defeated the powerful Gary Goodridge to win the UFC Tournament championship.
This success of the well rounded became a trend across all of the budding sports that would become modern MMA, but this was not to say the specialist fighter was a thing of the past. And in the UFC, the specialist would come roaring back with a vengeance in the form of an Ohio State wrestler.
In the year that the Gracies had been out of the leadership of the UFC, the promotion had trended towards larger and larger fighters. UFC 10 was no exception, as all eight fighters competing would have fallen into the modern heavyweight division. Don Frye entered his name in the lists and was considered the favorite heading in, though he faced a tough field with UFC veteran Gary Goodridge and a newcomer, Brian Johnston, who boasted a formidable skill set with boxing, kickboxing and judo experience.
With fighters coming in with such diverse backgrounds, not much attention was paid to Mark Coleman, a wrestler making his No Holds Barred debut. However, Coleman wasn't just any wrestler - he was a truly world class freestyle artist with an NCAA championship, three straight Pan American Championships, and a silver medal at the world championships. On top of the impressive skills Coleman brought into the cage, he had imposing physical strength and a ferocity on the ground many fighters had not seen before.
In the clinch or on the ground, Coleman was always looking for a way to punish his opponent and became famous for headbutts, despite his considerable success with or without them. In his first UFC fight, Coleman made short work of Israeli Moti Horenstein, forcing a tap to strikes in under three minutes. In his next fight Coleman had grueling match with Gary Goodridge. Using his prestigious upper body strength, which was mentioned many times, Goodridge was able to stay on his feet for much of the match by grabbing the cage. At times, he actually walked around the cage with his hands in the fence to prevent Coleman from dragging him to the ground. But Coleman kept up a constant attack, punching whenever the opportunity presented itself and got Goodridge to the ground. Goodridge finally tapped to exhaustion.
On the other-side of the bracket, Don Frye struggled through two very tough fights and met Coleman in the finals. Both fighters were extremely tired, but Coleman clearly had the edge in wrestling and his fatigue seem to disappear once he had Frye on his back. After 11 grueling minutes, the fight was stopped and Mark Coleman had won his first UFC Championship. His superior wrestling had trumped his inexperience and lack of a larger skill set.
Mark Coleman working from the open guard of Don Frye
Just a few months later, Coleman would return to the UFC to defend his newly won crown. The second half of 1996 marks a transitional period for the UFC. Storm clouds had been gathering around the sport for some time and its survival was beginning to become questionable as enemies brought legal pressure to bear on the sport they hated. While the UFC's legal fight for survival will be covered in depth in a future article, we will touch on it here as UFC 11 and Ultimate Ultimate 1996 would be the last events to feature openweight tournaments. It also featured the evolution of new tactics, specifically designed for an MMA context and not hailing immediately from another martial art.
Fighters had begun to train specifically for No Holds Barred fighting and adapting their skills to succeed. UFC 11 featured some of the first methodical use of the cage. In the first round, Lion's Den fighter Jerry Bohlander took on Fabio Gurgel in a classic Brazilian Jiu Jitsu vs Catch Wrestling grappling match. Gurgel is a legendary Brazilian Jiu Jitsu grappler and was soon going to co-create the world famous Alliance jiu jitsu team, but Bohlander had a plan to shut down the Brazilian's grappling. Bohlander constantly pressed Gurgel's head against the cage, taking away his ability to escape his hips, grabbed the cage to prevent takedowns and did everything he could to avoid being on the bottom of Gurgel's control. Bohlander struck from the guard, never doing any serious damage, but clearly controlling the fight and earned the decision victory. With a modern UFC set of rules, Gurgel may have won, but back then, Bohlander did enough to win.
Mark Coleman won a nearly effortless first match, easily taking down Julian Sanchez and then forcing the tap with a neck crank from side control. In his second round match, Coleman would faced Brian Johnson, returning to the UFC after losing to Don Frye at UFC 10. Johnson came out looking to punish Coleman's lead leg with kicks, but would become a case study in why low kicking wrestlers is a bad idea. Johnson landed a few kicks and they clearly effected Coleman, who shook out his leg a few times. However, Coleman was eventually able to catch a kick and take Johnson down. Once on the ground, Coleman pounded Johnson out for the finish and the win.
Mark Coleman applying a neck crank to Julian Sanchez at UFC 11
UFC 11 would be the last numbered event in the promotion's history to feature an eight man tournament and it was a disaster. Bohlander was forced to pull out after his first round win, and both replacement fighters were forced to withdraw. The result was Coleman had nobody to fight in the tournament final and he was awarded the title without having a final fight.
It marked a two event run of dominance for Coleman that is still remembered today for the brutal and dominant fashion which Coleman won. He was not the first man with a wrestling background to win UFC gold, both Dan Severn and Don Frye had wrestled in college, but they both had other skills as well. Severn had submission grappling experience and Frye had both boxing and judo experience. Coleman was the first champion to step directly into the cage off the wrestling mats with no other significant martial arts experience and his success would inspire others to follow in his footsteps. Ultimately, Coleman would prove to the be the vanguard of a wave of collegiate and international wrestlers that would enter the sport seeking the competition and financial rewards that were impossible to achieve in the wrestling world at that time.
This was just the beginning of Coleman's career, but the next time he returned to the Octagon, he would be facing a transformed sport. Storm clouds had gathered and the UFC would need to make changes to make sure the sport survived. In the process, they would create a new era in American MMA. New rules and the addition of weight-classes would change the sport, as would a new generation of fighters. Two of those fighters were present at UFC 11 - but not as fighters. Frank Shamrock and Tito Ortiz both cornered fighters and it would not be long until they took their turn in the Octagon before becoming future rivals and UFC Champions.