In this series we've tracked the growth of two martial arts central in the creation of modern Mixed Martial Arts. Starting with the empty hand art of Jujitsu practiced by the Samurai and the grappling of European Knights in the Middle Ages to their modern renditions of Judo and Catch Wrestling. We followed the arts as they switched hemispheres to transform into modern fighting styles. Judo, molded in the hands of the Gracies, turned to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, a gi based grappling style ideal for no holds barred fighting. And catch wrestling was transported to Japan by Karl Gotch, where it became the jacket-less fighting sport of Shooto. These two styles, unaware of each other, would finally collide in a match up in the making since the 1500s.
By 1993, Rorion Gracie had been living in the United States fifteen years and in that time he had established a firm foothold for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in Southern California. He had gone from teaching one-on-one lessons out of a garage to heading up an academy that was bursting at the seams with students. But this growth had been hard fought, literally. The established martial arts community in California was resistant to the this new comer, and Rorion had revived the Gracie Challenge to prove his art's worth.
Even though the art was growing quickly east of the Rocky Mountains few Americans had even heard of Jiu Jitsu, much less had access to a school. The Gracies were also combating the American media's image of the martial artist being a striker training in an Eastern art. Fighting this pre-conception of the American people and proving that grapplers could compete and defeat strikers. Rorion wanted a way to show the whole United States how effective Brazilian Jiu Jitsu really was and thought of the televised Vale Tudo matches in Brazil.
More MMA Origins
Exploring Fight Sport's Ancient Roots | Getting Medieval | Vale Tudo and the Original MMA Rivalry | Carlson Gracie Changes Jiu-Jitsu and Vale Tudo | Catch Wrestling Travels To Japan | American Experiments | Birth of Japanese MMA | Brazilian Warfare | The Gracie Challenge
One of Rorion's students a film maker named John Milius, put the Brazilian in contact with a promoter named Art Davie. Together the three devised a show that would bring Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to the masses and named it the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Rorion firmly believed that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was the most effective martial art for real fighting, so he wanted the matches to be as close to a street confrontation as possible. He insisted there could be no time limits or rounds, but he was eventually talked down to an unlimited number of five minute rounds.
Fights had to be won via knock out, submission or a corner throwing in the towel. Only a barebones set of rules were implemented: no groin shots, no eye gouging and no biting (groin shots would be legalized for the second UFC). The format would be a one night tournament featuring eight fighters, the winner getting a cash prize of fifty thousand dollars. The event would be held on Pay-Per-View TV for just under fifteen dollars.
The details took a great deal of time to hammer out. At one point the tournament was called "The War of the Worlds" and the cage would have a moat around it filled with alligators. One detail that took a great deal of time to decide on was who would represent Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. It did not seem like there should be much of a debate as Rickson was the clear choice. A veteran of both Vale Tudo and street fights, Rickson combined transcendent technique with impressive physical gifts together to overwhelm opponents. And the field that Rorion had assembled was not a group strip mall black belts.
Art Jimmerson was a 26-5 professional boxer who had won an IBC Light Heavyweight Championship and fought for the NABF Light Heavyweight title. Kevin Rosier was a heavyweight kickboxing champion and knockout artist. Zane Frazier was a multiple time international Karate champion and a kickboxing champion at Super Heavyweight. Patrick Smith, an accomplished American kick boxer with black belts in Tae Kwon Do, Kenpo Karate, and Hapkido. And Gerard Gordeau, kick boxer from the Netherlands, was very skilled in Karate, French Savate and the Danish style of Muay Thai.
While the Gracie's confidence against strikers was high, there is certainly a concern when faced with so many decorated strikers the experience and physical ability of Rickson would have be reassuring. But the Gracies decided that Rickson's physical appearance would not convey the message of technique defeating size that they wanted. It was decided the smaller and younger Royce Gracie would represent the Gracie family.
So it was on November 12, 1993 with a huge Colorado snow storm looming over the arena, the first Ultimate Fighting Championship event took place on Pay-Per-View.
Gerard Gordau lands a head kick on the kneeling Teila Tuli
The first fight of the night set the tone of what was to come when Gordeau faced off with Hawaiian born Sumo Wrestler Teila Tuli. The Hawaiian enjoyed a 200 lb advantage over the Dutchman and early in their match the sumo wrestler charged forward. Gordeau gave ground and threw a short uppercut that staggered Tuli, who fell against the cage. Gordau paused for the barest of moments and then threw a vicious soccer kick that sent Tuli's teeth flying into the crowd and followed it up with a smacking right hand. The referee leapt in, called time to allow a doctor to look at Tuli and the fight was stopped.
Even the commentating team made up of Bill Wallace for play-by-play, American female kickboxing great Kathy Long and NFL superstar Jim Brown was in momentary shock by the violence of the first match. This was unlike anything American audiences had seen before. Neither the Boxing vs Judo match of the 1960s nor Ali's fight with the Japanese Pro Wrestler had reached this level of violence, and this was just the opening seconds of the UFC. This was truly Vale Tudo, or No Holds Barred, fighting come to the United States.
The next fight paired kick-boxers Kevin Rosier and Zane Frazier against each other in the UFC's first slobber-knocker of a stand up war. Frazier started strong, but after a few minutes both fighters faded and Rosier landed several overhand rights and finished the fight with head stomps.
Royce Gracie takes the mount against Art Jimmerson
Next up was Royce against the boxer, Art Jimmerson who famously was allowed to wear one boxing glove into the Octagon. While many remember Royce as the clear underdog in this tournament, the commentary team was very educated in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and clearly predict that Jimmerson would be hurt by the limitations of boxing.
Jimmerson was also aware that Royce wanted to shoot for a takedown and Jimmerson, like so many strikers who took the Gracie challenge, froze in front of the Gracie and didn't throw strikes. Royce took the boxer down, and Jimmerson panicked and tapped out to the mount position.
The final quarterfinal match featured Ken Shamrock, who was trained in Shoot-fighting, a direct evolution from the catch wrestling brought to Japan by the great catch wrestler Karl Gotch. Shamrock was easily able to take down the imposing Patrick Smith who, despite his claim that he felt no pain, screamed as he tapped out to Shamrock's heel hook. This set up a semi-final in which Brazilian Jiu Jitsu would come face to face with Shoot fighting for the first time. It is a true clash of MMA's most dominate early forms of fighting.
Shamrock was clearly confident, believing that nobody at this event was anywhere near the level of competition that he faced in Japan in Pancrase matches. His shoot fighting style was a grappling style that did not use a gi, emphasized foot locks and was not focused on positional dominance. In short, it was very similar to the Luta Livre fighters that the Gracies had been battling for the better part of forty years. They had been adapting their martial art for years to deal with aggressive, catch wrestling based grapplers. Japanese shoot fighting was in its infancy and had never encounters an art as technical on the ground as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu or one that placed such importance on position.
Royce Gracie playing guard against Ken Shamrock (UFC 5)
So in the match when Royce pulled guard and Shamrock dropped for a foot lock, Royce was expecting the attack and used Shamrock's momentum to carry him to the mount position. This is a classic example of the idea of a fighter putting submission before position, Shamrock surrendered the top position in a hasty effort to lock up a submission. Then as Shamrock attempted to force his way to his feet, Royce flowed from his mount to side turtle and once Royce had his weight firmly on Shamrock, he locked up a gi choke to end the match.
This first meeting between the Gracies and the Japanese influenced branch of Catch Wrestling went to the Gracies through superior preparation. Their losses against Luta Livre fighters had clearly born fruit here as Royce was clearly prepared for Shamrock's style of grappling. While very gracious in defeat, Shamrock was clearly baffled by what had just happened to him.
In the other semi-final Gordeau quickly overwhelmed a tired Rosier, first with leg kicks and then with elbows for the stoppage. In the final match Royce was able to clinch with Gordeau, take him down and easily apply a rear naked choked for the win. Royce would hold on to the choke well after the tap, later saying that Gordeau had bitten his ear earlier in the fight and he wanted to teach the Dutchman a lesson.
The UFC was a smashing success for Rorion Gracie, it inspired a whole generation of American martial arts to begin training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and turned Royce Gracie into an American martial arts icon. It had the unintended side effect of creating huge American interest in not just Jiu Jitsu but No Holds Barred fighting as well. It seemed for almost every one person that wanted to do Jiu Jitsu there was another who was more interested in No Holds Barred fighting.
While UFC 1 sparked interest, in the mid-90s the promotion would remain little more than a very elite tough man competition when compared with what was happening in Japan and Brazil.
For more information on the creation of the first UFC: