So, for those who have completely failed to keep up on the history of MMA, or more concisely, the history of the UFC, it's worth noting that, at the time of UFC 1, the big name in the Gracie family was Rickson. He was considered the family's top dog in the infamous "Gracie Challenge Matches" that the Gracies had been putting on in California in the late 80s and early 90s. Even back in 1989, when Playboy ran this article highlighting Rorion Gracie, and their Gracie challenge, it was Rickson being trumpeted as "the best in the world." So, why wasn't it Rickson fighting at UFC 1, he was the obvious choice, and everyone involved knew it.
One side of the story, was Rorion's idea of just how impressive it would look when a 170 lb guy in his pajamas tapped out much larger, stronger men with ease. The other side of the story, however, is money, and by Art Davie's account, quite a lot of money. He spoke to MMAJunkie Radio about dealing with Rickson, and Rickson's exorbitant demands that led them to stick with Royce as their Gracie champion. (transcription via mixedmartialarts.com)
"Rickson wanted a million dollars. He said, ‘You and Rorion are making the big bucks. I want a million dollars.' I said, ‘We ain't making that kind of money, and we ain't paying that kind of money.'"
"Rickson had really prepped Royce, so whatever the problems they had that I wasn't aware of had been put under the carpet. In a very real sense, Rickson had put his spine into Royce's back. At the show, I heard later on from Todd Hester, the publisher and editor of Gladiator Magazine, that Royce had lost it in the rehearsal. He was down on his knees crying, and Rickson was cradling him like a father. He said Rickson was holding him, like a dad holds his son, and comforting him."
"The three most unhappy guys (after UFC 1) at the Monster's Ball on Saturday night were Pat Smith, who'd gotten caught in an ankle lock by Ken Shamrock, and Ken Shamrock, who couldn't believe that a 175-pound guy in a gi had made him tap out. And the third guy was Rickson Gracie."
There's no doubt that the first UFC event was a huge success, both for the investors who'd managed to pull the event together and for the fighters who ended up finding success in the octagon. Most particularly, the event was the first step in the ascension of Royce Gracie from a footnote in his brother's Playboy interview, to the most famous and most recognized fighter to carry the Gracie family name in his generation. It's hard to even imagine at this point, how the ascension of the UFC and with it the ascension of BJJ in the US might have changed with Rickson at the helm. More than likely it wouldn't have been a major difference, but considering the heights to which it elevated Royce, Rickson's salary demands may have ultimately cost him a lot more than the $50,000 check Royce got for winning it all.