Saturday, July 13, 2024

The Red Corner: UFC 1 shows promotion's infancy


The Ultimate Fighting Championship has been releasing old videos on its Youtube channel, including its first UFC event held in 1993.

UFC 1: The Beginning, created by Rorion Grace - remember that name - and Art Davie was held Nov. 12, 1993  in the McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Coloradio. The event is 88 minutes long and unlike today’s fight cards that feature 10-12 matches, it hosted a one-night eight-man tournament.

UFC 1 is a good opportunity for new fight fans to watch the promotion at its infancy, as well as a chance for longtime combat sports connoisseurs to relive some old memories.

However, the event is a contrast to the MMA events fight fans know and love. Many modern mixed martial artists have a diverse skill set that includes grappling and striking. Fighters competing in the early UFC tournaments would be experts in one discipline and would result in mismatches where a grappler would win in seconds after taking down their opponent.

Today’s MMA has weight classes and rules to make matches competitive and safe. In the early MMA, you would see 300-pound fighters take on opponents half their size - and sometimes lose.

I had not seen UFC 1 prior to watching it on Youtube. The earliest UFC event I watched was the sixth tournament, with my stepdad back in middle school. At that time there were numerous rumors surrounding the barbaric nature of the  Ultimate Fighting Championship. One of the myths was how the first two events had 1-2 competitors actually die in the octagon.

However the rumors were just that - rumors.

In the UFC’s 27 years in operation, no one has actually died in the octagon. There have been competitors who have died fighting in unsanctioned bouts and in other promotions, but not in the UFC.

Another MMA tall tale is one my stepdad told me. He believed that referee “Big” John McCarthy - known for his delivery of “Let’s Get it On!” before he starts the match - had won the first UFC event and received the honor of refereeing future events because he’s the only man who can physically match the other fighters.

While McCarthy is an imposing fella, a Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt and a former Los Angeles police officer, he has never fought in the UFC. In his book “Let’s Get It On,” McCarthy said he wanted to compete in the first UFC event, but his trainer Rorion Grace advised against his participation. 

Contrary to UFC 1’s moniker of “No Rules,” biting, eye gouging and groin shots were illegal.

Although there were no deaths in the first tournament, UFC 1 had its share of brutal moments. In the first fight, savate expert Geard Gordeau landed a head kick on Teila Tuli that knocked out one of the sumo wrestler’s teeth.

In the end, Royce Gracie, Rorion Gracie's nephew, won the tournament and was named the greatest fighter in the world. While the fights in UFC were not fixed, Royce Grace was easily the favorite to win the tournament. Since his uncle was the co-owner, it wouldn’t surprise me if the matchmakers brought in fighters who they bought Royce could beat. Apparently Mike Tyson was invited to compete but turned down the offer.

As McCarthy once said, the early UFC tournaments were an infomercial for Gracie Jiu Jitsu.

Putting the fighting aside it is interesting to see the nervousness from commentators and fighters during the event. While the Gracies thought it would drum up more business for their jiu jitsu schools, no one could predict the leaps and bounds the UFC would make in the years to come, becoming part of pop culture. There were the "dark times," when Sen. John McCain pushed to have the sport banned in 50 states. It was a rough period for the UFC but I think they've done OK. 

After watching UFC 1, I quickly appreciated the progress the UFC, and MMA as a whole, has made in the last several years. Fans will complain about rules hindering a fighter or referees who stop a fight too early, but during UFC 1, there were at least 2-3 fights where the official let the action go for far too long.

I also appreciate how the sport has evolved to feature more competitive matches, and better production value. UFC 1 was revolutionary when it first aired and it helped elevate mixed martial arts - but the event doesn’t hold up to today’s standards.

If a fight fan decides to watch UFC 1, they should enjoy it for the chaotic, clunky and barbaric mess that it was and not compare it to the MMA cards they see today.

A lot changed in the UFC in the past 27 years, and I think it was for the better.

ufc, ufc 1, mma


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