Source:UFC® : Ultimate Fighting Championship®
'Real Fighter' Looks Back at UFC I
By Thomas Gerbasi
November 12, 1993. Mention the date to any mixed martial arts fan and you’re almost guaranteed a blow by blow recollection of where the person was on that date, what they were doing, and how they were irrevocably changed by a pay-per-view event – the Ultimate Fighting Championship – that began its transformation into a sport on that day in Denver, Colorado.
Mike Carlson, editor in chief of Real Fighter magazine, was one of those people watching that fall.
“I was rooting for Pat Smith because I was really into Tae Kwon Do at the time,” said Carlson, referring to the hometown favorite who was submitted in the quarterfinal round of the first eight man UFC tournament by Ken Shamrock. “(Royce) Gracie went through everyone, and I’m not a big guy so I like to see a little guy win, but I thought it was a little cheap – just taking a guy down and choking him. I couldn’t figure out why they just didn’t throw a knee when he was coming in, which no one has ever been able to do on Royce Gracie to this day (Laughs), so it took me a couple of UFC’s to sort of come around. But it was intoxicating and addictive. You couldn’t get enough of it. It was unpredictable. You thought these guys were gonna break out some Streetfighter 2 video game moves. You weren’t sure what was gonna happen. And I actually kinda miss that.”
It’s already become imbedded in Octagon lore, but to recap, in the first UFC event, a skinny 175-pounder named Royce Gracie used his family’s unique brand of jiu-jitsu to beat three bigger and stronger opponents and win the eight man, one night tournament. Among those eight participants (there were also two alternates), only Gracie and Shamrock would go on to great success in what morphed into the sport of mixed martial arts. Smith has had a spotty 16-13 career that includes a recent win over former pro boxer Butterbean, and for the most part, the rest of that night’s participants have gone on to live ‘normal’ lives outside of active competition.
But Carlson, along with scores of UFC fans, never forgot them, and when he took the helm of Real Fighter, it was his goal to have the definitive story of that night in Denver told in the pages of his magazine.
“It was really a pet story for me,” he said. “I constantly found myself wondering where a lot of these guys went, and more importantly, what they thought of the sport now. I was curious to see what these guys thought as they watched the sport explode into these million dollar paydays and mainstream endorsements. Secondly, I didn’t foresee any of the traditional outlets being able to pull it off. I think we had the resources and the writers with the vision and the dedication to do this.”
And now they have. On newsstands today (featuring a cover story on former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir), the latest issue of Real Fighter presents an oral history of the first UFC event in the words of all of the participants, both fighters and organizers, on its 15th anniversary. It’s an amazing piece of MMA journalism that was far from easy to put together. Luckily, Carlson called in his big gun for the story, standout MMA journalist Jake Rossen, a longtime veteran of the sport who humbly states that it just took “patience and a little investigative work,” to track down the likes of Gerard Gordeau and Teila Tuli.
“Surprisingly, I thought Gordeau would be one of the most difficult to track down because he’s in Holland, but he turned out to be the first guy I got hold of,” said Rossen, who estimates it took around three months to track down the ten fighters who competed at UFC I, as well as organizers Art Davie and Rorion Gracie.
Once Rossen tracked down this entire cast of characters, then came the painstaking work to put everything into a readable package. After seeing the final piece, it’s safe to say mission accomplished, but it wasn’t easy, considering the sometimes varying viewpoints on particular events, especially a pre-fight ‘contest’ to see which competitor had the hardest punch. But what comes through is the human side of these fighters, some of whom have been subject to unfair ridicule over the years despite their role as pioneers. Yet what is never open to debate is that names like Gordeau, Tuli, Frazier, Rosier, and Jimmerson have become as ingrained in the minds of MMA fans as Gracie and Shamrock.
Rossen isn’t surprised by this phenomenon.
“It seems to me that the sport of MMA tends to make fans for life,” he said. “I don’t know too many people that drifted into it for one or two years and then said ‘ah, it’s boring, I’m done with it.’ Normally,
if someone’s gonna be a fan, they’re gonna be a pretty consistent fan. So all the people that were watching the UFC in 1993-94 or running the tapes in the mid-90s, they’re still watching the show for the most part. The fans made their own narrative and mythology around guys like (UFC II competitor) Fred Ettish, and the fans take some of the circumstances surrounding the shows and just mock them so incessantly that they become part of the fabric of the sport. When Rorion Gracie’s having his kid and his nephew mop up the blood off the canvas in between the fights, it tends to make an indelible impression on a lot of people.”
“This was really unassigned territory,” adds Carlson, “and now there are so many fights that a lot of the fighters can get lost in the shuffle; but back then, it happened once, and there was no internet so it was total word of mouth and people trading VHS tapes. And the events were so few and far between that those fights got watched over and over so many times that those characters got imbedded in everyone’s consciousness.”
And win or lose, they fought. It wasn’t in a competition any of them had seen or participated in before, but they had the courage to do it anyway. In the process, they set the stage for the great fighters to come in the next decade and a half.
“A guy stepping into the UFC now, there’s no question what kind of athlete they are and how much courage it takes to put yourself on the line physically like that,” said Rossen. “But at the same time, if you’re Georges St-Pierre or Anderson Silva, you’ve got a thousand fights to look at and go ‘okay, here are all the possible things that can happen to me in a mixed martial arts fight. Here are all the submissions and all the different ways that I can be knocked out or hurt, and chances are good that nothing new is gonna happen.’ But these guys going into the Octagon at UFC I, they had no idea what was going on. They had no idea if someone could really die in this. I think it’s difficult for people to imagine, and obviously guys today are better athletes and better fighters, but I think to walk into the Octagon at UFC I with no weight classes and no history to go on, I don’t there’s ever been any sportsmen who have had more guts to do what they did.”