Sports Illustrated recently took an indepth look at the creation of mixed martial arts with UFC 1 and spoke to eight participants to reflect on the historic event:
Who would win a fight: Batman or Superman? Bruce Lee or Mike Tyson? These are the kind of hypothetical head-to-heads that trigger spirited debates on school buses and in taverns—and seldom get settled. But 20 years ago a trio of calculating entrepreneurs sought some actual answers. Could a taekwondo expert beat up a karate master? Could a wrestler best a professional boxer? Ad executive Art Davie, jujitsu crusader Rorion Gracie and concert promoter Bob Meyrowitz came up with the idea of pitting "eight of the deadliest fighters in the world" against each other in a no-holds-barred, style-versus-style, single-elimination tournament. For a stage, they brainstormed with Hollywood director John Milius (Conan the Barbarian) and settled on a wire cage (the alligator-stocked moat was scrapped), and on the snowy evening of Nov. 12, 1993, the first Ultimate Fighting Championship went off at McNichols Arena in Denver. Promising no rules, no weight classes and no time limits, the night's emcee assured the half-filled house—as well as the 80,000 viewers at home who had forked over $14.95 apiece—that "anything can happen, and probably will." Even death!
All eight participants survived, leaving them—along with the UFC's creators—to tell, two decades later, how those founding questions spawned an entirely new, multibillion-dollar sport.
I THE CASTING CALL
"They look for a champion, and they find me."
ART DAVIE (COCREATOR): We wanted anyone who made sense to fight. I sent out faxes, and, of course, most people ignored me. I wanted Dennis Alexio, the kickboxer who plays Jean Claude Van Damme's brother in Kickboxer, and I offered him $50,000—but he wouldn't do it. Mike Tyson would have cost us a zillion dollars, and we didn't have that kind of money. We tried to get Leon Spinks, the former heavyweight champ who defeated Muhammad Ali. That failed. We finally got Art (King) Jimmerson, the world's Number 10 cruiserweight boxer, who was scheduled to fight Tommy Hearns six weeks after [what would come to be known as UFC 1].
Art Jimmerson (BOXER, PARTICIPANT): They wanted me so bad. They offered me $10,000 at first; then they said, "You're in the top 10 in the world, and we need someone legitimate—we'll double it." My manager and I were like, This will be easy money.
DAVIE: I approached five kickboxing promoters trying to get a top fighter out of Europe.
GERARD GORDEAU (SAVATEUR, PARTICIPANT): They look for a champion in Holland, and they find me.
Kevin Rosier (KICKBOXER, PARTICIPANT): There was a joke in the industry: If you need a fighter, call Kevin; he'll take the fight for nothing. I saw an ad in a magazine, $50,000 to the top man in the tournament. By 1993, I was past my career, but I went. My daughters lived in Denver, so I went out to see them also.
DAVIE: I wanted a sumo wrestler, so I brought in a Hawaiian who'd left sumo [because of an injury].
TEILA TULI (SUMO WRESTLER, PARTICIPANT): I told them, If you give me the money for my funeral, I'll come—I ain't sticking my mom with the funeral bill. As soon as I arrived in Denver, I gotta have that money or else I'm turning back to Hawaii. They gave me like $8,000.
DAVIE: Rorion picked his younger brother Royce to represent the family in jujitsu. And he provided another fighter, Zane Frazier, who was a heavyweight world kickboxing champ.
ZANE FRAZIER (KARATEKA, PARTICIPANT): Rorion and Davie needed to see me fight, so they were coming to watch me at the U.S. karate championships one night that July [before UFC 1]. But I got into a street fight earlier that night with the guy in Bloodsport who Jean-Claude Van Damme's character is based on, Frank Dux. [Frazier claims that he had been teaching classes for Dux and that Dux hadn't paid him; Dux disputes that account and says that Frazier suckerpunched him while wearing brass knuckles.] LAPD came and drew guns on us, put us in handcuffs. Afterward, Davie comes up and asks, "Are you Zane Frazier?" I go, "Yes, sir." He says, "I'm Art Davie of the UFC," and I go, "I'm sorry about this; I'll be able to make bail and fight tonight." And he says, "Never mind. We've seen you fight. You're in the UFC."
DAVIE: Another young fighter told me he was training at a place called the Lion's Den in Lodi, California, and that his teacher, Ken Shamrock, was the man. At the time, Shamrock was over in Japan competing with a wrestling promotion called Pancrase.
KEN SHAMROCK (SHOOTFIGHTER, PARTICIPANT): I grew up in a group home. I was a troubled youth and involved in the streets and different things like that. I lived out of a car. I was a little bit wise to the world.
DAVIE: I got in touch with Ken, and he thought I was talking about a "work." In the parlance of a promoter, a work is roughly six fights where the outcome has been determined by the promoter. A "shoot" is a real event where no one knows who's going to win. [For his eighth fighter, Davie lined up Patrick Smith, who claimed to be 250--0 in taekwondo.]
FRAZIER: When I heard they were going to have a fight with no rules, I drove all the way to Rorion Gracie's office in Torrance [Calif.]. I asked, "Are you really going to have this?" They said, "Oh, yeah." I was so excited, so I started training. I grew up in an all-Crips neighborhood [in Los Angeles], and on Friday nights we would meet in parks and fight. A friend of mine told everybody there that I was going to the UFC and representing the neighborhood, and they said, We'll get him ready. I went back thinking that I was going to fight one guy, but 15 guys jumped on me and started beating me up. That's how I prepared for the UFC.