'History of MMA' captures sport's 20-year journey in America

Tuesday November 12th, 2013

Sports Illustrated
History of MMA in America

In an undisclosed location in Los Angeles, in a climate-controlled vault piled to its ceiling with old beta SP tapes and hard drives, sits over 5,000 hours capturing the history of mixed martial arts.

This irreplaceable treasure trove of images -- shot and preserved over 17 years by filmmaker Bobby Razak -- could be the largest privately owned MMA footage library in the world. An encapsulation of Razak's collection will be released in 2014 with History Of MMA, a 90-minute feature film that connects the dots between the rise, fall, and second rise of MMA, spanning the humble beginnings of the sport in America to its modern-day success worldwide.

Through his camera lens, the 40-year-old Razak (pictured above, behind camera) has captured more than 20 promotions in over a dozen countries, including Japan, Brazil and throughout Europe. Razak's footage dates to 1996, when he began filming the underground fighting circuit around Los Angeles, but the documentarian has covered virtually all of the big ones and a lot of the smaller ones as well: the UFC, Pride Fighting Championships (Japan), Cage Rage (England), Cage Wars (Ireland), Bellator MMA and the list goes on.

SEGURA: Looking back at UFC 1

Though the mixed-discipline sport has gone through various incarnations dating to the Olympic Games in 648 BC, MMA has only existed in the United States -- via some recorded fashion -- for 20 years. The Ultimate Fighting Championship, born on Nov. 12, 1993, in Denver, Colo., is largely recognized as the starting point for the sport stateside. Back then, it was called No Holds Barred, or NHB; UFC 1 was meant to be a one-off, pay-per-view event engineered by Brazil's jiu-jitsu royal family, the Gracies, to hype their style of combat outside of their native country.

In London, Razak, a budding 18-year-old filmmaker, watched UFC 1 on VHS, then bought the second pay-per-view event a few months later following the first one's surprising overnight success. The son of Fijian immigrants who fled to England on overcrowded "banana boats" to make the most of their newfound independence, Razak grew up in Tottenham, an economically depressed part of North London, where both his parents worked in factories sewing clothes.

Since age 6, Razak had cultivated a love for martial arts of all kinds. At a neighborhood newspaper shop, Razak once begged his father to buy him an expensive magazine with Bruce Lee's iconic Enter The Dragon image on its cover -- a luxury for a family with such limited means. Razak's father did eventually buy the magazine for his son, and Bobby hung the inside poster, with Lee's chest claw-scratched and trickling blood, on his wall. Razak wouldn't see Dragon until he was 13, but by then he'd made up his mind that he'd devote his life to something creative.

Yet, when the time came, finding employment in this field was difficult. "I couldn't get a job in the U.K. and my mom told me if I wanted to make it in something artistic, I'd better go to America," said Razak, who moved to Los Angeles in 1994.

Razak kept a variety of jobs to stay afloat: cinema worker, cold-call stockbroker, personal assistant on film sets and bouncer. Razak bounced for a decade through the ever-changing Hollywood scene.

"I bounced at virtually every nightclub in Hollywood, from the Athletic Club to Backstage to the Ivar -- you name it," said Razak. "It felt weird sometimes; people in the [MMA] industry -- people who only knew me as a filmmaker -- would come through."

Razak also kept his hand on the pulse of the martial arts scene. In 1998 and 1999, he co-promoted two underground MMA events called Neutral Grounds, one of which featured a future UFC superstar named Chuck Liddell. Razak didn't have aspirations to become a promoter -- he ultimately wanted to make an MMA film and needed the money to do it.

"I promoted two events at the Hollywood Athletic Club and the money I raised from those underground events I put into Rites of Passage," he said.

In 1999, Razak cold-called the Hammer House, an MMA gym and team in Columbus, Ohio, that trained featured UFC fighters Mark Coleman and Kevin Randleman.

"Over the phone, I was able to talk them into letting me follow them to Japan for their next fights," said Razak. "Back then, there was no money involved. They were just happy that someone was interested in their story."

With the money he'd raised from Neutral Grounds and other savings, Razak arrived in Urayusu, Japan for UFC 23, where he chased the energetic Randleman behind the scenes until the Ohio State wrestler entered the Octagon for his championship-making turn against Pete Williams. Two days later, Razak and Randleman were in Tokyo to support Coleman, another decorated collegiate wrestler who decisioned 6-foot-8 Brazilian giant Ricardo Morais at Pride 8. At both events, Razak had unfettered access to film wherever he pleased, which allowed him to capture some of the fighters' most private moments behind the curtains in their sanctuary-like dressing rooms.

By this time, the UFC and MMA were under heavy fire in the States. U.S. Senator and future presidential candidate John McCain had become the 90's poster boy for the anti-MMA movement. Working his political connections, McCain vowed to exterminate what he described as "human cockfighting" in America. Ironically, around the same time, Razak worked with Capital Records executive Sidney McCain, Senator McCain's daughter, to secure some of the music for Rites of Passage.

"Her father was trying to bury the sport, while his daughter was helping me get music for an MMA film," recalled Razak. "Whenever I teased Sid about it, she said her career was her own."

Rites of Passage released in 2001 and could be purchased on pay-per-view directly after UFC events. The film also gained Razak the reputation as a serious filmmaker in the sport. Razak began to appear at more and more MMA events. He also began collaborating with Charles "Mask" Lewis, Jr., the co-founder of Tapout, which would become the sport's most successful clothing brand when MMA boomed in 2006. In Lewis, Razak found a kindred spirit.

"Charles and I had very parallel stories -- urban kids of color from impoverished backgrounds who wanted more," said Razak. "We had that connection from where we'd come from and where we were going. We both had big dreams. We looked into each other's souls and knew who the other was."

Though struggling himself to make a living in the sport, Lewis and his partners were tireless givers, sponsoring fighters and others out of their own anemic wallets.

"I don't think people realize what Charles and Tapout did to help keep the sport alive," said Razak. "After McCain, the sport went underground and Charles was supporting a lot of us, including me."

Razak said Lewis, and others like fight manager Ed Soares, wouldn't let him leave shows without a few hundred dollars stuffed in his pockets. Lewis, Soares and others just wanted to encourage the independent filmmaker to keep going, an indicative sign of the sport's family-like atmosphere at the time.

In 2003, Razak and Lewis collaborated on an experimental short film called Pit Fight, which would later become a part of an edgy marketing campaign for Lewis' Tapout clothing line. At the heart of Pit Fight, a bare-knuckled brawl plays out between Pride Grand Prix champion Coleman and striker "Mighty" Mo Siliga on the rooftop of the longer-shuttered Lincoln Heights Jail in downtown L.A. The prison once housed Al Capone and was the site of the "Bloody Christmas" inmate massacre, later depicted in the film L.A. Confidential. The boiler room scenes from the 1984 horror classic, Nightmare on Elm Street, were also shot within Lincoln's walls and the building is rumored to be haunted, something Razak attested to when he, his crew, the fighters, and nearly 100 invited spectators rode through its bowels in the service elevator up to the prison's rooftop.

Lewis brought up the History of MMA project in late 2006, as Razak-directed Tapout commercials flooded breaks between Spike TV's The Ultimate Fighter. Razak now had a decade's worth of material and it was obvious that the sport, on its last legs in early 2001, wasn't going anywhere. Lewis personally funded History until his abrupt passing from a car accident in March 2009. Razak eventually secured other investors, including Streetmade, to finish the project.

Running about 90 minutes, History of MMA produces a whirling collage of images that fans probably haven't seen before. There is one scene from a London press conference in July 2002, where UFC President Dana White, with some hair still on his head, places five $50,000 stacks on the dais with the help of UFC majority owner Lorenzo Fertitta, asking U.K. boxing promoter Frank Warren to make good on a boxing vs. MMA challenge and put his money where his mouth is (Warren never responded to White's attempt to gain the UFC some needed attention overseas).

In another scene, fighters John Lewis, Maurice Smith, and Frank Shamrock stand united at a podium, pleading with the Nevada State Athletic Commission to finally pass MMA regulations in its state. Behind the fighters sit supportive promoters T.J. Thompson, Monte Cox, and Hideki Yamamoto (Pride); another three mostly unsung figures that helped push MMA to the success it enjoys today.

As the UFC and American MMA's 20th anniversary celebrations and tributes roll out this week, they won't include images like these. Yet these were some of the real, overlooked moments that helped MMA to its prominence today around the world. Thank goodness a visionary filmmaker named Bobby Razak was there, usually with lint lining his pockets, to capture them.

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