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Founder Art Davie talks birth of UFC, Chuck Norris, more

Art Davie is a fast talker, but not that fast. Not anymore, at least.

Back in the early 1990s, though, he must have made the words fly with the urgency of a whirring speedbag in a dank gym where combative sportsmen pound their puffed-out chests. The longtime advertising man -- “a Don Draper type,” according to the man himself -- had come up with the idea of resuscitating an occasionally attempted, universally flawed quest to answer an existential question: Which martial art is the true alpha? Davie just had to sell it to someone.

In his marketing research, Davie read about a tight-knit clan of Brazilians who’d brought with them to America a family recipe for jiu-jitsu that they were willing to defend to the death. Or at least until someone gets choked unconscious. The Gracies had set up shop in Torrance, Calif., where they taught their style of submission grappling, originally out of a family member’s garage, and occasionally were called upon to test themselves against martial artists of other disciplines who were bold enough to walk though their door. If you took part in what was known as the Gracie challenge, you went mano a mano until someone surrendered. That someone never was a Gracie.

Davie became a student of the oldest brother at the burgeoning academy, Rorion Gracie, and the onetime Marine from New York eventually unleashed his black belt gift of gab on Gracie. He talked him into transforming the proud family’s informal challenge into a spectacle, a one-night tournament to determine who’s truly the best fighter in the world. Davie had to talk even faster than that to get a pay-per-view outfit involved and to recruit fighters from around the world and from various martial arts backgrounds -- from boxing to sumo, kickboxing to submission grappling, and beyond.

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But eventually, against all odds, it all came together. And on Nov. 12, 1993, the Ultimate Fighting Championship made its debut.

Davie tells the story of the genesis of the UFC in Is This Legal? (Ascend Books), his new book co-written with Sean Wheelock, play-by-play man for Bellator MMA. The book’s title comes from the reaction Davie got to the UFC concept from a martial arts celebrity he and his partners approached to be part of the first telecast. That anecdote was a jumping-off point when Davie recently sat down for a conversation with Everybody tells Chuck Norris jokes with the punch line being some variation of how tough he is. Yet when you tried to get him involved in the first UFC event, he was kind of freaked out, no?

Davie: Yes, he was. He was asked to be the commentator, and he did pass. And I understood. He represented traditional martial arts, as far as the public was concerned, and given his success in films and TV, I think he felt he had a certain position to protect. His concern was that this type of event, which had been bandied about for years, might draw official attention that would cause it to be banned. So I think he was concerned about being involved in something that may or may not be legal.

At least you got a book title out of it.

Absolutely! [Laughs] Years later, by the way, I was pitching Norris a scripted show, and I was in his house with writers, lawyers and agents. And at one point there was a lull in the conversation, someone mentioned the UFC, and Chuck turned and faced me and said, 'You know, I was wrong about that 11 years ago.' I thought that was a pretty classy thing to do, to admit that in front of a bunch of people.

Legality aside, traditional martial artists initially were resistant to this mixing of martial art disciplines, right?

Well, there was a groundswell of interest among some martial artists, among fans of films like Enter the Dragon, and among young people who were playing the Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter video games. But no one had ever pulled it off successfully. A guy in Hawaii named Tommy Lee ran two events that involved Muay Thai and you could do throws, and there was pinning on the ground. He didn’t do well financially.

There also were the impromptu matches, similar to the Gracie challenge. [Muhammad] Ali vs. [Antonio] Inoki in ’76. Gene LeBell vs. Milo Savage in ’63. They were disappointing.

Why was that?

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You try to get two martial artists together, in some sort of mixed match, and first they argue about the money, then they argue about the rules. There was a general feeling that these types of fights didn’t work. When I was looking for fighters for the first UFC, I called on 38 organizations, boxing gyms in Detroit and Philadelphia, gyms in Holland well known for Muay Thai, sumo organizations in Japan, and people’s first reaction was, are you casting for a film? No, no, I told them, this is a real event.

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The other reaction you got, you say in the book, was that this was bad for the martial arts.

That’s true. Jim Coleman, the executive editor at Black Belt magazine, called it dirty fighting. And a lot of people who ran traditional martial arts academies wanted nothing to do with us. They knew it could harm their business. Their business was dependent on them telling students that what they were teaching was the best fighting discipline. Well, what if they entered our event and didn’t do well? Their credibility would be damaged.

That makes the Gracie challenge, with their willingness to take on anyone at any time, sound even more badass. Who would have expect that putting together a field of eight martial artists would be your toughest obstacle?

Well, actually, it wasn’t. Getting good fighters in various styles was difficult, but the real difficulty I faced was in arranging a television deal. I knew that if we weren’t on TV, this wasn’t going anywhere. I wanted to be on pay-per-view, but HBO turned me down and Showtime turned me down. So did ESPN. Finally, in April or May of ’93, we began working with Semaphore Entertainment Group. But we didn’t sign the deal until the day of the event.

That’s cutting it awful close.

We had been negotiating, and I found out from one of the SEG executives that without a signature on that contract, they couldn’t do the PPV. So it became a game of chicken. I thought to myself, let’s see how far we can go with this, and I insisted that while we would pay the fighter purses for the first UFC event, SEG should pay the purses for the other four events in our contract. I told them, you guys are funded by BMG, Bertelsmann Music Group, the largest privately held entertainment company on the planet at that point, so the purses have to come out of your pocket.

It was a risky game, and if SEG had called my bluff and the deal didn’t go forward, I would have been a pariah. I would have been dead in the PPV business. Nobody would have talked to me.

And there would be no UFC.

Hard to imagine now, right?

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Another factor that could have changed the course of history, one supposes, would have been if the first UFC didn’t go the way the Gracies envisioned it. Your partner in this venture, Rorion Gracie, viewed the event as a showcase for his family’s brand of jiu-jitsu. So what would have happened if Royce Gracie had gotten smashed? Would there even have been a UFC 2, UFC 3, and so on?

Absolutely. This was conceived as a franchise from Day 1. The revisionist history, which even Zuffa put out early on, was that this was to be a one-time spectacle. Not true. We signed a five-year deal with Semaphore. So if Royce had not won, no problem.

That brings up a related issue that you touch on in the book, with some fascinating backstory: As much as the Gracies saw this as a showcase for their jiu-jitsu, they didn’t even utilize the family’s best fighter.

Yes, that’s right. Throughout the planning stages, I was sure that one of my contestants was going to be Rickson Gracie. He was the family champion, the jiu-jitsu scientist, a role he inherited from his cousin Rolles. He had had pro fights in Brazil.

But one day Rorion told me it was going to be Royce, not Rickson. I was shocked. Little Royce, all 170 pounds of him? But I learned that Rorion and Rickson had been having problems that revolved around control and money. Rorion was the older brother, but Rickson was the best fighter, so who was going to be the titular head of the family?

The family really did operate as a unit. All of the brothers would give Rorion their bills, and he would pay them. And at one point Rickson’s wife submitted a bill for therapeutic massage, and Rorion said no. So Rickson’s wife said to her husband, “Wait a minute, you’re letting your brother tell you that I can’t have a massage?”

On top of that, Rorion found out that Rickson had stolen two students from the Gracie academy and was teaching them over his garage. So it came down to money. And I think Rickson felt, on some level, that he had his own destiny.

Yet Rickson did serve as coach for little brother Royce prior to the first UFC.

Yes, and later on he almost got even more involved. This isn’t in the book, because the book focuses on UFC 1. But between UFCs 3 and 4, I had a meeting with Rickson, Rorion, Royce and their father, Helio. After Royce’s performance in UFC 3, where he ran out of gas emotionally and physically [and had to withdraw before the final], he had agreed to step down, at Helio and Rorion’s request. They turned to Rickson. They wanted him to come in for UFC 4.

So we all met in my office on a Saturday.  And as we sat there around a big conference table, Rickson told us he wanted a million bucks. I knew he was going to ask for that. He and I had had dinner a couple of nights before, and he’d told me, 'Mike Tyson is getting 10 million, so I want at least one million.' I told him no one in the UFC was making a million bucks -- I wasn’t, Rorion wasn’t, no fighter was.

'You saw what your brother got,' I told him.

So what happened when Rickson came into the meeting and made his demand?

Well, the old man, who was always quiet, finally spoke up.

'In my day, this wasn’t about money, this was about putting forward the family art and defending it,' he said. 'Me and my brothers, we did this for the honor of defending Gracie jiu-jitsu.' Helio looked at Rickson and said, "You’ve become too much of a Norte Americano.'

Rickson didn’t say anything to his father. He just nodded. He didn’t look at Rorion. Then he nodded to me and he left the room.

He ended up going over to Japan, where he fought mostly against men with losing records. He got his big bucks fighting guys a lot of purple belts could have beat.

So the whole Gracie family walked away after UFC 5, and the fight promotion went on without them. Do you think it actually was better for the UFC to not be partly owned by the family of one of the competitors?

Yes, I do. I learned early on that we had to be careful with that. Just prior to UFC 1, Rorion Gracie presided over the fighters’ rules meeting, and it didn’t play well. He had a horse in the race. So after that, we removed him from that role.

Even though the sport of MMA has evolved greatly since Royce was winning three of the first four events, do you think the UFC still can be considered a Gracie success story?

Jiu-jitsu is worldwide now, so yes, it’s a success story. And early on, the Gracies spurred an evolution of combat arts. Once those from other disciplines saw the effectiveness of Gracie jiu-jitsu, they all began to cross-train. UFC soon became submission kickboxing, basically. And it’s evolved from there.

As someone who was there at the start, are you surprised by where the UFC is today?

We knew 21 years ago that this was going to be a worldwide phenomenon. Other than soccer, the martial arts were the world’s most ubiquitous physical activity. They’re practiced around the planet.

Years ago, [Hollywood screenwriter and early UFC consultant] John Milius said to me, 'Art, you’re creating a new Excalibur.' It’s true. We created the sword that a young man can use to become the king, to become the ultimate warrior, the great white shark, the apex predator. We knew that the potential for this to be worldwide was extraordinary.

MMA is everywhere now, and, no, I’m not shocked. I’m pleased. And I can only imagine where it’s going to be in another 20 years.