Before the multimillion-dollar TV deals with Fox and FX, before Rampage Jackson appeared in The A-Team and Randy Couture unveiled his Xtreme clothing line—before even Dana White—there were three enterprising men and one killer idea
This is an article from the July 8, 2013 issue
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.
II FIGHT WEEK
"The only guy I've got to worry about is the one in the pajamas."
GORDEAU: I arrived in Denver one day before the event. At that time, there was no Google or YouTube. You saw your opponents there, where we were staying, for the first time.
ROYCE GRACIE(JUJITSUKA, PARTICIPANT): I could see it on their faces: They were trying to pick out which one was me [from among the renowned fighting Gracie siblings]. Brothers, cousins—there's always a group of us walking together. [My brother] Royler and I look very much alike, or they would look at [my other brother] Rickson and see his physique and say, "Man, maybe that's the one." A couple of fighters came up and asked, "Which one of you is Royce Gracie?" I said, "Don't worry about it. You'll meet him soon."
JIMMERSON: I was thinking, If I'm knocking out guys in the gym with 16-ounce gloves, what am I going to do to someone with my bare fists? I felt sorry for these guys. Who could beat me?
SHAMROCK: I had defended my title in Pancrase [a Japanese MMA organization] earlier that week in Japan, and I ended up jumping on a plane three days before UFC 1. I thought, This is going to be a piece of cake. I remember seeing Royce Gracie; he had this karate gi on, and I made a crack to one of the reporters: "The only guy I've got to worry about is the guy in the pajamas."
III THE PREFIGHT MEETING
"I got a T-shirt that says no rules."
FRAZIER: The night before the fight, Rorion announced, "We're going to have a rules meeting." I said, "Wait a minute; what rules? There are no rules—isn't that what you've been saying the whole time? O.K., there's no eye gouging, biting or fish hooking, but I got a T-shirt that says NO RULES." Rorion goes, "These are the rules: You can't wrap your knuckles. You can't wear shoes...." I started to complain, and Rorion says, "Zane, if you've got a problem with the rules, you don't have to fight. You can back out right now, and we'll just tell everyone you were chicken." I said, "Why don't we clear the tables and the UFC starts right here, right now?" I rushed the table. I went after Rorion.
DAVIE: I could barely get control of that meeting. At one point Tuli picked up a release form that we were asking the fighters to sign, slammed it down on the table and said, "I don't give a damn about all this crap. Anybody that wants to be at the arena tomorrow night, I'll fight you." Zane didn't say another word. It was the end of the meeting.
IV FIGHT NIGHT
"I was a fish out of water, trying to fight a land animal."
SHAMROCK: Backstage, before the fights, we were just kinda clumped together, like cattle waiting for the slaughter. But I was thinking to myself, I'm going to beat the crap out of somebody. Bare knuckles, no rules, kick 'em in the head, knee 'em in the head, hit 'em in the groin—whatever I wanted. The reality didn't sink in until the first fight: Gordeau, who was like 190 pounds, against a big ol' sumo wrestler, Teila Tuli.
GORDEAU: My strategy was to hit [Tuli] in the head. I didn't want this to be a stand-up fight.
TULI: I didn't want to use my sumo skills—I wanted to strike and show that a 400-pounder can kick. I got overexcited, and I launched at him. I guess he moved, and my toe got stuck in the mat.
GORDEAU: I was going to kick him with my shin. But his head was too close to the fence, so I had to kick him with my feet.
JIMMERSON: He kicked Tuli in the mouth and four teeth came out. Two went into the audience, right in front of my wife. The other two got stuck in [Gordeau's] foot.
GORDEAU: The teeth had to be removed by a doctor two weeks later.
SHAMROCK: The audience went silent for a split second, but it seemed like forever. And the locker room went quiet. All of a sudden, we realized what we had gotten into.
TULI: My eye got cut too. For two, three years after that fight, it was a blur when I looked right without turning my head.
GORDEAU: I also broke my hand on Tuli's head. He was hardheaded. [Gordeau was awarded a TKO victory after just 26 seconds.]
SHAMROCK: That's when it set in for me, without a shadow of a doubt, that this was for real. You don't see this kind of stuff except on Cops. There were several guys going, "That's bull----. That's so unsportsmanlike. I'm not fighting." I wanted to ask, What did you think "no holds barred" meant?
FRAZIER: I was fighting Kevin Rosier [in the evening's second match]. I was hitting him, I was beating him....
ROSIER: He hit me with a perfect punch, broke my jaw.
FRAZIER: And then, all of a sudden, my lungs started to close. Kevin came at me, and I couldn't do anything. I couldn't even breathe. I remember covering up, and I slumped down. My coaches came over to me and got me out of the ring. The paramedics got me on oxygen and rushed me to the hospital. This nurse from Denver [where the elevation is more than 5,000 feet above sea level], she says, "Mr. Frazier, son, you have asthma. Do you know what asthma is?" I shook my head.
TULI: I was lying in the emergency room, and I heard the next fighter [Frazier] coming in. He said, "Hey, big man, we did it!" I didn't want to talk. I was depressed. I didn't want to live.
DAVIE: We had two ambulances readied, but with as many injuries as we had, we ran out of EMTs to run people over to the hospital. Kathy Kidd [a UFC event coordinator] ended up putting people in cabs and sending them over to the emergency room.
JIMMERSON: I'm the third fight of the night [against Gracie], and I remember beforehand, in the dressing room, one of my managers was literally crying. We'd seen two fighters already come back with their teeth out, their jaws broken. Through tears, my manager's telling me, "Art, we're sorry we got you in this thing." I'm like, What kind of confidence is that?
DAVIE: I found out about an hour and a half before the event that Jimmerson didn't bring any shoes or gloves. We were all out of people I could send on errands, but my kid brother Matthew was a guest of mine, and I said to him, "Here's $300 cash—money for a taxi and money for gloves. There's a sporting goods store in Arvada, a suburb of Denver, that's open until seven. Get yourself over to Arvada." And then I'm in the truck—the broadcast truck where we're sending the signal up for pay-for-view—and I look on the screen and I see Jimmerson with one glove, and I think to myself, What's wrong with this picture?
GRACIE: When he came out with one glove, I thought, He's not joking. He wants to knock me out with that hand.
JIMMERSON: My plan was to circle him in, trap him with the softness of my glove and then rush in and hit him with [the bare] right hand. It was a ploy, but I didn't even get to use it.
GRACIE: I can't afford to get hit. I'm not punch-proof.
JIMMERSON: If I threw one good punch, I knew I had him. But Royce grabbed my leg and flipped me over. Once he got me on my back, I was looking at the referee to break it up so I could get back up and fight. I forgot there were no rules. So then Royce gets me in a crab stance, and he locks my leg. You know when you see a bug on its back, you feel sorry for it? I was like a bug on my back. I couldn't get up, and a phobia came over me. I looked at my corner, and they threw in the towel—but it got caught in the fence and the referee didn't even see it. I'm panicking. I don't want to tap out. The glove became a handicap because I couldn't do any damage with that hand. Finally, I just tapped out. I was a fish out of water, trying to fight a land animal.
SHAMROCK: For my first fight, I walked out of the locker room with my adopted dad and my Japanese comrades. There was this sea of red—like 20 guys, and they were all wearing red shirts, with Patrick Smith standing in the middle. We had to walk through these guys, and I could see Smith's eyes, glaring at me. His guys were screaming at us; it was like we were in a gang fight. They were all up in my dad's face. He never cusses, but he jumped in their faces and started screaming back. I walked by Smith, looked at him and said, "Don't worry, your time's coming, punk." The fight starts, and I take him down and put him in a choke. I snap his ankle and I jump up in victory, and I'm still ready to keep going—it was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life. As soon as I was done fighting, I went back to my locker, got a drink of water, and they said, "You're up." [Gordeau had made quick work of Rosier—another TKO, in 59 seconds—in the first semifinal.] The organizers knew what they were doing. They weren't going to give me enough time to prepare for Royce.
DAVIE: I wanted to have a striker versus a grappler in the finals, not two grapplers. So I put Shamrock in the same bracket as Royce—the two best grapplers. I felt that the fans at home looking at this for the first time would be turned off or confused if they saw two guys on the ground in the final bout.
SHAMROCK: I don't even remember tapping [out in that fight]. I remember trying to pull Royce's arm off, and there was no arm there. It was like this rope around my neck. I just know that I couldn't breathe.
GRACIE: He tapped, I let go, and then he tried to continue. I grabbed on to him again, and I told him right in his ear, "I know you tapped. You know you tapped. But you want to continue? We'll continue." I told the ref, "We know he tapped, but let it go. We're going to continue." I grabbed Shamrock and started to yell into his ear, "Go! Go!" He must have felt by the tone of my voice that I wasn't going to let go a second time. He's like, "No, no—you're right, I tapped."
SHAMROCK: The referee asked, "Did you tap?" Obviously I had, and I said, "Yes, I tapped." But I remember sitting there for a moment, thinking, He just cheated. They took away my shoes; they took away my kneepads; they took away the things that made me who I was as a fighter. But they let him wear a gi? That's how fast it went through my mind. It wasn't that I had gotten choked. It wasn't that he'd won the fight. It was like, Wait a minute; there's something unfair about this. I told myself that will never happen again.
GRACIE: By the time of the finals [against Gordeau] I was already fed up. There were two rules: You're not allowed to eye-gouge and you're not allowed to bite. But as soon as I took Gordeau down, he bit my ear. I pulled him off, and I whispered in his ear, "You bit me."
GORDEAU: Yes, I bit him.
GRACIE: He gave me that look like, So what? I threw a couple of head butts in his face, and when I got the choke [a submission after 1:44], I held on a little longer than I should have. Let's just say that I didn't feel him tap.
GORDEAU: I saw Royce two months ago in the Netherlands. It was the first time since UFC 1 that we'd seen each other. And the first thing he said to me was, "Why did you bite my ear?" I took him over to a big poster for the event that's hanging in my dojo and said, "Look there, Royce. It says, 'No rules.' "
V THE AFTER-PARTY
"I cried the whole night."
DAVIE: Afterward, at the hotel, we coordinated a masquerade ball. Everybody was in tuxedos and dresses except Tuli. He showed up in a white T-shirt, but he was wearing his Hawaiian skirt.
TULI: I had been in my room. The Gracies came up and said, Please come down.
JIMMERSON: I cried the whole night. I'm a fighter—a real fighter. How did I lose? I got the money, but was it really worth me selling [my reputation]?
FRAZIER: Once they finally released me from the hospital—after about two hours—I went to the party. I didn't even know who'd won the tournament. I ran into Royce in the hotel elevator. I said, Hey, man, I love what you do. And then I asked, Why do you do this? And why do you do that? We stopped the elevator a couple times, just talking, and the alarm went off. Everyone thought we were fighting—but I was just taking jujitsu notes from Royce on a napkin.
SHAMROCK: That after-party is where my drive [later in my career] really came from. They handed out a trophy and the cash, and I remember watching Royce saying there was a new sheriff in town. His family was pretty cocky, smoking cigars. I told my team, "I promise you this will never happen again. I will be where [Royce] is." It took a long two years to get that taste out of my mouth. [Shamrock fought Royce Gracie to a draw at UFC 5, in 1995.]
GRACIE: I was starving. There was no room service at the hotel and they had closed down the kitchen, so I put on some sweatpants, a sweatshirt and a snow jacket. I walked down the street to a 7-Eleven to buy some apple juice and Ritz crackers, which I put inside my jacket. When I got back to the hotel, I took the hood off and, because it had started to snow, it looked like I was sweating. Kevin [Rosier] was there with his manager, who had a cigar in one hand and a drink in the other, and they asked, "Where did you go?" I didn't even flinch: "I had to go for a run." As I was walking away Kevin and his coach were like, "No wonder he's the champ; look at him! The guy just fought three fights in one night and then goes for a run. Talk about Superman!" They didn't see the stuff inside my jacket.
VI THE HANGOVER
"I was not used to being the bad guy."
DAVIE: By midday Monday back in New York, I had gotten a call about the preliminary pay-per-view numbers. They were off the charts.
BOB MEYROWITZ(COCREATOR): More people were watching this than The Who. [Meyrowitz had organized another pay-per-view event with the band four years earlier.]
DAVIE: There was an awareness very early on that we had found something extraordinary and that the public was reacting. But by UFC 5 in Charlotte, SEG [which handled the pay-per-view distribution and TV deals] and WOW [which handled the event itself] were already hiring civil and criminal attorneys to keep the event moving forward. At that Charlotte event, Steve Jennum—who had been a police officer in Omaha before winning UFC 3—pulled me aside. He said, "Art, policemen have told me that they're going to be at the event Friday night and that it's possible they will make assault arrests for what takes place in the octagon. I'm a sworn officer. I can't lose my badge." So we knew the pressure was on. I thought, If we have this problem in the new South, what's it going to be like in Chicago or New York or L.A.? When UFC 5 was over, I made a personal decision that we should sell.
MEYROWITZ: John McCain went and made a big deal of it. [As a U.S. senator, McCain would memorably call the UFC "human cockfighting."] I was not used to being the bad guy. We weren't getting the respect that those athletes deserved. The Fertitta brothers [who bought the UFC for $2 million in 2001] really put their money behind the sport. [New UFC president] Dana White has a real passion for it. They've all taken it to a new and more exciting place. I don't have a single regret about selling the UFC.
DAVIE: Three years ago, I was driving down Sunset Boulevard in L.A. I hadn't paid attention to the UFC in a few years, and there was a giant wraparound ad on the side of an office building featuring [three-time UFC heavyweight champion] Randy Couture. I brought Randy in; he was my man. I had an enormous twinge. I felt like a divorced father whose kid is being raised by somebody else. Then the light changed, and I moved along.
AFTER THE OCTAGON
Retained his title at UFC 2. Now 46, Gracie (who last fought in 2007 and who has a career record of 14-2-3) teaches jujitsu to everyone from martial arts newcomers to police officers in the Middle East.
The Dutchman never fought in another UFC. Instead, he returned to the Hague, where the 54-year-old currently busies himself teaching kickboxing and karate classes at his dojo.
Fought again at UFC 4 and submitted to an armbar after 14 seconds. The 51-year-old Army vet now struggles with knee and heart problems as well as head trauma. Says Rosier, "I'm all busted up."
He's taking his 28-15-2 record to England for a July 27 MMA scrap with Ian Freeman—but the 49-year-old Shamrock wants fans to know that, contrary to rumors, "it's for fun, not 'cause I have to."
Keeping a promise he made himself at UFC 1 that he'd still be in fighting shape 20 years later, Frazier, 46, is scheduled to fight in a King of the Cage card this fall. He also teaches martial arts at a Phoenix country club.
Lost 13 of his next 17 boxing matches and in 2009 found himself homeless, standing outside a new, public UFC gym in L.A. Now 49, Jimmerson trains clients at that gym and is studying to become a minister.
Advanced to the UFC 2 finals but succumbed to Royce Gracie; last fought in 2009. In '00, Smith (now 49) was convicted in Colorado of lewd or indecent acts or proposals to a minor.
Better known to TV viewers as Kamekona, an informant and the proprietor of Waiola Shave Ice on CBS's Hawaii Five-0. As an actor (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), the 44-year-old uses his legal name, Taylor Wily.
Sold his stake in the UFC in 1995. In 2008 he helped launch XARM, "a combination of hardcore arm wrestling, kickboxing, mixed martial arts and mayhem." He also oversees his own ad and marketing outfit.
Sold the UFC to Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta for $2 million in 2001 (current value: close to $2 billion). In '08 he started now defunct YAMMA Pit Fighting. His latest company streams live concerts online.
Five Completely Trivial Things We Learned About UFC 1
Art Davie first pitched the concept for UFC in the early 1990s, when he was a California ad executive. The beer distributor Tecate passed on the idea.
UFC 1 almost didn't make it on air. The deal with Meyrowitz's broadcast team wasn't finalized until roughly 70 minutes before the first fight. Says Davie, "John Milius's son, Ethan, was putting the studs in my tuxedo shirt, trying to get me dressed in time, and we were still on that conference call."
The rule against eye gouging went unheeded by at least one person: the overzealous fan who accidentally poked Royce Gracie in the eye on his way to the octagon for his first fight. When he returned for the semifinals, Gracie took cover in a protective human train of his brothers and made sure to tuck his head.
Gracie was asleep backstage until about an hour before that first bout.
Before fighting professionally, Frazier played D-I basketball for Idaho under coach Don Monson from 1982 to '84. To appease his father, he tried out for the Nets in '86.