In November 1993, Sports Entertainment Group (SEG Sports) agreed to sponsor and promote an exciting, revolutionary idea: The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). Sparked by the idea of Art Davie, a successful entrepreneur and advertising executive, and Rorion Gracie, a master of an exotic, little known (at that time) art called Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and member of Brazil’s famous Gracie family, the concept was simple: determine, once and for all, just how every single fighting discipline in the world would stack up against each other in a no-holds-barred competition.
Any and all different styles were both invited and encouraged to compete. The word went out across the globe throughout the martial arts world by advertising in magazines, direct mail (sorry, this was the pre-Internet era for most), word-of-mouth, and any other method possible.
Surprisingly, many of the so-called “masters” passed up the chance to demonstrate their skills. There were a variety of excuses and explanations given, ranging from legitimate reasons such as other commitments or the legality of the event, to ridiculous statements like “my style is waayyy too deadly for anything like that”.
There were even stranger responses. Practitioners of various arts sent photos of themselves in the wildest poses: waist-deep in a cold river in a fighting stance, breaking cement blocks, fighting several opponents at once, and many more bizarre examples of the extreme fringe of martial arts.
Finally, the organizers succeeded in assembling a diverse field of combatants. Representatives from
Karate, Kung-fu, Kickboxing, Silat, Boxing, Sumo, Shootfighting and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu agreed to do battle in an eight-sided steel cage, known simply as The Octagon. The tournament was conducted with a single-elimination format (lose and go home; win and advance). The “rules” were simple and minimal: no time limits, no weight-classes, no rounds, and no biting or eye-gouging. That’s it! Anything else went.
The results were astonishing. Man after man, style after style fell victim to a slender, unassuming young Brazilian named Royce Gracie, a practitioner of his family’s style of Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ). Gracie’s strategy was simple and straight-forward: stay away from the punches and kicks of his opponent, get the fight to the ground and work to finish the fight by “submission” (i.e., applying a joint lock or choke hold to force the opponent to tap-out or “submit”).
When the night was over, Gracie had defeated three opponents, from three different styles: boxing, kickboxing and shoot-fighting. He accomplished this efficiently, by choking his foes into submission, in spite of usually being the smaller man, without taking a beating. This was what martial arts had long-promised, but had all-too-often failed to deliver. It shook up the entire martial arts world, and ushered in a new era of fighting.
If you can’t fight on the ground, you can’t fight, period
No question about it. Gracie had made grappling respected. A real fight was nowhere near as flashy as the Kung-fu movies. But grappling worked, and this caused many traditional martial artists to question their disciplines. Previously, grappling was, with a few exceptions, virtually ignored.
Prior to UFC 1, “everyone knew” that it was easy to avoid going to the ground. “Just one good shot” was supposedly all it took to end things quickly. In spite of the fact that when this assumption was put to the test and found wanting, it was still accepted by many traditional martial artists. With decades invested in their disciplines, it would take more convincing for them to evolve…far more.
However, after several more successes, the handwriting was on the wall: learn to grapple, or don’t fight a grappler. One kick-boxer who was evolving into a mixed-martial artist was being interviewed after winning a fight by choke, and gave this now-famous quote while being asked about his new skill-set: “if you can’t fight on the ground, you can’t fight, period.”
It became obvious (to many, painfully so) that martial arts had changed more in a few short years than it had in the previous several hundred. Prior to UFC 1, the style you started out in was what you stayed in, with few exceptions. To an untrained eye, the difference between a karate kick and a Tae-Kwon-Do kick was miniscule. But don’t dare point this out to a devotee of one of those styles. “My way or the highway” was the common theme of the time.
There were, of course, exceptions. The most public champion of breaking out of the straightjacket of only one style was the man considered by many to be the father of MMA: Bruce Lee. Lee had a simple mantra: “absorb what’s useful, and discard the rest”. He developed a new style: Jeet Kune Do, which combined Wing Chun Kung-fu, Boxing, Fencing and a few other arts into a new eclectic blend that he at times referred to as “Using no way as a way, having no limitation as limitation.”
Regrettably, after Lee’s tragic, early and untimely death, his philosophy did not blossom. In spite of his huge impact on the martial arts world, and his legions of followers, the same maddening “one-style-fits-all” group-think remained status quo for the most part. That is, until UFC 1.
Wrestling: No Longer The Rodney Dangerfield of Martial Arts
Until UFC 4, the supremacy of BJJ was unquestioned. The “strikers” (standup fighters) had not solved the puzzle of how to avoid being taken down and had no answers as to how to survive on the ground when they found themselves in that unfamiliar, intimidating territory.
But at UFC 4 in December of 1994, a new challenge to BJJ emerged: good old fashioned wrestling. Dan “The Beast” Severn stepped into the cage with a sterling wrestling resume: decades of experience in both freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling, with multiple titles at the high school and collegiate levels. Severn was a finalist at the U. S. Olympic wrestling trials in 1984, and lost a controversial match. He continued wrestling competitively, winning several national and international titles.
At the time of Severn’s octagon debut, he had three things going for him: wrestling, wrestling and wrestling. In other words, he had world-class wrestling skills, but not much else in the way of actual fighting…no real ability to fight on his feet with punches, knees, elbows and kicks. And no knowledge of jiu-jitsu chokes and joint locks, since they were illegal in the world of wrestling.
But that didn’t stop him from tearing through his opponents like a chainsaw, introducing the MMA world to the power of a brutal back suplex (lifting the opponent and bridging or rolling to slam him on his back). This display, along with his effective take-downs and ground control, showed the power of pure wrestling. Although Dan fell victim to a submission applied by Royce Gracie in the final fight of the evening, the MMA world was put on notice that there was indeed a new game in town.
In a sense, Severn won by losing. He made it all the way to the final, controlling and dominating Gracie for more than 15 minutes before falling into a triangle choke, a brilliant technique using the legs to wrap around the opponents neck, then squeezing them into unconsciousness. At the after-fight party, Severn had to ask what was used against him. When the idea behind the triangle choke was explained to him (“the legs are the strongest muscles in the body, and the choke is the deadliest move in a fight; when combined, the combination is unstoppable”), his laughing response was “Why didn’t someone tell me about this three hours ago?”. This illustrated just how impressive his performance was. Fans were anxious to see what would happen if a wrestler would cross-train in striking and submissions.
As one wrestler put it: “We don’t get the credit for how hard we work. I sometimes feel that wrestlers are treated like Rodney Dangerfield…we get no respect”. But that was changing. BJJ had an energy that said “COME ON”, and wrestling answered “I’M COMING”.
Late 1994 through spring 1995 witnessed the first chink in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu’s armor. In UFC 3, Royce Gracie was unable to continue after a hard-fought brawl, and for the first time did not win the tournament. At UFC 5, he climbed into the cage for a rematch with Ken Shamrock, whom he defeated in UFC 1. The fight went to a draw, and while Gracie defended himself against an opponent with a considerable weight advantage, it appeared to signal that mastery of BJJ was no longer an automatic lock on victory.
The fight world had done its homework, and new counter-measures were being tried to prevent take-downs, and ward off submissions once the fight was on the ground.
The hard-charging aggression of wrestling vs the patience and countering of BJJ. A new dynamic and a fascinating clash of combat styles on the ground was born…and continues in some form to this day, even though the styles have merged somewhat.
The Hybrid Monster Arrives
UFC 5 introduced us to the Russian art of Sambo, courtesy of Oleg Taktarov. Initially designed to be a blend of several different martial arts, Sambo was made for MMA. The grappling attack of Sambo was similar to BJJ, but had more emphasis on leg locks and neck cranks, along with judo throwing techniques. Although grappling based, the style added a mix of karate and kick-boxing to produce a well-rounded fighter. By winning the tournament at UFC 6, Taktarov put the fight world on notice that there was a new kid on the block, and Sambo gained immediate publicity and respect.
UFC 6 also featured the debut of a large, intimidating street-fighter: David “Tank” Abbott. His resume included time in jail for assault, in which the sentencing judge stated “Mr. Abbott, you are a maniac. I’m surprised you haven’t killed somebody.”
Billed as a veteran of something called “Pit-fighting” (supposedly a wild, unsanctioned, no-rules brawl in which a pit is dug and two fighters jump in and have at it), Abbott immediately became an overnight sensation. His raw strength and punching power, combined with a “I-don’t-give-a-F***” attitude and outrageous quotes and behavior, took him to the final fight of the tournament, and earned him a legion of fans. Some even insisted that his style ushered in a new era: “The head-hunters”.
As mentioned earlier, the initial design of the UFC was style vs style. This, as implied, pitted wrestling vs karate, BJJ vs kickboxing, etc. But in late 1995 and early 1996, a new breed of fighter emerged: the cross-trained hybrid fighter. The definition of hybrid is “a thing made by combining two different elements; a mixture….of mixed character; composed of mixed parts”. In MMA terms, this means, for example, a wrestler who had trained in boxing, or a kick-boxer trained in jiu-jitsu.
The first fighter after Taktarov who personified this approach was Marco Ruas, who entered and won the tournament in UFC 7, in the process displaying an innovative blend of skills. The mysterious Brzailian (he initially wouldn’t reveal his age) listed an impressive resume: years of study in a wide variety of disciplines: Taekwondo, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai (a brutally effective, powerful kickboxing style originating in Thailand, known as the science of eight limbs due to its emphasis on knees and elbows as well as punches and kicks), Capoeira (a Brazilian martial art originating in Angola, that combines elements of dance, acrobatics and music), Wrestling, Jiu-jitsu, Boxing, Judo, and Luta Livre (a complete Brazilian martial art, which is primarily a mixture of Catch wrestling and Judo).
Ruas’ moniker was “The King of the Streets”, and he did indeed live up to the hype. His performance in the cage demonstrated an ability to seemingly handle any situation, ground, clinch or exchanging strikes.
UFC 8 was a new format: David vs Goliath. The event had an almost surreal, circus-like feel, (the sweltering, oven-like heat in a small, jammed-packed arena in Puerto Rico, with one of the commentators giving a bizarre, rambling discourse about Chupacabra) with 4 big men (Goliaths) going up against 4 smaller men (Davids). Entering this event was another cross-trained fighter: Don “The Predator” Frye. With five years of collegiate wrestling at Arizona State University and Oklahoma State University, professional boxing experience, and the owner of a fifth-degree black belt in the art of Judo, Frye picked up where Ruas left off. He ran the table of bigger men, winning with a mixture of precise punching power, wrestling take-downs, and Judo skills.
At this point, the MMA world was made acutely aware of the need to be versatile, and have a large toolbox of techniques. But the hybrids could not declare victory just yet.
The wrestling juggernaut continues to roll
By this time (1996), the word was out in the wrestling world: MMA had rolled out the welcome mat. The aggression, conditioning, strength and never-say-die mindset that is second-nature to wrestlers was finally getting the respect that had been so long in coming. Consequently, the UFC and other organizations that sprung up (Battlecade Extreme Fighting, World Combat Championships (WCC), and smaller shows) were witnessing an influx of wrestlers, many of whom had been successful at the highest levels of both freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling.
There were many wrestlers who proved their style’s effectiveness. But one in particular stands out: Mark “The Hammer” Coleman. Coleman made his MMA debut at UFC 10. With a world-class wrestling resume consisting of a 2-time Mid-American Conference wrestling championship from Miami University (Ohio), an NCAA championship while at Ohio State University and a member of the U.S. wrestling team, where he competed in the 1992 Summer Olympics, much was expected from Coleman.
And he didn’t disappoint
At 245 pounds of raging, muscular fury, Coleman had a simple but brutally effective strategy: use his considerable power and wrestling skills to take his opponent down, obtain a dominant position, then proceed to rain down a vicious barrage of punches. Interestingly, he made no secret of his tactics and strategy. “I don’t think there’s anyone that can stop my double-leg take-down” he confidently stated. His attitude seemed to be “you know what’s coming…so what? You can’t stop it.”
After running the table at UFC 10 (winning three fights and the tournament), UFC 11 (winning one fight, thus winning the tournament by default, since his second-round opponents were too injured to continue), and submitting fellow wrestler Dan Severn in the first round at UFC 12, Coleman was seemingly unstoppable, and was quite vocal about wrestling’s effectiveness.
To highlight the style-vs-style theme, Coleman’s next challenger was a world-champion kick-boxer: Maurice Smith. A veteran of 15 years of kick-boxing, Smith was the final heavyweight champion of Battlecade Extreme Fighting, a rival MMA organization that had recently went out of business. Based on his track record, he signed with the UFC and was immediate offered a shot to challenge Coleman for the UFC champion’s belt at UFC 14, on July 27th, 1997.
Coleman was extremely confident, and in an interview at UFC 13, he as usual made no secret of his plan of attack: “I’m gonna ground ’em and pound ’em…that’s my G-damn strategy…Maurice Smith better learn how to wrestle.” He went on the emphasize that MMA was a grappler’s game, and he seemed unconcerned about Smith’s impressive kick-boxing resume. “Everybody’s a great striker” was his one-line answer to his level of concern.
But Smith was not just a striker. He had teamed up with grapplers Frank Shamrock and Tsuyoshi “TK” Kohsoke to form “The Alliance”. In exchange for sharing his striking skills, Smith learned from these two high-level grapplers how to survive on the ground. Still, going into the fight, few gave Smith much chance of surviving the frightening ground-and-pound wrestling Tsunami that was coming his way.
To add more fuel to the fire, Smith had stated that in his opinion, Coleman “punched like a girl”, and after he (Smith) won, Coleman would “hopefully change his style of punching”. Smith seemed cool and unfazed that Coleman took the remarks personally, and after Mark’s intimidating stare-down, the battle was on.
And what a battle it was
In what some say was the most meaningful, significant fight in the UFC to that date, the drama was off-the-charts. After a night of watching a parade of wrestler’s pancake their unfortunate foes, the main event began with Coleman securing a quick take-down, and immediately beginning the trademark, punishing ground-and-pound. It looked as if Smith would succumb to the same tactics of Coleman’s prior victims.
But a funny thing happened. Smith put his new-found ground survival skills to good use. He somehow managed to survive the initial barrage, and eventually got the fight back to standing. It also appeared that Coleman may have gambled on a short night; by the middle of the round he seemed to be running out of steam. The fight consisted of a monstrous 15-minute round, and (if needed) two 3-minute overtime rounds. If both fighters were still standing, it would go to the judges. Before the fight, this was considered highly unlikely.
However, by the close of the first round, Coleman was looking completed exhausted. Unfortunately for him, this left him prey for the baseball bat-like Muay-Thai kicks that were smashing into his unprotected legs. Showing tremendous heart, Coleman remained standing to the end, but lost the decision.
The significance of this fight was this: the UFC and MMA had indeed come full-circle. The strikers had been taught the hard way that their arts were incomplete, and they quite simply HAD to learn to fight on the ground.
Now it was the grappler’s turn. After this fight, striking suddenly became relevant again, and grappler’s embraced the need to learn to fight standing-up. Regrettably, this fight is largely forgotten, but that does not diminish its importance.
As a side note, Coleman deserves a ton of credit by how he responded to this devastating setback. He worked extremely hard on his stand-up game. To be sure, he was still primarily a ground-and-pound wrestler. But he developed decent boxing skills, learned some kick and submission defense, and went on to great success in the Pride Fighting Championship, the elite MMA organization in Japan, winning the 2000 Grand Prix by outlasting a murder’s row of combatants.
The rest of the decade saw these trends continue, and by the year 2,000, the following conclusions could be made:
- Grappling had shaken the world of martial arts to its very core. First with BJJ, then wrestling, grappling had earned a ton of respect that was previously acknowledged only in BJJ academies, wrestling gyms, and street-fighters who made the mistake of fighting a good grappler without knowing how to fight on the ground
- Strikers, particularly Muay-Thai kick-boxers and regular boxers, had proven their effectiveness once these stylists became familiar with the ground, and were therefore able to commit totally to their strikes without the constant fear of being taken down
- Conditioning was crucial. Gone were the comic-book advertisement days of “Stop any man instantly with one jab…regardless of size”. Size and weight matters, along with stamina. If the best car in the world runs out of gas and oil, it’s not going anywhere. The same analogy applied to a real fight…much to the chagrin of the “one strike, one kill” crowd
- Many martial arts had been tested, with some successful (BJJ, wrestling, Muay-Thai, boxing and Sambo), and some found wanting (traditional arts, i.e. karate, kung-fu, taekwondo), since they had no answer when the fight went to the ground
- Most importantly, it was nearly universally agreed that martial arts had changed more in the past seven years than in the past several hundred
As the dawn of a new century emerged, one thing was certain: the newly-rediscovered sport was evolving at a blistering pace. The next decade would see more changes, for better or worse. In part II, we will delve into the legal challenges that the sport faced as it expanded, the television pay-per-view cable ban, the increased publicity and the variety and evolution of training and conditioning approaches. Stay tuned!