24 Years Later: Remembering UFC 1

Jiu-Jitsu black belt Royce Gracie (USA) receives a $50,000 check after becoming "The Ultimate Fighter" by defeating Gerard Gordeau of the Netherlands int he finals of the Ultimate Fighter Championships in Denver, Colorado. Mandatory Credit: Markus Boesch
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Who would win in a fight?

A wrestler or a boxer?

A karate fighter or a judoka?

Which combat style is superior?

This is what the martial arts community had debated for generations. In the early 90s, promoter Art Davie met with Rorion Gracie and the two decided to answer this question once and for all.

The Gracie family had already been doing these style vs style contests for years across Brazil. Supremely confident in the superiority of Gracie Jiujitsu, they’d go into different gyms and dojos and challenge the senseis and top students to fights. As martial artists heard of these Gracie challenges, they would seek out the Gracies to test their own mettle against the infamous clan.

Those sitting in McNichols Arena and the tens of thousands watching at home on November 11th, 1993 had no idea what to expect. Two men would be locked in a cage and engage in combat. There were no gloves (except Art Jimmerson’s one boxing glove) and no rules (except no biting or eye-gouging). This was an exciting and somewhat terrifying prospect. Anything could happen.

Hell, somebody could die.

They wouldn’t let somebody die in there..

would they?

No, nobody died.

But, the event did start with 420lb. sumo wrestler, Telia Tuli, having his tooth kicked out of his skull and into the audience by the much smaller, Gerard Gordeau. The first UFC fight in history lasted just :26 seconds and ended in a bloody, brutal fashion. Savate had beaten sumo. This set the precedent for the night and the next 24 years.

The inaugural event featured a variety of fighters representing various martial arts. Kickboxers, Patrick Smith and Kevin Rosier, a boxer in Art Jimmerson, the already mentioned savate fighter and sumo wrestler, karate expert Zane Frasier, shootfighter Ken Shamrock, and the smallest man in the tournament, Brazilian jiujitsu black belt, Royce Gracie. The event was commentated by former kickboxer and karate fighter Bill Wallace, five-time world champion kickboxer Kathy Long, and football legend Jim Brown.

Those early UFC events were a tournament format. The combatant who won would have to compete three times in one night.The winner would receive a $50,000 dollar check and be crowned “The Ultimate Fighter”.

Despite what many think, that first event actually did have timed rounds. Fights were scheduled to go five five minute rounds, though not a single fight would go out of the first. The longest fight of the night was a wild brawl between Rosier and Frazier that lasted 4 minutes and 20 seconds and saw Rosier come out on top. Rosier would fall to Gordeau in the semifinals, and though he had a broken hand from his first bout of the night against Tuli, Gordeau would go on to fight in the finals.

On the other side of the bracket, the least physically imposing man was wowing the audience by easily handling his opponents on the ground. After Gracie took Jimmerson down, the boxer knew he was stuck and tapped out after Gracie gained mount. Ken Shamrock would face the wiry Brazilian next. Though Shamrock was a physical specimen and a submission fighter in his own right, it’d take less than a minute before he was tapping to the much smaller Gracie.

The copyright of this photograph belongs to Susumu Nagao

The final saw Gordeau take on Gracie. Gracie easily wrestled his opponent down and secured a rear naked choked in under two minutes. Gracie had proven the effectiveness of Brazilian jiujitsu. Many watching at home didn’t know what they were seeing. Those who battled Gracie didn’t know what was happening to them until it was too late. The Gracie’s dream had been realized and jiujitsu had reigned supreme over other martial styles on the biggest stage possible at the time.

24 years later, we have gone from the “bloodsport” that Senator John Mccain famously labeled as “human cockfighting” in the 90s, to a legit sport. That first event sold over 80,000 pay-per-views and the UFC has now seen events sell well over a million. Today, the top stars are staples in our culture and make tens of millions of dollars. And though the sport we have today is almost unrecognizable compared to the spectacle it once was, we wouldn’t have any of it without the sacrifice of those early warriors.

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