A Look Back at UFC 1 - Part 1

Fightland Blog

By John Reed (Words) and Chris Rini (Art)

This Saturday, the UFC will celebrate its 20th anniversary and perhaps the quickest evolution in the history of sports--just two short decades from the paleolithic, the brutish, and the misunderstood to the modern, the athletic, and the misunderstood.

In honor of the occasion we decided to look back at UFC 1, back to that day when someone finally decided to answer the eternal question "Who would win if a boxer fought a wrestler?"--and found out the answer was a guy doing jiu-jitsu. 

Fight 1: Gerard Gordeau v. Teala Tuli
Total time: 0:26

Both of these guys wanted to fight, but only one of them knew how.

At the time the world was full of nerd dojos and grim-faced masters who warned their students not to kill their opponents with magic bolts of death chi. The world was also full of angry guys who drank too much and talked shit in bars. But for the most part, nobody had a clue; fighting was what you saw on TV dramas or what you saw in the boxing ring or what you saw when you imagined you were going to kick someone's ass. Teala Tuli was a guy like that—undefeated in his own dreams. In reality he was just a pissed-off Hawaiian fat man who didn't train because he couldn't even keep it together enough to not get kicked out of his own dojos. But when the UFC needed a Sumo wrestler, Tuli was the $5000, 400-pound Kewpi doll they were looking for.

And Gerard Gordeau? He'd been fighting no-glove matches one after another, and he'd fought in Japan against some very tough guys, and nobody could suss it out then but now he looks like a vision of MMA's future. Razor sharp kicks and strikes. Of course, he had no takedown defense, and the structure of the first UFC event—a ladder of fights—was way advantageous to the "grapplers" who didn't take the kind of damage that strikers did. Hands and feet are not bludgeons, and without wraps (which were only partially allowed) or fat gloves (which make grabbing impossible and are therefore tantamount to suicide against a grappler) them small bones is gonna break.

Tuli came out of his corner with a snide look on his face. Gordeau, the Dutchman, was acting Dutch--like he just wanted his warm beer. They circled. Tuli charged. Gordeau backed up. Tuli tripped on his own feet. And 18 seconds in, Gordeau whipped a low roundhouse into Tuli's mouth. One tooth flew into the audience and two more burrowed into Gordeau's foot. Gordeau delivered a right hook, the bare-fisted smack to Tuli's face sounding like a champagne bottle breaking on the hull of a ship. Christened: The UFC.

Fight 2: Zane Frazier v. Kevin Rosier
Total time: 4:20

Two big, dangerous guys. And not a single submission between them. Even at the time of the first UFC, there was conspiracy theorizing going on about the match-ups. Why this guy versus that guy? Why did Royce Gracie get the boxer, which was as good as a free pass to the semifinals? A look at the backgrounds of the two fighters in the second match-up—Frazier the Kempo master and Rosier the champion kickboxing bouncer—portended a bloody mess. No chokes, no armbars, no footlocks—someone was going to get beat into unconsciousness. But one thing nobody foresaw: how utterly graceless it would all be. Rosier hadn't competed in three years and he was 75 pounds overweight. Frazier was sleek, came into the Octagon with a jaunty bob, but when the action started he was no more a ballerina than Rosier, who wore his shorts pulled up to his sternum. You can take the bouncer out of the parking lot, but you can't take the parking lot out of the bouncer.

Huge right hands. Rosier first—he dropped Frazier—then Frazier climbed to his feet and backed Rosier against the cage. Rosier ate more right hands and sucked up knees with his gut. Things weren’t looking good for the beer-gut white guy—but all of a sudden, Frazier was gassed. The two fighters crumbled to the mat, exhausted, and when they got back up and separated, Rosier looked the fresher of the two. Not fresh, but Frazier could barely stand up. Rosier's instincts kicked in; he threw some one-twos--the first left hands of the fight. The big right hands came next, and they had the weary Frazier covering up. As he sank to the canvas, Rosier grabbed the fence and dropped heels to Frazier's face, and into the Octagon flew the towel from Frazier's corner.

Kempo, kickboxing—not a good strategy for longevity. Nobody is going to live or fight to a ripe old age with a gameplan like that. Maybe there's something dumb about bar brawlers after all. 

Fight 3: Art Jimmerson v. Royce Gracie
Total time: 2:18

Art Jimmerson never wanted anything to do with the UFC. But, 20 grand—he took it. The UFC needed a boxer because the popular assumption was that a well-trained boxer would destroy any of these bozos. Wrong assumption, and having seen the first two fights, Jimmerson wanted to go home. He had just gotten a good-paying job, six figures, and he had a fight scheduled with Thomas "Hitman" Hearns only a month away, and he didn't need to get hurt, and, uh, he hadn't been in the gym. But, okay, okay, the 20 grand. So Jimmerson sussed it out: a) I shouldn't wear gloves on both hands; b) I'm going to break my hand if I don't have a glove on; c) nobody is bothering to throw left hands. The answer? Glove on just the right hand.

Royce Gracie, on the other side of the ring, was representing the Gracie family, who were shareholders in the event. The Gracies, and no more than a dozen other people in the Denver Arena, knew that in a no-holds-barred fight, boxer v. grappler, the boxer is pretty much doomed. He'll get taken down and he won't know what to do after that happens, and the grappler will finish in whatever way he sees fit.

The fighters circled for a while. The crowd booed. Gracie took Jimmerson down. Jimmerson was helpless down there, and he since came into the fight hoping for an easy way out—voila!--he tapped.  

Fight 4: Ken Shamrock v. Patrick Smith
Total time: 1:49

Finally, two guys who disliked each other.

Ken Shamrock and Patrick Smith. It was a good match-up. They were in shape; they were both big guys, about 225; and they both had some experience. Smith had kickboxing; Shamrock had shoot fighting. But their histories weren't equal. Shamrock was already a star in Japan; he'd fought there in the biggest venues and against substantial opposition. The one thing in Smith's favor: None of Shamrock's professional fights were close-fisted competitions. To Smith's mind, Shamrock had never been in a real fight.

The thing is, Shamrock had been in real fights—lots of tough man competitions and lots of brawls of the "Fight! Fight!" variety. The two had exchanged words pre-fight, and the staredown during instructions was more of the same: I wanna fight you. But they came out careful—until Shamrock, grappler v. striker, shot for the takedown, got it, and established his advantage. Smith knew enough to find the guard, but he didn't know anything else. Shoot fighting is big on the footlocks, and footlocks are probably the most psychologically dominating way to beat a guy, and Shamrock wanted to humiliate Smith, so he took the footlock. When Shamrock got the heel, Smith tapped out screaming. Those strikers are loudmouths even in defeat. 

Check out part 2 tomorrow. 

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