A Look Back at UFC 1 - Part 2

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 fateful 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. 

Yesterday we covered the tournament's bizarre opening round. Today we start with the semifinals. 

Fight 1: Gerard Gordeau v. Kevin Rosier
Total time: 0:59

Gerard Gordeau was trying not to limp, but he had two of Teali Tuli’s teeth in his right foot, and the doctor didn't want to operate before Gordeau was done fighting for the night. Gordeau felt jittery—backstage, he’d tried to calm down with a cigarette—but from an outsider’s perspective, and given the circumstances, Gordeau still looked, well, a bit like an SS officer from a World War II movie.

Kevin Rosier, meanwhile, didn't look scary—he looked mangled. He had a gallon of Vaseline around his eye, which was swelling—a souvenir from his fight against Zane Frazier earlier in the evening. A mouse and a cut. And he was still breathing hard.  

They shook hands real friendly: extroverted giants. Gordeau 220 pounds, 6 foot 5; and Rosier 6 foot 4, 265 pounds. It was like watching elephants face off.

Gordeau started with the leg kick. The guy was relaxed. Savate trains low kicks and no-nonsense striking, and Gordeau wheeled around the ring like it was second nature. He knew his opponent was a striker, but as the Savate champion of the world three years in a row and an eight-time Dutch Kyokushin karate champion, he knew something about striking himself..

Rosier had that right hand, though, so Gordeau thought he might try a slow approach. Leg kicks, leg kicks, leg kicks. Sometimes it works: enough of those, a few minutes of them at least, and a guy might break. Rosier lasted about 20 seconds. His front leg was so weakened by the kicks that Gordeau could move in easily with a one-two combination. Rosier wilted and Gordeau pogoed in front of him delivering more rights. Then a stomp to the ribs. Rosier just lay there, and the ref took mercy, stopping the fight. Gordeau, the leg kicker with a broken right hand and someone else's smile on his foot, was heading for the finals.   

Fight 2: Royce Gracie v. Ken Shamrock
Total time: 0:57 + 1:20

Back up. MMA is the oldest sport.

It was an Olympic sport in ancient Greece, and it's depicted in cave art going way further back than that. In the 18th and 19th centuries, MMA started to emerge from the dark ages with bareknuckle fighting. But then boxing ruined the fight game by putting fat mittens on fighters and disregarding takedowns (which were central in the bareknuckle prize ring). It would take about 150 years for spectators to figure out that Queensbury rules boxing, which was designed to protect the faces of slumming aristocracy, was an evolutionary dead end. Take Muhammad Ali: Who wants to be the smartest, fastest, coolest guy around only to have your brain punched to mush? Wrestlers don't take that level of damage—not to their heads anyway—and even in the 19th century, wrestlers knew that. So, while boxing played out its peculiar history of brain trauma, the wrestlers took second stage, promoting sideshow contests that allowed striking.

The first major rivalry, east vs. west, pitted judo against wrestling. Wrestling came in many forms, but in the United States, those forms had coalesced into a hybrid style: Hooking, or Catch as Catch Can. Catch focused on footlocks, didn't have much in the way of armbars, and was a little iffy on chokes. Without uniforms, a focus on footlocks is logically sound: diving for a foot is a good way to shake a choke, which, like an armbar, is much harder to hold without a uniform.

But in those early matchups, the judo guys, who were well-versed in chokes and armbars (after years of practice in uniforms), picked off the wrestlers with ease. Until westerners adopted submissions, the Japanese were considered magical.

Evan "The Strangler" Lewis was one of the first Western advocates of the choke. He applied the "chancery" from multiple positions and strengthened his arms for it on a contraption made of oak and steel. When Martin "Farmer" Burns fought Lewis to a stalemate in 1889, he was threatened by the chancery—and it so unnerved him that he dedicated the rest of his career to thwarting the offense. Unfortunately, he did not choose technique as the answer—instead, he thickened the muscles in his neck to the point where his carnival trick, literally, was to hang by the neck from a noose.

As probably the rightful "father" of American wrestling, Burns brought his extensive skillset, and his few weaknesses, to the developing sport of Catch. Burns' brand of hooking would eventually find its way to Japan, taking up residence alongside judo. Meanwhile, judo had found its way to Brazil, and from Brazil it had gone to California, and in the second UFC 1 semifinal fight, the latest battle in the ongoing east/west war featured an American wrestler fighting out of Japan and a Brazilian judoka fighting out of California. And what happened? The wrestler, Ken Shamrock, fell prey to the chancery choke, “Farmer” Burns' Achilles heel. His opponent, Royce Gracie wore a gi, which he used to lock in the strangle. Shamrock, not accustomed to the uniform, and a catch wrestler at heart, naturally positioned himself to dive for the footlock, but it was too late. The choke was sunk and Shamrock tapped.

The ref didn't get it and told them to keep fighting. Two minutes later, after Royce had choked his opponent into submission, the ref was still asking Shamrock if he’d tapped. Shamrock kept nodding. He had.  

Finals: Gerard Gordeau v. Royce Gracie
Total time: 1:44

Someone had told Royce Gracie that Gerard Gordeau had a broken foot and a broken hand. To this day, Gordeau is certain of it, and when the fighters came out of their corners, it definitely seemed like Gracie was staying away from Gordeau's healthy but weaker side, his left. Which is a little suspicious in that you would have expected Gracie to circle away from Gordeau's power, his right hand and his right foot. Of course, Gordeau’s right hand and foot were taped up, so maybe Gracie just made the logical leap—“That guy is injured, his right hand and his right foot”--and went from there. Either way, Gracie wisely attacked Gordeau’s right side and got the takedown with minimal effort about 30 seconds in. Then he got the mount and then he got the back and then he got the choke. Simple as that. Gordeau tapped, Gracie was declared the Ultimate Fighting champion, and the bareknuckle fight, soon to be known as MMA, was back. Boxing was dead. Long live the rightful king.   

Check out part 1 here. 

And check out this related story: 

First Man Standing