Revisiting UFC 9: The Night MMA Lost Its Punches

Fightland Blog

By Dan Shapiro

Walking around Detroit’s Cobo Arena on the afternoon of May 17, 1996, UFC heavyweight Dan Severn was just certain that he would be victorious in his UFC 9 Super Fight against Ken Shamrock that evening.

“The Beast,” as Severn had affectionately become known by then, was in the midst of the final preparations for his eleventh UFC bout, a rematch against Shamrock, who won their previous matchup less than a year earlier. But with just a few hours remaining until fight time, Severn was still unsure if he would even be allowed to make the walk from his dressing room to the Octagon in front of his hometown, Michigan crowd.

Suddenly, referee John McCarthy arrived on the scene to confirm that UFC 9 had been given the green light from the Wayne County Circuit court. But there would be a few changes to the rule set for the night: punching, with a closed fist, along with head butts would be prohibited.

“On the day of the event, we did not know if the event was going to take place or not,” recalls Severn. “Sometime around five o’clock … Big John McCarthy … went into each room and basically gave us how the rules had to be conducted for that event for that evening.”

It was an unprecedented change to the nascent sport of MMA that was still in its heyday of embracing violence and brutality for entertainment value. But Bob Meyrowitz, the CEO of Semaphore Entertainment Group, the UFC’s original parent company, was left with no other option, after the Wayne County Prosecuting attorney and the State Attorney General attempted to shut down the event for violating the Michigan prize fighting statute. Athletes like Severn, Shamrock, Don Frye, and Olympic gold medalist Mark Schultz would have no choice but to forego all of their striking for the night.

For Severn, an accomplished wrestler, the new, temporary rule set did little to alter his initial game plan. Relying on “strategic mental warfare” and “manipulation,” Severn paced his way to a 30-minute, split decision win over Shamrock to cement his trifecta of UFC victories, adding the Super Fight title to his win at UFC 5, and the 1996 Ultimate Ultimate, a tournament of champions. The Super Fight, which essentially boiled down to a late takedown by Severn, and the ensuing top position and ground control, would go on to earn the dubious distinction of MMA’s worst, as the crowd of 11,000-plus chanted “bullshit,” “boring,” and “Red Wings,” heckling Severn and Shamrock, even going so far as to throw garbage into the cage.

“A lot of people hated that match and they hated it for very obvious reasons. There wasn’t much action taking place. But at the same token, it was the most well thought out match that had ever taken place,” recalls Severn, twenty years after the fact. “I came up with my strategy of how am I gonna piss off 10,000 people in an arena. And guess what, I succeeded. I pissed off all these fans watching.”

With Severn playing the villain at UFC 9, the event also had its unlikely hero, a defense attorney by the name of Norman Lippitt, a Detroit-based lawyer who represented Meyrowitz, SEG, and the UFC. And while Lippitt was able to broker a deal between the UFC and the Wayne County Circuit court in the chambers of the Honorable Arthur Lombard mere hours before the event, the litigation to save UFC 9 began weeks earlier, when Lippitt filed a petition to have the case heard in federal court.

With judge Avern Cohn presiding, Lippitt and the UFC attempted to block the motion to have the event cancelled. Familiar with Cohn’s temper and knack for berating lawyers and defendants, Lippitt was also convinced that the tenured judge would ultimately side with the UFC. However, despite Cohn’s compliance with the promotion, the United States Court of Appeals reversed the decision, and the legal battle was sent back to the state level. Judge Lombard would only be able available on May 16, the day before the fight, to hear from both sides.

“Cobo Hall, where they booked the fight, was booked solid, 14-thousand customers,” comments Lippitt. “The day we went into Arthur Lombard’s courtroom, to have Arthur Lombard decide whether we was going to enjoin the fight, we went into court—the place was packed, television cameras, everything from all over the place… it couldn’t be stopped.”

For his part, Judge Lombard was adamant that there was to be no closed-fist punching, no kicking, no head butts, and no biting at the event. But rather than enter an official and binding legal order to bar strikes, the judge merely stated that Lippitt and Meyrowitz were to instruct fighters on the revised rule set. Facing a contempt-of-court violation for not following the judge’s decision, Lippitt and Meyrowitz also knew that the unofficial nature of the judge’s ruling created a legal loophole that could save the event.

“The judge never entered an order that it would be stopped, and the judge never entered an order that they couldn’t do closed-fist punching. The only order the judge entered was that we should advise them not to do it,” adds Lippitt. “That’s why we were not held in contempt of court. The court never ordered no closed-fist punching. The court ordered ‘please instruct your fighters not to do it’ and we instructed them.”

On the surface, the Wayne County District Court was satisfied with Judge Lombard’s ruling. Closed-fist punches were to be outlawed, but when referee McCarthy went backstage to brief the fighters, he was both transparent and vague with his instructions, leaving Olympic champion wrestler Mark Schultz a bit unclear with the rules.

Schultz, who had only signed his bout agreement the day of the fight, had never competed in a professional MMA bout prior to UFC 9. But when his training partner Dave Beneteau went down with an injury on the eve of the bout, Schultz stepped in on short notice to take on UFC veteran Gary Goodridge.

Perhaps it was the revised rule set that gave Schultz, a decorated grappler, an edge over the striking-centric Goodridge, but just hours before the fight, the Olympian still needed clarification on what was and wasn’t allowed.

“When Big John McCarthy, the referee, came by our rooms right before the fight he said ‘there’ll be no closed fists … show me a closed fist,’ so I made a closed fist and he said ‘now show me an open fist’ and I made a karate chop,” recounts Schultz of his only UFC experience. “And he goes ‘no, this is open’ and he made a regular fist and pulled his thumb away from his fist … and he said ‘if you violate this rule we’re going to fine you 50 dollars per violation. But as far as when we’re going to collect that will be just whenever’. In other words, punch all you want.”

For the most part Schultz avoided punches, using his superb takedown game to smother Goodridge on the ground. Schultz would go on to win the bout via TKO, but no one ever came collecting for the financial penalties he was supposed to encounter.

“There was no teeth to the regulation about the no punching in the fight,” offers former UFC Executive Producer Campbell McLaren, who currently helms the Combate Americas MMA promotion. “You can have a law, but if there isn’t a punishment attached to that law … that wasn’t a non-issue but it was a sort of ‘wink wink’ issue.”

Meanwhile, backstage, headliner Severn was carefully observing the undercard bouts, hoping to see what would be allowed by the referees. And while McCarthy was doing little to stop competitors from striking, Severn was still dead set on implementing his slow, countering game plan.

“The very first match I see head butts and I see closed fists being thrown,” adds Severn. “I’m hearing ‘warning, warning, warning, warning,’ but I see no points being deducted or nothing. Game on.”

Still, when it came time for his bout with Shamrock, “The Beast” opted to circle around the perimeter of the cage while his opponent controlled the center of the Octagon. And when McCarthy eventually pushed the fighters to engage, Severn was having none of it, going so far as to invite the referee to join in the action for an impromptu “triangular death match.” McCarthy declined the offer.

Severn would go on to claim his lone UFC Super Fight title that night. The boring affair, that was partially a by-product of the revised rules suggested by the court, would be Severn’s last win under the UFC banner. It would also be the final Octagon appearance for Schultz, who was pressured by his then-employer, Brigham Young University, to step away from mixed martial arts.

And while Schultz’s MMA career was cut short because BYU felt his involvement in the UFC was bad for the school’s reputation, his lone win inside the Octagon did provide some much needed relief and focus to his life.

“[UFC 9] definitely got my mind off of the murder. It refocused my mind on something much more intense and much more immediate and so it helped in that respect,” states Schultz, who was fighting less than four months after his brother, and fellow gold medalist, Dave was shot and killed by John Eleuthère du Pont. “It was good to win at UFC 9 because until then I had always considered myself going out a loser because of DuPont. When I won at UFC 9, I ended my career going out a winner. It made me happy again.”

With Severn and Schultz both adding to their combat sports legacies that night, and Lippitt having his lone encounter with the UFC and MMA, UFC 9 will ultimately be remembered for its lack luster main event. But beyond the legal battle and the punch-less Super Fight, the event, which was officially entitled “Motor City Madness,” left a lasting impression on the rapidly evolving sport of MMA.

“I wanted to bring in the big wrestlers… to counter the Brazilian jiu jitsu dominance … [MMA] hadn’t evolved into really striking and wrestling it was more like wrestling and a little bit of pounding,” recalls McLaren. “It’s a really important fight in that you start to see that if you don’t have finishing moves, having a ground game without finishing moves is of no value. I think that’s where ground and pound starts …  it’s kind of an important fight for the development of the sport.”


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