Me and the UFC: Part I
“A lot of bad fish are being sold as fresh!”
UFC I: Dutch kick-boxer Gerard Gordeau (above) knocks 330-pound pit-fighter Teila Tuli down with a thunderbolt left to the temple.
I first heard about the Ultimate Fighting Championships in November of 1993 when Howard Stern, The King of All Media, launched into a ten-minute rave, an uncharacteristic wonderment at the inaugural UFC event he had seen the previous night on Pay-Per-View. Stern was incredulous at the skill exhibited by Brazilian Jiu Jitsu expert Royce Gracie.
Royce fought three times in one evening: he submitted American boxer Art Jimmerson in 2:18 seconds with an arm bar. Forty minutes later Royce beat future UFC Hall of Fame member Ken Shamrock in 57 seconds using a sleeve choke. In the finale, Royce strangled Dutch kick-boxing champion (and grizzled street fighter) Gerad Gordeau in 1:44 seconds, this with a rear naked choke. At the time Gracie weighed 175-pounds. By generating 87,000 Pay-Per-View subscribers, the UFC proved it could be financially viable.
I later learned the UFC backstory. In the early 1990s businessman Art Davie proposed to famed Hollywood film director John Milius and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu expert Rorion Gracie that they combine forces to create an eight-man single-elimination tournament that would be called War of the Worlds. John Milius is a Hollywood legend. He wrote two Dirty Harry movies, plus Sudden Impact, Apocalypse Now, 1941, Conan the Barbarian, Red Dawn, Clear and Present Danger and the TV series Rome.
John Milius is a man’s man, a large powerful man, an expert surfer, a Jiu Jitsu belt holder, Milius wrote the famed lines, “Do you feel lucky punk? Well, do you? Go ahead, make my day.” The film director and screenwriter, a Gracie Jiu Jitsu student, agreed to act as the event's creative director. Davie drafted the business plan and helped assemble twenty-eight investors that contributed the initial capital to start WOW Promotions. The intent to develop the tournament into a television franchise.
John Milius insisted that the event have a combat feel, not a sport feel. He designed and created the famed Octagon. I became an immediate fan. This was real world. This was combat fighting. This would sort out which martial art worked, and which ones were bogus. What was the premier self-defense system? What system worked best in violent street situations? Everyone claimed their martial school, their martial system was superior – so let’s find out.
The UFC fights would occur about every six months and it soon became apparent that certain fighting styles had glaring inadequacies when forced to fight in any format other than within their specific school or style. The western boxers were defenseless when taken to the ground – not too difficult because boxers had no defensive training against shoots or takedowns.
The most mind-blowing revelation to emerge from those early UFC fights was how easily the Jiu Jitsu fighters and American wrestlers, the ground fighters, dominated. The standup fighters could not stop being taken to the ground and this eliminated the critical distance needed for the striker to ply his trade. It is hard to strike when you are being smothered or strangled.
Showy karate high kicks proved fatal for the kicker. While high kicks and acrobatic moves are fabulous in the movies, any acrobatic high kick proved easy to capture, with tragic consequences for the kicker, either a counterstrike to the now-exposed groin, or a fundamental sweep of the grounded foot. Equally mind-blowing was how poorly the Olympic gold medal winning Judo champions performed.
The fatal flaw in Judo was that tie-ups were legislated and therefore the Judo champion had no need to master the wrestler’s shoots or takedowns. Because they lacked takedown techniques, elite strikers easily kept the Judo men at bay and picked the Judo men apart with head shots, which the Judokas had no practice avoiding.
Leg kicks to the forward leading knee flummoxed and disabled Judo practitioners. They had never experienced getting punched in the face. In one pathetic fight, a legendary Japanese Judo gold medal winner was unable to break through legendary bad-ass Wanderlei Silva’s hand/fist defensive perimeter. Silva ripped him to shreds, in the end, the Judo champ’s head was swollen to the size of a pumpkin. His only offensive weapon was pathetic hand slaps, for despite being an Olympic champion, he didn’t know how to throw a punch.
I had similar experiences growing up. Jhoon Ree’s original karate studio, later a nationwide chain, started in my neighborhood, initiating the Karate craze of the 1960s. The real fighters, the street fighters, would gather on Saturday night at a local Little Tavern, an eight-seat burger house (with incredibly excellent steamed burgers.) The reigning heavyweight street fighting champion in my neighborhood was a pain-impervious 6-foot, 300-pound rhino of a man named Wendell Pyle.
Wendell would always be at “the porcelain room of the Club LT” on Saturday night ready for any taker who had the $50 (for ‘easy fights’) or $100 for fights against formidable fighters. Wendell loved fighting the Jhoon Ree karate fighters. It was free money: he just waded through their weak-ass punches and kicks (all accompanied by “HEE-YAH!) grabbed them, bear hugged them and either squeezed them into unconsciousness or body slammed them on the pavement – that was reserved for those that happened to have actually hurt Wendell during his one-man stampede.
Wendell never went to the ground because “I don’t want to mess up my best clothes.” He would sit eating burgers and the excellent fries on his favored stool between fights. He would routinely rhino charge two or three karate guys (at $50 bucks a fight) on a busy Saturday night. Wendell also hit really hard, and the “points” Karate fighters had never experienced blows that stun and break bones. Getting punched by Wendell was like backing up, getting a running start, and running into a concrete wall face-first.
I studied the Chinese “Internal” martial arts for five years under American master Robert Smith and I broke with him over his snide dismissal of the UFC. I had fallen out of love with the internal arts as any kind of legitimate fighting form years earlier. Still, as a centering device (tai chi) or as vigorous cardio (Hsing I) I felt the forms had value.
In training Smith would always regale us with legendary fighter tales of the Pa Kua, Hsing I and Tai Chi masters. Smith considered Tai Chi the finest fighting art on the face of the planet. He would relate Tai Chi mottos like, “Two ounces of force can redirect 1,000 pounds.” He told us how easily Ben Lo would whip lineman from the Washington Redskins. I got suspicious when I discovered none of the internal arts ever spared or actually hit or got hit.
I would have loved to have seen 145-pound Ben Lo enter UFC I and easily dispatch Gerard Gordeau, a man with stab wounds and 100 underground fights. He could submit Gerard with a dinky throat punch using three bunched fingers. Then it would have been great to see Ben Lo repeatedly use 2-ounces of force to redirect every one of 260-pound international-level wrestler Dan Severn’s takedown attempts. After submitting an exhausted Severn with a wrist submission, Lo would then win the title by accepting Royce Gracie’s takedown and rendering Gracie unconscious by touching an acupuncture meridian on the side of the Brazilian’s neck.
That never happened.
This was the type of bullocks we were told would occur yet when the opportunity arose, Smith turned venomous. The Aikido guys always talked big talk, but none ever entered the UFC and showed us how is it was to defeat opponents without hurting them.
Fighter’s fight. Why would a fighter, confident in his school and his teacher and tradition, not want to assert that – and be thankful for the opportunity to fight and demonstrate his art’s superiority? Wouldn’t a real fighter want to know how his art stacked up against other schools of fighting?
In the original UFC format was no time limits, no weight classes and a lot more (now) illegal blows and kicks were allowed. Rorian Gracie was all about making the UFC as real as possible. I interviewed Rorian Gracie, Royce’s older brother, way back in the early 1990s when the Ultimate Fighting Championships was experiencing a difficult birth. I wrote a series of pro UFC articles for MILO and Muscle and Fitness. My favorite compliment was after a MILO article Rorian called and said, “Brother! We must break bread together! You get it!” I always regretted not following up on that invite.
The UFC as a concept was being attacked on two fronts: in 1996 political powerhouse senator John McCain proclaimed a vendetta and swore he would stamp out the UFC, branding it “human cockfighting.” The early UFC bouts were chased around the country, one step ahead of law enforcement and frequently forced to shift venues at the last instant. Bouts were put on in remote locales and 36 states banned the UFC outright.
The second source of resistance to the UFC came from an unexpected source: the martial arts community. I had thought that the various martial arts schools would jump at the chance to show the superiority of their fighting style in this unbelievably real format. Every martial school on the planet stresses the self-defense and real-world applicability of their fighting style. Yet, when a reality format came along, excuses were spewed like machine gun fire as to why famed fighters would not participate.
Rorian summed it up eloquently: in reality, most martial arts fighting styles are ineffectual and fraudulent, at best highly choreographed dance routines that had zero real-world self-defense applicability. In his suave style he said, “A lot of bad fish are being sold as fresh!” The excuses for not competing were ridiculous. My favorite being that one particular martial art was so deadly that they were afraid of killing a UFC opponent. It was suggested that they might try and kill Biker Gang bad-ass Tank Abott, 285-pounds of compressed rage, a psychotic man with a 600-pound raw bench press, the pain tolerance of a drugged rhino and concrete fists.
No reply from the Aikido and Tai Chi masters, men that routinely told students how quickly and effortlessly they would dispatch a thug like Tank Abbott if confronted. The Jeet Kune Do boys were a disappointing no-show: this despite building their reputation (and business) on the assertion that JKD was the ultimate for “real” self-defense and that JKD was unbeatable in street situations.
Gracie’s contention was that the dead fish sellers had everything to lose if their top students participated and got their asses beat. Meanwhile the cauliflower-eared wrestlers, Russian Sambo thugs, Jiu Jitsu masters, hardcore Kenpo dudes, real streetfighters, foreign gutter-fighters and Dutch kickboxers begged to be allowed to fight in the Octagon.
Thesis, anthesis, synthesis. In the interceding 25 years, the thesis, the pretend state of martial arts before the UFC - gave way to the anthesis, the battleground of styles, the early UFC sorted out what worked. The synthesis was the emergence of mixed martial arts: rather than be confined to a lone style, study all styles, then pick and choose the most effective and innovative techniques.
The UFC format has evolved beyond recognition and attained unimaginable worldwide popularity. John's Octagon has become the worldwide symbol for modern MMA and the UFC is truly the “war of the worlds” the three visionaries envisioned a quarter century ago.
About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of multiple books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.