Before there was Conor McGregor or Ronda Rousey, there was Teila Tuli, a hulking Hawaiian sumo wrestler who had some teeth knocked out in Ultimate Fighting Championship’s first bout.
On Nov. 12, 1993, the 410-pound Tuli, dressed in a colorful Samoan sarong, fought a wiry Dutchman dressed in white drawstring pants named Gerard Gordeau, who checked in at half Tuli’s weight. The idea of the elimination-style event at Denver’s McNichols Arena was to pit contrasting martial arts styles against one another to determine “the best,” and Tuli’s slow-moving sumo skills stood no chance against Gordeau’s swift savate moves.
After Tuli fell like a redwood, nearly bringing down the original octagon’s chain-link walls, Gordeau finished him with a kick to the face. That’s when the Hawaiian lost his teeth. One flew into the audience; another implanted into Gordeau’s foot.
“The crowd went silent,” recalled UFC Hall of Famer Ken Shamrock in an interview accompanying a 2006 DVD of the event. “At that moment, everybody realized what the UFC was really about. That was the fight that set the tone.”
Mixed martial arts had announced its arrival, but it would take years for the UFC to become the $4 billion business talent agency WME-IMG purchased in July. Even current UFC President Dana White was not an immediate fan, describing the “freak show” as “absolutely nuts.”
Exactly 23 years later, the sport is set for its biggest moment: Saturday’s UFC 205 at Madison Square Garden, its long-awaited marquee event on one of sport’s most hallowed stages.
“It’s an iconic building where lots of great fights and other types of events have happened,” said White, a former boxer, of the venue that doubles as a shrine to boxing. “It’s big.”
Since that first night in front of about 5,000 fans in Denver, however, the UFC’s path has been anything but smooth.
Depending upon whom you ask, UFC 1 was the brainchild of Brooklyn advertising executive Art Davie, jujitsu master Rorian Gracie or pay-per-view television boss Bob Meyerowitz. It’s likely, though, that none of it would have happened if the trio hadn’t come together just months in advance of the 1993 event.
In Davie’s 2014 memoir, “Is This Legal? The Inside Story of The First UFC from the Man Who Created It,” he called the creation of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, later renamed UFC 1: The Beginning, “a quest that consumed my entire life.” After unsuccessfully pitching the idea as a marketing scheme to a Tecate beer importer in the late ’80s, Davie wrote, he resurrected it once enrolling in jujitsu classes at Gracie’s gym in Torrance, Calif., home of the “Gracie Challenge.”
Based on Brazil’s “vale tudo” contests, which lure fighters of all backgrounds for unarmed, hand-to-hand combat, the Gracie Challenge dangled a $100,000 reward to any comer who could beat the host or one of his brothers. Few tried, none succeeded, but an idea struck Gracie.
“I realized I had to leave my garage if I wanted to introduce jujitsu to the world, and I knew I would need the TV to do it,” Gracie recalled to MMA Fighting in 2013. “That’s when I had the idea to create a tournament where every martial art would fight to see which one is the best.”
Meyerowitz, the head of Semaphore Entertainment Group, said he too always wondered which fighting style would reign supreme. Ahead of his UFC Hall of Fame induction ceremony this summer, he recalled pitching the concept of a tournament to his employees.
“Everybody liked the idea,” Meyerowitz told UFC.com. “Of course, I was the head of the company, so you could expect that. At the next meeting, they said, ‘What about jujitsu, what about wrestling?’ I said, ‘Fine. We can do it so they can all fight. I’d like to see it.’ ”
Turns out, so did a fair amount of Americans. The Denver show was declared a “success” by the Los Angeles Times, the only major newspaper to write about the event. According to The Times, UFC 1 was bought by 65,000 American households at $14.95 each. Today’s UFC pay-per-view rates can exceed 1.5 million buys at $49.99-$59.99 a pop.
“It was super intriguing,” said Urijah Faber, one of those initial viewers and a man who would later become a UFC bantamweight No. 1 contender. “It was pitting boxers, with a guy wearing one glove, [against] a big, fat sumo guy, a white dude with a mullet missing his teeth. . . . It was just like the wildest thing you can imagine.”
It also remains one of the most lopsided events in MMA history. The “big, fat sumo guy” didn’t win, neither did kickboxer Kevin Rosier, whom the L.A. Times’s television critic described as “a roly-poly 265-pounder . . . who wore his trunks over his belly like Martin Short’s Ed Grimley.” Gordeau, who greeted the rowdy crowd with a traditional martial arts salute, fared the best of all the losers, making the finals before succumbing to one of Rorion Gracie’s brothers.
“To do a tournament, like it was in the beginning, three fights, four fights in one night, it’s very hard,” Royce Gracie, the victor, recalled on the UFC 1 DVD.
Gracie used his superior ground skills to submit all three of his opponents, including Art Jimmerson, a talented boxer who haplessly entered the octagon sporting one glove.
The event ended with Rorion Gracie awarding Royce Gracie an oversized novelty check for $50,000. The memo read, “For being the best.”
From ‘freak show’ to ‘real sport’
One need only tune into Saturday’s event to realize that the UFC of yesteryear looks little like today’s version. There is no sumo wrestler taking on an expert in a French style of kickboxing. There are no judokas or boxers or wrestlers or taekwondo specialists.
“The specialist is nonexistent,” said Faber, 37, whose final fight is scheduled for December. “Everybody’s a mixed martial artist.”
There were three rules at UFC 1 that were only loosely followed — no eye gouging, no biting and no groin striking. Fighters weren’t allowed to wear hand protection, leading to injuries. Referees weren’t allowed to stop a fight; only a fighter, a fighter’s corner or a doctor could do so. And weight classes weren’t even a forethought. Style was supposed to defy size and it did, as Gordeau showed Tuli.
It didn’t take long for things to start changing. By UFC 3, referees were allowed to stop fights. By UFC 9, the promotion had done away with the elimination-style format. By UFC 12, weight classes were introduced. Other rules followed to create what became known in 2001 as the Unified Rules of MMA, which now govern all aspects of the sport from what fighters are allowed to wear (gone are Gracie’s gi, which provided leverage over opponents, and Jimmerson’s boxing glove, which was useless) to illegal moves.
Still disallowed are eye gouges, bites and groin strikes, as well as head-butting, hair-pulling, fish-hooking, attacking small joints, poking fingers in open wounds, striking the spine, grabbing the throat and clawing. Longtime MMA journalist Dave Meltzer, who re-watched UFC 1 a couple of years ago, recalled thinking, “Every single thing they’re doing here is illegal now.”
The free-for-all-affair nature also created a marketing crisis for the sport.
“You’re seeing back then, ‘No holds barred,’ ‘Two men enter the cage and one man leaves,’ like something crazy or someone was gonna die,” White said last week. “So, they were advertising this thing with all this crazy hype and drama that wasn’t necessarily true.
“If you see my fingers — they’re really close together right now — that’s how many people want to see a freak show,” White continued. “Now spread your arms as wide as you can. That’s how many people want to see a real sport.”
UFC hit its nadir in the mid-90s when Sen. John McCain famously dubbed MMA “human cockfighting” and penned letters to every state governor in an effort to outlaw the sport. He nearly succeeded, too, with dozens of states implementing bans, including California and New York. UFC began to bleed money as it became difficult to book shows for pay-per-view broadcasts. Following New York’s decision to ban the sport in 1997, a news release from David Meyrowitz, an attorney representing Semaphore, called it “censorship — pure and simple.”
White, however, sides with the Republican senator, saying McCain “was right and we agree.”
In 2001, White got his chance to implement change. He and two casino magnate brothers, Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, formed the parent company Zuffa and bought the UFC for $2 million after discovering it was on the brink of financial ruin.
“The big thing that moved the sport ahead was when Zuffa got involved,” said Faber, the longtime fighter. “They were the ones that decided to make it mainstream.”
The sport craved legitimacy, and White and his partners sought to establish it. For one, the UFC predominantly now resides in Las Vegas, the “Fight Capital of the World,” while UFC 1 was held in Colorado because it was one of just three states without a fight commission.
“We went to all the athletic commissions and we wanted to be sanctioned by them,” White said. “We didn’t try to run from regulation; we wanted regulation.”
Zuffa also sought a higher authority to administer UFC’s anti-doping policy. There was no drug or medical testing at the time of UFC 1, save for a blood screening and an on-site physical. Now overseen by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, the UFC has some of the harshest punishments for violators in all of professional sports. First time violators are subject to automatic two-year bans.
Even McCain now approves of the cleaned up version of the UFC, which continues to break barriers, including the New York ban that until earlier this year barred the promotion’s events from the state.
“It’s great to finally be in New York, but it should’ve happened a long time ago,” White said.
While White called Saturday’s Madison Square Garden show a “milestone,” he said it’s only another step. Pointing out the international flavor of UFC 205’s card, in which three of the six fighters in its triad of title fights hail from outside the United States, White predicted MMA will land in the Olympics.
“We should be in the Olympics right now, to tell you the truth,” White said, listing off disciplines that MMA incorporates that are already Olympic sports, including boxing, taekwondo, wrestling and judo. “Basically everything that we already do is an Olympic sport. We’re just all combined into one.”
With the UFC landing on the sacred ground of Madison Square Garden and pushing toward bigger goals, veteran journalist Meltzer said, “It’s evolved 200 years in 23 years as far as the style, the production, everything.”
As for recently re-watching the sport’s first bout? “It was like traveling to a different world,” he said.