On November 12, 1993, Art Davie and Rorion Gracie started a revolution. Not that they knew it at the time. The pair just wanted to put on an event, which they named the Ultimate Fighting Championship, that would figure out the age-old question of what form of martial arts would be most effective in a real fight.
This year, the UFC will celebrate its 30th anniversary. Seems like Davie and Gracie knew a little something the rest of the world didn’t.
“(The first UFC’s creative director) John Milius and I used to talk about this in terms of what it was and where it was going,” said Davie in 2018. “And John knew that I had been inspired by pankration. My great inspiration for the UFC was not kumite in Asia, it was the fact that for more than a thousand years, the most popular sport and the only sport to rival it was horseracing, was something called pankration. And other than no biting and eye gouging, there was kicking and punching, throws, holds and chokes, grappling and striking, and it lasted for 1,041 years until the Roman Emperor banned it.
“So we used to talk about the fact that down the road, given the fact that maybe soccer and fighting are the two sports that young men and women would be interested in worldwide, in a way it’s not a shock to see how this has grown. And when I’m asked where I think it will be long after I’m gone, it will be bigger. You’ll be crowning the Ultimate Fighting champion and who knows how many people worldwide will be fascinated by that particular bout that night.”
But in 1993, the first UFC event was a mystery, and while Davie and Gracie, along with Milius and Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG), home to Campbell McLaren and Bob Meyrowitz, were in, the rest of the world – maybe even the fighters who competed at McNichols Sports Arena in Colorado that November night – had no idea what to expect.
Kickboxing great Kathy Long, who called the fights alongside Bill Wallace and Jim Brown, had an idea.
“I was used to Kung Fu San Soo, and if you're familiar with that martial art, we stick our fingers in people's eyes and hit them in the windpipe and stomp on their knee and grab their testicles and crush them, so in that respect, that kind of fighting, I was not a stranger to,” Long said in 2021.
There would be none of that at UFC I, though everything else was legal except for biting, groin shots, and eye gouging, and while there were some fighters with impressive resumes in their respective arts on that first card, the two that stood out to the casual fan were Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie. One looked like he could walk through a brick wall, the other like a stiff wind might knock him over. And though many combat sports insiders believed the UFC was simply an advertisement for Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, Rorion didn’t select the most intimidating member of his family – Rickson – to compete in the first eight-man tournament.
“I was eager to have Rickson (Gracie) be the Gracie athlete and (UFC co-founder) Rorion (Gracie), by July, had not made a selection,” recalled Davie. “In May, I’m getting people responding to my ads in the magazines and my faxes and my phone calls. And Rorion said, ‘You know, forget my political problems with Rickson; it would be better to have Royce.’ I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘He looks like a little altar boy in that white gi. If he wins the event, it’s the Bruce Lee thing. A little guy with skill can beat a big guy.’ They wanted to see if the skill was going to be dominant. Ken Wayne Shamrock looked like Captain America. And with that name, it was a marquee name, he had that handsome face, that big jaw, the muscles and the red speedo. If he wins, I’m not sure we’d be talking today.”
Royce Gracie, 26, got the nod for the first UFC, and all the pressure that came along with it. But like he was throughout his entire career, he was cool, calm, and collected.
“At the same time that I knew there was pressure, they were also taking away the pressure by giving me enough confidence,” Gracie said. “That’s what Gracie Jiu-Jitsu gives to you – it gives you confidence. It’s like you’ve seen that movie before; it’s just about getting in there and doing it. They were telling me, ‘When you get in there, it’s just one man against another. It’s just you and him.’ And there was no mystery in that. You’re not fighting five people; you’re fighting one guy only, so don’t worry about it.”
Gracie fought three men in Denver, submitting Art Jimmerson, Shamrock and Gerard Gordeau to win the first UFC tournament. A star – and a sport – was born in the United States.
The Brazilian went on to win two more tournaments and fight Shamrock to a draw in their 1995 rematch before heading to Japan, and by then, the UFC was off to the races, with Shamrock joined by a new array of stars like American wrestlers Dan Severn, Don Frye and Mark Coleman, Russian standout Oleg Taktarov, and the always entertaining brawler Tank Abbott.
As the years went on, the sport evolved to include judges’ decisions, weight classes, and the addition of gloves. Controversy would follow, though, with the marketing of the time drawing the ire of politicians and dumping the UFC off pay-per-view.
“We were losing money on every show,” Meyrowitz said. “We were banned on cable, and I was in court wherever we went.”
Behind the scenes, the sport – now being called mixed martial arts instead of no holds barred - had to go through an almost endless stream of on-the-fly changes to make the sport safer for its competitors, exciting for its fans, and on the same level as other combat sports. If MMA was ever going to break the chains holding it back, the change had to come from within. And but September of 2000, the biggest change arrived in the form of the long in the works Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts that were accepted by the prestigious New Jersey State Athletic Control Board, and UFC 28 in November of 2000 was the first event held under the rules that still govern the sport today.
Containing several weight classes, judging criteria, ways to win a fight, safety regulations and over 30 fouls, these rules are the bible by which MMA is run, focusing on fighter safety and fair play.
“Every show, something would happen, and we would make a rule about it, or I would learn something where I said don’t ever do this, don’t ever do that,” said referee John McCarthy, who, along with commentator and former Olympian Jeff Blatnick and matchmaker Joe Silva, helped come up with the initial draft of the rules. “It was a progression, and luckily, over time, things evolved.”
That was the good news. The bad news was that the UFC was in financial trouble and on the brink of extinction.
White and the Fertitta brothers were longtime friends, and when the trio found out the UFC was for sale, they formed a new company – Zuffa – and bought the promotion in January of 2001.
That was the easy part. The hard part was fixing a damaged brand, getting the sport back on cable and regulated by athletic commissions in all 50 states and around the world. Well, in Italian, Zuffa means “to fight,” and a long fight was just beginning.
Meanwhile, fans started to get on board again as new stars like Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, Matt Hughes and BJ Penn delivered memorable performances in a sport that had evolved past style versus style into matchups where the more skilled, better conditioned, and more determined athlete emerged victorious. Fighters couldn’t be one-dimensional and win on a consistent basis, and the elite fighters were the ones who could handle themselves wherever a fight went.
By UFC 33 in September of 2001, the sport was back on pay-per-view (and sanctioned in the “Fight Capital of the World,” Las Vegas) and a 2002 SuperFight between Ortiz and Shamrock garnered more than its share of mainstream media attention. Yet by late-2004, things weren’t looking good financially, and Zuffa was close to throwing in the towel.
“It was brutal,” said White, the UFC President. “We were waiting any day for the plug to be pulled. We felt like we were getting momentum and getting traction, but it wasn’t enough to dig us out of the hole that we were in, and it didn’t look like there was any light at the end of the tunnel.”
Lorenzo Fertitta decided that the company was simply losing too much money to remain viable, and one night he told White to look for a buyer. The next morning, he changed his mind and told his partner that he was willing to give it one more shot.
“Boom, ‘The Ultimate Fighter,’” said White of the reality show that took viewers into the lives of a collection of rising MMA stars looking for their big break. After a stay together in a Las Vegas house, the finalists of the series’ tournaments at 185 and 205 pounds would then compete live on Spike TV for a UFC contract.
On April 9, 2005, Diego Sanchez defeated Kenny Florian for the TUF 1 middleweight contract. Then came the light heavyweights, Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar, and after a 15-minute thriller, the fortunes of both fighters, and the UFC, had changed forever.
Griffin, the winner of the fight, and Bonnar, both got UFC contracts. The UFC got a new lease on life, as Spike TV signed on for another season of TUF, and fans watching at home couldn’t get enough of mixed martial arts in the Octagon.
The Ultimate Fighter helped chip at myths and misconceptions about pro mixed martial artists, and Griffin and Bonnar tore them down completely. Griffin was a former police officer with a BA degree in Political Science from the University of Georgia; Bonnar, a Purdue University grad with a degree in Sports Medicine. They were educated, witty, and affable. They also liked getting into sanctioned fistfights, and at the time of TUF 1, the two were prospects in a sport where, at the time, being an up and comer meant you weren’t making any money. The Ultimate Fighter was the way out for the winner, because victory in the tournament meant a six-figure contract with the UFC.
And as the pair became stars in the Octagon, that Octagon had to get its passport in order. In 2007, international expansion began with a return to England in 2007, and soon, the UFC was delivering shows all around the world.
Back home in the U.S., boxing hall of famer Marc Ratner joined the team and led the fight to get MMA sanctioned in all 50 states, a goal he completed, and when you add in the deals with Endeavor, ESPN, Fox Sports, Reebok, Venum and so many others, it is clear that three decades after it launched, the UFC is indeed the fastest growing sport in the world, something made clear every time the men and women of the sport compete in the Octagon and show just how combat sports has evolved.
No longer the spectacle it often was in the early days, UFC fights can cover the gamut of martial arts, with devastating knockouts, slick submissions, wars of attrition, technical battles, and all-out action fights that put fans on the edge of their seat from start to finish. And with these fights featuring former Olympians, decorated grapplers, black belts in all forms of martial arts, and old-school brawlers, it’s clear that the UFC has stood the test of time as the ultimate proving ground.
But this is not an ending. Thirty years in, the story of the UFC has just begun.