Twenty-five years of fighting: How it all started for the UFC

The UFC is approaching a big anniversary this weekend and Simon Head has taken us back in time to where all the fighting again…


This weekend, the UFC returns to the city where it all began – Denver, Colorado – as the organisation celebrates its 25th anniversary with a special UFC Fight Night event.

The event that takes place on Saturday night at the Pepsi Center will look markedly different from the inaugural UFC show in the city on November 12, 1993.

Prior to that event, the UFC was just a pipe dream, but after it took place, the whole martial arts world changed forever.

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Which fighting style is the best?

The inaugural UFC event was an eight-man, one-night tournament staged to decide which combat sports discipline was the most effective.

Can a boxer beat a wrestler? Who would win if a black belt in karate fought a black belt in judo?

These were the sort of questions that prompted UFC founder Art Davie to pull together a line-up of eight fighters, each representing a different fighting style, then put together a one-night tournament to determine the winner – “The Ultimate Fighting Champion.”

Davie’s brainchild was born after coming across the exploits of the now-legendary Gracie family in Brazil. The Gracies developed a special variant of jiu jitsu that focused on fighting on the ground, and the family’s gym fights with visiting challengers – “The Gracie Challenge” – led to the family’s fighting style becoming the talk of the martial arts community.

Davie met Rorion Gracie, the pair hit it off and the ball started rolling on bringing Davie’s idea to life.

After a host of meetings, countless phone calls and a lot of rejections, an event was formulated and set to take place as a pay-per-view event at the McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, where the absence of a state athletic commission meant the fights could legally be held.

The original “Ultimate Fighters”

Davie pulled together a line-up of eight fighters, each representing a different martial art or fighting style, then put together a one-night tournament to determine the winner “The Ultimate Fighting Champion”.

Athletes representing savate (French kickboxing), sumo, kickboxing, kenpo karate, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, boxing, shootfighting and taekwondo converged on the McNichols Sports Arena in Denver for the tournament, with all eight men not 100% sure what they had signed up for.

The tournament format was simple: No rules, no time limits and only one winner. The only stipulations were that there should be no biting and no eye gauging.

Commentator Bill Wallace told viewers at the start of the broadcast: “You are about to see something that you have never seen before.”

He was right.

A shocking start

Any thoughts that the event would be staging fixed fights were immediately shattered in the very first bout of the night, as Dutch savate fighter Gerard Gordeau faced off against sumo wrestler Teila Tuli.

Tuli looked to bullrush Gordeau from the off, but the Dutchman backed up and landed with solid strikes, as the sumo wrestler fell against the fence.

Gordeau then threw a vicious kick to Tuli’s face, sending one of his teeth flying over the heads of the commentary team at octagonside.

It brought the opening bout of the night to a sudden, bloody end. And the shocks kept on coming.

Jiu-jitsu shocks the world

Despite being the smallest man in the tournament by some distance Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace Royce Gracie tore through the competition in the no-holds-barred tournament, submitting cruiserweight boxer Art Jimmerson, then shootfighter Ken Shamrock before choking Gordeau in the tournament final to claim overall victory.

It took Gracie a combined time of just four minutes, 59 seconds to win his three bouts and claim victory as the effectiveness of Brazilian jiu-jitsu was showcased to the world. Quite simply, nobody had an answer to Gracie’s ground-fighting skills.

It was a huge victory for the Gracie family, who aimed to use the tournament to help promote their martial art. And by entering their smallest, weakest-looking family member to take on the competition, it only served to highlight how effective BJJ could be.

Not only did it prove hugely beneficial for the art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, it also delivered a big hit for the UFC’s organisers.

The UFC was born, and a second pay-per-view show followed in March the following year.

A quarter of a century on…

The UFC of today is markedly different to that first show back in 1993.

Rather than being a no-holds-barred spectacle, the UFC is now a bona-fide sports organisation, operating under a regulated set of rules – the Unified Rules of MMA – and overseen by the same state athletic commissions across America that regulate world championship boxing events.

The athletes look completely different nowadays, too. Back in 1993 the tournament featured martial artists from different backgrounds. Today’s athletes are true mixed martial artists.

They may have originated from a single discipline, such as wrestling, kickboxing or jiu-jitsu, but to stand any chance of success in the octagon you have to be proficient at all facets of MMA. The sport of mixed martial arts has evolved swiftly over the past 25 years, and returns to Denver this weekend for a special UFC Fight Night event as one of the most exciting sports on the planet.

From being a one-off, one-night tournament in Denver, the UFC is now a multi-billion-dollar entity with mainstream broadcast deals, and the octagon has played host to some of the most skilled, talented athletes in the world.

Davie, now a UFC Hall of Famer, said in an interview that after walking away from the UFC, he has watched it prosper from afar, much like a divorced father watching his kids being raised by someone else.

But, as he said: “They’re doing alright. They’re doing a good job.”

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