If you had asked Mark Coleman what he was up to in early 1996, he probably would have told you he was gearing up to earn a spot on another U.S. Olympic wrestling squad after his seventh-place finish in the 1992 games. But looking back now, "The Hammer" can admit that this is only partially true.
"I was still trying to be a competitive wrestler at 31 years of age, but really I was fooling myself," he said. "I just wasn't putting in the grind and the time I needed to put in. I wasn't really training like an Olympic champion. I was training like a bum, to be perfectly honest."
When he lost in the semifinals of the Olympic trials that year, Coleman knew he had only himself to blame. He hadn't worked hard enough, hadn't wanted it badly enough. Now his wrestling career was over and he had no idea what he was going to do with his life next. He didn't have to wait long before he got an offer that changed everything.
"I went and lost at the Olympic trials, and that's when a manager approached me and said, 'You want to fight in 30 days at UFC 10?' He also put this to [American wrestlers] Mark Kerr and Tom Erickson the same day and asked them the same question. I don't think they gave him the right answer. I think they wanted to take the contract home and show it to some attorneys or something. But I talked my way into the UFC. I told this guy, I'm the man for job."
That guy was trainer/manager Richard Hamilton, who'd already helped shepherd several decorated wrestlers into the UFC. He was at the trials looking for his next big pickup, Coleman said, after his past relationships with fighters had fallen apart.
"Everybody had a falling out with this guy for a reason. I won't give what the reason was, just a reason. Dan Severn left him. Don Frye left him. I'll say this for him, he did notice that wrestlers were the wave of the future and he did go after us."
After watching the UFC on TV for the past couple years, Coleman had a vague idea of what to expect. The first time he saw a UFC fight, he said, he thought "it couldn't be real." The concept of cage fights with no rules and no weight classes just seemed too far out there, yet the fights themselves also seemed too brutal and too messy to be choreographed. Once he realized it was legitimate, it seemed like a wrestler's dream, and Coleman couldn't wait to try it. He wanted a spot in the tournament so badly, in fact, that he said he didn't closely examine the contract he'd signed with Hamilton.
"I just wanted in UFC 10. I wanted in there and thought the ramifications for signing a bad contract was something I'd deal with later, which I did."
In the month between signing the contract and stepping in the Octagon for the first time, Coleman didn't have a lot of gym time to learn striking technique or submission defense. He did, however, have a pretty solid game plan.
"Take these cats down and pound them out," he said. "That was the plan from day one."
On July 12, 1996, Coleman showed up at the Fairgrounds Arena in Birmingham, Ala., feeling pretty good about his chances. He'd have to win three fights in one night to claim the UFC 10 tournament title. His first opponent was Israeli heavyweight martial arts champion Moti Horenstein, who Coleman felt couldn't possibly stop him.
"All the wrestlers, we were a family and we really felt like we were unappreciated, like we were some of the toughest cats in the world. Not just me -- a lot of my friends. So I walked in with a lot of confidence, especially knowing I was fighting a stand-up guy. I knew the game plan and I knew it was going to work. I walked in thinking, this really isn't going to be fair. But as I was walking to the cage, that worm of doubt worked its way into my head. It got pretty tense then."
With just over 4,000 people in attendance and a meager pay-per-view audience at home, it wasn't the bright lights of the big time that had Coleman nervous. After all, he'd wrestled in the Olympics and won an NCAA championship at Ohio State. He had plenty of experience in big matches with big stakes. What had him worried was a sudden fear of the unknown. Despite his long career as a wrestler, he'd never done this before. Maybe he wasn't ready for what was about to happen.
"I was very confident walking in, until right when I got on the ramp and that's when it hit me: holy s--t, I'm fighting a karate world champion. What if he does have some Bruce Lee crazy spinning back kick or something that's going to knock me out?"
If Horenstein had such a move in his bag of tricks, he never got to use it. Coleman took him down and pounded him out exactly according to plan. A little under three minutes after it had started, Coleman's MMA debut was in the books and he was on to the semifinal round at UFC 10. There he would face "Big Daddy" Gary Goodridge, who, with five UFC fights to his credit, was a veteran compared to Coleman.
In the years since, Coleman and Goodridge have become close friends. They spent time together on the Japanese circuit in Pride Fighting Championships, and they really got to like one another. But that night in Alabama, there was no fellow feeling. There was money at stake, after all, and they spent a grueling seven minutes in the cage together to decide who would go home with it.
Coleman's superiority on the mat and conditioning edge eventually proved to be the difference-maker, as Goodridge finally gassed out and submitted. The bout took its toll on Coleman too, but he still had one more fight before he could claim the tournament title. This time he'd be going up against the man his manager had conditioned him to despise: UFC 8 winner Don Frye.
"[Hamilton] had a student come in and tell me Don Frye broke his knee on purpose and this and that. Honestly, I'm not a hateful person, but they tried to create some anger and some hate in me towards Don Frye and it kind of worked," Coleman said. "I thought Don Frye was a bad guy, a cocky guy, and I went in there with bad intentions. Nothing more than normal I guess, but I really wanted to beat him for this guy who had his knee broken. But I think in the end it was all made up. I don't know for sure."
Both men came into the cage for the final fight looking worn down and battle weary, but after a combined 15 minutes in the cage between his two earlier fights, Frye seemed to be the worse off of the two. Coleman quickly put Frye on his back, pinned his head against the fence, and went to work with right hands on Frye's already damaged face.
When the action drifted over toward Coleman's corner, Hamilton was there to berate Frye from outside the cage, screaming for Coleman to punish him from the top. Even when the fight returned to the feet, Frye couldn't keep it there against the much larger Coleman.
But no matter how Coleman tried, he couldn't make the other man quit. Frye kept taking whatever Coleman dished out, and soon even Coleman had to admit that he was dealing with one tough individual, no matter what he'd been told about him before.
"At the eight to ten minute mark, I was looking this guy in the eye and feeling a lot of emotions go through my body," Coleman said. "Like jeez, why aren't they stopping this fight? I wanted them to stop it. I wasn't really enjoying it at that point. But back then, you know, you had to tap out. They didn't like to stop it unless you tapped out. I wanted them to stop it because I couldn't finish the cat."
After a brutal and exhausting eleven and a half minutes, a couple of Coleman headbutts (totally legal at the time) finally convinced referee "Big" John McCarthy to call a stop to it. Frye had taken a severe beating at the hands of Coleman, but he'd also made a lasting impression on the man who'd come into the cage hating him that night.
"There's a difference between the best and the toughest. Don was very good, but he wasn't the best. He was certainly the toughest guy I ever fought in my life though, and he proved that many times. Thank God Big John stepped in and stopped it."
Though Frye and Coleman gained a measure of begrudging respect for one another that night, they didn't exactly become best friends. Not yet, anyway.
"Don Frye, as I understand, did not like me for a long time after that," Coleman said. "He hated me, in fact. He wanted a rematch real bad, because that's just the kind of cat he is. By the time we rematched four or five years later over in Japan, by that time we were good buddies. To this day, I respect him about as much as I respect anybody."
After it was all over, Coleman was utterly exhausted from his frantic first foray into MMA. He was also "addicted" to the budding sport, and he knew he'd found his new career, even if he had no idea that it would one day take him across the Pacific to Japan and into the UFC Hall of Fame. All he knew at the time was that victory in the cage was a great feeling, and he had to have more.
"This was something I grew up wanting since I was five years old, even though there wasn't this sport then," Coleman said. "It's respect, I guess. It's knowing no one's going to mess with you. Stopping was the furthest thing from my mind. I couldn't wait until the next show."
Check out past installments of My First Fight, including Joe Benavidez, Matt Lindland, and Jorge Rivera.