Gerard Gordeau was a karate champion from The Hague, who had a mixed martial arts career that spanned 18 months in theory, but realistically lasted just two experimental nights.
The first night, on Nov. 12, 1993, was the historical one. Gordeau showed up to Denver, Colo. as a Kyojushin Karate exemplar, to test his style in the medley of combat sports. The first UFC was an eight-man tournament with only the loosest set of rules, most in place to keep the thing from slipping off into something altogether felonious. The winner of this black market affair -- originally conceptualized to have a medieval moat with circling alligators -- would receive $50,000. And so disciplines and body frames of all stripes, sizes and nationalities were loosed on one other to determine who would be the Ultimate Fighting champion.
At the time Jean-Claude Van Damme had the market for this sort of underground. Plenty of people believed that karate, when done by masters, was unparalleled. That kicks, if done by masters, would have fools flying into the rafters. Gordeau didn’t look like Van Damme, nor did he hold his hands with the tops of his fingers curled into chops. Though he was an eight-time karate champion with nearly 30 victories, he had an unamused face with virtually no expression at all. He was a 6-foot-5 figure in an everyman’s body.
Yet he was violence personified. In the UFC’s first ever bout he fought the Hawaiian sumo wrestler Teila Tuli, ceding over 200 pounds in the exchange. What happened next has become part of company lore.
Gordeau kicked Tuli in the face just 20 seconds into the bout. As lore goes, something like a thousand teeth scattered like confetti. Some of them flew onto the press table. Some of them into the stands at McNichols Arena. A couple of them were embedded in Gordeau’s foot, and would need to be extracted when he got back to The Hague, some 4,500 miles away. Tuli, it seems in the retellings, had more teeth than your average pacu fish.
In any event, Gordeau won the first ever UFC bout, and set the thing on its course to history.
"I was invited to try something new," the Dutchman, now 54, told MMA Fighting via a translator. "It was exciting event and the first one of its kind. We wanted to find out what we could do with our styles at that time, which was karate, savate, judo, wrestling."
And Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which exploded onto the North American scene that night when the all-too-human-looking Royce Gracie made short work of the field. After Gordeau defeated the kickboxer Kevin Rosier in the semi-finals, he would face the fourth-degree black belt Gracie in the finals. Gracie had already gotten through Ken Shamrock, who was believed to be the killer of the bracket. Unbeknownst to many at the time, Gracie was in the process of becoming a VHS legacy that would inspire half of today’s UFC roster to get involved in the sport.
Gracie was the man in the gi who was quietly redefining fighting, and yet Gordeau was the last man in his way. Fates met at the original crossroads.
Gordeau entered the cage with a slight limp, because (obviously) he had Tuli’s teeth fragments in his foot. That foot was bandaged. Gracie wasted no time. He shot in, forcing Gordeau to one-leg hop to the fence, which he immediately grabbed to stay upright. Even in the uncivilized early days of "no holds barred" fighting, grabbing the fence was strictly verboten, so the referee threw out his reprimand from afar. Gordeau let go. After a small delay, Royce took him down with a trip. Then Royce was in mount, dropping head butts. As Gordeau applied a sort of big brotherly half-nelson, Gracie coolly took Gordeau’s back. Somewhere in there, Gordeau sank his own teeth into Gracie’s famous gi.
"If you go down, you might as well give him something to remember you by," Gordeau laughs today.
Gracie quickly secured the rear-naked choke and Gordeau tapped. And Gracie held onto it and Gordeau tapped again. He tapped and tapped until the referee made it clear he’d saw it.
And that was it. Gordeau was finished, and Gracie became a vanguard to a new fight game movement. Former NFL great Jim Brown, who was cameo commentating that first UFC alongside Bill Wallace and Kathy Long, bellowed, "I found my sport."
He wasn’t alone in the discovery. Brazilian jiu-jitsu was real.
"At that time Royce was the best fighter, yet nobody knew BJJ at that time and I made all the wrong moves on the ground," Gordeau says. "We were only use to judo and wrestling as a ground game. These days we have YouTube and all other sorts of media. We would have prepared differently if we’d known back then, of course."
Twenty years later Gordeau, along with his brothers Al and Nico, runs his own gym in The Hague called Dojo Kamakura. Many known fighters have been through Gordeau’s facility, including Mourad Bouzidi, the Dutch/Tunisian kickboxing champion.
"We teach martial arts -- kickboxing, karate, MMA, BJJ, etc. -- and I still give training and help develop fighters on all levels within our own organization," Gordeau says. "We have dojos or associated dojos throughout the world."
One recent visitor to his gym in Holland was a man Gordeau shares a spot in UFC history with.
"Last year Royce visited us in our gym in The Hague," he says. "It was the first time after 20 years that we spoke. No hard feelings!"
And as for Tuli’s teeth? Did he really have to have them extracted?
"Yes that is true, I had it removed in Holland when we came home," he says. "And there is a scar -- not so much the teeth, but from infection. A bite from a human is far more dangerous than a dog bite!"
Gordeau would have one more pro MMA fight in his career, a Vale Tudo bout in 1995 against Yuki Nakai in Japan. He lost via heel hook in the fourth round, ending his foray into a sport he had but limited knowledge of going in, yet factors uniquely into the history of some 20 years later.