If it felt like the locusts were next in 2012 as injuries decimated card after card, they (most certainly) issued from Kevin Randleman’s head the night he slipped and jarred them loose backstage in Louisiana a dozen years earlier. That was at UFC 24, when Randleman and Pedro Rizzo were slated to fight for the heavyweight championship. Everything was fine until the moment it wasn’t, which was only a couple of hours before "The Monster" was supposed to roll to the hole.
Randleman, who did Rizzo’s work for him by finding his own black spot, would be 86’d from the card.
In a time when the inexplicable ruled over MMA…when the "anything is possible" motif felt like a temptation to Murphy’s Law or worse…when Bob Meyrowitz’s UFC was constantly facing uphill battles outside of the cage and his enterprise was slipping towards becoming a black market affair…here was Randleman, knocked himself silly backstage during warm up. He was being whisked away in an ambulance with his pupils pooling just as black as an angry cat while people were settling in and slapping high fives in anticipation of his fight.
"Well, it was a strange thing," Meyrowitz says. "That was in Lake Charles. And again, as was so frequently happening, I was dealing with court issues and got on a plane, and I flew to somewhere and my connection got canceled, and I didn’t make it there in time.
"What happened is that he was jumping up and down getting loose, and he tripped over some piece of equipment and fell down. Unfortunately for him, Dr. Richard Istrico happened to be right there and saw him hit his head. Kevin got up and said he was fine. Dr. Istrico said, you have to go to the hospital and be checked. Unfortunately Randleman threw up on his way, which is a sign of concussion, and Dr. Istrico said he couldn’t fight. Kevin Randleman, as you might recall, was not thrilled with that decision."
Dr. Istrico at the time might as well have been Dr. Kevorkian, and the 1,400-plus denizens of Lake Charles were already well into their cups when they caught wind of this rancid bit of news. Worse, they were only told at the very end of the show, when everyone was bracing for the dramatic conclusion to the festivities. Last call came early that night, which left everyone in an unsettled state.
And there was Meyrowitz, sitting in an airport lounge on his phone trying to come up with solutions, with a familiar thought hovering over his head: Why? Why, why, why?!
That might have been one of the greatest buzzkills in UFC history, losing a headliner to a concrete floor without even so much as black-and-white surveillance footage to prove it. But that card was still significant in other ways in the UFC’s long strange odyssey. It marked the television debut of Jens Pulver. "Crazy" Bob Cook choked out Tiki Ghosn, too. And Dan Severn, the mustached colossus for so many years in the haphazard days of UFCs single digits, tried his hand at refereeing on the prelims, just two weeks before he terrorized Bart Vale in nearby Corinth, Mississippi in the CFA. He wore red shoes and stripes as he circled around the battle between Shonie Carter and the well-quaffed Brad Gumm.
"Our chief referee of course was ‘Big’ John McCarthy," Meyrowitz says. "Between McCarthy and Jeff Blatnick, they were determining who could referee and we were looking. And again, we’re talking still at the beginning of the sport. To find people knowledgeable enough to know when to stop a fight, when to jump in, that is really what we were looking for. And we were able to find a few people who were knowledgeable enough, and who were mentally and physically strong enough, to make sure nothing did happen. Dan certainly fit that bill."
At this point, Meyrowitz’s UFC was on its last legs. The unified rules were drafted not solely to make the sport safer -- there was never a significant injury to warrant such a measure going back to ground zero of UFC 1 -- but to "satisfy everybody who had ever objected to anything," as Meyrowitz says. They had cleared a big hurdle by getting the sport sanctioned with the New Jersey State Athletic Commission, but Nevada -- the next requirement to get the thing back on television, and out of the "Dark Ages" -- wouldn’t budge.
The smaller brush fires were so many by this point that they become almost comical in retrospect.
"I went to court in Rhode Island, and the judge ruled that if we did it like professional wrestling we could do it," Meyrowitz says, still stupefied by what’s coming out of his mouth. "[That’s like saying] let’s have baseball being played under football rules. Look, one is a real sport, and one is not. You’re dealing with people mostly with no knowledge. I was in court a great deal. Unfortunately lawyers don’t work for free. So we had court in Puerto Rico, court in Rhode Island, court in Detroit, court in New York…and you’re basically dealing with people who knew nothing about the sport."
The end game for the SEG Era of the UFC came at UFC 29 nine months later, in December of 2000, in Japan. By that point Meyrowitz had lost much of his original staff through attrition, and was bleeding money into a dying franchise. The court battles had taken a toll, and the loss of cable television made it mostly an Internet enterprise. Those times were, without being melodramatic, very dark indeed.
"There was just so much going on by UFC 29," he says. "For me, as the executive in charge, it had truthfully become so burdensome to do a show. I do a lot of music, a lot of entertainment shows…there’s always drama, always so much that goes wrong. But here there was drama outside of the show.
"I just heard [President Barack] Obama say something the other day, which I thought was kind of funny, he said he apologizes about Obamacare. He said, ‘I never though the easy part was going to be getting it through Congress.’ The easy part was doing the show, which is a very difficult thing to do. But the hard part was all the outside fighting that was going on. Not getting the Nevada State Athletic Commission to approve it was a big blow. That just meant it was going to continue to cost me a great deal of money."
Sitting in attendance at UFC 29 was Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta, the former a monolithic personality who was tailor-made for the fight game, the latter with deep pockets and even longer arms to fetch the contents. Fertitta, too, was the commissioner of the NSAC up until July of 2000. They struck a deal "almost instantaneously" with Meyrowitz to purchase the UFC, and Nevada would soon add MMA to its fun list of legal depravities. Cable, ditto. The flailing UFC was revived and given new life under Zuffa, which began in February of 2001 at UFC 30 in Atlantic City.
"I guess it was kind of like being in the circus," says Meyrowitz of his days overseeing the UFC. By early 2001, he passed the baton to Dana White, who, out of thin air, became the greatest ringleader combat sports has known.