The key demographic in the UFC's early days -- just as it is in the progressive 21st century -- was 18-34 year old males. Fighting, which by now we know is part of our DNA, runs best towards the excitable youth. By the time you reach the outskirts of that demo circle -- say, 35 years old, right in the TRT wheelhouse in MMA -- you lose the target off your back. You become decidedly unkey, even as you belong to the broader television demographic that generously extends to the ripe age of 49.
But that 18-34 demo is accurate, and it’s why so many of today’s UFC first generation (now quadragenians) have fond memories of VHS introductions to the sport, because at the time they were old teens/young twenty-somethings hanging out in a friend’s basement just as the Keith Hackney started pruning the Joe Son family tree. The First Generation had the guilty pleasure of watching the rules write themselves through trial and error back in those early days when "anything goes."
Because anything went, by 1998 the UFC was well into the Dark Ages as people began to recoup their inhibitions and sober up. The major cable provider at the time had shut down shop with the promotion so that the pay-per-view model no longer had an outlet. At a meeting in Denver, Tele-Communications Inc. executive Leo Hindery said he’d only allow the UFC to return to cable if it could get a big-time athletic commission to sanction the sport. That meant drafting the unified rules, and a lot of spinning wheels.
Senator John McCain, he of the famous "human cock-fighting" accusation, had made the UFC a taboo that only sick minds could embrace. This sentiment spread like red tape to the Yankee north, and west to Nevada. A year earlier, New York pulled the turncoat move of approving the sport, only to change their minds and come up with their own restrictions that including the use of headgear. (This put Dothan, Alabama on the map).
At that point the UFC was relegated to the live experience, which was either in the south or abroad…or on Internet forums, where it grew like a chimera through the lively imagination of fans.
"After New York shut down, from that point on we were trying to get athletic commissions to sanction the sport," referee "Big" John McCarthy, who was there from the beginning to UFC 70, says. "The very first one was Mississippi at UFC 15, this guy named Billy Lyons, an old, old timer. He first said no, no way at first, then we talked to him. Then he said, well, let me see...okay, yeah, I’ll let this happen. We put on that in Bay St. Louis at Casino Magic, and that was the first time I’d been licensed as a referee through an athletic commission."
The first show of 1998, UFC 16, was held at the Pontchartrain Center in New Orleans, Louisiana. That night Kimo Leopoldo lost to Tsuyoshi Kosaka, and Frank Shamrock put Igor Zinoviev away forever with a vicious slam that mangled his collarbone.
The next show, at UFC 17 saw the UFC debuts of Chuck Liddell, Dan Henderson and Carlos Newton, all future champions of the UFC, Pride and Strikeforce. Back then, they were all just prelim fodder for Shamrock, Jeremy Horn and Mark Coleman, the grizzled veterans.
As the sport lived day to day -- and by this point well within the heart of darkness -- commentator Jeff Blatnik was said to have told the fighters and the media that night in Mobile, Alabama to begin referring to it as "mixed martial arts."
"Blatnik had been saying ‘MMA’ long before that, because when this whole thing with [TCI] and Leo Hindery was going on, most people called the sport NHB, No Holds Barred," McCarthy says. "That was part of Leo Hindery’s thing, ‘oh, it’s No Holds Barred.’ I told him at the time, no, it’s mixed martial arts. Jeff and I had been calling it mixed martial arts since the Dothan show [in 1997]. That was when the New York commission and all that going on, that’s when it started. No Holds Barred killed us!"
There were holds that were barred by then, of course, most them with back-stories as long and sordid as you’d expect. And John McCarthy authored all the amendments along the way, usually after an incident. Fish-hooking was stricken when Tank Abbott tried to rip Oleg Taktarov’s lips to the ears with his thumb. Hair pulling went back to UFC 3 with Royce Gracie with Kimo Leopoldo, even if gentleman’s agreements took place not do it, as with Guy Mezger and Jason Fairn at UFC 4. Fence grabbing went back to the Ultimate Ultimate of 1995, when Marco Ruas fought Oleg Taktarov, but culminated, McCarthy says, when Wallid Ismail fought Kazuo Takahashi at UFC 12, in a fight where Takahashi held onto the chain links for dear life as Ismail tried to take him down.
Knees to the head still belonged to the future of the sport's sanitization. That only came about when 6-foot-10, 335-pound Gan McGee nearly decapitated poor Brad Gabriel, 100 pounds lighter than McGee, with his knees in the IFC. To everybody’s horror, that was the first show in the coveted state of New Jersey, the first big commission to take a chance and sanction MMA. UFC 28 was held two months later in Atlantic City.
As for headbutts?
"When I put ‘no headbutts,’ I knew I was f---ing killing Mark Coleman," McCarthy says. "People laugh at that, saying his head was his hammer. He was so dominant in the fact that nobody could take him down. And if he took you down, and you grabbed his arms he’d start smacking you in the head with his head and make you let go of his arms and it was very effective for him. And I knew when I put that in, that was the guy I was affecting the most. And I felt bad about it, but it was one of those, what’s best for the sport? I’m sorry Mark. Every rule there is, I can tell you who made it up."
In 1998, a lot of people needed convincing, and most of them didn’t have the foggiest idea about what they were watching. Only pockets of the south was truly aboard, while everywhere else threw a blanket over the cage and turned up the music.
It was so bad in the States that the UFC began looking abroad, out of necessity (which to the winking man was called "globalization"). In late 1998, the UFC went to Brazil for the first time.
"We used the story of Brazil and MMA, and that this was the birthplace of MMA, that it was a national sport there, because nobody in the United States gave a s---," McCarthy says. "The truth of it was, it was small time in Brazil also, but there was a lot of really great fighters that came out of Brazil. It was kind of building a little bit bigger."
Brazil itself was becoming a no man’s land. A year earlier, in Rio de Janeiro, Renzo Gracie and Eugenio Tadeu had fought and incited a riot when a pack of luta livre guys (livid from the ticket situation) stormed the cage. That set the ban in place in Rio, which the UFC wouldn't visit until 2011 with Zuffa. At the time, the UFC went to Sao Paulo.
"It was an achievement to go to Brazil.," McCarthy says. "I think [then UFC owner] Bob Meyrowitz did it because it was his way of getting out of the United States and all the court costs that were occurring."
Pedro Rizzo debuted at UFC Brazil, defeating Tank Abbott. But that night in October 1998 is most remembered for Vitor Belfort, at the time 21 years old, blitzing Wanderlei Silva and knocking him out in less than a minute.
"That was a story unto itself," McCarthy says.
"But I always said at the time, I wish I had a crystal ball, because I don’t know if this was going to be here next year. It was tough. I always believed in it. I believed in the sport and the guys fighting in it, and I always believed people would love it."