It is no small feat that a sport once thought of as fit only for barbarians has managed to survive for 20 years, let alone become the fastest growing sport in the entire world—thanks in no small part to the internet, the world’s increasingly diverse and effective means of communications and, of course, our human fascination with combat.
MMAFighting’s Chuck Mindenhall has been taking fans and readers down Memory Lane for the past couple of weeks with his countdown chronicle of 20 articles in 20 days about each and every one of the last 20 years of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. All this talk about the UFC’s 20th anniversary made me reflect on my own journey to MMA fandom. So, here is my "20/20 Hindsight."
I was in my maternal grandparents’ dining room in Guatemala finishing our usually late lunch. The TV was invariably on from the afternoon through the evening, and my maternal grandparents happened to have cable. The Spanish-language television network Univisión was airing its newstainment show, "Primer Impacto." There was hardly ever a reason to really pay attention to the program, as it served mostly as background noise, but then I caught the tail end of one of the segments, and I would never forget what I saw:
In the most general terms, psychotherapists refer to this type of image seared in one’s memory as a "screen." A screen stands for far more than just the image it presents, and that is one of the many reasons it tends to stay in one’s memory. It represents all kinds of issues in one’s psyche.
Like most Gen Xers, especially boys, I grew up on a steady diet of martial arts films. My heroes were Bruce Lee, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Steven Seagal, but I also enjoyed Jeff Speakman’s "The Perfect Weapon," and, of course, "The Karate Kid" series.
I tried my hand at different martial arts, but found out in no time I was not cut out for any of them. A badass only in my imagination, I’m a writer, not a fighterTM.
Those action heroes were the proxy for the fighter I wished I could be, but then the UFC came along and killed (for the most part) those martial arts films for me. I no longer cared for choreographed fantasy, but the real deal. Now my proxy were real life human beings.
The problem was, I did not have any way of getting a hold of videos of Pat Smith putting a beat down on Scott Morris, nor the entire event to put that one fight into context. At least not in Guatemala City, Guatemala. I did not even know the name of the event—even if it had been mentioned on the TV show, since I did not speak a word of English, it would have gone over my head. Was it even real? Or, was it a movie?
It was not until a year or two later, when I moved to the U.S. that I finally had a chance to figure out what that image was. By then, my older brother had already been living in the U.S. for four years, spoke fluent English and was fully assimilated into the culture. A combat sports aficionado himself, I thought he might know what I was talking about if I described the image as best I could.
Immediately, he knew what I was talking about, drove me to our local video store (remember those?) and got a couple of UFC VHS tapes (remember those?!). It would be a long time before UFC 1 was finally released, so I had to start from UFC 2, the very same event with Pat Smith and Scott Morris.
From the start, I was drawn to the UFC Ultiman logo. Given my aforementioned steady diet of martial arts movies, it should come as no surprise that the UFC Ultiman looked oddly familiar: it reminded me of Tong Po, the villain to Jean-Claude Van Damme’s "Kickboxer."
And from the start, I was hooked by referee "Big" John McCarthy’s "Are you ready? Are you ready? LET’S GET IT ON!" His booming voice to start hostilities made boxing’s bell seem quaint.
Little did I know the biggest surprise—delivered in the smallest of packages—was yet to come. Due to the beating Pat Smith had dealt Scott Morris, I almost assumed before I even played the tape on the VCR that Smith would be crowned the tournament’s champion. After all, he looked the part: well built, great standup, and a mean streak.
All those attributes were part of the allure of the mythical figures I’d grown up worshipping. Sure, Bruce Lee was small, but nonetheless built like a slimmed down Greek god (I often imagine him fighting at bantamweight in MMA’s modern weight divisions, and wonder whether he would have had to cut down to flyweight. But, I digress).
Yet, the person most responsible for my utter fascination with the UFC in its early days was the lanky, utterly human, yet inexplicably unbeatable Royce Gracie. His was the kind of look that made me worry for him every time he stepped into the Octagon. Yet he kept winning.
Eventually, the world would return to normal and the guys (and gals) with the sculpted physiques—once brains married brawn—would, yet again, rule the combat sports world with an iron fist.
But until then, Royce Gracie had made the impossible seem possible, changed dreams into reality, and turned the world upside down—one did not have to look like "the man" in order to be "the man." And that was more than enough to make me a lifelong MMA fan.
Do you remember the very first time you became aware of MMA, be it through the UFC or otherwise? If so, please, do share in the comments below.