Even in the earliest days, the UFC was sending out scouts to unearth tomorrow’s stars. Heading into 1996, the world of wrestling was still woefully under-represented in the Octagon. Royce Gracie was a demigod for his jiu-jitsu work in the original UFC shows, and Tank Abbott sprung forth from the salt mines (that is to say, the bar scene in Huntington Beach, which to this day is a source of combustion between him and Tito Ortiz).
But there weren’t a lot of singlets on display, and realistically, that discipline felt like tapioca to the fight game imagination. Wrestling was available in junior high; we wanted esoteric kung fu and judo and menacing "pit" fighters like Abbott clubbing people into the twitches. There was an appetite for sublime violence, not for cauliflower ear.
Wrestling, as a word, shared a space between fact and fiction, and plenty of actual wrestlers (called amateur) ended up in the scripts (dubbed professional). By UFC 9, heading into his big fight with Ken Shamrock in Detroit, Dan Severn -- "The Beast" -- had emerged with a mustache and plenty of machismo. He was one of the first big wrestlers to make the crossover to ultimate fighting, going back to UFC 4. He quickly became a fan favorite, and the headlining event against Shamrock in the Motor City came at a time when the pay-per-view needle was moving. UFC 8, which featured Kimo Leopoldo and Shamrock, did over 300,000 buys.
The UFC, for all its ills, was catching on.
And there were plenty of smash-mouth wrestlers out there who asked only to be discovered. One of them was Mark Coleman, a pestle of the cruelest sort who would later become known as the "godfather of ground and pound" for his work in the UFC pre-teens. He has watched the UFC since the first show in 1993, but now in the twilight of his wrestling career, he was, with the harps of heaven being thrummed, approached to compete.
"I went to the Olympic trials, and there was a UFC official there scouting some talent," Coleman says. "He recruited three guys -- me, Tom Erikson and Mark Kerr. Right as we lost, he grabbed us at different times and took us into a room. He brought up UFC 10, about 35 days away. He told me about it, but I already knew about it going back to UFC 1, which is when I fell in love with it. I looked at him and said, I’m in. I’m the man for the job. I don’t care who else you’re recruiting at these Olympic trials, I’ll beat any of them. I told him I will win the UFC -- in fact, I’m pretty sure I guaranteed it to him."
Coleman was selected to compete at UFC 10, which took place in Birmingham, Alabama, on July 12 1996. For that show, the UFC was returning to its popular tournament structure after experimenting with stand-alone battles at UFC 9. Among the behemoths Coleman would inevitably face were Gary Goodrich and Don Frye, both of whom had already experienced the sport that was very proudly banned in 49 states.
And Coleman fit right in. He flourished in the limited rules setting of those early shows, just before scrutiny got ratcheted up a notch. Once Coleman got opponents down, people began watching through their fingers. His was a three-prong assault: Elbows, hammerfists and -- lord of have mercy -- wince-inducing head butts.
"I was very happy to be part of the very limited no rules day, and I thought that’s when I was at my best," Coleman says. "People don’t realize that it did take some technique. You had to throw it properly, or you were going to mess yourself up. So there was technique involved, the hard part of my head into the soft spot on his face. And when he goes to block it, I have a right hand, and a left hand.
"I wasn’t great at math, but, you know, three to two…it kind of made sense to me. It seemed a little bit not fair. There was always something open. The rib, the face, or the head butt. He couldn’t block all three. UFC 10 was the right time for me, before everybody caught up."
UFC 10 was Bruce Buffer’s first time as the master of ceremonies, and that coincided with the start of Coleman’s heyday in the UFC. He won the eight-man tournament, exhausting Goodrich and obliterating Frye on the ground with the aforementioned formula.
Coleman did the same thing at UFC 11, taking out Julian Sanchez, and then Brian Johnston. Because Scott Ferrozzo was injured in his fight with Tank Abbott, Coleman won UFC 11 via forfeiture while putting in a total of 3:25 of cage time.
"I felt right at home in the Octagon from the beginning," Coleman says. "I was kicking ass in wrestling, which was real similar, but just added a few things. All the moves that were illegal in wrestling were now legal. I loved the fact that there were very, very limited rules. The jewels were even available. I wouldn’t have went there…unless it was desperately needed, in a bad situation. It was legal at the time. I would have had to go to the jewels if needed. But after UFC 10, my confidence was through the roof…maybe too high even."
The high-water mark of "The Hammer’s" career might have been at UFC 12, at the apt titled "Judgment Day," which was originally slated to take place in Niagara Falls, New York, but switched last minute to Dothan, Alabama. That’s when politics and general outcry began to truly intervene. With Senator John McCain spreading the word about the UFC as a harbinger of civilization’s ultimate decay, New York’s pulling out was the first domino to fall in the reform of the rules, structure, perception, marketing and everything else that went into the UFC.
Coleman was less concerned with all red tape on the outside as he was his opponent, Dan Severn, the Brawny Man of ursine characteristics and mettle. With UFC 12 being the first to introduce weight classes, which was the first big step out of the spectacle-phase taken by the matchmaker at the time John Perretti, the Severn/Coleman fight was for the inaugural heavyweight belt. Yet the night prior, the whole thing was in doubt with New York pulling the rug out from underneath. Pretty soon they UFC circus was boarding cargo planes and heading south.
"When they said we’re packing it up, it was quick, very short notice," Coleman says. "All of a sudden we got the notice that New York wasn’t going to allow this. I was so happy when they added, but…we’ve got a backup plan. We’re packing up, and flying to Alabama, and we’re fighting in Alabama tomorrow. I had no problem with that. I didn’t care if we landed at 6 o’clock and fought at 8 o’clock. We did get in around 4 or 5 in the morning, but just that we knew we were going to pull this off, I was ecstatic. I doubt I’d have slept anyway."
Coleman needed less than three minutes to submit "The Beast" Severn with a neck crank, whether it was in Niagara Falls, Dothan, Alabama, or the dark side of the moon.
"My confidence was so high, I didn’t have any doubt I was going to beat Dan Severn," he says. "A lot of people thought I took my gloves off because I knew it was going to be a wrestling match. I took my gloves off for the exact opposite reason. I took the gloves off because it was one fight, and I figured bare knuckles was going to do more damage in one fight than the glove. So I took them off.
"Dan Severn is one of the nicest guys, and we’re still friends now, but he would have done whatever it took…even went for my jewels if he had to. He might’ve should’ve did when I had that neck crank. That would’ve been a good time to go for the jewels, but I had them hidden and out of range where he couldn’t get to them."
That kind of talk would soon be outdated.
By UFC 14, when Coleman suffered the first loss of his career and ceded the heavyweight belt to Maurice Smith in what was the fight of the year, change was underway. That was the card where four-to-six ounce gloves became mandatory (not to protect skulls so much as to protect knuckles). By UFC 15, in October of 1997, the pantheon of strikes was lopped down to size. No longer could you go to the "jewels," or go to the back of the head, or kick downed opponents.
And no longer could you head butt opponents, the staple in the "Godfather of ground-and-pound’s" arsenal. Coleman had a long career in MMA afterwards in the UFC and Pride afterwards. He had a lot of big moments in Japan.
Yet from July 12, 1996 to July 27, 1997, when the west was still wild, and he was free to improvise his own brutality while the overlords clapped in sync, Mark Coleman was the king of the UFC. And because he was, wrestling took its place in the mixed martial arts.