UFC 167 fighters reflect on their MMA starts, talk UFC's 20th anniversary

Esther Lin

LAS VEGAS -- The reminder that UFC 167 is the company's 20th anniversary event came right at the outset at Wednesday's open workouts at the MGM Grand.

There was the man who revolutionized combat sports, Royce Gracie, rolling on the mat with the fighters who represents the evolution of mixed martial arts, UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre.

After a spirited workout, which included a blindfolded GSP working for submissions from the bottom against the Hall of Famer, St-Pierre couldn't help but beam. His trainer, Firas Zahabi, put it best afterwards.

"He looked like a 12-year old kid in a candy store, didn't he?" Zahabi asked. "I know he holds Royce in such high regard. This was a treat for him."

As it turns out, Zahabi might as well have been speaking for all the fighters in attendance Wednesday. Fighters can sometimes treat open workouts like a chore, answering questions by rote. But those participating at UFC 167 lit up when talking about the 20th anniversary, the sport's legends, and the moment they knew they had to become a part of it all.

"Having a chance to work out with [Gracie] is an incredible honor," said St-Pierre, who meets Johny Hendricks in Saturday's main event. "That made my whole trip. That made my whole day. ... I got bullied when I was young at school by bigger and older people. When I first saw the UFC and I saw Royce, he was the smallest one, the less intimidating but the smartest. The way he won inspired me and here I am now, fighting for the title."

Former UFC light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans studied karate as a child in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and he was just as engrossed as other martial arts enthusiasts in the big question of the day: Who would win a mixed fight? UFC 1, of course, was put together in an attempt to settle the age-old debate.

"Me and my friend talked about what would happen if a boxer goes against a karate guy, if Bruce Lee went against mike Tyson," said Evans, who meets Chael Sonnen in the co-main event Saturday. "For the longest time, we heard about this is going to be happening, so we watched the first UFC. We were babysitting kids and we watched the first UFC. We had one of those cheater boxes, so we're sitting there watching it and we're just amazed. It amazing to see martial arts on the stage it was on. Not just some idea of what it could be, it was real life. We saw a lot of techniques we thought would be finishing moves, not be finishing moves. Like someone strike the knee, we thought if you hit the knee, it would break in half like a Steven Seagal movie. Turns out that didn't work."

Another fighter who watched with interest on Nov. 12, 1993 was in immediate position to do something about it. Future Hall of Famer Mark Coleman, who accompanied Johny Hendricks to his Wednesday workout, knew he needed in as soon as he watched the inaugural event.

"I just had to figure out, how do I get in this?" said Coleman, who was a year removed from wrestling in the Olympics. "This is what I wanted to do, immediately. I felt like I could beat all those guys in those days, including Royce Gracie. If you don't think that way, you might not want to be in this sport. Even though I had no experience, it worked out good."

Indeed. The Godfather of ground and pound's accolades include tournament wins at UFC 10 and 11, a UFC heavyweight title, and the 2000 PRIDE Open Weight Grand Prix. But he can't help but look back at a fight which never happened.

"Who knows what would have happened if me and Royce would have locked up early on? I didn't have jiu-jitsu experience so I might have gotten caught in a predicament. But a couple headbutts will take care of that."

Gracie isn't the type to look back and wonder "what if." But it's clear he's proud of the path he blazed.

"When I fought, there was no time limit and no weight divisions," he said. "When I fought Akebono - 6-foot-8, 490 pounds - before the fight, everybody was like, 'Man, you're crazy. Are you out of your mind? How are you going to fight a man that big? There's no way you can take him down. You can not punch him out. You're out of your mind. After the fight, everybody was like, 'Oh, come on. He was big and fat.' Really? Walk up to someone 6-foot-8, 490 pounds and slap him in the face. You'll see how slow he is."

Gracie wasn't the only person pining for the good old days.

"Of course I liked the old rules better," Coleman said. "I was at home in that cage with no rules. They took the headbutt away and I was crying for a few days. My first fight after [the banning of headbutts] I was lost, I was staring at this guy's face and I couldn't hit it with my head."

And while the sport moves forward, the guys carrying the torch these days made it clear they hold a fond place for the sport's trailblazers.

"I respect them," St-Pierre said. "It was much tougher back then, it was real fights, no time limits, no weight class. When I watch it back in the day, we didn't know what to expect, it was the first time it was done recently in modern times. I remember thinking, someone could die. We didn't know. The martial artists were so courageous fighting in the cage. They were pioneers."

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