This whole thing -- from skinny Royce Gracie at UFC 1 and a $50,000 tournament prize to Usher dishing Anderson Silva advice in a two billion dollar industry -- began with an article. One little all-but-forgotten piece that appeared in Playboy back in 1989. It was an article with a simple hedder, "BAD," in all caps just like that, written by Pat Jordan.
The focus of the piece was Rorion Gracie, the son of Helio, who was the first in the family to spread the gospel of Brazilian jiu-jitsu in the United States. Like his father and his uncle Carlos, Rorion believed that the Gracie brand of fighting was superior to all others. He believed it so much that he issued a public challenge: he’d fight anyone in the United States -- no rules, no time limits, fight to the finish (even if that meant the grimmest outcome) -- for a winner-take-it all prize of $100,000. He was a chip off the old block, as Helio issued such challenges 30 years earlier in Brazil.
Jordan went to visit Rorion in Southern California.
"I basically went with a guy that nobody knew about and we were in his garage," Jordan says. "He had a little tiny stucco house in one of those little burgs off of L.A. I did it and Playboy liked it and it didn’t get a lot of play. It wasn’t one of those stories that changed the world."
Or did it? Art Davie, the cigar wielding ad-man for Mexican brand beer who four years later co-founded the UFC with Rorion Gracie, read the piece. It was that piece that inspired him to begin conceptualizing a tournament in which a sampling of different combative styles would be brought together under a single roof to discover which one was the best. This was a very old pondering, one that had long lived in the psyche; what would happen in a fight between Bruce Lee and Mike Tyson? There were many colorful insights into the idea, and many variations, but never had there been a platform to get at these curiosities.
Davie had been looking for a way.
"Out of all this research I found the article, ‘BAD,’" Davie says. "My secretary brought it into me one day, and said, you’ve been looking for people who were actually doing this in North America, take a look at this. I read the article. And just about that time I had gotten a job through my headhunter to go to work for a direct response ad agency in, of all places, Torrance. It was kismet."
Rorion was teaching classes in his garage in Redondo Beach at the time, but was opening up a gym in Torrance. Davie, having realized this from the article, went to meet him, and ended up becoming his first student for the new school. From there the idea of the "War of the Worlds" -- the original name -- began to spring.
Davie got to know the Gracies, and remembers watching Royler take on karate guy from Compton. That was the night he met director/producer John Milius, who wrote Conan the Barbarian and Apocalypse Now, who was also a Gracie student. Milius introduced Davie to Cuban cigars upon catching him fooling with Macanudos ("Milius had a humidor in the trunk of his car," Davie says), and allowed Davie and Gracie to use his name as a "creative consultant" in bringing to life what would end up being called the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a name so chosen to dwarf and distance single-dimensional boxing.
As the concept evolved -- and Davie and Gracie settled on the Octagon for the cage (sans moats or barbed wire, though these were considered)…and a $50,000 prize was established…and Denver instead of Rio de Janeiro was circled to host the first event on a loophole that allowed for bare-knuckle fighting (as advocated by the Sabaki Challenge, a bare-knuckle karate tournament also held in the Mile High City)…and the commentating crew was made that featured NFL great Jim Brown ("We tried for Chuck Norris, but all he kept saying is, and this is legal?," Davie says)…and a deal with Semaphore Entertainment Group was consummated on the eve of the first event on Nov. 12, 1993, to bring the underground world of no hold’s barred fighting to your living room for $19.95 -- so did history.
"I had driven up in the spring, to Denver, and incorporated WOW Promotions as an LLC, so that we could present this to investors," Davie says. "I got us an attorney and an accountant. I brought my Glock 17 up there and put it in my safety deposit box at the bank, because I figured on the night of the show I’m going to have a lot of cash and checks."
Davie had a briefcase with him on Nov. 12 at McNichols Sports Arena, with cash, checks and his Glock, which he left in the hands of his PA, Ethan Milius, John’s son. Milius held onto the case through the quarterfinals and semis, but as soon as Royce Gracie choked out Gerard Gordeau to win the first tournament (and change a millennia worth of foolish western notions about fighting), Davie noticed Ethan Milius cheering without the case.
"I looked over to my left, and Ethan was gone, and no briefcase," Davie says. "The briefcase had the cash, the checks and the Glock. And I finally found Ethan, and he’s all wide-eyed and excited because Royce had won and I’m screaming at him, where’s the f---ing briefcase? Where’s the f---ing briefcase? He had put it down somewhere, but he ran and got it and brought it back to me and apologized. He’d left it in his excitement. Also, I couldn’t get the guy with the giant check to come out, and I’m screaming for that. Where’s the f---ing giant check? It was pandemonium at that point."
From there the course of history, and the reason I’m writing this, and the reason you’re reading it, and the reason Dana White traverses the globe in the Fertitta jet. The UFC, which was always meant to be a franchise, not a one-off show, got its legs and headed into the world. The owners embraced the barbaric early days when only eye gouging and biting were forbidden. It sold taboo early, and paid for it in the mid-1990s. From Davie and Gracie to Bob Meyrowitz and SEG, the endless court battles. It was accused of being "human cockfighting" by Senator John McCain, a sentiment echoed by everyone from California to New York, and -- though there’s never been a serious injury even in those lawless times -- perhaps rightfully so.
It survived because of the addition of rules, of time limits and rounds, of officials and judges and education through the Dark Days when it was banned from television, and there was no more PPV dollar. It survived through the UFC 20s on the Internet, through fan enthusiasm, when shows were only going on in the South. It persevered though litigation. It survived to see unified rules, and sanctioning in New Jersey, just as Zuffa came in 2001.
The UFC carried on through every kind of turmoil, every accusation, even through the early-aughts, as states like Nevada sanctioned it, and the enterprise moved back into pay-per-view. It survived scares, like $50 million dollars of Fertitta money that had been sank into its belief, which to any sane person might’ve seemed like a money pit. It survived Tim Sylvia. It began to flourish with the original Ultimate Fighter, a time buy on Spike that produced "drama" with its fighters by introducing "back story." Suddenly we cared about emotionally unstable Chris Leben and the cocky Josh Koscheck and, upon God’s green earth, poor Jason Thacker sleeping on damp sheets.
It flourished further when Stephan Bonnar and Forrest Griffin put on the fight to bridge a thousand perceptions in the finale. If that fight doesn’t happen as it did, at just the right time, in just the right setting, maybe there is a fourth ownership group today and Dana White is living under the city viaduct, as he says he might’ve been.
By the 21st Century the UFC wasn’t only a "sport," a hurdle not many people thought would ever happen, but a rapidly growing sport with stars. Soon we had Matt Hughes, Matt Serra, Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre, Brock Lesnar, Jon Jones, Ronda Rousey. There were Nike swooshes and video games and sold-out stadiums in Toronto, shows in Abu Dhabi, Brazil, Australia, Europe. There was FOX, and FOX Sports 1, which came to life because of the UFC. It’s the ultimate redemption story as much as it is the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
The UFC survived every kind of monkey wrench, criticism, accusation, indictment and daily holocaust. Each person involved was an essential link to the next, just as every event informed the next, and every action spoke for the next. From Art Davie and Rorion Gracie to Bob Meyrowitz and SEG’s Campbell McLaren to Nick Lembo, Joe Silva, "Big" John McCarthy and Jeff Blatnik, who coined the term MMA, to the casino owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, and their one-of-a-kind helmsman, Dana White, it all mattered. One to the next.
And it all started with an article about the Gracie heritage. The wild ceremonies of 2013, when the UFC turns 20, can be traced back to a writer.
"I did the story because the whole Gracie family was unique," Pat Jordan says. "My story was less about the ultimate fighting than it was about the Gracie family going back to the old man in Brazil. The old man was a wild card. That was one of those offbeat stories that just came and sank until [Davie and Gracie] came up with that idea. I’m glad there’s a whole lot of people making a living off of that story."