The "spectacle" that was the UFC in the mid-1990s could be boiled down to its crudest essences through Keith Hackney. In the grainy back catalogue of the UFC’s unholy early days, Hackney was the central figure in two jaw-dropping instances that today serve to illustrate just how lunatic things actually were.
At UFC 4, against Joe Son, Hackney sent a series of white-knuckle punches into the "please no" area just below the midriff. The 120,000 people who’d paid for the privilege to watch it curled away from their television sets in horror. That emasculation took place in unsuspecting Tulsa, where the crowd walked out speaking in higher pitches than when they walked in.
Hackney’s liberal use of the "no rules" mantra ultimately crippled the UFC’s efforts in the "Dark Ages" to come. When the UFC was being banned all over the U.S. and political pressure was at its greatest -- and TCI, the cable provider at the time, took the television platform away -- it was Hackney’s assault on Joe Son’s purple coin purse that Leo Hindery, the head of TCI, cited as the ultimate red flag.
Groin strikes were always an endangered species.
Before that piece of dark theater, though, at UFC 3 in Charlotte, Hackney stood in the cage with the 6-foot-8, 700-pound sumo Emmanuel Yarborough. In today’s world of weight classes and other evening measures, the spectacle of that fight has become almost iconic in pointing out the great distance we’ve come from the sport’s absurd origins. Hackney-Yarborough slings us back to the age of troglodytes when showed next to Georges St-Pierre and his cool headband.
"I picked Keith Hackney at the gym in North Carolina," Art Davie, who at the time co-owned the UFC with Rorion Gracie, remembers. "I had a drop out, and Hackney had flown out on his own, god bless him, and he wanted to be in the event. And I was watching him in the gym using that tiger paw strike of his up against the bag open-handed, and it sounded like a pistol shot. Finally I turned to him and said, you really want to do this? He said absolutely. I said, okay, you’re in."
Hackney, a native of Illinois, was 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds -- an average sized man, in other words. Yet he looked lilliputian in there against the entire mass of sumo, made all the more distracting by his active mullet and Flashdance sweats.
"I had been chasing Yarborough for two shows," Davie says. "I actually went out to Disneyland and watched him do an amateur sumo event. I met him in the back, and I talked to him for an hour. He was a very reluctant warrior. He was a corrections officer at a Rahway state prison in New Jersey. That was his gig.
"But Yarborough was a very gentle giant, and he was never wired for this in any way. When we put those two guys together, you saw that it popped the door on the Octagon."
Davie, who was one of the fight game’s great characters with his Cuban cigars, single malt scotches and penchant for detail, was an ex-Marine and one-time amateur boxer. Going back as far as 1969 he had experimented with the fusion of martial arts, when a buddy of his set him up against a wrestler on the beach one day. "That was at Hampton Bays, Long Island, and we got to talking and sparring a little bit," Davie says. "He said I could do this, and I said I could do that. He took me down in the sand and made me tap, and I thought, what the hell's going on here? I never forgot that."
Davie was further enthralled with the concept of disciplines clashing when Muhammad Ali took on Antonio Inoki in Tokyo back in 1976. So the idea had long been festering in him by the time he became the UFC’s original owner/matchmaker, long before he and Rorion Gracie -- who came together by "kismet" -- became the Heracles and Theseus of the modern day fight game.
And, along with the Semaphore Entertainment Group’s Campbell McLaren, everyone boldly embraced the taboo of No Hold’s Barred fighting. "When Teila Tuli was asking if he could throw people out of the cage, I was the first person saying, yes! When they asked if we could attack the groin, I said, yes!" The more the sport was "banned," the more that word "banned" was highlighted in the marketing sense to tempt people to peep inside the tent.
And Yarborough/Hackney was the thing going on inside, which was a true voyeur's delight. Yarborough in his white pants and rolling slabs of chest, stalking towards the spry cat burglar Hackney, who was pushed by he colossus out of the cage with a shove.
"Later on we needed to find a new way to wire that and bolt that cage door, and we did, we re-engineered it," Davie says. "But Keith finally got him on the ground and had to slam him I forget how many times, but he broke his hand doing it. That was the end of him in that show."
Thirty-six times, as a matter of fact, before "Big" John McCarthy came to Yarborough’s aid. Hackney hit Yarborough with an open-palmed "white crane" strike, meant to crush the nose cavity into the brain, as Hackney later pointed out, and then pounced when Yarborough lay like a hillock on the ground. Hackney hit the sumo with a barrage of hammerfists, behind-the-head strikes and swooping knuckle sandwiches to put him away.
Today that fight lives in the annals of UFC history like a black truth.
Yet that was a side attraction to what was supposed to happen in Charlotte. That night in the "New South" was supposed to be about an inevitable rematch between Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie from UFC 1. Instead, Gracie couldn’t continue after his quarterfinals fight with Kimo Leopoldo (exhaustion), and Shamrock couldn’t continue after he defeated Felix Lee Mitchell in the semis. The unsexy battle between alternate Steven "Ninja Cop" Jennum and Harold Howard served as the main event of the evening.
Shamrock and Gracie would end up having that rematch seven months later in Charlotte at UFC 5, which signaled the end for Davie and Rorion Gracie’s run as owners of the UFC. In 1995 they sold the company to SEG and Bob Meyrowitz, who would spend the next six years defending the UFC in court trying to keep it alive.
"Meyrowitz even had to hire a criminal attorney, and a civil attorney, to do the event in Charlotte," Davis says. "The police went to our fighters, including Jennum -- who is a sworn police officer from Omaha, Nebraska -- and they said if you fight in this event, there’s a possibility we could be arresting you for assault and battery. He would lose his badge as a cop. The political pressure wasn’t going away, that was another reason for selling. I saw Senator John McCain was in the mix, and he was now grandstanding about it."
And after UFC 5, when Shamrock fought Gracie to a draw, Davie knew it was time to sell, even if he would remain with Meyrowitz and UFC until early 1998.
"I saw that the Gracie’s were finished," he says. "I knew that we were moving to rules. At UFC 6 I was going to add judges and we were looking at time limits, because we ran over in Tulsa, and we would run over again in Buffalo at UFC 7. At UFC 5, when I yelled to John McCarthy to stand [Royce Gracie and Shamrock] up in the five-minute overtime, Rorion was furious with me, because when John stood them up, Shamrock smacked Royce and his eye blew up. In all fairness, Royce Gracie didn’t return to the Octagon for eleven years."
Things were of course far different by then. That event was in Los Angeles at UFC 60, under the cool supervision of sanctioning bodies and with a full set of rules. That wasn’t how the Gracie’s drew it up in the day, going back to Helio and Carlos Gracie in Brazil. The primitive idea was no rules, no weight classes, and no excuses, an idea that had played out long before the advent of the Christian calendar in Greece. Davie, Gracie, Meyrowitz and McLaren tried to stay true to that original formula.
"We were inventing it as we went along," Davie says. "Nobody had done it. You had to go back to pankration, really. And embracing the ‘banned’ thing was the only way to go. Campbell and I were talking the other night, we called each other on the 20-year anniversary on Nov. 12, and Campbell said, ‘do you think Dana White would have ever been interested in this if we hadn’t promoted it as the end of Western Civilization?’ I said, ‘you’re damn right. He’d have never even noticed it! It would have slid off the chart and he’d have never paid attention.’"
But because they did, he did, and in the fragile construct of events that make up this sport’s short history one could not exist without the other.