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Art Davie shares memories of birth of UFC: 'Nineteen years ago, we changed the world'

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MMA Fighting

Every November 12, Art Davie lights a cigar in celebration of the anniversary of the birth of a sport.

"This is an important day," he said on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour. "This was the day 19 years ago that we changed the world."

Davie was one of the founders of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which had its first event in Denver on this date in 1993. It was a project that had been in the works for over a year. At the time, Davie had a rough concept of a new fighting format, but things did not truly coalesce in his mind until reading a Playboy article about Rorion Gracie and Brazil's most famous fighting family.

Davie soon traveled to Torrance, California, where Rorion was in the process of opening his first school, and after signing up for classes, he would frequently tell Rorion that Gracie Jiu-Jitsu needed a bigger audience. Rorion had heard these kinds of pitches before, so instead of trying to convince him with worlds, Davie helped him market Gracie instructional tapes by writing a direct mail campaign.

According to Davie, the campaign quickly drew over $125,000 in orders, and suddenly, Rorion was more interested in what he had to say.

After writing a business plan for their new venture, Davie started pitching it to television executives, including some at HBO and Showtime. Over and over, he was turned down.

"They said what else you got kid?" he said. "You got anything else besides the martial arts, because we got a memo here that says that never works. That stuff doesn't work. Kickboxing is dead and what you're proposing sounds crazy to us."

Davie said he was pitching the project for over six months before he found Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG) in New York. It was an alliance that would change everything, but not without some blustering and bluffing.

According to Davie, he told SEG at one point that they were set to produce the first-event on Oct. 31 in Rio with or without them. Faced with the choice, SEG was in.

While that date and location were later changed to better accommodate logistical issues, the two sides were in business and soon set about recruiting fighters. At one time, boxer Leon Spinks was a candidate to enter the field, but that deal did not get done, leaving the tournament with the memorable entrant Art Jimmerson. Another possibility that didn't make the final cut was kickboxing great Ernesto Hoost.

Meanwhile, because of business issues between brothers Rorion and Rickson, who was then considered the best fighter in the family, Rorion decided upon younger brother Royce to represent the family's art.

It was a move that Davie didn't understand at first, until Rorion explained that the visual of the thinly built Royce mowing through the tournament field would be the best illustration of jiu-jitsu's effectiveness.

By the time the tournament field arrived at the Executive Tower Inn, the tension was thick, with posturing between rival groups. It boiled over at the event's rules meeting (yes, there were rules at the first event despite many claims to the contrary), until sumo fighter Teila Tuli settled things.

"He said, 'Look, as far as whether there's going to be tape on any knuckles or not? I don't care. I'm going to be standing in the octagon tomorrow night. Anybody else who wants to be there? Show up, because I'm coming.'" Davie recounted. "And everybody quieted down. That was the end of that."

Davie said that by fight night, the fighters were "ready to jump out of their skin," with excitement, anxiousness and anticipation of what was about to happen. As we know, Royce Gracie went on to win three fights by tappet, including a finish of Gerard Gordeau in the finals to claim the tournament's $50,000 purse.

"I remember Rorion and I and [executive producer] Campbell [McLaren] walking around," he said. "I was walking around smoking a cigar and drinking a single-malt scotch and we looked at each other and said, 'This is huge. This is unbelievable. We’re taking over the world. This is going to rock people right to their socks.' We knew it."

In time though, the UFC would face many obstacles, based upon the promotion of the sport's violence as a selling point. Eventually, he parted ways with the company, but he's watched the sport and the promotion grow from afar, feeling, he says, sometimes as a "divorced father with someone else raising my kid." But that's OK, he says. It's still a pleasure to watch something that he helped conceive enter the sport and pop culture landscape.

"I had to bang heads with a lot of people who said to me, 'What else you got kid? You got anything else, because this is nuts?'" he said. "And I said, no, this is going to be big. You wait and see."