From the Beginning: A Pop-Culture Perspective on the Early Days of MMA UFC 1

I am a fight nerd.

I feel like any kind of "first article" on an MMA website needs to come with your credentials, so here are mine: I have watched MMA since 2001. I remember catching old Pride events on some random channel and feeling like I was watching something I shouldn't be watching, like Real Sex on HBO. It was an exciting time to be a teenager.

I have dabbled in training. I took a few classes at Greg Jackson's way back before he was famous, but realized quickly I much more enjoy watching the fights than participating in them.

Also important to this article but impossible to write without sounding like a complete tool-bag, I am a pop-culture junkie with a pretty decent education.

With that out of the way, here is what I plan on doing, and hopefully some of you will read it and enjoy. Or read it and hate it. Mostly I just hope you read it.

I subscribed to UFC Fight Pass. It has some major flaws, the biggest of which is that it is impossible to get events to display in chronological order, which seems like an easy programming fix, but I'm computer illiterate so what do I know? But I have greatly enjoyed the chance to watch the UFC and Pride evolve from the beginning. I watched every numbered UFC event (and a ton of Ultimate Fight Nights and Ultimate Fighter Finales) and every single Pride event and realized that, just as much as the fighting, the overall production values have changed dramatically (of course) and the entertainment value of the product is much MUCH different now than it was "in the beginning." Even thoughit is a bit of a herculean task (can a person call his own task "herculean?"), I plan to watch every event from Pride and the UFC in chronological order (again) and track the evolution of, not just the sport, but the way it is packaged and sold to the audience. I am going to start with UFC 1 as a standalone, but will probably end up grouping several events together for each article. If nothing else, this will be diary of many wasted hours.


I am just going to have to assume that everyone knows the "underground" nature of the first few UFC events. The producers of the show, however, could not quite decide if they were going for "legitimate sporting event" or "underground fight club." The show opens with a helicopter shot of the Denver skyline, a shot familiar to anyone who watches any major sport, and a mention of the weather (snow coming.) But soon, the announcer uses the word DEADLY like a street-preacher uses SALVATION and all pretenses that this is on par with a basketball game go right out the window.

Bill Wallace, the commentator for UFC 1, is infamously terrible. He stumbles and stutters his cold open, calls the Ultimate Fighting Championship "The Ultimate Fighting Challenge" several times, and honestly, seems like the absolute worst call for a commentator the producers could have made. Again, they are going for an air of legitimacy, but with Wallace, they got an air of confused nervousness.
Wallace's partner at the commentating table, Jim Brown (the football great) is not an expert in fighting, but his knowledge of athletes and his cool, comfortable demeanor serve him well. He is also the beneficiary of sitting next to Wallace, where even a wet gym sock would seem like a great orator.
Before the fights begin, several "experts" who admit they know next to nothing about fighting rattle on, and much like modern UFC events, it isn't long before I start wondering how much longer I have to wait to see a damn fight. Already, I can see why the modern UFC keeps the "on-air personality" to an absolute minimum during their pay-per-views: too many voices just add clutter.

Finally, after calling attention to the "no rules" aspect several times, and the pit-like nature of the cage, the first fighters walk out.


Gordeau massacres Tuli with a soccer kick reminiscent of Shogun Rua in his prime, knocking Tuli's teeth into the crowd. Jim Brown: "I think it was totally in the face. Awesome. Awesome. I think his tooth came out." The ref, in a rare moment of sanity, stops the fight. Controversy ensues. The fight is still stopped. There is some confusion. Apparently some in the crowd think "no rules" means "fight to the death."
The commentating is so terrible. So, so terrible. I have already watched all of these events, and I am looking forward to the time when Rogan and Goldberg take over, before the unbridled, brainless enthusiasm take them over. We'll get to this much later, but there is definitely a "golden age" of mixed martial arts commentating, and this is surely, surely not it.

The little video introduction of the fighters between the fights are terribly produced, even by the standards of the time. They stink of educational videos made for school.

Before the second fight, Wallace says "pain hurts, it ruins your whole day." This guy is a genius.


I call this fight "Fat Zombie Vampire versus the Hair Puller." Zane Frazier kicks Kevin Rosier's ass for a while, pulls his hair, pushes him against the fence, and kicks his ass some more. Kevin Rosier is wearing these white shorts that go over his belly bulge, and it looks hilarious. Suddenly the modern UFC uniform thing seems like a good idea, if only to avoid Roy Nelson pulling off a similar, terrifying look.
Kevin Rosier pulls off the victory by throwing crazy fat-guy punches (I'm a fat guy, it's allowable) to the back of Frazier's head, and then curb stomps him twice while holding the top of the cage for leverage.
The post fight interview with Rosier has a moment of honesty that modern post fight interviews lack: "I'm a bad interview."
Yes you are, Mr. Rosier, but we appreciate your honesty.


The Gracie Train walkout is awesome. I just can't help it. There is tradition for our young sport there. Pomp. Ceremony.
In today's MMA landscape, it is evident that pure Brazilian jiu-jitsu isn't sufficient; some cross training is required, so I am not some kind of Gracie purist. But damn, there is just something special about seeing Helio walk his son to the octagon.
The fight itself isn't as good as the walkout. In a moment of pure MMA legend, Gracie takes Jimmerson (a boxer) down and before a submission is even applied, Jimmerson taps.
The announcers prattle on. It is obvious the Gracie connection to the production. The only thing they know to talk about is how dominant a ground game is, and how, according to some unspecified "police department study" that 95% of fights end on the ground. UFC 1 as Gracie Jiu Jitsu advertisement proceeds along perfectly.


Shamrock taps Smith with an ankle lock almost immediately. As soon as the pain is gone, Smith wants to keep fighting. It's quick.
Again, the post-fight interview is painful. Shamrock responds to a litany of terrible questions with one word answers. I'm almost to the point that I want to watch it on mute, but that kind of defeats the whole purpose. The fights are interesting because of the real "style vs style" nature, and the entertainment value is there. A bunch of quick fights, a bunch of physical freaks fighting normal looking dudes and losing.

The announcers prattle on for many minutes after the first round waiting for the Gordeau vs Rosier fight. I want to stick a pencil in my ear.


Okay, I know I am hammering on the announcers, but Wallace goes from calling Rosier "ROSE-ear" and "roSHURE" and at this point, I think I am just looking for excuses to hate him.

The announcers tell us that Gordeau broke his hand in the first fight. He has that calm European demeanor of an Alexander Gustaffson. After watching the first round of fights, if I didn't know how it was going to end, I probably would have bet on Gordeau.

The fight itself is efficient. Gordeau brutalizes Rosier with leg kicks for a few seconds, and then beats the crap out of him with his broken right hand. He finishes it by stomping Rosier in the ribs as he is turtled on his side.
The post fight interview with the English speaking loser Rosier is, of course, painful, but Rosier at least has a personality. And then his coach keeps yelling over him as he talks. I could imagine Greg Jackson screaming over Jon Jones during a post fight interview. It would be wonderful to see.


Gracie taps Shamrock from the side with a rear naked choke, a la Carlos Newton vs. Pat Militech. The ref doesn't stop it, but Shamrock in a show of class admits he tapped.

But it's what happens after the fight that really makes UFC 1 stand out more than any other event I've watched.

Before the finals, Rorion Gracie, the organizer of the first UFC, honors his father Helio with a plaque for being "The First Ultimate Fighter" (where you at Forrest?) in a touching ceremony. Or, it would have been touching if the crowd wasn't booing and one dude audibly screaming "SHUT THE F*** UP" throughout the whole thing.
Every fight has been quick, but people are booing. Booing and booing and booing. An old man is standing in the middle of the octagon, and his son is trying to honor his (soon to be absolutely legendary) commitment to the sport on a night his other son will win three fights in one night and change the face of fighting and sports entertainment. And the boos. It makes me look forward to the great Pride events when the Japanese audience is awesomely respectful, but still enthusiastic and fun. It makes me cringe, this ceremony, this crowd.


As an MMA fan, the image of Gracie glued to Gordeau's back as he frantically taps is forever burned into my brain. With the Shamrock controversy earlier, I guess it is a little understandable why Royce kept the choke locked for quite a bit longer than necessary, but it still seems like a jerk move. Also, after watching so many people get put to sleep with rear naked chokes, I wonder if Gordeau is just born with lucky anatomy so his lights didn't get turned off, or if Royce was applying a throat choke instead of a blood choke.
I guess it all doesn't matter, swept away by history and whatnot.

And with that slightly serial killer look on his face, Royce raises his arms in triumph.

And of course, the announcers prattle painfully on and the few loud boos seem to drown out the confused clapping of an audience that expected the blood and guts of the very first fight of the night, but ended up witnessing a bunch of people rolling around on the ground and suffering pain they weren't prepared to even imagine.

Next time, a more general breakdown of UFC's 2-5 with a couple fight highlights, and more whining about the terrible announcing.