It was two decades ago when the circus first blew into Boonville, Indiana, breaking up the monotony of the Midwestern afternoon. A blue-collar town of little more than 6,000 people, with a website perennially frozen in the Geocities era, the birthplace of Jeff Osborne's experiment was as fittingly nondescript as the beer-belly toughs who manned the show.
Months earlier, Osborne, like so many of his contemporaries, caught a tape of Royce Gracie's heroics at UFC 1 and instantly became enamored with the No Holds Barred craze. There existed a certain truth inside that cage, a kind of truth he'd never seen before. So in the great pursuit of the next big thing, the 25-year-old pro wrestling promoter drove out between the boonies and the middle of nowhere, strapped together a steel cage in some gym parking lot, and waited for the carnival barkers to spread their word around town. He was, in retrospect, completely terrified of what would come next.
"It was just surreal," Osborne remembers. "There were only about 380 people there and you could see the looks on their faces. And it was quiet. Whenever there was a punch thrown and landed, people had never heard that before. They had never heard anything like that, because back then it was bare-knuckle, or you could elect to the option of wearing a glove.
"I'm sitting there waiting to start the show, because I'm waiting for my opponent to show up. Looking back, I realize just how stupid I was in thinking I could fight on the same show that I ran, but it was just a strange, strange feeling. I will never forget that day -- how odd it was to hear people react to the sound of a fist hitting someone's head. People wincing. Just crazy."
Those gawking at all the splatter from the front row couldn't realize it back then, but they were witnessing history. Twenty years after that oddity of a first event, Osborne's HOOKnSHOOT remains one of the sole survivors of MMA's old west era. From the dawn of SEG, to the boom of Zuffa, through the corporatization of FOX, HOOKnSHOOT has endured, staging over 100 official shows -- plus untold more that never made it to Fight Finder -- while birthing the careers of UFC champions and future Hall of Famers alike.
This Saturday, that history will celebrated in a twentieth anniversary show in Evansville, Indiana which will see one of Osborne's originals, a savage Olympic hopeful turned superfight champion, Gary "Iron Bear" Myers, indoctrinated into HOOKnSHOOT's own Hall of Greats. Myers was the first man to brave that Boonville parking lot back in 1995, however countless others followed. The wild nights of that bygone age became the stuff of legends.
"God, you just had to be there for those," Osborne says. "There was a show in Texas called Extreme Shootout, and I filmed their first two shows.
"There was just so much craziness going on in South Texas. One fighter tried to strangle another fighter with his damn wristband. Yves Edwards knocked out one fighter's tooth and they couldn't find it, so Tito Ortiz found it -- he was refing -- picked the tooth up and put it in a Budweiser cup for the fighter. Tom Lowber was refing one of Shannon Ritch's fights, and Shannon Ritch tapped out. Then he gets furious and throws his mouthpiece at the guy after they break it up. Tom Lowber, the ref, immediately slaps on a rear-naked to Shannon Ritch and just chokes him unconscious! This is all on the same show. Just bizarre craziness, man."
The cavalcade of names to pass through HOOKnSHOOT's doors in those days read like a Rolodex of serial murderers. It was different before big money invaded the sport, back when the minor leagues and the major leagues were largely one in the same. Dave Menne rampaged his way to HOOKnSHOOT's first lightweight championship. Yves Edwards and Aaron Riley waged Osborne's first superstar rivalry across two classic brawls. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira debuted on American soil in the middle of Evansville, of all places, and smashed some poor Midwestern boy. Chris Lytle, Ian Freeman, and Jorge Rivera made cameos, and a former defensive end named Frank Mir figured he'd scratch an itch and give this whole fighting thing a try.
"Frank was just a kid, man," Osborne remembers. "He was 19 or 20, just a kid showing up at the airport by himself, just looking to go get some food. I think his person was going to give him a ride, but their flight didn't arrive until later, and he was just a kid. Just young and naïve but still good.
"And he almost got his ass beat in his first pro fight. We had this journeyman fighter, Jerome Smith, who was as tough as nails. We told (American Top Team founder) Dan (Lambert), ‘Look, I think this is a fair fight.' Everybody agreed, and Jerome of course came out and started laying it on Frank. Everybody thought Frank was going to lose. Somehow he ended up winning."
Times were good and times were bad aplenty, but Osborne always survived and always rode on the forefront. He staged the first-ever North American ADCC trials, which saw Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira make his inaugural North American combat sport appearance. Before the TUF boom, and before every schlub in a bar fancied himself a fighter, Osborne championed the ideals of MMA on FOX paid programming, nabbing a lead-in audience from WWF and gradually introducing a new generation to the arts.
And before women's MMA ever established itself as a monster in its own right, Osborne carried the sword for the fairer sex largely out of his own pocket.
HOOKnSHOOT eventually became synonymous with its all-female tournaments, which began in 2002 and ran through the end of the decade. Though they were rarely financially viable, Osborne never wavered in providing the women an outlet that equaled that of the men.
"Way back, I put in a ReMix tape from Japan. It was a couple of women's fights and I left the room. I come back an hour later and my daughter and wife were watching the tape," Osborne remembers. "I was like, ‘What are you guys doing?' They were captivated by the women's fighting more than the men's. Megumi Yabushita was very small. She didn't end up winning the ReMix tournament, but she was being put against bigger women, and the perseverance of the female fighters, they were intrigued by it.
"So I put the word out and literally got probably every female fighter there was inside of North America, and the two Canadian fighters fought each other. That was all there was back then. Fast-forward two years later and I do another show, and half of those women actually blossomed into great, great things. But seeing my daughter and wife look at the women fight, it was different than men. They fought for themselves, they didn't fight for ego. The woman weren't afraid to lay it on the line and take a risk, whereas the men would be afraid to lose and look bad."
Fourteen women competed on HOOKnSHOOT's historic April 2002 "Revolution" show, and from there they became a regular sight inside the Evansville Coliseum.
"My partner was not sold. He didn't want to do this one," Osborne says. "We were coming off of a sold-out show, that's where Lil Nog fought the month before, and God, there was so many people there. We had already decided to do the women's show and I kept thinking, ‘Well, this isn't going to go well.' And it ended up doing okay. I mean, I lost a ton of money on it. I had intended on just making history versus making money, and it paid off. It's definitely stood the test of time, and it's sad that people don't know the backstory of how a lot of these women fought for nothing to just get somewhere.
"There was just a different feel for those tournaments. The 2002 show, I think, was very special. That'll always go down as the greatest night of my MMA life, was being able to pull off that women's show. And then the 2004 women's show, Erica Montoya versus Megumi Fujii on top, God, that thing was just so full. Tara LaRosa, Molly Helsel. I can't even remember who all was on that show, but there were three or four standout fights that just stole the show.
"Then I remember the 2005 tournament, I just wanted to see if I was crazy enough to do it again. So I put together an eight-woman tournament and Julie Kedzie ended up winning an eight-woman, one-night tournament there. I think I just did single matches in 2006, and then 2007 came along and that was when I was backed by Bodog. God, that's a night I can vividly see in my mind. It's just an ocean of people. We ran out of seats. We had a crane cam for production. The women, they were all just gorgeous and articulate and all just the most diverse group."
HOOKnSHOOT's 2007 single-elimination tournament still stands today as one of the greatest collections of female talent to gather together under one roof. Miesha Tate, Tara LaRosa, Jan Finney, and a slew of established fighters turned the Midwest inside-out, with underdog Kaitlin Young ultimately emerging atop the heap, having knocked out three women, including Tate, in a combined 1:45.
Look around today and UFC bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey sells over half-a-million pay-per-views largely by herself, while unheralded Polish strawweight Joanna Jedrzejczyk captures the attention of the MMA world with a smile and a wink and a few violent flurries. The shift in perception is night and day from what it once was, and Osborne is overwhelmed to see it.
"I'm not bitter or anything like that. I'm proud to say that keeping women's MMA alive is always going to be my greatest accomplishment," he says. "Everyone else just wanted to use them for a sideshow to sell tickets, not giving a damn about any of them.
"There was always some idiot male fighter or somebody being negative, talking down women's MMA. When Ronda was in her main event, her first main event, there were guys trashing it, saying, ‘Well, she shouldn't be in the main event' -- you should be so freakin' lucky to be on the same show as her and get that many people watching you. Because if she wasn't on that show, you're looking at a buyrate of next to nothing, and she just got hundreds of thousands more people looking at you. Now it's up to you to be not-so-average and break out."
Osborne admits that the best of HOOKnSHOOT is probably behind him. The financial viability of regional MMA has shrunk to a ghost of its former glory, with the MMA bubble burst and the UFC schedule expanding to the point where free shows are held largely every week. Now it's become next to impossible to draw the blockbuster turnouts and star power of the old days.
But that hasn't stopped HOOKnSHOOT from returning to the Evansville Coliseum a few times a year -- and even after two decades of craziness, this weekend will be no different.
"I've survived the game and I've never stopped," he says. "I've never even stopped training. I feel like I'm in the best shape of my life. I haven't fought or done anything like that, any urges to fight or anything like that, but just that MMA has been a part of my life for the full time. I've never strayed away or gotten away from it. And my passion for women's MMA, being around long enough to see it get to where it needs to be. It's going to go even further the more weight divisions they put in there. But my legacy of never quitting, never stopping, and believing in women's MMA when no one else did."