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Back to the future: MMA's first icons take center stage again, two decades later

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Holly Stein/Getty Images

Art Davie had just parked his car in the lot at the Executive Tower Inn when he ran into Ken Shamrock. Decades later, the two men would be remembered for contributing to the start of what is known now as mixed martial arts.

At this point in time, though, Shamrock just had a question for the UFC creator and co-founder.

"He says to me, 'Is this a work or a shoot?'" Davie said. "I said, 'Ken, we've been all through this before on the phone. It's a shoot.' He said, 'But there's a guy in karate pajamas. He's never had a pro fight.'"

That guy Shamrock was talking about? Royce Gracie. Shamrock could not wrap his head around the fact that the skinny Gracie, clad in a gi, was going to compete in a real, no-holds-barred fighting tournament. Shamrock, the only man to compete at UFC 1 with actual mixed-fighting experience, was certain the whole thing was going to be a work, like a pre-determined pro-wrestling event.

Shamrock was not sold that the Ultimate Fighting Championship was the real deal until the first match on Nov. 12, 1993 in Denver. Sumo wrestler Teila Tuli charged across the cage in an attempt to tackle karate master Gerard Gordeau. Gordeau landed a punch, sidestepped Tuli and then landed a hard roundhouse kick to his mouth as the sumo fell to his knees. The kick sent one of Tuli's teeth flying out of the cage, over the head of the broadcast team.

"Literally, I think, that's when the locker room went silent," Shamrock said. "That's when people realized, wow, he just kicked this dude on the ground. It was like, Yep, this is real. The atmosphere changed after that. People realized this is really happening. Before that, I don't think anybody understood what we were really getting into. After that fight, we all did."

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Greg Jackson grew up in a family of wrestlers in a part of Albuquerque, N.M., where fighting was a means of survival. He dabbled in kickboxing, read up on judo and consumed really anything he could find on martial arts.

"Where I grew up, you had to kind of fight all the time," said Jackson, now one of MMA's legendary coaches. "So when you do an aikido wrist grab and the Spanish boxers are just punching the sh*t out of you, you're like, 'Well that's not working. I'm gonna have to find something else.' It was necessity based and I had to bounce around."

'[The Gracies] were light years ahead of everybody. That was real fighting. If you didn't start doing their style of jiu-jitsu, you were in some serious trouble' - Greg Jackson

Then he caught UFC 1 on video and it dramatically changed his perspective on fighting. Jackson had never studied jiu-jitsu or seen a Gracie in his life, but he knew immediately what he had to do after seeing Royce Gracie mow down three much larger men with surgical proficiency.

At the time, Jackson said, the Gracies had a PhD in fighting, while everyone else "was in kindergarten."

"They were light years ahead of everybody," Jackson said. "That was real fighting. If you didn't start doing their style of jiu-jitsu, you were in some serious trouble. Even those of us who didn't have a Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor had to emulate almost all that they did."

Rorion Gracie, the family patriarch, got his wish. He helped Davie start the UFC, not as a business opportunity, but as a way to get spread the gospel of his father Helio's Gracie jiu-jitsu all over the United States. Rorion has said that he pegged his younger brother, Royce, as the family's representative at UFC 1, because he believed it would be more impressive if a lanky, unassuming man was able to use jiu-jitsu to defeat larger, hulking athletes.

That's where Shamrock came in. He was the perfect foil. The chiseled, 215-pound Superman who already had professional fighting experience was supposed to pummel Gracie, who was 170 pounds soaking wet.

"I thought Ken would kill Royce," UFC co-founder Campbell McLaren said. "I thought Royce would be turned into a pretzel. I really did."

The two met in the semifinals and Gracie choked out Shamrock in just 57 seconds. Shamrock was irate and stunned when it was over. He wanted to keep going. Gracie went on to defeat Gordeau in the finals to win UFC 1 and change martial arts forever.

"The system works, man," Shamrock said. "Nobody understood it. So, give credit where credit is due."

Gracie's victory spawned thousands of Brazilian jiu-jitsu gyms across the U.S. and now the world. A smaller, supposedly weaker man defeating muscular, powerful opponents was an inspiration to dozens of prospective fighters, including the likes of former UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, one of the best MMA fighters of all time.

"Anybody can say, 'Oh, you know, [the Gracies] didn't really influence me' -- they influenced everybody," Jackson said. "Even if you weren't directly taught like me, they still had a monumental influence on everything that we did. They were the real change. Everybody says that Bruce Lee is the father of mixed martial arts and I think theoretically that's true. ... But the Gracies were the ones that got in the trenches and said, 'Here's why you need to do this style, because we will beat anybody you will put against us.' That's what really started that revolution."

That fact is not lost on Royce himself.

"If Gerard Gordeau would have won the first UFC, everybody would be learning savate," Gracie said. "If Teila Tuli won the first UFC, everybody would have been learning sumo. I think with jiu-jitsu, eventually people would have found out. People would have found out. It might have taken a little longer to spread the word, but people would have found out."

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Scott Coker was a martial arts student under the legendary Ernie Reyes Sr. in 1993. After Gracie won UFC 1, Reyes Sr., a tae kwon do black belt who incorporated many striking disciplines into his training, would make the 90-minute trip to Lodi, Calif., to train with Cesar Gracie in jiu-jitsu twice a week.

Coker himself made that drive a few times for seminars as well. He's unsure what path martial arts would have taken without Gracie, Shamrock and UFC 1.

"I don't think there would be MMA today if that didn't happen," Coker said. "Japan probably would have had their version of MMA. I think it would have been a lot different. I'm not sure if we would have it. That was the iconic pivot point of martial arts fighting."

On Friday night, Coker will get his chance to go back in time a bit. The Bellator MMA president is promoting a main event fight between Shamrock and Royce Gracie at Bellator 149 in Houston. The two legends had a rematch at UFC 5 that ended in a draw and Shamrock is still driven by that first loss.

Gracie, 49, has not fought since 2007, while Shamrock, 52, does not have an MMA win since 2010. Both are far past their athletic primes. What happens when the two of them are locked inside a cage is anyone's guess.

Yet Gracie vs. Shamrock 3 is a headliner in 2016 and Coker is expecting one of Bellator's biggest viewer numbers ever on Spike TV.

"They're two of the most iconic figures in our sport," Coker said. "If you look at the fighters today, you can't say that about everybody. There might be some great fighters, but they don't have that x-factor. But Ken has it and Royce has it. Some fighters have it and some don't. You can't put your finger on it. You either have it or you don't."

While Gracie was the best back then, winning UFC 1, UFC 2 and UFC 4, Shamrock was the financial draw. Davie said at the time he was by far the most well-known person involved with the UFC with the killer nickname -- "The World's Most Dangerous Man" -- to boot.

"He's a guy who looked like Captain America -- 6 feet tall, 215 pounds, muscular," Davie said. "He had a certain machismo about him. He was a star from the very first minute. There was no doubt about it. If I could've made a fighter from scratch and put him into play, Shamrock would have been somebody I would have tried to create. He was perfect.

"I point out to people that he was my Ronda Rousey. He could sell tickets."

Shamrock, a street kid who was adopted by foster father Bob Shamrock into his boys' home in Northern California as a teen, later won the UFC Superfight championship and became King of Pancrase in Japan. He also went on to have a very successful run in WWE.

'I point out to people that [Shamrock] was my Ronda Rousey. He could sell tickets' - Art Davie

Shamrock has not been a competitive MMA fighter since the mid-90s, yet he continues to headline events. His fight with Kimbo Slice at Bellator 138 last June set Bellator's all-time ratings record on Spike with 1.58 million viewers. The fight itself was seen by 2.1 million people, a number that stacks up with any UFC event on cable in 2015.

Coker expects Bellator 149 to be in a similar range. He believes Bellator will snag the casual fans and MMA fans who have since moved on from watching the sport.

"I really believe that fanbase that left will come back for fights like this," Coker said. "And hopefully they'll get re-engaged and become fans again. We'll see. That's my hope.

"I'm going after the fringe fan. I'm going to cast a bigger net to try and pull them in. That's really what this is about."

The historical aspect of the fight is not lost on Coker, nor anyone involved in the UFC 20 years ago. Davie is excited to see Shamrock and Gracie face off again. McLaren isn't sure who to root for, but he'll surely be tuning in.

"I always like to see the origins of the UFC celebrated," said McLaren, who now runs Hispanic-centric MMA promotion Combate Americas. "This fight literally is, I would say as much as anything, iconic of the early UFCs. Royce was the champion; Ken was the golden boy. It was really the two of them."

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No conversation with Shamrock about UFC 1 and Royce Gracie goes by without Shamrock mentioning a pair of shoes.

To this day, Shamrock believes the first UFC was rigged for Gracie -- and against Shamrock -- because he was told just hours before the event that he was not allowed to wear his wrestling shoes. Gracie, meanwhile, was still allowed to wear his gi.

"I had never been in a ring without wrestling shoes on," Shamrock said. "I never got a chance to practice without them and the next thing you know they take my shoes away."

Shamrock said the first thought he had after Gracie submitted him, partly using his gi, went to the shoes. Shamrock said his feet slipped in the opening seconds, which opened the door for Gracie to sweep and take top position.

"I think to myself I just got choked by a guy wearing a gi and yet they wouldn't let me wear my wrestling shoes," Shamrock said. "How is that fair? Isn't that gi a weapon? Yet they took my shoes away."

Shamrock Gracie

(Holly Stein, Getty Images)

Shamrock has his conspiracy theories about what happened. Rorion Gracie, Royce's brother, was one of the founders of the UFC and also in charge of the rules. Shamrock was allowed to wear shoes for the rematch at UFC 5 and Davie said Shamrock has a point about the conflict of interest. But McLaren disagrees -- it wasn't Rorion Gracie making that call.

"We equated shoes with hand taping," McLaren said. "That was how we had to come out on it. You're giving a guy an advantage if you let him tape his hands and we thought for kickers you're giving a guy an advantage if you let him wear shoes.

"We made the best decisions we could in the moment. People would get mad at stuff we did. 'Why did you do that?' We were making it up as we went along. That's why. There was no rulebook. I famously said there are no rules."

As for the gi, McLaren, the head of programming for UFC pay-per-view partner SEG at the time, said it was his desire to see Gracie wear it in the cage. To McLaren, it was part of the spectacle.

"I wanted Gerard Gordeau in his little, scary karate pants," he said. "I wanted the sumo in some version of a sumo look. And I loved it that Royce was in a gi and went crazy that Ken was in his red Speedos. I loved that aspect of it.

"It was a signature, it was an icon, it was a statement. So to have the gi was as much my idea as the fact that that's how Royce fought. I wanted those visual elements."

Shamrock says losing the ability to wear his shoes that late in the process has been a "thorn in my side" for more than 20 years. He gets a chance to right what he perceives as a wrong Friday night.

Gracie, though, thinks the whole thing is sour grapes.

"The guys he beat up before, he beat them up like nothing," Gracie said. "And the guys after that, he beat up like nothing. So, excuse, excuse, excuse. How do you call it? The small violin.

"I don't make excuses. I'm not gonna blame a shoe."

Davie is not surprised this controversy has resurfaced. He knows the loss has been eating away at Shamrock now for two decades.

"I think Shamrock has a good point," he said. "I think it was an issue then. I sort of figured it was gonna come up again for this bout. Royce joked in an interview that Ken hasn't slept in 20 years and he might be right. He never got over that fight."

And that's no work. It's as real to him today as it ended up being back in 1993.