When the Ultimate Fighting Championship debuted on pay-per-view on Nov. 12, 1993, the few insiders that there were figured this crapshoot of a fighting tournament was likely coming down to two men.
In those days of style vs. style, the stand-up fighters for the most part had no experience at all on the ground. So unless they could get a quick knockout, the feeling was the fight would go to the ground, and it would end via submission. But of the eight fighters in the first tournament, only two had any real submission training.
Royce Gracie from the famed Gracie family in Brazil had the heritage, as his father and uncle, Helio and Carlson Gracie, were the top fighters in Brazil in the 1930s and 1950s, respectively.
Ken Shamrock, a pro wrestler, came from a different line of submission fighters. A street fighter who had competed in bodybuilding, Shamrock was a good high school wrestler, who later won some Tough Man contests. He met Dean Malenko while he wrestling in the Carolinas using the name Vince Torelli. Malenko, whose older brother Jody was considered one of the most dangerous Americans when it came to submissions, saw Shamrock’s look and toughness and steered him in the direction of Japanese shootfighting.
Japanese shootfighting at first was a more realistic looking version of pro wrestling. They hit and kicked harder, and the moves were supposed to be real, as in none of the flashy moves that wouldn’t actually work in a real fight like in traditional pro wrestling. Its practitioners were all students of the submission game. But it was a different style, the submission style Josh Barnett later studied, with the same starting point. Barnett learned from Billy Robinson. Shamrock’s teachers were Japanese who learned from former Olympian Karl Istaz, better known as Karl Gotch. Robinson and Gotch both learned their submissions at a gym in Wigan, England, called the Snake Pit. In the '50s, when Robinson and Istaz were younger, the Snake Pit was the home of what was known as Lancashire Catch-as-Catch-Can wrestling, today simply called Catch Wrestling.
Shamrock along with the two best actual submission wrestlers in the company he worked for, Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki, grew frustrated with the predetermined shoot wrestling and wanted to make pro wrestling a competitive sport with real winners and losers.
They were told it was foolish, that the matches would be boring, nobody would pay to see it, and the injury rate would be terribly high.
So, instead of listening, they were able to get financial backing and started the Pancrase organization in Japan. Shamrock, the strongest of the three, became its best early fighter.
When he met Gracie for the first time, in both men’s second fight in the first tournament, Shamrock working for a leglock, Gracie got his back and choked him out in 57 seconds. Gracie went on to win the first UFC tournament.
"Back then I was raw," said Gracie. "Today I’m stronger, I feel faster, more experienced, have more tools, have more knowledge, and the coaches understand the strategy much better. Back then, it was shoot, take him down and see what happens.
"We didn’t know him. I heard he fought in Japan in Pankration. We looked it up. We had very limited knowledge back then. We knew he came from a wrestling background and mixed in some kickboxing. He was built like he was very strong. He looked like he worked out.
"Strategy played a big part in this. My brother (Rorion) said, `Walk right up to him.’ It was my second fight of the night. He said, `Just walk up and shoot. Don’t sit around. Shoot straight in, bring it to the ground. Your grappling against his grappling. We’ll see what happens.’ I outgrappled him."
The two emerged from the show as its most popular fighters, and the next few shows were built around tournaments where they would rematch. But Shamrock was injured prior to UFC 2. Gracie was injured in his first match in UFC 3. Shamrock had a 16-man tournament in Japan to crown Pancrase’s first world champion, which he won, the same weekend as UFC 4.
Semaphore Entertainment Group, which promoted the events, was frustrated that the attempt to build the rematch had continually fallen through. They decided that instead of putting both men in a tournament and hoping neither lost or got hurt, they’d, for the first time, headline a show with a "Superfight."
By this point Shamrock, the King of Pancrase, and Gracie, winner of three of the first four UFC tournaments, were the dominant fighters in the two biggest organizations of a mixed fighting sport that had no name.
The second Gracie vs. Shamrock match, champion vs. champion, took place on April 7, 1995, at the Independence Arena in Charlotte. It was the most talked about, most watched, longest and most hotly debated fight in the first decade of the promotion. And if viewed today, it would be considered among the most boring.
The match did 282,000 buys on pay-per-view, a number that made absolutely no sense. About 25 million homes had pay-per-view capabilities in those days, barely one-fourth of what would be the case today.
At the time, it was the largest non-boxing sports pay-per-view in history, a record that held up for another decade. Perhaps because the fight was so disappointing regarding the lack of action or conclusion, or perhaps because Gracie, UFC’s biggest star, bowed out after that fight, that number was never approached again until 2005. By that time the sport, which had a name, called MMA, was drawing huge ratings on Spike TV, and after the first season of The Ultimate Fighter reality show, the coach’s battle between the top stars of the next era, Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell, did similar numbers .
Keep in mind that in 1995 UFC was not only not on television, but mainstream media mostly ran from it. Virtually no television sports show would touch coverage of the event. There was no mainstream newspaper coverage. The Internet barely existed and was years from being a viable marketing force. UFC’s audience consisted of people who heard about the show from advertising on the barker channels or had heard about it from seeing ads in the back pages of some martial arts or pro wrestling magazines, or had come across tapes of the earlier shows in the corners of video stores.
It was a very different fan base back then and a very different sport, with rules that changed every time out. There were no judges, nor time limits. The fights were short, almost all lasting less than five minutes, and there was always a clear winner and a clear loser, ending either with a knockout or submission.
Shamrock vs Gracie under those rules went 36:06 to a draw. Very little happened in the fight, but the crowd wasn’t as negative as you’d think.
"It’s hard to talk about the second fight without talking about the first one," Shamrock said. "The same stuff was happening. I remember in the second fight, I was told basically, just like everyone else, it was no time limit, anything goes, and that wasn’t the way it was. In the first fight, I’m told 24 hours before that I couldn’t wear my shoes. When you wrestle your whole career, I never had not worn shoes. For that to be taken away the night before the first one, that was significant for me. I couldn’t move the way I wanted to move. I’m not saying it made the difference or I would have won. No problem, you move on.
"For the second fight, I felt pretty good. I trained for a three-hour fight, but my game plan was to basically keep Royce out of his game, not allow him to move where he wanted to move, then pound him out and wear him out, and submit him or knock him out. Then 24 hours before the fight, I got sat down by Bob Meyrowitz (the owner of Semaphore Entertainment Group) and Art Davie (the matchmaker and the person who came up with the UFC concept) and they told me it was going to be a 30-minute time limit. Whatever, you’re a fighter, I gotta go with what I trained to do."
"They told us it’s going to be a 30-minute limit," said Gracie. "It was the first time they had time limits. They added a five or six minute overtime. We’re still making the rules up as we go."
The 36 minutes can be described very quickly. Shamrock took Gracie down immediately and held him there. For the next 31:06, Shamrock was on top, Gracie was on the bottom, and very little happened. Today such a fight would have constant stand-ups and a furious live audience. But back then, when almost every fight was over quickly, the audiences was somewhat fascinated by the idea of seeing the longest, most drawn out fight in history.
Aside from Gracie’s win over Dan Severn at UFC 4, which went just under 16 minutes, no UFC fight on pay-per-view had lasted six minutes (there was a prelim fight that went 12:00).
At first, fans were simply fascinated by what they considered a fighting chess match, essentially with neither man attempting any kind of a risky move.
The first sound of light boos wasn’t until the 9:15 mark. Referee John McCarthy and Bob Shamrock, Ken’s adopted father who was in his corner, started getting impatient at the 24:00 mark. McCarthy started yelling at both of them to do something. Bob Shamrock was screaming at Ken to just get up and punch him. The crowd of 6,000 fans was mostly quiet, and then with time running out, there were some chants for Gracie, and then even louder chants for Shamrock. But there was still almost no action.
The 30 minutes were over. But the fight didn’t end. The two fighters remained in the same position, Shamrock on top while held mostly in a closed guard. Gracie did some minor offense from his back, like slaps to the side of the head, that were more annoyances to Shamrock who never changed position nor appeared to be hurt from anything Gracie threw at him.
At 31:06, a frustrated McCarthy broke the fight up. Instead of it being over, both fighters were asked if they were willing to go five more minutes. Both agreed.
For a few seconds they were on their feet. Gracie tried a few front kicks. Shamrock landed a punch to Gracie’s right eye, which immediately started swelling, and Shamrock followed with a takedown.
This is where the crowd did get mad. After all that time waiting for action, they actually got some, and couldn’t understand why after Shamrock hurt Gracie with a punch right away, he immediately took him down and put the fight back in the nothing happening position. Shamrock did more offensively in the overtime, with head-butts, which were legal, and some short bare knuckle punches. The crowd booed a lot more throughout the overtime. Five minutes later, it was over, and was called a draw, the first fight in UFC history without a conclusive winner.
Fans booed heavily when it was over. Shamrock, who was unmarked, looked happy. Gracie, whose eye was almost swollen shut, didn’t look happy at all. The fans chanted some expletives and it was over. Until 21 years later.
If this was judged by modern standards, while it’s often remembered differently, Gracie would have won most of the fight off his back. Shamrock did almost nothing but hold him down. Gracie did little, but his flurries of kidney kicks from guard with his heel on 10 different occasions, along with some slaps to the side of the head, short punches and palm blows and weak attempts at over-and-under chokes that never came close to being dangerous, made him busier than Shamrock. Shamrock’s offense in the first 31 minutes consisted of a few head-butts and some knees to the butt.
Shamrock, however, clearly won the overtime, with head-butts and punches while held in the guard. Gracie’s right eye was swollen almost shut and his left eye has a small amount of swelling underneath.
If broken up into five minute periods as rounds, Gracie wins. If judged on the fight as a whole, Shamrock did more damage in the overtime than Gracie did in the first 31 minutes, so he would win.
But judging the fight either way isn’t fair, because if there had been judges, both would have fought a different fight.
Gracie said that to this day, the three fights people bring up to him the most are the second Shamrock fight, his UFC 3 fight with Kimo Leopoldo, and a fight he had in Japan where he submitted the 6-foot-7, near-500 pound sumo legend Chad "Akebono" Rowan on a New Year’s Eve show.
Gracie and Shamrock have very different views of the second fight. Shamrock points to the damage and felt he won, but remained frustrated he never finished Gracie. For 21 years, he has wanted another shot at him.
Gracie claims that he was the smaller man, that he didn’t get beat up, so he won.
The two disagree on just about everything that happened in that 36 minutes, even down to the size difference.
"I fought somebody 40 pounds heavier than me," said Gracie, who was 28 at the time of the first fight, three years younger than Shamrock. "If I don’t get beat up or lose to a tough guy who is 40 pounds heavier, I won. For him to claim he won, the fight was a draw, I accept it, and I wasn’t happy. I wanted to win. I’m not happy with a draw. But for him to claim he won because he was on top of me and he hit me one time, just let me fight somebody 40 pounds lighter. That’s like me fighting a guy who is 140 pounds. I was fighting a guy 220 pounds. He claims he won. The rules say it was a draw. Now, I’m not happy with a draw, but my art teaches me not to lose to a bigger and stronger opponent. That’s the art of self defense."
On the night of the fight, Gracie was announced at 180 pounds and Shamrock at 205. But there were no weigh-ins and people just said what they weighed. Gracie claims he was about 178. Shamrock claims that while he was announced at 205, he was really 199. Years back, Shamrock claimed Gracie was closer to 190, but today he wouldn't estimate, saying it was hard to tell with his gi on.
Some 21 years later, Gracie weighed in at 190.8 pounds and Shamrock at 201.2 pounds.
"He came in to get a draw," said Gracie. "Even his father was screaming at him, `C’mon Ken, do something.’ His father said that. He was shaking his head. He didn’t want to lose, but I don’t think it satisfied him because he’s asking for a rematch."
"I’m smashing his hips," said Shamrock. "He’s attempting his submissions and I’m stopping his submissions. I’m ground and pounding, hitting him, I’m in his guard, in his wheelhouse. I’m sitting in his guard and pounding him out, hitting him to the body and the head, not big punches, short punches. He’s telling people, `You just laid on me.’ Why is it my responsibility to do all the work? I don’t get that. That fight, I did what I was supposed to do but time ran out. And this is what really bothers me, knowing in the first fight that they took away my shoes but he could wear his gi."
"I didn’t expect him to hold on for a draw," Gracie said. "I was expecting him to fight me, to try to beat me, but he didn’t try to beat me, he tried to hold on the whole time. He was keeping his head down, held on, threw a few punches and just held on."
Shamrock claimed it was Rorion Gracie, Royce’s older brother, who came up with the overtime period.
"Royce got his ass handed to him in the overtime and I’m starting to take over the fight. The time runs out. Do I get three more minutes? No, because I’m not running the show. This has been bothering me for years. No one has ever called these guys out for what they did during those times."
Gracie was ahead of the curve, but the Shamrock fight did show that the fighters were not falling into his traps so easy, if at all. The Gracies said that with time limits, it’s not a real fight and Gracie left UFC. He didn’t return to fight for five years. In 2000, he fought the longest fight in modern MMA history, losing a no time limit fight to Kazushi Sakuraba in the Tokyo Dome when his father threw in the towel at the 90-minute mark. Gracie only fought once more in the UFC, a loss to Matt Hughes, the best welterweight in the world at the time, 11 years later.
"They left because they saw the writing on the wall," Shamrock said. "They weren’t going to dominate anymore. They used UFC as a marketing strategy for their jiu-jitsu. Kudos to them. It’s brilliant. And then they stepped away because they realized people were getting better, learning to defend takedowns and striking better."
"A few years after that, it started to bother me whenever we started to talk about it," added Shamrock. "It bothered me a lot because I couldn’t see how people would say that Royce won that fight, or that Royce was the one doing all the work. I had a hard time with that. I couldn’t understand where people were coming from. I sat in his wheelhouse. I was in his guard the whole time. He said I ran from him. I was right there. He couldn’t do anything with me. There were people on both sides of the fence. But people said I did nothing. How can you say I did nothing? If you saw the fight, you’d have to say he did nothing."
Both also have different stories about the last 21 years. Gracie claimed a third fight never happened because there was never a serious offer.
"I was comfortable traveling seven months of the year, teaching all over the world," said Gracie. "Why I haven’t fought him, nobody has offered me the fight. Promoters weren’t interested. Bellator saw this one last chance to put this to rest, and end the feud between the Gracies and the Shamrocks."
"During the next 20 years, there were three or four times people were trying to put this together," Shamrock said. "It was always something. They wanted me to weigh-in at 185 pounds. Then they wanted $10 million. They asked for things that weren’t going to be possible."
Shamrock feels this fight is happening for one reason -- that he looked so bad in his June 19 fight with Kimbo Slice that Gracie felt he could win.
"My honest opinion is it’s because of the Kimbo fight and how bad I looked," said Shamrock. "Royce saw an opportunity based on my performance. This fight got put together fast after that."
Gracie said he feels Shamrock only has one chance, landing a punch very quickly in the fight.
"I have better endurance than he does, that’s for sure," said Gracie. "He’s got one chance, that right hand. If he throws that right and if he connects, he’s got a chance. But if he misses that one, I can last longer and I can outgrapple him."
He also feels that he’s better preserved in the 21 years between fights.
"I don’t smoke, I’ve never smoked," said Gracie. "I’ve never drank, don’t really party. I could live on eating fruit. I eat very healthy. My endurance is out of this world. Just to test myself a few years ago, about three or four years ago, my coach and I went for a run. We ran 41 miles just for the hell of it, to see how far we could go. I stopped because my calf cramped up. We ran for seven hours. Endurance, we got it, not a problem."
"My expectation is I dominate him," said Shamrock. "Whether I submit him or knock him out, that’s the good thing about where I’m at. I can go wherever we want and he can’t. The last time, I had two years experience and his family had 50 years experience. He can not submit me and I’m going to press this fight standing up or on the ground."
"Ken Shamrock knows how to trash talk," Gracie said. "But trash talk isn’t going to work. We’ll see if he’s still dangerous. He’s still got power and I’ve still got technique. It’s going to be power against technique, just like 20 years ago."