April 27 is a key day in the history of mixed martial arts, because it is the 25th anniversary of the first actual breakthrough in the creation of the UFC.
Art Davie had come up with the concept of trying to figure out who was the best fighter in the world. The idea was to put fighters from several different disciplines in an almost-no-rules environment. But by that time, he had been turned down by just about everyone in cable television and pay-per-view for his concept of “War of the Worlds.”
But on April 27, 1993, shortly after he pitched the idea to Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG), a pay-per-view producer, he got a fax from Campbell McLaren, SEG’s Vice President of Original Programming. For the first time somebody he had contacted didn’t slam the door in his face.
”I am definitely interested in pursuing this event as a pay-per–view television show,” McLaren wrote. “I think there is tremendous potential in the War of the Worlds and am anxious to begin working with you and Rorion (Gracie).”
It is somewhat fitting that it was April 27, 2018, 25 years to the day, when UFC announced Davie will be inducted into its Hall of Fame. Listed as a contributor, Davie will join Matt Serra, who was announced on Saturday, in being honored at the ceremony on July 5 at the Pearl Arena at the Palms Hotel in Las Vegas. There will still be a modern era fighter and a fight to be announced in upcoming weeks that will round out the 2018 class.
For Davie, his brainchild for what turned into UFC started in a skirmish on the beach, nearly 30 years earlier. It was July 13, 1964. Davie, who had been boxing, was in a discussion with a friend of a friend, a highly ranked high school wrestler. The discussion turned into what would happen in a fight between a boxer and a wrestler. Davie, not knowing anything about fighting but boxing, and feeling, like most did at the time, that boxing was a real fight, figured he’d land his punches as the wrestler shot for the takedown.
Instead, the wrestler ducked his punch, took him down, and submitted him quickly.
”I got my ass kicked by a wrestler,” he remembered. “I got educated that there was more than meets the eye to fighting.”
Fast forward a quarter-century, Davie read an article in Playboy magazine about Rorion Gracie, and the exploits of the Gracie family in Brazilian Vale Tudo events. He found out where Gracie was located and became a student of his. Then he pitched Rorion on the idea of War of the Worlds.
He also studied the idea of mixed fighting, in particular Pankration, the earliest known mixed fighting event in the original Olympics in Greece; as well as the Brazilian events in the 20th century; real fights that had taken place in Japan; and the Gene LeBell vs. Milo Savage judo vs. boxing mixed match in 1963. Davie, a flamboyant car salesman who grew up in New York, but was living in Southern California, felt, once McLaren opened the door for him, he knew how to pitch the real decision maker at SEG, Bob Meyrowitz.
”I sold Bob Meyrowitz on the idea he’d become the Don King of the franchise,” he remembered about the early meetings.
The original owners, Davie, Rorion Gracie and Meyrowitz all had different ideas. For Davie, he was looking at creating a sports franchise. Meyrowitz was looking to create a steady pay-per-view property. Gracie was looking to use the platform to extol the virtues of Gracie Jiu Jitsu, with the concept that a normal-sized man can subdue men much larger based on the techniques he was teaching at his academy.
Rorion’s father, Helio Gracie, was the first Gracie Jiu Jitsu star, who would do mixed matches in the 1930s in Brazil. After he got older, the family star was Carlson Gracie, Rorion’s uncle. In the 1980s, the star was Rickson Gracie, who like Rorion, had migrated to Southern California where he was teaching jiu jitsu. Davie had figured the Gracies would send Rickson Gracie to the tournament, as he was an experienced no-rules fighter, having won a number of high-profile fights in Brazil. Rickson claimed to have a 400-0 record, although that was mostly made up of claims of gym sparring sessions, but there was more than ample evidence of his ability.
Rorion and Rickson were at odds, since Rickson had taken some students from Rorion and was teaching in his garage. Instead, Rorion chose his younger brother, Royce, who, like Rorion, had learned from his father from childhood, but had never fought a sanctioned fight under those rules. Royce, in Rorion’s mind, was better for marketing purposes. Rickson was a muscular powerhouse at the time, and he looked like people thought a fighter should look like. Royce was tall and thin, about 6-foot-1 and less than 180 pounds.
”He looked like a choir boy,” said Davie.
The idea is that people would see Royce, who didn’t look at all like people perceived a badass street fighter would look, dispatching these men 50 to 100 pounds heavier than he was, and he’d point to his technique. It would be the greatest commercial that an average person would relate to, thinking they may never have the power of a Rickson Gracie, but they could envision that if Royce Gracie could beat people much bigger due to technique, perhaps they could learn that technique themselves.
Davie and Rorion worked together in getting funding and creating a business which Davie tried to sell the concept of to television people. Still, Davie knew there was an Achilles heel of jiu jitsu. He had seen a tape of Rickson Gracie grappling with Mark Schultz, a retired Olympic wrestling gold medalist.
While Rorion Gracie was looking at this as a way to create a superstar in Royce, and thus build up Gracie Jiu Jitsu, Davie said he was looking to create a sports franchise and for fighters to beat Gracie, and felt he could see the future. ”I saw Rickson Gracie rolling with Mark Schultz from Utah,” he said. “It took Rickson 20 or 30 minutes to get Mark’s arm. When I saw that video, I was in a quest to get wrestlers. I wanted to bring in Alexander Karelin.”
Karelin was the gold medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling as a super heavyweight in the previous two Olympics, and was still in his prime as the most feared wrestler on the planet. He was generally considered the greatest Greco-Roman wrestler of all-time.
”I went to the Koslowski Brothers (two American Olympic Greco-Roman wrestlers) about getting Karelin,” Davie said.
Davie noted that when Rorion heard he was trying to get Karelin, at that point he was going to replace Royce with Rickson. Davie said there was a meeting with the family members and Rickson asked for $1 million, while Helio, his father, scolded him and said that, “When I fought, it wasn’t about money.”
”When I told Rorion I wanted to get Karelin, I found at that point that Rorion knew that I was an adversary,” Davie said.
While some would see the tape of Rickson tapping out Schultz as an affirmation of the Gracie technique, Davie saw it as even the best of the Gracies, with all that experience, had trouble for 20 minutes with a wrestler who knew nothing but wrestling. He figured that once the wrestlers learned some ground defensive technique against submissions, the future would be the top-tier wrestlers dominating.
After months of negotiations, the first War of the Worlds was scheduled for pay-per-view on Halloween night of 1993 from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. But before it could take place, the name was changed to the Ultimate Fighting Championship and the first event took place on Nov. 12, 1993, in Denver. Colorado became the place to go because the state at the time had no athletic commission. It had also already allowed the Sabaki Challenge tournament, a mixed styles stand-up fighting tournament.
While the first green light non-rejection letter came on April 27, the actual deal between Davie and Meyrowitz wasn’t signed until just hours before the first show, as both sides were trying to push each other for more favorable terms for future shows. Meyrowitz at first figured they would fight in a boxing ring.
”Rorion and I were adamant it couldn’t be in a boxing ring,” Davie said. “While most expected a night of crazy punches and flashy kicks, a real-life fantasy version of martial arts movies, the public was shocked at the domination of the ground fighters.”
Davie was in charge of putting together the brackets for the first eight-man tournament. He noted that he wanted a boxer and a sumo in the first tournament. He changed his mind several times, but the key decisions were that the Gracies really wanted the boxer (Art Jimmerson) first, because the public thought boxers were the best fighters. But Davie considered putting Royce against a sumo first and putting Jimmerson against Kevin Rosier, a much bigger but out-of-shape former kickboxing champion.
Most putting the show together figured there were two people with the best chance of winning the tournament. The first was Royce Gracie. His family had experience with the rules and the belief was that submission ground fighters would win.
The other was Ken Shamrock, a pro wrestler of some notoriety in Japan. Shamrock had studied submissions from pro wrestling shooters in Japan and had done two real fights, winning both via submission quickly, under a slightly different set of rules.
”It was pretty much what I expected it would be,” said Davie.
Davie bracketed it wanting, if they were to win their first-round match, for Gracie to face Shamrock in the semifinals. His idea was to, if possible, put a grappler vs. striker in the finals. That ended up happening with Gracie beating kickboxer Gerard Gordeau in the final.
”I didn’t care who won the event,” said Davie. “I thought Shamrock might pull it off, but was determined that Shamrock and Gracie wouldn’t end up in the finals. I wanted a striker vs. grappler as the final bout in UFC 1.”
Eventually Semaphore bought out Davie and Rorion Gracie, and hired Davie as matchmaker, a position he held for several years. His tenure in UFC ended when, as his non-compete period was running out, Semaphore found out he was looking at starting a rival promotion, and he was let go.
”We all had different agendas, and then we were exposed by the media and the politicians and it got pretty hairy,” Davie said.
After UFC, Davie worked with K-1, the kickboxing promotion from Japan. He at one point turned against his creation at a time when UFC was nearly legislated out of existence with commissions refusing to sanction it and pay-per-view companies pulling out of carrying the shows. By this time he was trying to market K-1 kickboxing in the U.S., and wrote a public letter after the death of an American fighter on a show in Russia, noting he was the guy who created it, and in fact, it was a brutal sport that shouldn’t be sanctioned.
The first UFC event did 86,592 buys on pay-per-view, a number that made no sense for an event that had no television promotion to get over characters and storylines. Even crazier, by the time they got to the fifth event, headlined by the two biggest stars of the early events, Royce Gracie and Shamrock, they did 282,000 buys. They seemed off to the races, but political opposition nearly finished the UFC before it came close to its potential.