Major Growth Spurts

By Ed Graney
Updated: July 6, 2009

The Ultimate Fighting Championship LAS VEGAS — In the beginning, it wasn’t about a formless wasteland or darkness covering the abyss or mighty winds sweeping over the waters.

It was about a guy wearing one boxing glove and another a jiu-jitsu kimono.

It wasn’t even Halloween.

“He wore the one glove because he thought he was going to jab me so much, he might break his hand,” Royce Gracie remembers. “But once I saw the glove, I knew I had him. There was no way he could grab or clinch.

“I knew it was over once he was on the ground.”

For one fight, maybe. For the sport of mixed martial arts, it was the creation of something that would grow to massive heights.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship holds its 100th show on Saturday night at Mandalay Bay, where two championship belts will be contested, and what has been a historic rise into the sports world’s mainstream continues to extend its reach beyond what anyone imagined nearly 16 years ago.

Especially those who shaped the idea.

Funny. The spectacle that is UFC today was born from such a simple concept: Who would win a fight between those from different mixed martial arts disciplines?

Which style would prove the most effective?

Rorion Gracie (a jiu-jitsu expert from a Brazilian family of experts) and Arthur Davie (an advertising man and former Marine) wanted to settle the matter in an eight-man, single-elimination tournament, and with the support of Semaphore Entertainment Group, one was staged at McNichols Sports Arena in Denver on Nov. 12, 1993.

It was supposed to end there. One night. One tournament. One shot at recognition.

But a pay-per view audience liked what it saw, wanted more, and what began as a short-term display has over time became a sport for the ages.

The winner of UFC 1 received $50,000.

Sports fans received an outlet they have since profoundly embraced.

“Oh man, I am so proud to be a part of that kind of history,” said Royce Gracie, younger brother to Rorion and champion of UFC 1. “We started the whole thing. I guess that also means I am getting old.”

There weren’t many rules that first night. You couldn’t bite or eye gouge, which means it was fortunate Mike Tyson was incarcerated at the time and that no rugby players were invited to participate.

There were no weight classes. No weight limits. Big against small. Boxer against wrestler. Everything went.

But there was a lot of blood and lost teeth and shattered bones, allowing for the violent part of UFC to immediately show itself. Fans ate it up.

Frank Mir was 14 and watched the tournament on television with his father. Mir assumed what many did back then — that once you punched someone, they fell down and that grappling sounded like the thing Italians did when stomping grapes to make wine.

“It was a very eye-opening experience for me,” said Mir, the Las Vegas native who will fight Brock Lesnar in a main event heavyweight unification title bout Saturday. “I never imagined what Royce Gracie was doing, shooting in and tacking people. We had no clue. We were sitting there watching and completely dumbfounded by the whole situation.”

Not to worry. So were the referees.

Royce Gracie began the tournament against Art Jimmerson, the one-gloved boxer. It lasted all of 2 minutes, 18 seconds, or as long as it took Gracie to take Jimmerson down, climb on top and force a submission.

Gracie next fought Ken Shamrock in a semifinal bout. It officially ended by choke in 59 seconds. But the replay shows Shamrock tapping (more like whacking the mat like you might someone’s front door) five times, Gracie letting up and the referee still not stopping the fight until Shamrock verbally confirmed it really wasn’t a good thing when someone’s face turned a dark shade of blue.

“Everyone was learning at that point, including the referees,” Gracie said. “I think the referee was expecting more of a fight in that one, and once I got on top of Shamrock so fast, it was like, ‘What do we do now? Should we continue the fight?’

“I had no idea (UFC) would become as big as it has, but I thought it could do well once the public became educated about what it was.”

No one could have forecast such a rise. No one could have known how high the mountain would one day reach.

Gracie won the first tournament with a rear naked choke hold against Gerard Gordeau of the Netherlands at 1:45 of the final match.

With it, a hand was raised and a phenomenon born.

The formless wastelands and darkness covering the abyss and mighty winds sweeping over the waters is about a much more important beginning.

But one night in Denver nearly 16 years ago, the UFC carved out its own.

It reaches 100 shows Saturday and there isn’t a one-gloved boxer in sight.

Amazing stuff.