With his brother, Rorion, one of the promoters of a one-night tournament designed to discover which style of fighting was best, someone was destined to fly the flag for Gracie family jiu-jitsu.
But Royce didn’t know whether he, brother Rickson, or someone else would get the nod for the Nov. 12, 1993 event.
“I have such a big family, sometimes, I was wondering, when is it going to be my turn?” Gracie said. “There’s always a brother who’s older, younger, bigger, stronger, faster, I was like, ‘hey, give me a chance guys.'”
Ultimately, Rorion Gracie chose Royce over Rickson, and the martial arts world would never be the same. Gracie won the inaugural UFC tournament at Denver’s McNichols Arena, and though he had no idea at the time, he forever altered the combat sports landscape.
“Rickson was a little too big,” Gracie said on Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour, which commemorated the UFC’s 19th anniversary. “So it wouldn’t be as impressive, a 200 pounder beating up a 220. Me being 178 and beating up a 220 was a little more impressive.”
Gracie was one of eight participants in the tourney, along with kickboxer Gerard Gordeau, sumo Telia Tuli, striker Kevin Rosier, Kenpo karate practitioner Zane Frazier, boxer Art Jimmerson, wrestler Ken Shamrock, and kickboxer Patrick Smith. With no time limits, no rounds, and few rules, no one knew what to expect going into the event.
“On the first one, we had a sumo wrestler, there was a random draw, and it was the night before the fight, so we didn’t know who we were going to fight,” said Gracie. “So you had to be prepared for everybody. For a grappler, for a sumo wrestler, for a kickboxer, you’ve got be ready for everybody.”
Gracie had ample time to prepare for the event at the family dojo in Los Angeles’ South Bay area. While the camp was primitive compared to today’s leading mixed martial arts schools, the mindset was no different: You have to be ready for everyone and everything.
“I had enough students that I could choose, from kickboxing, boxing, not not exactly sumo wrestling, but a heavy student that would help me out so I could get used to body weight. The main thing is strategy,” Gracie said. “It’s not just come in and duke it out and fight. OK, if he’s a grappler, good for me, I know what to do. If he’s a kickboxer, I gotta get in a clinch and move a certain way. If he’s a karate man, he moves a different way, but I’m still going to have to clinch. So, a sumo wrestler, I have to clinch. It’s just, how I get there, how I move it.”
Fans got a taste of what was to come in the evening’s opening fight, when Gordeau knocked out several of Tuli’s teeth just seconds into Gordeau’s victory. Things got even more bizarre when Gracie entered the Octagon for his first-round bout with Jimmerson, who at the time was a ranked cruiserweight with a 29-6 record. Jimmerson, having watched the tourney’s early fights and seeing that wearing a pair of gloves would be a disadvantage in an anything-goes environment, provided one of the sport’s first iconic images when he showed up wearing one glove.
“I mean, he was thinking about doing jabs so many times, he didn’t want to break his hand. He wanted to keep me away,” Gracie said. “I thought hey, he has a boxing glove, good, he’s not going to be able to grab me. … He didn’t even touch me. I got in the clinch, took him down, I mount him, and he just waved to stop to quit. I was actually surprised. But then, again, it I thought, hey, he’s a boxer, when he goes to the ground, what is he going to do? He was out of his game, why take a beating?”
After making short work of Jimmerson, it was clear that while Gracie didn’t look like a traditional badass, he could hold his own. Gracie finished the job at UFC 1 with quick rear-naked choke victories over Ken Shamrock — the launching pad for the first great rivalry in MMA history — and Gordeau. Total time for his three fights was four minutes, 59 seconds.
Gracie held on to the chokes well after his last two opponents tapped. While that would be considered unsportsmanlike in today’s UFC, Gracie explained why he felt the need to dispense some frontier justice.
“My second fight at UFC 1, I fought Ken Shamrock,” the UFC Hall of Famer said. “In the fight I choked him. As soon as he tapped, I let go. He tried to continue, but the ref got kind of stuck like, ‘should I let it go or stop the fight.’ That’s when I looked at the ref and I said, let it go, we’re going to continue. … then I looked at Ken Shamrock, I said, I know you tapped, you know you tapped, but you want to continue, let’s go. Keep going. But now I was going to hold the choke, I was going to put him out. After that he decided, he said, ‘You’re right, I quit, so he stopped it.'”
While Shamrock was merely trying to pull a fast one, according to Gracie, Gordeau got straight-up dirty.
“When I come back for the finals with Gerard Gordeau, he bit my ear when I took him down,” Gracie said. “He wasn’t allowed to bite. When we were on the ground, I whispered in his ear, I said, ‘You bit me.'” I looked at him, he just gave me a look like ‘So what?’ That’s when I got the choke. Think of what happened with Ken Shamrock, and with [Gordeau] cheating, there’s one rule, two rules: no gouge, no biting. And he cheated on that, so that’s why I kept the choke a little longer. I sent a message: Don’t F with me.”
Gracie’s role in history was already set by the time he stood center Octagon with his oversized, ,000 winner’s check for winning at UFC 1. Before he was through, he also claimed tournament titles at UFC 2 and 4. In the process, by using jiu-jitsu to take out bigger foes, he not only established the popularity of Brazilian jiu-jitsu in the United States, he re-defined long-held conventional wisdom on fighting.
Now 45, Gracie couldn’t have known he was changing the course of combat sports history that night in Denver. But the now-retired legend is appreciate both for his legacy and for the growth of the sport his family helped launch.
“I knew [the UFC] was going to get big,” Gracie said. “But what Dana White and the Fertitta brothers did, they turned it into inspiration for the new generation. Now, the news the kids, they grow up like baseball, like soccer. They grow up thinking one day I want to be baseball player, they want to be soccer player. Today, they train thinking they want to be UFC fighter. They start young now.”
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