Everyone knows the role the Gracie family played in creating modern mixed martial arts. Royce Gracie, the first UFC champion, isn't just an important figure in MMA. Gracie is, without reservation, one of the most important martial artists of the twentieth century.
The UFC, however, wasn't created by Gracie's brother Rorion alone. Although he came to America to spread his family's art, it took many creative individuals to turn his dream into a reality.
MMA became a worldwide phenomenon, and though the Gracies were without a doubt the most important early pioneers, they weren't the only men responsible for building a new sport from nothing. Here are 10 other pivotal players in the early growth of MMA.
Who: Bob Meyrowitz
What: Original owner of the UFC
Why: Meyrowitz was looking to take advantage of the new pay-per-view space but was having trouble finding a project that attracted interest. Boxing, porn and the WWG were the only things making any money, but Meyrowitz wasn't afraid to try concerts, kid's programming and any number of wild ideas. Lucha Libre wrestling was on the docket when Meyrowitz's marketing guru Campbell McClaren brought him the UFC on a silver platter.
At first, Meyrowitz wasn't quite sold. He didn't even attend the first UFC event. Eventually, though, he was all in. His personal passion for the sport kept the UFC alive long after it stopped being profitable. He believed that MMA was the next big thing. And he was right.
Isaacs helped make UFC 1 happen.
Who: David Isaacs
What: Original President of the UFC
Why: Isaacs made the UFC run, and he did it well. His grace under fire allowed the UFC to move their entire event, Octagon and all, from New York to Dothan, Alabama, in a single day when the New York government banned the sport at the last minute.
Who: Campbell McClaren
What: Early UFC Spokesman
Why: McClaren was the first to say "yes" to the idea of the UFC. Pay-per-view producers across the board had all rejected the idea outright, but McClaren was intrigued. He took the idea to his boss, Bob Meyrowitz, and the rest is history.
It was McClaren's idea to sell spectacle. He loved the David vs. Goliath aspect of mixed martial arts and used controversy to sell the fights. Even before the UFC was banned throughout the country, he claimed it was. It just sounded sexy.
Although there were long-term consequences, without McClaren's savvy marketing technique, getting the new promotion plenty of press on a shoestring budget, there might not be a UFC today.
Who: Art Davie
What: UFC Founder
Why: When Art Davie read about Rorion Gracie and heard about the Gracie Challenge, he knew the Brazilian had something special. Together they refined the idea and, in Semaphore Entertainment Group, found a home for it on pay-per-view.
Davie told Boxing Insider he still remembers the first UFC event fondly:
That we could pull it off. We had so much opposition, it was such an uphill fight. I remember being at the cocktail party after, what a sense of accomplishment that we did it and it was a success. Then we found out we were a pay-per-view hit. Heck, all 19 shows were a fabulous experience. But number one was the biggest.
Who: Masakatsu Funaki
What: Founder of Pancrase/Hall of Fame Fighter
Why: Before there was the UFC, there was Pancrase, a Japanese promotion that called itself "hybrid wrestling." The fighters were almost all professional wrestlers, but there was a catch—except for an occasional worked bout, the matches were all legitimate contests.
Funaki's promotion used modified pro wrestling rules, meaning the action could be halted when a fighter reached the ropes and no closed fist punching was allowed, making Pancrase fights more technical than early UFC bouts. It was a revolutionary departure for wrestling, which had been a show sport for decades.
Funaki's impact was felt internationally, not just in Japan. Many MMA legends came through the promotion, including UFC stars Ken Shamrock, Bas Rutten, Frank Shamrock and Guy Mezger. And Funaki didn't just compete against these stars—he also helped train them. A man of many talents, Funaki played a key role in the formation of modern MMA.
Who: Akira Maeda
What: Pro Wrestler/Founder RINGS promotion
Why: Although Maeda never competed in an actual MMA bout, his RINGS promotion became one of the sport's most fertile breeding grounds for new talent. He was keen on expanding MMA and RINGS worldwide, and his work was especially important in Russia and her republics, where Maeda found an incredible crop of talent.
RINGS, ultimately, was a failure. Maeda would develop great talent like Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Dan Henderson and Fedor Emelianenko, only to see the bigger Pride promotion steal them away. But his legacy endures. Today, more than a decade after he closed his doors, his fighters still stand as a testament to Maeda's eye for talent.
Who: John Perretti
What: Extreme Fighting Founder/UFC Matchmaker
Why: In many ways John Perretti's Extreme Challenge was a promotion ahead of its time. Perretti used rules and weight classes before it was mandated by law and identified some of the most talented fighters in the sport's early days.
When Extreme Fighting folded, he became the UFC matchmaker, a position he would hold until Zuffa purchased the company in 2001. Perretti was one of the sport's most powerful men in those days and was never afraid of throwing his weight around. His critiques could be brutal, and he was always willing to share his opinions, whether you asked for them or not.
Blatnick was also a 1984 Olympic Gold Medalist
Who: Jeff Blatnick
What: UFC Color Commentator/UFC Commissioner
Why: Jeff Blatnick, in addition to his great work as a broadcaster, was also a leading voice in the creation of the Unified Rules of MMA. His MMAC manual became the foundation of the rule book we still use today. He broke it down in my book The MMA Encyclopedia:
The UFC created a manual. We covered everything from conflict of interest for the judges and referees to the basics of how to regulate the sport. The job was given to me, but I had a lot of help from John McCarthy, Joe Silva, and many of the fighters themselves.
I wanted to get a handle on what people thought the right way to do things was. What is the right length of a round? How could we balance the rules to be fair to both grapplers and strikers? It all came together cleanly and we formed the Mixed Martial Arts Council.
From there we had to change things as fighters pushed the envelope. When Tank Abbott tried to throw Cal Worsham over the fence. When a Japanese fighter grabbed his opponent's glove and almost turned it inside out. When Mikey Burnette grabbed Pat Miletich's shorts for almost an entire 15 minutes.
Anything that popped up, we had to address. Things you never thought of, like Phil Baroni licking Matt Lindland's face. Finger in an orifice. As fighters pushed the envelope we had to respond.
Who: Nobuhiko Takada
What: Pro Wrestler/MMA Pioneer
Why: Takada was a wrestling legend, a shoot-style worker whose matches were designed to look real. But they were really just hard-hitting professional wrestling bouts. Though he had catch wrestling training from Karl Gotch and Billy Robinson, Takada was in over his head when he transitioned from wrestling to real fighting in 1997.
It's easy to dismiss Takada as "that pro wrestler who fought Rickson Gracie." But he's much more than that. Pride was built on his back, and without his willingness to risk a tough guy reputation he had worked years to build, MMA would have never exploded in Japan.
Who: Larry Hazzard
What: New Jersey State Athletic Control Board Executive Director
Why: Hazzard was one of the most powerful figures in boxing and the only one willing to take a chance on mixed martial arts. That state allowed its first sanctioned MMA fights in September 2000. Just two months later, the UFC promoted their first show in the state, headlined by a great heavyweight title fight between Kevin Randleman and Randy Couture.
Hazzard's approval was just temporary. The sport was still on a probationary status, and it was important that these early shows prove to him that MMA was something worth nurturing. He liked what he saw in Randleman and Couture, two legitimately world class athletes who immediately shot down any idea that these were merely bar brawlers.
Hazzard signed off on MMA, spearheaded the creation of the Unified Rules and allowed the sport to begin its ascent into American popular culture.