You could make the argument that every fight in the first few years of the UFC was a freakshow fight. After all, the action was raw and unhinged, the concept itself unpredictable and unprecedented.
For years, the sport of MMA felt underground, and in many ways it was.No one in the mainstream wanted the UFC to succeed, causing the promotion and its fans to adopt an "us against the world" mentality. In the midst of a campaign against violence on television and in the movies, in the middle of a campaign for "family values," the UFC was unrepentantly violent—and we loved it.
Eventually what started as spectacle became sport, complete with weight classes, a multitude of rules and even professional-level athletes. But back in the day, it wasn't just about finding out who the best fighters were.
Sometimes you had to know the answer to simple questions. Could a man beat a giant? Okay—what about Butterbean? What if that giant was Korean and trained as a kickboxer?
The fights that resulted from these questions aren't always the most sporting. But occasionally they rise to the level of performance art, combining primal violence with whimsy in a way that was mesmerizing and downright fun.
Those days are long gone. MMA has become a big business and eliminated the freakshow fight almost entirely. Some call it progress.
Me? I'm not so sure.
Every fight at UFC 1, a gonzo event that drew big money on PPV with no advertising budget to speak of, was essentially a freak show fight.
Most freakish of all?
Royce Gracie, brother of UFC co-owner Rorion Gracie, taking on boxer Art Jimmerson. It was a fight the Gracie family wanted badly, to prove that their art could best a boxer, despite public perception that a trained pugilist would cream any martial artist.
Unfortunately, Jimmerson didn't make it much of a fight. He was so terrified by a brief jiu jitsu demonstration by "Big" John McCarthy that, wearing one glove to make it easier, he tapped out almost immediately.
Despite Art Jimmerson's failure at UFC 1, or maybe because of it, some boxing fans continued to insist that the right fighter would run roughshod over the uncivilized ruffians of the UFC. Jimmerson, a mere journeyman, didn't count. What would a UFC star do against a Tyson? A Roy Jones. A James Toney?
At UFC 118, we had a chance to find out for ourselves. And for boxing fans, it wasn't pretty. Toney was demolished by Randy Couture. The wrestler easily took him down, and once on the mat, Toney had no clue whatsoever how to defend himself.
Of course, this was no surprise to MMA fans or promoter Dana White. Anyone with the slightest clue about MMA knew this to be one of the grossest mismatches in the sport's history. But that didn't make it any less fun to see Couture silence the loudmouthed boxer.
Before he was known as Alberto Del Rio in the WWE ring, Alberto Rodriguez wrestled as Dos Caras Jr. in Mexico and Japan. And before that? He was a decorated Greco Roman wrestler who competed against the likes of Randy Couture.
So, on the surface, his fight with Mirko Cro Cop wasn't strictly a freakshow fight. But when he decided to come into the ring with a mask on? Yeah, then it became pure freakshow.
Although the fight itself was plenty entertaining, the best moment came during the prefight interview with Cro Cop. When Bas Rutten asked the kickboxing star if he thought the mask would be a disadvantage, Cro Cop answered him as only Cro Cop can, deadpanning "Honestly I don't know. I have never tried to fight with mask on my face."
Emmanuel Yarborough, a former NCAA All American wrestler, was a freakshow pioneer on two continents. He and Daiju Takase brought the "fat guy against skinny guy" dynamic to Japan, but only after his star turn against Keith Hackney at UFC 3.
Hackney, not yet famous for battering Joe Son's testicles, treated Yarborough's head as a piñata. Yarborough's best technique turned out to be his hard head. Hackney may have been victorious, but he broke his hand in the process, forcing him to withdraw from the tournament.
Ikuhisa "The Punk" Minowa isn't strictly a freakshow fighter. After all, he has dozens of professional fights in Pancrase, Pride and the UFC. But when he finally retires, the freakshow will undoubtedly be his legacy.
He's fought them all, from Giant Silva to Hong Man Choi. But my favorite Minowa freak show fight was with Eric Esch, better known as Butterbean.
Maybe it was the opening dropkick, a nod to his pro wrestling roots. Maybe it was the fight-finishing arm bar. Whatever it was, I was enthralled for every one of the fight's 265 seconds.
In the bizarre world of Japanese MMA, there are freaks and there are fighters. It's the fighter's job to vanquish the freaks, demonstrating to the world that science and technique are more than a match for mere size and bulk. It's the freak's job to be large, imposing and prepared to smash anything in his path.
What happens, however, when two freaks come head-to-head? In the case of Butterbean and Zuluzinho, one of them was forced to play against type. It turned out to be the Bean, who took Zulu down and kind of rolled on top of him for a bit, eventually finishing the fight with a keylock.
It wasn't pretty, but for one glorious moment, Butterbean wasn't a reviled monster. He was the hero, finally David to Zulu's Goliath. Like matches between pro wrestling good guys, freak vs. freak fights don't always work. It's awkward pretending to be something you're not.
But when all cylinders are firing and the freaks are on their A game? Nothing is better.
I traveled to this show, held in an open-aired tin roof building outside of Auburn, Ala., complete with hay on the ground and the lingering scent of livestock, to write an article that ended up being too depressing for Fight! Magazine to use.
Maynard, a congenital amputee is without a doubt a courageous man. But when you have to carried to the cage on the back of one of your cornermen, when you are backstage and they can't get a glove to stay on your hand because of your physical limitations, the cage isn't the place for you. It just isn't.
This was one of the most depressing nights of my life. With due respect to Kyle, who wanted to fight again, I hope it never happens.
Fedor Emelianenko might have been the best fighter in the world in 2005, but even he wasn't above the tomfoolery that defined Japanese MMA. Fedor had several goofy fights, including a bout with pro wrestler Yuji Nagata that was so one-sided it permanently damaged the pro wrestling business in Japan.
Despite the ramifications of that fight, it's this bout, against an obese and overmatched Zuluzinho that critics use to take on Fedor's legacy. And, while he did fight the world's best at the time as well as the freaks, the critics are right about one thing—this was one of the most ridiculous mismatches in MMA history.
Speaking of Fedor, how about this for a stellar resume of wins?
Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.
Mirko Cro Cop.
Hong Man Choi.
Wait, Hong Man Choi?
Indeed, the world's best once fought the Korean giant, who towered over the Russian champion in the prefight staredown, looking every bit the invulnerable fighting machine.
Of course, that illusion was shattered almost immediately as soon as the bell rang. But this fight remains memorable for the stark contrast between the two fighters. It will never stop being fun to watch.
If the idea of disgraced former baseball star Jose Canseco fighting Korean giant Hong Man Choi in a tournament designed specifically to make such matches possible doesn't make you smile, I worry about you. Clearly, you have no soul.