UFC 20th Anniversary: Remembering MMA's Bad Old Days

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UFC 20th Anniversary: Remembering MMA's Bad Old Days
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When we were in high school, my friend Thatcher’s parents had a Bowflex in their living room.

Of course they did. It was the ’90s.

Thatcher’s house was the first place I ever saw the UFC. I’m pretty sure he and I cut class one afternoon during our sophomore year to sneak over there and watch it on VHS while his parents were at work. His dad had taped it off pay-per-view that weekend and when Thatcher said it was amazing, that I had to see it, I probably said something like, “Yeah, cool, whatever.”

Boom. The rest of my life. Right there.

Considering the formative role it played with me, you’d think I would remember every detail of my first encounter with MMA, but the truth is, I don’t. I don’t remember much at all about what we watched that day, except this one fleeting memory of a guy in white pajamas arm-barring a guy in Hammer pants.

That’s it. No context, nothing else. Just a disembodied, flickering image that railroads through my mind without preamble or explanation. As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of UFC 1 on Tuesday, you ask me about my earliest UFC memory? That’s all I got.

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I do remember my reaction to what I saw, which history now tells me was pretty universal to kids about my age. I remember being amazed that the little dude in the gi was cleaning house by sucking people onto the ground and making them quit with strangleholds and joint locks.

There was that ah-ha moment where it dawned on you: The best style of karate wasn’t karate at all. It was jiu-jitsu. It seemed so simple once the little dude showed you how.

The little dude, of course, was Royce Gracie, and you could make the case those early tournaments were basically set up for him to win. The fight director was his uncle, and while the bouts weren’t fixed, it’s not a huge leap to assume the Gracies started by inviting a bunch of guys they thought Royce could beat. The UFC, such as it was, was really sort of a live action infomercial for Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and, man, it worked.

Even if I knew at the time that Gracie wasn’t the underdog in those early fights, that he was actually the overwhelming, prohibitive favorite, I probably wouldn’t have cared. We were willing to overlook a lot in those days: the mismatches, the terrible broadcasts, the scorn of our friends, family and of society.

Because, brother, that first handful of events, they were bad.

Viewed with the benefit of 20 years worth of hindsight, everything about the first days of the UFC seems seedy and corny and hilarious. The announcers were awful, arguably less prepared than any of the shockingly ill-prepared fighters, and there was so much general confusion mixed in with the brutality, you couldn’t help but laugh at a lot of it.

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The pure sport aspect was almost nonexistent, and even as a spectacle meant to terrify and titillate the public, they don't really stand the test of time. It’s weird now to think that those early fight cards could’ve gotten their hooks into me, but I guess they did.

My personal evolution as a fan followed a fairly routine trajectory for spectators during MMA’s awkward adolescent years. We raided the local video stores for all the UFC events we could lay our hands on, watching a lot of them out of order because that’s how they came to us. Later we bought DVD collections out of the bargain bins—King of the Cage and Gladiator Challenge shows by the dozen—and eventually chased down early Pride cards and even some RINGS events.

At some point, somebody said we should go to Vegas for a show and we did. Then we went to another and another, and pretty soon they started to run together in my mind.

The next thing I knew I was a superfan, and 20 years later I realize I owe all of it to that house with the Bowflex in the living room, and that one shaky memory of the guy in pajamas curling up underneath the guy in Hammer pants, making him tap.

Once I had the benefit of the Internet on my side, I went back to research that moment, with the intention of filling in the gaps in my memory. As it turned out, I wasn’t missing much.

I discovered the first UFC fight I remember watching was Royce Gracie vs. Jason DeLucia in the quaterfinals of UFC 2—not UFC 1. It was just Gracie’s fifth official MMA fight and DeLucia’s third, though the two of them had faced off before as part of the now-infamous, underground Gracie challenge series you can still dredge up on YouTube.

Neither fight went so hot for DeLucia.

Their UFC bout lasted one minute and seven seconds, but during that time there are a lot of what you might call “early UFC” moments. For example, ring announcer Rich “Go-Go” Goins introduces Gracie as the “defending Ultimate Fighting Champion…champion.”

The broadcast team knows what’s up, they are completely in the bag for Gracie. They don’t even consider the notion that DeLucia might win, instead choosing to spend their time talking about what Royce is doing, why Royce is, doing it and what Royce is going to do next. When it’s over, as they’re all marveling over Gracie’s skills, commentator Jim Brown yells—in the most Jim Brown way possible—“You can’t wrestle with a snake!”

How on earth do I not remember that?

Oh, the bad old days. Twenty years later, we’ve come so far, but I still have no idea what Jim Brown was talking about.

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