In this special multi-part series, Raffael Iglesias takes a look back at the early days of both the UFC and Pride Fighting Championship. Stay tuned for part 2.
A couple of months back was the 20th anniversary of the first ever Pride Fighting Championship event. At one time, the Pride fighting championship was a true rival to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and some thought surpassed it as the biggest mixed martial arts organization in the world. It was the opinion of many MMA pundits, that Pride had some of the best fighters in the world and that its fighters were superior to the UFC fighters.
The UFC and Pride FC claimed mixed martial arts supremacy when both organizations were peaking in popularity. Both organizations claimed they had the better fighters and the better fights. There was a brief moment in time when they worked together. UFC Hall of Famer and face of the franchise, Chuck Liddell, was sent to Japan to compete in the Pride Grand Prix tournament in 2003. The rival organizations teased working together a few times after that, but nothing ever materialized.
Zuffa, the parent company behind the UFC, purchased Pride back on Mar 27, 2007, and as a result, the UFC was able to match up fighters from both promotions. The results of some of the head-to-head matchups were mixed but for the most part, the UFC fighters did rather well up against the fighters coming over from Japan.
The Origin Story
In part, the two biggest fighting organizations owe their existence to the Gracie family. The beginnings of the UFC are rooted in the traditional Gracie challenge. The Gracie family was infamous for taking on all challengers from any school or martial art discipline dating back to the 1920s.
The first UFC was essentially a Gracie Open Challenge on Pay Per View. The Gracie’s were in the process of expanding their jiujitsu schools in the United States; and the goal of the first UFC was to establish Gracie jujitsu as the dominant martial art for everyone to follow and learn.
Spoiler alert: it was a success, as Royce Gracie won the first ever Ultimate Fighting Championship tournament in 1996. At the time, Royce was not the biggest, strongest or even the most skilled member of the Gracie family. He, in fact, was chosen because of his diminutive size and stature. To the Gracie’s, choosing a smaller man would better demonstrate the techniques and dominance of jujitsu against opponents of any size.
As the first UFC was an extension of the Gracie challenge, so was Pride 1. The story behind Pride 1 is veiled in martial arts legend and lore. As the story goes, Japanese pro wrestler Yoji Anjo went to California to challenge legendary jujitsu player and fighter Rickson Gracie to a fight, in the tradition of the Gracie challenge. What occurred was Anjo getting a severe beating, was humiliated and lost face upon his return to Japan.
Anjo’s friend and fellow pro wrestler Nobuhiko Takada proceeded to also challenge Gracie to avenge the loss, and restore honor to his friend and Japanese pro wrestling.
Negotiations between the Gracie camp and promoters in Japan went on for years before they agreed to the fight. The delay was due to the fact that Rickson Gracie refused to do a worked pro wrestling match. These worked “legitimate” fights were very popular in Japan at the time. It was eventually settled that it would be a shoot/legitimate fight, fight between Takada and Gracie.
The whole event was created and promoted behind the main event grudge match. The Pride Fighting Championship was quite literally about pride.
The structure, rules, and presentation between Pride FC and the UFC, were quite different from each other.
The first UFC was, in fact, a tournament for martial arts right out of a movie. Fighters representing their martial styles and discipline clashed in an eight-sided cage-like structure.
The rules‚…no rules. Actually, they had three: no biting, no groin shots and no small joint manipulation.
In contrast, the first Pride Fighting Championship event was structured as a series of exhibition matches.
The rules in the first Pride Fighting Championship were a confusing cacophony of combat and seemingly varied from match to match. Some of the fights had rounds and some didn’t. The fighters wore gloves that resembled Jeet Kun Do gloves. Fashion choices of tops and bottoms seemed to be at the fighter’s discretion. There was also a kickboxing match thrown in just for fun.
In my first article, I mentioned that the first mixed martial arts event I ever watched was the debut of UFC. In contrast, I hadn’t viewed the first Pride Fighting Championship until deciding to write this article. I had followed the Pride Fighting Championship back in its heyday when it was known for having such fighters on its roster as Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira, Fedor Emelianenko, Wanderlei Silva and Kazushi Sakuraba.
The first UFC’s commentary left a lot to be desired. Perhaps the quality was hindered as a result of it being the very first event of its kind, and a lot of it was done on the fly as everyone was learning on the job. This might be a very generous assessment.
The UFC commentary team consisted of lead commentator Bill Wallace, football legend Jim Brown, and kickboxer Kathy Long. Jim Brown would have been seen by the general audience as a legit tough ex-football pro. Brown, however, iterated that he would be far too afraid to ever participate in such an event. Bill Wallace and Kathy Long both have quite a legitimate martial arts background and both competed as professional kickboxers. Another thing they have in common is that neither should be employed in broadcasting.
There was absolutely no chemistry amongst commentary team. It was awful from the start as lead announcer Bill Wallace welcomed us to the “Ultimate Fighting Challenge” in between burping.
The poor man actually welcomed us to the Ultimate Fighting Challenge and not the Ultimate Fighting Championship, while letting out an audible belch. The banter was pretty painful and there were a lot of gaps in conversation that were just awkward. I believe it suffices to say that the announcing was pretty subpar for the for the first UFC event.
In contrast, the first Pride FC event had two very knowledgeable mixed martial arts aficionados. The lead announcer was “fight professor”‚ Steven Quadros whom at that point was a martial arts magazine columnist. By his side, as color commentator was legendary martial arts fighter and Pancreas champion Bas Rutten. Contrary to the UFC announcers, these two had instant chemistry, their banter was incredibly enjoyable and continued to be so for many future Pride events.
This first Pride Fighting Championship most definitely was not the spectacle that I was accustomed to seeing in their heyday. This was not the Dream Stage production that I was familiar with. This was an early version produced by KRS-Pride, a Japanese mixed martial arts promotion company founded by Nobuyuki Sakakibara and Nobuhiko Takada. I have a deep memory engraved in my mind of what Pride FC is supposed to look and sound like. None of the spectacle was present this time, not even the symphonic and inspirational theme song. My memories of the Pride are of its pageantry, production, and grandiose presentation. Like most Japanese mixed martial arts organizations, Pride’s presentation was very much based on a pro wrestling model.
The Production Values
The Ultimate Fighting Championship presentation of their product has always stayed away from a lot of the pageantry that’s associated with professional wrestling. Pride entrances were grand, as the fighters were introduced to the audience prior to the first fight. As the event begins, the fighters are spotlighted, raised up on a stage like gladiators, superheroes or gods. Their names are introduced to the crowd in Japanese and operatically bellowed out in English by Pride staple Lenne Hardt.
Both organizations looked very different in their first attempts than they did in their heyday. The current UFC also has their own high production values, but nothing like the presentation that Pride once had.
Neither UFC 1 nor Pride 1 had any of this. It was bare bones and had very 80s production values for the 90s. This was definitely not the Pride FC that I was accustomed to.
How do these two inaugural events match up side by side?
One of the biggest contrasts between the two was the UFC Octagon versus the traditional professional wrestling/boxing ring that Pride used. Both played in front of a very large crowd for events of their kind. UFC’s North American crowd of almost 6000, however, is dwarfed by the 35-40,000 in attendance at the first Pride Fighting Championship event.
The stage was set to launch the two biggest mixed martial arts organizations ever. This was the infancy of MMA as it evolved into the sport that it is today. Having watched both a couple of times, I thought it might be interesting to do a comparative breakdown and look back at both of the organizations’ first events. Follow along in my next article, as I break down fights from both cards, the results, and history of both events.
NOW READ A RETRO LOOK AT THE FIRST TWO PRIDE SHOWS: Pride with Fresh Eyes