The origins of MMA will forever be shrouded in legend. Specifically, the inaugural UFC and Pride Fighting Championship started a revolution in combat sports that is now only fully realized. Here is a look at how the maiden voyage for each organization played out.
A couple of decades ago, two mixed martial arts organizations were born in the Ultimate Fighting Championship and the Pride Fighting Championship. Later, both rivaled for supremacy in the sport of mixed martial arts. The first UFC was not just noteworthy for being the first Ultimate Fighting Championship tournament, but it was also the first event of its kind in North America. Japan already had a number of martial arts-related organizations, such as Pancrase and Shooto.
None of the organizations in Japan grew to the size and legend that was the Pride Fighting Championships. Both these organizations increased the production value and quality of their presentation significantly over the years.
Both organizations participated in transforming these events from a spectacle into a sport. I wanted to look at these two organizations first events side by side. How do these two benchmark events compare?
The Birth of a Sport
UFC1 was held at the McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Colorado, on November 12, 1993. Announced attendance 7,800
The first UFC tournament had no weight classes, rounds, time-outs, or judges. The two rules were no biting or eye gouging. Fights ended only by knockout, submission, or a fighter’s corner throwing in the towel
UFC 1 Quarter-finals
The first contest and first quarter-final match in the UFC tournament pits a kickboxer, Gerard Gordeau representing the martial art of Savate, against Sumo Wrestler Teilia Tuli. Gerard Gordeau wins the fight in just 26 seconds via TKO when he soccer kicks Tuli in the face and Tuli’s corner throws in the towel.
Gordeau actually ended up with Tuli’s teeth lodged in his foot. The teeth, in fact, were not removed until after the tournament. Gordeau was advised that if he were to remove the teeth, he could risk a serious infection. Gordeau opted to simply bandage his foot and continue to fight with two teeth embedded in his foot. This fight also sets the mood backstage, as several fighters showed trepidation after witnessing the brutality of the first fight.
The next quarter-final, has Kevin Rozier, looking a lot like Meatloaf from ‘Fight Club,’ against Zane Frazier, representing American Kempo. This was UGLY, and the multiple blows to the back of the head were hard to watch. Frazier finds himself on all fours and Rozier rushes in to heel stomp Frazier in the rear of his cranium, which ends the fight. This was also the longest fight of the night, maxing out in 4 minutes and 20 seconds.
Enter the Gracie.
The third quarter-final match pits a boxer, Art Jimmerson, against the ambassador of Gracie Brazilian jujitsu, Royce Gracie. The visual of Royce Gracie in a gi going up against Jimmerson wearing just one boxing glove is an eidetic memory that I will always associate with UFC 1. This was not much of a fight. Gracie takes Jimmerson down and the boxer taps from full mount, in 2 minutes and 10 seconds.
Gracie never applied a submission. Jimmerson tapped from simply being mounted, fearing a broken limb or worse, he tapped before anything could happen.
Quarter-final match number four has MMA Legend, Ken Shamrock versus the taekwondo of Patrick Smith. Another quick one, Shamrock trips his opponent for the takedown. Once on the ground, Shamrock leans back into a foot and ankle lock, submitting his opponent. This is the final match that ends the quarter-finals of the first UFC. There’s audible booing from the crowd, seemingly dissatisfied with the action.
The Birth of Pride
Pride 1 was held on October 11, 1997, at The Tokyo Dome in Tokyo, Japan. Announced attendance 47,000.
The first Pride was not a tournament but single contests between combatants. This card was all over the place with each fight having its own rules, including a K1 rules kickboxing exhibition match.
The first Pride contest had Japanese fighter Kazunari Murakami against American fighter and kickboxer, John Dixon, who was attired in his dirty workout clothes. I guess he must have come straight from the gym. This fight goes down to the ground quickly as the Japanese fighter executes a picture-perfect judo throw on the sizable John Dixon. Once on the ground, Murakami secures an armbar on Dixon for the win. This seemed too picture-perfect to me. In my opinion, this one may have been about as real as a professional wrestling match performance.
There’s very little question as to whether the second bout was legitimate. This bout pitted arm wrestling champion, the enormous Gary Goodridge versus former UFC alum, actor, and kickboxer Oleg Taktarov.
Cutting to the chase, this was one of the most devastating knockouts I’ve ever seen. Goodridge knocks out Taktarov with a vicious overhand right that sends him face down onto the canvas a la Ric Flair. Eventually, he is stretchered off with his arms dangling like wet noodles at his side. If you watch carefully, you can see a medic checking his pulse, as they’re taking him away. Goodridge was one of the early well-known names in the sport of both MMA and kickboxing, competing in Pride and K1. Oleg Taktarov competed in the UFC and Pride many times, including winning the UFC 6 tournament.
The next Pride contest has its first appearance by a Gracie, Renzo Gracie, who enjoyed a pretty good fight career after this fight. His opponent, Japanese fighter Akira Shoji, went on make 22 more appearances at Pride. Akira Shoji was not only at the first Pride Fighting Championship but also fought on the very last one, at Pride Kamikaze in 2007. These two went the distance in an entertaining fight that had a little bit of everything. They fought to a draw, there was no judging, there could only be a winner by submission or knockout.
Perhaps Pride1 was missing some of the glitz from its prime but the organization was also known for the occasional freak show matches! The next contest definitely falls under that category.
Not to be outdone by the UFC, Pride had their own sumo wrestler, Koji Kitao, coming in at 6’7” and almost 400lbs. Nathan Jones enters the fight at 6’9” and 345 lbs. Jones was an actor with no previous fight history and later on made his way to World Wrestling Entertainment. This night, however, may have been Jones’ true pro wrestling debut. Nathan Jones has admitted to being paid off before the match in a promise of future fights in Pride. The sumo wrestler takes this fight by leaning and falling on Jones, soon applying a very weak Americana armbar for the victory. Sumo wrestler Koji Kitao was an infamous figure in Japan at this time. Kitao was accused of striking the wife of a high-ranking sumo stable master and was expelled from the sport of Sumo in disgrace. The first four Pride FC fights had a little bit of everything. We had a really good fight, two fake fights, and a knock out that looked like a mafia hit.
UFC 1 Semi-Finals
First up at the UFC 1 semi-finals is Gerrard Gordeau against Kevin Rozier.
Both fighters are a little worse for wear from their last fights. Gordeau comes into this fight with his right hand broken and a foot taped up with two teeth lodged into it. Gordeau gets the better of their exchanges. Rozier covers up against the cage as Gordeau begins heel stomping him in the ribs. Rozier’s corner throws in the towel to end the fight. Another sloppy street fight with little technique or skill.
Semifinal matchup number two had Royce Gracie take on Ken Shamrock. According to fumbling announcer Bill Wallace, this matchup had a lot of anticipation and excitement leading up to it. In retrospect, it should not have been worthy of the hype. Shamrock was an accomplished fighter in Japan, familiar with ground fighting techniques. Unfortunately, Shamrock’s inexperience, against an advanced jujitsu player led to his quick undoing. Ken Shamrock taps to a side choke from Royce Gracie in just 57 seconds.
More Wacky Pride
Coming back to Pride’s buffet of fights, we continue with a kickboxing exhibition match. Croatian K-1 Grand Prix Champion Branko Cikatić, versus fellow kickboxer Ralph White. This match never really happened. The Croatian fighter quickly has White up against the corner, and White falls to the ground. Cikatić proceeds to illegally soccer kick his downed opponent in the head. White is visibly confused, as a golf ball sized hematoma begins appearing out of his head. Branko Cikatić is eventually disqualified for kicking a downed opponent.
Up next is a fight between two more UFC alumni in Kimo Leopoldo and Dan ‘the Beast’ Severn. The less said about this fight the better. This is one of the worst/boring/bad/fights I have ever seen. This fight was a 30-minute nonstop round of nothingness. These two guys literally did absolutely nothing for 30 minutes but miss throwing punches at each other. Steven Quadros has a great line at the end of the fight, stating that the fans were only cheering because they were relieved the fight was finally over.
The UFC final paired Gerard Gordeau against Royce Gracie.
Once again, Gordeau enters a matchup in rough shape. Gracie comes into this fight unscathed, with two quick decisive victories. If you guessed this was a quick fight, you’d be right. Gordeau walks Royce down until Gracie shoots in for a takedown attempt. The jujitsu expert gets his opponents back and cinches in a rear choke. Gordeau begins to tap the mat with both hands like he’s playing the bongos. The first Ultimate Fighting Championship winner is Royce Gracie.
The Pride Main Event
The Pride Fighting Championship was created because of this main event: Nobuhiko Takata versus Rickson Gracie. Pro wrestler Takata was looking to avenge the humiliating beating Rickson Gracie inflicted upon fellow wrestler and friend Yoji Anjo. Anjo was beaten up badly after deciding to travel to Gracie’s gym and challenge Rickson in his own dojo. Read part one for the complete backstory.
At this time Gracie was considered one of the top fighters in the world and Takata had never had a professional fight. This match had Takata mostly running away trying not to get hurt. Gracie double legs Takata, and quickly armbars Takata for the submission. The end of that match would bring about the end of the very first Pride Fighting Championships in Japan.
It is hard to compare these two events as they are so different from each other. They are completely different in format. Pride didn’t really have one. It was much more like a wrestling card, with a whole bunch of stuff collaged together. Both ended up proving that those Gracie guys are pretty good.
At UFC 1 the quick fights lead to booing and jeering from the crowd. My sense tells me that the fans wanted a martial arts movie come to life. It was promoted as real, but this is what real fights look like, they’re ugly and usually dirty.
Pride 1, on the other hand, was a bit of a movie. It had giant monsters, there was some choreographed violence and the main event had an avenging story behind it.
Both UFC 1 and Pride 1 have their place in history, and both lead the mixed martial arts boom that followed. Neither UFC 1 or Pride FC 1 will go down in history as two of the better MMA events in history, however, they are both catalysts to the instigation of the sport of mixed martial arts.
In my next article / part three in this series/ I explore what happened when Pride FC & the UFC fought for MMA supremacy. What happened when they went head to head, and how it all came to an end.
NOW READ THE PREVIOUS MMA WAR OF THE WORLDS: A look at the aesthetics of the inaugural UFC and Pride events.