UFC 1: The Beginning
“I watched the first one, as it happened, as it was broadcast. I was sold instantly,” says Amthony Kiedis, lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, echoing a sentiment shared by thousands of people who remember watching a non-threatening looking Brazilian named Royce Gracie win the first ever UFC tournament on November 12, 1993.
After years of being a hypothetical question, Art Davie, Rorion Gracie, and the Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG) sought to determine which martial art was the greatest through an eight-man, no-holds-barred tournament that would come to be known as the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
No one knew what to expect – not the promoters, not the fighters, and not those tuning in to watch this spectacle – but from the opening bout, it was clear this was, as SEG executive producer Campbell McLaren puts it, “unlike anything you have ever seen before.”
The first bout in UFC history made that point abundantly clear, as sumo wrestler Teila Tuli faced off with Dutch kickboxer Gerard Gordeau, and though the bout lasted just 26 seconds, it made a lasting impact.
Tuli charged at Gordeau, who backpedaled rapidly, keeping the Hawaiian sumo at bay before tossing him to the ground along the cage. As Tuli looked to stand, Gordeau unleashed a vicious roundhouse right.
“And all of a sudden this tooth goes flying over my head,” says UFC 1 commentator Bill Wallace.
While the initial bout set the stage for the brutality that would come under fire from critics and politicians in the years to come, Gracie’s performance turned the fight game on its ear, as the smallest man in the tournament showed everyone the art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and how formidable it could be inside the Octagon.
“Ken Shamrock thought it was going to be an easy win,” says David Isaacs, the co-executive producer of those early events under SEG. “He was in great shape, and when we saw him, we were like, “ My god – that’s Captain American. He’s going to knock his head off.”
“That’s what made Royce Gracie seem even more sublime,” asserts veteran MMA journalist Jeff Wagenheim. “Because on the one hand, you had this ultra-violent fight where a guy gets his tooth knocked out of his face, and then this little guy comes across, and within seconds, the bigger, stronger guy is quitting.”
Fans were hooked and the ball was rolling. Little did we know it, but combat sports changed forever that night in the McNichols Arena in Denver, Colorado.
Go back to the night that started it all in this segment from the captivating documentary Fighting for a Generation, and listen as everyone from the promoters and eventual winner Royce Gracie to current UFC fighter Chael Sonnen and “Iron” Mike Tyson share their memories of UFC 1.