On 12th November, a pay-per-view named the Ultimate Fighting Championship was born. The idea behind the show was that a range of different fighting styles such as Jiu-Jitsu, Boxing, Karate and others would be pitted against each other to determine the greatest martial arts discipline.
In the days before anyone had ever heard the term Mixed Martial Arts, eight fighters with one fighting specialism were invited to compete in a tournament with no rules, except two; no biting or eye gouging. There were no time limits, no judges and the only way to win was submission, knockout or by the fighter’s corner throwing in the towel.
Nearly 8,000 fans were in attendance at the inaugural event hosted at the McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Colorado, where they greeted the action enthusiastically.
The favourites going into the tournament were Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock. Two men who would go on to become synonymous with the UFC and martial arts in general.
Gracie’s brother, Rorion was responsible for organizing the event with promoter, Art Davie. Inspired by his family’s “Gracie Challenge” which they had run for decades with the idea being to prove that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu could defeat any other fighting style, no matter if the Jiu-Jitsu practitioner was much smaller than their opponent, Rorion had brought his dream to life.
Royce Gracie was by design the smallest fighter in the tournament. However, the commentators, well aware of the Gracie family’s fearsome reputation, outlined the fact to the viewing audience that Gracie should be considered a favourite.
Shamrock had a very different background to Gracie but was equally as fearsome. Growing up in a foster home, Shamrock eventually found his way to Bob Shamrock’s home for boys at the age of 14. Bob Shamrock legally adopted the troubled youngster as his son and turned the young man’s life around.
Finding he had a talent for wrestling at school, Shamrock progressed to martial arts and founded a promotion called Pancrase with Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki. As a result, the then-undefeated Shamrock was well known in martial arts circles and was invited to participate in the UFC.
Rounding out the eight-man field were Taekwondo stylist, Patrick Smith, Karate expert, Gerard Gordeau, Kickboxers, Kevin Rosier and Zane Frazier, Boxer, Art Jimmerson and Sumo Wrestler, Teila Tuli.
In contrast to today’s bouts, all contests at UFC 1 were extremely short. Gordeau defeated Tuli with a head kick in just 26 seconds, Gracie overcame the much larger Jimmerson by submission and Shamrock made light work of Smith, making him submit with a heel hook. The longest match of the first round and the night was Rosier’s TKO victory over fellow Kickboxer, Frazier. That bout still only went four minutes.
In the semi-finals, Gordeau defeated Rosier by TKO, when Rosier’s corner threw the towel in. The second semi-final was sold by the announcers as the most anticipated bout of the night and it unquestionably was. The two favourites Gracie and Shamrock would clash.
The fight lasted just 57 seconds. It was an even bout while it lasted with both fighters grappling for position until Shamrock was caught with a sleeve choke. Shamrock tapped, which the referee did not spot before he escaped the hold.
Gracie drew the referee’s attention to the fact Shamrock had tapped, which led to the referee asking Shamrock if he had submitted. Shamrock admitted he had and the bout was stopped. Despite its brevity and confusing ending, it was still the match of the night.
That led to the first UFC final to determine the Ultimate Fighting Champion. Gracie earned his third submission of the night, quickly defeating Gourdeau. With that Gracie was the winner of the first UFC tournament and had proved to the world what his brother had intended; the fact Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu could defeat any other fighting style.
For his night’s work, Gracie earned the sum of $50,000. What would Gracie do with his winnings? "I'm going to Disneyland!" he declared.