The Ultimate Fighting Championship is the premier destination for all things mixed martial arts and has been so since it’s establishment back in 1993. For these 27 historical years, the organization has ruled the roost, dominating the market with their aggressive business ventures and elite-level fighters; if it weren’t for the UFC, the sport wouldn’t have had the foundation that allowed it to grow.
Due to the unfortunate quarantine, we are all currently living under gifting people the chance to do nothing all day, The Scrap has decided to compile a series of articles titled Building the UFC, where we dive into five figures accountable for the UFC’s success. Of course, this is subjective, and fans from different eras are likely to have different answers, however, we are certain that our chosen five are viewed upon as critical members of the organization’s attainments. Essentially, without these five superstars, the UFC would not be where it is today.
Numerous athletes are responsible for the success of the promotion, and when pondering on the topic of the UFC’s Mt. Rushmore, names such as Conor McGregor and Anderson Silva may spring to mind. One name undoubtedly etched into the minds of MMA fans across the world is Royce Gracie, who is known for his triumphant yet unpredictable stint at the very first UFC event.
Royce Gracie made his mixed martial arts debut back at UFC 1 in November 1993, where he notably defeated three opponents in one night en route to being crowned as the tournament winner.
Gracie, being just 26 years of age at the time, shook the entirety of combat sports to its core; how was it possible that a man his size, being just over six-feet tall and weighing 170-pounds could defeat competitors almost twice as large?
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, that’s how.
Gracie put the discipline of BJJ on the map, proving its effectiveness when confronted by immensely muscular and ripped men, a physique many feared to defy. This victory back in 1993 sparked an ever-increasing voyage for the sport of Jiu-Jitsu as a whole, forcing respect from the older generation of foul-mouthed Boxing fans, who believed that a real fight only occurs on the fight. In hindsight, that narrative was stupid, so very stupid.
Gracie was, and still is, a source of inspiration for many around the globe, particularly young kids watching at the time. Just like them, he never possessed superhuman strength, or sported a neat six-pack that he loved to show off – he was normal. On the surface, he was just an average man with an average build. But beneath lay a deadly submission expert, who will be forever engrained as one of the more polarizing figures in MMA history.
Royce Gracie was born in December 1966, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. As the son of the legendary Helio Gracie, one of the two founders of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, he was surrounded by the sport from an early age and would train with siblings and cousins day in, day out, constantly evolving and in search of new ways to perfect his craft.
Before the Gracie name had reached the shores of the United States, where it would continue to build its empire, it was significantly esteemed in Brazil. Gracie recounts growing up in a world fueled by competition, as people would often take great pleasure in challenging his family members to a fight as a way of proving their style was superior.
“Growing up, people would want to challenge the family,” Gracie shared in 2016, “My brother set up a garage where we would train, and every so often, guys would come in and say, ‘Hey, my friend’s a wrestling coach,’ or ‘My friend’s a black belt in karate.’ We’d tell them to bring them in to show us what they had. When the challengers came by, we’d have a sparring session. We’d fight our style, and they could fight however they liked. The result was always the same.”
The Gracie’s consistently conquered challenger after challenger, in what sounds like an early form of what we know as MMA. Royce believed these sparring sessions aided him when he reached his MMA career, as he had experience with a wide array of styles and disciplines. These fights motivated his brother, Rorion, to travel to the US to prove that Jiu-Jitsu had precedence over every other martial art, an extremely bold and confident move considering the rest of the world hadn’t a clue that the art form existed. As we well know, Rorion went on to co-found the UFC alongside the likes of Bob Meyrowitz and Campbell McLaren, in a bid to prove that his family’s creation would reign supreme.
As apart of the one-off, singular night tournament, eight athletes were selected to represent eight different disciplines, which ranged from boxing to savate. Royce’s journey to the finale was quite easy, as he detailed in his own words.
“My first opponent that night was a boxer named Art Jimmerson,” he stated, “It was a simple fight, actually. I took him down, got on top of him, and he quit. He just quit.”
After forcing boxer Art Jimmerson to quit, the relatively unknown Brazilian was set to face future rival Ken Shamrock, who was the only other fighter in the opening bracket to claim a submission victory. Shamrock was around 40-pounds heavier than his counterpart and boasted an extremely brawny body, and for these reasons, he was expected to run through Gracie, who looked out of place wearing Jiu-Jitsu’s trademark white gi.
In less than a minute, Royce Gracie forced the muscleman in Ken Shamrock to tap via sleeve choke. His ticket to the finals was officially booked and despite stunning spectators with two unforeseen victories, he wasn’t planning on stopping there. In order to receive the tournament prize of $50,000, Royce would have to defeat former Savate world champion Gerard Gordeau, who fought at heavyweight and stood close to six-foot-six inches tall. The task was daunting, to say the least, however, Gracie was determined to do his family proud, and walk away as “The Ultimate Fighter”.
Writing about his matchup with Gordeau, the Brazilian explained that his opponent was able to transgress one of the only two rules set in place: no biting.
“A pain shot through my head as soon as I took him down. He’d bitten my ear. There were only two rules — no eye-gouging and no biting — and he’d managed to violate one of them,” Gracie recollected.
“I ripped away from him and whispered, ‘You’re cheating.’ He just gave me a look like, ‘So what?’ I couldn’t believe it. That’s why I threw a couple extra head butts his way, and then locked in a choke. He tapped, and then I held it a little longer to prove a point.”
In the end, Gracie jiu-jitsu prevailed, demonstrating that skill was in-fact more important than size, with Royce being a living testament to this. His triumph kickstarted jiu-jitsu’s global expansion, with many quick to enlist in their local school as a way of learning the art; it appealed to your average Joe.
If it weren’t for Royce’s three victories at UFC 1, both the promotion and the sport of jiu-jitsu would have drastically different tales. He went on to fight at the next four pay-per-views, with his presence alone being enough for many to purchase the events in a time where the company was lacking funds.
After amassing a professional record of 11-0-1, with wins over Dan Severn and Ken Shamrock under his belt, Gracie took a hiatus from competing in MMA: five years to be exact.
Despite only having 12 bouts he had set various records, such as the longest promotional fight in history (36 minutes) against the aforementioned Shamrock, and most tournaments won in UFC history. This resume was enough for any man to attain the coveted legend status, nevertheless, Gracie was steadfast on a return to the cage. Surprisingly enough, it’d be anything but.
In 2000 he opted to travel to Japan, where he competed under PRIDE ruling for three years. After a successful debut versus Nobuhiko Takada in the opening round of the organization’s Millenium Grand Prix, Gracie was scheduled to face Kazushi Sakuraba, a man beloved by every citizen in his native Japan. The contest was predicted to be gritty, with toughness expected to play a significant factor in the fight – nobody could have anticipated what occurred on that famed night.
Gracie and Sakuraba battled it out for 90 minutes, yes, you read that correctly, 90 minutes, to determine who would walk away with the W. After six grueling rounds, Gracie’s team opted to throw in the towel due to him obtaining a broken femur; this was the first time the Brazilian had tasted defeat as an MMA practitioner, and the disappointment felt would’ve likely been immense.
Although ultimately losing against Sakuraba, the pair set a record that has yet to be broken – the longest fight time in mixed martial arts history. In all fairness, it’s probable that we will never see this record shattered, due to contests in the modern era being a maximum of 25 minutes (championship fights and main events, typically).
Fast forward to 2006 and Royce Gracie, now 39 years-old, repped an impressive record of 13 victories and one defeat, accompanied by three draws. His fight schedule was fairly peculiar as he was only competing once per annum, at the end of year shows for PRIDE and K-1. This inactivity combined with the fact he was aging only added to the surprise of fans when UFC President Dana White announced that Gracie would be fighting welterweight champion, Matt Hughes, in the main event of UFC 60. It was set as a non-title bout and would mark Gracie’s first Octagon appearance in over 11 years, a truly mesmerizing moment for the sport.
Unfortunately for him, Hughes wasn’t interested in his opponent once again becoming the poster boy of the UFC, and snatched hold of an arm in a wicked submission attempt. Gracie’s face remained extremely calm despite the dismay occurring around it, eventually finding a way out of the maneuver; in hindsight, this was a nightmare in disguise.
The welterweight champion took the back of the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, flattening him out in the process. While doing this, he rained down heavy strikes, with the majority landing flush on Gracie’s skull. Referee ‘Big’ John McCarthy intervened with 21 seconds remaining, in what was doubtlessly the correct decision to make; the MMA pioneer had absorbed enough punishment for one day and was safely spared of any further damage.
His gallant and bold return to take on the divisions fiercest athlete at the time was nothing short of gutsy and in my mind, further solidifies the fact that Gracie was ready to throw down with just about anybody. He once again put his livelihood on the line for the UFC in a move that is scarcely witnessed nowadays – love it or hate it, you’ve got to respect it.
In this current era, 27 years on from Royce Gracie’s life-altering win at UFC 1, jiu-jitsu continues to play a pivotal role in the mixed martial arts community, maybe now more than ever. Maestro’s such as Demian Maia and Charles Oliveira are only two examples of Brazilian fighter’s keeping the heritage of Gracie jiu-jitsu alive in the Octagon today, through their slick submissions, overwhelming top game, and impeccable defense – they’re at home while on the mat.
His unfortunate matchup with Hughes was the last time Gracie ever competed for the UFC, nonetheless, his career never ended there. He went on to avenge his first defeat against Kazushi Sakuraba but tested positive for anabolic steroids after the win. For some reason, the outcome of the fight was not overturned and remains a loss on the record of Sakuraba. Gracie served his suspension and publicly retired from competition in November of 2013. This was short-lived, however, as three years later he settled a grudge match with arch-nemesis Frank Shamrock. He won via first-round TKO. After this outing, he officially retired, and it has remained that way ever since.
The legacy of Royce Gracie cannot, and will not be undermined. The overall impact he had on not only the UFC but the totality of mixed martial arts is undeniably isolated; in some ways, it remains nonreplicated.
What separates Gracie from the rest of the pack is his world-altering victories at UFC 1, as a visibly smaller athlete who was counted out from the instance. Whether you’re a fan or a hater, he deserves every ounce of your respect. He made the ultimate difference to the Ultimate Fighting Championship.