About 20 years ago, a friend of mine who was into the martial arts training lent me a videotape of the Universal Fighting Championship (UFC) 4 that was staged in December 16, 1994.
At the time, the Internet was virtually non-existent (at least in the Philippines) and very few households had cable television.
Before I got hold of the UFC 4 videotape, I was told by few friends who were martial arts enthusiasts that the UFC was the “real deal” when it came to combat sports spectacles. “This will obviously show that professional wrestling is just for show,” my friend told me.
And when I watched the videotape of UFC 4 that featured legends like Royce Gracie and Dan Severn, I knew that mixed martial arts (MMA) would eventually find its way into the mainstream. I was also shocked at the brutality and raw violence of the UFC 4 fights, but I nonetheless was delighted because at the time, there was nothing really big when it came to boxing because Mike Tyson, among others, was serving prison time.
I soon got videotapes from my friends of UFC 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6. From what I watched, the first UFC bouts were more about making specialists in one martial art or fighting disciple mix it up. Gracie, for example, was a jiu-jitsu expert, which is all about ground fighting, while Severn was a wrestler who also lacked adequate striking skills. Meanwhile, Ken Shamrock, who would win the UFC 6 Superfight championship fight by beating Severn, was an expert in shootfighting.
The first versions of the UFC also had no weight divisions, which meant a 150-pound fighter could meet a 300-pound sumo wrestler in the ring. In the fight for the championship for UFC 4, Gracie weighed just 175 pounds when he submitted Severn who weighed in at more than 250 pounds. And Severn was no flabby fighter.
It was also a choice among UFC fighters if they wanted to wear gloves or any kind of sporting footwear. But many of them did not wear gloves so imagine the impact of their punches on the recipients!
The first UFC bouts also had one round that lasted up to 30 minutes. That was grueling.
Much has changed when comparing the first UFC bouts to the ones held in the past decade.
Besides the weight divisions, today’s UFC and other MMA tourneys feature fighters who are more well-rounded when it came to skills although most will have a skill set or two that they specialize in (i.e. striking, wrestling, jiu-jitsu and what have you). Going into an MMA fight with just one skill set will surely get a competitor killed.
Participants in the UFC are also not allowed to wear footgear and only the mandatory gloves must be worn (although they were has less padding than boxing gloves).
Although the UFC and other similar tournaments like the now defunct Strikeforce made it to mainstream television, it was the shootfighting series in Japan governed by the International Shootfighting Association that was instrumental in making MMA or hybrid fighting popular. Shamrock was also a product of shootfighting.
And while the Pride fighting series in Japan once challenged the UFC, the latter survived and continues to thrive up to this day. It is truly remarkable how the UFC has mainstreamed MMA, gave the sports a rich history of its own and produced legends.
But what if —if the UFC did not change its rules and its participants specialized in just one or two skill sets? That would make the UFC too brutal for wider viewership and there may be states and countries that would even ban its being televised.
Someway, somehow, brutality in combat sports need to be “tamed” to a certain degree for it to be acceptable in the mainstream for the longer term. But for a combat sports spectacle to initially capture the imagination of television viewers, it must first “shock” its viewers when it came to rawness and brutality. The first UFC series succeeded in doing that.