‘Is This Legal?’: Creator of Ultimate Fight Championship recalls its earliest daysWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
As with many sports, the early days of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) are surrounded by legend that often distorts the reality of what happened. Even though the event was broadcast on pay-per-view and anyone can watch the tape all these years later, the origins of what would become known as Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) are often mixed with as many myths and half-truths as the tales of Abner Doubleday laying out the first foul lines in baseball.
A full two decades later, the man who first created the UFC has decided to set the record straight. Art Davie — advertising agent turned MMA innovator, whose idea first set in motion the UFC machine that still runs today — has written a book about the creation of that first Ultimate Fighting Championship show on Nov. 12, 1993. The title, fittingly: “Is This Legal?”
“I finally had the time at this point in my life to sit down and do it. And I think the 20th anniversary show last year — while it didn’t precipitate the writing of the book — coincided with it,” Davie said in an interview with Toledo Free Press. “Adam Goldberg, over at his production company in LA, working with Fox, put together a fairly definitive documentary, TV documentary of the first 20 years of the UFC, and I was featured pretty prominently in that first hour.
“And about three years ago, I became closer friends with Sean Wheelock, who brought it up to me on a number of occasions that we really should do a book. And Sean was adamant that this was a story that needed to be told.”
Co-writing with Wheelock, Davie has crafted a consistently entertaining, often bizarre but always fascinating story about the brutal early days of the UFC — before Jon Jones, before Georges St. Pierre, before Chuck Liddell, heck, before rounds or judges. The kernel of an idea began with Davie years before, as he first took a short-term stab at prize fighting.
“If you were Jewish or Italian or Irish, there probably was someone in your family that boxed,” Davie said. “I got into boxing a bit, did a little bit as an amateur, and did a little more in the Marines. Not great at it, but it did give me a taste of a combat sport.
“And as I talked about in the book, I wound up in an impromptu sparring match with a wrestler, and ended up with me on my back with this guy on top of me. And so, when I was in the service, the discussion about whether Bruce Lee could beat Muhammad Ali was one of those things that a lot of young guys would talk about, whether they were in college or in the service. It was one of those sports questions that popped up.”
Davie never lost his interest in fighting, and years later, as he worked at an ad agency, the idea of pitting different styles against each other to determine the best blossomed into the idea for a show — a one-night tournament where competitors from around the world would compete in a catch-all, no-holds-barred series of matches.
“My boss got me into a meeting and I had the opportunity to present this idea to my boss’ client. And they considered it but decided it was a little too radical, a little too — maybe even dangerous. So, the fact of the matter was, that information — when I left the agency, and they gave me permission to take it — I decided to go off and do something with it.”
The idea of fighters with different disciplines competing against each other had been explored before, but usually ended up hamstringed by compromise so that the rules would benefit one fighter or the other. Davie may have faced such obstacles himself if he hadn’t gained the confidence of Rorian Gracie and his family — up and coming names in Ju Jitsu whose participation in the first tournaments was crucial.
“It took me two years to get Rorian to get onboard with the ‘World’s Best Fighter’ idea, which was my working title for it. I wanted to do a tournament, I wanted to do a pay-per-view. He was interested in growing his new school.
“I think what the Gracies gave me was the opportunity to have some credibility, because now when I called other people, it wasn’t Art Davie, businessman. It was Art Davie, who had already recruited a family who had gotten some notoriety for being real good martial artists in mixed competition. And that was a plus.”
The first UFC, held in Denver, Colorado, bears little resemblance to the pay-per-view extravaganzas held monthly nowadays. The fights have little structure. The contestants were free to wear whatever they wanted into the cage. The referees had minimal control over the proceedings. Most fights were quick and brutal affairs. Yet to say it was a complete gamble and that there was no guarantee there would be a UFC 2 — that’s all part of the legend, Davie said.
“We knew going into this that this was going to be big. And when we signed the deal with Semaphore Entertainment — and it’s in the book — we signed a five-year deal. This was not a one-shot. And that’s some of the revisionist history of early UFC, ‘Oh, those guys only did it as a spectacle, and it was only expected to be once.’ Not true. We knew it was going to be an ongoing event. We were searching for the ultimate warrior, and we would do it over and over again, recruiting fighters from all over the world.”
Indeed, as time has passed, the UFC evolved and passed onto new owners, the game of MMA grew and changed into something far different than what Davie envisioned all those years ago. But he always knew, from the first show on, that UFC was here to stay.
“That night, I was just on adrenaline, because I knew we were a hit. I didn’t even have to see the numbers that came in Tuesday morning from pay-per-view to know that somehow, we were going to be able to appeal to young guys all over the planet.”
Tags: Abner Doubleday, Adam Goldberg, Baseball, Chuck Liddell, Colorado, Denver, Georges St.Pierre, los Angeles, mixed martial arts, MMA, on Jones, prize fighting, Rorian Gracie, Sean Wheelock, UFC, Ultimate Fighting Championship, world's best fighter