On November 12, 1993, a combat sports tournament took place that had no rules, no weight classes and pitted various fighting styles against each other to see which one would come out on top. It was a dream for people who argued whether a boxer could defeat a wrestler or if karate would prevail over kung fu. But it was also a brutal spectacle that featured a litany of fighters — which varied from a guy with one boxing glove, an over 400-pound sumo wrestler and a jacked up shoot fighter who looked more like an action figure yanked from the extras of Jean Claude Van Damm’s Bloodsport film – desperately trying to annihilate the other man. If death were to happen, so be it.
But it was the little unimpressive looking guy in the pajamas (read: a karate gi) that most remember. While all of these other savages stalked each other inside of this eight-sided entrapment, obliterating one another with punches and kicks like a real life version of Mortal Kombat, Royce Gracie’s technique was far more sublime. To the untrained eye, it appeared that the smallest man in the tournament simply took his opponents down, moved around a lot and made them quit. Nobody watching could comprehend how this barely six foot tall, 178-pound man could completely wipe out everyone in the tournament by barely throwing a punch. But his efforts introduced the world to Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, forever changed the landscape of fighting and helped give birth to The Ultimate Fighting Championship.
The sport is celebrating its 20th anniversary with UFC 167 in Las Vegas and features fighters who were inspired by the legendary Royce Gracie. The UFC has evolved since then as rules, weight classes and enhanced production have been implemented to prevent it from being the “human cockfighting” that former Presidential candidate John McCain coined it as and helped catapult it into the mainstream.
Today, Royce Gracie’s influence is felt throughout the sport as many of the fighters featured to fight at UFC 167 owe their mixed martial arts career to the Brazilian. “I was bullied when I was younger at school by bigger and older people,” current welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre reflects. “When I first saw UFC, I saw Royce Gracie. He was the smallest and least intimidating of all the fighters but he was the smartest. The way he won the tournament really inspired me to pursue a career in MMA.”
The French-Canadian made a decision to dedicate his life to mixed martial arts and is now considered one of the greatest fighters of all-time as he headlines the 20th anniversary show against heavy handed Johny Hendricks. St. Pierre wasn’t the only teenager of small stature that was inspired by the success of Gracie. The reach got a hold of people of all nationalities. “My favorite fighter was Royce, but reluctantly so,” says former light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans, one of the many African-Americans in the sport, who faces Chael Sonnen in the co-main event at UFC 167. “He didn’t do the punching and fighting that I liked to see but he was my favorite because he showed us that size didn’t mean anything. That was important because I was a runt and always the smallest guy in the crew.”
What’s more significant about the impact of the UFC was the fact that it originated at a time where there was no such thing as YouTube, Twitter or Facebook. At the time, the Internet had yet to become a regular part of households. “I was in middle school and I rented a VHS copy and watched a couple of fights,” 13-year veteran Robbie Lawler, who faces Rory MacDonald reflects. “I was a little scrappy kid who decided right then and there that this is what I wanted to do.
St. Pierre echoes those same sentiments but wasn’t immediately enthralled with what he saw but was enticed by the dangerous aura of it all. “I was a teenager at my friends house and he rented a VHS tape of the UFC,” St. Pierre explains during a workout session with Royce Gracie. “I didn’t know what to expect back then. I thought someone could die! It was all unknown. They were so courageous to step into the cage. I don’t think I would have had the courage at that time.”
Others, like Evans were pleased to find out that there was an event that could put an end to the arguments he and his friends had regarding who the best fighter in the world was. “The first time I heard about the UFC was in Black Belt Magazine,” Evans says. “Me and my friend talked about what would happen if a boxer fought a karate guy like Mike Tyson vs. Bruce Lee. We watched the first UFC with one of those old cheater boxes and were amazed because it answered all of our questions.”
Royce Gracie may not have know it then, but by taking part in this crude, no-holds barred tournament and coming out on top, he helped lay down a foundation for what would become a billion dollar enterprise. And today he can feel the impact of his influence. “When little kids come up to you and say that they want to fight in the UFC instead of being a basketball player or football player, you know it has made it,” the 46-year-old says with a smile. He is still wowed by today’s generation of fighters who continue to call him their idol.
And even though he made it look easy, it certainly wasn’t. His opponents ranged from muscle bound savages to one opponent that clocked in at a whopping 6’8” and 490 pounds. It was something that would never happen today and, for lack of a better term, was considered lunacy. “Before the fight, everyone’s like ‘Man, you’re crazy. You’re out of your mind. How are you going to fight a guy that big, there’s no way you can take him down. You cannot punch him out. You’re out of your mind!’ Gracie says with a laugh, still shaking his head at how outrageous the matchup was Akebono Taro in 2004. But he did take down the giant and submitted him in just over two-minutes. If there weren’t believers then, there certainly were after that fight. “I remember walking away from watching that and saying ‘I want to be a fighter,’” Evans says of Gracie’s accomplishments.” It’s crazy because here I am, 20 years later, and I’m fighting in the 20th anniversary show.”