It’s the 20th birthday of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Everyone has their own idea of what that means.
As stated in yesterday’s Rebellion Roundtable, everything has changed since I started watching the UFC.
I rented my first UFC’s (which no one does anymore) on VHS (a format which barely exists) from a video store (which has long since closed). I can’t remember which one I saw first. But somewhere, the martial arts nerd in me met the pro wrestling geek and curiosity got me to plunk down a little cash. Ken Shamrock was an early star. UFC seemed to blend the pageantry of pro wrestling and the interplay of martial arts styles, a real life version of Jean Claude Van Damm’s Bloodsport.
Watching some of those first shows felt dangerous. It barely seemed real. It’s probably hard to imagine for newer fans: a day when wrestling had almost no place in popular culture, a fight meant a boxing match, and a martial arts competition meant a judo shiai or a karate tournament.
Sure, vague references were made to other traditions of mixed-rules fighting. Ken Shamrock himself seemed to have experience in a similar style in Japan. The Gracie family honored Helio Gracie at an early UFC. But the UFC seemed to bring it all together on a different scale.
Rorion Gracie is the founder of the UFC. For him, it was extension of his family’s infamous “Gracie Challenge,” an open call for any fighter of any style to test their skills against the Gracie family’s jiu-jitsu. In a recent interview, he described original idea of having a tank filled with sharks and alligators around the ring. (There’s scale for you!) He wanted “real fights on TV,” and not “a TV show with real fights.” He eventually abandoned the UFC, and stopped watching it. Gracie’s partners at SEG began a long struggle to get state athletic commissions on board. They gave way to Dana White and ZUFFA, and we ended up where we are now.
Those other traditions in MMA are still around. After getting my feet wet with the UFC, I ventured into some Japanese video stores and learned a little more. That promotion Ken Shamrock fought in had been putting on fights since 1993 as well, and Shooto was even older. Both are still running. PRIDE was selling out the Tokyo Dome while the UFC struggled in the early 2000’s, when The Ultimate Fighter changed everything.
So yes, there are other MMA events and other great MMA memories.
The difference is that different scale.
The UFC isn’t as unique a product as they sometimes infer, but the money behind it, and that Vegas glamor, puts it in its own category. The UFC isn’t the be-all, end-all of MMA. But sometimes, in 2013 as in 1993, it feels like it. That’s what 20 years of the UFC has done for us.