by Chuck Mindenhall
February 22, 2016
If the mixed martial arts became the late-20th century’s answer to the age-old question as to which style is the best in hand-to-hand combat, it’s fun to think its earliest and most varied participants can connect us to the present through a series of fists and chokes. As the great A.J. Liebling wrote of the generational connection between combatants, “The Sweet Science is joined onto the past like a man’s arm to his shoulder.”
Royce Gracie is largely considered The Original in terms of icons in the realm of “anything goes,” having showed up to UFC 1 in 1993 to test his family jiu-jitsu against giants from other disciplines. His father, the great Helio, was part of the human cortege that made its way to the newly christened Octagon. Once there, Gracie — a skinny Brazilian in a gi — began to show the world of martial arts all of its shortcomings.
Gracie took out the boxer, Art Jimmerson, who fought wearing one glove to ensure that his naked hand was free to tap. Royce then defeated “The World’s Most Dangerous Man,” Ken Shamrock, who was considered a massive favorite coming in. Finally he submitted the Savate expert from Den Haag, Gerard Gordeau, who himself knocked the 450-pound sumo wrestler Teila Tuli’s teeth onto the media table en-route to the finals. For his efforts, he got $50,000.
But he did far more than that. Gracie put Brazilian jiu-jitsu on the map that night in 1993.
Gracie, a small wonder in the techniques who galvanized the opening of hundreds of BJJ gyms across America and changed everybody’s attitude about fighting, became a UFC icon. Because of his eye-opening performance, jiu-jitsu took flight. He would later rematch against Shamrock at UFC 5, fighting to an epic stalemate after 36 minutes.
The ripples he left in the fight game carried on.
Shamrock would face a who’s who throughout his career, including the legendary Bas Rutten on a pair of occasions. The three-time King of Pancrase, Rutten, was a renowned kickboxer and taekwondo practitioner, who ended his career with a 22-fight unbeaten streak (18 via finishes), culminating at UFC 20 when he won the UFC’s heavyweight championship against Kevin Randleman. During his monstrous reign in Japan, “El Guapo” would take out kickboxer Maurice Smith not once, but twice. It was Smith who ran afoul of Renzo Gracie, at the King of Kings tournament back in 1999.
Renzo — Royce’s first cousin once removed — needed only 50 seconds to finish Smith via armbar, to keep his then unbeaten record intact through 11 professional bouts. Renzo would go on to open the BJJ Mecca in Manhattan — the Renzo Gracie Academy — where he’s instructed/mentored everyone from Georges St-Pierre to Frankie Edgar to Matt Serra. But in his day as a prizefighter, he found himself standing across some of the most legendary names in the sport, including the great Dan Henderson at PRIDE FC 13 in 2001.
“Hendo,” who was a two-time Olympic wrestling competitor in Greco-Roman (1992, 1996) knocked out Renzo with wicked left hand — the patented “H-Bomb” which he would go on to deploy for two decades. With his wrestling base and heavy hands, Hendo would become the first mixed martial artist to hold simultaneous titles under one organization, when he captured both the welterweight and middleweight straps in PRIDE FC. He later won the Strikeforce light heavyweight title, and fought everyone from Fedor Emelianenko to Daniel Cormier.
He also stood in against Wanderlei Silva in two of the more memorable bouts of his career — the first time in Saitama back in 2000, then again seven years later in his swan song for PRIDE FC, at Pride 33 in Las Vegas. In that one, Hendo landed a left hand that sent Silva straight back to the canvas, unsure what hit him.
It was “The Ax Murderer” who made 2007 that much more memorable when he put on the Fight of the Year against Chuck Liddell at UFC 79.
If there’s ever been a Rock & Roll incarnate in the UFC, it’s Liddell, who from 2002 to 2007 was considered the scariest man on the planet. With his toes painted and a tattoo running down the side of his mohawk’d head, Liddell ruled the cage, knocking out seven straight fighters during one of MMA’s all-time runs in the mid-aughts. He won the title against Couture, and defended it four times in devastating fashion. Not only was he the UFC’s kingpin into the broader realm of pop culture, Liddell put Hawaiian Kempo — an art passed down from the Shaolin monks to the devastating hands of biker Huns like Liddell — on the map. The gym he trained at with John Hackleman — The Pit in San Luis Obispo — became synonymous with the icecaps on his trunks.
Liddell lived by a simple formula in the cage, which was precariously this: Vanquish or be vanquished. He mostly did the vanquishing, defeating everybody from Tito Ortiz to Vitor Belfort to the late, great Kevin Randleman. The same Randleman that fought Rutten, who fought Ken Shamrock, who fought Royce Gracie on the first night that the mixed martial arts came together under one roof.
MMA’s tale of the tape can be told through its legends, extending from the beginning until now, from one tradition to the next, one discipline to the next, from one end of the globe to the other, from revolution to evolution, through generations, from the dark days of “No Holds Barred” to the warm glow of broadcast television.
Royce, Rutten, Hendo, Renzo, Liddell…all connected through the great leather trade, just a series of fists and chokes.