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The Early Years of MMA Were a ‘No-Holds-Barred Freakshow’ That Couldn’t Be More Different From…

The Early Years of MMA Were a ‘No-Holds-Barred Freakshow’ That Couldn’t Be More Different From Today

You definitely won’t see a 400-pound blob battering some tomato can in a four-round slobberknocker at the upcoming UFC 226

When light-heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier fights heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic at UFC 226 tomorrow night, viewers like me will watch the sport’s vibrant past collide with its megabucks present. Five-foot-ten Cormier daring to move back up to heavyweight to challenge 6-foot-4 Miocic for the title of “baddest man on the planet” recalls the glory days of the early-1990s openweight, all-comers UFC tournaments. “It wasn’t always like it is today, with so much emphasis on conditioning, preparation and brilliant technique,” says early UFC and Pride Fighting Championships star Gary “Big Daddy” Goodridge. “It was meant to be a no-holds-barred freakshow, a spectacle. Take two bruisers and slap them in a ring or cage and see what they can do.”

“When I came over from arm wrestling in search of the slightly bigger paychecks to be found in no-holds-barred fighting, I was just throwing haymakers,” Goodridge continues. “I hit people as hard as I could, and if I got taken down by an amateur wrestler, I either laid there and they held me down, which was boring, or I bench-pressed them off me and got up to throw more hands. But my knowledge of technique was lacking, which was part of the early thrill of the sport. You wanted to see all these colorful characters and argue about who was going to win, which discipline was the best, and so on.”

The Ultimate Fighting Championship, first held in 1993, was created by Brazilian jiu-jitsu legend Rorion Gracie and California business executive Art Davie as a single-night showcase intended to determine which of the various martial arts was superior. Gracie, whose family had adapted Japanese jiu-jitsu and judo into its modern Brazilian variant, had lots of experience with challenge matches that were designed to vindicate his style of submission grappling. The first UFC tournament amounted to more of the same, since it was won by his lanky, gi-clad brother Royce over a field that included obese sumo Teila Tuli, overmatched kickboxers Zane Frazier and Kevin Rosier, overconfident pro wrestler Ken Shamrock and a pro boxer (Art Jimmerson) who fought wearing one boxing glove and tapped out as soon as Gracie took him down.

But although Gracie’s jiu-jitsu stylings won the day, including a quick submission of his only halfway threatening rival Shamrock, the signature moment came in the first round when raw-boned Dutch kickboxer Gerard Gordeau kicked 400-pound Tuli in the face and knocked out three of his teeth. One of the teeth wound up flying underneath the announcer’s table, but two of them remained embedded in Gordeau’s foot until he was defeated in the finals by Gracie.

I was watching the event on pay-per-view with my father, himself an obese bruiser who had boxed Golden Gloves during college and throughout an otherwise unremarkable stint in the Marine Corps. Dad enjoyed attending the all-comers Toughman boxing competitions sponsored by promoter Art Dore in the 1970s and 1980s, and surely knew of the Pittsburgh-area “Tough Guys” mixed-martial arts bouts staged by Bill Viola and Frank Caliguri that occurred during that same period until several state athletic commissions worked to shut them down. (The latter became the subject of an interesting Showtime documentary.) Generally speaking, my old man never met a fat slob of a slugger he couldn’t bring himself to root for — whether it was the 400-pound Butterbean battering some tomato can in a four-round slobberknocker or blimp-sized Buster Mathis Sr. going the distance against Muhammad Ali.

For my father and many other self-professed tough guys, there was something decidedly un-macho about having to work at being a badass. Just put two mean people together in a confined space — no practice, no preparation — and see who walks out; what could be fairer? “Practice is for losers who are desperate to win, who want to play at being big men but started behind the line and want to catch up,” he frequently told me before he died, echoing the words of equally unmotivated ex-NBA star Allen Iverson.

David “Tank” Abbott, another heavyset brawler who distinguished himself during the early days of the UFC, also had a great deal of contempt for training and preparation. “I’ve seen two big fat drunks have a real fight in a bar,” he said in a 2011 interview. “And you’re trying to say what the UFC has become is real fighting? It’s just a way to put the Gracies over and sell their stupid fucking martial arts that any stupid, average guy could pay to learn. So you’re telling me that two trained jokers that might as well be throwing water balloons at each other are being tough guys?”

Of course, the present-day sport of mixed martial arts is a billion-dollar industry that has advanced well past the atavistic instincts of men such as Abbott and Goodridge, and the spectators who might have rooted for their bloody antics, like my father, are dead or dying out. The top ranks of every field are filled with astonishingly skilled performers, and even a lower-ranked MMA fighter like 6-foot-11 Dutch submission expert Stefan Struve boasts otherworldly combat skills.

“It’s amazing to see the evolution of all this from a fighter’s perspective, the blending of all these combat styles,” says Marc Sestok, a jiu-jitsu and MMA competitor who works as a trainer at Stout Training Pittsburgh. “When I’d train for MMA, it was astonishing to come up against guys who were able to tie all of these things together. Take [welterweight fighter] Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson, who grew up doing karate and kickboxing from an early age and then seamlessly integrated wrestling and grappling into that base of traditional striking.”

Sestok, who competed against me in strongman events at the University of Pittsburgh, has since moved far past what any of our peers were doing back in 2009 as his jiu-jitsu career has progressed to the national level. “Conditioning has certainly advanced beyond what someone like Gary Goodridge was doing. As much as I respect the guys of Gary’s day, those guys were more fighters than athletes,” Sestok says. “You have some trainers advocating no weight work at all, and then you have others, like Ido Portal, who have revolutionized the game with the sort of movement training that [former UFC featherweight and lightweight champion] Conor McGregor now does.”

For Sestok, himself a full-time strength and conditioning coach, fight training is ceaseless and encompasses multiple modalities. “The Gracies practiced ginástica natural, flexibility and balancing movements built into Brazilian jiu-jitsu training. That’s something I’ll also focus on when preparing for a jiu-jitsu tournament. At any rate, preparation is constant, and serious people, myself included, treat this kind of training as a lifestyle as a well as a full-time gig, which is a major change from the era in which Gary Goodridge and Tank Abbott fought. You have to — because the game has evolved and it’s easy to be left behind.”

As with the professionalization of video games, the emerging reality that there’s money to be made in mixed martial arts, however slight the opportunity of earning it might be, has triggered a massive expansion of the worldwide talent pool. Everyone wants to get in on the action and they’re willing to devote long hours to doing so. By contrast, many of the early UFC tournaments included at least one local tough guy, like doomed Puerto Rican brawler Thomas Ramirez at UFC 8 in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, who wound up on the receiving end of a beatdown from a more skilled entrant.

Many moments have been cited as the moment UFC went “big time,” but the finale of the first season of the surprising hit reality series The Ultimate Fighter seems to be the strongest contender. That bloody showdown between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar sent thousands of meatheads from whatever else they’d been doing to jiu-jitsu classes, myself included. Alas, I tapped out after a month of lackluster work, with the knowledge that I didn’t care for being on the receiving end of ceaseless arm lock and triangle choke submissions. As was the case with all of my other temporary enthusiasms and intermittent failures, I stopped evolving and growing but the games didn’t.

“I can take a day off once a month but certainly not once a week,” Sestok tells me. “As I’m talking to you, I’m sitting in the sauna after what was just a simple strength and conditioning day. There’s a purpose to everything we do, and all of it ties together. But in the early days, guys didn’t know much — they were coming from different backgrounds, like the Team Quest guys such as Dan Henderson and Randy Couture, or Pat Miletich at Miletich Fighting Systems. And so, they made the most of what they had to work with and added to the knowledge base surrounding MMA, but the game eventually passed them by, too.”

“There’s now money to be made in mixed martial arts, and sure, maybe you’re not making the big money you can at the top of cards, but we’re realizing you can put together a living doing this, and that’s why you have people who are coming up primarily as MMA specialists who work at this throughout their teens and 20s,” Sestok continues. “For example, [former light heavyweight champion] Jon Jones has had lots of problems outside the ring, but he’s still only 30, extremely creative, blessed with a freakish reach and has already beaten Cormier twice. He’s someone whose career has been driven by the needs of MMA training rather than just, say, focusing on amateur wrestling, the way an Olympic wrestler like Cormier might have up through his late 20s.”

Like Tank Abbott, Goodridge prefers the term “no holds barred” to “mixed martial arts” — the latter sanitizing label coined by Olympic wrestler and former UFC announcer Jeff Blatnick, who would say to Japanese shootfighting broadcast partner Al Rosen that the competitors were engaged in “mixing the martial arts.” “It’s a softening of what was a very violent thing,” Goodridge explains. “Jiu-jitsu and wrestling were the boring disciplines that ruled the sport early on, meaning you often had two guys laying on the mat for 30 minutes. But striking came in with guys like me and [kickboxer-turned-UFC-heavyweight-champion] Maurice Smith leveling the playing field and wowing the fans.

“Look at my knockouts. The crucifix knockout with the elbows. The time I knocked out wrestler Don Frye with a leg kick, the first big leg kick I ever threw. Or when I hit that sambo fighter Oleg Taktarov in Pride. Wow, that was amazing! You can watch his toes straighten out in such a weird way. I remember thinking I’d never seen anyone fall like that.”

For Goodridge, the purpose of fighting was to create these spectacular moments, not to showcase well-honed techniques. “Cormier is amazing with his wrestling throws. But can he punch hard? No, I don’t think so. He knows how to place his punches and kicks to get points from the judges, but that’s about it. Before my chin went from all the knockouts I absorbed, I had a strong chin. I got hit by everybody because I didn’t cover up, so I know what a power punch looks and feels like. Cormier can’t punch that hard, and Stipe Miocic throws arm punches. That’s nothing. Why would someone with a good chin worry about taking an arm punch that the guy didn’t turn his body into?”

“There’s so much less room for miracles to happen,” Goodridge adds. “Guys like me and Tank, we made miracles happen, and nobody ever told us how we should do it. Back then it was a hard way to make a buck. We made it up as we went, and sometimes impossible things came true. That’s missing today.”

That said, on Saturday’s undercard, Francis “The Predator” Ngannou and Derrick “The Black Beast” Lewis, two of the hardest heavyweight punchers in the history of the sport, are set to collide. The explosive Ngannou, who is just 31 and has room to improve, has already lost one close decision to the cautious Miocic. Does the possibility of that slugfest excite Goodridge?

“Oh, I don’t really watch the stuff anymore, but that sounds like it ought to be the main event — though I know most promoters would never want to run with two big awesome black guys at the top of a card unless you give them no choice,” says Goodridge, who is also black. “But hey, in any fight, I’m always hoping for a wild brawl, just like everybody else.”