Royce Gracie (above) was the man to beat in the mid 90s. | Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
Finally, Hackney had Gracie in his sights. The Brazilian eventually submitted Hackney with an armbar, but it was tougher fight than he usually endured. Hackney stuffed Gracie’s first takedown attempt and landed a few glancing rights, as the UFC hall of famer worked to clinch and get him to the mat.
“I was looking forward to fighting him,” Hackney says. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Royce.”
After pulling guard, Gracie put the bout where he always wanted them -- on the mat, where his jui-jitsu simply overwhelmed opponents. However, Hackney made him work for the eventual armbar submission, even landing a thudding right hand and giving the champion some tense moments. Along with the Leopoldo bout at UFC 3, it was a rare glimpse into Gracie looking vulnerable, something rarely seen in those early days of his steamroller dominance.
“I was throwing crosses, and I should have been throwing uppercuts,” says Hackney, detailing the lengthy clinch battle the duo engaged in against the cage. “I stuck my hand in his gi. I wanted to control the ring and make him get frustrated, make him work. I came pretty close.
“The thing is the Octagon is set up on different angles,” he adds. “If you had bare feet, like I did, the vinyl at that time was better for wrestling shoes. You see how I slipped across the canvas against Joe Son. The one time I caught Royce, I thought I’d knocked him out. He was down on the ground and I dropped a bomb on his head, and it had no place to go. I have a picture of him with knuckle marks on his forehead afterward, and he signed it for me. He’s a good guy. Every time he came in, he fought his heart out.”
Exactly one year later, Hackney returned at Ultimate Ultimate 95. He faced Marco Ruas, who had torn through UFC 7, winning the tournament with three impressive performances. While Ruas was Brazilian, his game represented an evolutionary step from the jiu-jitsu-based approach Gracie took. “The King of the Streets” could stand and strike and had plenty of experience on the Vale Tudo circuit in Brazil. After a feeling-out process on the feet, Ruas took down Hackney, then took his back and submitted him with via rear-naked choke at 2:39.
Distractions plagued Hackney.
“I was actually in Denver for two weeks, which was too long. I was trying to run my business from my hotel room. I was on the phone all the time. I was getting ready for the fight, not to take anything away from Marco. He’s a nice guy. I was 195, and he was much bigger. He was a little stronger than me,” he says. “I did a million interviews [beforehand]. It was crazy. My head wasn’t in the fight. If you walk in there and your head’s not straight, you’re in trouble.”
“You have to look at it. I was [grossing] about two million dollars [annually] in the heating business. I could break my hand, leg or back versus that sumo guy. You made $1,000, and there was no insurance, I think, until UFC 6,” he says. “You had to sign a half-inch thick contract, so even if you died, your family couldn’t sue. Basically, they owned you.”
Still the Same Tireless Worker
Hackney’s heating and air conditioning business has grown steadily. He has been doing it for 30 years and now mainly focuses on commercial clients. His longtime gym, Hackney’s Combat Academy, has been a fixture in Illinois, and he recently opened a second outlet. Between the two facilities, there are 300 students, and he has been training in MMA ever since his UFC days.
“We do installations, service the whole shop, and we have about 150 strip malls we work with and have six trucks,” Hackney says. “So I can’t complain. I’ve accumulated a lot of real estate, too. I’ve got my promotional events, and I’m about to retire from the heating business in the next two or three years and run my promotion full-time. We’re flipping a lot of homes, and I’ve got my two schools I’m running. Right now, I’m working from six in the morning until 11 at night.”
Hackney, 52, seems excited about his latest venture -- American Predator Fighting Championship. The promotion holds amateur shows in Illinois and plans to move into doing professional events, as well. Hackney hopes to build it into a staple of the Midwest MMA scene, operating as a feeder for the big shows.
“We’re looking to be a steppingstone for them. I don’t want to try and compete with the UFC. I don’t have $200 million dollars,” he says with a laugh. “We want to put guys into UFC or Strikeforce and take the guys that used to fight there and give them a chance to work their way back.”
Hackney’s team includes a handful of professionals and several amateurs -- about 25 overall. He has also worked hard to impart his experience and wizened eye to steer people away from the sport if they do not have the right reasons for getting into it.
“Don’t fight just for the money. I tell them you shouldn’t be fighting until at least a full year of training. Work on your conditioning and technique,” he says. “There are a lot of people that will use these types of guys and make money off them, so they need to go to a gym looking out for their well-being, with somebody that knows what they’re doing, with the right tools and people around them.
“Everybody I know today, people that are real, not someone with a shaved head and tats, all the fighters I’ve dealt with are good guys,” Hackney adds. “Some of the best people I’ve met in life have been through fighting. I love this sport. That’s why it’s been great doing my heating company and making money, running the organization, doing fight promotions. I’m looking forward to doing this for the next 20 years.”