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The Ultimate Fighting Championship is one of the few sporting organizations that was able to increase its market value (from $4.3 to 5.3 billion) in 2020, a year marked by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is an indication of the status the promotion, and the sport in general, enjoy today. But while today MMA is unquestionably one of the most popular sports in the world, regulated by athletic commissions, and UFC is one of the most renowned sports brands on the planet, the situation was completely different 25 years ago when I flew from Rio de Janeiro to Detroit to cover my first UFC event on May 17, 1996.
After UFC 4, when founder Rorion Gracie left the UFC, the promotion conceived with the goal of proving the superiority of one martial art over the others was purchased by Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG), whose main focus was pay-per-view sales. Consequently, no-time-limit matches were now out of the question.
For its ninth show, the UFC completely did away with the tournament format for the first time, opting for a card with seven “super fights.” But the biggest change of that event was announced to fighters and media only a few hours before the show. A strong campaign against the UFC in a Detroit court, led by Arizona Senator John McCain, was finally announced: The event was authorized to happen, but with modified rules. The special rules included no closed-fist strikes to the head and no headbutts. Before the show, a conference was led by “Big” John McCarthy, who warned the fighters that closed-fist strikes could take them straight to jail, which meant, “In a few hours you are going to step in the Octagon to do a ‘new sport,’ with rules totally different than what you trained for.”
Arrested, or Booed?
Would the fighters follow the new rules or run the risk of being arrested? What about the 10,000 fans that packed the arena to see realest combat sport on earth? Cal Worsham needed just 20 seconds to answer the question, taking down 6-foot-7 karate fighter Zane Frazier and punishing him with a sequence of punches and headbutts that forced Frazier to tap at 3 minutes and 14 seconds of the fight, rousing the noisy audience and showing to the police that arresting the man who made them happy might not be a good idea.
An Olympic Champion Hired in the Hotel Hallway
Covering small vale tudo events in the north and northeast of Brazil since 1992, I used to see unbelievable stories of fighters substituted at the weigh-ins, or even invited from the crowd during the show. But I would never have imagined that in my first UFC coverage in the USA I would see an Olympic champion and national wrestling hero being invited to make his Octagon debut in the hotel hallway.
Everything started when Canadian Dave Beneteau, who was meant to face UFC 8 runner-up Gary Goodridge, got hurt one day before the show had to leave the card. The promoters had heard that Rickson Gracie black belt, Pedro Sauer, was staying at the same hotel with his new jiu-jitsu student, two-time Olympic wrestling champion Mark Schultz. Informed by a friend about the incident with Beneateau, Sauer dropped Schultz’s name for the promoters. I remember meeting Sauer in the lobby before the bout confirmation. “We never trained vale tudo but this guy is a monster. To give you an idea, master Rickson went to my gym to train and only tapped him twice in almost 30 minutes of rolling,” Sauer told me.
A few hours later SEG, interested in boosting their PPV sales, announced the legendary wrestler on the card. Schultz’s fame in the U.S. earned him a great offer: $50,000 for a single fight.
Schultz did not disappoint the fans. Despite giving up 40-pound advantage to his opponent, Schultz took Goodridge down three times and dominated the fight, winning via TKO at 12 minutes, using closed-fist punches with to decide the fight. Thanks to his excellent showing and the part he played in boosting PPV sales, Schultz’s purse was twice what he had been originally promised: $100,000.
Eighteen years later that crazy story would be recalled in the movie “Foxcatcher,” which brought worldwide the tragic history of the wrestling legend and his brother Dave, who was killed by the trainer John DuPont four months before UFC 9.
Regarded by many as Carlson Gracie’s most technically skilled black belt in vale tudo, Bitetti, measuring 5-foot-8 and weighing 186 pounds, was in the nasty position of making his UFC debut against the UFC 8 champion, Don Frye, who was 6-foot-1, over 200 pounds, and had bulldozed three opponents in a combined time of barely three minutes two months earlier. Sixteen months before, Bitetti had been knocked out by capoeira master Sidney Goncalves Freitas, also known as “Mestre Hulk,” in the final of a Brazilian vale tudo tournament.
As soon as referee McCarthy shouted his trademark “Let’s get it on,” Bitetti stormed towards his opponent, landing a front kick and trying to secure a body lock against the cage. Frye made use of his superior wrestling technique, letting the Brazilian tire himself out trying to take him down. When the Carlson black belt showed signs of fatigue, Frye broke free and engaged in a striking battle. Bitetti landed the first shot, but took two powerful counterpunches and was taken down by the American. After a few more punches, Frye even tried to pass his guard. Bitetti stood up, but got the worst of the striking battle once again. As the crowd chanted “USA! USA!” without cease, the Brazilian was hit by a straight, two crosses and three knees. He fell to the mat in guard position, trying to defend himself from a barrage of the American’s punches and elbows.
The fight was stopped momentarily while the doctors looked at a cut on the Brazilian’s face, but Bitetti wanted more. The fight was restarted and Frye continued the ground-and-pound punishment until “Big John” stopped the fight at 9 minutes and 22 seconds. “One minute into the fight, I realized that he wasn’t as good as I was expecting. I love fighting from inside their guard, ‘cause it’s very comfortable for me. Now I want a Gracie. They’re good, but I’m confident in my superior technique,” Frye told me at the time, at a UFC party held at the hotel shortly after the fight.
A few years after the loss to Frye, Bitetti recognized that today he would fight at welterweight. “It would be a lot easier today. There are rules and weight classes, and there was none of that at the time. The biggest proof of that is that as soon as I started to fight at middleweight, I went on a three-fight win streak against Maurice Travis, Alex Andrade, and Dennis Hallman, who had just beaten Matt Hughes for a second time, in the UFC.”
Hall vs. Kitao: A 185-Pound Difference
The weight difference was also evident in another fight on that card, but this time the smaller team got the win. Mark Hall, 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, needed only 40 seconds to break the nose of 6-foot-8, 375-pound sumo giant Koji Kitao, who had lost to Brazilian “The” Pedro Otavio at UVF Japan a month earlier. The copious bleeding from the Japanese fighter’s nose led the promoters to stop the fight out of concern for the sport’s TV image.
While Bitetti caused a big disappointment for the BJJ community, Andre Pederneiras brown belt Rafael Carino, only 23 years old at the time, made a dazzling debut. It took him only 5 minutes and 32 seconds to take down and mount Matt Andersen, who was also making his debut. Hearing the commands of his master Pederneiras, Carino got a body lock, took him down, passed guard, mounted and punched him out for the stoppage.
Severn vs. Shamrock: The Worst “Superfight” Ever
Following his draw with Royce Gracie at UFC 5 in a 36-minute fight, Ken Shamrock benefitted from Gracie's exodus from the show immediately afterwards. Despite never winning a UFC tournament, Ken was named the superfight champion, putting the title on the line on three occasions, first beating Dan Severn at UFC 6 via guillotine choke, drawing with Oleg Taktarov at UFC 7, and submitting Kimo Leopoldo with a kneebar at UFC 8.
With Severn’s win in the inaugural “Ultimate Ultimate” show, where he beat Paul Varelans, David "Tank" Abbott and Taktarov on the same night, he earned the right to a rematch, which was booked as the UFC 9 superfight.
In their first meeting, Shamrock had needed only 2:14 to tap out “The Beast,” but the rematch went on for 30 long, dull minutes. Unlike other fighters on the card, Shamrock and Severn strictly respected the “closed fist rule,” and the result was a terrible, half-hour long, slap fight. Close to the end, Severn took Shamrock to the ground, but Shamrock swept and ended up in mount, where he remained for a few minutes. Severn escaped and got top position again, spending the last minute of the fight in Shamrock’s guard until the bell rang. Overtime was three more minutes of slap fighting until the judges scored the fight in Severn’s favor.
Despite excellent pay-per-view numbers, the superfight format wasn’t appreciated by fans, and in the following shows, SEG was forced to return to the tournament format, with Mark Coleman being crowned the new champion with a win over Frye in the UFC 10 final.
By the way, I would return to cover Vitor Belfort’s debut and the superfight between Coleman and Severn at UFC 12. Once again, Sen. McCain would provide me one of the craziest experiences covering MMA, but that's a long story that we can tell on another occasion.