It’s been quite the crazy ride making it to UFC Denver and the 25th anniversary of the UFC. Looking back, it’s a wonder they made it this far.
Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been – The Grateful Dead
Here we are, at the doorstep of the UFC’s 25th Anniversary show in Denver, Colorado. The quarter-century mark is a big moment for a promotion that was once on the brink of collapse, before the Fertittas and Dana White bought the business and turned it around. Going back to the place it all began is a smart move on the promotion’s part, and while it’s not a PPV event or anywhere close to the biggest card of the year, UFC Fight Night 139, which the event technically is known as, should check all the right boxes.
The only downside, really, is that Frankie Edgar was forced off the card. Instead, the biggest names remaining are The Korean Zombie and Cowboy Cerrone. Which, come to think of it, would make an impressive comic duo. Cowboy and the Zombie.
In any case, what got us to UFC Denver is arguably more interesting than the card itself. Years of blood, sweat, and tears inside and outside the cage. The ongoing push for legalization and regulation of a sport originally thought to be barbaric.
On a personal front — my own first exposure to the UFC was disastrous. I cannot lay claim to having been there for UFC 1, when Royce Gracie proved to the world that jiu-jitsu (at the time, anyway) was the dominant discipline in martial arts. Nor did I watch it on PPV. No, my own introduction to the octagon came in the form of a VHS tape carted to my childhood home by some friend or other. For those younger readers, VHS tapes were precursors to DVDs. And DVDs were what we had before streaming, kids.
In any case, said tape had a bunch of fights that someone had thrown together, and for whatever reason, the first one we watched that day was Joe Son’s infamous bout against Keith Hackney. You might remember Joe Son (read it in Troy McClure’s voice) as Random Task from the first Austin Powers movie. Seriously, who throws a shoe? Son was also a grossly unsuccessful martial artist, and, as it turns out, a wholly gross human being.
Son, who later in life would be convicted on torture charges stemming from a gang rape after a DNA sample matched up with a cold case, is currently serving 27 years for killing another inmate while in prison. Just four years after committing that horrid crime (and getting away with it until 2008), Son fought at UFC 4 on December 16, 1994. It was his only UFC appearance. The moment that etched itself into my adolescent mind was a series of groin strikes that set up the finish. While it no doubt lasted just seconds, to a teenager who had already outgrown the campiness of pro wrestling, that wince-inducing moment seemed to drag on for minutes. Hackney technically won via a blood choke, but in reality, he won via groin strikes. His balls weren’t hot, to borrow from Derrick Lewis. They were scrambled. At least that’s how it seemed.
Son would go on to lose the rest of his pro fights, going 0-4, with the other three coming in 2002 (two of them in Pride), and become one of the most reviled figures in MMA history. But at the time, before all that came to light, I just knew that what I’d watched was ridiculous. After Son, I saw Kimo Leopoldo’s UFC 3 entrance on the same tape, lugging a cross down to the cage. A full size wooden cross.
Needless to say it wasn’t a great introduction to the sport. I was done with MMA for years. While I lived in Japan in my mid-20s, during the height of Pride. I only ever tuned in for a couple of fights really. One was an Akebono fight. Another freakshow. I slowly got back into the sport during the Shamrock vs. Ortiz days, however. Then Georges St. Pierre became the biggest thing going, representing my native Canada. MMA and the UFC had turned from freakshow to sport. By the time MMA was legalized in Ontario, I was hooked.
UFC 165 marked my first live event. I’d already been watching regularly for years by that point, helped along by the fact that for a short while, I was seeing a girl who had a black belt in Karate. But UFC 165 was the moment that I can say changed the sport for me. Sitting in the stands, reacting to the outcome of Jones vs. Gustafsson with a critical eye, it dawned on me that the UFC was something I was more than just a fan of. For the record, those up in the bleachers, myself included, gave the fight to ‘The Mauler.’ And I played the fight back in my head again and again afterward.
The one thing that stuck in my mind, however, was much the sport had evolved since it began back in 1994. What started out as a freakshow had honed itself into an athletic competition. Pure sport. Oh, it’s still not booked like a pure sport. But the action in the cage these days is absolutely that.
Years later, and I’ve worked UFC events (and other promotions) as a member of the press. I write about the sport on pretty much a daily basis. Going from being turned off due to the circus-like nature of the early UFC, to having MMA become part of my job — what a long, strange trip it’s been indeed.