I’d fought some pretty big guys before, but never for money like this. And definitely never in the parking lot of a biker bar.
He was a big, burly looking dude. At least 6-foot-2, 270 pounds. Not ripped, but clearly strong like mule. But what stuck out most was his big white beard. It was puffy. He basically looked like the meanest damn Santa you’ve ever seen.
As soon as the fight started, the big guy didn’t hesitate. He charged. He wanted to squash me.
I was only there because my neighbor had told me there was a fight going down and the winner was getting $700. I had no idea who I was fighting. For that kind of money, it didn’t matter. I was living paycheck to paycheck in a small town in North Carolina. At that time, $700 meant food and rent. In a lot of ways, it was life-changing money for me.
We drove to the bar around 3 a.m. The place was shut down, but around back in the parking lot there was a line of trucks and motorcycles with their lights on. When I showed up, it was clear they’d all been waiting for me. As I got out of the car, my neighbor shouted, “Here he is!” That was when I figured out that they’d been trying to track someone down for this, and I was the person who said yes.
It was an interesting crowd. I wasn’t worried about getting stabbed so much as shot — that kind of crowd.
I’d won a couple of tough-man contests in the area, which are these regulated amateur boxing contests. As a result, my name was somewhat out there, but people figured I didn’t know how to street fight. Punching guys with headgear and gloves on is one thing, but fighting with your bare hands with no rules is something else entirely.
So this guy charging at me clearly didn’t think I had much of a shot against him. I get it. I was clearly out-sized, and at least by the looks of it, out-experienced. But what Santa didn’t know is that I was raised in a group home. This wasn’t new to me. I was trained in the streets.
I wasn’t worried about getting stabbed so much as shot.
As I saw this big ol’ guy running at me, it triggered all those instincts and memories from my childhood. This guy clearly figured before the fight that I was entering his world. But in reality, he was entering mine.
When he got within reach, he lunged at me with a punch. I rolled right under it and wound up with a right — got my whole body into it and hit the guy square on the forehead. He immediately hit the ground like a ton of bricks, and I exhaled.
I look down at him on the pavement, then at the people around me.
“Okay, so we’re good, right? We’re good?”
I wanted this thing to be over as soon as possible. I had no idea whose buddy I’d just laid out. And what they’d do for retribution.
As my back was turned (side note: Never turn your back during a street fight), the guy gets up.
“It ain’t over yet! Gonna be a long night for you!”
I’m looking at the guy, kind of surprised. Dude is gushing blood out of his damn head. His white beard is turning red, there’s blood all over the place. But he’s not going to stop unless I make him stop.
He charges at me again, but I was ready. This time, I grabbed him belly to belly and flipped him over on his head, and he was out.
Now we’re good.
A real mean looking dude comes out and hands me my money. For a second, it looked like they were going to try to rob me right away, but I got the hell out of dodge.
I remember looking at the money during the car ride back, counting it, just kind of smiling to myself.
It was the first time I ever got paid money to fight.
The way I found out about UFC 1 sounds kind of like something out of the movie Bloodsport.
I had been fighting in Japan with some success for two-and-a-half years. One day, a student of mine brought me a flyer for this weird fighting tournament going down in the states. There were a few phrases on it that caught my eye, namely, “no holds barred” and “anything goes.” It was an eight-man tournament, all taking place on the same night in Denver. Last man standing wins.
At first I thought it was a pro wrestling thing. This couldn’t be for real, right? Then I looked closer and saw that it was something called “mixed martial arts.” I was still skeptical. I mean, this didn’t sound all that legal. But my curiosity led me to call the number on the flyer, which connected me with a man named Art Davie.
Now, Art wasn’t exactly your traditional fight promoter. He was an ad executive. And he was trying to create something entirely different.
I got on the phone and told him my story. I told him about how I was a champion in Japan, and that the kind of fighting was somewhat similar, except we utilized open-hand strikes instead of hitting with closed fists. I told him that if this thing was for real, I’d be interested in throwing my hat into the ring.
He assured me it was for real and that he’d give me a call back.
About a half an hour later, my phone rings.
When I arrived at the arena and got a look at my competition, I felt pretty good about my odds. Half the field appeared to be guys who were over the hill and just looking for a quick payday. The other half of the field was the complete opposite. They were young, in shape and ready to go.
But so was I.
Now, I went into this thinking I was the only person who actually had a ground game. Granted, I had no idea who Royce Gracie was at that time, or the kinds of fighters that comprised the rest of the field. But I did know what I was capable of. If I went in and fought my style, the rest would take care of itself.
The fight took place at McNichols Arena in Denver, and the crowd was about what you might anticipate for something promoted as a one-night-only fighting tournament with basically no rules. These were people who had no expectations beyond blood. But I think every single person — the people in the arena, the people watching on TV and even the fighters — were still a bit skeptical about what this was, exactly.
I was still skeptical. I mean, this didn’t sound all that legal.
Well, the first fight of the evening definitely set a certain tone.
Gerard Gordeau, a savate expert, fought a sumo wrestler named Teila Tulo. By today’s MMA standards, this fight wasn’t anything particularly special. But when Tulo charged ahead at Gerard and got knocked out by a kick to the face, it was something nobody there had ever seen take place in a sanctioned ring.
And the crowd ate it up.
Gerard football-kicked Tulo in the face and his teeth went flying.
Suddenly, everyone watching knew this was for real.
Now, when I went in there for my first fight, I was going against Patrick Smith, a hometown guy from Denver. I didn’t go in there looking to just bludgeon the guy. I was going to take whatever opening I had to win the fight. So early on in the first round, I saw my opportunity and I submitted the guy with a leg lock — not exactly as sexy as kicking a guy’s teeth out.
The crowd was predictably not pleased. Not only had I taken out their guy, but nobody knew what the hell a submission hold was. They figured all these fights would end with blood all over the mat. There were about 8,000 people in the arena that night, and as I made my way back to the locker room, just about every single one of them was throwing beer at me and yelling every profanity in the book.
The next fight, when Royce Gracie submitted his opponent, he got the same exact reaction. Incredulous booing. These people were bloodthirsty.
What the crowd didn’t realize at the time was that they were witnessing the very essence and beauty of MMA. Every street fight has a predictable ending: blood. Every boxing match has a predictable ending: a knockout or decision. But in MMA, there are many, many ways to win a fight, and that’s what makes it a unique sport. Going into any match, you never know if you’re going to see a guy tap because of an armbar or get dazed on his feet from a spinning hammer fist. It’s kind of artistic, in its own way, I guess.
When Royce and I fought in the semifinals, it was definitely a change of pace for the people watching. We were the two smallest guys in the field, so the crowd had kind of dismissed us early on.
I don’t think a single person there could have guessed they were watching the first two inductees into the UFC Hall of Fame go at it.
To be honest, I didn’t think much of Royce at all going into the fight. I thought I was going to walk through the entire tournament. I was more concerned with not getting too winded before the finals.
So I had a certain confidence. The only thing bothering me was that I didn’t have shoes on. I’d never been in a ring without wrestling shoes on, and it was just kind of weird. It’s kind of like taking the mound as a pitcher without a glove. You feel a bit naked. It pissed me off, to be honest. When I got on the canvas, it felt like fighting on ice. Here we have an event where there are essentially no rules, but I can’t wear my shoes? Come on.
I was losing air, and I distinctly remember thinking, “Why’d they take my shoes away?”
Early on in the fight, I went in for the same leg lock that I won my first fight with. But Royce wrapped my arm around in his gi, which is the traditional uniform worn in martial arts. To get my arm loose so I could complete the hold, I was going to drive my knee right into his crotch. No rules, man.
But when I went for it, I lost traction on my back foot and slipped. Royce took advantage and got top position on me. When I tried to roll through it, he was able to wrap the gi around my neck and started choking me.
I was losing air, and I distinctly remember thinking, “Why’d they take my shoes away?”
They said my shoes were a weapon, but here I am getting choked out by Royce’s gi, which he was using like a rope, and somehow that wasn’t considered a weapon.
There was nothing left to do, so I tapped.
The referee told me to keep fighting.
Royce started shouting that I had tapped, and then the referee looked at me again, and I nodded and said that I had tapped. And that was that.
I tried to be gracious in defeat, but admittedly, I was sour about it. Royce would go on to win the tournament, and afterwards I told Bob Meyrowitz that I wanted a rematch. I got it, at UFC 5. It was officially called a draw, but everyone watching saw that I put a real beating on Royce.
And I can’t wait for one more shot at him.
When I was getting jeered in Denver all those years ago, I didn’t realize that I was part of what would become such a big movement. But all these years later, I’m really proud that I was. When you’re involved in something new, there’s always a big hump to get over in order for it to stick. I think Royce and I did a good job educating people about this sport and getting it over that hump. We were the ambassadors that MMA needed to get where it is today.
This kind of fighting has opened up opportunities for a lot of people who are passionate in a variety of disciplines to do what they love for a living. That might be what I’m most proud of.
I’m excited for this final fight against Royce at Bellator 149. In so many ways, it feels like a full-circle experience. When you’re my age in this business, the question you get asked most frequently is: Why?
Why do you keep fighting?
It’s a simple question, with a simple answer. One that’s as true today as I prepare to face Royce as it was when I was just a kid, watching that big, burly Santa Claus charge right at me.
I fight because it’s what I know and it’s what I love. I fight because I’m a fighter.
Shamrock will fight against Royce Gracie for the third time at Bellator 149 on February 19. The fight will be broadcast live on Spike TV at 9 pm EST.