History of MMA

MMA History Part 1: UFC/Pancrase meets BJJ

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s two countries were both moving towards what we call MMA. Brazil, where the Gracie familiy had been working to popularlize jiu jitsu as a real fighting art by taking on challenge matches since the 1930’s. They had developed a rivalry over several decades with a rival fighting school called Luta Livre Esportiva which had independently evolved into a style comparable to catch wrestling. After a series of street fights between their champions (most famously Rickson Gracie vs Hugo Duarte) In 1991 the two camps put on the Desafio – Jiu-Jitsu vs. Luta Livre event. Which pitted three BJJ fighters (Wallid Ismail, Murilo Bustamante, and Fabio Gurgel) against three Luta Livre fighters (Eugenio Tadeu, Marcelo Mendes, Denilson Maia). The BJJ fighters swept the event. (The Gurgel/Maia fight is on YouTube in two parts, part one, part two.)

Here’s a Brazilian TV report from 1991. It’s in portugese but the video is pretty self-explanatory, they go through the event and then show some traditional karate guys point fighting. Gives you a good feel for the media sensationalism and the stark contrast between the proto-mma styles and traditional martial arts.

Meanwhile in Japan, pro-wrestling had been taking a turn towards the real throughout the 1980’s. Karl Gotch was a huge influence on this. Under the leadership of pro-wrestlers like Akira Maeda and Masakatsu Funaki Japanese pro-wrestling began to emphasize actual submission holds. In the early 1990’s Funaki formed Pancrase to be a real “shoot” organization. It wasn’t quite MMA at first — they only allowed open hand strikes and kicks standing and no strikes on the ground. Here’s a representative match from the old pancrase featuring Bas Rutten and Funaki (it’s from 1996 so it’s a little later on than the real early ones but I can’t find Ken Shamrock vs Funaki or Suzuki anywhere online).


Bas Rutten vs Masakatsu Funaki

Then at UFC one, the two worlds collided. With Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie meeting in a classic match up. Watch how Shamrock’s submission attempts ignore position and Royce takes advantage by constantly working for dominant position. The gi choke Royces uses to win would never happen in modern MMA.

MMA History Part 2: The Ur-Brazilian MMA Feud: BJJ vs Luta Livre and the Style They Never Saw Coming

I found a better video from one of the events that I referenced in yesterday’s history lesson so here’s Fabio Gurgel vs Denilson Maia of the classic BJJ vs Luta Livre battles from the 1991 “Desafio – Jiu-Jitsu vs. Luta Livre” event:

Again note that Gurgel wins by dominating position — Maia gets the first takedown but can’t pass guard. Gurgel takes a while but he does pass guard and once he gets mount it’s all over. Pretty static fight really — the two styles had grown up together over several decades and were very incestuous.

The cool thing was, in 1995 at the next Desafio event, the BJJ/Luta Livre rivalry ran smack dab into another native Brazilian style — Capoeira in the form of Mestre Hulk. The tourny was set up very much according to a stock formula, one Lutra Livre guy (Pedro Otavio), one BJJ guy (Amaury Bitetti), a couple strikers and a couple brawlers (including legendary Rickson rival Rei Zulu). Hulk refused to play into the unprepared striker stereotype and surprised them all, especially Bitetti. Here’s a Brazilian TV report from the time:

And here’s a highlight reel of Hulk:

Moral of the story — strikers with enough ground skill to not get overwhelmed have an excellent chance in MMA. Plus Capoeira, while not a high percentage style, does have some wicked cool moves.

Next, real wrestlers enter the fray.

Part 3: More on Japan

I know last time I mentioned talking about the entry of olympic wrestlers into MMA but I realized I needed to talk a little more about the evolution of the sport in Japan first.

And I really need to mention the godfather of Japanese MMA, Antoni Inoki, a protege of Karl Gotch who taught Inoki and other Japanese wrestlers the old style of catch wrestling Wikipedia does a good job of explaining what he was up to in the 1970s:

Inoki then went on to stage a series of mixed martial arts matches against champions from numerous other disciplines of martial arts.
Antonio Inoki was a pioneer of mixed martial arts and has faced many opponents from all dominant disciplines of combat from various parts of the world, such as Akram Pahalwan in Pakistan, Willie Williams of Kyokushin Karate, Olympic judo gold medalist Willem Ruska and WBA and WBC World Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali.

I can’t find any video of the other matches, so here’s the fiasco with Ali.

Then in the 1980s Inoki’s main wrestling org UWF International broke up and his disciples split off into many camps, several of which ultimately became part of the greater MMA world in the 1990s:

Shoot wrestling branched into several sub disciplines after the breakup of the original Universal Wrestling Federation. The main forms are listed below.

-Yoshiaki Fujiwara’s students Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki formed Pancrase, which is also a fighting style under shoot wrestling.
-Another Yoshiaki Fujiwara student Bart Vale formed Shootfighting
-Tiger Mask Sayama’s style of shoot wrestling also includes Muay thai kicks and is called Shooto.
-Akira Maeda’s version of shoot wrestling emphasises on submissions and is known as RINGS submission fighting.
-Kickboxer Caesar Takeshi formed Shoot boxing with standing submission aspect influenced by catch wrestling and shoot wrestling.
-World renowned gyms like the Lion’s Den, Takada Dojo and Shamrock Martial Arts Academy propagate shoot wrestling based styles of martial arts.

MMA History Part IV: Rickson Brings Jiu Jitsu Back to Japan

As we discussed in our last installment, Japanese wrestling had been evolving toward MMA for a couple of decades by the time UFC launched. Nevertheless, their reluctance to incorporate strikes on the ground into their training and competitions left them in for a rude awakening when they ran up against the Brazilians who’d been competing Vale Tudo style. King of Pancrase Ken Shamrock’s quick loss to Royce Gracie at UFC 1 sent shockwaves through the Japanese scene. Royce’s quick defeat of Daido Juku champ Minoki Ichihara got the attention of Japan’s martial arts traditionalists as well. (More on Daido Juku in the extended entry, including vids).

So the Shooto people set up a Japan Vale Tudo event and invited Royce’s big bad brother Rickson. He swept through a fairly weak field including Shooto veteran Kenji Kawaguchi who got KO’d by Dutch kickboxer Jan Lomulder in the first round and 40 something Judoka Yoshinori Nishi. After his loss to Rickson, Nishi went on to found the Wajyutsu fighting camp which spawned such UFC vets as Caol Uno and Yushin Okami.

Here’s some highlights of Rickson that provides a pretty good run through of both events plus some fights from later in the 1990’s.


Rickson Gracie Highlights –

In the 1995 tournament, the field included pro-wrestler from RINGS Yoshihisa Yamamoto, amateur wrestler Koichiro Kimura, future olympic bob-sledder Todd Hayes, UFC 1 vet Gerard Gordeau and shooto lightweight Yuki Nakai.

Here’s the final round between Rickson and Nakai. Note Yuki’s swollen eye, Gordeau had literally gouged it out in their first round fight. THEN Nakai beat a 250lb Craig Pittman before getting to Rickson.

VTJ 95 Rickson Gracie vs Nakai Yuki

Also check out this documentary of the 1995 event, Rickson Gracie: Choke

At the moment before the Japan Vale Tudo, you were the SHOOTO welterweight champion, and then you were picked by the SHOOTO Commission to represent SHOOTO. Can you tell us your experience when you were in the Japan Vale Tudo?
Nakai: What I thought about it?
Sherdog: How were you feeling when you were going to the tournament? Rickson Gracie was in the same tournament. What were you thinking?
Nakai: I was 70 kilograms (154 pounds) and everyone else was bigger than me. In Vale Tudo at that time, there were not many technicians apart from the Gracie family, and SHOOTO was as popular at that time. I had confidence in my abilities and I was quite confident that I could win.
Sherdog: How do you think fighting in SHOOTO back at that time compares to fighting in SHOOTO today?
Nakai: I fought first in 1994, then in ‘95, and even the rules have changed to Vale Tudo, so I had time to prepare for Vale Tudo. Before that time there was no punching or kicking on the ground. And Sayama changed; they wanted Vale Tudo to be more sporting, so that’s why they slowly changed the rules to make it more like a sport.
Sherdog: I apologize for the question, but I know that in your first fight in the Japan Vale Tudo tournament you fought Gerard Gordeau, and you had an accident when fighting. Gerard was gouging your eyes. I want to know how you were feeling at the moment when that happened and what injuries you sustained.
Nakai: I was prepared that Gordeau would be using some kind of dirty techniques, and according to the rules, if you used dirty techniques two or three times you would lose, so I was expecting Gordeau to lose because of his tactics. I was expecting to win because of all the rule infringements.
Sherdog: Did you receive any damage from Gordeau’s tactics?
Nakai: I can’t see with my right eye, even now. Complete loss of vision in that eye.
Sherdog: You had three fights that night in the Japan Vale Tudo tournament. You won the first two fights – one by heel hook and the other by armbar – then you met in the finals with Rickson Gracie. You were very badly damaged from the previous two fights, how did you feel at the moment when you faced Rickson?
Nakai: He had good technique, and I did a lot of judo and ground work as well and I thought that I’d use my ground work to fight with Gracie. I was really confident that I would make it to the finals and I was very confident that I could beat Rickson.
Sherdog: After your loss in the fight with Rickson, how did it change you? What did you realize that you would have to change in your game?
Nakai: Rickson had superior techniques and I was a bit surprised because he was much better than I thought. But it was a good experience for me to understand the top-level fighter at that time.
Sherdog: I understand that after the fight with Rickson you decided to start training jiu-jitsu, basically bringing this style back to Japan with you when you returned. So what was the process? Who did you start training with? Who did you get your black belt from?
Nakai: For the first two years I kept it a secret that I was blind in my right eye because at that time many people were against Vale Tudo. I didn’t want people to think that Vale Tudo was a dangerous sport. I got my injury from illegal techniques; I didn’t want Vale Tudo to have a bad reputation. I had to give up my fighting career because I couldn’t see the punches coming at me. After that, for one year I didn’t compete. At that time a lot of Japanese fighters were not top class and they were losing a lot of fights, and then I thought what’s needed to win? At that time I was doing a lot of judo, but then I started to think OK, let me try jiu-jitsu, and then I started with a white belt.
Sherdog: So whom did you get your Black Belt from?
Nakai: I got it from the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation.
Sherdog: I heard once that when you went to the Mundials and you were in the Brown Belt division, I think you won your division or placed among the top. After that Carlos Gracie Jr. told you that, “you should not fight at Brown Belt anymore, you should fight at Black Belt.” So did you get your Black Belt from Carlos Gracie Jr.? Is that story true?
Nakai: Every time I fought with a brown belt I would ask the organizers “Can I fight in this competition with so-and-so belt?” and at the Pan-Americans they said that I needed the black belt, but I didn’t have a main teacher – I had a lot of different instructors but not one set teacher. For me, I got it from the Federation.
Sherdog: After that you came back to Japan and founded the Japanese Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation and the Pareastra gyms, what do you feel is the impact of your work?
Nakai: I thought Brazilian jiu-jitsu fit the Japanese.
Sherdog: Why?
Nakai: Japan is judo. Brazilian jiu-jitsu basics are judo. People who did judo were the people who were teaching Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Of course, it’s not only judo but [also] a lot of ground work. But the basics of Brazilian jiu-jitsu is the same as judo, and for Vale Tudo it’s very important, lots of groundwork. And I felt that Brazilian Ju-jitsu would be popular in Japan. So, when I started my dojo, of course, we had Vale Tudo class. But I felt we should have a lot of jiu-jitsu classes as well.
Here’s a HL clip of some Daido Juko competitions. It combines Kyokushin Karate with Judo and has been going since 1981.

And here’s a clip of an exhibition match between Rickson’s Vale Tudo 1994 opponent Yoshinori Nishi and Shooto Founder “Tiger Mask” Satoru Sayama. I believe it’s considered an exhibition match because of limited striking. This occured at the Tournament of J Lumax Cup event of April 1994.

MMA History Part V: The Reign of Royce

So in our last installment, I jumped ahead a bit and got into mid 1995 with Rickson Gracie’s second Vale Tudo tournament in Japan.

And since I’ve only covered UFC 1, that means we’ve left out something important — the reign of Royce. After his triumph at UFC 1, Royce took part in three UFC tournaments in 1994 going 8-1 with his only loss coming because he wasn’t able to answer the opening bell in a match.

I haven’t been able to find a good embeddable video of any of these fights, but this gym match against kung fu expert Jason DeLucia circa 1992 is illustrative of the basic dynamic. DeLucia would lose again to Royce at UFC 2 and later became a successful Pancrase fighter and founding member of Ken Shamrock’s Lion’s Den.

Basically, Royce’s run, along with Rickson’s success in Japan established that a one dimensional Jiu Jitsu stylist with a vale tudo background could clean house with a range of traditional martial artists, untrained brawlers, kickboxers and even a credentialed amateur wrestler with a 70+ pound weight advantage.

The great thing about these fights was the drama. Unlike Rickson who was never really challenged in his matches in Japan, at least three of Royce’s matches were intensely dramatic and showed that Royce had the grit to overcome tremendous challenges.

After breezing through UFC 2, Royce fought a 250lb brawler in Kimo Leopoldo to open UFC 3. I wasn’t able to embed the video of that fight, but I did find a version online with Royce’s post-fight commentary. It’s an ungainly affair, and the commentary kills some of the drama of the match. This was the first MMA fight I ever saw on videotape and I was on the edge of my seat. We couldn’t believe this scrawny guy in the gi could handle the aggressive giant. In retrospect, it’s interesting to note how many illegal techniques Royce used against Kimo — hair pulling, point of elbow attacks, kicks to the kidneys and the back of the head — but ultimately it was Kimo’s lack of conditioning that helped Royce sink in the fatal armbar.

That fight took everything Gracie had and knocked him out of the tournament. In UFC 4 he came back and faced down two more serious challenges — karateka Keith Hackney and wrestler Dan Severn. Hackney never really threatened Royce, but he really resisted the takedown and gave Royce all he could handle. Severn was a different story.

The first serious wrestler to enter MMA competition, Severn suplexed his way past strikers Anthony Macias and Marcus Bossett before running into Royce. Severn easily got the take down, but had no answer for what the announcers called “the riddle of the guard.” It took forever (well over 15 minutes) but Royce eventually worked his way into a triangle choke and forced Severn to tap. Since the pay per view went off the air minutes before the end of the fight, this was the first of a series of disasters that would dog the early UFCs.

Here’s a highlight reel of Royce’s early wins. I apologize for the crappy music.

Royce never matched these early heights again, but for sixteen months in the early 1990’s he was a hero to every little runt who dreamed of overcoming the big jocks with superior brains, balls and skill. War Royce!

History of MMA Part VI: A Dutch Detour

Anyway, so far we’ve covered the first UFC and talked about how it was a collision of Japan’s Pancrase and Brazil’s Vale Tudo style matches. We’ve also discussed the III: evolution of proto-MMA in Japan and how Antoni Inoki and his disciples had been taking Pro Wrestling back to its shoot-style roots and challenging other martial artists to limited rules matches since the 1970s. By the early 1990s, various students of Inoki had formed several competiting promotions, each with their own take on shoot wrestling and proto-MMA. One of these was Pancrase.

Pancrase wasn’t quite modern MMA — it only allowed open handed strikes standing and frowned on striking on the ground — but it was a very big advance nonetheless and gave several future MMA legends their start including Ken Shamrock, Masakatsu Funaki, Frank Shamrock, and especially Bas Rutten.

Bas is the guy I want to talk about today. Not only was he a great fighter, but he was one of the first credible strikers to pursue a career in mixed martial arts. Bas brought a Muy Thai/Karate /Tai Kwon Do background into Pancrase and made a big impact winning 4 of his first 6 fights by KO or TKO. That’s even more impressive when you remember that closed fist punching wasn’t allowed.

At first Bas struggled with the submission skills of the promotion’s best fighters, losing to Funaki and both Shamrocks. But as the video below shows, he applied himself to becoming a complete martial artist and overcame that early weakness in grappling. Here’s a highlight reel of his two matches with Funaki from 1994 and 1996.

Here’s Bas talking to Triumph United’s Paul Tutka about how he got into MMA and Pancrase:

Bas’ is important to the history of MMA not just because he is one of the all-time greats — one of the only fighters to ever be King of Pancrase and UFC Heavyweight Champion — but also because he was the first Dutch fighter to make a big impact on the sport.

The Dutch were early pioneers of importing Asian styles into their fighting, as illustrated by the career of Kickboxing legend Rob Kaman. RINGS found an early home in the Netherlands, holding 8 events there in the 1990s. None of those early events exactly set the world on fire. Even for a total No-Holds Barred (that’s what we called it back then) mark like myself. Still there were some enjoyable moments — like “Dirty” Bob Schrijber managing to fight and lose twice in the “Cage Fight Tournament” and future Rickson Gracie victim Yoshihisa Yamamoto debuting with a win at Rings Holland before tearing off a six fight losing streak that would carry him into the new millennium.

The Dutch continue to have an outsize impact on MMA through PRIDE stalwarts the Overeems and Gilbert Yvel, although no Dutch fighter has matched the record of “El Guapo”, Bas Rutten.

Coming up next, “1995: The Russians and the Wrestlers Enter the Fray.”

Here’s one of Bas’ matches against Ken Shamrock in Pancrase. It’s really too bad they never met in the UFC.

MMA History VII: A New Phase in the UFC

So for this installment I’ve decided to cover the UFC in 1995 and in the next installment I’ll cover what happened in MMA outside the UFC in 1995 (except for Rickson Gracie’s return visit to Japan which I’ve already covered). As always I can’t pretend to be writing comprehensive history in a blog post but am trying to give a quick survey of the major milestones in the evolution of the sport.

We’ve already discussed the way the first UFC amounted to a collision of the Gracie Jiu Jitsu style — honed in Brazil and Los Angeles in the vale tudo matches and gym challenges of 1980’s and early 1990s — with the Japanese shootfighting style that evolved out of pro-wrestling. The meeting resulted in the triumph of the Gracie style and its emphasis on maintaining dominant position over the shootfighter’s tendency to go for submissions without considering position. Rickson’s fights in Japan confirmed what his brother Royce showed in the USA.

After UFC 1, Royce went on to triumph over a number of challengers in the next three UFCs. He beat karate fighters, kung fu experts, traditional judokas, big brawlers, and even a 260 pound free-style wrestler. Strikers had yet to make an impact in the UFC. Very few fans in America had yet heard of capoeira stylist Mestre Hulk’s shocking win over BJJ ace Amaury Bitetti at the Desafio event on New Year’s Day, 1995.

That brings us to UFC V in April, 1995.

I do a detailed run-through the UFC events of 1995 in the extended entry but wanted to do a quick summary and show a couple clips up top. Royce left the UFC and no single fighter would dominate to a comparable extent until Frank Shamrock from 1997-1999. Ken Shamrock was the SuperFight champion and Dan Severn, Oleg Taktarov, and Marco Ruas all won tournaments. But a fighter who never quite managed to walk away with the belt excited the fans like none other: Tank Abbott. A brutal brawler who proved that raw power had a place in the sport. He was also the first fighter to wear modern MMA gloves in the cage.

Shamrock and Taktarov showed submission skills were still essential but Severn made a strong case for the utility of amateur wrestling technique in the cage. Ruas was the first really effective striker in UFC history — winning the UFC 7 finale with the then novel technique of muy thai leg kicks. But Ruas was also an accomplished student of the ground game, winning with subs as well.

The UFC closed the year with an exciting concept — an “Ultimate Ultimate” tournament that would feature the toughest fighters from past events. Unfortunately the execution didn’t match the concept.

As Matt McEwen of 411 Mania wrote about UFC V:

They had the biggest audience they had ever had – or would in the next decade – for the biggest match up they could possibly put on……and they blew it to put it nicely. It was bad enough that the huge Gracie vs Shamrock showdown was the longest borefest the UFC had seen, but there were not even judges to at least attempt to render a winner. In a much smaller PPV universe, they achieved a milestone with nearly 260,000 buys. A blessing in one way, it was a curse in another. By introducing time limits but not judges, ties were an inevitability, and unfortunately our first one was the biggest fight they had ever put on. On top of that, having that fight be awful turned off a massive amount of those 260,000 people who paid to see the “fight of a lifetime.” The UFC had reached a zenith, and a slow downfall was about to begin. On top of disenchanted fans, this was the final UFC that involved WOW, and by extension, they Gracie family. With new rules and time limits that moved the competition outside of their comfort zone, Rorion Gracie and Art Davie sold their interest to SEG, which became the sole owners and operators until they sold to Zuffa. With WOW out of the picture, Royce Gracie, the face of the UFC, left as well. It was essentially a perfect storm of hurdles to try and get past: an angry fan base, new ownership trying to put their stamp on the product, and doing so without their biggest star.
So the first UFC of 1995 saw the bursting of the Royce Gracie bubble of invincibility. It also saw Ken Shamrock turtling in Royce’s guard for 30 minutes, thereby inventing the LayNPray. That wasn’t the only way UFC V pointed to the future. Dan Severn, the wrestler who pushed Royce to the limit at UFC IV, rolled through the tournament.

McEwan continues:

Competition wise, the tournament this time around showed the dominance of the wrestlers was beginning. Dan Severn won, and did so fairly impressively, but even Dave Beneteau – again a lifelong but not elite wrestler – was able to advance out the preliminary ranks and make it to the finals. Strikers were still unable to deal with being taken down, and non-wrestling style grapplers did not seem to have an answer for the pure brute strength and speed a wrestler seemed able to put forth.
Here’s a nice little highlight reel of Dan Severn that includes a great deal of his early UFC work. Note all the cage holding and knees to the head, moves that are not legal in modern MMA.

But as McEwan wrote on Severn:

The wrestlers continued their general dominance again, as no one seemed to have an answer for how to deal with Severn’s ability. If he had developed any real submission or striking game, Severn very well could have been the most exciting fighter the UFC had seen yet. Instead, with his inability to finish fights, he was quickly becoming a symbol for what was wrong with the UFC at this point. Fans were tuning in to see exciting fights, and wrestlers who could not punch were not delivering.
Severn entered the UFC VI SuperFight a huge favorite over Ken Shamrock. Unfortunately he hadn’t learned even the most basic submission defense and fell into a guillotine choke. Meanwhile Oleg Taktarov laid down a strong marker for Russian Sambo with a ballsy run through the tournament. But the story from UFC VI wasn’t the Superfight winner or even the tournament winner. It was a man who called himself “Tank”.

As McEwan writes :

On July 14, 1995, Oleg returned to The Octagon and became UFC 6 Champion after defeating Tank Abbott in the final. David “Tank” Abbott entered the tournament at 265 lbs compared to Oleg’s 205 lbs. Abbott also boasted a bench-pressing career best of 625 lbs and was classified as a “pitfighter”. Pitfighting is illegally-organized street fighting between two contenders who back themselves, usually with an entry fee of $500 each, where the winner takes all. In Tank’s first bout, he KO’d John Matua in 21 seconds. His second bout stretched out to 1.51 over Paul Varelans, after the referee stopped the fight. The championship fight between Oleg and Abbott was another story. Some critics regard this battle as one of the greatest fights ever, with Oleg choking out Abbott seventeen minutes into the bout. “Willpower is most important to me. In my case, I’m not the biggest, or the strongest fighter, but I won my best fights because of willpower.” says Taktarov.
Unfortunately I can’t find a good HL reel of Oleg Taktarov — which is too bad since he pulled a couple of slick subs on Dave Beneteau and showed great heart in all his fights.

Tank wouldn’t return for UFC VII though and the Shamrock/Taktarov SuperFight was a bore, featuring more of the Shamrock LayNPray. Oleg showed a lot of heart but not much else. But an intriguing new fighter made his UFC debut: Marco Ruas.

Ruas sliced through the UFC VII tournament with no real difficulties, although the 6’8″ Paul Varelens proved a challenge:

Quick start as Varelans comes right at Ruas. Lots of punches and nice combos with leg kicks by Ruas. The clinch up against the fence and Ruas manages to block Varelans knees. He gets a little distance and bloodys Varelans’ nose with a right hand. More leg kicks, and welts are starting to form on the left (front) leg of Varelans, so much so that he switches stances for a bit.

Ruas shoots, but Varelans goes for a guillotine, and even picks Varelans up off the mat trying to cinch it in. He can’t do it though, and Ruas grabs the clinch this time. More foot stomps, and Varelans really doesn’t like them very much. Ruas tries to take his back, and finally does. He has his hands locked around the big man’s waist, and his offense at this point consists of more foot stomps, while Varelans just holds onto the fence to stay up. Not that exciting at this point, as they spend about five minutes in this position.

Big John restarts them eventually, and Ruas starts throwing nasty leg kicks again. By the ten minute mark, Varelans is limping noticeably. They clinch, but Ruas fights him off and lands another leg kick. Varelans finally starts trying to block those kicks, but he is a bit too slow and a lot too late. A HUGE leg kick drops the Polar Bear and Ruas pounces on him with rights and lefts to earn the stoppage victory and the UFC VII championship. Great overall performance by Ruas in victory, and Varelans showed a lot of skill and heart in defeat here.

Here’s a Marco Ruas HL clip

So it was an up and down year for the UFC. But fortunately for MMA fans, several other events emerged in the U.S. and globally that would prove just as significant for the history of MMA. Next: What else happened in 1995?

MMA History VIII: From Russia With Leglocks

So 1995 was a big year in MMA History. That should be obvious since I’ve already written four or five posts that touch on events of the year. We’ve covered Rickson’s return to Japan at Vale Tudo 1995, the surprise win of a striker over a BJJ star at a Brazilian Vale Tudo tournament, the improbable rise of Dutch kickboxer Bas Rutten through the ranks of the Pancrase promotion, and a tumultuous year for the UFC. But don’t think this post is an afterthought, this is the main course, covering some key moments in the evolution of MMA: the continuing growth of the Brazilian scene, the first major MMA events in Russia, and the launch of two American competitors to the UFC.

While BJJ hotshot Amaury Bitteti may have been KTFO by Mestre Hulk on New Year’s Day, another BJJ fighter, Jorge “Macaco” Patino roared through a series of smaller events. Macaco combined an aggressive wrestling technique to BJJ, ensuring that he would have top position to unleash a really devastating brand of Ground and Pound. Macaco reeled off five first round victories in 1995 and really looked unstoppable. Check one of his early fights in the extended entry.

Meanwhile in Russia, the International Absolute Fighting Council put on their first two events. I wish I still had my old VHS tapes so I could upload some of those classic fights. There were some gnarly brawls in the first event as Mikhail Ilioukhine, a sambo trained fighter with experience in the Japanese RINGS shoot wrestling promotion, ran through 5 fights to win the title — winning 4 by achilles lock. But none of the other fighters were really notable, although several gave Ilioukhine a tussle going down.

The second IAFC event in September was a different kettle of fish. Not only did Ilioukhine and the man he beat in the finals of the first IAFC event, Victor Yerohin, return, they were joined by a much tougher field — including tournament winner Ricardo Morais — a 6’8″ Renzo Gracie BJJ student — and a Ukrainian kickboxer named Igor Vovchanchyn who would go on to be an MMA legend. Igor crushed BJJ star Adilson Lima in an early round (see the extended entry for YouTube of that fight) — and for some reason the language barrier obscured, had to beat him up twice to advance. Igor also KO’d tough sambo fighter Mikhail Avetisyan who would go on to a storied MMA career. But than Igor lost in the semi-finals to a game Ilioukhine who capitalized on Igor’s lack of grappling experience and won with an improvised chin-in-eye submission. Here’s the fight, it’s a classic:


IAFC – 01 Mikhail Illoukhine vs Igor Vov

This fight doesn’t entirely convey the brutal atmosphere of the early Russian No-Holds Barred matches but whatcha want? Ilioukhine went on to get crushed by Morais, who never lived up to the potential he displayed in this first tournament. Funny how being a foot taller and 75 pounds heavier than most of your opponents makes you look like a bad ass.

It wasn’t just in the mother country where Russian fighters made a real impact in 1995. Not only did Oleg Taktarov win a UFC tournament that year, but another Russian fighter Igor Zinoviev broke the myth of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu invincibility. It was on an event called Battlecade: Extreme Fighting where Zinoviev, a sambo and judo trained fighter, found himself facing BJJ legend Mario Sperry in the middleweight finals — that’s right I said middleweight, EFC was the first MMA event to feature weight classes.

You’ll have to go to this weird site to see a few minutes of Igor’s amazing comeback victory over Sperry but it’s worth the click.
This Village Voice article about Igor Z. has a pretty good take :

In 1995, he opted to try his hand at the above-ground form of this fighting during the World Extreme Fighting championship in Madison Square Garden. But New York officials put a stop to the affair–mixed martial arts continues to be illegal in New York–and at the last minute the venue was switched to Wilmington, North Carolina. He faced a Brazilian jujitsu master named Mario Sperry in a caged, circular ring, a match-up in which Zinoviev was thought to be a huge underdog. For much of the battle the tenacious Sperry wrapped Zinoviev in a succession of grappling holds, in hopes of forcing the Russian to cry uncle. But Zinoviev jarred himself free and cut Sperry above the eye with a blow that drew blood, ending the fight.
“It was a great upset, one of the defining moments of the sport,” says Joel Gold, editor and publisher of Full Contact Fighter magazine. “Mario was the king from Brazil. He was this superstar. You know what made the victory greater? Here was a guy who didn’t speak much English and was quiet and intense–there was a mystery about him.”

Zinoviev successfully defended his title until 1998, when the extreme-fighting organization went under. “He always maintained his composure and was able to measure his opponents with deadly accuracy,” says Brett S. Atchley, a writer and photographer for Ultimate Athlete magazine. In March of the same year, Zinoviev challenged Frank Shamrock, the holder of the middleweight title of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, but lost the bout in 24 seconds to a fighter who’s regarded as one of the best in the history of the sport.

The Battlecade event was put together by matchmaker John Perretti and was the first event to be booked by a full-on MMA nerd. Not only did Igor Zinoviev take out Mario Sperry, but BJJ heavyweight Marcus “Conan” Silviera put on a show and John Lewis fought Carlson Gracie, Jr. to a draw. A great event.

The other major event to challenge the UFC in 1995 was a one-off, the World Combat Championship. It featured great production values and a young Renzo Gracie who rolled through the tournament. But the best fight by far was an ugly brawl between Mike Bitonio, a 190 lb grappler with balls of steel, against Bart Vale, a 250 lb karateka with a background in Japanese shootwrestling. Vale won but was too trashed to continue in the tournament. He’d been expected to face Renzo in the finals. Dig this:

Igor Vovchanchyn vs Adilson Lima

Jorge “Macaco” Patino rolls over the competition:

In the extended entry there o

are some excerpts from a great Sherdog interview with Yuki Nakai that gives his perspective on the fight and the state of Japanese MMA before and after it ran headfirst into Rickson. Plus some videos of Japanese proto-MMA.

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