Early Pioneers of UFC: Royce Gracie, Ken Shamrock, Art Davie
Royce Gracie was the first real superstar in mixed martial arts, though it can be argued that most of it may have come by accident. In planning for the maiden voyage of the UFC, Rorion Gracie had chosen his younger brother Rickson to compete and hold up the family name. But Rickson fell out due to personal differences, leaving Rorion to turn to another younger brother, Royce. All of the Gracies were expert practitioners of the family’s creation – Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu – and some would say the event was designed to favor that particular style.
Royce defeated Art Jimmerson, Ken Shamrock and Gerard Gordeau to win the first UFC championship, then repeated as champion in the next UFC event. He also won the title at UFC 4. His proficiency in this new format of fighting made him appear invincible, and this aura fueled interest in his showdown with Shamrock in UFC 5, which resulted in a 36-minute draw. Thus, the legendary rivalry between two MMA legends had concluded.
Gracie was probably one of the great ambassadors for martial arts; indeed, many dojos eventually incorporated Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as part of their curriculum, largely on the strength of his accomplishments. That feeds the tributary of the sport, gaining it more fans and more patrons, such is the ripple effect. Royce was still fighting into his 40’s, and though not as successful as he once was, he has always exhibited the heart of a champion.
Though Royce Gracie may have been the first great champion of the UFC, there has not been any other MMA figure who has inspired a more rabid following for a more sustained period than Ken Shamrock. A one-time pro wrestler and toughman competitor, Shamrock became one of the early stars of the style that later came to be known as “mixed martial arts.” Enormously popular in Japan in the early ’90s, Shamrock won the first “King of Pancrase” tournament, then lent a considerable amount of credibility to the first UFC card in Denver. His bout with Royce Gracie in that event, though a losing effort, was nonetheless a thriller.
He hooked up with Gracie again in April 1995 at UFC 5; the two battled to a 36-minute draw that was the first blemish on Gracie’s record. Shamrock later won UFC “superfights” against Dan Severn and Kimo Leopoldo and beat Brian Johnston at Ultimate Ultimate ’96. His trio of fights with Tito Ortiz was very memorable, providing some of the UFC’s largest television audiences ever. Shamrock also served as coach of the Nevada Lions in the initial season of International Fight League action.
A great headline performer who is recognized throughout the globe, Shamrock’s contributions go well beyond his accomplishments in actual competition. His “Lion’s Den” training center has produced one MMA standout after another, and its reputation is so well-established that it is likely to continue its influence over the art well into the future, thus further cementing Ken Shamrock as one of the truly important figures the MMA world has seen.
Back in 1992, advertising executive Art Davie, looking for some promotional vehicles for a client, happened upon an idea inspired by an article in Playboy magazine that had been written about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu instructor Rorion Gracie. After meeting with Gracie, Davie conceived an event where competitors using different styles of fighting and the martial arts would vie against each other to determine which of the styles was supreme. Davie originally called it “War of the Worlds” but later changed the name to the “Ultimate Fighting Championship.”
Davie created the general format of the event, virtually without any road map to go by. He overcame a series of obstacles in getting the UFC off the ground, even some resistance from within the martial arts community itself. He believed in his concept when others – especially those with broadcast and cable networks – did not. He put together a partnership between himself, Rorion Gracie and Bob Meyrowitz of Semiphore Entertainment Group that brought the UFC through its formative stages.
Davie involved himself with nearly every aspect of the UFC’s operation, even recruiting fighters into the inaugural event. he is responsible for finding Pancrase fighter Ken Shamrock and bringing him into the fold. Davie’s enthusiastic approach laid the groundwork for mixed martial arts to become first a successful “cult” event, then a sports accepted by a much wider audience. In the process he drew up a blueprint for all other MMA promoters to follow.
It took guts and imagination to undertake a new sport from scratch. Art Davie walked the tightrope without a net, and survived to tell about it. He is the most important pioneer builder in the sport’s history.