It was early November 2015 that Bellator MMA announced the in-cage return of mixed martial arts pioneer Royce Gracie. His return to competition, set for this Friday at Bellator 149, will reignite his two-decade rivalry with another pioneer of the sport Ken Shamrock. The announcement was made by WWE legend Kurt Angle, in what was, fittingly, a heavily pro wrestling-influenced segment. Eyes slowly rolled in the media and fans rhetorically asked what year it was. Well, rhetorical or not, the answer is it’s the year 2016, and this fight is truly an eye-opening reminder of the short history of our sport.
It’s been 23 years. That’s how long the sport has been around. That’s it. And before you say it: I know that variations of the sport have been around for longer than that. There was early Vale Tudo in 1920’s with ‘The Gracie Challenge’, and we had Shooto along with Pancrase promoted in Japan in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. However, in North America it was the birth of the Ultimate Fighting Championships in 1993 that we look at as the debut of the sport.
You might claim that it’s somewhat erroneous to claim that the arrival of the UFC with its UFC 1 pay-per-view was the birth of the sport that we love today; and that’s not something I would entirely dismiss, because back in 1993 it was more spectacle than sport.
There were “no rules”, or so we thought; right up until Gerard Gordeau kicked Teila Tuli’s teeth into the front row and the fight was stopped by the referee – something the referees were not actually permitted to do. It wasn’t until years later that we would see a sport recognisable to what we see today. Furthermore, if you look at what was happening in Japan at the time, and even before then, you might say that’s more comparable to the UFC in its current iteration than the early days of UFC itself.
However, it was this show, the very first UFC show, that put MMA, known then as NHB (No-holds-barred), on the map. It was also where Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock first met — November 12, 1993.
Let that sink in for a moment. This sport, which has grown into a billion dollar industry, debuted in late 1993. And two of the top stars from that show which started it all are the two men headlining the Bellator 149 card this Friday evening in 2016.
It’s not their age that makes it strange, although that’s certainly not a positive. We have seen old fighters compete, even older ones than Royce Gracie, 49, and Ken Shamrock, 52. It’s the fact that these represent the first era of MMA. If you don’t think that’s just a tiny bit mind-boggling, let’s compare and contrast this with the other established sports which we consume. Shall we?
I’m talking boxing, American football, and soccer. Just like mixed martial arts, perhaps even more-so, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact time that these sports were established, but we are going to try by finding the sporting-counterpart to a Royce Gracie or a Ken Shamrock.
In boxing we had John L. Sullivan who was born on October 12th, 1858. Known as the “Boston Strong Boy”, he is recognized as the first Heavyweight Champion of gloved boxing and is recognized, by most, as the last Heavyweight Champion of bare-knuckle boxing under the London Prize Ring Rules. He died on February 2nd, 1918 at the age of 60. He would have had to live another 75 years to witness Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock at UFC 1.
In American football, William “Pudge” Heffelfinger is our man. Born in the good auld year of 1867, he was a player and later a coach. He is widely recognized as the first man to play American football professionally, having been paid to play in 1892 by Allegheny. That’s 101 years since Royce Gracie was crowned the UFC 1 tournament winner.
Finally, in soccer, (or football as it really should be called), I had to dig deep, but found a Mr. John Goodall. He was born on the 19th June, 1863. He led the way as the top goal scorer for Preston North End in the inaugural season of the English Football League – the oldest soccer league in the world. Reason enough to be declared as soccer’s Royce Gracie in my humble opinion. That was the 1885 – 1886 season. That’s 107 years until the debut of the UFC.
Perspective is a funny thing. I mean we all know that this sport is still an infant, but it’s the moments like Gracie vs. Shamrock that illustrates just how young it really is. Well it’s that plus the realisation that if John Goodall (soccer’s Royce Gracie) could play his sport on February 19th, 2016 he would be 152 years old.
Maybe 49 isn’t that old.