UFC’s 20th anniversary a good time for reflection, but beware the nostalgia trap


UFC 1: The BeginningIt was 20 years ago today that the UFC held its first event, which makes this a time ripe for nostalgia in the MMA community.

It’s a time for us to dig out those old VHS tapes of early UFC events, then remember that we don’t even know anyone with a machine that can play them, then head on over to YouTube to search for grainy clips that will remind us not only how far MMA has come, but also how much simple TV graphics have improved since the early 1990s.

Maybe it’s also a time for us to remember that those early days weren’t as glorious as we sometimes make them out to be in our memories. But then, when is that not the case?

I know everyone loves to talk about where they were and what they thought when they saw UFC 1, but I suspect a lot of us didn’t actually watch it. Not when it happened, anyway. I know I didn’t.

For one thing, I was 14 years old, so buying something on pay-per-view wasn’t so much a decision I made as a doomed suggestion I offered, one swiftly brushed aside by my father, a longtime boxing fan who felt there was no way anyone in America was truly going to air some one-night, bare-knuckle brawl on live TV. Not really.

Maybe it would be fixed. Maybe it wouldn’t happen at all. Maybe it would happen in some sense, but be nothing near what was advertised. The idea, after all, sounded pretty implausible.

It wasn’t until a couple years later that I rented some UFC events (on VHS, of course) and saw a skinny dude in pajamas owning everybody. I won’t claim the fights were always all that fun to watch, or that I even understood what was happening in many of them. I certainly won’t say that I became a fan of the sport right then, mostly because it didn’t seem like there was much of a sport to become a fan of. It was more like an old argument being settled.

Who would win if you took a karate guy and a boxer and a sumo wrestler and anyone else crazy enough to say yes and you threw them in a cage together? Turns out it’s the Brazilian jiu-jitsu guy, which I didn’t even know was a thing until I saw it in the UFC. But OK, good to know. Argument settled. So where can I learn what that skinny dude in the pajamas already knows?

It wasn’t until years later, when I was in college and had actually begun learning Brazilian jiu-jitsu, that I looked up and realized this UFC stuff was still going on. Not only that, it had changed. Then it kept changing, until it gradually became the sport that would trump all other sports for me and many of my friends.

Still, that didn’t happen for years, and not until it had morphed into something very different from the thing it started as.

We forget that sometimes. We tell ourselves stories – or, more commonly, the people making money off of it tell those stories to us – and we believe them. We recall those early UFCs as something pure and wonderful rather than the ugly and amateurishly brutal affairs they often were. We buy this idea that Brazilian jiu-jitsu won out solely as an accident of martial arts Darwinism and forget that it was the pajama dude’s family who helped set the whole thing up in the first place.

Even now we get one version of the history – the Zuffa version, at times heavily revised and self-serving – and we let it dominate the conversation. We should be wary of that. Just because fighters such as Frank Shamrock or Randy Couture don’t get mentioned in the UFC’s documentary about itself, that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist, or that they didn’t matter.

As we head into Saturday’s UFC 167 event, which will no doubt come with plenty of UFC-branded nostalgia, that’s worth remembering. This sport is a result of all of the stuff that happened – the good and the bad, the highlights and the low, the skinny dude in pajamas and the fat dude who got his teeth knocked out. It’s not just the stuff that makes for the best story, or just the stuff we feel like remembering when we get together to talk about our hazy remembrances of a time that never was.

For more on UFC 167, stay tuned to the UFC Rumors section of the site.

(Pictured: Royce Gracie at UFC 1)

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