In the days preceding Memorial Day weekend, the Ultimate Fighting Championship began to trickle out old videos on its YouTube channel. It’s not uncommon for the UFC to release years-old fights that tie into a given weekend’s events to drum up excitement, but these were unique. This batch reaches back decades and has basically no newsworthiness at all; instead, it provides a blemishes-and-all look at the start of the organization that's nearly synonymous with mixed martial arts. Dispensing with all the customary hype and posturing, it's a crash course in the product: the fights themselves.
The UFC says it's dropping these videos to supplement UFC 25 Years in Short, its 2018 release of 25 short-length documentaries. “In addition to UFC 25 Years in Short, we are releasing relevant content on YouTube, including previous fights that were exclusive to UFC Fight Pass,” UFC Senior VP Chris Kartzmark, of Production & Programming, told VICE. “These additional videos add context for fans hearing these stories for the first time.”
Context is helpful but ultimately unnecessary; even without the accompanying shorts, the fights are a time capsule to the sport’s early days, and hopping from the 90s to the 00s to the present provide fascinating visual proof of how both the sport and the athletes themselves have changed.
If you’re new to the sport, consider these five vintage fights a primer. While lacking the veneer and production value of the modern day, these snapshots show a sport in flux, heading toward a brighter future. They are the blocks upon which the UFC was built, even as they’re worthy of their own extended footnote.
UFC 1: The Beginning (UFC 1, 1993)
On November 12, 1993, in Denver, Colorado, the UFC held its inaugural event, and kind of like the first few pancakes always are, at times it was a little lumpy. The concept of tapping out was new, and sometimes referees missed it. The eight participants used no protective handgear (it would be another four years until the practice was mandated). Finer rules, which would prohibit stomping opponents in the head, groin shots, and hair pulling, were still years away. It felt like a free-for-all and only loosely regulated, but even then, its concept of pitting style against style was captivating. Royce Gracie, its eventual winner, showed that elegance could easily best brute strength, and his Brazilian jiu-jitsu (itself a modern adaptation of a heritage Japanese martial art) submitted fighters with greater striking power, bigger muscles, and more traditional backgrounds of boxing, wrestling, and classic martial arts. Gracie would be one of the first elected to the UFC’s Hall of Fame in 2003 , while his BJJ, as it’s abbreviated today, continues to dominate the sport and is a pillar of modern mixed martial arts.
Royce Gracie vs. Ken Shamrock (UFC 5, 1995)
Gracie proved with his UFC 1 title and subsequent wins in 2 and 4 (both in 1994) that even the biggest and strongest fighters were vulnerable when brought to the ground. His competitors—and the world—were racing to catch up, none more than Ken Shamrock, a U.S. fighting journeyman who had previously participated in early mixed martial arts matches in Japan and fought Gracie twice before, once ending in Shamrock's submission and once his withdrawal. Billed the “Superfight,” the pair’s stand-alone match headlined UFC 5. The match was tactically interesting but visually boring; after a 30-minute stalemate on the ground, event organizers scrambled to create new rules, adding a five-minute overtime period. In the end, judges concluded the match a draw; in actuality it represented a victory for Shamrock. Initially surprised by Gracie’s ground fighting, Shamrock—and the world—was learning, and the result demonstrated that the playing field was being leveled with each successive year.
Vitor Belfort vs. Scott Ferrozzo (and Joe Rogan with hair) (UFC 12, 1997)
Dothan, Alabama, is an unlikely place for many things, including the UFC, but also Joe Rogan. Rogan, who now gets high with Elon Musk, was two years into the NBC sitcom NewsRadio and had a full head of hair when he first debuted his color commentary and athlete interviews. Beyond this, however, the event also saw the debut of Vitor Belfort, who could arguably be viewed as the prototypical athlete of modern MMA. Built like a brick house but with lightning-fast movement, the 19-year-old's dominance over his opponents and win of the heavyweight tournament effectively ended the early era of Toughman-style softbody brawlers and lithe grappling specialists. The first truly well-rounded fighter would go on to win the future light heavyweight title.
Matt Hughes vs. Carlos Newton (UFC 34, 2001)
After years of small markets and smaller profits, the UFC was on the verge of folding when brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta and partner Dana White purchased the whole shebang for $2 million in 2001. They restructured, reorganized, and began to nurture future stars like Matt Hughes. The Illinoisan had the pedigree—a NCAA All-American wrestler who parlayed his on-mat skills to the octagon—but he still entered the ring with welterweight champ Carlos Newton as the underdog. Caught in a submission, Hughes lifted Newton over his head, slamming them both to the canvas and knocking Newton unconscious. It was a slam heard ‘round the world, making Hughes into an overnight legend. He would also forge a new path that other high school and collegiate wrestlers, long stymied by the archaic Olympics system, would follow.
Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz (UFC 47, 2004)
While Hughes and others would establish cult followings, it was Chuck Liddell who would take the organization to the next level in terms of superstar influence. Liddell’s upset of then-champ Tito Ortiz in Las Vegas launched the Californian as the first MMA crossover star. He would appear the cover of ESPN The Magazine, and his notoriety is such that his IMDB, which includes appearances on Entourage and The Simpsons, often credits him as portraying himself. Future stars like Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey arguably eclipsed his level of recognition, but Liddell was the first UFC superstar.