Eighteen years ago, a slender Brazilian wearing white gi tied off with a black belt introduced himself, his family and his sport to the world.
Not many people watched on Nov. 12, 1993, as Royce Gracie won three times in a matter of hours to capture the Ultimate Fighting Championship's first tournament, but those that did likely chose to do so again. Soon enough, Gracie was the most important name in martial arts and UFC was its hottest commodity.
Inside the cage, Gracie's success dictated that either you learned to fight on the floor, or you simply couldn't fight at all. That hasn't changed. Outside the cage, a growing audience was amazed by the way he could handle himself against brutes. With the advent of weight classes, at least that part of the experience happens to be a relic.
The sport's original, brutal form helped popularize and demonize the UFC. Just four years into it, David "Tank" Abbott, perceived at the time to be the organization's roughest customer, was featured on a smash network sitcom. The fights. The money. The violence. The budding pop culture relevance. All of it led to a place of attention, scrutiny and misunderstanding. Mixed martial arts soon fell on hard times. Sitcom writers stopped adding cameos for cage fighters. And as a fan, you were considered fortunate to own a big-dish satellite. Without one, good luck finding a television broadcast to watch.
Living in a small corner of Brazil, Junior dos Santos was 9 years old when Gracie first schooled tough guys in the art of tapping out. Who could have imagined that two decades later, he'd win the UFC heavyweight title with 60 million of his countrymen watching back home, and many millions more tuning in around the globe to watch him dethrone Cain Velasquez.
But that's exactly what happened Saturday when a voting-aged UFC hit the mainstream.
For as much as things have changed, and never was that displayed more prominently than Saturday's spectacle on Fox, there's an element to MMA that will remain true for as long as these fights are allowed to continue. The community that exists around MMA willingly operates with a small-time mindset. It’s based around insecurity, really. The notion that a 64-second knockout is somehow bad reeks of a mentality that for so long permeated thinking among this sport’s inner circles. It’s the kind of thought process that prompted workers to step in the Octagon and spray paint over bloodstains prior to the start of the network broadcast on Saturday. It’s this idea that while nothing will satisfy the detractors, every effort must be made to try. That the innumerable reasons so many people love the sport aren’t good enough for those who don’t yet. It’s in the unwanted residue of an apology that comes when a kid like Dustin Poirier feels as if needing a round and a half to finish Pablo Garza with a slick D’Arce choke -- something that only recently came into fighters’ collective conscious -- isn’t up to par.
Forget for a moment about pleasing others, about tweaking and cajoling to make something that needs neither more “fan friendly.” MMA arrived on this stage 18 years after its birth for one reason. The product is appealing. To a large segment of people, it’s hard not to watch after they’ve been exposed.
That’s great, worthy of embracing. Instead, people find themselves crazed and questioning whether or not a 64-second knockout during a bout featuring two extremely talented, young heavyweights is bad for the sport. Bad for the sport! You know what’s bad for the sport? Acting as if MMA is something it’s not. Acting like airing only one fight on network television is somehow a travesty. The hurdles and traps and moats that slowed MMA from meeting its widest possible audience, they don’t matter anymore. Truth be told, they haven’t mattered for a long time. They stopped nothing. It’s been this way for nearly 20 years.
I mention all of this because for perspective sake, they’re worth remembering.
It’s fun recounting the lean years of the cable television ban. Even better, the disastrous -- so it was labeled at the time -- return to TV when pay-per-view ran long and Tito Ortiz’s bout at UFC 33 against Vladimir Matyushenko was cut off about halfway through.
Through the ups and downs, there was one constant: pressing forward. That is the direction this sport has headed, even in the darkest of times. Why? Because it engendered passion and emotion. MMA is the definition of an outsider, probably always will be, even as it’s allowed to touch mainstream for the first time.
The question Gracie and his family set out to answer in 1993 -- Which style is most effective for winning fights? -- helped spur a revolution in combat sports. That's how dos Santos, who never wrestled a day in his life before trying his hand at mixed martial arts, can stand his ground against a collegiate All-American like Velasquez. Gracie didn't do it like that, but his impact influenced MMA to move from a game of attrition to one of adaptation, and, finally, acceptance.
The latter stage happens to be where the sport exists today. There is an increasing acceptance about MMA. It’s covered by major media outlets and compared to other blue chip sports. It’s here to stay, even if people remain confused about what it is and why it’s reached this measure of popularity. Either they’ll come around or they won’t. Regardless, it’s time to accept MMA for the grown-up sport it is. These things can happen fast, you know. In this case, right before our eyes.
Mixed martial arts.
Take it or leave it.