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Changing the shape of fighting

In the 1980 film "The Octagon," Chuck Norris appears as a retired kickboxer forced to infiltrate a terrorist training camp. The terrorists aren't particularly fierce and the film not particularly memorable, but for Jason Cusson, an art director charged with constructing a fighting surface for an upcoming pay-per-view event, it was his only frame of reference for the martial arts world.

"It was just the name of it," Cusson said. "I don't even remember if there was an actual octagon in the movie." (There were two: a building Norris fights his way through during the climax and a small, sand-covered area surrounded by wooden posts to contain sparring matches.) "I had no martial arts background. The reason there's an Octagon is because of Chuck Norris."

Weeks after Cusson built the Octagon, eight fighters proceeded to bleed profusely inside of it on live television, igniting what would briefly become a cultural sensation before being politically snuffed out and later resurrected by public demand.

Through nearly 20 years of evolution and a revolving door of fighters, styles and rules, the only constant for the Ultimate Fighting Championship has been its eight-sided chain-link enclosure, virtually unchanged since it first appeared in Denver on Nov. 12, 1993 -- the mixed martial arts version of a baseball diamond.

While Cusson credits Norris for that inspiration, not everyone credits Cusson. He was handed the job by proxy, through associate and production designer Greg Harrison. And Harrison's recollection of events is substantially different. The Octagon was conceived solely by him, he asserts, and owes its existence to the need for a safe, contained fighting arena that would favor no one style while simultaneously working for a television production.

"I'm not a Chuck Norris fan," Harrison said.

One requirement: A change of scenery from the norm

Rorion Gracie, who witnessed his father test the family art of jiu-jitsu in challenge matches countless times in Brazil, arrived in America in the late 1970s as a martial arts missionary: slugging it out like John Wayne was impractical compared to cutting off a carotid artery. By the early 1990s, he had a flourishing school and a potential associate in Art Davie, an ad man who cooked up a fight tape mail-order business and ultimately partnered with Gracie to bring anything-goes bouts to U.S. audiences. After being laughed out of HBO's offices, the two solicited their idea of a fighting tournament to Semaphore Entertainment Group, a pay-per-view content provider that trafficked in rock concerts. Davie raised $250,000 through investors, and SEG, though they had only a dim idea of what the two were up to, offered to distribute. No one had any real sense of what was to follow: missing teeth, gushing blood and newspaper editorials about the decline of Western civilization.

What Gracie did know for certain is that he didn't want his event in a boxing ring. He had seen the fights in Brazil and knew the ropes wouldn't contain fighters grappling for position. That was fine with SEG producer Michael Pillot. Boxing was boxing. This was something new and different, and it required a change of scenery.

"From the moment it appeared on television, it couldn't look like what we were preconditioned to assume was just another fight," Pillot said. "Boxing was in its heyday. We needed the viewer to look at this in a completely different way."

Prior to SEG's involvement, Davie had consulted with Gracie student John Milius, who had agreed to lend his name -- made famous from directing films like "Conan the Barbarian" and "Red Dawn" -- to the project. His ideas for production had only a brief shelf life: a moat with alligators, electrified fencing, men in togas. Davie, meanwhile, thought of netting that could be lowered from the ceiling. But if the pulley got stuck, there wouldn't be a show.

For much of 1993, fliers were circulated to gyms and magazines that claimed fighters would compete in a "pit designed by famed film director John Milius," echoing the sunken death trap seen in "Conan." Someone mentioned Plexiglas, and someone else thought about how blood would look smeared across it. None of these ideas fit Pillot's need for something that could be covered by a camera crew.

"In the end," Pillot said, "it was a television production."

In the fall of 1993, only weeks prior to the event, Pillot reached out to Harrison. Because of Pillot's background in the music business, the two had worked together producing videos for Will Smith and Cyndi Lauper. The Smith video had landed Harrison an MTV Video Music Award nomination. Pillot trusted Harrison's design sense.

"The basic problem I encountered was getting something that would work for both mixed fighting and live TV production," Harrison said. "It needed to contain these fighters as well as provide protection for the camera operators. He told me it was going to be all these different types of athletes, including a Sumo wrestler. So I came up with about a half-dozen different designs."

Harrison thought of a raised platform accentuated by barbed wire and foam rocks, a roped ring surrounded by fencing, and a circular track where fighters could apparently tumble out of bounds and risk a broken neck. None of them appeared to stir SEG's interest.

"The last one I came up with was an eight-sided ring," Harrison said. "It had a chain-link fence around the sides, but only chest high, and padded rails that we had manufactured. It also had an outer platform that went around the outside for the camera operators."

Harrison showed Pillot his sketches, and Pillot picked out the octagon-shaped cage. Or, to hear Pillot tell it, he was the one to suggest the shape. "I said, 'We need an octagon,'" Pillot recalled. "That happened in a meeting with Rorion and Art. I felt like you should go from four sides, like in boxing, to eight."

Davie has no recollection of this conversation. Pillot, Harrison said, "didn't come up with the idea of an eight-sided octagon-shaped fighting surface and didn't provide any input to my Octagon design or any of my other UFC designs. He never provided any input to any of my set designs. He was a producer."

Harrison is equally adamant that Cusson had no voice during the design process. "I do my design work independently," he said. But Cusson insists he broached the subject of an octagon with an overworked Harrison, who was tackling multiple projects at the time.

"We were working together," Cusson said. "He told me he was busy, so we brainstormed. I said, 'How about an octagon? There was this martial arts movie ...' It was that easy. Greg was the point man on the project, but the actual design of the thing came from me."

Harrison rejects the notion he was too busy; the SEG assignment was his priority.

"It's interesting that all of the people claiming to have conceived the Octagon aren't designers, yet somehow they all came up with the Octagon design," Harrison said. "I just wanted to come up with a shape -- which to me is one of the most important parts of the design process -- that would be unique for a new type of event. That seemed to me to be one that was buildable and would also be unique and not a boxing ring."

However the eight-sided design had been struck, it met SEG's approval. Harrison went through a few iterations with Pillot -- an octagonal surface surrounded by a cage and ropes and another with a raised platform. Flexible netting gave way to fencing; a surface 40 feet in diameter gave way to 30.

When the design was finalized, it was passed it along to Cusson, who had fabricated many of Harrison's set designs for music videos. He accomplished construction in under two weeks using a mixture of two-by-four wooden planks for structural support, three-quarters inch plywood for the surface, vinyl chain-link fencing for containment and two inches of carpet padding that would later be a source of frustration for strikers looking to find their footing.

"We had a big build space in a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles," Cusson said. "We built it and took it apart and had everything labeled so we knew which parts went where when we put it back together."

The canvas was white. A freelance artist drew Ultiman, the muscled mascot in the center of the cage, from Harrison's design. (Ultiman would become such a blood-splattered biohazard during the show that he would have to be repainted for UFC II the following year.) The cage was reassembled over a half-day in Denver, where both Harrison and Cusson hoped it would stand up to the scrutiny of Pillot, SEG and a 400-pound sumo wrestler.

Debating the source of inspiration

It would be easy enough to limit the possibilities of Octagon authorship to Harrison and Cusson, two men who worked closely together and who most agree were jointly responsible for creating a practical solution for SEG's many problems. But that would ignore the story of Greg Patschull, an enterprising martial artist who built an eight-sided cage fighting area a good seven months before Pillot ever phoned Harrison.

Patschull's event, which he dubbed "Cage of Rage," was held in February 1993 at the University of California Irvine. According to Patschull, it was originally intended to be a no-holds-barred event in the spirit of Japan's free-fighting Shooto series before he realized the athletic commission would have him shut down.

Instead, he put on a hybrid martial arts and professional wrestling exhibition with lots of flashy moves but no concussions. As reported in the Feb. 19, 1993, edition of the San Pedro News Pilot, the bouts took place in an eight-sided cage with chain-link fencing.

"The reason was so no one could get pinned in a corner," said Patschull, who often goes by the nickname "Kazja." "That's why I went with an octagon. My investors said, why not use a boxing ring? I said no, a person would fall out or hurt someone in the audience. That's the reason I went with the fencing."

Using a chain-link fence for exhibitions was nothing unusual; professional wrestling had been trapping grapplers in cages for years. But Patschull's geometry was something new. Months later, he caught wind of the UFC and its Octagon. He also remembered that Davie had been in attendance at his show nine months prior, a fact Davie freely admits.

"I was interested to see if anyone had figured out how to stage a no-holds-barred event in California," Davie said. "I brought Royce Gracie with me. When Royce saw it was a 'work' and not a 'shoot,' he got bored quickly and we left within 20 minutes. To this day, I don't remember what Kazja's ring looked like."

"Their first flyer went out, and it said they were going to do it in a wooden pit," said Patschull, referring to the Milius plug in the UFC's early advertising. "Then all of a sudden they're using an octagon. They're going to try and claim they created it. They saw my show."

Davie's presence convinced Patschull that SEG had co-opted his design. For much of the 1990s, he would use octagon-shaped cages and mats in regional events while flaunting his self-styled "Octagon Originator" label in magazine ads. Later ventures like Octagon Nation, a line of apparel, would net him cease-and-desist letters from current UFC owner Zuffa, though he has yet to be dragged into litigation. He remains adamant that he should be credited with the cage design and often circulates his disdain for the legal notices online.

"I'm waiting for them to take me to court," Patschull said. "If they take me, I just have to walk in with my documentation. If I take them to court, I have to hire an attorney and we have to go through the whole process. I can't afford that."

But according to Connecticut-based patent attorney Richard Twilley, Patschull's window of opportunity has closed. He had only one year to file for a patent after he unveiled the cage in Irvine.

"If you use something in public for more than a year, or if something is more than a year old and you don't file patent protection for it, it's gone," Twilley said. "And that doesn't even broach the subject of the statute of limitations. Depending on the state, he should've sued by '96 or '99. If his focus is on the eight-sided shape of the ring, that ship has sailed."

SEG, meanwhile, received a trademark in September 1997 for an "octagon-shaped fighting surface," a protection that Zuffa inherited. "They filed for trademark incontestability as well," added Twilley, which he said insulates against virtually all challenges against ownership of the mark.

"If they ever went to a lawsuit and it was this guy versus UFC, I would take my mortgage and I would bet on the UFC," Twilley said. "I can't come up with a single legal theory in which he'd have even a puncher's chance of prevailing."

Patschull did eventually cross paths with the UFC in 1995 when he acted as manager for John Matua, the Hawaiian fighter who was knocked out by David "Tank" Abbott in a preliminary bout. According to Davie, Patschull never once brought up any concerns over intellectual property theft. Asked why, Patschull declined to comment.

"All I need to say is what I created in 1993," Patschull said. "I created it for the sport."

'Success has a thousand fathers'

Neither Cusson nor Harrison had any knowledge of Patschull or his show when they began work in late 1993. And despite early reports that Milius had been responsible for the Octagon, neither man had met him either.

No one -- Pillot, Davie or Gracie -- supports the idea of Milius contributing to the cage design. He was a student of Rorion's (his son would later marry Rorion's daughter) and his name lent some credibility to an otherwise brazen event, but Milius' ideas of alligators and fighters being led to the ring in chariots held little footing in the real world.

Health issues have made Milius unavailable for comment. Leonard Brady, a close friend of the director, says he's prepared to swear "under perjury" that it was Milius who came up with the design.

"John was always a fan of pro wrestling," Brady said. "He loved the theatrics. He came up with that key idea. He told Rorion, 'No, make it an octagon, a chain-link fence. Make it Roman.'"

Gracie doesn't recall any such conversation, while Brady admits he heard only Milius' end of the conversation when the two spoke via telephone.

"I think all those things with Art and John Milius were discussed to create some sort of interest in dojos and gyms for the event," Pillot said. "But it was never really what was going to be presented on television."

If the majority of those involved rule against Milius, then only Cusson and Harrison remain to take credit -- if not trademark -- for a structure neither has thought too much about in the ensuing years. Both express surprise at the other claiming the eight-sided design. Harrison insists Cusson wasn't brought on board until the Octagon was a fully formed idea, ready to be built; Cusson says the strange specificity of the Norris story should be enough to prove he's remembering correctly.

"It's not genius," Cusson said. "I wish it was a better story. But it came from me, not Greg. Success has a thousand fathers. Failure's an orphan."

Of the many development sketches submitted to SEG that fall, however, only Harrison's signature appears. And despite Cusson saying Harrison was "too busy" for the job, Harrison is credited as the production designer for the show.

"No one but Greg should take credit for this design," said Pillot.

Cusson would stay on as caretaker for the cage, setting it up and knocking it down for the next several years before moving on to general contracting work in Massachusetts. (He used pieces of a promotional, small-scale Octagon as part of his Halloween decorations before they crumbled.) Harrison went to three shows before going on to other production jobs.

Whether the inspiration was Pillot, Norris, Milius or some intangible, the Octagon is thematically perfect. Its many sides reflect the many styles involved in mixed martial arts. It's so bizarrely and radically different from any other sporting arena that it's made the UFC instantly identifiable to anyone switching channels, just as Pillot had envisioned. Aside from a change in canvas color and raising the railing height to a full six feet -- and ignoring its sibling, a 25-foot cage intended for events in smaller venues -- it has remained virtually intact since the UFC's debut in November 1993.

That night, flooded with the relief that his construction had held a charging sumo wrestler without falling apart, Cusson and his crew loaded the disassembled pieces of the Octagon on to a pallet headed for the trash.

"We were of the opinion that no one was ever going to let us do this again," Cusson said.

It was Pillot who stopped them.

"You know," he said, "let's just store this. Let's see what happens."