20th Anniversary Card: UFC evolves from controversial curiosity to popular mainstream organization

In a meeting on the eve of the tournament that served as the first Ultimate Fighting Championship card, one of the fighters asked a question that few in the room seemed prepared to answer.

“Where are we allowed to bite?”

Campbell McLaren, one of the creators and producers of the spectacle that was billed as no-rules fighting, was taken aback. He had been producing comedy specials such as Andrew Dice Clay’s “No Apologies” for Semaphore Entertainment Group and knew controversy would sell, so he was excited about the idea of the UFC when it was pitched to SEG by Rorion Gracie and Art Davie.

McLaren was using catch-phrases including “No Rules” and “Banned in 49 states” to sell the show, but the reality of what was going to happen inside the cage was starting to set in.

Gracie then stood up and settled the issue.

“We were pulling the matchups out of a hat the night before when this guy asks that question,” McLaren said recently. “I was shocked. I didn’t think anybody was going to ask something like that. Then Rorion stands up and says, ‘Gentlemen, we are not animals. No biting.’ I was like, ‘That’s all you’re going to say?’ ”

Contrary to the marketing angle, there were a few loose rules for the eight fighters in the Nov. 12, 1993, event in Denver, but nothing like the guidelines that govern the modern-day UFC.

Georges St. Pierre, the welterweight champion who will defend the belt tonight against Johny Hendricks on the UFC’s 20th anniversary UFC 167 card at the MGM Grand, believes certain parts of those early events could make today’s organization better.

Most notably, St. Pierre believes the UFC should go back to having no rounds.

“I think by doing rounds, we’re breaking the momentum of the fight and making the fight different,” he said. “If you want to see two guys fighting each other and see who’s the best man, let them fight. Don’t stop the fight until it’s finished.”

St. Pierre didn’t watch that first event live on pay per view, but he saw it on VHS at a friend’s house three years later when he was 15. He says it changed his life to watch Royce Gracie, the brother of Rorion and a practitioner of the family’s trademark jiujitsu, submit three straight bigger opponents from different disciplines to win the inaugural event.

“I got bullied when I was in school by bigger and older (kids),” St. Pierre said. “The first UFC I saw, Royce was the smallest and least intimidating of the fighters but the smartest. The way he won the tournament really inspired me, and that’s why I’m here now. Right away, I got inspired. It just made sense to me. I became obsessed with doing this.”

That was precisely what Davie and the Gracies had in mind when they approached McLaren with the idea of a tournament pitting all of the fighting disciplines against each other. The Gracies wanted to show that jiujitsu was the most effective martial art, as they were looking to expand their schools and instructional videos.

McLaren didn’t see it.

“I was so naive. I thought the boxer was going to knock Royce’s head off,” McLaren said.

While he was clueless as to how it all would happen in the fight, ideas were running wild in his head about how it would look.

He was thinking of barbed wire around the fence, though he quickly disputes rumors that he wanted a moat. He credits John Milius, the “Conan the Barbarian” writer and director, for pitching the idea of an octagon similar to where Conan competed in the film.

The working concept for the early shows was based somewhat on a real-life version of “Mortal Kombat,” an immensely popular video game at the time. No idea was too crazy.

Concerned about sightlines, considering the event was being produced mostly for TV, McLaren wanted a cameraman in the cage.

That was until Rorion Gracie mentioned that one of the fighters might try to grab the camera and hit his opponent with it.

The outlaw days would last only so long before media and political backlash, led by Sen. John McCain, helped push the UFC into purgatory, banned from several states and pulled from pay per view by most cable operators.

So began the so-called dark ages, when the organization tried to stage shows at which it could sell videos of the events. That was the time the UFC was caught between trying to go legit while still hanging on to its roots. It didn’t work and probably was on the verge of extinction when Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta purchased the company on the recommendation of Dana White.

The further development of the rules and a great deal of money infused helped turn the UFC into what it is today.

“It’s unbelievable what it’s become,” McLaren said. “This is as if you gave up a child for adoption to a good family and the kid went on to be president.”

White said the founders will be celebrated tonight as part of the event.

“Those guys that started this thing often come off as the bad guys,” White said. “They’re not the bad guys. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be here today.”

For his part, Royce Gracie is excited to see how far the sport has come since he won that first event.

“Kids would grow up and say, ‘One day I want to be a basketball player. One day I want to be a football player or a soccer player,’ ” Gracie said. “Now they say, ‘One day, I want to be a UFC fighter.’ You know it’s mainstream now.”

Gracie made an appearance at a public workout and rolled with St. Pierre, much to the delight of the fans and the champion who once was inspired by Gracie to muster the strength to stand up to his bullies.

“What an incredible honor,” St. Pierre said with a smile. “It made my whole trip. Now I just have to focus on the fight.”

St. Pierre expects the fight to be the toughest of his almost six-year run as champion. But at least he shouldn’t have to worry about Hendricks biting him.

Contact reporter Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5509. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhilllvrj.