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BookPotato: Art Davie’s “Is This Legal” and the UFC’s Old School Age of Insanity

(Photo via Ascend Books)

By Matt Saccaro

My father was an avid martial arts enthusiast. I remember treading into the basement where he had set up a heavy bag, a speed bag, and free weights. There was also a television, and on that television was usually boxing…but sometimes there’d be mixed martial arts—specifically the UFC.

I knew about the UFC throughout most of my childhood, and sometimes I’d even watch the cards with my father. However, I didn’t start getting deep into the TapouT-clad rabbit hole until high school. When I first got my driver’s license, my friends and I headed to the mall. Our objective: Pick up as many old-school UFC DVDs as we could find. We bought one of each they had in stock (I think our first haul was UFCs 1, 3, and 8).

We decided to watch in order. We popped the DVD in, and hit play.

“Hello, I’m Bill Wallace and welcome to McNichols are-*BELCH*”

We died laughing. But Wallace’s infamous burp in the first 15 seconds of the broadcast wasn’t the only bizarre and insane thing to happen during the first UFC event. By the end of UFC 1, I asked myself “What lunacy was going on behind the scenes?” because clearly, things were chaotic behind the curtain.

It’s been a decade since then, and in that decade I’ve read several books that elucidated the circumstances around the UFC’s birth—Clyde Gentry’s No Holds Barred and Jonathan Snowden’s Total MMA being chief among them. These books, while fantastic, don’t offer the same level of insight into the primordial UFC scene than Is This Legal: The Inside Story of The First UFC From the Man Who Created It by UFC co-creator Art Davie.

To be honest, I was worried when I first heard about Is This Legal. I anticipated it’d be 200 or so pages of self-congratulatory drivel from an ad-man seeking to squeeze as juice much out of the “I helped create the UFC” lemon that he possibly could. I became more relieved as I read each page.

In Is This Legal, Art Davie doesn’t seek to promote himself (though he has his moments), but just to tell the story about what happened leading up to the very first UFC show—and not just the weeks ahead of time. We’re talking the story of UFC 1 decades before Gerard Gordeau kicked out Teila Tuli’s tooth. It all started with Art Davie’s boxing training and a chance encounter with a wrestler who put Davie on his ass with a double-leg. From there, discussions in the barracks (Davie was a marine) about style vs. style and mixed rules fighting piqued Davie’s interest. The topic stayed with him throughout his career in advertising. He tried to pitch a UFC-like show to a client, who denied it. While he was doing research for the pitch, he stumbled upon the name Rorion Gracie.

I’d say the rest is history but that’s the point of the book—Davie unveils instances that are not part of mainstream MMA history because nobody knew them besides himself and a few others.

The relationship between Davie and Gracie is one of the book’s more interesting dynamics. Their relationship only becomes more fascinating as Davie offers insights into Gracie family politics and other dark family secrets.

And then, of course, there’s the intricacies and crazy stories behind the actual UFC 1 event itself. We won’t list them all here, but there are some crazy ones. Did you know Art Jimmerson forgot to bring his boxing gloves and shoes? Art Davie had to send someone out to a sporting goods store a few hours before the PPV started. There was also a masquerade ball the day after the event where (almost) all the fighters showed up. Furthermore, a full-on fighter revolt nearly took place the day before the event. Not only that, but the contract between Davie and Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG) wasn’t made official until hours before the broadcast went live. Seriously, there’s some unbelievable stuff to read about in Is This Legal?

Aside from the humorous anecdotes, Is This Legal is most important because it’s a catalog of an era Zuffa would love for us to forget. Their version of UFC history doesn’t start until 2001. Davie’s book is a reminder that Zuffa didn’t invent MMA. It’s a reminder that the UFC’s original founders (or at least Davie) weren’t the bloodthirsty maniacs with a predilection towards mendacity Dana White and co. paint them out to be with their “OMG THERE WERE NO RULES AT ALL BEFORE WE BOUGHT THE UFC” bullshit. However, it’s worth noting that Davie did have a bit of a crazy streak. In the book, he admits that he wanted a fighting surface where the border was electrified to discourage timidity. He also wanted a cage surrounded by (fed) piranhas and (docile) sharks.

Davie teamed up with Bellator commentator Sean Wheelock to write the book. Their style is easily readable and funny.

One of my favorite excerpts from the book is where Davie is bashing Bill Wallace’s commentary. According to Davie, Wallace’s extreme conceitedness was equaled only by his ignorance about martial arts. In pre-fight meetings, Wallace scoffed at grappling and said grapplers wouldn’t be able to handle his kicks. Check it out:

I knew that there were some awkward moments and gaffes from my constant trips back to the production truck, but I had no idea as to what extent, until they played back some of the clips for me.

Wallace opened the PPV broadcast in a very matter-of-fact tone with the words “Hello ladies and gentlemen. You are about to see something that you have never seen before—The Ultimate Fighting Challenge. Hello, I’m Bill Wallace and welcome to McNichols Arena.”

At this point he belched into the microphone, which made “McNichols Arena” sound like “Mcniquoolz Oreeda.”

Wallace then continued with, “excuse me, McNichols Arena in fabulous Denver, Colorado. Along with me is Jim Brown, and I’d like to introduce you to what is called The Ultimate Fighting Challenge.”

In his opening lines, Wallace had sad the name of our event wrongtwiceand sounded like he almost threw up in his mouth live on air.

And that set the precedent for Wallace’s night.

He gave a wide array of pronunciationsall wrongfor Teila Tuli and Gerard Gordeau. He consistently mispronounced Jimmerson as “Jimm-AH-son,” and Rosier (correctly Roe-zher) as “Roe-ZEER.” Ignoring the Portuguese pronunciation of Royce, in which the R is said like the English H, as in “Hoyce,” he called him Royce with a hard Rlike Rolles Royce. He also referred to him as “Roy.”

Wallace didn’t fare much better with the names of his on-air colleagues, calling Rod Machado “Machacho,” Brian Kilmeade “Kilmore,” and Rich Goins “Ron” and “Rod.” Not once in the entire broadcast did he correctly refer to him as Rich.

Our tournament bracket was “the chart,” the instant replay was “the rematch,” our fighting area was “the octagonal octagon,” and our location in Denver was mentioned numerous times as being “a mile high up in the air,” as though we were floating around in that cloud city from The Empire Strikes Back.

And over the course of the broadcast, Wallace had these gems as well:

“Sumo is very formal, because it’s a very national sport of Japan.”

“You have a Kenpo stylist against basically a kickboxer that uses the boxing techniques along with the kicking techniques of Taekwondo of kicking.”

“Pain hurts.”

“It kind of discomboberates you.”

“I’m an old person, if you want to wrestle, we can wrestle.”

“Most fights do (end up on the ground) because you’re in a bar room and that bar’s kind of slippery with all that, with all that beer on the ground and all that glass down there and everything.”

“The mouth is the dirtiest part of the human body. You wouldn’t think so but it is.”

“Now you’re going to think how maybe those kicking techniques can set up some grappling techniques, or maybe create the opening that you need for the, what you might call the kaboomer.”

“Most boxers when they enter the ring, they’re nice and wet already.”

And, “it’s kind of ironic that Royce Gracie’s going to wear his judo top.”

Of course, it was not a “judo top” and there was nothing ironic about Royce wearing it.

That was one of my personal favorite bits of the book. Seemingly benign, I know, but part of what I like about Is This Legal is that it reminds us about the little things that we all miss as well as the big things we never got a chance to see.

Is This Legal is one of MMA literature’s more important works. If you’re a fan of MMA, you need to buy this book. You will learn A TON about the true genesis of the UFC (not Zuffa’s ridiculous version of events) while being thoroughly entertained thanks to Davie’s matter-of-fact attitude about life and quick wit.

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