When Joe Rogan declared the beginning of “the Machida Era” at UFC 98, the Dragon became just the latest in a string of dominant fighters who have defined MMA and its development with their unique styles. In this sport, there always seems to be one or two guys who are way ahead of the pack, just waiting for everybody else to catch up. So we decided to go back and recreate MMA’s historical timeline by “era” — starting with you know who…
The Royce Gracie Era: November ‘93 – April ‘95
If the first UFC events were “infomercials for Gracie Jiu Jitsu,” then Royce Gracie was the mothafuckin’ Slap Chop. Among all the dojo theorists and tough guys of dubious origin in the brackets at UFC 1-4, Royce was the only one who knew how to finish a fight in the real world, thanks to the grappling system his family had been honing for decades. And when martial arts enthusiasts saw the nondescript gi-clad fighter control opponents from his back and submit them with an arsenal of choke-holds and arm-locks, it was love at first sight.
Famously, the 170-pounder was chosen over his older, larger, and more intimidating-looking brother Rickson to represent the Gracie family in the UFC because Royce’s success would prove that a smaller man could beat larger ones through proper technique. Though Royce would take a five-year break from competition after his tedious 36-minute draw against Ken Shamrock at UFC 5, he’d fulfilled his objective by then: America had learned the Gracie name, and the BJJ phenomenon had officially begun.
The Dan Severn Era: April ‘95 – May ‘96
Standing 6’2”, weighing a stout 250 pounds, and sporting a ferocious mustache, Dan Severn was the UFC’s original big scary wrestler — the forefather of all the Brock Lesnars and Ryan Baders of the world. Though his first attempt to win a UFC tournament got derailed by a Royce Gracie triangle choke at UFC 4, the two-time All-American wrestler returned four months later to sweep the eight-man bracket at UFC 5. Severn went on to win the Ultimate Ultimate 1995 tourney, avenged an earlier loss to Ken Shamrock at UFC 9, and fought 100 more times after that. (Seriously, the guy just picked up his 88th career win last month.)
The Beast proved that you didn’t need to be a jiu-jitsu master to own people on the ground. His gameplan was simple but effective: 1) Take your opponent down. 2) Wrap your arm around his neck. 3) Get your hand raised by Big John. Strikers were immediately taken out of their element, and other grapplers were simply unable to deal with his size and power. Finally, America had its own Ultimate Fighting hero. But a new breed of wrestler would dethrone him before long…
Just like Dan Severn, Coleman and Kerr were highly decorated amateur wrestlers. But when they entered no-holds-barred competitions, they realized that getting on top of an opponent and punching (or head-butting) him into unconsciousness was often a lot more effective than struggling for a neck crank or keylock. The two Marks — whose friendship is chronicled in the essential 2002 documentary The Smashing Machine — were the true Godfathers of Ground and Pound.
Coleman came on the scene first, sweeping an eight-man bracket at UFC 10 that included Gary Goodridge and Don Frye, then another eight-man field at UFC 11, and finished his UFC blitzkrieg by submitting former top-dog Dan Severn at UFC 12, becoming the UFC’s first official heavyweight champion. Kerr took the baton from Coleman by smashing his way through the heavyweight tournaments at UFC 14 and 15 — where his average fight time was 1:18 — then moving to PRIDE where he went 5-0 with one no-contest in his first six fights. In the end, the only thing that could stop The Specimen was himself.
The Frank Shamrock Era: November ‘97 – September ‘99
Frank Shamrock was the first modern mixed martial artist. After learning submission grappling from his adopted brother Ken and spending two years competing in Pancrase, Frank developed his wrestling and striking to the point where he could be dangerous in all positions, at all times. He was a tremendous athlete who knew how to wield his body as a weapon, and a master strategist with a savant-like understanding of combat styles. The man could do it all.
The UFC brought Shamrock on in late 1997 following his legendary battle with Enson Inoue, and he needed just 16 seconds to catch Kevin Jackson in an armbar at Ultimate Japan and become the UFC’s first light-heavyweight champion. He would defend his title four more times — against Igor Zinoviev, Jeremy Horn, John Lober, and Tito Ortiz — before retiring from the Octagon, undefeated. And even to this day, “the Legend” still knows how to put on a show.
In the next installment: The Gracie Hunter, the Huntington Beach Bad Boy, the Axe Murderer, the Iceman, and the Country Breakfast.