Who would win a fight: Batman or Superman? Bruce Lee or Mike Tyson? These are the kind of hypothetical head-to-heads that trigger spirited debates on school buses and in taverns—and seldom get settled. But 20 years ago a trio of calculating entrepreneurs sought some actual answers. Could a taekwondo expert beat up a karate master? Could a wrestler best a professional boxer? Ad executive Art Davie, jujitsu crusader Rorion Gracie and concert promoter Bob Meyrowitz came up with the idea of pitting "eight of the deadliest fighters in the world" against each other in a no-holds-barred, style-versus-style, single-elimination tournament. For a stage, they brainstormed with Hollywood director John Milius (Conan the Barbarian) and settled on a wire cage (the alligator-stocked moat was scrapped), and on the snowy evening of Nov. 12, 1993, the first Ultimate Fighting Championship went off at McNichols Arena in Denver. Promising no rules, no weight classes and no time limits, the night's emcee assured the half-filled house—as well as the 80,000 viewers at home who had forked over $14.95 apiece—that "anything can happen, and probably will." Even death!
All eight participants survived, leaving them—along with the UFC's creators—to tell, two decades later, how those founding questions spawned an entirely new, multibillion-dollar sport.
I THE CASTING CALL
"They look for a champion, and they find me."
(COCREATOR): We wanted anyone who made sense to fight. I sent out faxes, and, of course, most people ignored me. I wanted Dennis Alexio, the kickboxer who plays Jean Claude Van Damme's brother in Kickboxer, and I offered him $50,000—but he wouldn't do it. Mike Tyson would have cost us a zillion dollars, and we didn't have that kind of money. We tried to get Leon Spinks, the former heavyweight champ who defeated Muhammad Ali. That failed. We finally got Art (King) Jimmerson, the world's Number 10 cruiserweight boxer, who was scheduled to fight Tommy Hearns six weeks after [what would come to be known as UFC 1].
(BOXER, PARTICIPANT): They wanted me so bad. They offered me $10,000 at first; then they said, "You're in the top 10 in the world, and we need someone legitimate—we'll double it." My manager and I were like, This will be easy money.
DAVIE: I approached five kickboxing promoters trying to get a top fighter out of Europe.
(SAVATEUR, PARTICIPANT): They look for a champion in Holland, and they find me.
(KICKBOXER, PARTICIPANT): There was a joke in the industry: If you need a fighter, call Kevin; he'll take the fight for nothing. I saw an ad in a magazine, $50,000 to the top man in the tournament. By 1993, I was past my career, but I went. My daughters lived in Denver, so I went out to see them also.
DAVIE: I wanted a sumo wrestler, so I brought in a Hawaiian who'd left sumo [because of an injury].