Viva Brazil!: Royce Gracie kickstarts MMA's heart at the first UFC

The Ultimate Fighting Championship makes its long-awaited return to the country of Brazil this Saturday (August 27). It's a country that -- along with Japan -- helped form the sport we all know and love. Mixed martial arts' (MMA) brutal origins in vale tudo are an integral part of its history as are many of Brazil's native sons. As we head towards UFC 134: "Silva vs. Okami," Viva Brazil! will serve as a celebration of some of those countrymen and a look back at historic moments in the sport involving them.

"It's like pro wrestling but it's real."

That was how many early fans of the UFC described the spectacle inside the cage. It was hard to accurately portray the savagery that took place inside the Octagon during those early events.

But amidst all the brutality, there was a shining beacon of technical skill in the shape of a slender, unimposing figure named Royce Gracie.

The first edition of Viva Brazil! is about that particular Gracie, the first of many that would step into the cage or ring and into our hearts. In particular, his first few jaunts inside the structure that would one day become associated with our favorite sport.

Here's to you, Royce Gracie!

UFC 1: The Beginning

Gracie's first opponent -- Art Jimmerson -- showed up wearing one boxing glove. So it should be no surprise that when the Brazilian mounted him, he tapped faster than a five-year old playing Street Fighter.

His next fight would set the stage for the greatest rivalry of the early UFC. Ken Shamrock had just debuted for Pancrase a couple of months earlier so unlike almost every other entrant in the tournament, he at least had something resembling experience.

No matter. Gracie choked him out in less than a minute. The referee in charge left something -- okay, A LOT -- to be desired and didn't do much when "The World's Most Dangerous Man's" hand slapped the mat. There was a bit of confusion and the Brazilian began to garner a reputation as being somewhat of a jerk as he tried to slap the choke back on.

His third bout that evening -- the finals of the tournament -- ended nearly as quickly after Gracie latched himself onto Gerard Gordeau's back. Again, he kept the choke on a little too long but he claims it was due to the Frenchman trying to take a bite out of his forearm. Oh, early UFCs.

UFC 2

Gracie returned to the Octagon to defend his championship but had to fight one more bout that before. That's right, FOUR fights in one night. Utterly insane by today's standards.

His first opponent was Minoki Ichihara who -- according to Fight Finder -- has exactly one fight on his record. After dispatching of "Mr. One and Done," Gracie took out another Pancrase veteran in Jason DeLucia. That win earned him a spot in the semi-finals where he choked out Remco Pardoel.

Gracie stood opposite Patrick Smith -- a combatant from the first UFC who was taken out of the tournament by Shamrock -- in the finals. Although it wasn't the first time Gracie found himself in that position, it was the first -- and only -- time he won a fight using his fists. 

UFC 3: The American Dream

I have no idea what that subtitle has to do with the event. Ken Shamrock was back and was booked in a way that a rematch with Gracie would take place in the finals. I suppose 'the American dream' is to beat up a Brazilian who choked you out once?

But the best laids plans of mice and men and all that definitely applied to UFC 3. Gracie took on the debuting Kimo in the opening round and despite getting the win, took an utter pounding from the Hawaiian-based fighter. He was unable to continue due to the fatigue he suffered from the fight. Keep in mind that the bout -- had it been contested under today's unified rules -- wouldn't have left the first round.

For whatever reason, the Gracie clan come out for the semi-finals and immediately threw the towel in when the bout started. So despite having no plans on actually fighting, there is still a loss on Gracie's record because of that stunt. Shamrock, realizing his big money match-up was gone, dropped out too. Classy.

UFC 4: Revenge of the Warriors

Gracie returned for the fourth event and started submitting opponents like he never missed a beat. First up to tap was Ron van Clief who was followed by testicle-destroy Keith Hackney. In the finals he met Dan Severn who -- believe it or not -- was making his debut at that event. Wow, I'm old.

Severn's wrestling nullified Gracie's brand of Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) for a quarter hour and it seemed that Gracie had met his match in the larger, lumbering, mustached wrestler.

In a moment that would draw chuckles out of even the most stone-faced person, commenter -- and fellow wrestler -- Jeff Blatnick infamously stated that Severn was in no danger even as Gracie was locking up a triangle choke. Of course, almost no one watching knew what a triangle choke was at the time but it'll still draw a laugh when Severn is tapping just seconds later.

UFC 5: Return of the Beast

Finally sick of leaving everything to chance, the UFC create the "Superfight" and plugged Gracie and Shamrock in. What ensued in an entry in just about everyone's "Top 5 Most Boring MMA Fights Ever" list.

Unwilling to fully engage lest he get caught like he did during their first meeting, Shamrock mostly used positional control to take charge of the bout. And although Gracie's eye was swollen, the fight was ruled a draw.

Gracie wouldn't compete again for nearly five years and not for the UFC for 10. But despite his less than stellar bout with Shamrock and his mixed results afterwards -- including a bust for steroid usage -- there is absolutely no doubting his contribution to the sport.

Without him, BJJ might not be as widespread as it is today. He also helped prove that technique almost always triumphs over strength. The first UFCs were a wake up call to martial arts: you better learn this new thing called Brazilian jiu-jitsu or you're going to be left out in the cold.

Just ask Chael Sonnen.

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