From New York to Alabama
Having covered MMA all over the world since 1992, from the poorest shows in the north of Brazil to the extravagant Pride Fighting Championships, every time someone asks me which was the craziest event I’ve ever covered, there is no doubt of my answer: UFC 12, which took place 24 years ago in Dothan, Alabama. At a time when the Ultimate Fighting Championship faced stiff opposition from Senator John McCain and the press, its owners, Semaphore Entertainment Group, took the risk of scheduling its 12th event in Niagara Falls, New York. At that point, the local athletic commission had authorized combat sport events in the state. The problem was that one week before the event, the commission decided to stipulate a series of requirements, such as banning all chokes, demanding the use of protective helmets and mandating five weight classes, all of which made the event unfeasible. With the news of the arrival of the UFC and “extreme fighting” in New York, the fledgling sport was introduced to the political power of boxing lobbyists. Just 29 hours prior to the show, UFC 12 had to be urgently transferred to Dothan, Alabama, where the sport was sanctioned.
“If this plane goes down, NHB would be extinct.”
I remember hearing this news during the meeting to clarify the event’s rules. Curiously, a few minutes before, I had gone with Carlson Gracie and Vitor Belfort to check the Octagon being assembled and Carlson took a picture of Belfort and me seated on the canvas, before the fence had been raised.
SEG’s solution was to break everything down, charter a Boeing jet and head to Alabama with all of their staff and the fighters. Since there were few remaining seats on board, the organization determined that reporters could only board if there was room. Given the facts at hand, I was left with two choices: either spend $1500 on a last-minute ticket to Alabama or return to Brazil, since there was no way to get from New York to Alabama by bus in time for the event. I’d already accepted the possibility of trading Niagara Falls and its 14-degree temperatures for the heat of the Rio Carnival, when Gracie asked his team translator, Una, to step off the plane, and then convinced Helen McCarthy to let me board. Negotiations were heated, but the charming Brazilian pulled it off.
The Boeing was completely packed with the most important trainers, fighters and team leaders in the fighting world in that moment. That motivated Master Carlson to make an uneasy observation right before the plane took off: “If this plane goes down, NHB would be extinct on the face of the earth,” getting a laugh from all of the Brazilian passengers.
We arrived safely in Montgomery, Alabama at 3:45 a.m. Friday. The 200 passengers were split up into four buses that drove on for another hour and a half, arriving in Dothan at 5:30. A massive line had taken shape in the hotel lobby. I remember Dan Severn leaning on the counter, asleep. It was almost sunrise by the time the group went to bed, while the technical staff worked through the night setting up the Octagon and lighting. All told, it was 14 hours of work to get everything ready for the event’s national broadcast at 8 p.m. In the end, everything worked out, thanks to the unquestionable competence of SEG crew, who managed to pull off the impossible and make the show happen.
Two Knockouts in Two Minutes
By the time of UFC 12, when Belfort made his anxiously-awaited debut in a four-man heavyweight tournament, Brazilians had gone nearly two years without winning a tournament in the UFC. Right in the first fight, all Vitor needed was 1 minute, 17 seconds to drop Ken Shamrock’s best student, American Tra Telligman, with an unstoppable punch combination. Meanwhile, in the other bracket, Scott Ferrozzo dispatched of kickboxing champion Jim Mullin with punches from guard.
In the final, to the amazement of David Abbott – who stated on the live broadcast that “Vitor may have sharp boxing, but Roy Jones, Jr. will never knock out Mike Tyson” – Belfort needed only 40 seconds to knock out the much heavier Ferrozzo with his powerful left hand, silencing Abbott, who had been knocked out by Ferrozzo in the previous UFC show.
After the win, Carlson Gracie, Mario Sperry, Allan Goes and Carlos Barreto stormed the Octagon to celebrate Belfort’s triumph. More than the birth of “The Phenom,” that victory showed the world that the Gracie family wasn’t limited simply to Helio’s sons.
Wallid Loses His Invincibility
While Belfort was the underdog in the heavyweight tournament, among the lightweights (under 200 lbs.) everyone saw it as a given that the final would pit 5-foot-8, 185-pound Wallid Ismail against six-foot-tall, 196-pound Jerry Bohlander, who had beaten Fabio Gurgel at UFC 11. However, while it took Bohlander only two minutes to submit Don Frye’s pupil Rainy Martinez, Ismail had serious trouble with Japanese fighter Kazuo Takahashi, who used the fence many times to avoid his take down attempts. Better prepared for a striking matchup, the Japanese judo fighter ended up dominating the three rounds and winning the fight.
On the return flight from Alabama to New York, when all the staff got on the airplane, I registered the moment Ismail, assisted by translator Una, had a tense conversation with referee “Big” John McCarthy and UFC President Art Davie about the absurdity of allowing fighters to use the fence to defend takedowns. Years later, McCarthy told me that this fight and Bohlander vs. Gurgel at UFC 11 were the two fights that made them change the rules regarding fence grabbing.
Since Takahashi broke his hand in the Ismail fight, Bohlander faced unknown Nick Sanzo in the final, and needed only 35 seconds to submit him, earning him the title of first UFC “lightweight” champion.
The Unbeatable Mark Coleman
Newer fans don’t fully understand what Mark Coleman meant for the history of the sport. Before Mark Kerr, Randy Couture, Kevin Randleman or Tom Erikson, Coleman arrived in the UFC and introduced the world to the brutal efficiency of ground-and-pound, winning two tournaments in a row.
Many saw Coleman’s superfight at UFC 12 against Dan Severn, Royce Gracie’s biggest rival in the early days of the promotion, as a match pitting the two greatest wrestlers in UFC history against one another. It was hardly a contest. Despite being 18 pounds heavier, the 38-year-old, 260-pound Severn didn’t have a chance. In three minutes, Coleman took down Severn, dropped into mount and ended the fight with a hon-keza gatame, or neck crank. Five months later, Coleman would suffer his first loss at the hands of Maurice Smith who, along with Belfort and Pedro Rizzo, ushered in a new era in the UFC, characterized by the dominance of strikers.
The fact is that after the crazy experience of UFC 12, the politicians must have started to realize how passionate fans were about this new sport and how hard it would be to ban it. On the other hand, the UFC got stronger after passing its hardest challenge. What nobody could have imagined is that 24 years later, MMA would be one of the most popular sports on earth and UFC would have an estimated market value of $5.3 billion.
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