Things were mighty different in the early UFCs. Fighters threw elbows to the back of their opponents’ heads, struck the groin, and grabbed hair, all with impunity. None of this mayhem, however, was the point of the show.
On one side of the Octagon at UFC 1 stood “the shark,” that skinny, chosen representative of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, Royce Gracie, the younger brother of then-promoter Rorion Gracie. On the other side was everyone else, none of whom knew or likely had even seen Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
“No one understood how to fight him [Royce],” noted legendary MMA referee Big John McCarthy later. To Rorion, the UFC was basically “an infomercial for BJJ.”
Royce won the first two UFC tournaments (both had one-night tournaments) and submitted Kimo Leopoldo in his first fight at UFC III, but Royce had to withdraw from that tournament because of an injury suffered during the fight. Still, his opponents then, with the exception of Ken Shamrock, whom Royce had choked out in 57 seconds at UFC I, had dubious or obscure combat sports credentials.
The lineup for UFC IV, however, held December 16, 1994, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, posed a special problem for Royce. In the opposite bracket was Dan Severn, a twotime All-American wrestler at Arizona State and a 1986 U.S. Freestyle Wrestling Champion. Bobby Douglas, his hall-of-fame wrestling coach, called him the best technical college wrestler at that time.
As expected, both Gracie and Severn advanced to the finals, all with submission victories. Royce won by rear naked choke over Ron Van Clief in 2:42 and then defeated Keith Hackney by armbar in 5:34. Severn choked out Anthony Macias in 1:45 and Marcus Bossett in 54 seconds.
How on earth, then, would the 180-pound Gracie, giving up about 70 pounds in this no-weight class, no-time limit event, be able to outgrapple Severn?
This fight, if watched today, can only be understood in the context of that time. Severn shot in and hit a takedown, was caught in Gracie’s guard, and remained there for many minutes. Gracie threw some axe-kicks to Severn’s back, but, overall, there was little action on the mat.
Yet, it was mesmerizing because almost no one knew how or when it would end. The old UFC record for the longest fight was easily shattered, as the two lay there for 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 minutes. This unexpectedly lengthy fight ran past the allotted time for the pay-per-view, leaving viewers howling as the telecast cut off before a finish. Eventually, Gracie’s legs snaked up Severn’s back, although the announcer told us Severn was in no danger.
Then, as those legs continued upward and wrapped around Severn, the big wrestler tapped the mat. At 15:49 of this fight, many fans—probably for the first time—witnessed the beauty and effectiveness of a triangle choke.
It would not only be the first time this technique was used in the UFC, but also the last time Royce Gracie was victorious inside the Octagon.