Most MMA fans are aware of Royce Gracie’s dominance in the early UFCs. Fighters like Gracie, plus others such as Dan Severn and Ken Shamrock put MMA on the proverbial map. But do the names Emanuel Yarborough, Scott Morris, or Joe Son ring a bell? Probably not. However, these men are a few of the true trailblazers in the world of MMA and should be given their props. Without them, MMA would not be were it is today.
Here’s a “roof-raising” to six MMA trailblazers who had the moxie to step out from behind their personal curtain of ignominy and entertain us, even if it was only for a brief time.
6. Emanuel Yarborough
Calling Yarborough “big” is an understatement. The 6’8” 600- to 800-pounder (depending on when he last ate) is listed in The Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest athlete. Yarborough made his debut at UFC 3 and is 1-2 in his MMA career. His lone victory came from beating Tatsuaki Nakano via submission due to smothering at Shoot the Shooto XX. No joke, he actually smothered his way to a victory.
Yarborough paved the way for other morbidly obese fi ghters like Chad “Akebono” Rowan, Wagner “Zuluzinho” da Conceicao Martins, and Eric “Butterbean” Esch. However, none of the aforementioned fi ghters has a victory via smothering, and that’s why Yarborough takes the cake…and eats it, too.
5. Joe Son
The non-menacing 5’4” 230-pound Son is probably best remembered in the Octagon for his loss to Keith Hackney at UFC 4 when he tapped due to groin strikes. Although crotch shots were legal at the time, Son’s bruised bollocks are a big reason why pee-pee shots were fi nally banned in the UFC.
Son sports a career 0-4 MMA record, but his legacy lives on beyond the crotch punches he absorbed. Son was one of the fi rst mixed martial artists to cross into showbiz. His work in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery as Random Task – the Korean wrestler renowned for ineptly throwing his shoe – showed the world that fi ghters can act. Son blazed the trail for other MMA thespians like Don Frye (Godzilla: Final Wars) and Randy Couture (Redbelt).
4. Ron Van Clief
Known as “The Black Dragon,” Van Clief entered the Octagon at UFC 4 at the astonishing age of 51. Inspiring senior citizens and proponents of the fl attop haircut, Van Clief tangled with Royce Gracie for almost four minutes until succumbing to a rear-naked choke.
Donning American fl ag shorts in his lone UFC appearance, Van Clief can be viewed as one of the founding fathers of MMA patriotism. He was also very, very old. Randy Couture would have to fi ght for six more years (plus work things out with Dana White) before he takes the age title from The Black Dragon.
3. Jim Brown
Will Brown be best remembered for his football career, his acting chops, or the color commentary he provided for UFCs 1-6? Only time will tell. What he lacked in knowledge of joint manipulations, techniques, and styles, he made up for with lively comments. He also added an athletic legitimacy and toughguy panache to the early pay-per-views. If there were no Jim Brown in the infancy of the UFC, there would be no Joe Rogan today.
For every astute Brown quote like, “I don’t know what kind of technique was used there, but there was a lot of kicking and punching,” there is an equally perceptive Rogan quote. After all, Rogan did say, “If Tyson Griffi n was a girl, I’d say he has a badonkadonk.” Sorry Goldie, but in an ideal world, Brown and Rogan would be sitting side by side in the commentating booth.
2. Scott Morris
Morris competed at UFC 2 and listed his fi ghting style as “Ninjistsu.” UFC announcer Ben Perry actually said, “We don’t know much about Morris because he is a ninja.” What we quickly learned is that ninjas do not belong in the Octagon. After winning his fi rst match via guillotine choke, Morris sustained the worst beating in Octagon history as Patrick Smith mounted him and delivered a devastating series of punches and elbows. Morris retired from MMA with a 1-1 record, but his ninja spirit lives on in others like Murilo “Ninja” Rua.
1. Kimo Leopoldo
Kimo was part-time evangelist and part-time tough guy. Anyone who beats up people in the name of the Lord deserves to be #1 on the list. Although Kimo lost to Royce Gracie in his fi rst match at UFC 3, he did give the Brazilian enough of a beating that Gracie had to withdraw from the tournament due to exhaustion.
Kimo also gave fans something to talk about besides the prowess of BJJ. Kimo was the fi rst great showman of MMA. Covered in tattoos and sporting a ponytail (which Gracie legally pulled in their match), the Hawaiian walked to the entrance of the Octagon carrying a large, wooden cross on his back. His message was simple: I am a Christian, and I want to kick your ass in the confi nes of this Octagon. And people think Phil Baroni has entertaining entrances.
If Bud Light ever does a “Real Men of Genius” commercial for mixed martial arts, there is a good chance it will dedicated to one of these unsung MMA founding fathers: Yarborough, Son, Brown, Morris, and Kimo. They came, they saw, and they tried their damnedest to conquer…