The UFC has been lying to you for twenty-six years. The first American Mixed Martial Arts event didn’t occur on November 12, 1993, in Denver, Colorado. It wasn’t the first televised card, and Royce Gracie wasn’t the sports first champion.
On June 2, 1989, the World Television Network broadcasted a no-hold-barred competition called ‘The Battle of the Tough Guys. The inaugural champion was a six-foot-eight-inch ex-con named Zeus.
The proud practitioner of Gracie Ju-jitsu is, without question, a legend. However, his accomplishments pale in comparison to the “Human Wrecking Machine.”
Royce Gracie won the first UFC tournament by beating Art Jimmerson, Ken Shamrock, and Gerard Gordeau, in three separate bouts, in the same evening, with a break in-between bouts, and all inside the comfortable climate-controlled McNichols Arena.
However, on that hot June evening four years earlier, Zeus defeated Bulldog McPherson, Brock Chisler, Klondike Kramer, and Neanderthal, all at the same time. This occurred within the humid and unsanitary confines of Tootsies Bar.
Rorion Gracie, Royce’s older brother, founded the Ultimate Fighting Championship and booked its first five events while WTN President, who merely went by the name, Brell, organized the Battle of the Tough Guys.
Brell, the controversial figure whose name spread “Keyser Söze” like fear in the television industry, was unapologetic in his pursuit of Nielsen rating dominance. Brell often uttered the phrase “Jock-Ass” when expressing his disdain towards individuals.
Royce won $50,000 for his win at UFC 1, while Zeus won twice that amount for his victory at BOTG 1, which means Brell pays better than Rorion.
Zeus is the first fighter to reign supreme inside the Octagon. Rorion deserves credit for updating the design from ropes and tires to steel posts and chain length fence.
UFC has always had a referee for their events, but there wasn’t a zebra in sight during Battle of the Tough Guys. Zeus’ life was actually on the line in every bout while Gracie could have been saved at any time.
Zeus was also the more well-rounded fighter of the two. Gracie could only fight on the ground and was battered in his bout with Kimo at UFC 3. Zeus displayed a wide array of striking skills by punching through concrete cinder blocks with his bare hands. At Battle of the Tough Guys 3, Zeus exhibited Floyd Mayweather like head movement to dodge the oversized crescent wrench of Lugwrench Perkins.
Again, Gracie fought comfortably inside an arena while Zeus fought for his life inside an active industrial plant.
After a few more shows, the two athletes all but retired from the fight game and embarked on similar journeys in scripted entertainment. Royce Gracie went on to become a stunt and fight choreographer for the critically acclaimed film, Lethal Weapon 4.
Zeus transitioned to the circus-like environment of professional wrestling. As a legitimate fighter, his background landed him a high dollar contract with the genre’s top organization, the World Wrestling Federation.
If history is written by the winners, then UFC and the Gracie family are the victors in Mixed Martial Arts’s convoluted origin story. Royce Gracie gained the glory, but those who frequented that little dive bar on that faithful 1989 evening know that Zeus will forever be the sport’s original pioneer.