When it rains in MMA, it always pours. Few examples of this ring more true than the UFC in the mid-90s. The UFC experienced a bit of a drizzle in 1994. In contrast, 1995 delivered on a slightly less dreary forecast, which saw a number of superfights transpire and a fresh bevy of new bodies enter the mix, but the enforcement of new rules went against the vision of UFC co-founder Rorion Gracie, who left the brass in the same year and sold a portion of his interest in the UFC to the Semaphore Entertainment Group. If anyone on the corporate end of the UFC declared 1995 as the year that the promotion encountered its toughest obstacles, they certainly did not prepare properly for what 1996 promised: a downpour.

U.S. Senator John McCain stood firm in his hardline stance against “no-holds-barred” fighting, and contrary to popular belief, his attempts to eradicate American society of this craze began with UFC 4. After treading softly in 1995, though, McCain restarted his efforts with UFC 8: David vs. Goliath by spearheading the movement that would force the sport into the American underground. Still, the 1996 movement did not start with McCain.

The event, which stands currently as the first and only UFC card to emanate live from Puerto Rico, faced a number of criticisms and threats. Puerto Rican government officials attempted to pass a number of rulings in order to ban the card, and Cablevision cemented itself as the first major carrier to ban the event, claiming that it never intended to air the UFC or anything akin to the product ever again. These and the protests of Michigan-based politician Calvin McCard notwithstanding, UFC 8 went on as promised on Feb. 16, 1996.

McCain would play a direct role in some major rule changes just short of three months later, when the UFC planned to take UFC 9: Motor City Madness to Detroit’s Cobo Arena on May 17. Though McCain defined the event as a “brutal spectacle,” the UFC found a saving grace on the day of the card, which would move forward with a special rule that demanded no headbutts and strictly outlawed closed-fisted strikes.

UFCs 10 and 11 remained free from any controversy, aside from the UFC 10 card’s move from Rhode Island to Birmingham, Ala. The Ultimate Ultimate 2 tournament in early December of 1996 did not come under any significant fire either, but with politicians and government officials breathing down the UFC’s neck enough to where McCain inevitably reached his goal of ensuring that no major carrier would offer to broadcast its product—a goal he achieved in the wake of the legal battle over UFC 9—the promotion found itself heading on a one-way path towards a fight for survival more than the path to global dominance on which it planned to travel.

Nevertheless, the overall quality of bouts in 1996 never decreased, given all the names in the promotion at the time. UFC superfight champion Ken Shamrock already looked ready to take on more comers, Dan Severn awaited his moment to fight Shamrock, Kimo Leopoldo came looking for a fight, as did David “Tank” Abbott, and a gentleman from Sierra Vista, Ariz., named Don “The Predator” Frye took a handsomely menacing physique and one spectacular mustache into the UFC just to see what everyone kept talking about. Very little did anyone know of the impact these specific gentlemen would make by 1996’s end, and it all started (and ended) with Shamrock.

Looking to the landmark fight of 1996 meant looking to Shamrock vs. Severn 2, especially after Severn’s Ultimate Ultimate 1 victory over Oleg Taktarov. However, Leopoldo packed a three-fight winning streak and had a hunger to fight Shamrock, so once the UFC received the green light to move forward with UFC 8, Shamrock met Leopoldo. Under the “fight to the finish” format, Shamrock took only four minutes and 24 seconds to find one of Leopoldo’s legs, lock it up and force a tap via kneebar.

That meant that the fans would get the landmark fight of 1996, the rematch between Shamrock and Severn, right? Well, yes, they would, and no, they would not. They would get Shamrock vs. Severn 2 at UFC 9, which stepped away from the tournament format in favor of single bouts, but with the special rule in place that banned any form of closed-fisted strikes. That rule prevented fans from getting what they wanted out of the rematch. In fact, all who witnessed the bout agree that it stands among the worst UFC fights of all time because that restriction made for well over 20 minutes of moving around the Octagon and showing no willingness to engage.

However, many violated the rule without penalty at the event, despite the agreement that the contrary would hold true without hesitation. So, in hindsight, nothing prevented either man from trying to inflict punishment on the other.

Severn took the superfight title via split decision, but the question remained up in the air about whether the UFC would deliver any sort of landmark bout in 1996.

Oddly enough, Frye, an American fighter with a knack for finishing, would prove responsible for the landmark bout of the year. He didn’t face Shamrock, but he helped shape the atmosphere of the sport alongside Abbott, as both vaunted finishers turned the heat up in a fight some would coin as the arguable “Fight of The Year,” had the honor existed in an official capacity back then.

First, though, we must recall that in the early days of the UFC, a tournament win usually meant the next crack at the UFC superfight title. After Frye found success in the UFC 8 tournament, Severn vs. Frye made all the sense in the world. However, the UFC decided not to go in that direction. Shamrock vs. Frye seemed like the next best option, and it held potential to steal the show in the finals of the Ultimate Ultimate 2 tournament, but the bout never happened.

How could the bout not happen when both men entered the tournament and held favorite status, along with everyone’s favorite pit fighter, Tank Abbott? Well, after Shamrock defeated Brian Johnston and Abbott submitted Cal Worsham with punches, Frye fatigued Gary Goodridge in the second of three career meetings between the two, and Leopoldo forced Paul Varelans to quit in his corner. That left Shamrock, Abbott, Leopoldo and Frye. If Shamrock defeated Abbott and Frye beat Leopoldo, the two would square off.

Neither of those two semifinals happened, however. Leopoldo suffered a bout of fatigue in his bout with Varelans and Shamrock broke his hand against Johnston. Abbott knocked out Steve Nelmark to meet Frye in the finals after Frye finished Mark Hall. “The Predator” and Abbott both knew the other liked putting their hands to work in securing victory, but the two delivered one of the more memorable showstoppers of the early UFC after Abbott scored first with a shot that dropped Frye. The two would go at it in a complete dogfight that saw both guys take incredible punishment. But once Frye dropped Abbott and got his back, it was over. Frye found the win via rear-naked choke.

Besides delivering on one of the UFC’s wildest brawls, as well as arguably one of its best-ever one-rounders, the bout with Frye gave UFC fans of that era an early taste of the mixed martial artist. For all intents and purposes, Frye stands more as a fighter than a mixed martial artist, but he was one of the first athletes in the early days of MMA, apart from the likes of Shamrock and Severn, to compete using a variety of skills instead of relying on just one discipline.

Just the same, some of the best in MMA made their one style work, even when blending in that style with other techniques. The same UFC 8 card that saw Frye take the tournament title also saw the debut of “Big Daddy” Gary Goodridge, who lost to Frye. “Big Daddy” represented the Kuk Sool Won style that night, but only learned a couple of techniques here and there while holding the brunt of his expertise in the kickboxing realm. Still, in his unsuccessful yet valiant effort to win the UFC 8 tournament, he taught the modern world that in MMA, how one implements what they know matters more than the amount they know.

Anyone who remembers UFC 8 remembers Goodridge’s UFC debut against Paul Herrera, who was also making his Octagon debut at the event. The fight, a quarterfinal bout in the UFC 8 tournament, fell in line with the “David vs. Goliath” theme, which featured larger fighters against smaller fighters. The bout lasted all of 13 seconds. After Herrera lost an opportunity to get all of a fireman’s carry attempt, Goodridge secured a crucifix position and elbowed Herrera into unconsciousness to advance to the semifinals.

Goodridge also scored a TKO of Jerry Bohlander that night before succumbing to defeat via submission to Frye, but Goodridge’s 13-second win over Herrera taught the MMA world a number of lessons. First and foremost, they understood that big guys with heavyweight power could do more than just strike. Also, the crucifix position would make its first appearance with Goodridge and would return on multiple occasions with others, such as Ivan Salaverry, though Salaverry would implement the crucifix as a form of side control from the top instead of using it as a setup for a series of elbows, a la Goodridge.

Unfortunately, the MMA world would also learn over time of a number of “lasts” in the latter part of 1996. Aside from the UFC getting pulled from numerous major cable carriers after UFC 9, Frye made his final UFC appearance in the Ultimate Ultimate 2 tournament. Shamrock’s injury against Johnston, combined with the hit the UFC’s pay-per-view revenue took once McCain’s efforts to pull the event from those various providers proved successful, caused “The World’s Most Dangerous Man” to see greener pastures in the sports-entertainment juggernaut known at the time as the World Wrestling Federation.

The lack of pay-per-view exposure and the hit the promotion’s pay-per-view revenue stream took did more than cause the UFC to lose one of its biggest stars of the time. With McCain and other politicians adding continuing pressure on the promotion, the UFC would end 1996 asking itself if it could enjoy any other options as far as venues and if it could find any states that would sanction its shows. For the time being, however, the promotion would need to keep its head held high and continue to look for a bright spot or two, because the next four years of the promotion’s history promised nothing but darkness as the UFC entered its “Dark Ages.”

Photo: Don Frye (Trevor Williams/Sherdog)

About The Author

Dale De Souza
Staff Writer

Dale De Souza is a 22-year-old kid straight out of Texas, who grew up around Professional Wrestling but embraced the beauty of Mixed Martial Arts and Combat Sports at a young age. Dale is a Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report MMA, a writer at The MMA Corner.