I was but a babe in the early days of the UFC. It was in a time when VHS tapes and dial-up modems were the norm, rather than the special edition blu-ray DVD’s and internet streams of today. In most video-rental stores—which are now becoming extinct—you could find the early UFC tapes. They were a naughty niche of entertainment wrapped in a colorful cover with a bald, white character pummeling an image of the earth with its giants fists that made up the UFC’s original logo.

I’d bring those tapes home as a kid and quickly have them taken away from me because they weren’t fit for a child. Then, the adult men of the family would end up watching it themselves; laughing and bonding over the ridiculous violence they witnessed. I would have never guessed what a large impact that brutal “utlimate fighting” sport, now known as MMA, or its competitors would have on me or sports culture in general.

But it continued to grow and evolve past something that seemed as obscene as pornography in the public’s opinion at the time of its conception. And names like Mark Coleman, who came up in that era, are the ones whose sweat and life given to competition are now retrospectively seen as the fighting precursors that helped to launch the sport to where it is now.

Last week, Coleman officially announced his retirement from MMA after 15 years of actively fighting in the sport. Let’s take a look at his career and appreciate why his achievements have a worthy place in MMA history.

Coleman fought under the nickname “The Hammer,” but is better known for earning the reputation of being “the godfather of ground-and-pound,” a moniker he attained by bringing a successful wrestling-based attack into the young sport of MMA.

Coleman grew up competing in wrestling since high school. He went on to wrestle for Ohio State and won a NCAA wrestling championship while there. Out of college, Coleman earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic wrestling team and placed seventh overall in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. After his wrestling stint for the Olympics, Coleman decided to try his hand at MMA competition to stoke his competitive fire.

At the time of Coleman’s entry into MMA in the late 90s, the UFC was a different animal than what is is now. Art Davie created the UFC and marketed it as a brutal, no-holds-barred spectacle of violence. And that kind of early incarnation of limited rules and tournament-based events is where Coleman cut his teeth in the sport. And he found success right away.

Coleman got his start at UFC 10, in a single-night, eight-man tournament. His wrestling background proved to be too much to handle for his opponents, because, at that time, most MMA fighters mainly excelled in only a single discipline. They did not have the well-rounded games seen today with jiu-jitsu, boxing and wrestling techniques to be fully prepared wherever a match may go.

Being one of the guys from the early days that brought high-level wrestling to the UFC is what made Coleman so special to the history of the sport. Coleman was adept at shooting for takedowns and attacking from an opponent’s guard. He could stay in the mount position and deliver strikes or could attack with submissions. There was little his opponent could do, other than hold on or try to scramble to their feet, if they did not have a solid wrestling defense.

His ground-and-pound attack was as significant to the growth of the sport as Royce Gracie’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. In that regard, Coleman was one of the first and best in bringing a new wrinkle to MMA, something that fighters had to adapt to at the time and something that is standard fare for any MMA fighter to use in the common era.

Coleman ran through his three opponents at UFC 10 to become the tournament champion and announce his presence in MMA competition. It is worthy to note that he did so all in one night. In the semifinals, Coleman defeated Gary Goodridge by verbal submission due to exhaustion. When was the last time that you heard of a fighter in the current MMA era being submitted due to exhaustion? It wouldn’t be until a few years later that unified rules, such as weight classes and fighters having to wear gloves, would become common practice. There was no limit to the amount of rounds a fight went and no judges to decide who won. The men fought until a winner emerged, and they could go a full 90 minutes if that’s what it took. And it was badass.

Coleman returned at UFC 11 to repeat the same feat of winning a UFC tournament by submitting his first two opponents and winning the final match when his last opponent forfeited due to the grueling practice of fighting multiple times in a single night.

The next year, in February of 1997, Coleman became the first-ever UFC heavyweight champion by defeating Dan Severn at UFC 12. Forever etching his name in the history book of the world’s largest promotion with the consecutive accolades.

That would be Colmean’s last win in the UFC until UFC 100, though he would return at UFC 83 for his induction into the UFC Hall of Fame. After three straight losses, coming at UFCs 14, 17 and 18, Coleman went on to compete in Japan for Pride with relative success.

Coleman reached the pinnacle of his career by winning the Pride Openweight Grand Prix in 2000 by defeating Igor Vovchanchyn in the finals. From there, Coleman was unable to consistently win, but was now facing the best names that Japan had to offer. We’re talking guys like Fedor Emelianenko, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, when they were in their prime.

Japan’s MMA scene thrived in the Pride era, and fighters could supplement their income with endorsement deals and could participate in professional wrestling matches, as Coleman did for the Hustle promotion. (Here is a great example of a Schick commercial Coleman starred in with Wanderlei Silva.) We see the same thing happening in North America now with big Nike sponsorships for UFC fighters and Bellator MMA intermingling its stars with pro wrestling on Spike.

Fans that came into MMA through the current era with the rise of the UFC should know that guys like Coleman were doing this same stuff a decade ago. It is nothing new. The difference is, in those days—the mid 90s to early 2000s—guys were making a lot less money with even less job security.

Japan was showcasing the next generation of MMA fighters during Coleman’s Pride tenure, and he had moderate success against them. By that time in the mid 2000s, the guys Coleman had first come up against in MMA were dying off from an evolutionary standpoint as MMA was evolving into it’s next incarnation with more skilled and well-rounded fighters.

Coleman gained his last Pride win in a victory over Rua in 2006 at Pride 31 after Rua broke his arm by landing on it while being taken down. Coleman’s next—and final—fight for Pride would go down as producing one of the most infamous images in MMA history. It was a rematch with Fedor, and it ended like their first meeting, with an armbar. This time, Coleman was joined in the ring at the end of the match by his two young daughters. For many fans outside of the sport, it was a brutal dichotomy. Coleman’s face was beaten and bruised with one eye closed up, and there he was embracing his frightened daughters. Some fans don’t like seeing the other side of a fighter’s or entertainer’s life, and maybe the reality of it is what bothered people. But for a father like Coleman, having his children’s support is all that mattered. The scene is one of MMA’s enduring images.

Following his exit from Pride, Coleman went on have three fights for the UFC. He won one against Stephan Bonnar, which would be his last victory in MMA. His next fight against Randy Couture in 2010 would end up being his last time competing, with time and injuries catching up with the veteran.

Coleman, at the age of 48, announced his official retirement from competition via his Facebook account on March 4, leaving the sport with a record of 16-10. A large part of his decision was the need for total hip replacement surgery, which is reported as amounting to a bill of $100,000, an amount beyond Coleman’s means. But longtime sponsor MMA Elite has stepped up to cover at least a portion of the bill for the UFC Hall of Famer. It’s an act of charity and appreciation for a man that was there since the early days of the sport.

Look at where the sport is now at the time of his retirement. There are major network television deals with multiple promotions, cross-over stars, and the sport is continually evolving and growing into acceptance where it once was just a spectacle. It takes a special breed of person to love competing, training and entertaining for the sake of MMA. In the 90s, guys like Coleman definitely weren’t doing it for the money. They were an odd bunch that wanted to test themselves in a real fight. They were the ones that were there to inspire a future generation to take up the mantle of MMA and push it to greater heights.

Coleman will go down in MMA history as one of the early talented wrestlers that had great success with his style. The next time you see a ground-and-pound attack in MMA competition, remember its godfather.

Photo: Mark Coleman (Terry Goodlad/Sherdog)

About The Author

David Massey
Staff Writer

David Massey studied Humanities and Art History at the University of Central Oklahoma. He first found interest in MMA from the first TUF show and has been hooked ever since. He began posting on mmajunkie then submitting Sunday Junkie entries and that began his interest in writing about MMA. Through twitter David found other MMA enthusiasts and began contributing articles to marqueemma.com. He looks forward to growing as a writer and being a part of the sport he loves.