1993 ushered in the modern era of MMA with the debut of the Ultimate Fighting Championship in Denver, Colorado. Being that only a single UFC event was held in 1993, you might think a list of the year’s best fights would only come from that first show. That is not the case, however, as Japan’s Pancrase had also made its smashing debut around the same time (Shooto had been hosting professional events since 1989, but video footage of these fights is rare). And so, without further ado, here is my list of the top five fights from modern MMA’s birth year:
5. Masakatsu Funaki vs. Ken Shamrock (Pancrase- Yes, We are Hybrid Wrestlers 1)
The headliner for the first Pancrase card was a bout between teacher and student. It’s fascinating to see Shamrock, who always seemed so cool and confident in the UFC, come across as such a green and zealous fighter in his match with the Pancrase founder. After a close fought technical battle, the future star Shamrock caught his coach in an arm triangle choke and forced him to submit at the 6:15 mark. The beginning of two very excellent MMA careers.
4. Trent Jenkins vs. Jason DeLucia (UFC 1: The Beginning)
This alternate match, which occurred before the finals of the first Ultimate Fighting Championship, was aired in the initial pay-per-view broadcast but not featured on the subsequent VHS release of the event. That’s a shame, because judging from the reaction of the show in the martial arts magazines of the time, it was the best received fight of the night. Although I’ve never seen the full fight, there’s enough footage of the fifty second encounter shown in the second UFC for me to decide that it belongs on this list.
The two traditional stylists squared off in the cage and exchanged the kind of flashy kicks viewers had expected to see when they purchased the pay-per-view. According to Big Jon McCarthy, the Kempo disciple Jenkins cut DeLucia with his toe nail when he threw a high kick, an incident which lead to nail trimming being mandatory before fights from there on out. DeLucia eventually managed to take Jenkins to the ground and used the grappling experience he had gleaned from the Gracie’s to choke his opponent out with an RNC (The first in UFC history). DeLucia’s jiu-jitsu skills were at a white belt level at the time, but he might as well have been armed with brass knuckles in these early events. If anybody owns the full fight, please, please, please send it to me!
3. Ken Shamrock vs. Royce Gracie (UFC 1: The Beginning)
The fight that kicked off the UFC’s first major rivalry. People who dismiss the early UFC events as being overly biased towards the Gracies really should take a second look at this stand-off. A yoked-up submission grappling expert like Shamrock is not the kind of person you let into a no-holds-barred tournament if you want your fighter to have no chance at losing. Going into the fight, most American viewers watching for the first time certainly must have expected the diminutive Brazilian to get crushed. As you know, however, that was not what transpired.
Easily the most technical fight of the night, the minute-long battle saw both men scramble for grappling dominance. After the shootfighter Shamrock failed with a heel hook, Gracie seized control of the fight and quickly choked out his mammoth opponent with his own gi sleeve. The limitations of Shamrock’s grappling style had been exposed; although his training in Japan was applicable to real fighting, it was still used mostly in a performance context and left him exposed to chokes. The loss would ignite a seething lust for revenge in Shamrock that would not be quelled until his second encounter with Gracie in UFC 5.
2. Vernon White vs. Katsuomi Inagaki (Pancrase- Yes, We are Hybrid Wrestlers 3)
Who says you have to be top tier to put on a good show? These novice fighters went to fucking war! Ex-bodybuilder Inagaki controlled much of the early action, using the kesa-gatame hold to execute offense and force White to give up several escape points. Eventually, though, the Shamrock protégée and former Taekwondo instructor White managed to grind down his Japanese foe with merciless barrages of strikes (Many of which were blatantly illegal). Despite enduring an abusive amount of punishment, the courageous Japanese refused to give up and only lost when the referee stopped the fight standing. Inagaki never achieved much in his MMA career, but he would ALWAYS display the same level of bravery and determination that he did in this fight.
1. Ken Shamrock vs. Yoshiki Takahashi (Pancrase- Yes, We are Hybrid Wrestlers II)
Takahashi is a badass motherfucker. Maybe a little too badass for his own good. He obviously had talent, as we got to see in this very stellar match, but his refusal to quit even after suffering severe injury probably wore him out for the rest of his career. Nevertheless, these early fights will still always be around for us to appreciate his heart and ability.
The ex-amateur wrestler Takahashi scored some huge takedowns in the early goings of the fight, something we seldom witnessed against the seemingly invincible Shamrock back in the day. The American’s power and skill would eventually enable him to take control of the match and batter his Japanese opponent for twelve minutes straight. Over the course of the fight, Takahashi suffered a broken jaw from a palm strike and nearly had his leg broken from a heel hook attempt. He was even choked unconscious at one point, but managed to grab the rope just before passing out (Shamrock was actually given a red card for holding on too long). Despite this abuse, he continued to press forward and threaten the American with submission holds. Finally, he was forced to tap when Shamrock applied a brutal heel hook. The gallant warrior ended up having to be carried out of the ring.
Takahashi’s later fight with Bas Rutten, where he had his shin broken, probably fucked his body for life. Still, he continued to fight on in a career that lasted seventeen years. During that time, he would take on a myriad of world class opponents, including Masakatsu Funaki, Bas Rutten, Valentijn Overeem, Igor Vovchanchyn, Vitor Belfort, and Josh Barnett. He would also achieve such notable feats as defeating jiu-jitsu legend Wallid Ismail in his lone UFC appearance and winning the inaugural Pancrase Heavyweight Championship.
Fighter of the year:
This choice probably comes as a surprise to most of you. After all, Ken Shamrock is in three of the five fights on this list and Royce Gracie won the first UFC tournament. Either fighter would seem like a more logical choice. In truth, however, the impact of Gracie’s victories could not fully resonate in the martial arts community around the time of the first UFC event as it was not made available on VHS until much later (The UFC II tape was actually released before it, for God knows what reason). And despite Shamrock’s early achievements, I really can’t help but give this to Funaki. His founding of Pancrase was both a significant point for Japanese MMA and the history of the sport as a whole. Without his contribution, the world might’ve never known Ken Shamrock, Frank Shamrock, Bas Rutten, or Josh Barnett. There might’ve never even been a Pride FC. For that, I must honor him.