Every now and again, radio show host Randy Gordon comes clean and reminds listeners and fighters of a cold and simple truth. He was the guy who banned professional mixed-martial arts in New York back when it was little more than a blood sport for street toughies and bouncers.
It was presented as such when the Ultimate Fighting Championship came to town Sept. 8, 1995 for "The Brawl in Buffalo" at Memorial Auditorium. UFC 7 was the first MMA event staged in New York. Gordon made sure it also was the last so long as he remained chairman of the state Athletic Commission.
At the time, the rules included … what rules?
They were practically non-existent.
UFC didn't use weight classes. Fights weren't broken down into rounds. Instead, there was a 20-minute time limit for each fight in tournament-style events. "No Holds Barred" meant fighting by whatever means were necessary. Hair-pulling and eye-gouging were acceptable. Shots to the groin were practically encouraged.
"It was the most violent exhibition of combat sport I had ever seen," said Gordon, now the host of "At the Fights" from 6-8 p.m. Mondays and Fridays on SiriusXM Radio. "There was no way I was going to let it go in New York. To me, it was nothing more than a street fight without a beer bottle."
Gordon, who served on the state commission from 1988-95, had a good relationship with Marc Ratner while the latter was a member of the Nevada State Athletic Commission. Ratner also refused to get on board, which meant UFC lost two big guns in its test audience before leaving the cradle.
Professional mixed-martial arts was banned in New York for more than 20 years before it was legalized last year. Fans who attended the event at the Aud will see a much different sport than the circus show in 1995, when the biggest name connected to the event was ring announcer Michael Buffer.
If anyone was ready to rumble with MMA, it was Gordon.
"I saw kicks to a downed fighter’s head, soccer-style kicks," Gordon said. "I saw a 12-to-6 elbow where a guy is laying on the canvas and the other guy drops and elbow from 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock. It was like getting hit with a ball-pein hammer.
"I told the legislature, ‘If you pass this, there’s going to be bloodshed in New York, and it’s going to be on your hands – not mine.’ And they banned it."
In theory, anyway, the sport actually made sense.
For years, along the lines of mythical Superman vs. Spiderman questions kids asked one another, MMA was a means to an answer kickboxing failed to provide: Who wins a fight between a boxer and a wrestler? How about a black belt against either? Or the latest argument, Conor McGregor against Floyd Mayweather? Mixed-martial arts provided hints.
UFC was going nowhere before Dana White partnered with Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta and bought the company for $2 million. Their vision led to revamping the rule book, cleaning up the sport and making it more palatable. Trained referees contributed to a safe environment that required intense training and athleticism.
"The referees are so crucial in MMA," Gordon said. "A guy could be in the ground taking one shot after another. A referee who isn’t that well-trained might allow that to continue for one punch too many. In combat sports, one punch too many is too many. You have to know exactly when to stop the contest.”
UFC provided an outlet for athletes in various disciplines. Top college wrestlers and the martial-arts elite, who had nowhere to turn but the Olympics every four years, had a chance to continue their careers. The UFC you see today is a mixed bag of everything right with combat sports, including the tap-out rule.
In boxing, there is no greater shame than quitting in the ring. Boxing is safer today than it was years ago because referees are taught to stop fights much sooner than they did in previous decades. The best MMA fighters make a mistake and get caught in precarious positions with no escape.
Rather than allow their pride to interfere with common sense, they tap out with their respect intact and continue their careers. It was a massive step in making UFC safer while maintaining its integrity. They're punching and kicking one another the face while trying to twist one another into a knot after all, not playing checkers.
Fighters embrace the dangers involved, adding to the allure for fans.
The first sanctioned event was UFC 28, which was held in New Jersey under Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts. Two months later, White and his partners took over and eventually implemented other regulations that struck a balance between aggression and safety. The sport is far more entertaining than its barbaric ancestor.
Mainstream sports fans, including longtime boxing experts who once thumbed their nose at competitive mixed-martial arts, made a U-turn.
Gordon, one of MMA's harshest critics in the early days, evolved into a strong proponent. He used his voice to push for legalization in other states, including New York, some 20 years after his demanded the ban. Ratner now works for UFC as vice president of government and regulatory affairs.
All these years later, fighters are thanking them.
"They joke around on the air, but they totally understand what I did," Gordon said. "They say, ‘You made it safer for us.’ Every one of them, 100 percent, understands where my head was back then. Dana totally understands what I did. You talk about a 180? I hated it then. I didn’t want to see it anywhere. Now, I think it’s terrific."