In the 1990s, when the Ultimate Fighting Championship had its
feet held to the fire for perceived acts of brutality, most politicians and critics
focused on the broken bones and bleeding scalps. But the most savage component of the sport might have been the emotional attrition required to fight three times in the span of an evening.
"Regardless of the outcome of the fight, when you're fighting somebody, it's exhausting emotionally," said David "Tank" Abbott, an early star of the promotion. "You have the anxiety of somebody that's trying to hurt you."
Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG), which owned or co-owned and operated UFC events from 1993 to 2000, frequently structured its eight-man tournaments so that fighters perceived as less capable were paired against the betting favorites. But as time went on and talent grew, it became too frequently disappointing. At 1996's UFC 11, Mark Coleman was declared the winner despite having no one left to fight in the final; Ken Shamrock, who had become the heavily muscled focal point of the sport, had never even advanced that far.
It was time to move on. For February 1997's UFC 12, fighters would be split into two separate weight divisions and four-man brackets, an attempt to appease a New York legislature that would ultimately prove pointless.
But before that happened, SEG planned a going-away party for the Octagon's original format. For the Ultimate Ultimate 1996, held Dec. 7 in Birmingham, Ala., the promotion managed to secure the most talent-rich lineup of any show of the era. Shamrock would make his first appearance as a seeded fighter in years; Abbott, a volatile street fighter, was at the height of his popularity; and onetime firefighter Don Frye, the UFC 8 winner, was eager to prove his mauling at the hands of Coleman at UFC 10 was a fluke.
When it was over, Frye was the last man standing, but by only a slim margin. Abbott delivered the UFC's most gruesomely unsettling finish to date, and one athlete started bleeding before the event even began.
For the first time, all of the participants and deal-makers provide their perspective -- in their own words -- on the UFC's last great tournament and the subsequent fallout. Sixteen years later, it's still a night no one has any problem remembering.
With cable companies beginning to wince under the influence of Arizona Senator John McCain's attempts to blacklist the sport, SEG tried to soften its image as the new rulers of Rome by offering two new programming choices: the open-handed fight sport of Pancrase, and "The Magic Adventures of Mumfie," an animated children's film.
David Isaacs (chief operating officer, SEG): "Mumfie" was from Britt Allcroft, who did "Thomas the Tank Engine." I guess in retrospect it looks kind of weird. I don't think we were placating. I think what we believed and what we wanted is for UFC to be just one type of programming that we had. We did not want to be "The UFC Company." We wanted to be a pay-per-view company where UFC was one of our brands.
It did not do terrific business, and neither did Pancrase. We wanted the cable operators to understand we were trying to open up a new revenue category. They didn't get it. They basically told us, "Yeah, we'll just do the porn and the wrestling and we'll keep trying this UFC stuff."
With the demanding nature of the tournament format, "the UFC stuff" was getting harder to corral. As they had in 1995, SEG invited its tournament winners and runners-up to a mega-event to cap off the year. Two-time champion Coleman accepted but withdrew a month out with a virus, a knee injury delayed Vitor Belfort's debut, visa issues kept Igor Vovchanchyn out of the States and Marco Ruas priced himself out of contention.
Art Davie (matchmaker): The top guys became less amenable to the idea of having three bouts in one night. Part of it was due to the fact that everyone's training had ramped up. They were all concerned about injuries.
Paul Varelans (quarterfinalist): The SEG people would format a tournament thinking they knew who was going to win. They would put a high-caliber martial artist, one or two on either side, to meet in the middle. And the other guys were put in to look good but to be fodder, to be in the way. I was one of the guys who f---ed up their plans quite a bit.
Isaacs: I was busting my ass to get these guys involved. It's hard to get fighters to do the single-night tournament, but there are always guys like Frye who would say, "Anytime." They weren't worried about the damage they were going to take.
Don Frye: Hell, I was fit as a fiddle. I was ready to go after Coleman and was really disappointed he got sick and didn't make it.
Ken Shamrock: I wanted a shot at Coleman. I had already fought the winner of the last Ultimate Ultimate, Dan Severn, and beat him. To me, it was like, well, what more can I do?
Isaacs: Shamrock was different. He knew he wasn't going to be good at tournaments, and he thought he was a showcase fighter. He didn't think he needed to be in a tournament with these other guys. We probably had to pay him a chunk of money just to show. Art always called him our Hamlet. Should he fight, should he not fight, that whole thing.
Davie: Shamrock had a good sense of his physical capabilities. While he had an enormous ability to gain muscle mass, he also knew there was a certain amount of brittleness in his structure. I think he felt as much as anybody how much of a strain and a stress the eight-man tournament was. Getting him into the Ultimate Ultimate was a coup.
Cal Worsham (quarterfinalist): After my fight with Zane Frazier at UFC 9 [in May 1996], I had a heart contusion, collapsed lung, three broken ribs. I was being kept awake in the ICU for two days without knowing if I would live or die. When I finally got home, I was scared to fart.
Davie: It was quite difficult for Worsham to get out of the hospital bed and get back to training to face Tank Abbott.
Worsham: Around mid-October, I get a phone call from Art Davie telling me no one wants to fight Tank in the tournament. I said, "Yes, sir." But he was the one guy where if he found out about the injury, he gave off the impression he'd like to do a knee drop on my chest and finish me off.
Abbott: Once I got in the UFC, I didn't have to prove anything anymore. I could never walk away from a fight. If someone came up to yell at me, I was going to bash their head in. You wanted to bully me or push me around, I was going to hurt you. But when I got in the UFC, I could say, "You know what, go watch UFC 6 and see how lucky you are."
Brian Johnston (quarterfinalist): I had trained with Don Frye previously and went back to train with him again for this show. If we had gotten to the finals, we figured since we had been sparring every night anyway, we would just fight. We would've been friends, but we would've left it all in the ring. We might have even had a better fight than someone would have not knowing his opponent.
Varelans: My first UFC, I had four months of training. No one wants to believe it, but it's the truth. I never really had a coach. I'd get videotapes, watch what they were doing and then modify it for myself.
Mark Hall (alternate): I couldn't talk growing up. I stuttered real bad. I couldn't even say one word. I was made fun of every day, ridiculed every day. Talking is how you tell people who you are. If you can't tell someone who you are, you're really nobody.
Johnston: For Hall to enter a "no-holds-barred" contest at his size [189 pounds], that takes balls.
Hall: I liked to fight people better than me. That way, the win would be bigger. It would be something I could be proud of.
Abbott: I look at the lineup and who was fighting who. Shamrock, who was their little golden-boy company guy, had a schedule where he'd have two fights' rest, where I'd fight one right after another. I said, "What the f--- is this? It's not how a tournament works. He gets two fights off and I fight twice?" [SEG president] Bob Meyrowitz goes, "Well, it's too late. Can't do anything about it. The graphics have been done and we can't change the format of the show."
I knew he could. I looked at him and laughed and said, "All right, motherf---er, whatever you want, you're gonna get."
As with anything fueled by egos big enough to pursue prizefighting, the Ultimate Ultimate found itself with enough personality conflicts to populate a reality show. Chief among them: the genuine dislike between mannered Shamrock and mercurial Abbott, the UFC's two most popular stars -- and the only two SEG fighters ever paid a monthly salary.
Davie: I think Ken felt Tank was the wrong kind of guy, a bad guy. On the other hand, I was privy to Tank telling me he thought Ken was everything he didn't like. Ken was a pretty boy, Ken was a guy in Speedos. He didn't like Ken. He just didn't like him.
Abbott: He's a steroid phony and still is to this day. [Shamrock admitted to steroid use during his career in a 2010 interview.] He's not a real warrior. He's all pumped up on steroids. He believes his own gimmick from pro wrestling. Instead of being tough, he's into acting tough. Just like the typical steroid, wannabe tough guy, he'd look the other way. But if there are people around, he'll put on a show.
Shamrock: Tank came up to me at my table after one of the earlier events. I had my family and some of my fighters there. He pulls up a chair and sits down. I looked at him and said, "Hey man, how are you doing?" I'm always polite to people.
He says, "I'm doing good, man. I'm going to be fighting in the next one. "I said, "Congratulations. Wish you the best." He looked and me and goes, "I can beat you." You know what? Stand in line.
Hall: I know Ken and Tank were at each other's throats. Tank had his cronies there and Ken had his cronies there, and they were going to have a big gang fight backstage.
Davie: I think Tank's guys followed a tone and a path that Tank set, in the sense they wanted to be like Tank. If they thought Tank would want them to do it, then they would do it. They were the ones who jumped Pat Smith in the elevator [at UFC 6 in 1995, after Smith had exchanged words with the group]. Then Tank came along and finished him off.
Isaacs: They were both the big dogs in their group. Abbott would walk around with his guys, and Ken and the Lion's Den would walk around. I was concerned something was going to happen between them. They both thought the other was bulls---.
Shamrock: I went after him one time behind the curtain. He said something to me. People got in between us. I'm very high-strung. If someone says something, they're going to get a response. Tank had the mouth, I had the volatile personality. It didn't mix.
Abbott: I would fight him in a bathroom where no one would see it. He'd run out of the bathroom, because he fights so people can think he's a fighter. I fight because that's part of my soul.
Davie: At UFC 8 in Puerto Rico, I ended up in a bar in Bayamon. Tank came in and said to everybody in Spanish, "I think you're all [homosexuals], you're all [gay slur]. I'll kick anybody's ass in the house." Like he was John L. Sullivan. The whole place got quiet. I looked at Tank and looked at the crowd and went, "This is going to be a riot." And Tank looked at me and smiled like, "We're going to have some fun."
He's not irrational. But if he decides he wants to kick your ass, and Pat Smith is a good example, he'll jump you in a hotel elevator and he'll kick the s--- out of you. He doesn't think twice about it. There's no sense of morality.
Jeff Blatnick (color commentator): There was Tank Abbott and there's Dave Abbott. Dave I enjoy. I like him. Tank has rough edges.
Isaacs: I think Abbott is and was a complete sociopath when he started in UFC. He lives by his own code and he's very serious about it. If I needed something from Abbott right now, he would come here. He's very loyal and very real. Once he made more money, you haven't heard about a fight from Abbott outside the ring in 10 years at least. So how crazy is he?
Davie: I liked Tank from the first minute I met him. He went to my office at WOW Promotions. In those days, he had no beard and was clean-shaven. He was wearing a button-down, light-green shirt, chinos and loafers. He was carrying a bag with athletic clothing in it. He got to my office and said, "Well, I'm ready." I said, "Ready for what?" He said, "I'm ready for anybody you want me to beat up."
Bruce Beck (play-by-play commentator): I thought David Abbott was a very intelligent guy and knew exactly what he was doing. He sat with me and Jeff one night and did color commentary. He grabbed for my groin on the air to make me jump. I did! He was a character. He had a flask, and I could smell the alcohol on his breath. He played the role to a T.
Davie: SEG felt he was star quality. He actually had the highest Q rating of anyone in the UFC. When it came time to getting someone on "Friends," we brought over Vitor Belfort and Tank. The producers wanted Abbott, and SEG was more than happy to push him.
Shamrock: These guys would be out drinking, doing whatever they wanted to do, telling people to screw off, punching old men. The way the sport was, trying to be accepted at that time, it rubbed me wrong. I thought, "This thing's never going to get going if we get guys like this in here."
While Abbott and Shamrock threatened genuine violence, SEG was concerned over conflict of a different sort. Robert DePersia, a lawyer and sports agent out of New Jersey who had been introduced to the event through Dan Severn, had quietly been recruiting the majority of the UFC's American fighters. Having formed a kind of union, he could make demands that strained the limits of SEG's reported $1.2 million per event budget.
Robert DePersia (manager): I was the only representative involved in the industry at that time. The other managers were siblings, parents, friends, but none that had any formalized training. What I did was real simple -- I effectively tried to create a union. That's unofficially exactly what I did.
Isaacs: My initial thought was, "He's a lawyer, so this will be much easier. He's got a bunch of the fighters, so that could be one-stop shopping for us." I think initially we hoped it would be a good thing.
Davie: I remember Meyrowitz and I would have discussions and meetings early on, over the phone, about dealing very carefully with Robert DePersia. We acknowledged that when DePersia made his appearance on the UFC stage, that he was certainly a cut above the type of manager or agent we had been dealing with. We respected and understood that.
Varelans: I think SEG feared [DePersia's involvement]. They were about as childish as you can get. Anyone trying to establish a measure of control in the business, they're going to hate your guts.
DePersia: I had every one of them and was able to approach the management and basically say, "Look, I have all these guys. You really can't do an event without me." I had the ability at that point to change everybody's pay structure and everybody's salaries to where they could actually make a living as opposed to just getting $500 to participate. We also created opportunities for multifight deals, which never would've been done before.
Davie: Meyrowitz and I talked about the fact that the UFC was the brand and that it was bigger than the fighters. There was nobody we felt in MMA at that point in time that was bigger than the UFC. The brand was the star.
DePersia: We tried to get name recognition and star power. I started to develop that with my guys despite what the UFC group wanted. They didn't want any type of star power. They wanted the brand name. You had interchangeable components that cost minimal money. I tried to go the other way, to create identities.
Hall: I didn't think I could get anywhere in the business without having a good manager like that, who has everyone else hooked up.
Isaacs: We weren't thrilled with the idea DePersia could exercise pricing power or decision-making power on our product simply by representing the fighters.
DePersia: They couldn't do a show unless we agreed. You took a union-type position. It really benefited everybody because it raised the entire pay scale for everyone. They didn't expect it and, obviously, they hated it.
Nothing angered SEG more than when DePersia sent several fighters to Japan to participate in a show that took place only three weeks prior to the Ultimate Ultimate. Dubbed U-Japan, it featured Frye, Hall, Varelans and Kimo -- virtually half of SEG's tournament lineup.
Frye: Meyrowitz was pissed. He was screaming at me on the telephone. I love old Bob, but s---, I was 30 years old, 10 feet tall and bulletproof.
Davie: If there was a potential injury, you're damaging a show we've booked. Marketing materials were in circulation. There was concern DePersia was booking these people too close to the event.
Isaacs: It was bulls---, absolute bulls--- from DePersia. He thought he was very sneaky, thought he'd have a monopoly on the talent and could exercise that pricing power with us. We didn't know about it. It's not like we said, "Oh, good plan!" There were guys at risk of potentially losing.
DePersia: You have to understand, it's not like it is now where you look and constantly see there's an event on. At that point, events were far and few between. If one was coming up and you weren't part of it, it might be several months before one came up again. You fought like crazy to get on that card. Who knew when the next one was coming?
Isaacs: He was operating as though he was an independent player in this business. It wasn't helpful for a fighter to be represented by DePersia at that point. I would never say I would not use a fighter because of who represents them, but I would say to them that it was hard for us to work with him.
The Alabama State Fairgrounds in Birmingham were crowded with 6,000 fans on Dec. 7 for UFC's second show in the arena, a standing-room-only floor space usually reserved for rodeos. (In a testament to the UFC's brand power, a rival MMA event, Martial Arts Reality Superfighting, had sold only 100 tickets in the same venue just weeks prior.) Viewers at home could purchase the event for $24.95 on pay-per-view. Because there were no size restrictions, there was no need for a weigh-in.
Joining Shamrock, Frye, Abbott, Worsham, Johnston and Varelans in pursuit of the $150,000 grand prize was Hawaiian enigma Kimo and arm wrestler-turned-fighter Gary Goodridge. Alternates, including Hall and Steve Nelmark, were on tap in the highly probable event a fighter could not continue.
Beck: We were looking for a smaller venue, with screaming, enthusiastic, drunk fans. That was our target audience.
Worsham: We had curtains backstage, almost like an ER. So you hear, "Ahhh!" Guys all around you, guys from the prelim fights coming in moaning and groaning, "Stop the bleeding," and all this stuff. It was kind of crazy.
Abbott: When I get there, I'm getting the cold shoulder from [referee] John McCarthy and his wife, Elaine. [Abbott had exchanged words with Elaine several months prior over his participation in a ringside brawl.] Then I get to the arena and everybody's got a dressing room. That was part of Elaine's job at the show. I have a broom closet, a little broom closet. I'm like, "Are you kidding me?" She's like, "Oh, that's all we have." I told them all to f--- off.
Shamrock: I remember when I fought Royce Gracie. I thought the same thing -- I was kind of stuck in a small room. He got the bigger room with all his family in it, the closed-circuit TV. But to me, he's the champ. He's the guy on top. Until you get to that point, don't bitch.
Worsham: There was a training area within the hotel with mats. All week long, it stayed the same order: everyone else, Tank, then me. I got the last slot of the night. And this particular room at the hotel in Birmingham, they had glass walls and papered it over. It was a storage area for all of their holiday ornaments. The room was fairly dark because of the paper and only a little bit of light from the lobby would come in.
I'm literally in there two minutes or less and somebody in my group yelled, "Stop, you're bleeding." I looked and there were dots of blood all over my legs, my arms, my back, my face. What we had found was that somebody had taken some very small Christmas light bulbs and had crushed them up and thrown them on the mat. I can't prove who did it, but I can tell you nobody else complained about it but me. So you can figure out who did what and when.
Abbott: That is absolute, pure fantasy. To even go to that level, that people are trying to sabotage you, he's just making up stories. Cal Worsham I wouldn't even think about at all, much less, "Oh, let's put Christmas ornaments on the mat."
Isaacs: If it did happen, I would say it may not have been Abbott. Abbott is a wrestler. I don't think he would mess with that. He respects things like that, but his guys were not above pulling dirty tricks.
Shamrock's first-round opponent was Johnston, a capable Judoka who had competed -- and lost -- to some of the sport's best in Frye and Coleman.
Johnston: He took me down off a kick, a beautiful takedown. It was textbook. But my guard really lacked. I didn't attempt a sweep. There were 100 different things that I knew how to do by that point, but I didn't do them. Ken, with his stature at that time -- I could've done so much more.
Shamrock: Brian was always a decent-sized guy. But when he came into this fight, man, he was big. Immediately, I changed what I was going to do. By staying in his guard and driving his head against the fence like I did, I had easy access to punching him.
Johnston: Hitting someone in the skull so many times, you're doing more harm to [yourself] than to them.
Davie: Ken came in buffed up, tight, strong. But again, looking at him with Brian Johnston pinned up against the fence, knowing Ken's hands tended to be brittle, seeing him throw as many punches as he did, I remember David Isaacs grabbing my coat and saying, with panic in his eyes, "Is he going to be OK?"
Shamrock: When I was striking, everything was landing where I wanted it to. Then he turned and I hit him on the top of the head. That's when I broke it. I kept punching continuously after that with the same hand, and then it went numb. I had to change hands and start punching with my left. He gave me that choke against the fence after I punched him several times.
As Shamrock dropped a hint to interviewer Tony Blauer that his hand would need a doctor's investigation, Frye entered to face Goodridge a second time -- their first fight at UFC 8 had left both men gasping for air. This would be no different.
Goodridge: I wasn't a wrestler at all. I didn't like my body getting sweaty and then losing the grip. I wanted to get hold of him, keep a grip on him. The thing is, I saw Royce Gracie use the Gi and it worked for him. So I thought, "What the hell, why wouldn't it work for me?"
Frye: Oh, I was happy as a pig in s--- when he wore the Gi. It's a handle to grab hold of and be able to swing for the fences. I knew that it would wear him out because old Gary is just solid muscle. Those Gis are hot. It makes you dehydrate twice as fast. And I know Judo. Every bit of it was to my advantage.
Worsham: You saw it once Gary's heart kind of sunk and he gave up the ghost by tapping. But up until that point, he was really manhandling Don. Don was really well-rounded and had the heart of a lion. You'd have to kill him to beat him.
Goodridge: I was completely exhausted. There was no way I could've continued. If the fight had continued, they would've stopped it anyway because he would've just been beating on me. I just needed to lie down. My corner was like, "Get him some oxygen!" I couldn't even talk. I had never been that tired in my life.
Frye: I cheated even though there was no cheating back then. I brought a buddy of mine that was a paramedic, and after the fight he put three bags of IV fluid into me. It rehydrated me immediately, so I was good to go right away.
For the second quarterfinal bout, SEG's subtle sense of humor manifested itself in onetime-jailbird Abbott facing Folsom State Prison correctional officer Worsham.
Worsham: Apparently, in interviews he had told Blatnick he was going to be the first one to throw his opponent out of the cage. And he got real, real close.
Abbott: Everybody's going, "Oh, you tried to throw him out of the Octagon." The fact of the matter is, if I wanted to throw him out of the Octagon, I could've very easily done that. I could've thrown him 6 feet up in the air and over the top. But I did not want to go back to do everything all over again, so I just grabbed and slammed him on his back.
Worsham: The only thing that saved me was the padding on top. I put my heel under it. That's the only thing that stopped him from throwing me out. If he had thrown me, people would've been cheering and laughing. I would've had to get up and get someone to open the cage up for me. I get enough flak as it is: "Oh, you're the guy Tank almost threw out." Yeah -- almost. But he didn't.
Isaacs: I think Worsham wanted to show a clean-cut guy could teach Tank a lesson.
Worsham: Tank turns to McCarthy and says, "He's eye-gouging me." John says, "Watch the fingers, Cal." Well, I wasn't! But every time he said that, his left hand was on the right side of my face and his thumb is below my eye, so he's digging his thumb into my eye and for some reason there's not a single camera angle that catches it. At that point, while he was doing that, I reached out and tapped.
Abbott: I don't need to stick my finger in Cal Worsham's eye. That's ridiculous.
Worsham: John came in and put a hand on his shoulder and one on me and so I relaxed my guard. Tank rears up and drills me with his right hand in the mouth with his two knuckles like he was trying to break off my upper palate. I was shocked and livid.
Davie: I remember reprimanding him about his behavior in the bout with Worsham.
Worsham: I get up and John pushes me into the fence. It was bizarre. I went from worrying about the chest injury to this. My brother said, "You should've been that mad from the start.'"
Despite all the favorites advancing, the semifinals were immediately in disarray. Kimo, having exhausted himself against Varelans, pulled out; having broken his hand, Shamrock was unable to satisfy the audience's desire to see him settle his score with Abbott. Alternate Nelmark would be Shamrock's replacement.
Abbott: I had a go-to type of guy, not really a cornerman. He carried out what I wanted done. He goes, "Ken's not going to fight you." This was after [the Worsham bout]. He says, "I'm telling you right now, he is not going to fight you." Sure enough, what happens? Ken comes back injured. I'd like to see his medical reports.
Shamrock: I thought I could still fight. I wasn't going to punch with Tank. I was going to go in and throw a couple of leg kicks, maybe throw one or two punches and then take him down against the fence and sweep him. But when I got back to the triage, I had a big lump in my hand. I'm sure the bone would've come through the skin sooner or later.
Nelmark: They told me Shamrock broke his hand and couldn't fight. I had fought Marcus Bossett first. I delivered 36 head-butts in that fight. The only reason I know that number is because afterward the announcer asked if my 36 head-butts contributed to me winning. They asked about [fighting] Tank and I said, "Sure."
Abbott: We all saw what happened in that fight.
Nelmark: I had him choked out. If anyone watches the fight, he put his hand down, and I thought he tapped. I had him in a front choke. I loosened up, and he caught me on the side of the head that was soft from the head-butts.
Worsham: It looked like he broke Nelmark's neck. When I saw that, I thought, "Jeez, thank god that didn't happen to me."
Isaacs: He looked like a rag doll. Art Davie and I were sitting right behind them.
Nelmark: I wasn't even knocked out. If you watch the fight, it looks horrible because I just collapse. He hit a part of my nervous system that knocked my motor functions out. I collapsed because I couldn't move. But I never lost consciousness.
Abbott: [Laughing.] I'd sooner say he was stretched out.
Davie: When Nelmark got hit, I remember looking at Richard Istrico, our fight doctor, and thinking, "You need to get into the ring." Nelmark looked gut-shot. He looked like he had been hit by a bolt between the eyebrows.
Isaacs: I think we definitely didn't want to linger on something, especially when we didn't know yet whether there was a serious injury. If it were, I wouldn't want be seen profiting from that moment.
Davie: Quite frankly, videos like that were used to promote the show.
With Kimo out, Frye's proverbial bad penny turned up once more: Moo Yea Do martial artist Hall was an undersized but determined competitor who had already taken two prolonged beatings from Frye that year, including one just three weeks prior at U-Japan.
Hall: After I took Don almost the distance at UFC 10, Frye's camp was real mad. They always made me feel guilty because I should've tapped out so Don could've saved his energy and gone on to win. Like, "If you knew you were going to lose, why prolong the fight?" Because, motherf---er, I'm not a quick tap. I know that there could be a chance I could win. My motto was, "Don't ever give up."
Frye: The first time I fought him, I was full of myself. I was arrogant. I felt sorry for him having to fight me. That's why I just attacked the body for 10 minutes. He was too dumb to quit, so I started tagging him in the face. That was my fault. I should've gone for the kill right away.
Worsham: The first time he fought Don, [Hall] showed a lot of heart. Frye had cracked Mark's ribs with body shots and Don heard it. [Don] told him to give up and Mark said, "I can't."
Hall: I guess he thought he was going to make short work of me the second time in Japan, but he's lucky because my rib was broken on my left side. Nobody knew that. I had to fight because I had bills.
Frye: They walk in and say Kimo's out. OK, well, who am I fighting? They said Hall. If you saw the fight between me and him in Japan, I whooped the s--- out of him. He looked like he got a face full of buckshot pellets. I wasn't worried.
Hall: So we're sitting there and all of the alternates are almost used up. Then they called me out and it was, "Go get ready, you're going to fight Don Frye." He just kept popping up in my career. I'm like, "Why doesn't this guy get lost?"
In contrast to their earlier meetings, Hall tapped to an Achilles lock just 20 seconds into their Ultimate Ultimate bout, writhing in pain on the mat. He was helped backstage by Varelans.
Nine months later, Hall issued a statement claiming he had been pressured by Frye's camp to get Frye in and out of the cage quickly so he'd be fresh for the finals, with promises of a share of Frye's purse for cooperating. Their logic, according to Hall, was that Frye had beaten him twice over and there was no point in tiring Frye out when he had a legitimate shot at defeating Abbott.
Isaacs: All I can do is go: Does it seem like that fight ended a lot quicker than I thought it would? Yes. Does it make sense from a business perspective they would want to do that? I can understand it. Would Mark do it? I don't know. He may just have said that so people wouldn't think he lost so quickly.
Frye: Hall's a f---ing psycho. Accept the defeat like a man. Why would I need anybody to ask him to throw the fight?
Worsham: I know Don really well. He'll kick your ass the good old-fashioned way. He didn't need Mark Hall to throw anything.
Isaacs: Most of the time, if the fix is in, the promoters are the ones doing the fixing. We never fixed fights. I thought about it, to be honest. But we never did. It probably would've helped our business to come at it from that perspective.
Davie: As a booker and matchmaker, when I look at that fight, I would have my suspicions. But we did not make it an issue.
Johnston: We did train a lot of ankle locks. Don and I worked on a lot of them. Honestly, I don't know what happened. I've never asked Don about it. I've known him a long time. I just don't see him going there. But nobody ever knows.
Hall: There was one guy at the after-party, [UFC Interviewer] Tony Blauer. He asked me, "Hey, Mark, was that real?" I just looked at him and smiled. That's all I did. I put my hands out, shrugged my shoulders. Nothing else I could do.
Hall stewed, believing Frye owed him a financial gift for the quick finish. With no athletic commission in Alabama to mediate, he took his grievance to UFC president Bob Meyrowitz before going public with the accusation in September 1997.
Hall: I called Bob and he said, "Why are you doing this? Why are you telling us? Do you want something?" I go, "No, I don't want anything. I just want you to know that." I honestly didn't even want to fight anymore. The fight business had made me sick. I was tired of it. I got ruined in a way you can't put back together.
DePersia: The first time I heard about it was when he talked about it. I was like, "What's he talking about?" It caught everybody by surprise. Everybody who dealt with me knows I was always straightforward. People who knew me knew it was something I would not be even remotely involved with.
Johnston: Think about it logically. Would you ask Mark to throw the fight? It's kind of comical when you think of his ability.
Hall: Don's very tough and he's got a lot of technique. But to me, he's a bully. If you just want to fight smaller guys all the time, you're just a bully. Every time he fought somebody who was his size and had experience, he had to pack a lunch.
Frye: If you're fool enough to believe him, believe him. If you've got enough common sense not to believe him, I don't need to waste my breath trying to convince you.
Varelans: I don't think anyone's ego at that point would allow them to do that.
Hall: It's probably taken years off my life, just f---ing thinking and worrying about it. I can't stand it.
Then as now, Hall was unable to provide any corroborating evidence for the claim: If Frye and Hall had any communication prior to their bout, no one backstage has stepped forward to confirm it. Frye toyed with the idea of legal action but dismissed it in favor of challenging Hall for a fourth time -- winner take all. The bout never materialized.
Isaacs: I think we had sort of done our thing with Hall. We knew he was a game fighter, but we didn't necessarily need that. He wasn't a guy who was actively going to compete for a title.
Hall: Why did I have to fight Frye all the time? It's just a bunch of s---. I should've fought people like Jerry Bohlander. But I never got to. I never f---ing got to.
Having put Hall down for the third time in six months, Frye entered the finals against Abbott. Both men appeared relatively unscathed, a rarity for the UFC's unforgiving format. It would be the most exciting -- albeit brief -- finish to a tournament the promotion would ever see.
Abbott: I go in there and hit him with a jab; I rock him pretty good. He's out on his feet.
Davie: When Tank and Frye were in the final -- Tank had been taking some boxing lessons -- he threw the toughest, straightest, hardest jab that pushes Frye back across the Octagon. Isaacs grabs my leg and he says to me, "He's going to win. He's going to do it."
Abbott: I was shuffling back, hitting him, and he staggered and stepped on my foot. I fell on my back.
Beck: I think Tank just fatigued. Worsham and Nelmark were beatable, but then he was up against Frye, who had skill. I remember thinking that if he doesn't win in the first minute or two, he's done.
Frye: When I fought him, he was at his peak. He was benching 600 pounds. The UFC paid for Jesse Reid to train Tank because they wanted Tank to be their poster boy. When I beat him, I beat a real man.
Abbott: I had been working on an ankle lock. When people had gotten on my back, I could reach down and grab their toe, dig my elbow into their shin and snap their foot, basically. Everybody that I had done it with was wearing wrestling shoes. So I was all right with the fact I was going to get his ankle and get him to tap out -- if not snap his foot.
Isaacs: He's monstrously strong, and his thinking was always guys won't be able to submit him, can't do this, can't do that.
Abbott: But he didn't have shoes on. His feet were all sweaty. His foot just slid right out of my hand. As soon as that happened, I knew I was toast. He got his choke in.
Worsham: Don was John Wayne. He doesn't even have to have it technically correct. He's got titanium rods for arms. He puts pressure on your neck and you're in severe pain. He got the better of Tank. I lived through him vicariously.
Abbott: I went to the cocktail party, he went to the hospital.
Frye: I had a real bad boxer's break in my hand. He's got a hard head. When I got back to the bar, everybody was leaving.
Hall: After the show, Tank and his cronies were waiting for Ken outside. Then Ken got escorted out by security like a little wuss.
Frye, who went an astounding 10-1 in 1996, enjoyed the victory lap in the months to come, unaware he would never return to the promotion. Having suffered a broken hand, he was unable to satisfy SEG's plans for the tournament winner to meet Severn. Instead, Frye traveled to Japan to begin a lucrative career in professional wrestling.
It was an exodus that would become increasingly common with SEG's biggest stars of the era because of waning business and increased political pressure. (The 1995 Ultimate Ultimate had garnered nearly 300,000 buys on pay television; the 1996 edition only 130,000.)
Just as SEG was about to finally sign Abbott and Shamrock for their grudge match, Shamrock went to WWE. Despite being under the same fighting promotion several times since, the fight has never materialized.
Davie: Every time we tried, circumstance and the universe seemed to intrude and prevent us from getting those two guys together. It would've been a wonderful match.
Abbott: We were supposed to fight in 2009. He had a bum that weighed 360 pounds and probably couldn't even tie his own shoelaces. I had a B-level fighter. I knocked that guy out. Ken fights the other guy and then he tests positive for steroids. It's like, are you kidding me? Why would you take steroids to fight that guy?
Isaacs: Abbott would definitely fight Ken. He always thinks he would kill Ken in a fight. His version is Ken was always hopped up on 'roids, and a naturally strong man such as himself would have a tremendous advantage.
Shamrock: My style would've been horrible for him. When it gets to the ground, the only thing he knows how to do is go to the referee's position. I wish it would've happened. I think most people realize I would've won.
Isaacs: Abbott saw Ken at some wrestling event of some sort. They were older and were talking like, "It'd be great, we could talk up the old rivalry." They're talking about it like professionals.
Abbott: I was at an autograph signing in Philadelphia. Ken comes up and he's like, "Everybody takes steroids!" I was drinking a cocktail and I rubbed my stomach and said, "Not me, big daddy." He walked off. My girlfriend has no idea about the fight business. She said, "Who was that?" I go, "That's Ken Shamrock." "Oh, my gosh! He's like a midget! He's 185 pounds!" I go, "Yep."
Shamrock: The representation Tank gives is not the representation I would give on steroids. The problem with this is it's there. No matter how many times government or Congress wants to put in a law, it's here and it's not going anywhere.
Isaacs: At the end of the day, most guys didn't want to do the tournament anymore. They just thought it was too risky and that they didn't need to do it, that it was something beginners needed to do. They looked at boxing and wrestling and said, "Those guys aren't doing it, why are we?"
Worsham: We kind of pioneered a sport that had no shape yet. Now it's legit, mainstream. It's crazy. I'm in awe of the group that was assembled for that night. You'll never see it again. For back in that day, it was a who's who. To think I even had a small part is just an absolute honor. Like I tell people, I was mediocre, but I was mediocre at a world-class level.
Frye: I saw Abbott a couple years ago at a fan fest. He said, "I came over here just to see you, partner." He shook my hand and gave me a big hug. Made me happier than a pig in s--- to have that kind of respect from that man.
Abbott: The beginning of the UFC, there's that little clique of guys that, for the most part, I call clowns, but by the same token, it was like a little brotherhood where we did something not too many people in this world would do. I tip my hat to them. Even Shamrock.
Ken Shamrock 48, left WWE in 1999 to resume his fighting career in Japan's Pride organization. After losing a memorable bout with Don Frye overseas, he returned to the UFC in 2002 for a series of fights against Tito Ortiz. Though not officially retired, he hasn't competed since November 2010.
Don Frye, 47, spent several years in New Japan Pro Wrestling before returning to MMA in 2001. After enduring several back surgeries -- the last of which fused three vertebrae -- Frye fought in December 2011 for the California-based Gladiator Challenge promotion. He remains one of the few marquee athletes to end their UFC career on a win.
David "Tank" Abbott, 47, continued alternating wins and losses in the UFC before departing for the scripted competition of World Championship Wrestling in 1999. Now semiretired, Abbott has written a trilogy of novels thought to be a fictionalized version of his memoirs. The first, "Bar Brawler," was released in June 2012.
Gary Goodridge, 46, last fought for the UFC in 1999; he avenged his earlier losses to Frye with a knockout victory in a 2003 Pride event. Now retired, Goodridge has frequently been profiled in relation to his increasing cognitive difficulties, thought to be the result of brain trauma suffered during his career. His autobiography, "Gatekeeper," was released in 2012.
Paul Varelans, 43, retired in 1998. He hopes to go back to school for networking and security.
Kimo, 44, defeated Abbott in 2003 before losing to Shamrock the following year. He and Abbott recently fought to a draw in a celebrity boxing exhibition for charity.
Brian Johnston, 41, fought once more in the UFC in 1997 before following Frye into Japanese pro wrestling. In 2001, he suffered a stroke that ended his athletic career.
Cal Worsham, 49, did not appear in the UFC again. He continues to compete for the Gladiator Challenge promotion while working for Folsom's waste management division.
Mark Hall, 51, traveled to Brazil to compete before retiring in 2001. Currently the owner of a construction company, Hall is working on a book and screenplay about his life and hopes to resurrect his Cobra Challenge promotion in California.
Steve Nelmark, 47, never fought again after the Ultimate Ultimate. He continues to work as an electrician.
Bruce Beck left the UFC in 1997 to assume a broadcasting role for an NBC affiliate in New York. He has made periodic returns to play-by-play commentating, most notably for Bob Meyrowitz's Yamma Pit Fighting promotion in 2007.
Jeff Blatnick helped author the Unified Rules for mixed martial arts that were later adopted by athletic commissions across the country. Relieved of his UFC broadcasting duties in 2001, he continued to serve as a judge for sanctioning bodies before dying from complications following heart surgery in October 2012.
Robert DePersia stepped out of the MMA industry in 1999 to have more time to raise his two sets of twins. He continues to practice law in New Jersey.
David Isaacs left the UFC in 1999. As president of Double Fusion, Isaacs coordinates in-game advertising across a variety of console platforms.
Art Davie parted ways with the UFC in 1997 to pursue other interests. His hybrid arm wrestling/fighting promotion, XARM, continues to operate out of Las Vegas.
Jake Rossen is a contributor for ESPN.com.