Regardless if Holly Holm wins the women’s featherweight belt at UFC 208, or if it’s Germaine de Randamie who takes home the title on February 11, there will be a small piece of Mark Coleman inside the Octagon.
Coleman’s there every time the UFC crowns a new champion, every time a belt is wrapped around a waist, or draped over a shoulder. “The Hammer,” “The Godfather of Ground and Pound,” and the elder statesmen of the UFC championship era, Coleman is near whenever a hand is raised in a title-clinching performance because he did it first, exactly 20 years ago today.
It’s an achievement worthy of celebration, and a distinction that requires remembrance; Mark Coleman became the UFC’s first heavyweight champion on February 7, 1997.
“Everything I always ever dreamed of came true, right about there,” reflects Coleman. “My whole life I wanted to be the world champion.”
His historic victory ushered in a new age of weight classes and order, steering the nascent UFC away from its no-holds-barred incarnation, while laying the foundation for a sport that would eventually be known as mixed martial arts. Two decades later, it’s essential to honor Coleman’s monumental win, especially when considering how it ended up an unlikely precursor to Holm and de Randamie’s inaugural featherweight title fight this Saturday.
And to think that Coleman almost never even had a chance ...
Mark Coleman got little to no sleep on February 6, 1997.
Set to face Dan Severn the following day in Niagara Falls, Coleman was preparing for what was to be his finest moment, when then-CEO Bob Meyrowitz called an eleventh-hour meeting to announce that the UFC was barred from promoting in New York. Booted from the Empire State, the fighters would be forced to flee.
“They called a meeting at 7 o'clock at night. They brought all the fighters in and ... Bob Meyrowitz told everybody, ‘Go to your rooms, pack your bags, we’re heading to Alabama tonight’” offers Coleman.
Relocating UFC 12 to Dothan, the brass from Semaphore Entertainment Group orchestrated a mad dash south, loading all of the event’s combatants onto a chartered jet for the 1,000-mile southbound journey. Calm within a sea of chaos and rapidly moving pieces, Coleman remained undistracted, focused on his heavyweight bout against “The Beast.”
“Coming from a wrestling background, it wasn’t like it shook me up that much,” recalls Coleman. “I just said, 'Tomorrow night I’m gonna be fighting Dan Severn for the first ever world heavyweight title,'and that’s what I wanted my whole life, to be the world champion.”
"That’s what I wanted my whole life, to be the world champion." - Mark Coleman
Already a winner of the UFC 10 and 11 tournaments, Coleman was unable to rest on the plane to Dothan. With his adrenaline spiking, “The Hammer” spent the entire flight chatting with with UFC rookie Vitor Belfort. The pair traded old vale tudo and NHB stories until they arrived at the fighter hotel around 4 a.m. Once situated inside his room, Coleman continued to battle insomnia.
For weeks prior to UFC 12, Coleman and Severn participated in pre-fight media and production, fueling the pair of former Olympians to build a serviceable rivalry. The introduction of a heavyweight title and division gave new significance to the UFC belt; Coleman would put his pair of tournament championships on the line against Severn’s Ultimate Ultimate and Superfight titles.
Pegged as the underdog, Coleman paid no attention to the pre-fight odds. He simply wanted the opportunity to make good on a prophecy he delivered less than four years prior, when he first saw the UFC on Pay Per View.
“I was sitting around with about five of my wrestling buddies, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” comments Coleman. “I thought ‘This can’t be really happening. It can’t be real, and if it was, this was the greatest sport ever’ ... but how was this happening? Somebody got this done, somebody got this sport on TV.
"I couldn’t believe my eyes. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing." - Mark Coleman
“I was sitting there saying, ‘This is my money’ when Royce Gracie won [UFC 1]. ‘That’s my money. I can beat all these guys.' I knew I needed to be in the UFC.”
Conceding 20 pounds to Severn and his 260-pound frame, Coleman entered UFC 12 with the same gameplan that helped him to five, straight finishes inside the Octagon.
Coleman did make one major change, however, opting to forego the four ounce gloves he had previously worn in the UFC’s tournament format. One fight on one night, rather than two or three, meant that Coleman would risk self-preservation, along with broken phalanges and metacarpals, in hopes of inflicting more damage on his opponent.
“You wear the gloves cause you gotta protect your hands and stay healthy for the third fight,” states Coleman. “One fight, one night ... I’m not wearing gloves because I planned on punching this guy, hard, and I think it hurts a lot worse without the gloves on. Yeah, you may break your hand, but I was willing to take that risk.
“A lot of people said I didn’t wear gloves because Dan Severn was my friend and it was gonna be a wrestling match. That’s so far from the truth. I took the gloves off because I planned on hitting this guy, not because I was gonna wrestle him.”
"You may break your hand, but I was willing to take that risk." - Mark Coleman
Starting on the feet, Coleman connected on a few early punches, staggering Severn.
The bare-knuckle tactic worked, and Severn shot for an ill-advised takedown on one of the sport’s most decorated wrestlers. Once on the ground, Coleman needed less than three minutes to earn the submission win.
It wasn’t exactly how he envisioned it, but using a scarf-hold headlock, occasionally referenced as a neck crank, Coleman succeeded in making an indelible mark in the MMA history books.
“I wanted to throw the haymaker, but when the lights came on, I went back to my instincts and I took people down,” remembers Coleman. “You have to take what the man gives you. “The Beast” left it open for the crank. I’m not going to deny that he fought that neck crank a lot longer than most people did in practice and I was exerting a lot of energy to finish this damn fight off. Dan Severn was fighting it like a champion; he actually stuffed his fingers in my eye … I took what he gave me.”
"That’s something no one can ever take away from me." - Carla Esparza
Previously, a champion with the all female Invicta FC, Esparza inserted her name in the record books with a third-round submission of Rose Namajunas at The Ultimate Fighter 20 Finale. The victory came on the heels of a single-elimination tournament, further distinguishing the feat.
When compared to Coleman, though, Esparza is undeniable proof of how far the UFC, and the sport of mixed martial arts has come in the the decades since the first divisional title. And, when compared to Coleman, Esparza could not be more different than the brawny, hulking midwestern heavyweight.
It is only the UFC title that binds the two.
“It’s a responsibility,” adds Esparza. “There’s definitely more eyes on you, and you influence more people … if anything, I felt like I went through a much harder journey than most to get the belt.”
Like Coleman, Esparza was never able to defend the belt.
Dropping his title just one fight later to Maurice Smith, Coleman would never taste UFC gold for a second time; Esparza relinquished the championship three months after her historic win, falling to Joanna Jędrzejczyk at UFC 185.
A vastly different skill than winning the belt, a title defense never eluded Frank Shamrock, however. The UFC’s first middleweight champion (now known as light heavyweight), Shamrock not only went a perfect 5-0 in UFC title fights; he also never lost inside the Octagon.
Shamrock, who fought for the UFC title in his first bout for the promotion, was already an established MMA fighter by the time he faced Kevin Jackson at UFC Japan in December 1997. The self-referenced “first complete mixed martial artist,” Shamrock was a seasoned grappler and submission artist long before he competed in the UFC.
Despite his accolades and unblemished record in the Octagon, he still claims the honor was anti-climactic, at best.
“It was a childhood dream ... it ended so quickly … I had all this great lifelong intention and it was over so fast. I didn’t even get to express any of it,” recollects Shamrock. “Weirdly enough, I walked away from that first moment going, ‘That’s it? That’s all there is?’ I thought there would be so much more to becoming a world champion.”
Disinterest continued to follow Shamrock during his years with the UFC, as his skill remained unmatched by his peers. Shamrock would eventually walk away from the UFC and the belt, citing a lack of competition; his four, straight title defenses, all via stoppage, cemented Shamrock’s place as the UFC’s first dominant divisional champion.
"I thought there would be so much more to becoming a world champion.” - Frank Shamrock
“The minute I walked away with that championship, I realized everyone was looking at me, everybody studied my style, everybody changed their barometer and understanding to beat me … it took me to the next level of understanding,” states Shamrock. “I was the greatest star in a dying sport, and I was beating everybody, handily, easily, and yeah, so I told all this to my coaches and … I put a line in my contract that allowed me to retire.”
Walking away from the UFC at just 26 years of age, Shamrock would continue to compete in MMA for another decade, although he would never return to the Octagon.
Coming full circle was, however, an option for Coleman. Following a decade in Japan, fighting for Pride, “The Hammer” was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame in 2008. He then completed a UFC comeback a year later, at the age of 44.
No longer the dominant specimen he was a 10 years earlier, and far removed from his days as Pride Heavyweight Grand Prix champion, Coleman’s second run in the UFC, this time as a light heavyweight, fizzled out a year later. The evolution of the sport, and changes to the rule set impacted Coleman’s ability to manhandle the competition.
In retrospect, he admits that his early dominance was, in part, a byproduct of MMA’s early (lack of) rules.
“It wasn’t really fair because I was kind of ahead of the game at the time,” comments Coleman. “Taking the headbutt away from me changed the whole game … without the headbutts, ground and pound wasn’t so easy.”
Despite going just 1-2 during his second stint inside the Octagon, Coleman remains sure of his legacy.
“Taking the headbutt away from me changed the whole game." - Mark Coleman
“Back in ‘96, I said everybody better learn how to wrestle,” adds Coleman. “Ground and pound is still there ... everybody’s done their homework. Everybody’s so well rounded … but for the most part, most people don’t ever want to be on their back. It’s not a good place to be. It can be scary ... people raining down fists and elbows.”
With the introduction of a new UFC weight class and title now just days away, it remains to be seen if 20 years from now, February 11, 2017 goes down as a historic night. And while Holm and de Randamie have the opportunity to join Coleman as inaugural UFC division champions, only time will tell whether the achievement resonates for decades to come.
But make no mistake about it, every time a new champion is crowned, Coleman is there in spirit, trace amounts of his aura ever present inside the Octagon.
Without “The Hammer,” there would be no Conor McGregor or Amanda Nunes. Demetrious Johnson, Michael Bisping, Joanna Jędrzejczyk and Tyron Woodley; there’s a little bit of Coleman in them too, just like “The Hammer” paved the way for fellow Ohio natives Cody Garbrandt, the UFC’s newest champion, and Stipe Miocic, the current heavyweight kingpin.
Every time a belt is on the line, Mark “The Hammer” Coleman is omnipresent; Coleman’s never far away from the most coveted title in mixed martial arts because he was there before everyone else.
“You don’t forget the first champ, bottom line. That’s why I knew it was so important,” adds Coleman. “A lot of people can’t name the second, and after the third one, it gets confusing and all of them get confusing ... I wanted to be the first heavyweight champion."