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Jim Brown Was the Perfect Man for the Moment as UFC Forged the Sport of the Future
Plus Thoughts on Netflix's Conor McGregor Series
Jim Brown passed away Thursday at the age of 87. He was a man who lived a big life, an athletic star, community leader, civil rights advocate, actor and much more. His UFC tenure barely rates a footnote. I’ll tell that story anyway, as he was one of the central figures in launching this sport so many of us came to love.
In the early days of the Ultimate Fighting Championship no one knew anything. This wasn’t their fault of course. A number of distinct martial arts had been tossed into a blender and spit out in primordial form right into a steel cage. Figuring out how techniques and strategies would come back together was part of a grand experiment we all undertook together, the modern martial arts invented in real time based almost entirely on what worked when an angry behemoth was trying to rip your head off and what didn’t.
No Holds Barred, as it was called at the time, was all about proving things in practice. Theory was for pussies.
Joining us for this journey into the fistic unknown was a man’s man, a football legend who preferred dishing out punishment to stepping out of bounds, an action star who once publicly contemplated fighting Muhammad Ali—and nobody laughed.
Jim Brown and the UFC were a combination that just worked.
“Jim Brown brought a tough man legitimacy to this event,” Campbell McLaren, former UFC executive and current Combate Global CEO said. “He was Jim Brown…that's like having fucking Babe Ruth at your event.”
Brown was no martial artist and, to his credit, didn’t pretend to be. He was a proxy for the audience, exploring this new world with an open mind and heart, just another fan watching in awe as the sport of the future was forged right in front of his eyes.
“I’ve been around the toughest fighters in the world in Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, Mike Tyson,” Brown said at UFC 1. “I’ve been around the greatest NFL players, the tough guys. Dick Butkus, Sam Huff, all of those guys. But I tell you, they could not last in this ring.”
As I wrote in The MMA Encyclopedia:
In 1993, UFC was looking to establish an identity, to tell people and sportswriters what they were all about. They needed an announcer and advocate who impressed older sports media, one who also had a passing familiarity with violence. Jim Brown was perfect. To football fans in the baby boomer generation, Brown was simply the greatest. Not only was he the NFL's all-time leading rusher, he accomplished that goal while never taking a step back and never stepping out of bounds to avoid a hit.
…His presence was integral as the voice of the fan. Brown watched the fights and said aloud the things fans were thinking, asked the questions many were asking at home about Jiu Jitsu and grappling. And when Jim Brown said someone was a tough guy, well, that meant something.
“Jim was maybe 60 and you tell by the way he walked in the room and the way he acted that he figured he could still take these guys,” former UFC President David Isaacs said. “He was Jim "Fuckin" Brown. When he spoke on the air I think it had that authenticity. This is a tough guy telling us this is a tough sport. And Jim told it like it was. You couldn't buy Jim Brown. You couldn't get him to say it unless he really thought it.”
Brown called the first six UFC events as a color commentator, confident, inquisitive and almost always the most famous man in the building. His status as an icon to a certain generation of men came in handy often, as the company began facing political pressure almost immediately.
“When we went to Denver and they wanted to shut us down, he went to play golf with the mayor and we were fine,” McLaren said. “It's Jim Brown. You're not going to shut Jim Brown down.”
Brown’s greatest announcing moment came at UFC 4 in what would become the promotion’s first great fight. Royce Gracie had spent almost 16 minutes, the entirety of the bout, underneath the powerful American wrestler Dan Severn. It looked, for the first time, like the Gracie family would finally meet defeat.
Jeff Blatnick, Brown’s fellow commentator and a freestyle Olympian was all but gloating about a changing of the guard. When Gracie snuck a triangle up to win the fight, forcing the big wrestler to tap the mat, neither Blatnick nor Severn saw it coming. Much, it seemed, to Brown’s obvious delight.
“Talk to me,” the football Hall-of-Famer exclaimed. “Talk to me! Don’t you ever say that again Jeff. About a rassler.”
In that moment, Brown was all of us, lost in the moment as one man imposed his will on another, everything we thought we knew about fighting rewritten by the tiny Brazilian in his pajamas. It was martial arts at its best, sports in its most pure form. And Brown was the perfect man for the moment.
Rest in Power.
There’s a lot to unpack from Netflix’s new series McGregor Forever. I devoured all four episodes and never felt it was time wasted. It’s occasionally intensely personal, with the Irish star allowing himself to be filmed at vulnerable moments, allowing fans a glimpse of the fight game we aren’t normally privileged to see.
It’s also intensely dishonest, pruning most of McGregor’s prickly thorns and painting an almost impossibly incomplete picture of his second run with the UFC. You won’t hear any mention of his copious legal troubles. His gross promotion of the Nurmagomedov fight, based mostly on religious differences, was also redacted. If you’re looking for an explanation of his nasty misogyny after the second Poirier fight, you didn’t miss it—the producers did, carefully removing anything that showed McGregor at his worst.
The series, directed by Gotham Chopra, follows the modern trend of allowing the athlete to craft their own story. Yes, that allows for access beyond the norm—but it’s a closeness that comes with a cost. With McGregor himself listed as one of the executive producers, is there any wonder that, despite covering three high profile losses, this feels more like a hagiography than an actual documentary?