Is it true that Conan The Barbarian director John Milius came up with the idea for The Octagon?
Oh, absolutely. All the movie tough guys knew of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in Hollywood. John was in that camp, and I think he trained with the Gracies for a little while. I came out on a trip 20 years ago and met with John, met with Arnold Schwarzenegger, met with Jean-Claude Van Damme, you know, we did kind of a, “Let's round up the Hollywood tough guy” strategy session. Arnold said [does Arnie impression], "Yah, that's a good ideah, you should do that right away. I can't do that, I'm a moovie star for families now, but that's a great ideah." You know, he really said that. He was going, "Yah, now! What are you doing heah now? You should be doing this now." So he was very encouraging. And Jean-Claude Van Damme goes, "You're gonna scare a lot of the paper tigers in the martial arts world." You know, all the guys that sell styles of fighting that no one can really use. Van Damme was very cool. Chuck Norris, not so cool; he was badmouthing it. He didn't want to be involved, he thought it was bad for the martial arts. How is it bad for the martial arts to find out if your hokey "woona woona woona" style actually works or not? How is that bad? The UFC, one of the things it did that I’m fairly proud of, it really changed the martial arts. You know, it made them more what Bruce Lee had always talked about - less nonsense and more reality. But not everybody likes reality.
So what exactly was Milius’ contribution?
We talked about where to put a no-rules fight with all these different types of fighters, and I was sort of thinking a sumo ring, which is just the floor, or maybe a boxing ring. And Milius said, "No, you should fight in an octagon, the way Conan fought in a stone octagon in Conan The Barbarian." It was totally John's idea. It's one of those things where you go, “Octagon? That sounds cool.” Like, a hexagon does not sound cool. But you hear “octagon” and it was really fermenting in my mind. "There are no rules," “the Octagon,” it all sounded like a trailer for a movie. God bless John, he wrote Dirty Harry, he wrote the line, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" from Apocalypse Now. You can't argue with that guy. Well, mostly – he also said, "You should put Greek columns around it." And I was going, "No, we're not putting Greek columns around it." To myself I said that, because that’s corny, you know, "Witness the spectacle of Rome." We wanted an urban edge. I really was thinking about razor wire on top, but everybody said no, that’s too much, even for you. We considered Plexiglas walls, but realized that if one guy took another guy and slammed him into that, that would hurt. We were gonna do mesh, like nylon pantyhose mesh, but that didn’t seem practical. So the set designer, Jason Cusson, made it a workable design. But really, straight up, John Milius said “the octagon.”
One of the many early moves you made was bringing Joe Rogan into the company. Is it hard to picture the UFC without him?
It’s impossible. Rogan is perfect. I mean Rogan is literally perfect. In sports broadcasting, a good way to do it is to take a former athlete that can talk and put them in the role. But Joe was a professional talker - he was a comedian, very fast on his feet. And he'd had a couple pro-kickboxing matches, he’d started doing the jiu-jitsu, so he could talk, he was funny, he was good on his feet, he was big, he could play the part - he brought an energy and a passion to it that I say other people may equal, but no one surpasses it. Joe is a great, great face for the UFC. Jeff Blatnick, the former Olympic gold medalist, he was brought in for a different reason; he was brought in to make UFC more acceptable, to make it more reasonable and dignified, if you will. Rogan was brought in to pump it up, and he did and he still does. Joe is no less enthusiastic now then he was when I brought him in.
Another staple that’s been around ever since UFC 2 is "Big" John McCarthy. Where did you find him?
He was an acolyte of the Gracies - he was working as Royce’s sparring partner for UFC1. I love John McCarthy - total respect. You have to be respectful because, number one, he is big. It's not an ironic nickname, it's an actual description. He's former LAPD, and everyone knows you shouldn't argue with cops, particularly LAPD. This is what I say about Big John: In the old days of boxing, the 19th century, it was socially very unacceptable, so they brought in Wyatt Earp, the famous law man, to referee, to clean it up. And I said to Big John, "You're Wyatt Earp. You were brought in to put rules to a no-rules fight. You are the voice of reason and you're there to ensure the safety of the fighters, and that’s a key role." So John was always in a position where he had to answer for stuff I said - he had to cash the checks my mouth was writing. But we really are good friends.
What was the decision-making process that saw you stepping back after UFC 23?
Well, again, things tend to be a process rather than overnight changes, I think in life. The political environment had gotten really hot and S.E.G [Semaphore Entertainment Group] was very uncomfortable with me continuing to be the spokesperson, because it’s very hard to go, "There are no rules! There are rules! Banned in 29 states! Legal most places." It's a hard switch, so it made sense for me to pull back. That's what really propelled it - I was kind of a lightning rod. The New York Times did that interview, "Death is Cheap: Maybe It’s Just $14.95," which Richard Sandomir did. Sandomir is a bit of a prig - he's giving me a hard time about the violence and its effect on society, and I said to him very early on that I think the problem in America is gun violence. I said, "Have you ever heard of a drive-by kicking?" I thought that was a very funny line. He said, "You're not funny." But when I pulled back, there was no creative force left - it was still powerful men fighting each other, but there was no pizzazz. If you're not the wild, crazy spectacle, and you’re not a world-class sporting event yet, then what are you? When Dana [White] and Lorenzo [Fertitta] took over, they did an amazing job in that they made it a world-class sport. It’s unbelievable that they built that, that they were able to put creativity and energy back into something that really had become kinda stale. I think doing Ultimate Fighter was absolutely brilliant. I think the way they built up the live shows was fun. I said to Dana, it's as if you give your child up for adoption and it gets adopted by a good family and then becomes president. That's how I feel about the UFC; I see the billboards in Times Square and I go, "I created that." So I’m very proud.
From the way you talk about it, it sounds like you enjoyed the spectacle of the old-style UFC more than the sport that it’s become.
Well, yes and no. I admired the skill and the heart of the guys, too. But you must have spectacle to be successful. What happened was that Dana turned it into a world-class sporting event, where I was doing a circus. I had clowns and I had giraffes. But we all need a spectacle, right? The Indianapolis 500 is a spectacle. The Super Bowl is a spectacle. You need to have the spectacle to be successful.
Where do you see the future of UFC?
I think MMA's going to be bigger than boxing. I think it's going to be more mainstream - if it became an Olympic sport, I think that would make it mainstream on a world level. I think that's probably the next big step and Dana and Lorenzo are working pretty hard to do that. This is an analogy I gave Dana: Boston banned baseball in 1790 because it was breaking too many windows. After the Civil War, a guy called Abner Doubleday was charged by Congress to make baseball into a real sport, codify the rules, make it something that can become the national pastime. So Abner Doubleday codifies it, turns it into the sport you would recognize: nine players, three outs, four balls - the whole thing. So it becomes a real sport. So I said to Dana, "Dana, you're Abner Doubleday. You turned this into a real sport. You really did, and it will last a long time. But if you're Abner Doubleday, I’m the guy in Boston that was breaking the windows in 1790." There wouldn't be Abner if somebody wasn't breaking those windows! That's not to take away from what Dana did, and I don't want to. It's amazing what he did. But if I hadn't gone out there and launched this with "there are no rules" and "banned in 49 states" and guaranteed people that they were gonna see TV like they'd never seen before, we wouldn't have gotten to this point today.