Those who started following mixed martial arts recently have no idea what events were like back in the 1990s. Instead of sporting contests between athletes versed in numerous arts, like we see in modern MMA, we witnessed true duels between warriors unbound by gloves or rounds, each seeking to prove the superiority of his fighting style.
Many epic clashes marked the conflict between wrestling and jiu-jitsu during the decade, but one in particular is remembered as a landmark in the sport’s history: the World Vale Tudo Championship 3 tournament final on Jan. 19, 1997. Organized by Frederico Lapenda and Sergio Batarelli, it pitted the 192-pound Fabio Gurgel against the 242-pound Mark Kerr.
Hot on the heels of Mark Coleman’s three consecutive wins in the Ultimate Fighting Championship and the titanic 40-minute clash between Tom Erikson and Murilo Bustamante -- the Brazilian was outweighed by nearly 90 pounds -- that had taken place two months earlier in Alabama, jiu-jitsu fans had begun to question the Gracie maxim that if there was no time limit, regardless of weight, jiu-jitsu would always win. After all, the bigger wrestlers were learning how to defend the Gentle Art, countering with their dangerous ground-and-pound.
Coincidentally, I hitched a ride from Rio de Janeiro to Sao Paulo with Gurgel’s brother, fellow black belt Fernando Gurgel, to cover the event. During the drive, Fernando explained that everyone was expecting his brother to fight in the final against a wrestling giant who, if rumors were to be believed, was better than Erikson and Coleman. Arriving at the event after a six-hour drive, the backstage talk centered on the idea that the American was not that good and that Kerr was actually quite concerned with the violent aspects of MMA, promising to quit if he bled.
The Maksoud Plaza Hotel ballroom was packed to the brim with 900 people. The atmosphere was taut with tension and excitement, given the superiority wrestlers had recently shown against jiu-jitsu artists. However, before they faced off in the final, Gurgel and Kerr had to beat two other opponents.
Kerr made his debut in the tournament quarterfinals, slamming UFC veteran Paul Varelans to the ground before passing his guard. He followed with a series of punches and knees that led Varelans to scream out in pain and forced the referee to stop the match just 2:07 after it began. In the semifinals, Kerr needed even less time to take down capoeira expert Sidney Goncalves Freitas, who tried to leave the ring and wound up getting two teeth knocked out by the American’s punches; the blows opened a gash on Kerr’s hand, but contrary to the rumors, he bled but did not quit. “Mestre Hulk” fell from the ring, decided to remain there and was disqualified, heightening the Brazilian crowd’s anxiety.
On the other side of the bracket, Gurgel defeated UFC veteran Patrick Smith in 50 seconds and needed just under five minutes to force his semifinal opponent, Michael Pacholik, to tap to punches from guard. With that, the tournament final was set.
In the final, Kerr exploited his 50-pound weight advantage to take down Gurgel inside the first minute. The American greeted him on the ground with a barrage of punches and a head butt that opened a cut and damaged the Brazilian’s left eye. From there, Kerr tried a stomp and silenced the local crowd in one fell swoop, as he dropped on top of Gurgel, with the guard already passed. At ringside, Bustamante, Royler Gracie and even Marco Ruas -- jiu-jitsu’s biggest rival at the time -- joined Gurgel’s trainer, Romero “Jacare” Cavalcanti, in shouting encouragement to the Brazilian, who fended off Kerr’s ground-and-pound as best he could.
Nineteen minutes into the fight, Gurgel attempted an armlock and a triangle, but Kerr defended them and passed the guard for a second time. From that point forward, the American turned up the heat even more, leaving the Brazilian disfigured and sapping the crowd’s hopes. After 30 minutes, the fight, which had no time limit, was interrupted and doctors decided to call for the stoppage. Once it was over, a still-emotional Gurgel took the microphone, said he would never quit and claimed that he was willing to go blind for his art.
After the event, I talked to Kerr’s manager, Richard Hamilton, who also managed Coleman and Erikson. Hamilton revealed that Kerr and Coleman had been training together and that “The Hammer” had won their most recent wrestling match at the Olympic Trials by one point. MMA was a different story.
“Without a doubt,” Hamilton said, “Kerr is the most talented wrestler I’ve ever worked with in terms of MMA, and he has the most potential of them all.”
Time would prove Hamilton right over the next four years. I was editor of Tatame Magazine at the time and ended up giving Kerr the nickname with which he would be introduced to the UFC in July 1997: “Maquina de Bater” or “The Smashing Machine.” That was the title for our cover story in February 1997.
Kerr justified the nickname by starting his career with 11 consecutive victories and becoming one of the most feared fighters in the world. Though issues with painkillers helped derail his career, the three-time Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships gold medalist will be remembered forever for the punishment he doled out and the path of destruction he left in his wake in MMA’s early days.