UFC turns 25 in Denver, where it began with a wing, a prayer — and a semi-automatic

It may have Conor McGregor’s crazy eyes, Paige VanZant’s smile and Dana White’s nose, but it was born here. Born on a wing, a prayer and a semi-automatic.

“I had a Denver accountant, a Denver lawyer,” UFC co-founder Art Davie said with a laugh. “And I had a Glock 17 in a safe deposit box in Denver.”

Shoot first, ask questions later.

Although let’s start with this one: Why Denver?

“It was very simple,” Davie told The Post last week when asked about the Ultimate Fighting Championship, his baby, which returned to Colorado on Saturday for a Pepsi Center card that celebrated the 25th anniversary of UFC 1, held Nov. 12, 1993, at McNichols Sports Arena. “Colorado had a loophole in the law that permitted bare-knuckle boxing and bare-knuckle fights.”

It also lacked a state boxing commission 25 years ago, which meant the nascent UFC — whose founding fathers included Davie; Brazllian jiu-jitsu master Rorion Gracie; writer/director John Milius; and TV execs David Isaacs, Bob Meyrowitz and Campbell McLaren — could set its own rules without oversight.

Bonus: Colorado was one of a handful of states at the time that included a statute for the formation of limited liability companies, or LLCs. Plus, McNichols Arena was open — the Nuggets were in Los Angeles to play the Lakers that Friday night. The group landed the building for just $4,000.

“Got it for a song,” Davie said. “You didn’t have an athletic commission that would’ve come down on my back, telling me I couldn’t do it. And with the LLC (statute), I had that legal entity. It all lined up.”

It stayed up, despite the best efforts of politicians, state commissions and the television industry, the mainstream finally catching up to the curve that Davie and his cohorts were miles ahead of. The UFC blossomed into a global behemoth, holding more than 400 events since that 1993 launch and recently agreeing to a multiplatform distribution agreement with ESPN worth a reported $1.5 billion over five years.

“Look where it started; they didn’t know what they were doing, right?” offered welterweight Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, one of the anchors of Saturday’s card, a local boy whose career rose from a Commerce City gym to international fame. “You could wear one boxing glove. You could wear a gi.

“Whereas now, we have commissions, and we have uniforms. And now, really, the UFC is doing a great job of turning it into a league. Turning it into something that we can be proud of.”

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The birthday cards may land in Vegas, but the seeds were planted on Bryant Street. UFC 1 — like the Super Bowl, the opening salvo didn’t have a number yet, being billed simply as The Ultimate Fighting Championship — featured a playoff bracket with eight competitors using eight different fighting styles before a crowd of 7,800, with more than 10 times that watching at home via pay-per-view. No weight classes. No timeouts. No judges. No rules.

Well, except for two: No biting. And no eye-gouging.

“The first guy I had to sell was Rorion,” Davie said. “Their family had been doing mixed-match fights in Brazil and they were doing it in gyms in California — they were the first bouts you had where you had karate guys coming in against the jiu-jitsu (guys).”

Networks proved harder to pitch. ESPN passed. Ditto Showtime and HBO.

“Lou DiBella at HBO turned me down,” Davie chuckled. “He said, ‘When you’ve got marital arts and not martial arts, give me a call.’ ”

Nevertheless, as the weeks became months, Davie persisted. Eventually, New York-based Semaphore Entertainment Group bit, helping to line up a cast of characters for UFC 1 that reads like something out of an Elmore Leonard novel, a who’s-who of what-the-heck.

The concept of the cage was the brainchild of Milius, the man who penned some of the most quotable lines in film history — Lt. Colonel Bill Kilgore’s ode to napalm in “Apocalypse Now,” Quint’s USS Indianapolis soliloquy in “Jaws” — and who even had studied under Gracie at one point.

Jim Brown — yes, that one — was part of that first broadcast team. Brian Kilmeade — yep, also that one — conducted postfight interviews. Denver radio personality Rich “G-Man” Goins was the ring announcer, the buffer before Bruce Buffer. A mountain of a Los Angeles cop, 6-foot-3 “Big John” McCarthy, a future MMA fixture as a referee and television analyst, was part of that initial entourage.

“When Semaphore hired Jim Brown, Brown and McCarthy looked at each other and said they knew each other,” Davie said. “It turned out, whenever Jim would have parties, the cops would bring in McCarthy. Big Jim looked at Big John and said, ‘We know each other, don’t we?’ John said, ‘Yeah, I’ve been to your house.’ ”

At the Denver launch, the hope was 30,000-40,000 pay-per-view orders. They wound up with 86,592. Semaphore lined up a sequel, which did even better.

“It was a big shock,” Davie said. “The following week, I got a call from (then-World Championship Wrestling executive producer) Eric Bischoff, and he said, ‘Where did you guys come from?’

“We did almost 300,000 (orders) on UFC 2 and UFC 5. The pay-per-view people were (bleeping) ecstatic. The audience went wild for it. I knew it would work. Milius and I knew it would work, because martial arts is everywhere. When you go to a game and see a fight break out in the stands, where does everybody look in the stands? At the fight.”

That alpha-male dogma was at the heart of the original tournament, designed to answer a debate raging around schoolyards for years: Who was the baddest dude on the block? Who would win a fight between, say, Joe Frazier and Chuck Norris? Bruce Lee and Muhammad Ali? Which fighting style was best? Karate? Boxing? Muay Thai?

“You wonder where these crazy matchups come from — man, that’s what people want to see,” said Forrest Griffin, the former UFC light heavyweight whose battle with Stephan Bonnar on the first “The Ultimate Fighter” finale in 2005 became a turning point for the sport.

“For years, that was what the people wanted to know, and you’re seeing the answer to that question. It gave you something to argue about, and then it solves your argument.”

The first quarterfinal planted the flag for a surreal evening. A 415-pound Hawaiian named Teila Tuli, a sumo wrestler who’d fought for more than two years in Japan, was pitted against the much smaller Gerard Gordeau, a Dutch savate expert.

Conventional wisdom at the time said Tuli would squash on Gordeau like a bug. Only conventional wisdom wound up getting kicked in the mouth — and so did Tuli, who got his teeth knocked out by Gordeau’s foot, ending the fight after just 26 seconds.

“(We) ran out of EMT ambulances to ship fighters to the hospital,” Davie said. “We didn’t anticipate how much injury there would be and what (damage) would be done.

“(Semaphore brass) had come to the first show, and they were horrified at all the blood.’ They said, ‘This is brutal. This is uber-violent.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but it’s going to be big.’ ”

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At the outset, nobody knew quite what to expect — least of all Art Jimmerson, the boxer who was arguably the most celebrated fighter on that first card, at least to American audiences. The St. Louis product, who in November 1993 was on a 15-fight win streak and had taken home the IBC light heavyweight title two years earlier, eventually signed on for a $25,000 cash payout.

“When they showed me who was fighting,” Jimmerson recalled, “I thought, ‘I’m gonna kill this guy.’ ”

The boxer drew the tournament’s smallest combatant, Rorion’s younger brother Royce, son of Brazilian Helio Gracie, the South American godfather of jiu-jitsu. Jimmerson figured he had landed the easiest mark until he ran into McCarthy, another Gracie disciple, before the big show.

That’s when Big John hit him with the truth: If he didn’t knock the smaller Gracie out, and quickly, the 175-pound Brazilian was going to smother him.

“I’m shadow-boxing and McCarthy came to the back and I said, ‘I never heard of this (Brazillian jiu-jitsu),’ ” Jimmerson recalled. “He said, ‘Come here,’ and he grabbed me and showed me some jiu-jitsu, and he said, ‘He’s going to do you like this.’ And I was like, ‘Whatever.’ ”

When Jimmerson saw how quickly martial artist Goudreau put Tuli to the canvas, the Los Angeles native changed his tune.

“I went out,” he recalled, “and I said, ‘Oh, my goodness, what did I get myself into?’ ”

So Jimmerson made a tactical decision, one that would cement his legend: The boxer elected to wear a glove on his left hand only, keeping one hand free in case he needed it to pry somebody’s forearm off his neck. Or to tap. Which he did, after two minutes and 18 seconds.

“(Gracie) took three steps back at first,” Jimmerson said. “That’s the time I should’ve rushed him, in hindsight.”

Jiu-jitsu won the tournament, the evening, and the arguments. Gracie would go on to defeat Frank Shamrock in the semifinals in 57 seconds and submitted Gordeau in the finals after one minute and 40 seconds to claim the first UFC crown and a $50,000 prize.

Jimmerson now 55, never fought in MMA again and retired from boxing with a 33-18 professional record. But he has traveled the world on the fame of that one UFC fight, both with and without Gracie, who would eventually become a good friend. At the 20th anniversary of UFC 1 in Las Vegas, the Brazillian autographed one of Jimmerson’s boxing gloves with the following inscription:

THANKS FOR NOT HITTING ME

Royce Gracie

As the sport crawled out of the pay-per-view margins and into the mainstream, Jimmerson found himself experiencing something new: love from MMA fans. In 2003, while at a St. Louis restaurant with old pal Evander Holyfield, the pair felt a crowd of onlookers starting to gather behind them. They presumed the fans wanted an audience with The Real Deal.

“They go, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s One Glove Jimmerson!’ ” Jimmerson recalled. “’No offense, Evander, could we get a picture with One Glove?’ Crazy, man.”

***

Before the commissions and the uniforms and the sold-out arenas, there were potholes, too. Late senator John McCain infamously referred to MMA has “human cockfighting” in 1996 and made it a personal crusade to get it off the air and banned from every state athletic commission in the country.

“But the fans stayed with us,” Davie said. “When we basically lost pay-per-view, it was the fans on the (internet) bulletin boards, those fans, who stuck with us as the politicians and the media tried to kill us. The fans and the fighters made the UFC.”

Griffin and Bonnar helped to save it, while new rules, regulations and weight classes were added in an effort to increase fighter safety; to soften the image presented to lawmakers; and to stop the financial hemorrhaging.

Semaphore eventually sold the UFC for $2 million to the Fertitta brothers, Frank and Lorenzo, in January 2001, where it took off under the brothers’ Zuffa LLC umbrella. Zuffa installed White, an old Fertitta pal, as president, and you know the rest of the story. In the summer of 2016, Zuffa confirmed that it had sold its majority stake in the UFC for a reported $4 billion to a group led by WME-IMG.

UFC 229 this month, headlined by McGregor vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov, reportedly garnered 2.4 million pay-per-view buys and raked in $17.2 million in ticket revenue. According to Tapology.com, Colorado is home to 86 MMA-dedicated gyms, the seventh-most in the country and the highest concentration of any state in the Pac-12 footprint other than California.

“I’ll ever forget when Ronda Rousey first burst onto the scene, my MMA gym, I had like eight little girls in the class, all of a sudden,” Griffin said. “That’s just exposure. You have to have some popularity to attract people to it.

“When I first saw the UFC, I didn’t get it. I said, ‘What’s so hard about that? And then you try it, you’re like, ‘Oh, God, that’s insane. I feel like I’m gonna die. I’m gonna vomit my heart up, if that’s possible.’ It’s crazy.”

Isn’t it? Rooted in Rio. Raised in New York. Moved to Nevada. Born here.

“I’m like a divorced father but the kid is doing well,” Davie said, laughing again. “That’s how I feel about it today. Other than our family, most of us don’t get to create something that outlives us. What I did 25 years ago will be going long after I’m gone.”

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