Mark Coleman: I'm proud to be a UFC pioneer
The UFC Hall of Famer sat down with Betway to reflect on his incredible career and legacy in mixed martial arts.
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“I choked,” says Mark Coleman, recalling the moment that was supposed to be the pinnacle of his sporting life: the 1992 Olympic Games.
After winning an NCAA championship in 1988 and placing second at the World Championships in 1991, the freestyle wrestler had high expectations as he headed to Barcelona.
But it wasn’t to be.
“I lost to two guys I'd beaten a year earlier,” Coleman says. “And I fell, I went way down. I lost interest for the first time in my life.
“All I ever did was play sports and compete. Football, wrestling, baseball. I wanted to be the best athlete in the world, so when I lost it threw me for a big loop. I started drinking hard, I started drinking heavy, partying, experimenting with drugs.”
Fortunately for Coleman, a new sport was on the way – one that would reignite his love for competition, and would make him a champion once again.
In November 1993, UFC 1 took place in Denver. An eight-man tournament pitching practitioners of different martial arts against each other with no weight classes and very few rules, this was the very violent precursor to modern mixed martial arts.
Coleman tuned in with some friends, and was instantly obsessed.
“I was hooked, the second the first fight started,” he says. “I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I thought it had to be fake. I just couldn't believe it.
“I hoped it was real, though, because if it was, I knew immediately that this is what I'm going to do. And I'm going to be the champion, I just knew.”
It wasn’t until 1996 that Coleman got his chance in the UFC, and it came following another Olympics disappointment.
He tried out for the 1996 Games but lost in the semi-finals, with Kurt Angle going on to qualify and win gold for Team USA in Atlanta.
“There was a manager there,” explains Coleman. “When I lost, he pulled me aside and told me he had a slot in UFC 10.
“He could put anybody he wanted in, and he was looking at me, Mark Kerr and Tom Erikson. I told him that I would beat Mark Kerr and Tom Erikson's ass, and I’ll beat Don Frye’s ass, too. I will win UFC 10. I’m the man for the job.
“Whatever I said to the guy, it worked. I didn't even read the contract, I just signed it. Two days later, I flew out to Alabama and 35 days later I was walking into that cage.”
Coleman backed up his talk by winning the tournament, beating Moti Horenstein, Gary Goodridge and UFC 8 winner, Don Frye.
Not only did the man nicknamed ‘The Hammer’ win, he did so with relative ease.
“I was a lot more strategic than people think. I was very strategic in my fighting. People don't believe that. I didn't just go crazy,” he says.
“I didn't get hit the whole night, maybe one or two times at the most and they weren’t very hard. I went three fights in one night without getting hit. That's pretty good.”
After a disappointing few years in which wrestling, the sport he’d dedicated his life too, had given him nothing back, Coleman was at the beginning of a new journey.
“It was overwhelming,” remembers the Ohio native. “It was amazing. I was ecstatic, I couldn't believe it was real.
“I just beat three guys up in one night and no cops were coming. I didn't get no trouble, I got paid, and fans were cheering. It was like a dream come true.”
But there were those who wanted to end Coleman’s dream there and then. Mixed martial arts was seen as barbaric and inhumane, and prominent figures such as John McCain wanted to make it illegal.
The American Medical Association recommended it was banned, while several states outlawed the UFC and lawsuits delayed events in others.
Coleman didn’t mind the controversy, though.
“It felt absolutely great to be a part of,” he says. “I loved every bit of it, this was me, this was what I wanted to do my whole life.
“I knew there was going to be some problems with Senator McCain and all the lawsuits. That's why it was so important for me to get in there just in case they were able to scrap it.
“It sure was violent, and I loved every bit of that violence. I wanted to be the most violent person in there. I was in the right place at the right time, and I was just so happy to be part of it.”
Considering the magnitude of the issues faced by the UFC in those early days, it’s hard to believe how far the organisation has come.
Mixed martial arts is now one of the fastest growing sports in the world, while the UFC itself is valued at around $7bn.
Despite getting involved at such an uncertain stage, Coleman knew back then that they were on the verge of something huge.
“I remember walking out of the cage after I beat Don Frye and my head was just going crazy. I visualised this being the biggest sport in the world,” he says.
“I really thought if they could defeat the lawsuits, add some rules, play their cards right and survive, I absolutely did visualise it being this big.”
One thing Coleman perhaps didn’t foresee was the role he would play in growing the UFC and pioneering the sport of MMA.
Just two months after winning at UFC 10, Coleman won the UFC 11 tournament. Five months after that, he became the first heavyweight champion in UFC history. A stint in Japan followed where he won the first PRIDE Grand Prix, before a three-fight return to the UFC at the end of his career.
A big part of Coleman’s legacy in the sport is nothing to do with accolades, though. He is most widely known as the ‘Godfather of Ground-and-Pound’, a technique he helped popularise with his wrestling-heavy style.
You can’t watch a single UFC card without seeing ground-and-pound being used, and that is a point of pride for Coleman.
“It’s pretty damn neat, I'll tell you that,” he says. “I just kind of wish I’d trademarked that name because I coined that phrase. They probably wouldn't call it ground-and-pound now because they would have to pay me!
“But it's pretty cool, I appreciate the nickname. I love the fans, I've been treated so well by all of them and I hope I've shown a lot of love back because without the fans, you have nothing.”
In 2008, Coleman was inducted in the UFC Hall of Fame in his home state of Ohio, becoming just the fifth person to receive the honour.
Following the reboot of the Hall of Fame in 2015, he was placed in the ‘Pioneer’ wing, for those who fought in the early days of the UFC and, as the name suggests, helped develop the sport of MMA. Coleman believes his legacy extends further than that, though.
“I'm proud,” he says. “I'm very, very proud to have been there at the beginning of this and I wanted to hold on as long as I could.
“I was a pioneer, but at the same time, I made it all the way to UFC 109, so I made it far enough that I wasn’t just there at the beginning, but the middle, too.”
Making it to UFC 109 in February 2010, where a 45-year-old Coleman fought Randy Couture in the first Hall of Famer vs Hall of Famer bout in UFC history, was obviously not easy.
“My body was giving up on me for quite some time because I didn't get started until I was 31, so my prime came and went fast because my body was beat up from 25 years of wrestling,” he explains.
“If people don't understand wrestling, they have no idea how brutal that sport is. It is the toughest sport in the world. Wrestling made me who I am. It gave me confidence, it gave me character and it beat my body up.”
Coleman may be a bit battered and bruised, but he doesn’t mind. In fact, he relishes it.
“When I was a little kid, I planned on being a little bit beat up when I was older, because if you're not beat up that probably means you got your ass whooped.”