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The USWF: MMA History Uncovered In Amarillo

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The history of mixed martial arts is shrouded in mystery. The MMA Encyclopedia author Jonathan Snowden uncovers the story of the USWF, home to former and future UFC champions in his 52 Things I Love About MMA Series.

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Unified Shoot Wrestling Federation founder and star Steve Nelson had walked by the box of old tapes in his garage a thousand times. Maybe more. A collection of old beta and VHS tapes, they represented the history of a sport he helped pioneer. And it made him a little sad to think about.

"I felt like a giant part of history was being locked up in my storage. It's not fair to fight fans not to know the history of fighting and where a lot of its legends began. This is a collection for historians, collectors, and people that just desire knowledge of fighting," Nelson said. After a two year struggle to get the USWF's 16 shows onto DVD, Nelson is still choked up about the videos - this time thinking about what might have been.

"Seeing the footage actually gave me feelings of sadness asking myself what happened to the USWF. When I watch the videos and see the great fights and the reaction of the fans it's sad to know it's gone."

Nelson, who started the promotion after the Japanese UWFI pro wrestling group faded into oblivion in 1996, was living on his credit cards when he held his first show on August 2, 1996. He and assistant Felix Rios wrangled $2100 in sponsorship money from a variety of local businesses with a single goal - not to lose their shirts.

Far from it. Future UFC and Pride star Heath Herring made his MMA debut on the undercard, as did future UFC and Shooto fighter Paul Jones. With Nelson, a former NCAA wrestler at Oklahoma State and a 1991 silver medalist in sambo, main eventing against James Stone (future pro wrestler "Little Guido"), the show was a big success. And with success, comes headaches.

"After USWF 1, I had to turn fighters away," Nelson said. "Trying to decide ticket prices, how much do I pay fighters? Getting the press to buy into that I was presenting real fights was a challenge because even though UFC existed back in 1996 it was outlawed in many states and even pay per view at one point so how was I going to bring fighting to Amarillo, Texas? I was a well known coach and grew up in Amarillo so the press did get behind the USWF, which made us legitimate to the public and they came to the events in great numbers."

For the second event, Nelson put himself on the undercard. His old friend Dan Severn, like Nelson a veteran of the sambo scene and a UWFI wrestler, was willing to come to Texas to compete for $4000.

"That was quite a coup at the time," Nelson said. "We became friends right away and I was still wrestling amateur here in the U.S and so was he. I went out to his house in Michigan to train years before the USWF. We trained for the 1994 AAU Nationals together, which we both won."

Severn, like all USWF competitors, competed under a unique set of rules for American MMA. Nelson struck a deal with Texas Boxing Commissioner Dick Cole. Instead of trying to regulate the new sport of MMA, Cole allowed Nelson to promote the events under a pro wrestling license. I gave Nelson plenty of leeway to be creative - as long as the rules fell within certain guidelines.

"Under a professional wrestling promoters license I was free to make rules however I wanted as long as it the striking was the same as shoot wrestling in Japan," Nelson said. "Striking had to be feet, knees, and open handed."

No close fist punches were allowed. Kicks were permissible if both fighters were standing, or if both were on the ground. Submission holds of all kinds were allowed, as were chokes. The fight could be stopped and restarted on the feet when fighters went into the ropes, but each athlete only got one rope break. After that, the rules considered a rope escape the same as a submission. It led to a ground heavy style, similar to Pancrase in Japan.

"Amarillo became the most educated audience in the country," Nelson said. "Because 13 out of my 16 shows were in Amarillo."

Fans there saw the early development of a future UFC champion. The late Evan Tanner, a local sports star, got his start with Nelson. The promoter was deluged with fighter applications from people looking to compete in the event, but Nelson went out of his way to bring Tanner into the fold.

"I recruited Evan Tanner. He was the only fighter I really had to talk into fighting," Nelson said. "I watched him win two state championships in high school and knew his athletic potential. He was very shy and hesitant but went ahead and made his debut in USWF 4."

Tanner would eventually take over for Nelson, both as the main event star and the promoter. But the writing was on the wall for the USWF early in the Tanner era. In 2000, the Boxing Commission took an active hand in MMA starting at USWF 17. Between the costs associated with the Commission and a steep increase in the cost of renting a new 7,000 seat venue (the old 4,000 seat facility was torn down), profits were suddenly minimal. Combined with Tanner's rising profile in Japan and eventual full time gig in the UFC, the company had lost its way and folded after USWF 18.

Eleven years later, the USWF is back - on video at least. Nelson has made his complete collection available. It's a flashback to the old days of tape trading. The quality on the discs varies dramatically. Some were shot from the crowd with a camcorder, others look pro-shot and pristine. The shows with poor video quality are are generally offered as a free add on with purchase of another disc. Nelson isn't looking to take anyone's money for substandard products. He just wants to share the MMA history he had hidden away in his garage with interested fans.

"When fight fans order this collection they should expect 12-18 fights of original footage on every DVD," Nelson said. "The footage is unedited or cut in anyway. Many surprises of who began their careers in the USWF. Fans will see some of the biggest names in greatest fights that were never televised and gain a whole new outlook on the history off MMA."

Other mainstream names who made USWF appearances include Don Frye, Paul Buentello, Leonard Garcia, and Ralph Gracie. Grab a piece of MMA history at the new USWF website.