The year 1993 was a formative year in my sports fandom. The Toronto Maple Leafs had an epic playoff run of 7-game series led by Doug Gilmour. The Blue Jays were led by WAMCO to their second straight World Series title (the team was so good, they didn’t even relinquish the title in 1994). And Toronto, the home of the first ever NBA game, was set to get a new team, rumoured to be named Toronto Saurus Rex, which also sparked my Ross Gellar level dinosaur interest. Perhaps most importantly, 1993 saw the formation of the UFC, which married my love of martial arts, boxing, and professional wrestling in a way nothing ever had before.
I was hooked on the UFC from the start. My dad had invested in the infamous “black box” to watch the monthly WWF and WCW pay-per-views and I dutifully taped all of them on my VCR. When the first UFC popped up on PPV ads, there was no question I had to record the event to see what it was all about. I watched the tape multiple times and I was fascinated by how little Royce Gracie overcame much bigger men to win the tournament. I liked Royce, but he wasn’t my first favourite wrestler. I was in karate class, so I really liked watching strikers. In my school yard, kids would talk about the new Jean Claude Van Damme movie, or argue over if Street Fighter 2 or Mortal Kombat was superior, but nobody was talking UFC no matter how hard I tried. 1990s kids didn’t want to see the slick jiu jitsu game of Royce; they wanted brutal violence. That is where my first favourite fighter, Oleg Taktarov came in.
Oleg was not a violent fighter in a traditional sense. He was comfortable striking, but he relied on submissions to win fights every bit as much as Royce did. The major difference is that Oleg had visceral bloodbath fights and kept coming back for more. When Royce had a competitive fight with Kimo, he had to rely on hair pulling to squeak by with the victory before quitting in his next fight before it even started. Oleg was not a quitter. He was a friendlier, smaller Ivan Drago; a Russian machine who knew his job was to break his opponent.
(Fun trivia bit: Oleg took on Drago in real life in a crossover so epic I can’t even watch it without my brain melting).
My love for Oleg was cemented during UFC 6. Taktarov had lost in the UFC 5 tournament to eventual winner Dan Severn, but he had shown he was willing to get in there and fight. I was looking forward to seeing how he would up his game for the next event. What I didn’t know at the time is that he was going to go up against a tank, and it would be one of my favourite tournaments in sports and fondest MMA memories. Tank Abbott was a beast of a man, looking like the final test Van Damme would face in a bar fight scene, eating broken pool cues over his head for breakfast. He was large, he had an attitude, and in first fight, he proved he had knockout power by besting a 400 pound John Matua in only 18 seconds. Taktarov was also impressive in the first round, taking out previous tournament finalist Dave Beneteau in under a minute (my devotion to Taktarov had gained so much steam I was cheering for a Russian over a Canadian in the bout). Tank won a second round battle with Paul Verelans via TKO in under two minutes, and Oleg won a somewhat too easy bout against an alternate in the semi-finals. This led to the showdown in the finals that had me hooked on Oleg: Tank vs. Taktarov in the finals!
Tank Abbott did not possess the attributes that later UFC heavyweights would. He was not tall like Tim Sylvia, a beast like Brock Lesnar or an athletic freak like Cain Velasquez. What he was, however, was every stereotype about what a tough guy would look like. He had a goatee, a dirty swagger and a hint of a beer gut that told you that he didn’t need a gym to knock fools out. It was the perfect opponent for the smiling Taktarov. The two exchanged punches, and Oleg was eating Tank’s shots! Tank and Taktarov battled back and forth on their feet, on the ground, and all over the octagon. The fight is not pretty. Both fighters gave it their all and completely emptied their gas tanks. This led to the beautiful ending where the seemingly untameable beast Tank gets put in a rear naked choke. Like Van Damme making Chong Li matte after a long battle, Oleg picked up the victory and was crowned UFC champion.
This became the focal point for convincing my friends that UFC was, in fact, bloody, violent and absolutely awesome. Oleg would never quite reach the same level of success in combat sports, fighting to a draw in a super fight with Ken Shamrock and losing in a future tournament final to Dan Severn. But that didn’t matter. He was my first favourite fighter and the main reason I kept up a lifelong love of mixed martial arts, even through some lean years in the sport. He’s the reason that when I once ran into a member of the Live Audio Wrestling team at a bar in downtown Toronto, I talked his ear off about how Oleg was the GOAT. Oleg has become more of a footnote in MMA history, lost amongst the pioneers of Gracie, Shamrock and Severn, and not remembered by the modern fan. But nothing can change the fact that Oleg Taktarov was a UFC champion, and my first favourite fighter.