The legend of Art ‘One Glove’ Jimmerson

BACKSTAGE AT UFC 1, Art Jimmerson was sure he was going to win the whole thing. Like, very sure. The boxer outweighed his first opponent by a good 20 pounds, and he laughed out loud when he saw that the guy — a young jiu-jitsu black belt named Royce Gracie — was going to be wearing what looked like a bathrobe into the cage.

“Easy money,” he thought.

So easy, in fact, that he decided to wear only one boxing glove into the cage the night of Nov. 12, 1993. He had both gloves with him. But he figured he was so much more skilled than the other guys who showed up at UFC 1 that he would KO his way through the tournament bracket by peppering each of his opponents with his jab, then fire his ungloved right hand and put their lights out with one punch. He couldn’t wait to make a quick $70,000.

Jimmerson had won 15 straight boxing matches, with a possible fight against Thomas Hearns in the near future. That made him a huge get for the inaugural Ultimate Fighting Championship as his sport’s representative.

The UFC began with a very direct question as its organizing principle: Which combat discipline is the best? So the fighters weren’t just competing for themselves; they were elected as torchbearers for their entire sport. Jimmerson was boxing’s senator at the first-ever bare-knuckle congress.

But as he warmed up, Jimmerson had a haunting exchange with an LAPD officer he ran into backstage. At the time, a few years before he became MMA’s most famous ref, Officer John McCarthy was a friend and sparring partner of Gracie, and Jimmerson approached McCarthy when he saw him.

“You’re with my opponent, right?” Jimmerson asked.

McCarthy nodded, and Jimmerson stepped back and squared him up.

“What’s he going to do with this?” Jimmerson asked. Then he threw out his jab — bam-bam-bam — a few times in rapid succession. “How’s he going to get past that?”

McCarthy smiled. At the time, boxing was king of combat. If you could have bet money on which skill set was the best for hand-to-hand fighting, boxing would have been about -1,000, and boxers would have all bet their houses on their craft as the best.

But McCarthy dabbled in enough disciplines to know what he thought UFC 1 would prove: That an elite jiu-jitsu practitioner could weather kicks and punches and drag fights to the ground, then end them there. McCarthy asked Jimmerson about his comfort in clenches, and Jimmerson indicated he didn’t think it would ever get there.

“Try to hit me with a jab and I’ll try to get ahold of you,” McCarthy said.

Jimmerson gave him a curious look — he didn’t want to hurt the poor guy. “It’s OK,” McCarthy said. “If you hit me, you hit me. That’s on me.”

So Jimmerson locked in and started to throw a jab. McCarthy surged forward and into his body. He didn’t drill him hard, but he knocked Jimmerson down without much effort and got on top of him for a second before letting up.

Jimmerson vaguely remembers the exchange with McCarthy. But McCarthy says he’ll never forget what Jimmerson said to him as he helped the fighter up: “Oh my god, he’s going to break my arms and legs, isn’t he?”

MARCUS KOWAL HAS A QUAKE TAKE about the impact of UFC 1. The former Strikeforce fighter and longtime MMA trainer believes that we’ve learned more about fighting in the past 30 years than we have in all of human history combined. This means the MMA fighters you watch on TV every weekend aren’t just the best in the world. They are the best that the world has ever produced.

“I say this with a tremendous amount of respect for traditional martial arts because we are where we are because of traditional martial arts,” says Kowal, who has cornered Frank Trigg and worked with Urijah Faber, among many others, at his MMA training center in Los Angeles. “But it’s like comparing a T-ford with a Tesla — MMA fighters today are lights years ahead of any point in history.”

McCarthy, for one, thinks Kowal is “absolutely right.” As he explains: “Until UFC 1, there was no mixed martial arts. Every martial art was segregated and only fought within itself. We had no idea what was going to happen out there.”

So in retrospect, UFC 1 was less a night of fights and more a set of experiments. This sounds odd to say out loud now, three decades into the UFC, but the world had almost no clue what the best way was for humans to prevail in hand-to-hand combat.

There were karate tournaments, wrestling dual meets, submission grappling leagues and so on within every discipline. But we had never seen a jiu-jitsu black belt fight against a boxer, or a Muay Thai fighter go against an American folkstyle college wrestler. Throw in the barrage of mostly comical martial arts movies of the 1980s — think Jean Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal and The Karate Kid trilogy — and what worked and what didn’t in real life was an open question. That made the UFC an unprecedented adventure that led to unprecedented discoveries.

McCarthy thought with nearly 100 percent certainty that Gracie would win UFC 1. McCarthy grew up wrestling and boxing and got into martial arts in the early 1990s. Almost immediately after running into the Gracie family brand of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, he was blown away at the way they could dictate how fights unfolded. The first time he ever rolled with a Gracie, it was Royce. McCarthy used the power of his then-310-pound body to double-leg Gracie to his back. He squished down onto Gracie and heard him breathing near his ear. It was strained, but calm. This was where McCarthy usually overwhelmed people.

Not Gracie. As McCarthy tried to leverage his massive size advantage to get a tap, he heard Gracie whisper into his ear, “You’ve seen Rocky, right? Nobody thought he could win, either.” Within 30 seconds, Gracie had McCarthy submitted from an arm bar. So McCarthy thought Gracie would do the same thing to everybody at UFC 1. “If you go back to UFC 1, nobody truly knew what they were getting into other than Royce,” McCarthy says. “He had been doing it his whole life.”

But even he couldn’t say for sure. UFC 1 was a bizarre spectacle, centered around fighting styles more than fighters — techniques rather than people. The card was a one-night tournament featuring eight fighters and seven fights. Those seven fights lasted a total of 12 minutes and 33 seconds. By comparison, a recent UFC event in September, Adesanya vs. Strickland, lasted twice as long as the entire UFC 1 card. It was fast, brutal and scary.

Gracie’s uncle, Rorion, was a key figure in helping then-UFC owner Art Davie set up the inaugural event. He had one ask: That his nephew gets to fight Jimmerson in the first round. He believed that Royce was going to shock the world and romp through the bracket, and he wanted him to start with the presumed favorite right out of the gate.

The night began with sumo wrestler Teila Tuli fighting France’s Gerard Gordeau, who practiced a brand of kickboxing known as Savate. Tuli weighed about 450 pounds, twice the size of Gordeau, and looked like an obvious winner because of his sheer size. At the bell, Tuli rushed the French fighter. Gordeau eluded him, stepped back and unleashed a head kick that sprayed out three of Tuli’s teeth. Two got stuck in Gordeau’s foot, and one soared through the air. It was 26 seconds of sheer violence, and the upheaval to everything we thought we knew about fighting had begun.

The crowd was stunned. Even the fighters were shaken. McCarthy remembers the run-up that night backstage being loud and boisterous. There were fists and feet hitting pads, and trainers hyping up their guys with barking and grunting. Then Tuli’s tooth went flying through the air, clearly visible on camera, and McCarthy says an eerie hush went over the fighters warming up.

“It was like a ghost town,” McCarthy says. “Dead silent. It was all of those guys saying, ‘Holy sh–, this is real.'” As Jimmerson warmed up, his manager rushed back from watching the first fight and was sobbing. “Art, walk away,” he said. “Just go. Get out of the arena.”

Jimmerson was feeling some pangs of regret, but he also felt like he made a commitment. He played hardball with UFC management at the last minute when he realized how much legitimacy he was bringing as a well-known top-10 boxer. He couldn’t just sneak out a side door.

As the fight card rolled on, Jimmerson watched the brawls in front of him and kept telling himself that he was a real fighter. Someone who’d punched and been punched in front of crowds many, many times. As vicious as the fights were, he talked himself back into believing that his striking skills could allow him to outclass his opponents. One glove, two gloves, no gloves, whatever. Jimmerson received $20,000 to show up, and he figured he’d win the $50,000 grand prize by keeping his three opponents at arm’s length before knocking them out.

A few minutes later, Jimmerson made the walk to the cage. He paced in his corner, one glove on, as Gracie emerged from the back in a conga line of other Gracies in white gis, jogging into the cage to fight.

Jimmerson still thought he was going to win. But McCarthy’s warning was ping-ponging inside his brain. He thought the worst-case scenario was that Gracie got him on the mat and he tapped out.

No one knew it at the time, but he’d just been locked into the cage with MMA’s first superstar, and was facing a decade of infamy.

AS ANNOUNCER RICH GOINS introduced the fighters, Jimmerson stalked in and out of camera view, one glove on. He got light cheers before Gracie caused the crowd to erupt. His uncle made sure the arena was full of friends and family.

When the fight started, Jimmerson moved forward. He was never a massive power puncher. He just understood distance and the way that his jab could control a fight, and that’s how he fought.

But about 20 seconds in, in a moment Jimmerson still shakes his head about to this day, Gracie lifted his leg and directed a kick toward Jimmerson’s legs. It didn’t really land, but it opened Jimmerson’s mind to the different kinds of violence available in this new sport. He didn’t know how to avoid kicks, or check them, or anything else. He knew how to hit and not get hit. “I thought I was the best fighter,” Jimmerson says. “But the minute he started kicking, I realized this was something different and that I was in trouble.”

The pulse of the fight changed. Jimmerson stopped moving forward. Gracie eased his way into the middle of the cage, and suddenly he began to back up Jimmerson. He threw a few more half-hearted kicks, and Jimmerson faked a few more jabs with his gloved left hand.

At the 1-minute mark, Gracie shot a blast double-leg takedown and Jimmerson went down to his back like a practice dummy. Gracie slid out to side control, then into a mount, and began a lengthy smothering. For almost 60 seconds, Gracie sprawled his weight down on Jimmerson. He landed a few short punches and smacked Jimmerson’s face with his shoulder. But nothing did real damage. The damage was happening inside Jimmerson’s head.

He’d never been in this position, an opponent perfectly balanced across his body as he flailed underneath. He was stuck, and it was claustrophobic. So after 55 seconds of hopelessly wiggling and shifting his weight, neither doing nor taking much damage, Jimmerson tapped out with his ungloved hand. He hit the mat once, then twice, then five times total, and the ref still didn’t step in. Gracie eventually looked at the ref with a “Hey, I’m pretty sure that means the fight is over,” and the ref agreed. Art Jimmerson had just become the first person to ever tap out of a UFC fight.

Jimmerson stood right up and began wandering around the cage. He wasn’t tired at all, but he felt like he’d been hit by an 18-wheeler. The ref raised Gracie’s hand, his gi slightly pulled open at the top but otherwise completely unscathed. He went back to his corner, and Jimmerson went back to his. Jimmerson’s hands were on his hips. One was gloved. One was not.

Jimmerson walked behind Gracie while his hand was raised as the victor. Jimmerson was embarrassed, realizing he should have never signed up for this. Before he even left the cage, though, he kept telling himself that at least he wasn’t hurt. He would live to fight another day.

But he’d need 10 years to live it down.

TO THIS DAY, many people still just call Jimmerson “St. Louis.” His hometown is in his DNA, and he goes back as often as he can. It’s always a complex trip for him, though. Jimmerson has become quite open talking about being sexually abused by a neighbor as a kid. He attributes a speech impediment to the trauma of being molested.

That trauma led him into a boxing gym, and he felt like he found a home among the heavy bags. “I don’t know where I’d be if I hadn’t started boxing,” he says. “I needed it.”

On one day in 2003, 10 years after UFC 1, Jimmerson found himself working with boxers at a local gym when an old friend, Evander Holyfield, showed up. It had been a tough decade for Jimmerson. He had avoided anything and everything related to the UFC, even as MMA surged into the American consciousness as a legitimate sport. Instead, Jimmerson went back to boxing.

But boxing didn’t really love him anymore. The Hearns fight never came together, and he believes that promoters and boxing fans couldn’t get past the way that he lost to Gracie. Neither could he. He’d been boxing’s rep, then landed zero punches and tapped out. He’d barely been there, like a ghost who’d later haunt himself. “Once I did UFC 1, it was over,” he says. “I got so much bad publicity, so many jokes, that I was so upset about that. It really crushed my reputation.”

Jimmerson was offered a spot at UFC 2 to redeem himself. But he felt such embarrassment about the loss and the schtick of being the one-gloved guy that he declined the offer. He also declined every outreach to attend UFC events. When people told him that he played a role in the birth of a new sport, that he’d been courageous just to climb in the cage, Jimmerson pushed them away. He couldn’t handle the stigma. He eventually retired from boxing in 2002, with a record of 33-18. He got married and divorced twice and moved into a full-time job at Pepsi. He did some boxing training on the side. But his boxing life was mostly over.

After the training session in St. Louis in 2003, Jimmerson went out to dinner with Holyfield. As they ate, two kids approached their table.

“Are you Art ‘One Glove’ Jimmerson?” one kid asked.

Jimmerson put down his fork. “Excuse me?” he asked. He thought for sure they’d come over to meet Holyfield.

The kid repeated himself, then said, “Sorry to disturb your dinner. Mr. Holyfield, could we get a picture with Art?”

Holyfield laughed and told them to go for it. Jimmerson was taken aback but posed for a photo with the kids.

At that moment, he had an epiphany. If people had accepted him and admired him as “One Glove” Jimmerson, why not accept himself that way, too? What if he took his lowest moment, the one he’d been dogged by for 10 years, and he leaned into it?

He made a vow that day to no longer shy away from his brief UFC career. He’d not only accept his “One Glove” nickname but try to own it and laugh about it. That was the day Art Jimmerson’s infamy tapped out.

From then on, he embraced the idea of being the UFC’s first submission loss. He started introducing himself as Art “One Glove” Jimmerson. He’d sign autographs that way. He did a bobblehead of him wearing a single glove. He ordered boxes of boxing gloves that he started handing out and signing as One Glove. And after years of avoiding UFC events, he started showing up at them, taking pictures, reveling in the stigma. And if you revel in a stigma, that makes it no longer a stigma, doesn’t it?

“People can say whatever they want about Art Jimmerson,” McCarthy says. “But Art Jimmerson was a man who practiced an art — the art of boxing — and became incredibly successful with it. He was brave enough to take that art and test it against something he had no knowledge of. He found out that his art alone was not enough to beat another art. But at least he had the balls to try.”

Jimmerson felt a new freedom from his past. He’s loved every second of the past 20 years. He makes a decent living as a trainer, and he still has a fanbase in St. Louis. He frequently visits his hometown and works out with local boxers. On one recent trip, he teamed up with Larry Holmes, Michael Spinks and Holyfield to put on a fundraiser for kids in need. He just started his own foundation, One Glove, which aims to help sexual abuse victims.

He’s a fixture at UFC events when he can make them. He has hundreds of photos and videos of him with former and current fighters. His favorite is a signed photo from a legendary fighter who has become perhaps his best friend in MMA — Royce Gracie, who wrote “Thanks for not hitting me.” Jimmerson lets out a belly laugh every time he thinks of that photo, and he talks to Gracie every few months.

Jimmerson recently saw Conor McGregor at a Target in Los Angeles and has a 15-second video of McGregor hyping up the legend of Art “One Glove” Jimmerson. In anticipation of the 30th anniversary, the UFC brought in Jimmerson and the five other UFC 1 fighters for a roundtable video shoot in January. “I feel more love from the MMA community than boxing sometimes,” he says, “and I’m OK with that.”

When he talks to people, someone always asks, What did you do with the glove? He smiles and explains the journey he has been on with the literal representation of something that dogged him for two decades. He considers it a treasured item at this point, which is why he always declines offers to buy it. With the 30th anniversary of UFC 1 approaching, those offers have picked up frequency, culminating in one person offering him $60,000 for what is considered perhaps the most famous piece of equipment in UFC history.

At breakfast in LA recently, Jimmerson says he usually tells people he could never give up something so important to him, an artifact that he couldn’t part with because it symbolizes what is one of the most difficult things he has overcome in his life — turning a humiliating moment into a mound of humility. He could never sell that.

As he eats pancakes, though, Jimmerson pauses between bites. He has something he wants to say. He gives a quick glance around to make sure nobody is nearby, and then he puts his hand up beside his mouth to shield the world from knowing.

“Everybody asks about the glove,” he says, before lowering his voice to a whisper. “Shh. I have no idea where it is.”

ON A MUGGY SATURDAY in August, Jimmerson walks up a steep hill leading to a Los Angeles park. He’s meeting a client for a training session. He finds clients in a variety of ways, mostly through the CoachUp app. But this man, a renowned violinist and conductor named Lowell Crystal, saw Jimmerson training someone else in the park and approached him a few years ago. They’ve been working together ever since.

Jimmerson is 60 and Crystal is 80, so they shuffle a bit making it up the hill. But then Crystal straps up his gloves and Jimmerson puts on the pads. When they start punching, it’s surprisingly fast and spirited. “One-two-three, then reverse it,” Jimmerson says, and Crystal begins swinging.

His punches aren’t menacing, but they’re quicker and more technical than you’d have guessed. Jimmerson’s pads move in cohesion with Crystal’s punches, and it makes sense later when Crystal compares boxing and conducting. “In music, you have to have a tremendous amount of discipline to play your instrument correctly,” Crystal says. “The discipline he’s taught me totally applies.”

The following morning, Jimmerson drives to his favorite place on earth: Shepherd Church. He loves church. He loves Jesus. He loves praying. In fact, he sets an alarm that goes off once an hour to remind himself to say a quick prayer.

For 90 minutes, there’s singing, and a sermon, and more singing. At one point, churchgoers are reminded to stay on top of their Faith University work — the church has a six-week course centered around the concept of “Audacious Faith” that everybody is encouraged to do. Jimmerson really liked the idea of not just being faithful, but being audaciously faithful, being loud and proud about God, and also about accepting himself as Art “One Glove” Jimmerson. He missed one class, but he made it up and eventually received his Audacious Faith certificate.

On the way home from church, Jimmerson stops at a vegan place that he likes. The restaurant has his picture on the wall, and so did the sandwich shop he had lunch at the day before. Everybody smiles and calls him “Champ,” and they have the kind of friendly banter that can only be developed over lots of visits. He’s treated like gold by employees, and he chalks that up to his celebrity.

But the truth feels a little more cold than that. Nobody seems to have much knowledge of his actual fighting career, or that he is considered a UFC original. In reality, most of the people who say hello to him and bring out his food probably haven’t seen UFC 1, or any UFC for that matter. They know him because he is a nice customer who comes in sometimes and tells them about his fighting career, and what’s the harm in putting a former fighter’s picture up on the wall? They don’t seem to know his fame or his infamy.

As Jimmerson cruises around LA, he stops at a UFC gym where he used to teach boxing classes. It’s been 15 years — maybe longer — since he worked there. He’s hoping to run into some old friends. But that feels like a long shot.

Jimmerson pulls into what is a gigantic, immaculate UFC gym. It blends state-of-the-art equipment and martial arts classes with throwback posters all over the walls featuring the sport’s legends. The posters are a tour through this wild 30-year experiment, showing the Gracie era transitioning into the wrestling era (Mark Coleman, Matt Hughes, Randy Couture), then into the UFC’s solid wrestling/solid striking phase (Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell), and now into what has been about 15 years of truly mixed skillsets. Every five feet or so, you move into a new chapter of the UFC where the fighters from the previous chapter had been deemed obsolete. “There are almost no good fighters these days with a huge gap in any one area,” Kowal says. “They’re very well-rounded.”

But in this sea of 24-year-olds and half-drank MuscleMilks, Jimmerson’s legend is no more than a picture on the wall, and the people there don’t seem to ever look at the wall. He makes his way through the entire gym without anybody doing more than a head nod his way. There are no adoring fans, and that reality is beginning to sink in.

He slows down during what is a long, lonely walk around the perimeter. Jimmerson doesn’t say it out loud, but it sure seems like he wants somebody to notice that a UFC founding father is near.

It’s getting a little painful. After a full circle, Jimmerson doesn’t seem as deflated as he should be. This would be the perfect time for the first UFC tapout to tap out on hoping to get stopped.

“Let’s make another loop,” he says, and this time feels like it might be twice as uncomfortable. He passes the same MuscleMilkers, all staring past the same random old guy, and turns the corner near the martial arts classes heading for a home stretch of going unnoticed again.

Jimmerson pauses at the last classroom and waits a beat before getting resigned to striking out. Hey, UFC 1 happened two years before DVDs were invented, and none of these kids knows what a DVD is. It’s an understandable strikeout.

But then a funny thing happens.

“Mr. Jimmerson?” yells a guy about 10 yards away, coming out of a kickboxing class. “Is that you?”

Jimmerson swings around.

The guy is about 25. He has MMA gloves on and shin pads from what was a very sweaty sparring session. He rushes over to Jimmerson and gives him one of those two-on-one handshakes the pope gets.

His name is Josh Moreno, and he recently had his first pro-MMA fight. He’d seen Jimmerson at a UFC a few years earlier and approached him. Moreno is the perfect person — an MMA superfan who grew up with the UFC and now does it himself — to cherish a guy like Jimmerson. In that demo, Jimmerson and the men of UFC 1 are legends, not so much for how good they were but for how gutsy they were to go first. They exchanged contact info at that UFC and connected afterward for some striking training. For Moreno, there was something invaluable about meeting a guy who tried and failed. It made him want to try, too. “Oh my god, he’s a wonderful man,” Moreno says. “He made me believe in myself so much. It clicked right away.”

Moreno’s MMA coach walks past, and the young fighter frantically waves him down. “This is Art Jimmerson,” Moreno says. “He’s the one-gloved boxer.”

The second guy, Octavio Robledo, not only does the double-squeeze handshake, but he drops down to one knee and bows his head. “Such an honor,” Robledo says. “Such an honor. To have been in there, period, is incredible. You guys are a part of what we all have joined.”

Jimmerson gives them each one more hug, and then he walks about 20 feet into the center of the gym, where a giant Octagon resides. The fuss around him causes a few people to lower their protein potions and drift over toward Jimmerson as he climbs into the cage. He asks someone to take a picture of him standing in there, and as she takes it, a man whispers into her ear, “I think he fought at UFC 1.”

She holds up a smartphone camera as more people gather outside to meet Jimmerson. He poses for photos and gives out an aw-shucks look to everyone like he’s a little embarrassed.

But he loves every second of it. It took him 30 years to get comfortable in moments like these, accepting the infamy of his 138 seconds as a UFC fighter because he knows that he was one of the eight men willing to try. He has a smirk on his face like he knew this would happen all along. Like a man with faith — an audacious faith.

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