Popping My UFC Cherry

Like many testosterone-driven males, the question “Who is the toughest man in the world?” intrigued me from the day I first picked up a comic book and first viewed pro wrestling. After all, as youngsters, weren’t The Green Lantern and Andre The Giant the real deals?

C’mon. Weren’t they?  I remain intrigued.

By luck, in 1993, as a grown man visiting an old haunt – Denver – I saw a newspaper ad for something called “The Ultimate Fighting Championships.” I figured my friend, famed wrestling promoter Zane Breslov, must somehow be involved. I was right. One phone call later I was the proud owner of two complimentary tickets to UFC 1 at McNichols Arena.

The night was magic. From the second Gerard Gordeau and massive Samoan Teila Tuli took to the cage, I was hooked. I somehow had to get involved.

Three years later, along with Craig Hragyil and Sean McCulley, I was co-owner of “Extreme University,” a cardio kickboxing and mixed martial arts gym in Mission Viejo.

UFC and Tony HalmeOne of the wrestlers I worked with was a 6’5″, 300-pound Finnish monstrosity by the name of Tony Halme. Tony had a short yet successful run in the World Wrestling Federation (as it was known at the time) as “Ludvig Borga.” Having also held the dubious title of Finnish Heavyweight Boxing Champion, Tony was at loose ends, looking for something to do. My notion of what a real fighter was in those days – my pre-educated period – was simple:  Whoever looked the most intimidating was, in fact, the toughest.  And, based on that criteria, Tony was undoubtedly the toughest man on the planet.

I had a somewhat regular dialogue going with then (Ultimate Fighting Championships) booker Art Davie, and I began to pitch Tony to him. And pitch him. And pitch him.

I finally broke down Art’s defenses when, entirely without conviction, Art said (and I paraphrase): “I’m either going to look like a visionary genius or a complete idiot. … Let’s try him!”

So Tony was booked for a four-man tournament to be held May 30, 1997, in Augusta, Ga.

Jason Fairn, who had lost an infamous battle of hair-pulling to Guy Mezger at UFC 4, was booked as Tony’s opponent.

It was at about this time that the Internet rumors began. (Understand this: The wrestling world has been Internet savvy for much longer than, say, most Microsoft executives.) And, online, the stories were wild: Tony was wanted for murder in several countries! Tony single-handedly had destroyed entire gangs in maximum security! Tony was kicked out of WWF for being too tough backstage!

In short, Tony was a homicidal maniac.

Which, of course, is pure gold.

Fairn apparently read about Tony and dropped out. A second opponent, whose name I forget, was booked, but he experienced an apparently legitimate injury in training and had to withdraw. This, of course, fueled the chatter, and the Internet reports turned from far-fetched to blistering.

My promoter friend, Art Davie, called, saying he was having a hard time finding an opponent for Tony. But by now, he too had caught the fever, and he was dedicating to seeing our boy make it to the Octagon (that’s MMA talk for “the ring”).

Art ultimately did come up with an opponent. (I do remember his name – more on that later).

So now, let’s check in on Tony’s training. Art had first made the booking more than a month in advance of the show. My business partner, Sean McCulley, and his brother Justin (of current UFC fame) had set up a tough yet manageable 30-day training program for Tony. The problem was simple: Tony was not showing up. For any sessions. Ever.

There was always a good excuse: Making a movie. The drive to Costa Mesa and Mission Viejo was too long (Tony lived in Venice). Beating up a grizzly bear. Whatever.

I tried to remain optimistic. Tony assured me in his Dolph Lundgren-as-Ivan Drago (“Rocky IV”) accent: “I will kill anybody!” Or, if you prefer: “Eye vill keel eneebuddy.”

I still loved this man.

About a week from fight time, we finally got Tony to agree to train, at Gene LeBell’s and Gokor Chivichyan’s famed Hollywood academy. Sean, Craig and I made the trip to witness firsthand the carnage. We arrived at the same time as Tony and were immediately impressed by the crazed band of teenage Armenians essentially beating the snot out of each other.

In one corner, one of Gokor’s instructors was teaching the defense of the Flying Arm Bar. Tony saw this and said “No vun cud ever get mee in dat.”

Tony stood in for the instructor. Then, a 14-year-old maniac took flight and caught Tony’s arm. Tony’s defense was to muscle the kid, and we all heard a loud “pop!” Grimacing in pain, Tony dropped the kid. I said, “Well I guess that’s that; I’ll call Art and cancel out.” Tony’s response, and to this day I have to give him credit for this, was: “Oh, dees?” (holding up his nearly limp arm) “Dees ees notheeng more dan a scratch.”

So, after an aggregate training time of five minutes, the fight was on.

Tony took off to Augusta three days before the fight. We were to join him the next day. Sean, who at the time understood the game far better than Craig and I, opted out of the trip. But not before convincing me that things weren’t looking good for the home team.

Figuring our primary advantage – well, our only advantage – was psychological, I called Tony and instructed him to stay in his room. I told him that if he had to leave his room, he was to growl menacingly. Nothing more. (That’s the exact opposite of how we instruct our new fighters these days, insofar as non-fighting conduct is concerned.)

By the time Craig and I got to Augusta, the buzz was at a fever pitch. Our strategy had worked. Everyone was deathly afraid of Tony Halme! (Including, we heard, his opponent … some wrestler guy.) We heard later that Tony’s opponent’s own mother, after seeing Tony’s interviews, tried to get her boy to scratch!

That afternoon, we go to the pre-tapes, which are set up in one of the hotel’s meeting rooms. Tony, again to his credit and thinking like a pro wrestler, asks me: “Should I shoot the interview, or work eet?”

“Ludvig, work it” is all I can say.

The pretape producer, a nice, mild-mannered woman in her 20s, asks Tony if rumors of his past are true. Tony refuses to answer, on the grounds it may incriminate him (further).

She asks Tony what he thinks of his opponent. “He ees a leetle smurf.”

She asks his plans for the fight. “I veel reep his arm off,” Tony answers, deadpan.

“Wow,” she answers, “what if that doesn’t work?”

“Then I veel reep heez fuckeeng head off!” A unique strategy, to be sure. Needless to say, Tony Halme-homicidal-maniacal-paranoia is running high.

The next morning, Craig asks Tony if he wants to train. Yes indeed, he does. He wants to go to the local Gold’s Gym to lift weights. Craig gives me a funny look. So, off we go to Gold’s. Tony’s cranking out 600-pound-plus squats (always a good idea the day before a fight) and up comes a young girl. She addresses Tony: “Ain’t you Looodwig Borga?”  I’m thinking, “if they ever make a sequel to Deliverance, this gal’s a sure thing.”

So Tony and his new girlfriend exchange pleasantries, he does a few more heavy squats, and it’s off to Applebee’s for lunch. After polishing off a giant slab of ribs, Tony opts for the double hot fudge sundae. I question him about his dietetic choice just the day before his UFC debut and the answer comes, “I haff bean dieteeng berry hard. Now eet ees time to eat for energy!”

OK, Tony.

It’s 3am and Craig and I are in the darkended lobby, exchanging pleasantries with the legendary Maurice Smith.  It’s our first UFC as “players,” –well Craig and mine at least – and we can’t sleep.  The elevator dings and and Tony and “his” girl walk out hand in and.  We watch through the plate glass as he walks her to her van and tenderly smooches her good bye.  He comes back in and I confront him,”Tony, what the F!?!”  “Rick, don’t vorry,” Tony impunes.  Eet is my pre-fight ritual.  I find the girl.  I bring her to my ohtel.  I put it in.  I move it back and forth.  And then I pull eet out before I come.  Eeet makes me very mean for fight!”

OK, Tony.  OK.

Fight Day!

Tony’s forgotten his mouthpiece. Craig and I go to Tony’s opponent’s manager, of all people, to borrow an extra. We watch the manager and the opponent do some light training. Hey, this guy looks pretty good. Despite the fact that he’s barely 200 pounds, has a receding hairline and is supposedly scared half to death by our boy, this guy looks pretty good. Craig and I make an assessment: We’re in trouble.

Craig and Tony do some light pummeling in the dressing room. This, at least, Tony seems to know how to do. All right, maybe we’re good after all. Craig counsels Tony, “Look, your opponent is a wrestler. Whatever you do, don’t run straight at him, he’ll drop his level and take you down.” A classic Tonyism in response: “He eez a little smurf. I will reep heez head off!” OK, now he’s believing his own press. I’m relieved, though; maybe a little confidence will go a long way. Nonetheless, Craig once again admonishes Tony not to run straight forward. “If you do, he will take you down and choke you.”

Tony tells us not to worry. “I veel never tap. He can keel me and I veel never tap.” (“Tap” is MMA and wrestling lingo for “giving up.”)

Fast forward. The bell rings. Heeding Craig’s instruction, Tony does not run straight at his opponent – he positively lumbers straight at him, in what can only be described as extreme slo-mo. Telegraphing his murderous intent, Tony raises his right hand high, fist cocked. His opponent lowers his level and shoots: Boom! Solid takedown. Three or four blows rain upon Tony’s nearly prone carcass and, demonstrating excellent instinct, Tony flips to his belly. His opponent has barely sunk a rear, naked choke when Tony quickly and deftly taps out his swan song on the canvas.

We’re on the way back to the dressing room. Tony glares down at me and growls “He is a quick leetle smurf.”

“Tony,” I say, “that little smurf just kicked your ass.”

Tony Halme is a legitimately scary, strong guy. And he must have at least some boxing skill. I have little or no doubt that wherever it is he’s been, he’s done some damage along the way. He is also a truly colorful and charismatic guy. He was a star in the old WWF and went on to become, among all things, an elected member of the Parliament in his home country of Finland.  He constantly made the news by calling Finland then-President Tarja Halonen a lesbian.

Maybe he just wasn’t suited for mixed martial arts. Or, maybe, it was the luck of the draw.

Victory over Tony, in his debut fight:  Randy Couture.

Today, Randy is a big success. And he is my friend.  Tony put a gun to his head in Helsinki in early 2010 .  God rest his soul.

UFC Randy Couture's first fight