Last issue, in our inaugural glance back at the early UFC fighters, we caught up with the legendary Royce Gracie. Here, we take a look at the man who was Gracie’s first opponent at the first Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Of all the indelible images seared into the collective consciousness of mixed-martial arts fans from UFC 1, perhaps the most memorable, and certainly the strangest, was the sight of boxer Art Jimmerson standing in the middle of the octagon to meet Gracie — with his left hand in a boxing glove and his right hand bare.
Jimmerson, who came into that first UFC riding a 15-bout winning streak in boxing, couldn’t decide whether to protect his hands with gloves or go for maximum damage with bare fists. Finally, he arrived at the Solomonic conclusion of wearing a glove on just one hand.
“I’ve heard people tell all sorts of stories about why I did that,” said Jimmerson, now 58. “But the truth is that I planned on using my left jab and hook a lot and didn’t want to hurt my hand because I had a big-money boxing match with Tommy Hearns in the works. But I didn’t wear anything on the right hand because I thought I’d use that for the knockout.”
Originally from St. Louis, Jimmerson had cracked the top 10 of boxing cruiserweights when his friend, former kickboxing champion Earnest Hart, told him about a martial arts tournament that was seeking fighters from all styles.
Jimmerson didn’t ask about the rules. He previously fought an exhibition kickboxing bout against Don Wilson and assumed the fights would be akin to that. Having gotten his leg beaten up by Wilson’s kicks in that match, Jimmerson had mixed feelings about competing in another martial arts event. After initially agreeing to fight, he thought about pulling out until he said the promoters upped their offer from $10,000 to $20,000.Jimmerson went to Denver for the tournament, still having little idea what it was all about.
“I was sitting in the back, getting ready when my manager walks in with tears in his eyes after seeing the first fight, and [he] says to me, ‘Let’s get out of here. You’re not doing this.’
“I told him, ‘I can’t back out. I agreed to fight, and I’m a man of my word.’”
Although Jimmerson still believed that his boxing skills would serve him well, he didn’t manage to get off a single punch as he and Gracie cautiously felt each other out — and then the Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialist shot in for a takedown. Jimmerson was easily dragged to the mat and mounted, which was when it became apparent that he had no idea how to grapple.
Gracie put in a single head butt and a couple of light punches, but he mostly just rode Jimmerson until the boxer saw how hopeless his position was and surrendered. Gracie went on to win the tournament and two more UFCs while Jimmerson returned to the more familiar confines of boxing.
Although he never won a world championship and his payday with Hearns never materialized, Jimmerson did put together a respectable career that entailed fighting six world champions. Nonetheless, it’s for that single two-minute contest with Gracie that he’s best-known. Yet Jimmerson tried for years to dodge the memory of that night.
“I cried after the fight,” he recalled. “I don’t like to lose, but mostly I was just mad at myself for not having been more prepared. But you have to remember [that] this was before Google or YouTube. I had no idea who the Gracies were or what jiu-jitsu was, and [I] couldn’t look it up.”
Feeling that he’d been set up by the UFC — he said promoter Art Davie convinced him this would be an easy fight against the smallest opponent in the tournament — Jimmerson shunned the MMA world for a decade. Then, years later, he went out to lunch with his good friend, heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield, and something unexpected happened. As Jimmerson sat at a table with one of the most famous boxers in history, two young men walked past and did a double take.
But rather than staring at Holyfield, they fixated on Jimmerson.
“They looked at me and said, ‘Oh my God! It’s Art “One Glove” Jimmerson!’ I’d never even heard that nickname before,” he recalled.
The pair eventually recognized Holyfield, as well, but their main interest in the boxing legend involved asking him to take a photo of them with “One Glove.”
It was apparent that a base of MMA fans remembered Jimmerson fondly, if sometimes with a bit of humor, for his mono-gloved appearance at UFC 1. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that he embarked on the memorabilia circuit to sign autographs. A few years ago, someone paid him $60,000 for the glove he wore that night against Gracie.
Jimmerson also began working as a personal trainer, doing boxing-themed workouts for clients in St. Louis. After going through a rough patch in 2009 that included divorcing his wife and losing his job with Pepsi, he suffered a massive heart attack. He said he was dead for a brief period and had a spiritual experience. After recovering, he moved to Los Angeles to start over. He even began training customers out of the original UFC gym. After a few years, he went into business for himself, administering to a long list of private clients.
He even received a sizable offer to move to Kuwait for a year to help set up a high-end boxing gym for some wealthy clients. While he was there, he said, he received a fateful phone call from his sister, informing him that an old neighbor of theirs in St. Louis had been arrested for molesting children. The call brought up difficult memories.
Jimmerson often had stated in interviews that he originally got into boxing at age 12 to protect himself from bullies, but the truth was a bit more complex. He said the neighbor who’d been arrested for child molestation attempted something similar with him when he was a kid, which prompted him to seek out boxing as a means of self-protection. He immediately called the police and offered to testify at the trial.
“I went to St. Louis to tell my story after 30 years,” he said. “I saw the mother and grandmother of the boy he tried to molest, and we all cried. But they couldn’t use my story in the trial because they said it was too old, so the guy was found not guilty.“
I’d never shared what happened with anyone, and it was a relief to finally be able to talk about it. I saw the guy at the trial and, because I’m a Christian now, I went up and told him I forgive him.”
So in the future, when you think about Art “One Glove” Jimmerson, you can remember the funny single glove and the quick loss to Royce Gracie. But you also can remember that there’s more to the story of this fighter.
Mark Jacobs’ most recent book is The Principles of Unarmed Combat. His website is writingfighting.wordpress.com.