Why you should care
All of the smart money was on the bigger man. But … strange things happen.
Before the arenas, fanfare and two-fisted career path offered by the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), founded in 1993, fighters used to square off just to prove they could. Winning was nice, but sometimes just showing up meant a lot in the same way that pioneers carry a heavier burden than settlers. Up against the unknown, being the first at something isn’t a cakewalk. Still, sometimes who wins really does matter.
Mixed martial arts (MMA), a weird Frankenstein monster — equal parts circus sideshow, traditional martial arts event and tough-man competition — was not entirely legal everywhere. It was only legalized in New York state in 2016 and in France just a few months ago. So in the 1990s, you can imagine it had some heavy enemies. The late Sen. John McCain had lambasted it as “human cockfighting,” so you have to consider: Who would stand with it while he stood against it? Mostly people who had run, very specifically, out of fucks to give. Case in point: Marco “King of the Streets” Ruas.
Ruas, also the word for “streets” in Brazilian Portuguese, hailed from Rio de Janeiro and dove right into any kind of fighting he could get into. From an amalgam of submission wrestling and kickboxing that Brazilians called Vale Tudo, to the more dance-arty Brazilian capoeira, and later the killer Luta Livre, Ruas came of age when grievances in Rio were settled with fights on the beach or on the street.
Ruas was 34 years old to Varelans’ 26 years young. It was 1995 and many thought they were actually going to see someone die.
“I gave him that name originally,” says early fighter promoter Frederico Lapenda. King of the Streets was more a play on words than a sign of what a badass Ruas was, but it still highlighted the fact that by the time Ruas had entered the newly minted UFC he had already been beating fools into deep regret for a long time.
And 6-foot-8 Paul “the Polar Bear” Varelans, so-called because he hailed from Alaska and weighed in at a cool 330 pounds, traded in his football cleats to focus on this nascent sporting endeavor that involved beating up other guys. So Varelans hit San Jose, California, to spend a little time at the winningest MMA team around, Javier Mendez’s American Kickboxing Academy, or at the Trap Fighting gym. In UFC 7, Varelans drew a match with Ruas in what looked like an easy win for the Polar Bear.
“You need to understand something,” says kickboxer and Not in This Dojo fight apparel owner Damien Noorbakhsh, “muay thai, as it played out in Thailand, was mostly between very small men.” Very small but very tough, but in the backs of the minds of the American men who were paying attention there was always that sneaking, creeping thought, “Well, sure, that might work against some tiny guy but against … ,” well, someone like Varelans? Yeah: definitely a slam dunk.
There was also a catch, and that’s that each fighter who was winning was “rewarded” by having to fight again. It was a marathon of punching, which tipped the smart money even more heavily in Varelans’ favor. While Ruas was a definite badass, the fight against Varelans would be his third of the evening. His first had been against a guy who outweighed the 210-pound, 6-foot-1 Ruas by 40 pounds. Then he fought a judoka who outweighed him by 50 pounds. And finally Varelans, who outweighed him by 120 pounds. On top of that, Ruas was 34 years old to Varelans’ 26 years young. It was 1995 and many spectators thought they were actually going to see someone die.
“These were with no gloves and very few rules,” says former professional mixed martial artist Leopoldo Serao. “And the top prize wasn’t even very much money.” So it was just raw guts and a deep desire to dominate. Which is what happened when the bell rang and the two men met in the middle of an eight-sided cage.
“I had never seen anybody kick anyone in a fight before and have it be significant,” says Nathan Lee Wilcox, editorial manager for Bloody Elbow, an online MMA sports journal. “Ruas chopped Varelans down like a tree using nothing but leg kicks to Varelans’ legs and once he was on the ground? Turned him into hamburger.”
And while post-fight victories today have become codified rituals that usually involve climbing the top of the cage and some latter-day variant of showboating, Ruas’ amazement at what he had just managed to do registered with him in a way that couldn’t have been more human. He started to cry. And continued right up and through being mobbed by the Brazilian members of his team, as they lifted him up onto their shoulders. His game face gone, he was now just a guy taking full measure of what he had done: beaten 840 pounds of men to win the entire tournament.
While his career continued through an appearance as a semifinalist in 1995’s Ultimate Ultimate, Ruas not only went on to win the UFC viewers choice award later but briefly held the World Vale Tudo Championship before retiring to teach in 2007.
But the night of Sept. 8 in Buffalo, New York — where MMA wouldn’t be legal for another 21 years — with 9,000 people in attendance and about 190,000 watching on pay-per-view, Marco Ruas did what no one who didn’t know him thought he could do: He beat a Polar Bear.
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