Short Review: Gentry was the first author to make a concerted effort to research and document the early years of mixed martial arts. After some rather less assured forays into the misty depths of jujitsu's origins, Gentry does a fine job of detailing the struggles of MMA's difficult birth.
More entertainingly, he provides a platform for the personalities of the time to reminisce, presenting their own versions of what happened. Rorion Gracie, Art Davie, Tank Abbott, Relson Gracie and Don Frye all weigh in, amongst many others. To a large degree, No Holds Barred is the story of MMA's painful beginning, in the words of those who were not only there, but intimately involved. For fans of MMA, this is essential reading. Available to buy here (or here, in the US).
Full Review: If I recall correctly, I first heard about MMA in 2002, back when I initially began checking internet message boards. As someone who has been in university for the past decade, I tend to start researching anything that interests me, and MMA was no exception: I searched around the net for sources, along with newspaper databases. There had also been talk of a book called No Holds Barred, but for some reason, I must have been unable to get hold of it until the UK paperback edition came out in 2005.
Gentry's work proved to be an engaging read, with the various victories and defeats forming a narrative: I didn't want to spoil the story by knowing the results in advance. It therefore took me years to read the book cover-to-cover. I got into a cycle of asking for a UFC DVD for my birthday and Christmas, reading up to that event in No Holds Barred, then putting it back on the shelf until I picked up my next DVD.
That process finally finished in May 2008, after I'd collected all the MMA DVDs I wanted. I'd expanded my interests to include Pride and Extreme Fighting by that point, along with the seminal 2002 Hook n Shoot: Revolution event, featuring the first all-female card in the US. I lost interest in the UFC after the tournament format went out the window, and the commentary team shifted towards sensationalism rather than calm analysis (i.e., once Jeff Blatnick left).
The early UFC was full of entertaining characters: Ken Shamrock, Don Frye, Tank Abbott and many others. It was also fascinating from a technical perspective. Fighters had not yet realised that they needed to gain competency in all the ranges of combat, then somehow combine that knowledge into an effective strategy. Watching the first few years of MMA, you can watch that evolution gradually take place, until truly 'mixed' martial artists came on the scene (arguably the first was Frank Shamrock, building on the foundations laid by men like Don Frye, Marco Ruas and Maurice Smith).
This is exactly the period Clyde Gentry explores. I've re-read Gentry's book plenty of times (I'd check back over all the chapters up until my latest UFC DVD), and it's also been one of the main sources for an extensive history post I wrote on Brazilian jiu-jitsu, along with my UFC summaries.
After an interesting opening discussion on the development of kickboxing, Gentry confused me by referring to a part of Chinese history as the 'Choon Chu Era' (772-481 BC) on page 24. If you type that into Google, you'll get a whole load of TMA club pages attempting to describe the origins of jujitsu, so that is perhaps where he got it from. I'm no expert on Chinese history, but checking my little History of China (which served me very well on my trip out there back in 2004), it makes no mention of 'Choon Chu'.
There is a label that closely matches Gentry's range: the much more familiar Spring and Autumn Period (771-481 BC). Chu appears as a state active within that time, but I'm not sure where the 'Choon' might come from. However, like I said, I'm not a professional historian, so perhaps 'Choon Chu' is a well known label I'm just not familiar with.
Gentry then repeats the myth about Alexander the Great bringing pankration to India, after which it was supposedly brought by Da Mo (a figure also referred to as Bodhidharma, to whom much is attributed, but little factually verified) to China. Again, this is something you'll commonly see in histories of jujitsu written up on the internet, as opposed to serious academic studies. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact origins of many martial arts, due to the obfuscation frequently caused by a desire to be seen as 'ancient' and 'mystical'. Gentry's statement here could therefore have benefitted from a healthy dose of scepticism.
Anyway, that is a minor point (I'm talking about a single page). The meat of the book begins shortly afterwards, delving into the early vale tudo challenge matches, Rorion's move to the US and the ensuing genesis of the UFC. This is much easier to document (though certain points remain contentious), as you can read contemporary newspaper reports, watch video footage, and interview people from the time. The biggest attraction of No Holds Barred is that Gentry interviewed a significant chunk of the individuals he discusses, along with their peers.
That results in plenty of marvellous anecdotes, including a man who has an unlimited supply: Relson Gracie. His recollections of life as a young Gracie in Brazil appear on pages thirty to thirty-one:
"The equivalent to the SWAT team came to my dad's school and the whole team was there," said Relson. "They got fifteen of us to walk with them through the beach. When the cops walk through the beach, the bad guys would hide drugs and weapons in the sand. When we walk through the beach, we were like normal people with shorts; this was to surprise the guys."
Relson walked in front, Royler 30 feet behind and they had plenty of reinforcements. "I approached a group of the troublemakers and talked to them about coming along quietly to talk with the police," said Relson. "They didn't want to go. One guy stood up and pushed me and then punched me so I choked him out. The other guy tried to kick me so I took him down and choked him too. The third one ran into the water and then I jumped on his back and choked him too in the water. The fourth one also got into the water and started to swim away. I swam behind him and choked him out."
This look behind the scenes is the greatest strength of Gentry's book, and it fits with his stated aim in the introduction. Having previously written a book on Jackie Chan, Gentry was frustrated with an inability to "get inside the man," as he puts it. For No Holds Barred, Gentry writes, "I was determined that if I was to tell the story of this renegade sport, it would be the inside story, the straight dope."
Relson's story is just one of many. Gentry accomplishes his goal by drawing upon an impressive number of interviews with first-hand sources. The reader is left with a sense that this is indeed the 'straight dope'. Memories like the following, from pp54-55, make it seem as if Gentry was somehow present backstage at the time:
As Jimmerson entered the changing area, Kevin Rosier was popping his jaw back into place. It was clearly broken. Zane Frazier was on a stretcher heading for a nearby hospital; unbeknown to everyone, he had suffered a severe asthma attack during his fight and couldn't breathe unaided after returning to the dressing room. What Jimmerson saw next was truly hard to believe. Doctors were trying to remove two of Tuli's teeth that were embedded in Gerard Gordeau's foot. They decided it would be better to leave the teeth in for the rest of the night for fear of exposing the wound anymore. On top of that, Gordeau's hand was broken in several places. Yet the savate champion, cigarette dangling from his mouth, showed no signs of quitting and had blocked the pain out of his mind
Seeing all four men injured to various degrees was more than Jimmerson could handle. "Finally my managers came over to me and said, 'This is what we're going to do: go in there, and at the first sign of trouble, we're throwing in the towel,'" he later recalled. After all, Jimmerson's payday was locked in no matter what, so why should he risk injury?
Gentry discusses the claims that certain fights in the UFC were fixed (most notably Oleg Taktarov against stablemate Anthony Macias and Don Frye versus Mark Hall), asking the people involved. He explores the circumstances of the proposed challenge match between Rorion Gracie and Benny 'the Jet' Urquidez, as well as the heated exchanges between Rickson and his relatives, due to their decision to pick Royce ahead of the acknowledged family champion.
Gentry also looks beyond the UFC. Despite what Dana White would like you to believe, MMA has never been limited to one promotion. Up until recently (and some might argue this is still the case, with the absence of top flight competitors like Fedor), the best fights were to be found outside the Octagon, first in Extreme Fighting, then in Japan's PRIDE. Gentry provides enlightening details about both the Battlecade promotion and the beginnings of Japanese MMA, which predate the UFC by a few months (thanks to the inaugural Pancrase event on 21st September 1993). In addition to the fascinating story of the similarly named IFC, Gentry also discusses some of the lesser known promotions, like the ill-fated MARS (short-lived, but memorable for Renzo Gracie's supine KO of Oleg Taktarov) and WCC.
UFC events are covered in detailed up until around Ultimate Japan, taking two hundred pages to reach 1998. After that, Gentry summarises more frequently, which is unsurprising given that I'm reading several editions down the line. The entrance of Zuffa also marks the point where No Holds Barred veers away from 'the straight dope.' There are many criticisms that could be laid at Zuffa's door, which Gentry avoids making. The following quote from page 208 is especially amusing, given Zuffa's reputation:
Unlike SEG, Zuffa's UFC seemed open to working with other promotions and exchanging ideas. "The problem has been that everyone has traditionally played in their own sandbox," said Fertitta. "That's like saying, 'I'm the UFC and I'm not going to recognize anyone else.' It's important for all the promoters to communicate so that we can all move in the same direction rather than fight each other."
On the other hand, at the time Gentry was writing, Zuffa was still an unknown quantity. Dana White had not yet become a familiar caricature, repeatedly throwing f-bombs at all his competitors. Gentry didn't have much to work with after the first edition of No Holds Barred in 2002, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the discussion of Zuffa remains a brief, almost entirely positive summary.
The sport has grown a great deal since Gentry wrote his book, even taking into account that the version I own is an updated paperback edition from 2005. The most significant event was The Ultimate Fighter, which pushed MMA into the mainstream, followed by disastrous later efforts, like the Kimbo Slice debacle on Elite XC. Due to that much greater visibility, Gentry's pioneering efforts have now been taken up by other authors, like Jonathan Snowden.
Nevertheless, if you want a thorough, entertaining account of the early years of MMA – which in my view remain by far the most interesting – No Holds Barred is the gold standard. Available to buy here (or here, in the US).