11/14/2013 07:00 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Royce Gracie reminisces as UFC celebrates 20 years of cage-fighting at UFC 167

LAS VEGAS, Nev. - Royce Gracie made a career proving that size doesn't matter.

Twenty years ago, Gracie won UFC 1 by defeating opponents of all shape, size and discipline. But making it look easy doesn't mean it was.

"Like when I fought Akebono — six foot eight, 490 pounds," said Gracie, recalling his 2004 K-1 showdown with a sumo wrestler the size of a mini-van.

"Before the fight, everyone's like 'Man, you're crazy. You're out of your mind. How are you going to fight a guy that big, there's no way you can take him down. You cannot punch him out. You're out of your mind.'

"After the fight, everybody was like 'Oh come on, he's big and fat.' Really? Walk up to a six-foot-eight 490-pound (man) and slap him on the face. You see how slow he is."

Gracie took the big man down twice, pulling guard each time and eventually forced him to tap to a painful shoulder lock submission.

Two decades after UFC 1, the 46-year-old Gracie was rolling on a mat Wednesday with current UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre ahead of UFC 167, which is being billed as the UFC's 20th year anniversary card.

St-Pierre normally treats the obligatory public workouts in fight week like a trip to the dentist. In his mind, the real work has already been done in the gym and his focus is on the looming fight. He has no time for sham shadow-boxing.

But St-Pierre was beaming after rolling with Gracie.

"He's my idol," St-Pierre said later.

The reason for that dates back well before GSP took up fighting for a living.

"I got bullied when I was young at school, by bigger and older people," said the 32-year-old from Montreal. "The first UFC I saw Royce, he was the smallest (fighter). The least intimidating of all, but the smartest. The way he won the tournament really inspired me. That's why I'm here right now, fighting for the title."

The Gracie family, he said, "influenced the whole world. Not only me. Without them, the sport wouldn't exist."

Gracie, a slim six-foot 175-pounder, was chosen to carry the Gracie family colours in UFC 1. His secret weapon was Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

There were no rules, other than a gentleman's agreement not to bite or eye-gouge.

The tone was set early when Savate world champion Gerard Gordeau kicked 420-pound Sumo wrestler Teila Tuli in the head and a tooth flew out of the cage.

Boxer Art Jimmerson tapped out against Gracie in two minutes 18 seconds, frustrated at having the Brazilian stuck on top him. Twenty-four minutes later, Royce went to the cage to face ground fighter Ken Shamrock, who lasted 57 seconds before he tapped out to a choke.

Gordeau lasted just 1:44 in the championship bout but still managed to enrage Gracie by biting him on the ear. Gracie head-butted him in the face and then applied a choke, taking his time releasing it.

If UFC was the house Gracie built, Zuffa under Dana White and Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta turned it into a Hollywood mansion.

The Fertitta brothers bought the ailing organization in 2001 for US$2 million, investing more than $40 million into it before it started to turn around.

Today it is reportedly a billion-dollar-plus empire.

Gracie has seen the sport mushroom, saying little kids now tell him they want to be UFC fighters.

"You know it's mainstream now," he said.

Gracie admires today's well-rounded fighters and the strategies they use in the cage. But he wonders how they would do under old-school rules or lack thereof.

"No gloves, no time limit, no weight division, it would be very interesting."

Mark (The Hammer) Coleman, another UFC Hall of Famer, also laments the addition of rules to the UFC.

"I was at home in that cage with no rules," he said. "It was beautiful. They took the head-butt away, I cried like a baby for a few days. My first fight (after the rule was instituted), I was lost. I'm staring at this guy's face and I can't hit it with my head."

Gracie's favourite fighters today are those who come out with a strategy, rather than a red mist over their eyes.

"It's pretty much the champions. They know how to make the fight look easy, because they take the opponent out of their game," he said. "But there is no easy fight out there."