In terms of a first impression, there can be nothing eerier than the image of Lee Murray walking to the Octagon dressed as Hannibal Lecter ahead of his UFC debut against Jorge Rivera on January 31, 2004.
Kitted out in an orange prison jumpsuit and mask, essentially muzzled, Murray looked calm and comfortable, unnervingly so. It seemed, in that moment, as though there could be no more appropriate way for him to enter the Octagon than to do so looking like a famous serial killer.
In hindsight, it was a less of a ring walk and more of a warning.
Bloody Elbow: What memories do you have of the night you made your UFC debut?
Lee Murray: It was crazy; always a madness. Just trying to get from London to Vegas was a nightmare.
We planned to leave a few weeks before the fight and go via Iowa so we could train with Pat and the guys. Me, Terry and Paul set off together and had to go to Chicago to get to Iowa. Once we arrived in Chicago, me and Paul got stopped at customs because my visa had been cancelled and a statement from the British Police had been faxed through saying me and Paul were dangerous, involved in organised crime and should not be let into the country.
Luckily, I had made this trip on many occasions and knew the customs officer. The year before I had the same problem when me and Ian Freeman went to train with Pat, but they let me through. This time they had us there for six hours doing fingerprints and everything else. Then finally they let us through.
The British Police made up a load of bulls—t to try and stop me fighting, but the allegations the customs officers asked me about were charges I was a suspect for but had never been charged for. A lot of people think that it was to do with the road rage incident, but it wasn’t that at all. My visa kept getting refused.
Anyway, we finally got through and made our way to Vegas and were meeting hundreds of people who had come from London to support me. It was like south London in the Mandalay Bay.
Two of my friends, Danny and Wesley, had a big fight with each other outside the Bellagio hotel waiting for a taxi. They were both beaten up so badly they had to go to hospital and get stitched up.
I bumped into them the following morning in the corridor when coming out of my room. I looked at them and said, “What the f—k happened to you two?” They replied, “We had a fight.” I said, “With who?” They said, “With each other.” I laughed and called them both “f—king d—kheads”.
I saw Pat later that day and he said to me, “Lee, control your buddies, man. You can’t do that crazy shit out here, bro.”
The flight home was a bigger nightmare than the flight there. When we landed at Heathrow, an announcement came over the tannoy saying all passengers were to remain seated because emergency services were getting on. The next thing you know, the plane was swarmed with police officers.
One of them came up to me and said, “Alright, Lee, congratulations on your fight, but we are here for Paul.”
They said to Paul, “We’re arresting you for breach of bail conditions,” and then asked me and Terry to remain seated while they took Paul off. I was like, “F—k that, I’m getting off, too.” We just got up and followed behind.
I was fuming, and Terry was trying to calm me down. As we got to the door of the plane, there must have been 30 police officers waiting in the tunnel armed with dogs just in case we kicked off.
One of Paul’s bail conditions was to not leave the country. Any little excuse they could find to arrest us, they were all over it like a cheap suit. The police didn’t want me to get off the streets and they definitely didn’t want me becoming a UFC superstar. But my intention from day one was exactly that. I had not turned up in Vegas to make the numbers up. I came to clean up.
MMA was something I had in my life that could get me away from the streets completely. But the British police, rather than let me get off the streets and make a better life for myself and my family, would prefer to have me locked up for life. They basically went on a crusade to try to sabotage any hope I had of ever fighting in the US.
I’m sure there are others with similar stories. There are many great kids on the streets, probably like me, with colourful pasts and good natural fighting ability but no opportunities. They have the ability to become UFC champions, but they just need guidance and they just need to believe in themselves.
When I am out of here, one thing I would like to do is open my own gym and help a lot of these kids get off the streets and become MMA champions.
BE: What do you remember about the Jorge Rivera fight?
LM: I remember going into that fight thinking I have got to win. There is no way I can let him beat me. The UFC gave me a one-fight contract and said, “If you lose, you can pack your bags.” I had one chance to impress them. I was not about to let Jorge or anyone else get in my way.
I trained really hard for that fight and was in good shape. People would hear me doing pad-work and stop in amazement. My coach said BJ Penn had been speaking to Joe Silva and said, “Who is this Lee Murray fighting?”
Joe replied, “Jorge Rivera.”
“Well, Jorge needs to get this guy on the floor pretty quick,” BJ said.
I am sure this must have knocked Jorge off his game plan. I had many conversations with Jorge after the fight and met up with him many times in the UK. He is a nice guy. He was upset that he lost the way he did. He didn’t stand up and have a war with me.
At the start of the fight he shot straight in. I threw a right hand that just grazed past his head. He was pretty lucky that shot didn’t land or that would have been it. Then he clinched with me and had me up against the fence. I held him tight to me as I was thinking maybe he wants to break away and land shots or start dirty boxing. I recall he had a lot of success against David Loiseau from that position.
Then he dragged me to the floor. I decided not to defend this takedown at all. I just went to the floor. I am not bothered about taking flights to the floor. As we hit it, I made sure I stayed calm and relaxed. I did not want to waste any energy. I wanted to make sure he couldn’t land any shots.
But all of a sudden he left his arm out. I was thinking, this is too good to be true. I wondered how he could make such a schoolboy error in a UFC fight. Once I had his arm, I knew I had given him a problem. He tried to pull out of it and I then switched to the triangle. I had the arm-bar and the triangle.
It was a perfect UFC debut: first round win without a mark on my face. The fight was on the main card and was shown live on the pay-per-view. Georges St-Pierre made his debut that night, too. It was on the cards that the UFC would have big plans for me — bigger plans than they had for GSP and look what a great career he had.
I actually thought I had won the ‘Submission of the Night’ award until BJ Penn submitted Matt Hughes by rear-naked choke. BJ snatched that one from me.
BE: How did you celebrate that night?
LM: A few friends and I went to a few clubs and met up with Kevin Randleman and Bill Goldberg. We partied with them.
‘The Real Notorious’ is a seven-part series with Lee Murray.