It was a unique strategy to say the least. Tony Halme had a plan for beating NCAA All American Randy Couture at UFC 13, the Octagon debut for both men. “I’m going to rip his arms and legs out of socket.” It was a bold plan, one sure to be helped by the former WWF star’s self proclaimed “balls of steel.” Halme was a pro boxer, once even beating former middleweight champion Iran Barkley by controversial decision. Never mind that Barkley was 70 pounds past his fighting prime and desperate for a check. Halme was tough. His bar fights in his native Finland were legendary. There was little, in his mind, that a smaller man could do to him.
By 1997 fighters had seen Gracie Jiu Jitsu in action for four years. Defending yourself on the mat was paramount and even the strongest and biggest men had to be prepared for a little guy that could snake his hand around your throat. At 6-5 and a massive 300 pounds, Halme (who had wrestled for Vince McMahon under the name Ludvig Borga) didn’t think those rules applied to him. Wrestling promoter Rick Basseman, the man who had talked UFC matchmaker Art Davies into giving Halme a try, arranged for the McCully brothers (Justin and Sean) to take Halme through the paces. The two developed a month long training regiment. The problem? “Tony was not showing up,” Basseman said. “For any sessions. Ever.”
Days before the fight he finally made an appearance, going to see the infamous Gokar Chivichyan at “Judo” Gene LeBell’s gym in Los Angeles. Gene had been a fierce opponent of the UFC when the venture was first getting off the ground, siding with his friend Benny “the Jet” Urquidez in the kickboxer’s feud with the Gracie family. Gene was savvy though, and saw the writing on the wall. The mixed martial artist was soon going to be the prototypical tough guy. Gene was in.
Chivichyan was LeBell’s top student and one of those mythical figures in martial arts culture. His MMA resume is sparse, a single win against an unknown opponent. But his name, attached to LeBell’s credibility and gift of gab, still sells instructional videos and books. In a brief workout, a Chivichyan student grabbed Halme’s arm and popped his elbow. He had trained for exactly two minutes and the fight was in jeopardy. “He said ‘This, this is nothing.'” Basseman remembered. The fight was still on.
His first opponent on that fateful night in Augusta, Georgia was making his own UFC debut. Called in at the last minute, Couture was replacing an injured fighter (name lost to history) who was replacing UFC veteran Jason Fairn. Fairn, a man who had once implemented his own rules to protect his glowing and beautiful long blond locks from being pulled, took one look at Halme and made the call to live to fight another day. Couture was willing to give it a go, but like everyone was intimidated by the Finn’s fearsome reputation.
To Halme, the smaller Couture was nothing more than a “little smurf.” Besides, he would clearly win the fight in time. Nothing, the Finn assured the UFC interviewer who conducted his legendary prefight interview, could make him tap out.
When the fight began, reality was an unwelcome intrusion to Halme’s world. He was taken down immediately. Plodding across the ring with his right hand ready to smash, he had made himself the perfect tackling dummy for an All-American wrestler. After some light punches, Halme gave his back, immediately tapping to Couture’s inexpert choke. It was his only Octagon appearance.
For many men, this colorful night would have been the highlight of a lifetime. For Halme, it was just another day. He had main evented a New Japan Pro Wrestling show against the late legend Shinya Hashimoto. He had won the WWF’s Intercontinental Championship, even though the promotion never recognized his untelevised triumph. Halme also wrote four books and had a gold single,Viikinki, from his first and only album. And, like Finland’s version of Jesse Ventura or Antonio Inoki, Halme was elected to Parliament.
Halme’s political career was riddled in controversy. He was elected as part of the populist True Finns Party, a radical group adamantly opposed to a growing immigration population in his country. His career as a politician got off to quite the start: the day after his election he referred to Finland’s President Tarja Halonen as a lesbian. “If we can elect a lesbian President,” Halme asked a radio host. “Why not me?” The problem? The mannish looking Halonen, once a subject of Conan O’Brien’s comedy stylings because of an uncanny resemblance between the two, was not actually a lesbian.
Halme had started his career in the tabloids and stayed there. As he lost a continuing battle with alcohol and drugs, the stories turned from comedic to tragic. He fired a gun in his house, was arrested for driving under the influence, and police found steroids in his home. In 2006 his health had deteriorated to the point he was committed to a mental hospital. Years of heavy drinking had taken their toll. He had cirrhosis of the liver and friends say last year he was having trouble with his short term memory.
Halme died yesterday at his home in Finland. Foul play is not suspected, although the Finnish tabloids are speculating he ended his own life with an illegal firearm found at the scene. He was 47.