Sherdog Remembers: The Dawn of Couture’s First Reign

By Brian Knapp Dec 21, 2011
Randy Couture had but a handful of fights under his belt when he fought for the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s heavyweight crown for the first time.

On Dec. 21, 1997, Couture climbed into the cage to challenge Maurice Smith for the heavyweight crown in the UFC 15.5 “Ultimate Japan 1” main event. The two met in front of what was then the largest crowd ever to witness a UFC show -- 17,000 strong at the Yokohama Arena in Yokohama, Japan.

Then 34, Couture had traveled the world wrestling abroad for the United States Army, but he had never visited Japan. The 17-hour flight did nothing to dampen his spirits, and he knew Smith posed a formidable test. They rose on opposite ends of the spectrum, one a world-class striker, the other a Greco-Roman wrestler.

A world champion kickboxer who had once gone nearly a decade between losses, Smith had defeated Mark Coleman at UFC 14 five months earlier. Coleman -- a former NCAA wrestling champion at Ohio State University and a member of the 1992 United States Olympic team -- entered the match unbeaten, with all six of his wins coming via first-round stoppage. His list of victims included Gary Goodridge, Don Frye and Dan Severn, but he was no match for Smith, who ravaged his legs with kicks en route to a unanimous decision and became the first black man to strap the UFC heavyweight title around his waist.

Like Coleman, Couture was undefeated when he faced Smith. Just two months prior, he had pulled off what was then considered a monumental upset, as he battered Brazilian phenom Vitor Belfort and stopped him on strikes at UFC 15 in Bay St. Louis, Miss.

Couture’s path to victory was clear. Take down Smith and neutralize the advantage he had standing. Smith, as it turns out, had no answer for his challenger’s takedowns. A four-time Olympic team alternate and three-time All-American at Oklahoma State University, Couture kept Smith on his back, absorbed only a handful of his thudding kicks and won a majority decision. So began the first of his three heavyweight title reigns, as two judges scored the bout in Couture’s favor; a third ruled it a draw.

Their paths never crossed again as competitors, and their careers headed in decidedly different directions after they met. Couture become one of the most decorated and beloved mixed martial artists in history and remains one of only two men -- B.J. Penn being the other -- to hold UFC championships in two different weight classes.

Smith, who last appeared in the Octagon 11 years ago in a decision loss to Renato “Babalu” Sobral, never wore UFC gold again. He turned 50 earlier this month and has not competed since his first-round submission loss to Hidehiko Yoshida in June 2008. Smith’s record sits at a mediocre 12-13.

UFC 15.5 -- which unfolded 14 years ago today -- also marked the promotional debut of Japanese icon Kazushi Sakuraba, who entered a four-man heavyweight tournament as a 183-pound unknown. His semifinal bout with Marcus Silveira, a foe who outweighed him by 60 pounds, resulted in a no contest after referee “Big” John McCarthy mistakenly called for the stoppage when Sakuraba, on the wrong end of a barrage of punches, dove for a single-leg takedown. McCarthy reviewed the tape and determined he had halted the match prematurely.

In the other semifinal, David “Tank” Abbott won a unanimous decision from Yoji Anjo after 15 minutes but could not advance in the tournament because of a broken hand. That left Sakuraba and Silveira to settle their differences in the final. Sakuraba submitted the Brazilian with an armbar 3:44 into round one. He went on to become a centerpiece of the Pride Fighting Championships promotion and has not competed in the Octagon since.

In addition to Couture’s first title reign and Sakuraba’s first appearances, UFC 15.5 also gave rise to Frank Shamrock, who needed just 16 seconds to submit Kevin Jackson with an armbar and become the UFC’s first middleweight champion. Shamrock fought four more times for the promotion, vacating the title after striking Tito Ortiz into fourth-round submission at UFC 22 two years later.

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