10 Fights that Changed the Course of Careers

10 Fights

By Jake Rossen Jun 5, 2008
Take his career as a whole and Matt Hughes (Pictures) -- who competes Saturday for the first time since a second devastating loss to Georges St. Pierre (Pictures) -- is unquestionably the most accomplished 170-pound athlete to ever don a pair of open-fingered Ouano gloves.

With a list of casualties including B.J. Penn (Pictures), Sean Sherk (Pictures), and even St. Pierre himself, Hughes has run the gauntlet in one of the deepest talent pools in the sport. Yet the defining image fans will carry into his bout against Thiago Alves (Pictures) in London's O2 arena is his arm being torqued at unnatural angles at the hands of St. Pierre last December.

That sobering defeat could turn out to be the fulcrum on which Hughes' career now swings. Snapped from his perpetual dominance of the division, he may be more cognizant of his physical limitations and opponents may be less fearful of his abilities.

In properly melodramatic form: the St. Pierre loss could be the beginning of the end.

It wouldn't be the first time that five or 10 minutes managed to stall career momentum for good. Other athletes have had experiences that reduced them to shells of their former selves. Inversely, some fights have taken fighters to new levels of popularity and performance.

The psychological and physical reverberations of a good beat down -- taken or given -- can last the duration of a fighter's ring life.

Some examples, in ascending order of impact:

10. Randy Couture (Pictures) vs. Chuck Liddell (Pictures) (June 6, 2003)

2002 was not a good year to be Randy Couture (Pictures). After suffering violent losses to heavyweights Josh Barnett (Pictures) and Ricco Rodriguez (Pictures)-the latter crushing his orbital bone-the then-40-year-old's value as a prizefighter seemed to have expired.

To add homicide to injury, UFC brass decided in 2003 to slot him in against Chuck Liddell (Pictures) for an interim light heavyweight title. After successive defeats, few expected him to have much recourse against the dangerous hands of his opponent.

Couture, of course, proved everyone wrong, a feat he seems to find as satisfying as the fighting itself. He pummeled Liddell, the performance resuscitated his career, made him one of the sport's few true superstars and morphed him into an avatar for human achievement in the face of middle age. If Captain America has an origin story, this is it.

9. Kazushi Sakuraba (Pictures) vs. Wanderlei Silva (Pictures) (March 25, 2001)

On an 11-1-1 run in PRIDE, cross-pollinating pro wrestler Sakuraba seemed to have a near-unbeatable combination of ring generalship and unorthodox striking - that, and a killer single-leg. Even violent heavyweight Igor Vovchanchyn (Pictures) had struggled with the middleweight's physical riddles.

That career momentum shifted for good when Sakuraba ran into Wanderlei Silva (Pictures), a savage from Brazil that swarmed him with punches and left him a bloody and confused pile on the mat. The smirking and showmanship was replaced with bruises and the first of many MRI exams.

He lost to Silva a second (and third) time, was beaten by Mirko "Cro Cop," and ultimately sufficiently softened up to be knocked out by an otherwise-underwhelming Antonio Schembri (Pictures). While still a cunning athlete, Sakuraba's stature was downgraded from mythical to human virtually overnight.

8. Vitor Belfort (Pictures) vs. Randy Couture (Pictures) (October 17, 1997)

Despite a downsized fan base that could be measured on the eye of a needle, the MMA community made a lot of noise over the frenetic displays of rookie Vitor Belfort (Pictures). His performances belied a Carlson Gracie pedigree, fists mowing down opposition like a gatling gun. Few seemed capable of overcoming his hand speed and teenaged (he debuted at 19) athleticism.

Perennial spoiler Randy Couture (Pictures) gamely smothered the hype. He took Belfort's best shots, landed some of his own and finished up by grounding and pounding his bloated and exhausted body. Belfort's famous hands would be seen at full throttle only once more - against Wanderlei Silva (Pictures) - before retiring to the same hypothetical stage as the "old Mike Tyson." It was a promising career that turned out to be as much of a temporal flash as the flurries it was built on.

7. Anderson Silva vs. Chris Leben (Pictures) (June 28, 2006)

Make no mistake: there was life for Anderson Silva prior to his UFC debut. He owned crushing victories over Carlos Newton (Pictures) and Alex Stiebling (Pictures) - the unfortunately-named "Brazilian Killa" - in Japan and his Muay Thai expertise was a source of apprehension for anyone in his sights.

But it wasn't until he pummeled concrete-chinned Chris Leben (Pictures) in front of a national television audience that Silva's abilities hit the world's stage. Anointed as the premier striker in the sport, Silva went on to amass a perfect 6-0 record in the UFC, a middleweight title belt and recognition as a pound-for-pound great.

6. Royce Gracie (Pictures) vs. Wallid Ismail (Pictures) (December 17, 1998)

It's a testament to Gracie's legacy in prizefighting that a sport jiu-jitsu match would resonate with his fans to the degree this one did.

Ending a three-year sabbatical from competition, Gracie accepted a no-striking grappling contest with Wallid Ismail (Pictures) in Brazil. Despite his notoriety as a Gi-clad professor of submission, Gracie's outmoded style held no answers for Ismail's contemporary skills and he put Gracie to sleep on the mat.

Once seen as virtually unbeatable, Gracie went on to lose his first MMA bout (to Kazushi Sakuraba (Pictures)) and struggled with lightweight Hideo Tokoro (Pictures) before being demolished by Matt Hughes (Pictures). The best eventually lose, but usually not at their own game.
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