10 Fights That Changed the UFC: Part 1

By Jake Rossen Jul 6, 2009
The huffing, puffing barn-house clawing of a bout during 2005’s “Ultimate Fighter” live finale between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar has taken root in MMA like no other fight before or since. It is credited with restoring the UFC’s potential as the combat sport of the new century, turning on a bunch of casual, Saturday-night television surfers and serving as a splint for what was then a company crippled by debt.

All of this is more or less the truth. But what the near-religious fascination with the fight ignores is that no sport is ever made or broken on the value of one night alone. The UFC put itself in a position to host Griffin/Bonnar by building on the effort of many fighters prior; the fight would ultimately have made little difference if the events proceeding didn’t maintain the attention of the audience.

For business and cultural awareness reasons, it’s a crucial fight. It is also one of many.

And where Griffin/Bonnar disappoints is by forcing any list of “top 10” UFC fights to arrive at a rather boring and predictable conclusion: Far more amusing is to consider the bouts that changed the UFC -- and by association, MMA -- by excluding it. (Go debate the best basketball player with your friends, but force them to censor Michael Jordan. I promise the conversation will be a hell of a lot more interesting.)

What follows are the 10 UFC fights that -- for better or worse -- altered our thinking about the sport, informed us of new possibilities or staged a minor revolution in how fighters would enter the cage from that point on. (What it’s not is a list of the best fights: At least one is so sensationally awful that it should never be viewed sober.)

Beginning today and continuing all this week on ESPN and Sherdog.com: 10 bouts that made Saturday’s landmark UFC 100 possible.

Forrest Griffin vs. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua (UFC 76, Sept. 22, 2007)

Griffin -- and I say this with the utmost respect -- reminds me a lot of Curious George, the children’s book character. He has easily parodied features, a sardonic delivery and a gimmick based almost exclusively on his (alleged) low self-esteem. In addition, he was a reality TV series participant. To say his chances in the UFC were perceived as dismal would be putting it mildly.

Rua, on the other hand, might as well have had horns and a tail: As a Pride standout, he was argued as the top 205-pound fighter in the world. Pride athletes, fandom believed, were so far ahead of anyone stateside that this would look more like a vehicular accident than a fight. But Griffin kept his composure, pressured an ailing Rua -- who was said to have suffered from injury -- and finally finished him with an improbable choke.

The Winner: Griffin via submission.

The Lesson: “Ultimate Fighter” products would be taken seriously as contenders -- even champions, as Griffin proved when he later defeated Quinton Jackson for the light heavyweight title. More importantly, Pride was just a placard: It lent its affiliated fighters no special powers. Rua, like Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Wanderlei Silva and a host of others, would go on to look woefully human outside of Japan.

Mark Coleman vs. Maurice Smith (UFC 14, July 27, 1997)

“Ground and pound, that’s my goddamn game.” Mark Coleman’s pre-event quote -- if not his most articulate -- was at least honest. Coleman had little interest in learning the nuances of submission or striking, having found success as one of the first NCAA-accredited wrestlers to enter the UFC. No one could stop his takedown -- certainly not Smith, a rangy kickboxer who went to the ground only when he dropped something.

If Coleman did not respect Smith at the opening bell, he quickly learned his lesson: Despite planting him on the mat and dropping an unending series of punches and head butts, Smith refused to panic, dodged, covered and waited out the storm. Back on the feet, an exhausted Coleman stood idle while Smith cracked him with kicks. Wrestlers would never seem quite so scary again.

The Winner: Smith via decision.

The Lesson: Wrestlers were not invincible, and their cardio conditioning in their native sport -- with its two- and three-minute phases -- was not up to the task of fights that could sometimes go 15 minutes without interruption.

Jeff Sherwood/Sherdog.com

Ken Shamrock blew it at UFC 9.
Dan Severn vs. Ken Shamrock II (UFC 9, May 17, 1996)

“You are talking about a guy who was given more opportunities to be a star in the UFC,” the promoter Art Davie once said of Ken Shamrock, “[yet] every time someone handed him a spear and asked him to throw it, he figured a way to drop it and not throw it at all.”

Shamrock, marbled like a bodybuilder and with a mug that nearly got him in movies, was slated to face rival Dan Severn in a Detroit superfight. Political interference mandated rules changes before the show: No closed-fist strikes would be allowed. Fighters would be “fined” for infractions, but it was understood that it would be business as usual.

Shamrock disagreed, and spent 30 minutes circling Severn in what quickly became the single most damaging fight to the UFC’s reputation. While political pressure ramped up, cable providers may have stuck it out if business was good. It wasn’t: Buyrates dropped by a quarter after this show. Not long after, the event was relegated to satellite customers. And Shamrock suffered the worst indignity of all: His father didn’t speak to him for a week.

The Winner: Severn via decision.

The Lesson: One bad fight can erase the memory of the previous hundred.

Vitor Belfort vs. Tra Telligman and Scott Ferrozzo (UFC 12, Feb. 7, 1997)

For the preceding three years, the UFC had been home primarily to grapplers. Even if you were adept at striking, a wrestler or jiu-jitsu expert would suffocate your attempts. It was new and interesting, this grappling, but it did not provide the dynamic and explosive motion boxing had spoiled us on.

The 20-year-old Vitor Belfort needed only two minutes to put this belief on its ass and send both Tra Telligman and Scott Ferrozzo on their heels. This was not a lumbering heavyweight, but someone who had the hand speed of a man operating at another frame rate than everyone else. He blitzed the two and signaled the arrival of what four-ounce gloves could do in the right hands. More importantly, he stirred up an excitement and enthusiasm among devotees that was sorely needed in what was about to become a very distressing time for the promotion.

The Winner: Vitor Belfort via what the f--- was that?

The Lesson: Mark Coleman -- who debuted at UFC 10 -- would not be the only athlete in the cage.

Tito Ortiz vs. Vladimir Matyushenko (UFC 33, Sept. 28, 2001)

The story of UFC 33 has become the sport’s most unpleasant campfire tale: the first event back on cable operators, all five televised fights went to a decision. None were particularly exciting, and the last -- a title fight between Ortiz and Matyushenko -- was cut off midway through because the time slot had expired.

Whether it was the main event or simply the entire program itself, Zuffa and the Nevada Commission took immediate and swift action: Beginning with UFC 34, referees would have the ability to stand up bouts they felt were stalemated on the ground. Purists cried foul, but MMA has always been a spectator sport first and combat experiment second.

The Winner: Fans.

The Lesson: The change has probably saved us from some horrifically boring fights -- and possibly the sport from extinction based on the damp-blanket strategies of one-dimensional wrestlers.

All this week on the ESPN/Sherdog.com MMA Blog: five more fights that changed the UFC. For comments, suggestions or to make the author bleed from his ear by asking what happened to Griffin/Bonnar, e-mail jrossen@sherdog.com
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