5 Breakout Performances

Feb 23, 2010
Watching Cain Velasquez stop Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira at UFC 110 on Saturday at the Acer Arena in Sydney, Australia, was a unique experience. The night not only gave us undeniable proof that Nogueira’s best days are long behind him, but it also bore witness to Velasquez’s first step toward greatness.

The good-to-great move eludes virtually everyone, regardless of profession. It’s why the moment of that transition remains such a significant step for the few who make it and those who experience it second-hand.

The brief history of mixed martial arts owns a small handful of those momentous occasions. After what went down at UFC 110, this stroll down memory lane highlights bouts that gave rise to some of MMA’s iconic figures.

1. Fedor Emelianenko vs. Heath Herring
Pride 23 “Championship Chaos 2” -- Nov. 24, 2002; Tokyo

Say what you will about Herring’s penchant for preposterous coiffures, the guy is tougher than a Costco Arctic-frozen steak. Going into his fight with “The Texas Crazy Horse” in November 2002, Emelianenko was just some pudgy Russian guy with all the personality of plywood.

Then Emelianenko literally tossed Herring to the floor and started turning his face into a demolition zone. What was really impressive about the dead-eyed Russian’s onslaught was what it did to Herring. His Texas-bred toughness reached its breaking point when he turned his back on Emelianenko in the middle of the fight.

No one knows if Herring’s brain was firing random signals to his legs or if he was just looking for a breather from the beating, but he looked lost in the ring. A merciful doctor’s stoppage after the first round spared Herring further punishment and gave Emelianenko’s fists a much-needed rest.

That was the last day anyone thought of Emelianenko as anything other than a fine-tuned engine of destruction. A legendary run as Pride heavyweight champion soon followed, and Emelianenko remains the division’s gold standard to this day. For all the vulgar displays of violence “The Last Emperor” has given us since, nothing quite tops that November night when he made it clear to the world that destruction has a gut and loves striped sweaters.

2. Anderson Silva vs. Chris Leben
UFC Fight Night 5 -- June 28, 2006; Las Vegas

MMA’s multi-faceted nature demands certain sacrifices; learning so many unique approaches to fighting means making peace with the fact that becoming a jack-of-all-trades serves as the universal glass ceiling. Silva clearly does not care much for this line of thought.

One of the few truly technically proficient strikers in the sport, Silva entered the UFC still saddled by embarrassing submission losses to Ryo Chonan and Daiju Takase in Pride. Leben seized upon those hiccups and claimed he would knock out Silva out and send him back to the Land of the Rising Sun. The “hindsight is 20/20” adage seems tailor-made for situations like this.

The fight aired live on Spike TV and provided Silva with the most exposure he had received on this side of the Pacific. The hot rumor circulation had the winner receiving a shot at UFC middleweight champion Rich Franklin. Forty nine seconds after the opening bell, Leben was splayed out on the canvas after barely landing a strike and basically functioning as Silva’s personal heavy bag,

That caliber of brilliance has become all but assumed of Silva since, but it was nothing short of unbelievable the first time around. While many fans believed Silva would outclass Leben, virtually no one expected such a clinical dissection. Anyone who saw it live knows that Silva’s legend began the second he landed his first punch in the Octagon.

Daniel Herbertson/Sherdog.com

Sakuraba's legend grew in 2000.
3. Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Royce Gracie/Igor Vovchanchyn
Pride “Grand Prix - 2000 Finals” -- May 1, 2000; Tokyo

Sakuraba fought for 105 minutes in front of an awed crowd at the Tokyo Dome. In the finals of the 2000 Pride open weight grand prix, his night began against Gracie in a fight with no time limit.

It was arguably the most anticipated fight in MMA history and lasted for six 15-minute rounds. The fight itself has not held up over time, but that ignores the unbearable tension of watching it as it happened. Gracie fought for his family’s name, as Sakuraba tried to become the first man to beat the Brazilian under his own rules.

More than an hour and a half passed before Gracie’s corner threw in the towel and gave a thoroughly exhausted Sakuraba a trip to the semi-finals of the tournament. Awaiting the Japanese superstar was Ukrainian heavyweight Igor Vovchanchyn, a man who had not lost in nearly five years and fought as if his life depended on winning in as brutal fashion as possible.

Sakuraba, a glorified middleweight, fought Vovchanchyn to a standstill for 15 minutes before his corner refused to allow their man to head out for another grueling round. Mark Coleman went on win the tournament, but it was Sakuraba who became a mythic character. All it took was 105 minutes that defied comprehension and human biology.

4. Randy Couture vs. Chuck Liddell
UFC 43 “Meltdown” -- June 6, 2003; Las Vegas

The game was at an end for Couture, just shy of his 40th birthday and riding a two-fight losing streak that saw him relinquish the UFC heavyweight title and a chance to regain it. Making matters worse, he was making a risky move to light heavyweight to take on Liddell, a mohawked killer. Liddell was an incalculably angry human being on the verge of punching the universe into a coma thanks to incumbent champion Tito Ortiz shamelessly ducking him.

This had all the makings of Couture’s Alamo, a last stand doomed by impossible circumstances. It turned into one of the most jaw-dropping displays of fight IQ the sport has ever seen, as Couture not only outwrestled Liddell but out-struck him with surprising ease. Every time Liddell tried to measure a kill shot, Couture’s fist was in his face, short-circuiting his supposedly unstoppable style.

A lopsided fight came to an end with a vintage ground-and-pound assault that gave Couture a TKO win in the third round. Afterward, Couture held up the UFC light heavyweight title nearly six years after winning the heavyweight crown. The sight was nothing short of surreal, and it marked the moment Couture went from being a memorable heavyweight to a fight sport icon.

5. Hayato "Mach" Sakurai vs. Frank Trigg
Shooto “R.E.A.D. Final” -- Dec. 17, 2000; Urayasu, Japan

When they finally construct a true MMA hall of fame, Sakurai, if any justice exists in the world, will be enshrined. The sport’s first great pound-for-pound fighter, Sakurai was something of an urban legend in America, as fans had to settle for grainy footage of his fights and the occasional bit of knowledge from Japanese fight forum members.

For the lucky few able to see Sakurai’s fights live and the many that would get clued in later, his battle with Trigg at the legendary “Shooto R.E.A.D. Final” show is still remembered as his fistic masterpiece. A difficult first round with the powerhouse American wrestler seemed only to inspire Sakurai to new heights, as he repeatedly dropped Trigg with blistering strikes in the second and ended his night with a barrage of knees from the Thai clinch.

While Sakurai’s career was later hampered by injuries sustained in a car crash, as well as his own enigmatic personality and approach to training, the fight christened his ascension to the highest highs of athletic conquest. His moment in the sun proved to be painfully short, but he accomplished more than most.
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