MMA in 2003: Peering Into the Rearview

By Mike Sloan Jan 17, 2004
As I kneel upon the grassy knoll gazing at the passing clouds and pondering the meaning of life while evaluating the theory of relativity, I realize that 2003 was a solid year for mixed martial arts.

For starters, PRIDE bombarded us with their epic Middleweight (light heavyweight) Grand Prix, a tournament that pitted most of the world's best against each other with the victor crowned as the best at 205 (well, sorta- Silva has to fight Couture before that circlet is bestowed upon the rightful dome).

On top of the GP, PRIDE dished out another four majestic events, each of which seemed to top the previous outing.

Of course, that's not to say that we American MMA junkies weren't blessed with killer shows, either. The UFC pulled off more than a few dynamite shows of their own and it seems as though 2004 will just be better. Naturally, neither UFC nor PRIDE held enough shows to quench my thirst for MMA mastery, but that can all be rectified in the coming twelve months, right?

Below is an in-depth run down of some of 2003's highlights, lowlights and everything in between. Enjoy!

*Note: The awards are only based upon fights I have witnessed.

Fighter of year: Randy Couture
This one was a no-brainer in my opinion as Randy Couture bounced back from back-to-back losses in 2002 to not only upend two of the world's top fighters at 205 lbs, he simply obliterated them. When Couture met Chuck Liddell back in UFC 43, most expected Chuck's phenomenal ground defense and sprawl, coupled with his crippling striking power, to be too much for the old dinosaur, but Couture had the last laugh as he pummeled Liddell en route to a third round TKO.

Couture didn't stop there, though, as he continued his thrilling year by toppling the seemingly endless trash talker Tito Ortiz in UFC 44. Tito put his money where his big mouth is and bit off just a wee bit more than he could chew. Couture dominated Ortiz from the opening horn and easily won every single round as he captured an embarrassingly easy unanimous decision.

Other notables: Fedor Emelianenko almost won the award, but with only a solitary win over one of the sport's best (Nogueira) and a string of wins over B level fighters, Fedor just missed out. Duane Ludwig came close, too, as his shocking first round dismantling of then-world recognized lightweight champion Jens Pulver put 'Bang!' on the map. Duane followed that huge win with a thrilling, yet controversial, come-from-from-behind victory over Genki Sudo.

Fight of the Year: Matt Lindland vs. Phil Baroni II
While UFC 41 wasn't exactly the crowned jewel of 2003 for Zuffa, that particular card certainly had easily the best fight of the year for UFC and arguably the most exciting for all of MMA. In a classic grudge match between two dudes who truly despise each other, their rematch more than lived up to the hype as Baroni and Lindland let everything go for three full rounds. When the memorable war was over, Lindland was the one with his hand raised

Other notables: Duane Ludwig vs. Genki Sudo and Minotauro Nogueira vs. CroCop Filipovic

Comeback Fighter of the Year: Randy Couture
Winless in 2002, then bounces back with two dramatic victories over the cream of the crop of the UFC light heavyweights. Enough said.

Trainer of the Year: Pat Miletich
Matt Hughes still dominates, Tim Sylvia won and defended the heavyweight title (even though he lost it due to steroids), Pulver has bounced back with a few wins, Jeremy Horn, Jason Black. Also enough said.

Upset of the Year: Jason Maxwell TKO 1 Jens Pulver
Forget Duane Ludwig's historic knockout of Jens Pulver. Don't even mention Rich Franklin being iced by Ryoto Machida on the last day of 2003. Forget every other fight that was considered an upset last year because, in my opinion, nothing compares to the unbelievable knockout unknown Jason Maxwell scored against Pulver back on May 24 as the main event to the smaller HOOKnSHOOT show.

Though Ludwig's KO of Pulver wasn't expected, it wasn't beyond reason due to the fact that Pulver promised to stand toe-to-toe with him and for the simple fact that Ludwig has freakish striking power. And while Franklin padded his record with impressive wins over solid competition, he wasn't exactly in the same league with Pulver as far as opposition and experience goes.

Pulver was bouncing back from his heartbreaking loss to Ludwig and everybody expected "Little Evil" to trounce Maxwell. The only people who believed Maxwell could do it were his team and himself. Pulver got rocked and taken out, losing for the second consecutive time via knockout. What makes this upset even bigger is the fact that Maxwell, in his first fight since taking out Pulver, lost to the even lesser-known Tomomi Iwama via armbar!

Event of the Year: The PRIDE Middleweight GP. The only thing that's close to being as big as the PRIDE GP was Ortiz/Couture. PRIDE pulled no punches in their middleweight tournament and even though Ricardo Arona had to withdraw due to an injured knee, the GP was a resounding success with some of the year's most brutal knockouts. Wanderlei Silva won the whole ball of wax and now calls himself the best 205 pounder on the earth (PSST! Hey, Zuffa, PRIDE! Can you do us a favor and pit the winner of Couture/Belfort against Silva? We MMA junkies would deeply appreciate that. Thanks).

Bust of the Year: Ricardo Arona with his torn knee.
Too bad for the sensational Brazilian because he never once stepped foot into a ring or cage for professional combat in 2003. After a spectacular 2002, Arona was perched to set the MMA world ablaze and eventually win the PRIDE Grand Prix, but with a torn knee, he had to sit idle. 2003 was definitely a busted year for Arona.

Essential DVD/VHS for your collection: Rites of Passage
This two disc DVD documentary has it all! This is a must have for every MMA fan's collection. Great footage, great fights, great filming. Where else can you see Eugene Jackson driving in his truck with a severely cracked windshield?

When is his big break? Vitor Ribeiro
Seriously, now, folks. When the hell is "Shaolin" going to get his shot in either UFC or PRIDE? He's undefeated, ultra skilled on the ground and has beaten a few top dogs in his weight class. Nothing against guys like Nick Diaz or Gerald Strebendt at all (very solid fighters), but if they can get a shot in the UFC or if PRIDE can throw in professional wrestlers, why isn't Ribeiro?

Stinker of the Year (TIE): Dan Severn vs. Cory Timmerman and Pedro Rizzo vs. Ricco Rodriguez
Does it get any worse than this? In the first fight (Severn/Timmerman at KOTC: Sin City), we see an older, tougher Freddy Mercury laying across the gangster who eventually become Bebop from the Ninja Turtles cartoon. Three rounds of awful lay & pray.

The other one, which was during UFC 45, saw the rapid decline of Rodriguez at it's fullest while the always-too-gun-shy-to-let-my-hands-go Rizzo followed him around the ring. A few leg kicks from Rizzo was the difference in arguably the worst fight in the UFC since Severn/Shamrock II. Ugh. I'd rather watch an Alf marathon. Well, maybe not…

Oops! Of the year: Tim Sylvia pissing hot for steroids
Sylvia decimates Ricco Rodriguez with one shot (plus two more for good measure) and defends the heavyweight title he won from Rodriguez by putting Gan McGee to sleep with one crushing right hand. Sylvia looked to be one of the most menacing and dominant warriors in the history of the UFC's heavyweight division. He's on top of the world, gets plastered all over the cover of several top MMA magazines, is the talk of many forums and chat rooms and then the dope pisses hot for using illegal anabolic steroids. He is suspended and stripped of his belt. Oops! The runner up in this category has to be Matt Lindland. How on Earth do you knock yourself out ya clumsy ox? I don't know who was more perplexed; Falaniko Vitale or the crowd.

Biggest officiating blunder of the year: Larry Landless stopping Tanner vs. Baroni
Those of you who watched this one on TV know what I'm talking about and even if you don't agree with the harsh criticism Landless endured, his post fight apology to Baroni says enough. Hey; we're all human and we make mistakes. Landless is forgiven for the blunder. No big deal. It still didn't mean Baroni should have tried to punch him.

Worst Decision: BJ Penn draw with Coal Uno
Come on, guys. This was a clear cut victory for Penn. It was a close fight, but BJ controlled the action for the most part and bust up Uno's face pretty badly. This one should have been a unanimous decision for BJ, not a draw. I thought I was watching an Oscar de la Hoya fight at first when the decision was rendered.

Nastiest cut of the year: Marvin Eastman against Vitor Belfort.
I think that when a cut is as wide and as deep as an adult finger and stretched from the top of your nose all the way across your forehead and down to right said of your right eye, you automatically win the Nastiest Cut of the Year award. Seriously; Arturo Gatti was envious of the cut Eastman suffered courtesy of Belfort's knees, fists and elbows.

This Guy Needs to Retire: Rumina Sato When an old superstar is 2-5-1 in his last eight fights and is being submitted almost routinely, I think it's time to pack it in and train young fighters instead. Sato, one of the most dynamic and entertaining fighters in the history of MMA, has seen his best days. Rumina has to hang up his gloves. Kazushi Sakuraba should follow suit if he loses again.

Submission of the Year: Karo Parisyan (kimura) David Strasser at UFC 44
How often do you see the perfect judo toss that leads into the dreaded armbar? Never. Karo pulled this off so quickly and so effortlessly, I was stunned as was Strasser. Fantastic move, brother. I bet you can't do it again.

Is he ever gonna tap out? Rich Crunkilton against Hermes Franca
When you get your elbow popped completely out of your socket three times in one fight, it's time to tapout, man! What the hell forced you to resist the urge to submit? Did Franca have to rip your forearm completely off of your body in order for you to even consider tapping out?

Biggest Disappointment: WFA vanishes into thin air
After WFA 2, things started to look gloriously for John Lewis and his blooming show. Then WFA 3 came around and the Aladdin Hotel and Casino pretty much ruined the entire show. Though Lewis was able to snag some of MMA's biggest names, injuries to those fighter prevented his Night Club/Fight Club extravaganza from really taking off.

When Tito Ortiz was having contractual issues with Zuffa, rumors circulated about a possible signing with WFA (After all, Lewis was one of the key people who introduced Ortiz and others to Dana White and Lorenzo Ferttita), a move that would have put WFA on the map possibly for good. With the hottest round card girls, fly rap music and some fresh break dancing, WFA was poised for success.

Well, several miscues occurred, Lewis lost a ton of dough and though he said that WFA is being "restructured," another show never saw the light of day in 2003 and probably never will in 2004. What a shame.

Like we didn't see that one coming: Tank Abbott's return that flopped
If anybody in their right mind thought that Tank would dominate in his second career, they must have been hitting that peace pipe a tad too much. Proof again that once a B level or higher fighter squares of with ol' Abbott, the Tanker is a goner.

Knockout of the year: CroCop KO 1 Igor Vovchanchyn
That was so perfect, so swift, so brutal! You simply cannot ask for a better kick to the head than the one that CroCop planted on Igor. My left ear started ringing for about a week after seeing that one land. I think Vovchanchyn is still telling his teammates to, "answer that damn phone!"

Honorable mentions: Hermes Franca KO 2 Caol Uno at UFC 44 and Rick Davis KO 2 (backfist) Nick Ertl (Shooto: Warrior's Spirit)

Maybe that'll teach ya to stop talking trash HA! Tito Ortiz mauled by Randy Couture

Though Tito has always been cool with me to my face, he never returns my calls for interviews and even if an interview is arranged through his "people," the Huntington Beach Bad Boy blows me off every single time. After hearing and reading so much trash talk and degrading BS from his mouth, he got his ass handed to him from Couture. Nothing is more satisfying than seeing some loudmouth cocky champion get turned into spit. Kudos to "The Natural."
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