The 5 Greatest Breakthroughs in MMA

Sep 9, 2008
Great fighters are remembered for a collection of moments within a vast library of sights and sounds -- a record of unforgettable victories and their most stinging defeats.

But no moment stands out more than when a fighter distinguishes himself as a true force with which to be reckoned, having blossomed beyond the world of contenders and prospects.

With UFC 88 “Breakthrough” living up to its moniker Saturday in Atlanta -- thanks to Rashad Evans’ one-punch knockout against former light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell -- we take a look back at the five greatest breakthrough moments in MMA history.

5. Matt Hughes vs. Hayato "Mach" Sakurai

In his first bout as welterweight champion, Hughes faced a skeptical public after taking the title from Carlos Newton in bizarre fashion at UFC 34. Having a title handed to you after passing out from a triangle choke will not endear you to many fans. Going into his March 2002 bout against Sakurai -- whom UFC analyst Jeff Osborne described as “a legend in his own time” -- at UFC 36, Hughes looked more like a placeholder than a champion.

Once the final bell rang, the only question that remained revolved around whether or not anyone could stop Hughes. He neutralized Sakurai’s considerable offensive arsenal with what has become his trademark ground-and-pound style.

In beating Sakurai, Hughes lived up to the personal creed UFC announcer Mike Goldberg shared with the world. “Anyone can win the title,” Goldberg said. “I think it takes someone special to defend the title.” That provided a nice foreshadowing for the success Hughes has enjoyed in the UFC, as he has gone on to rack up eight successful title defenses spread over two reigns.

None were more significant than his victory over Sakurai, upon which he built the foundation for one of the greatest runs in UFC history.

4. Forrest Griffin vs. Mauricio “Shogun” Rua

The UFC probably had designs on a blockbuster rematch between Rua and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson before the ink had dried on the contract for the Brazilian’s promotional debut in September 2007 against Griffin. Sure, the UFC hoped Griffin, a charismatic alumnus of “The Ultimate Fighter,” would someday develop into a champion, but losses to Tito Ortiz and Keith Jardine had tempered expectations.

Most viewed Griffin as a stepping stone for Rua, who had left a trail of crushed egos in his wake in Pride Fighting Championships. The trend seemed all but certain to continue at Griffin’s expense, but no one could calculate the underdog’s will.

Over the course of three rounds, Griffin chipped away at Rua’s resolve and took his own licks with the sort of masochistic glee that’s as disturbing as it is captivating. In the final moments of the bout, Griffin coaxed the tapout from Rua with a rear naked choke and finally experienced that moment of unadulterated glory for which he had toiled so hard.

Stephen Martinez/

The MMA world took notice when
Takanori Gomi (right) outslugged
Tatsuya Kawajiri and finished the
wrestler with a rear-naked choke.
3. Takanori Gomi vs. Tatsuya Kawajiri

Choke artist. Those were two words cynical observers attached to Pride Bushido poster boy Gomi, an undeniably talented lightweight who entered his tilt with Kawajiri having come up on the short end in the biggest bouts of his career.

Two and a half years of favorable matchmaking certainly did not strengthen Gomi’s reputation, and the consensus seemed to be that Kawajiri would be the one to corral his Shooto predecessor and give the Bushido circuit a champion who truly deserved such status.

By the end of the hotly anticipated contest in September 2005, Bushido did have a champion who had earned the right to wear gold, but it was Gomi who made Kawajiri look like a choke artist with a dominant showing that launched him to the top of the division.

2. Fedor Emelianenko vs. Heath Herring

People today make it sound as though Emelianenko has been the best heavyweight fighter in the world since the dawn of mankind. However, there was a time when the Russian’s existence was privileged information, reserved for those with access to the underground network of tape traders and fight merchants.

Thankfully, Pride stepped up and rescued Emelianenko after the Rings promotion collapsed. While his promotional debut against Semmy Schilt was a ho-hum affair, Emelianenko’s second fight under the Pride banner in November 2002 captured the imagination and attention of the MMA world.

Herring was viewed as a stiff test for any heavyweight -- a rugged, skilled veteran with surprising versatility and an endless reserve of moxie. Still, Herring barely survived the opening stanza with his stoic Russian foe, as Emelianenko turned the American’s face into a morbid mess, adorned by a ground-and-pound drubbing that echoed through the cavernous Tokyo Dome.

On that evening, MMA christened its own Jack Johnson, an improbable mesh of talent and technique that seemed out of place when compared to his lagging contemporaries.

1. Randy Couture vs. Vitor Belfort

It was supposed to be uglier than a Roseanne Barr spread in a Victoria’s Secret Catalog. Belfort was MMA’s answer to Mike Tyson, an unstoppable boogeyman in the cage, a genetic mutation of Darwinian proportions. Many wondered if it would take Belfort more than a minute to take out Couture in their October 1997 encounter at UFC 15.

A lamb was led to slaughter, but the lamb turned out to be Belfort. His trademark thunderbolt punches meant nothing to Couture, who closed the distance early, mauled Belfort in close quarters, picked his spots and outboxed the Brazilian in jaw-dropping fashion.

UFC announcer Bruce Beck said, “The Phenom’s run has been derailed … temporarily.” Belfort was never the same after that night. Couture has become synonymous with the sport. Not bad for a wrestler who was supposed to be more Frank Bruno than Lennox Lewis.
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