Sherdog Remembers: UFC 14

By Staff Jul 27, 2011
Long before Kevin Randleman, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Rashad Evans and Jon Jones rose to prominence, there was Maurice Smith and his landmark victory over Mark Coleman at UFC 14 “Showdown” on July 27, 1997 at the Boutwell Municipal Auditorium in Birmingham, Ala. It was there that Smith’s surprising unanimous decision victory over Coleman made him the first African-American champion in the history of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

Fresh off a terrifying series of performances that lifted him to the top of the UFC heavyweight division, Coleman, a decorated former Ohio State wrestler, was equal parts feared and invincible. After steamrolling three opponents in a single night at UFC 10, culminating in a brutal beatdown of Don Frye, “The Hammer” followed with two blowouts at UFC 11, spending just 3:05 in the cage in dispatching Julian Sanchez and Brian Johnston. The innovator of ground-and-pound, Coleman then blew through respected veteran and fellow wrestler Dan Severn at UFC 12.

Across the cage from him at UFC 14 stood Smith, well-known in kickboxing circles as a long-reigning champion. Unlike the 245-pound Coleman, whose frame seemed to bristle with muscle and menace, Smith was a lanky standup fighter with a murky set of MMA credentials. He had lost to Bas Rutten and Ken Shamrock in Japan and lacked the wrestler’s pedigree, which seemed vital to competing in the UFC at the time. In other words, Smith looked every bit the sacrificial lamb into which Coleman transformed foes.

In a 21-minute bout, Smith persevered through Coleman’s early takedowns and riding time. He eventually landed effective strikes on the tiring champion, who, at times, bent over with his hands at his sides because he was so badly fatigued. The dragon was slain, and the era of takedown-centered MMA swung irrevocably toward the sprawl-and-brawl style later popularized by Chuck Liddell and other well-rounded martial artists. Until this match, it appeared inevitable that wrestlers like Coleman would dominate MMA. In terms of changing how fans think about a sport, Smith’s performance was every bit as important as pass-happy offenses that opened up football in the 1950s and the fast break in basketball. Igor Vovchanchyn was running similar and even more violent demonstrations in Pride Fighting Championships at the time, but fewer people saw them.

Along with Frank Shamrock, Smith’s cross-training methods and innovative tactics formed the blueprint that remains the rule for fighters today. Just because the other guy was a better wrestler did not mean one was doomed. Ironically, Smith lost his title to Randy Couture, a wrestler who learned to neutralize striking, instead of meeting it head-on with an all-in mentality.

Still, the game of MMA was changed forever with Smith’s historic showing against Coleman on this day 14 years ago. It was one of the sport’s earliest examples of how no matter how dominant a champion appears, no one knows what will happen when he puts his crown on the line.

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