UFC 14 took place on July 27, 1997. As was the case with every major event in the sport’s first few years, the fights that went down in Birmingham, Alabama that night featured many firsts for the nascent sport that was still known primarily as no-holds-barred fighting. For one, it was the first Ultimate Fighting Championship show at which protective gloves were mandatory. (Like a redneck roadhouse, shirts and shoes would remain optional for a while longer.)
UFC 14 also featured the promotional debuts of several fighters who had been making their names in other mixed-rules promotions, including Mark Kerr and Maurice Smith. Kerr, a former NCAA Division I wrestling champion and training partner of UFC heavyweight champ Mark Coleman, had made his terrifying fighting debut at WVC 3 six months earlier, winning three fights in one night to claim the tournament championship. He repeated the feat that night, destroying Moti Horenstein and Dan Bobish in about four minutes of total cage time to win the UFC 14 tournament. Kerr’s march to become the most feared fighter in the sport picked up speed.
Smith, who was slotted into an immediate title shot against Coleman despite mixed results in Japanese promotions including Rings and Pancrase, appeared to most observers—and the UFC’s announcers—to be a sacrificial lamb. This was due not entirely to Smith’s résumé but to the history of the sport in general to that point. The lesson taught by the UFC, from literally the third fight on the first event, was that fighters from traditional striking-based martial arts were at a supreme disadvantage against grapplers. Once Coleman debuted a few events later, an additional layer was added to the lesson: American-style wrestlers, with the tremendous core strength and endlessly drilled takedown techniques central to their discipline, had a tremendous advantage—once again, at the expense of the “karate guys.”
Of course, Smith prevailed that night against all expectations, using a blend of striking, defensive wrestling and conditioning to outlast the most dominant fighter in the sport. The events of UFC 14's headliner and their impact on MMA have been covered on this site recently and in loving detail. All that I will add to that account is that the modern sport of MMA that we take for granted, a constant arms race between striking, wrestling and submission grappling that ebbs and flows while pitting various types of specialist and generalist against one another, can be traced back to Smith vs. Coleman at UFC 14. It was a very unexpected fight that took place at a moment when the striking arts were perilously close to being thought of as passé in “real fights,” and changed the way fighters and trainers looked at things going forward.
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