There is some debate over whether Jeff Blatnick, Olympic gold medalist wrestler and early Ultimate Fighting Championship commentator, was the one who thought up the term “mixed martial arts” to refer to the new sport with which he was so closely involved. However, there is no question that he is the one who introduced it to the world at large, and he did so beginning at UFC 17 on May 15, 1998. The phenomenon that had previously been referred to as “no-holds-barred” fighting now had something to distinguish it from its unorganized forebears.
There was a lot more history made in Mobile, Alabama, that night than simply new nomenclature, however. Three future champions made their Ultimate Fighting Championship debuts at UFC 17: Dan Henderson, who won a title that night by edging out Carlos Newton in the middleweight tournament and would win another in Pride Fighting Championships; Newton, who would bounce back to win the welterweight belt a few years later; and future all-time light heavyweight great Chuck Liddell, for whom his curtain-jerker win over Noe Hernandez was not only his UFC debut, but his first professional MMA fight.
While the main event featured Frank Shamrock kneebarring Jeremy Horn in one of the best grappler-vs.-grappler matchups of the proto-MMA era, without question the most memorable highlight of UFC is the heavyweight tilt between Pete Williams and Mark Coleman. For Coleman, the UFC’s first heavyweight champ, it was the first fight back from losing his belt to Maurice Smith—hence the event tag line “Redemption”—and he had originally been booked in a title shot against Randy Couture, who had taken the belt from Smith in the meantime. When Couture was forced to withdraw due to injury, in stepped Williams, a 22-year-old protégé of Ken Shamrock who would be making his UFC debut, but in fact had more fights and far more total match time than Coleman.
When Williams dragged Coleman into an overtime period and finished the exhausted wrestler with a head kick for the ages, it made for an indelible moment in MMA history. It is the first clean head-kick knockout—no follow-up strikes needed—ever seen in the UFC. If you can get past the fact that Williams is wearing wrestling shoes, it is one of the earliest UFC highlight-reel knockouts that looks like sport rather than bloodsport, and the oldest one that still shows up in modern sizzle reels. In 2016, Coleman and the long-retired Williams were inducted together into the UFC Hall of Fame.
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