By May 30, 1997, when the Ultimate Fighting Championship rolled into Augusta, Georgia for UFC 13, the sport we now call mixed martial arts was still far removed from the product we recognize today. For one, it wasn’t called mixed martial arts yet, as that term would not fall from the lips of color commentator Jeff Blatnick for a few more months.
The UFC had however made its biggest single step towards respectability at UFC 12 a few months earlier, with the introduction of weight classes. The simple division between “lightweights” (under 200 pounds) and “heavyweights” (everyone else) seems laughably primitive today, but it was such a vital step that the organization managed to make it happen even before other such obvious moves as banning shoes.
If the production, ruleset and general in-cage product are barely recognizable to a modern fan, a couple of fresh new faces at UFC 13 were very recognizable. The event subtitled “Ultimate Force” featured the no-hold-barred fighting debut of future two-division champ Randy Couture, as well as the man whose charisma would carry them through most of the next few years, Tito Ortiz. Both men had a strange night, to say the least. Couture won the four-man heavyweight tournament by demolishing two men in Tony Halme—better known by his professional wrestling moniker Ludvig Borga—and Stephen Graham, who would not have been allowed to fight him under the current weight class structure.
Meanwhile, Ortiz entered the “lightweight” tournament as an alternate, defeating Wes Albritton to place himself on standby. As it turned out, he was needed, as MMA Hall of [email protected]#$%^g Awesome inductee Enson Inoue, who made his first and only UFC appearance that night, injured himself in the process of armbarring former two-time NCAA champion wrestler Royce Alger. In stepped Ortiz to take on Guy Mezger, who had won the other semifinal. The extremely well-rounded and seasoned Mezger—seriously, who had 20 pro fights under their belt already in 1997?—survived an early assault and guillotined the wrestling-centric Ortiz with ease. In so doing, Mezger won the UFC 13 lightweight tournament, and helped touch off one of the early UFC’s bitterest and most important rivalries: “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” vs. The Lion’s Den. It would lead to Ortiz setting pay-per-view records against team patriarch Ken Shamrock a few years later.