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UFC 31 was a uniquely formative event in the early history of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. As just the second UFC card after the company was acquired by Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, it put Zuffa’s best foot forward with a loaded lineup of fights, including the debut of 22-year-old grappling wunderkind and future MMA all-timer B.J. Penn. It also pointed the way towards the future of the sport as a whole, as it was the first major event after the introduction of the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts, which included the structure of 11 weight divisions that remains more or less unchanged today.
However, the most memorable and lasting impression from that night in Atlantic City, New Jersey, is the heavyweight title fight between Randy Couture and Pedro Rizzo. That five-round battle stands out as the first great divisional title fight in MMA history, with a classic clash of styles that pitted the American Greco-Roman wrestler and clinch mauler against the Brazilian vale tudo master, resulting in multiple swings in momentum and a grueling war of attrition. Perhaps nothing sums up the brutal nature of the UFC 31 main event more than the fact that, despite winning the decision, Couture to this day can point out a permanent dent in his thigh, which was inflicted by the relentless kicking assault of “The Rock.”
Of course, other moments from UFC 31 found their place in the highlight reel, as Carlos Newton won the welterweight title with an improvised-looking but expertly applied bulldog choke of reigning champ Pat Miletich while both men were standing. Miletich’s reaction, in which he flung his mouthpiece in frustration, summed up the banal brilliance of the playground technique.
Beyond the title doubleheader, the card had plenty more to offer. Aside from the debut of future two-division champ Penn—he thrashed Joey Gilbert in the waning seconds of the opening round in the first of three first-round knockouts to start his MMA career—the event was also marked by Shonie Carter’s spinning backfist knockout of Matt Serra, which became a staple of UFC highlight reels for the next decade. Future UFC hall of famer Chuck Liddell also raised his profile, as he gave former heavyweight champion Kevin Randleman a rude welcome to the light heavyweight division, sparking “The Monster,” not with his trademark overhand right but a left hook that came almost at a submarine angle. Almost all of Liddell’s greatest achievements still lay ahead of him, while Randleman, who would sadly pass away at the age of 44 in 2011, had already passed his competitive high-water mark.