There are no definitive milestones associated with the title fight between Frank Shamrock and Tito Ortiz at UFC 22 on Sept. 24, 1999. It wasn’t the first light heavyweight title fight in Ultimate Fighting Championship history. (Nor could it have been, as the 205-pound division was still called “middleweight” at that time, and would continue to be for another year or two.) It was not the first fight with individual rounds, the first for which both fighters wore gloves, or for which neither fighter wore shoes or shirts, or any of the other screamingly obvious anachronisms that stand out when watching 1990s MMA today.
However, the fight that took place that night in Lake Charles, Louisiana, feels fresh even today for reasons that are not so easy to quantify, but no less valid. Subjectively, it was one of the first great title fights in MMA history. Even more subjectively, it was one of the earliest fights that a fan coming to the sport in 2020 would recognize as something approaching modern-quality MMA. Shamrock and Ortiz were both highly-conditioned, well-trained athletes who were—by the standards of the day—at least competent in every phase of fighting.
The card featured several notable debuts, including the first Octagon appearances of future champions Matt Hughes and Jens Pulver, as well as standout fighter and trainer John Lewis. It gave us one of the most memorable finishes of the era, as Brad Kohler’s one-punch knockout of Steve Judson cropped up on highlight reels for the next two decades.
Those are all footnotes, however, compared to the main event. Shamrock and Ortiz battled back and forth for nearly four rounds. Ortiz’s takedown game, nearly unstoppable at the time, made for a fantastic style matchup with Shamrock’s speed, grappling and sharp kickboxing. Shamrock pulled ahead as the rounds went on, and he was very much the fresher man in the fourth round when he defended an exhausted takedown attempt and pounded out “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” on his knees.
From there, the two stars’ paths diverged. Shamrock, claiming a lack of interesting challenges, went into the first of his declared retirements. Meanwhile Ortiz, already a cardio machine, swore he would never lose again on account of conditioning, and made adjustments to his training regimen. He would win his next six fights and nine of his next 12, losing only to Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture in that span of time.