Opinion: How Dave Meltzer Changed MMA History

By Lev Pisarsky Sep 28, 2020


Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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Dave Meltzer is a famous name in the pro wrestling world. In the early 1980s, he transformed the industry when, rather than reporting on the drama that happened in front of the curtain, he focused on what occurred behind it: the backstage politics. Who was supposed to win and who was slated to lose. The various conflicts that involved wrestlers and promoters alike. His newsletter was derisively called a “dirt sheet,” but its influence on pro wrestling was undeniable. Eventually, top wrestlers and executives within the major organizations, including the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) started feeding him information. In some cases, promoters changed their plans based on his reporting. Even wrestling legend Bret Hart stated that Meltzer's praise for his matches meant a great deal to him.

What very few people may realize, however, is that Meltzer also changed MMA history, and not in the way one might expect. Meltzer was one of two journalists to cover the first Ultimate Fighting Championship on November 12, 1993. The other was Sherdog's own Marcelo Alonso, whose articles about MMA are roughly a hundred times better than anything Meltzer has produced. The latter is an important point that will come up later; Meltzer's understanding of MMA, to this day, is very poor.

However, it wasn't at UFC 1 that Meltzer would alter the sport's history. Instead, his influence came at UFC 18. There, for inexplicable reasons, Meltzer was one of the judges. Thankfully, Pat Miletich so thoroughly dominated Jorge Patino and Mikey Burnett so badly beat up Townsend Saunders that a blind man would have gotten the decisions correct.

Unfortunately, this was not true of Mark Coleman's fight with Pedro Rizzo, which Meltzer also judged. Now, let me preface this by saying that Pedro “The Rock” Rizzo was my absolute favorite fighter as a kid, from the time I saw him knock out David Abbott in 1998 until well into the 2000s. His brutal muay Thai striking was amazing at its best, especially his paralyzing leg kicks. Even when Rizzo was being knocked out by Roman Zentsov in Pride Fighting Championships, I held out hope for a late career resurgence.

So it's with this in mind that I state the following; Mark Coleman absolutely, unequivocally won that damn fight. Not only did he repeatedly take Rizzo down and inflict damaging ground-and-pound despite a stand-up by John McCarthy with which I vehemently disagree—and without which Rizzo would have been stuck on the bottom—but even after Coleman tired and couldn't get another takedown, he shockingly held his own striking against Rizzo. Not only did the Brazilian fail to inflict significant damage against the largely gassed wrestler, but Coleman landed several solid punches, and shocker of shockers, a few hard leg kicks!

This might seem incredible, but this would be a severe flaw of Rizzo's that would crop up again at UFC 26, when he faced Coleman's close friend and protégé Kevin Randleman for the heavyweight championship. It was a fight overwhelmingly contested standing, and yet the wrestler with primitive striking in Randleman defeated one of the best strikers in MMA of that era. It turns out that if one stayed back and didn't give Rizzo any clear openings to counter with, he could be shockingly passive and toothless in the stand-up. (Yes, I'm aware that Rizzo blames his performance on the effects of a head butt and no, I don't fully buy it.)

Getting back to UFC 18, all three ringside commentators were thoroughly convinced that Coleman had triumphed over the young Brazilian, and expected the decision to be a mere formality. The trio was a young Mike Goldberg, UFC President (a largely ceremonial position at the time) and Olympic wrestling gold medalist Jeff Blatnick, and UFC matchmaker John Peretti. How great was their shock, then, when Rizzo won by split decision. And who was one of the two fools that awarded the victory to the wrong man? Why, our good friend Meltzer.

By my estimation, Meltzer's scorecard, along with that of Eddie Goldman, the other judge who scored the fight for Rizzo that night, had a seismic influence on MMA history. On a minor level, it changes how we perceive two legends in both Coleman and Rizzo. How much more highly would we think of Coleman if he had a listed victory over a young Rizzo? It would rank right up there with the very best wins of his career: Don Frye (twice), Igor Vovchanchyn and Mauricio Rua. In fact, Rizzo would be the most skilled and evolved opponent Coleman beat without an asterisk attached, as Shogun lost via an arm injury less than a minute into the match, while Vovchanchyn had already fought twice earlier that night for a grueling 25 minutes, defeating tough opponents in Gary Goodridge and Kazushi Sakuraba, while Coleman only had to beat Akira Shoji and then wait two seconds for Kazuyuki Fujita's corner to throw in the towel. I think Coleman doesn't get the respect he deserves from modern fans, and perhaps a listed victory over Rizzo would change that.

Meanwhile, the loss would have hurt Rizzo's reputation. Widely considered the greatest heavyweight never to win a major title, and with victories over other UFC heavyweight champions in Josh Barnett, Ricco Rodriguez and Andrei Arlovski, a loss to Coleman would make it clear that Rizzo was not perfect in his early career, and that he didn't only flounder in challenging for the world title against Randleman and Couture. It likely would have brought his flaws as a fighter into sharper focus.

More importantly, Coleman-Rizzo wasn't a random fight. Instead, it was the semifinals of a tournament for the heavyweight championship, with the winner facing the victor of Bas Rutten against Tsuyoshi Kohsaka. However, Rizzo-Rutten never happened. There are many possibilities for why this was the case. One is that Rizzo and Rutten were close friends and trained together, with Rutten even being in the Brazilian's corner for his UFC debut against “Tank.” Another is that the UFC was pinning all its hopes and marketing on Rutten being champion, and having him lose to the young upstart Rizzo, who should have lost to Coleman, would be too devastating a possibility.

Instead, Rutten faced Randleman, cornered by Coleman, for the world championship in one of the most controversial decisions ever. Meanwhile, with the Rizzo fight being his third straight loss in the UFC, Coleman decided to try his luck in the newly formed Pride, where he revitalized his career by winning the 2000 Grand Prix. Aside from the well-known fixed fight against Nobuhiko Takada, Coleman wasn't defeated in the organization until being armbarred by a young Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.

If Coleman had had his hand raised against Rizzo, would he have fought Rutten instead? At the very least, it would have meant that Coleman would have stayed in the UFC to complete the heavyweight tournament. Now imagine that Coleman had defeated Rutten. This would have completely changed the history of the heavyweight divisions in both Pride and the UFC. Coleman and Randleman might have fought, an intriguing clash of student and mentor, and Coleman may have faced a returning Randy Couture for the UFC heavyweight championship in 2000 instead of in 2010 when both were over 45. Pride's Grand Prix would have ended very differently, likely with Vovchanchyn becoming champion. Nogueira's ascension to the top of Pride’s heavyweight division would have been different, too, and all because of Meltzer's score card.

To be fair, Rizzo's career wasn't as drastically effected. After the Coleman fight, he had highlight-reel knockouts of Tra Telligman and Kosaka before challenging Randleman for the belt at UFC 26. Interestingly, he was passed over for a championship shot at UFC 23 against Randleman in favor of Pete Williams, who had defeated Coleman far more decisively. Regardless, there are few judges in MMA history who have altered the sport as heavily as Dave Meltzer did thanks to his incompetence, and certainly no one else did it in a single night. If only Meltzer had stuck to pro wrestling.

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