Mixed martial arts has taken many occidental forms since the days of pankration. From fighting in the nude, matched only by age in the Ancient Greek Olympics to Japanese pro wrestling with a shoot-style spin, the sport has evolved past misconceptions, one-dimensional combative styles and political pressure. What was never intended to be a sport, became one due to a close-knit family of athletes, promoters, journalists and fans-all sharing a passion to find the ultimate athlete.
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Many people still don’t understand. It certainly isn’t a blood sport, and yet, whether you call it MMA, reality fighting or ultimate fighting, this sport still thrives in a unique subculture difficult to classify. But what did it take to get there? Here are the top 25 moments that defined the sport in chronological order.
1. October 23, 1951: Helio Gracie vs. Masahiko Kimura
There are remarkable similarities between Helio Gracie and Jigoro Kano. Both men perfected their arts to better themselves physically and prove that sheer strength and size didn’t matter. As the founder of judo, Kano was rejected by jujutsu stylists who claimed supremacy in Japan-though “jujutsu” described over 750 individual systems. Kano had to prove that judo was the natural successor.
Gracie had similar problems while promoting jiu-jitsu, since Brazil heavily favored boxing and native capoeira. “Every time we went to compete, people were throwing bottles, and we had to have police around us just to get into the ring,” said Helio’s second oldest son, Relson. “People chanted, ‘Traitors go away!’ Everybody who came to Brazil was challenged by my daddy, including boxing great Joe Lewis.” Ironically, it was a renegade judo student of Kano’s, Mitsuyo Maeda, who laid the framework for Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
And starting in 1931, Helio Gracie began showing the dominance of the ground art with challenge matches-until the Japanese answered. Kimura and two other judoka went to Brazil to meet Helio’s challenge in 1951. After Gracie defeated one of them, the match with Kimura made headlines as “The World Championship of Jiu-jitsu.” At 39 years old and 140 pounds, Gracie was fighting a man six years younger and was outweighed by close to 50 pounds. In front of a crowd of 20,000 people at the Marca Stadium, which was only reserved for soccer games, Gracie had a difficult task ahead of him-Kimura was a seventh dan in judo and never suffered a single defeat in 13 straight years.
During the first round, Kimura threw Gracie around like a rag doll, but was unable to submit him. Three minutes into the second round, he trapped Gracie with an arm lock. The Brazilian would not tap so older brother Carlos threw in the towel. There seems to be some confusion as to what exactly happened, but the move that ended the match is still known today as the kimura. This is perhaps the most talked about MMA bout of all time, still shrouded with controversy from both sides. But no doubt, Helio Gracie’s challenge matches gave way to the term “vale tudo” in Brazil, and he can be called the first ultimate fighter.
2. June 26, 1976: Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki
Thanks to American catch wrestler Karl Gotch, shoot-style pro wrestling became big business in Japan-far removed from the crazy antics people typically associated with the genre. In a quest to legitimize New Japan Pro Wrestling with the crowd, Inoki frequently fought stiff-worked bouts with real fighters.
After competing against the likes of Olympic judo champion Willem Ruska, it was necessary for Inoki to put himself over against the greatest fighter of all time: Muhammad Ali. Set up by Vince McMahon as one of his first attempts at close circuit, Ali was going to make $3 million dollars for “punishing Inoki” and then getting “knocked out”-in other words, he would win, but Inoki would win too.
When Ali arrived in Japan and no one knew what was going on, he thought it was a set up and decided not to go through with it. Both parties agreed to fight for real, but so many concessions were made against Inoki that the Japanese pro wrestler had no other choice but to fall to his back and kick Ali in the legs-he was not allowed to take him down. Ali ended up going to the hospital due to the punishment that formed blood clots on his legs.
The hyped up event nearly destroyed pro wrestling and tainted boxing-it was a commercial flop. McMahon wanted to stage boxing vs. wrestling bouts in America, but that idea was scrapped. Inoki went back to doing more stiff-worked matches, but this goes down as the first big mixed martial arts bout.
3. October 1984: No Marcanzinho Vale Tudo
This pivotal event cemented the rivalry between Brazilian jiu-jitsu and its street-savvy cousin, luta livre. (According to Relson Gracie, father Helio came up with the term lutra livre when he started a fight promotion called Luta Livre Americana in 1958-a nod to John Wayne and those “crazy, anything goes” Americans.) The historic importance of this event not only shaped the course of vale tudo in Brazil, but established a new hero amongst the Brazilians: Marco Ruas.
During his 20s, Ruas trained under tae kwon do/Thai boxing teacher Flavio Molina. Although Ruas experimented with luta livre, he concentrated on standup martial arts until an incident with the Gracie family forced him to look at the bigger picture.
Sometime in early 1984, Molina’s brother-in-law, a tae kwon do practitioner, got into a street fight with Charley Gracie, and Gracie lost. “My cousin Renzo was in a nightclub and got into a fight with some guys from luta livre,” said Relson. “Those same guys got into the street fight with Charley and mob him up.” According to Ruas, Charley went to his uncle Rolls Gracie and told him about the encounter saying, “This tae kwon do guy was saying that jiu-jitsu was bad!”
The Gracie family wielded an almost mythic power with jiu-jitsu that few dared to challenge. Armed with several students, Rolls stormed Molina’s school with a vengeance. “He [Molina] taught kids, but some of his students were black belts, and the jiu-jitsu guys came and put the guys to sleep,” said Ruas. Because of these fights, it gave them [luta livre] the ego to think they can beat us,” said Relson. “It created a stir in Brazil to start up the challenge matches again.
For years, nobody challenged us; I only fought in the streets.” Marcanzinho was a nickname given to a smaller convention center in Brazil, compared to the much-larger Marca. Originally, the Gracie family was going to face Molina’s crew, but the decision was made to let Gracie students compete instead. Molina, Ruas and others competed as “kickboxers” and fought as a team in the event. Just two months prior, Roberto Leito Sr. contacted Ruas and offered his services to teach him ground defense. Known as the father of luta livre, Leito Sr., learned jiu-jitsu from the Gracies, but built new techniques and strategies upon the art.
If Ruas had a chance to win his fight against Carlson Gracie student Fernando Pinduka (Ruas was originally going to fight Relson Gracie), he would have to learn the ground game. Though Molina was choked out by Relson Gracie brown belt Marcelo Bhering, 23-year-old Ruas fought to a draw and battered his opponent. (Jiu-jitsu and luta livre practitioners constantly tested themselves and their machismo attitudes against one another, not realizing that knowledge should be shared and adapted.)
4. September 1989: Satoru “Tiger Mask” Sayama’s Shooto
One of Japan’s most celebrated pro wrestlers, who trained under Karl Gotch, devised the first all-shoot fighting organization dubbed simply as Shooto. It is the longest running shoot organization and has never promoted a worked bout, though Sayama himself performed in showy “exhibitions.” It’s hard to tell just how many Shooto events have occurred since as many as three have taken place in a single month. Though Shooto pales in comparison to Pride and some of the other larger shows in terms of venue and mainstream star power, it is king of the lighter weight fighters.
Shooto fighters had very rudimentary skills trying to fight for real using Gotch techniques, but over time, several gyms sprouted up, creating new stars with modern technique. Of those, Rumina Sato, Kaol Uno and Hayato “Mach” Sakurai became legends, and a new age of Japanese shootfighter was born, not prescribing to “position before submission” by risking everything to finish their opponents as quickly as possible. From a technical standpoint, MMA students study Shooto footage for that reason alone.
5. September 1989: Playboy article on Rorion Gracie
Entitled “Bad,” freelance writer Pat Jordan built up the “Gracie Challenge” and brought heated attention to Rorion’s fledgling jiu-jitsu school with scores of wannabe badasses storming his dojo. This article was indirectly responsible for the creation of the UFC.
Ad man Art Davie read the article and became friends with Gracie. When the two mapped out a plan for War of the Worlds, they sent out the magazine article and scores of literature about vale tudo fights. No one responded. When SEG (Semaphore Entertainment Group) programming director Campbell McLaren came across these materials, the Playboy article was the only thing he found compelling. He liked the idea of building a show around the Gracie challenge-and that’s exactly what they did with what became the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
6. March 1991: Akira Maeda establishes Rings
After the break up of Maeda’s successful UWF (started April 1988), he branched off his shoot-style of pro wrestling, just as Yoshiaki Fujiwara created PWFG (it later produced Pancrase by members Masakatsu Funaki and Minori Suzuki in 1993). Maeda then set out to create the Rings Fighting Network. Working with Dutchman Chris Dolman, Maeda started Rings Holland, and then followed up with Rings Russia, Georgia, Bulgaria, Australia and later USA. Many stars were created from the Rings series including Kiyoshi Tamara, Tsuyoshi Kohsaka, Gilbert Yvel and Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira.
7. November 12, 1993: Debut of the Ultimate Fighting Championship
No one knew what to expect. With no video footage to promote, sub par write-ups and word of mouth were the only things to generate interest. But the idea of empirically testing singular martial arts styles against one another was intriguing and at $14.95, the show garnered a strong buy rate despite the omission of a weekly television show. Many called it the first breakout hit for pay-per-view.
After the dust settled, it wouldn’t be the brooding striker (Pat Smith) or the muscled-up shootwrestler (Ken Shamrock)-instead, the lanky Royce Gracie used technique to subdue his opponents using Brazilian jiu-jitsu. It was the best infomercial Rorion Gracie could have envisioned for the art he fought so hard to bring to the U.S.
This event set off a storm of controversy among the traditional martial arts sect who had been focusing on bringing kids into their dojos and zapping their parents for thousands of dollars for lessons. The UFC proved that most martial arts would be ineffective in a real fight. Even the match between multi-black belt holders Zane Frazier and Kevin Rosier looked like two barflies fighting over who pays for the next pitcher.
All of the high flying kicks, breaking boards and cool-sounding martial arts styles didn’t matter a lick. The second show answered more critics by pitting every imaginable and unimaginable style in the octagon. Gracie won that too…setting off a chain reaction for the need to find the perfect warrior who had standup, ground skills, conditioning and superior mindset.
8. February 1995
Just as no-holds-barred fever was taking off, Ottawa, Canada’s George Charylwood created The Fighting List as a way to connect Internet savvy fans with viable information-far removed from the infrequent updates on the UFC website. Shortly thereafter, he created The Combat List, an exhaustive e-mail list that often times included fighters, promoters and old time fans.
The List still probably exists today, and as Charylwood said, “We want to keep the list to the smart people in the sport-no newbies.” In April 1997, Charylwood and Cal Cooper teamed up to produce The New Full Contact, the first real news source for MMA and the first site to reach the masses in terms of selling merchandise. Long before countless people entered the market selling every type of shirt and fighter shorts imaginable, this site was selling over 150 items.
When the site took off, the newly established Abu Dhabi Combat Club gave the duo $3,500 just to post a banner ad for a year. Things were picking up, but the duo disbanded after the first Abu Dhabi, and the Internet would never be the same. When the UFC went off pay per view, the Internet was the only way to keep interest alive with fans and newcomers. During this time, bootlegging became rampant, and actually helped the sport grow because people had easy access to tapes.
Branding gave way to people who needed an introduction to the sport. If it was not for the Underground Forum and several other websites, MMA might have died since pay-per-view buy rates dropped to dismal numbers compared to the past. MMA fan Joe Silva frequently used the early lists to feed his fascination with the sport. He was able to forge a relationship with SEG early on, and when Zuffa took over to create the “all new” UFC, they made him their Vice President in charge of talent relations.
The Internet has remained strong in its support for MMA, and nothing is kept sacred anymore. Good or bad, the Net has a way of finding out, and the whole experience has become quite addicting for many who have grown passionate for the sport.
9. April 7, 1995: Royce Gracie vs. Ken Shamrock
The epic rematch between grapplers turned out to be the ultimate stalemate that bored everyone to tears. The bout was the first big main event in MMA, but didn’t come off as anyone hoped. (Actually, kickboxer Dennis Alexio was pegged to fight Gracie as a new age vs. old age matchup, but Alexio declined. Shamrock was an afterthought, partly because both men were seen as “babyfaces” and well liked among UFC fans.)
Shamrock wouldn’t budge from Gracie’s guard while the Brazilian wasn’t exactly going for submissions either. Though Art Davie’s prompting to stand them up provided one moment of standup, it was apparent that neither man was trying to finish the fight. The match ran for 36 minutes; even commentator Bruce Beck was surprised by saying, “I guess we’re going into overtime.”
Because of this match, Royce bailed out of the UFC and brother Rorion felt jiu-jitsu would get an unfair shake if a fight ever went to the judges (there were no judges decisions in the UFC at this time). Time limits were added after this event, the Art Davie/Rorion Gracie team of WOW Promotions disbanded and Davie became the UFC matchmaker.
10. December 5, 1995: Larry King Live vs. UFC
This televised program pit the nationally syndicated talk show host, Arizona senator John McCain and Nevada State Boxing Commissioner Marc Ratner against SEG President Bob Meyrowitz and Ken Shamrock. Misconceptions about the sport fueled the fire, but the point by Meyrowitz about sanctioning the sport was never well received.
This broadcast occurred during the heyday of “ultimate fighting” being a fad…with other programs like MTV, Friends, etc. highlighting its popularity among the younger generation. Both Ratner and McCain seemed oblivious to what the sport was really about. Interestingly enough, Meyrowitz showed up to the taping completely unprepared, only bringing a poster for Ultimate Ultimate ’95 (held 11 days later) with him.
Wild, Wild West star Robert Conrad called in on behalf of the UFC, but it was apparent that King had made up his mind in terms of which direction the show should move. McCain launched a campaign to ban the sport while Ratner later embraced it when more rules and regulations were added.
11. December 16, 1995: Decisions, Decisions
At Ultimate Ultimate ’95, decisions were implemented for the first time in the sport’s American history. While there was no doubt that Dan Severn had dominated Tank Abbott, manager Frederico Lapenda was outraged over his fighter, Marco Ruas, losing to Oleg Taktarov. Since Lapenda thought he couldn’t get a fair shake in America, he revitalized vale tudo in Brazil with World Vale Tudo Championships.
His referee, Sergio Batarelli, ended up breaking off from him to form International Vale Tudo Championships. To date, these are still the only “vale tudo” and true “no holds barred” events around. At WVC 2, Lapenda staged a rematch between Ruas and Taktarov-the fight was ruled a draw, but there were some complications. In the contract, Taktarov was not allowed to take Ruas down and Ruas was not allowed to kick.
Both “conditions” were compromised though Taktarov took a beating. After the draw was issued, Lapenda shot another “ending” to the fight with Ruas’ hand being raised as the victor.
12. August 23, 1996: Step in the Right Direction
Former kickboxing commissioner Howard Petschler secured the first state-sanctioned MMA event when he and the IFC crew set about promoting IFC 2 in Mississippi. That was the most important step for MMA to be seen as a legitimate sport. In the beginning, the last thing SEG wanted was for the sport to be sanctioned, so they went to states where no state sanctioning body was located.
MMA actually forced states to create sanctioning bodies for combat sports, many of which banned the sport. Over time, promoters had to right the wrongs beset by the early marketing campaigns. Monte Cox established a set of rules with the Iowa State Athletic Commission when his Extreme Challenge promotion came under fire.
He went on to serve as something of a gatekeeper for other promotions who must abide by these rules to enter the state. After being “officially banned” in 1996, Sven Bean was able to get the sport sanctioned in Colorado. When Larry Hazzard officially adopted the unified rules for Atlantic City, it opened the door for sanctioning in Nevada. California remained the only stronghold left, but with Indian reservations making the money instead, the commission desperately wanted to pass the sport to keep afloat.
13. October 18, 1996: A Puncher’s Chance
When Extreme Fighting matchmaker John Perretti brought in Maurice Smith to face Conan Silveira at EF 3, it seemed like a safe bet. Smith was a world-class kickboxer, so many thought someone who was one-dimensional in standup arts could never defeat a jiu-jitsu black belt. “They just wanted me to add identity to their sport,” said Smith. “I didn’t do all the work myself, but I think I helped change the focus of the sport from just submission to everything.”
Though Silveira was still unproven in the eyes of others, his menacing stature and aggressive style, matched with the mystique of the BJJ black belt, cast serious doubt on Smith’s chances. With Frank Shamrock working his corner, Smith actually reversed Silveira’s positioning in the first round and confused him with punches in the second. In the third round, Smith wore down his opponent with leg kicks before sending one up high that connected perfectly with Silveira’s neck.
Smith’s knockout of Silveira proved strikers were not to be underestimated. Four months later, BJJ exponent Vitor Belfort roared onto the scene at UFC XII with fast and furious punches; you really can’t judge a book by its cover.
14. February 8, 1997: Bye Bye Pay-per-view
Leo J. Hindery becomes the new president of TCI Cable as UFC XII barely becomes reality after a political backlash forced the event to move from New York to Alabama. Art Davie, Bob Meyrowitz and John McCarthy met with Hindery about his position on the UFC.
Hindery wanted no part of the event or the supposed sport so UFC XIII played to only 10% of its original pay per view audience. The TCI, Time Warner and Viewers Choice ban essentially made MMA obsolete with the mainstream; political pressure died out as well. As a result of this meeting, it was decided that all fighters were required to wear 4-ounce gloves-despite making the sport more dangerous. “It went against what we had been saying the whole time,” said UFC head referee John McCarthy.
Politicians saw the misconception of fighting bare-fisted as being more brutal and unsafe compared to wearing gloves. But gloves protected the hand-not the head. Ironically, the percentage of knockouts rose tremendously when athletes were required to wear gloves.
15. July 27, 1997: Missing Ingredient
Despite his success in EF, no one thought Maurice Smith had a chance against the seemingly unbeatable Mark Coleman. Coleman had the strength and wrestling ability to dominate his opponents-easily winning two tournaments and soundly submitting Dan Severn.
Smith came in with a strong standup base and newly acquired ground skills, but the fight depended on one major element: conditioning. At UFC XIV, Smith maintained his composure while Coleman blew a gasket trying to finish him off with his hammer fists in the guard.
As the fight drug on, Coleman’s fatigue started to show, but Smith didn’t take any chances and played tentative by chipping away at his opponent. Through two overtimes and even a power outage, Smith played a smart game and won the fight by outlasting his opponent’s cardio. It was a huge upset victory, further adding to the evolution of the sport.
16. September 11, 1997: End to a Rivalry
Brazilian jiu-jitsu and luta livre, two opposing, but similar style grappling forms, collided when Renzo Gracie faced Eugenio Tadeu. While it appeared as if Tadeu was beginning to turn the fight around, a riot broke out amongst the entire crowd.
The Brazilian government almost banned the sport because of this event, but then again, look at soccer. In the end, the feud between opposing grappling factions moved to a harmless cold war and many events have taken place in Brazil since then.
17. October 11, 1997: Eastern Competition
Pride makes its debut in Japan. All fighters wore 4-ounce gloves, the presentation level and thematic of the show borrowed a lot from pro wrestling, and though two of the bouts were worked (Kazunari/Dixson and Kitao/Jones), Rickson Gracie vs. Nobuhiko Takada put Pride on the map.
The organization used a lot of former UFC fighters to prove its legitimacy and over time, it all but wiped out Rings and Pancrase in terms of notoriety and revenues. Losing money in the beginning, Dreamstage Entertainment picked up the slack and took the event to the next level. Gaining pay-per-view in the states, Pride Fighting Championships became a steady competitor for the UFC and others, but then were caught between pleasing a large Japanese fan base and a less forgiving American audience. Then again, who cares: Pride 22 brought in the largest gate for a fighting event at 91,107 people in attendance.
18. March 16, 1998: Unfortunate Loss
American fighter Douglas Dedge died of brain-related complications after competing in an event held in the Ukraine. “We heard through guys that were with him that he was blacking out during training,” said Clarence Thatch, who fought and served as cornerman at the event. “As far as refereeing, it was all legit and there was nothing illegal.” According to Thatch, the referee stopped the fight after Dedge was hit six or seven times.
When they were stood back up for the decision, Dedge collapsed. “They had no purse money for her when she got there,” said Thatch, who decided, along with the group of Americans, they would never fight there again. “They treated his wife so poorly; she had to fly the body back herself.” This would be the last event ever held in the Ukraine.
News of this event created a political firestorm, arming MMA opponents with the ammunition they needed all along. But this time, it was former UFC matchmaker Art Davie leading the way; he made a lot of enemies saying the sport should be banned. Of course, he also had a new affiliation with K-1 as its American liaison. After one failed US pay-per-view outing, Davie was ousted. (Interestingly enough, Pride commentator and former FightSport editor Stephen Quadros blasted MMA as a sport while serving as commentator.)
19. January 8, 1999: Making a Star
After losing to Guy Mezger at UFC XIII, Tank Abbott protégé Tito Ortiz vanished from the MMA scene altogether before meeting club owner Sal Garcia, who was in Vitor Belfort’s entourage when the Brazilian faced Abbott on the same card. “In talking with Tito, I could tell there were a lot of things related to marketing and advertising he just did not understand,” said Garcia.
Though Ortiz had discarded his brief fighting career, Garcia paid for the two to travel to UFC Brazil in October 1998. Remembering the “walking the lobby” scene from the film Jerry McGuire, Garcia had ready-made Tito Ortiz cards to pass around and gain attention. “Of the people who really made Tito who is today, it will go down in history as Joe Silva and Paula Romero of SEG,” said Garcia. “They looked out for him and saw that he was a very marketable person.” Soon thereafter, Ortiz would fight Jerry Bohlander. It would either build Bohlander or set up a rematch with Mezger.
Ortiz would go on to defeat Bohlander and became an instant crowd favorite. After the win, Ortiz put on a shirt that read, “Extreme Associates 3:16” on the front and “I just f**cked your ass!” on the back. Matched with the flame shorts he wore, sponsored by the adult bookstore Spankys, Ortiz soon became a marketing machine. No longer one of Tank’s lackeys, Garcia and Ortiz worked hard to get the young fighter out in the public’s eye. The ensuing warfare between him and the Lion’s Den would come to a head when he defeated Guy Mezger by ref stoppage at UFC XIX.
By wearing an even more controversial shirt (“Gay Mezger is my bitch!”), Ortiz created a stir with the public and no matter which side they took, he was “good” for the sport. The bout against Frank Shamrock months later made him into an even bigger star. Armed with signs for the crowd and a fresh crop of cards, Garcia became a one-man marketing machine parlaying his fighters, Ortiz and Chuck Liddell, into Team Punishment. Though Garcia and Ortiz later parted ways, the “Huntington Beach Bad Boy”-a term once used to describe Tank Abbott-became trademarked and Dana White, who created a successful boxercise program in Nevada, became his new manager.
When White became the new president of the UFC after Zuffa Entertainment took over, Ortiz naturally became their poster child. He was young, bad to the bone, and still personable with the fans. But Zuffa’s reliance upon him as a star, vying for the younger demographic to watch the UFC, ultimately led to a backlash-the UFC brand name must never take a backseat to its creation. As the UFC crept back onto pay-per-view, they built up Ortiz with assorted marketing strategies only to suddenly back off altogether.
Team Punishment would employ many of Garcia’s marketing plans for cards, and Ortiz sold his Team Punishment clothing line to thousands of fans. On November 20, 2002, the Lion’s Den saga finally came to a head when Ortiz faces leader Ken Shamrock for the light heavyweight crown-a risky move by Zuffa-but an earnest way of putting butts in seats. Will the impersonal, UFC fight-centric model prevail in a world dictated by building a compelling reason to watch via hype, human interest stories and solid marketing?
20. May 7, 1999: Rounds
Judging became a real issue for the bout between Bas Rutten and Kevin Randleman, who headlined UFC 20. While Randleman completely dominated the first few minutes, Rutten stayed busy for the duration. Without a 10-point must system and normal rounds (10 minute time limit with two overtimes was standard fare for the UFC), it was hard to say who won the fight.
While Rutten got the nod, he went to the hospital with a broken nose, cuts and abrasions. Randleman walked away unscathed. Starting with UFC 21, non-championship bouts consisted of three 5-minute rounds and championship bouts consisted of five 5-minute rounds. Most follow this policy, save for Pride (one 10-minute round and two 5-minute rounds) and King of the Cage (two 5-minute rounds for undercard bouts and three 5-minute rounds for main event bouts).
21. September 24, 1999: Weight Classes
After moving to rounds with criteria for judging, it was important to establish more solid weight classes. At UFC 22, SEG made note of five distinct weight classes: lightweight, welterweight, middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight. Up until that time, consider this: At UFC 13, the UFC had two weight classes: light and heavyweight. The lightweight class was 200 pounds and under.
At UFC Japan, the lightweight class turned to middleweight. UFC 16 held the first-ever 4-man lightweight tournament. After Frank Shamrock won and relinquished his belt as “middleweight,” it was decided that: 145-154.9 (lightweight), 155-169.9 (welterweight), 170-184.9 (middleweight), 185-204.9 (light heavyweight) and 205-264.9 (heavyweight). Nearly every MMA organization followed suit.
22. October 28, 1999: A Fatal Decision
Japan’s Rings allowed for its fighters to wear four-ounce gloves, starting with the King of Kings 1999 tournament. The organization also moved from stiff-worked bouts to shoots. Jobbers, like Andrei Kopylov, showed they had real skills-he defeated both of his first round opponents in 23 seconds combined in the tournament’s second bracket.
This decision ended up killing the organization three years later. Though many Japanese fans knew some of the fights had predetermined endings, they loved the “idea” of a real fight, not necessarily the real McCoy. They could no longer protect their champions, namely poster boy Kiyoshi Tamura. When Rings started to flounder, Pride took all of their best fighters, with Tamura being the hold out.
Perhaps bad blood still existed between someone within Pride and Rings founder Akira Maeda, who had made a lot of enemies over the years, since Tamura was thrown to the wolves in his debut against Wanderlei Silva. Maeda was rumored to be starting a new organization, while Antonio Inoki, who has his name written all over K-1, Pride, New Japan Pro Wrestling and the newly reformed UFO, assumes control as the man who calls the shots.
23. January 9, 2001: Changing the Guard
On July 17, 1999, the Nevada State Athletic Commission was invited to see UFC 21 for themselves-amongst the group sat closet MMA fan Lorenzo Fertitta. Fertitta was impressed with the athletes he had a chance to meet in person. Upon returning home to Vegas, he took up an offer to train with John Lewis in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. With SEG’s money problems, rumors began floating around that SEG President Bob Meyrowitz wanted a way out.
First, it appeared as if John Perretti was leading the way with a team for a buy out. But Lewis caught wind of what was going on and knew Lorenzo Fertitta would be the answer. On January 9, 2001, Lorenzo and brother Frank bought the UFC from Bob Meyrowitz, setting forth their new company, Zuffa (meaning “to fight”) Entertainment. Though Meyrowitz was able to get the sport passed by the New Jersey State Athletic Commission, the Fertitta family was able to get it passed in their backyard of Nevada.
And while Meyrowitz should be thanked for keeping the UFC alive at a time when it was doomed, Zuffa has spent millions in marketing both a sport and its brand name. While mixed martial arts had been adopted sometime in 1998 as a safe alternative to no-holds-barred, Zuffa began playing off its brand name and using “ultimate fighting” to term the sport itself. Sacrificing millions to market the “all new” UFC, Zuffa has been able to turn around both its strong brand name and a fledgling sport that needed someone to bring it back to the masses.
24. September 28, 2001: Anti-climactic Return
UFC 33 marked the return of MMA to In Demand pay-per-view-gaining back a lot of the universe it had lost years earlier. The satellite universe was dismal compared to the glory days. Fully sanctioned by the Nevada State Athletic Commission, Tito Ortiz was set to face Vitor Belfort, but the Brazilian cut his arm while practicing next to a window of all things.
While all of the matches looked good on paper, they produced lackluster results live when all but two dark matches went to decisions. At a time when the UFC needed to win back fans, first timers were left scratching their heads.
Most fighters just didn’t feel the need to “chase victory,” opting instead to do enough to win on points. The colorful introductions, theme music and personal touches were the only redeeming qualities, but also forced the show to run over its three-hour time limit. Many cable systems shut off the event well before the end of Tito Ortiz vs. Vladimir Matyushenko.
Ironically, UFC 34 has been called the best UFC of all time, but buyrates dropped because a lot of viewers felt the “all new” UFC, based on UFC 33, wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. To saturate matters worse, Pride and then King of the Cage emerged on the pay-per-view scene. Hardcore fans were happy, but with low buyrates all around, competition only made for thinner revenues.
25. June 25, 2002: Best Damn News
When UFC commentator Bruce Buffer and Tito Ortiz made an appearance on The Best Damn Sports Show…Period!, producers began asking Buffer questions about the UFC and MMA. Perking their interest, meetings were called that led to airing one complete UFC fight on the program-meaning for the first time in the sports history, an entire match would air on free television. Held Saturday, June 22, the aptly named UFC 37.5 played live to a smaller, more intimate audience at the Bellagio.
Robbie Lawler, UFC’s newest sensation, met Steve Berger for the televised bout that lived up to everyone’s expectations-save for Berger, who suffered his first TKO loss. Although the airing of the program didn’t necessarily treat the UFC with kid gloves, it was far more favorable than most expected. The show led to two 30-minute programs airing UFC fights on Sunday nights, and the response was better than average.
Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock would go on to share a few minutes on the program, hyping their upcoming November meeting. While things needed to change before any MMA promotion made it to free television, this was the largest development the sport had ever seen.