10 Biggest 'What Ifs' in UFC History
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What If? It was always one of my favorite comic books. As a reader, you knew that in a What If? book, anything goes. Characters you know and love could die. A hero could secretly be a villain. The world, in short, could turn topsy-turvy—with no long-term consequences—in the blink of an eye.
In the spirit of the Mighty Marvel Marching Society, I'd like to play my own little game of "What if?" Let's mine the depths of the UFC's history and look for turning points that might have altered the sport as we know it, starting with UFC 1.
10. What If Rickson Gracie Starred in UFC 1?
Rickson's legendary workout
Royce Gracie ran through the competition at UFC 1 like a (insert hot item) through (insert item that is soft or melty). No one could touch him, not even submission wizard Ken Shamrock. Now imagine a bigger, meaner, stronger and more skilled version of Royce Gracie. Scary, right?
Fans almost saw Royce's older brother Rickson in the very first UFC. Rickson was the family's greatest champion, but his brother Rorion, who created the UFC, feared that Rickson would get too much of the attention for his victories. Rorion wanted the focus on the family's fighting art, not on one transcendent warrior. That made Royce the right choice.
Verdict: Royce was the right call
9. What If the UFC Created Weight Classes Earlier in Its History?
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The early UFCs were all about which martial arts styles were the most effective. But after a handful of events, it was clear that no one could compete without the grappling skills to defend themselves on the ground.
Soon fights became a battle of athletes, rather than a clash of styles. When that's the case, an even playing field is paramount. Would Royce Gracie have stuck around if the specter of giant wrestlers like Mark Kerr and Mark Coleman wasn't lurking? If he could have competed only against fighters similar in size, would he have left after UFC 5?
That would have been a huge change and one for the better. The UFC's second generation of stars lacked legitimacy because they never beat Royce or Ken Shamrock in the cage. Royce staying on, possibly even competing against Pat Miletich or Frank Shamrock, would have ruled.
Verdict: The UFC needed weight classes earlier
8. What If the UFC Had Found Mainstream Martial Artists Willing to Compete?
Don Wilson takes on future UFC champion Maurice Smith back in 1990.
Can you imagine Benny "The Jet" Urquidez in the UFC's Octagon? Don "the Dragon" Wilson? Roy Jones?
The UFC could and did make overtures to all of them. None would sign on the dotted line. A world that never saw Billy Blanks in the cage is a sad, sad world.
Verdict: Who doesn't want to see chop-socky stars in the Octagon? Bring on Jackie Chan or Tony Jaa!
7. What If Ken Shamrock Hadn't Quit at UFC 3?
Ken Shamrock is the ultimate "almost" in MMA history. He never won a UFC tournament. Almost. Upon his return from the WWF, he never beat a top-tier fighter. Almost.
Ken's best chance at glory was at UFC 3. Desperate for revenge against Royce Gracie, Ken was a man possessed. When Gracie bowed out of the competition after a tough fight against Kimo, Shamrock ducked out too.
Shamrock became one of the biggest stars in MMA history despite his record of mediocrity in big fights. Imagine how much that perception might have changed if, just once, Shamrock could have held his head up as the best fighter in the world.
Verdict: Ken Shamrock's legacy will never recover from playing second fiddle to Gracie
6. What If Ken Shamrock and Tank Abbott Had Thrown Down?
Tank Abbott versus Kimbo Slice. Just because.
If Ken Shamrock was the Crips, Tank Abbott was the Bloods. If Tank was Lion-O, Shamrock was Mumm-Ra . If Ken was Betty, Tank was Veronica.
You get the point.
The two men hated each other. The two men, thankfully, were also professional cage fighters. How did this fight never happen? It pains me to this day to think about the missed opportunity.
Verdict: I can't see through the tears in my eyes to issue a verdict; this was a modern tragedy
5. What If Kevin Randleman Had Done Things the Right Way?
Photo by Esther Lin for Strikeforce
Kevin Randleman was twice an NCAA champion at 177 pounds. So what the heck was he doing competing at heavyweight in the UFC?
Sure, he won the world title; you can't dispute that. Ultimately, his opponents consistently outweighing him wore on the superlative wrestler. Randleman's career, a career that started with such promise, soon fizzled out.
Athletically, he was gifted enough that anything other than greatness is a huge disappointment. Kevin Randleman: MMA's ultimate "What If."
Verdict: On an alternate earth, Randleman was the longtime middleweight champion
4. What If the UFC Had Used Rumina Sato at 155 Pounds?
Don't speak Japanese? Who cares? It's Sato!
When the UFC finally delivered a 155-pound division, the choice of fighters to showcase left many in the sport scratching their heads. Rumina Sato was, almost beyond argument, the most exciting submission fighter in the sport's history. If anyone could have delivered an exciting fight to christen the new division, it was Sato.
Instead, the UFC focused on a very green Jens Pulver and a dull-as-dirt John Lewis. And the division floundered. Caol Uno, who eventually usurped Sato in Japan, came over to the UFC but didn't have the charisma to make the same mark Sato would have.
Verdict: Eventually the 155-pound weight class simply ceased to exist; with Sato in tow, that would have never happened
3. What If Tito Ortiz Had Fought Chuck Liddell?
Photo by MMA Weekly
It was one of the most heated feuds in UFC history. Two former training partners and friends, torn apart by jealousy, envy, greed and a big gold belt.
No, I'm not talking about Rashad Evans and Jon Jones. That simply shows the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The original battle of friends was between Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell. Ortiz refused to meet Chuck in the middle of the cage for more than a year as tensions brewed. Everyone wanted to see the big fight.
But waiting, though painful, may have been the best thing to ever happen to the UFC. The fans got behind Chuck, who eventually became the company's brightest star. It also allowed Randy Couture to jump into the light heavyweight picture and extend his career by several years.
Verdict: We all wanted to see Tito and Chuck, but waiting just made it sweeter—and made the UFC boatloads of cash
2. What If Dana White Had Gotten His Wish?
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Can you imagine a UFC fight card every Friday night? UFC president Dana White could. A huge fan of the USA Network's old boxing show Friday Night Fights, White desperately wanted the UFC version.
Others talked him into the reality show concept instead—and it saved a sport that had been bleeding money. Fights are great, but teaching people that the athletes involved in the sport aren't just mindless thugs was priceless. It made this sport.
Verdict: As great as a weekly fight show would be, The Ultimate Fighter saved the sport
1. What If the UFC Hadn't Given Brock Lesnar a Chance?
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Make no mistake about it—signing Brock Lesnar was a risky move for the UFC. Comparisons to pro wrestling were already rampant. People like my dad weren't clear on whether the UFC was real or just an updated version of the WWE. Signing a former WWE star like Lesnar didn't do much to clear matters up.
Signing Lesnar could have backfired. It could have confirmed that this was a sport for the trailer-park set (no diss, trailer-park set)—that the athletes were nothing more than guys with a gym membership, a big mouth, and bad intentions.
Verdict: Dana White signed Lesnar anyway, who became just the biggest star in UFC history