Back before fighters were well rounded the game was a crap shoot. For the UFC, the days of one dimensional fighters came to a close shortly after Zuffa purchased the promotion from Semaphore Entertainment Group in January of 2001.
Back then fast hands, sinister submissions or wrestling could get a fighter by. And I don’t mean a combination of the three, I mean mastering one single element alone. That seemed to suffice.
As primitive as combat may have been at the time, fans played witness to numerous highly entertaining bouts. A solid handful of men excelled back in the day, and that’s what this piece is all about: examining the golden age of the UFC’s existence.
Here’s a look at 20 of the toughest men to compete for the Ultimate Fighting Championship and their career’s pre-Zuffa. Nothing they’ve accomplished beyond December of 2000 inside the octagon is going to be factored into this list, so refrain from spilling into a rage when Mark Kerr doesn’t top the list!
(SEG Record 4-3)
Maurice Smith made major waves upon entering the UFC ranks at UFC 14 when he stopped the unbeaten “Godfather of Ground and Pound”, Mark Coleman.
Few gave Smith a chance at toppling the aggressive wrestler, but Smith’s guard was strong enough to prevent Coleman from effectively brutalizing him with his fists, and eventually Coleman’s gas tank ran low, real low. Smith surged late to take a unanimous decision win.
Not too shabby for a man known primarily for his kickboxing acumen.
Other notable wins: Marco Ruas, who’d had enough after a single five minute frame.
(SEG Record 5-2)
Jerry Bohlander wasn’t a guy who exited the cage with a wealth of tremendous accolades (though he did pick up a pair of victories at UFC 12 to win the lightweight tournament), but he always showed grit, and fought exactly who he was told to fight.
Often undersized, Bohlander was forced to rely on speed and agility for quite a few of his bouts. That technique worked fairly well, as he out-dueled the massive Scott Ferrozzo in his UFC debut.
Other notable wins: Fabio Gurgel and stud wrestler Kevin Jackson.
(SEG Record 4-2)
“Gumby” is one of those guys who has always flown under the radar as a result of his low-key demeanor. The guy is relaxed, easy going, and looks nothing like your typical meathead fighter.
Those deceptive looks paid dividends for Horn, who scooped up a handful of solid victories back in the SEG days, and very nearly took a decision win over one of the promotion’s brighter stars, Frank Shamrock, at a time in which he boasted the title of undefeated champion.
Other notable wins: Chuck Liddell, who learned a valuable lesson about submission defense.
(SEG Record 3-2)
Kevin was one of those guys who always found consistency to be elusive. A wrestler with the physical attributes to potentially dominate anyone he faced, Kevin’s head wasn’t always in the game.
Having noted the man’s instabilities, it’s important to note that when “The Monster” entered the cage, opponents unquestionably felt a bit squeamish.
Randleman enjoyed his finest moment when he became the first man to defeat Pedro Rizzo.
Other notable wins: A man handling session over Maurice Smith at UFC 19.
(SEG Record 3-0-1)
Jens would have placed much higher on the list were the time constrictions not limited to the SEG era, as “Little Evil” only had time to pick up three victories inside the cage before Zuffa swept in to save the day.
Just the same, that stunning overhand left that sent John Lewis into permanent retirement was a thing of true beauty. Funny after all these years, it's still a significant piece of his highlight reel.
Other notable wins: Joao Roque, who went on to become a pretty decent fighter.
(SEG Record 4-0)
Kerr doesn’t place too high on the list for one very simple reason: he never did much of anything other than squash a handful of cans.
When Dan Bobish is your finest promotional victory, you really don’t have all that much to brag about.
Sure Mark went on to build a massive winning streak with some quality victims having collided with “The Smashing Machine”, but that level of competition didn’t swing Kerr’s way until the transfer to Pride.
Other notable wins: I think I just explained this fairly well…
(SEG Record 3-0)
Like Jens Pulver, Tanner was still relatively new to the promotion when Zuffa intervened. Prior to however, the VHS instructional taught Texan trampled a couple foes.
His thrashing of the durable Valeri Ignatov remains an early memorable moment in a sad and storied career.
Other notable wins: A nice submission win over Darrel Gholar who looked to have all the tools to become something special.
(SEG Record 4-2)
One of the first men to showcase the effectiveness of leg kicks, Marco didn’t fight nearly as long as he should have. This guy was awesome.
He chopped men down like trees, and took the UFC 7 tournament with a lot of gritty, hard work: a massive, but overmatched Paul Varelans stood between the Brazilian and the title of UFC 7 tournament king… I guess size doesn’t always matter.
Other notable wins: Remco Pardoel, who like Varelans sported a significant size advantage over his foe, but unlike Varelans, boasted some pretty solid submission skills.
(SEG Record 6-2-1)
Oleg was one of the promotion’s earliest tanks. A hard hitting Russian with some submission savvy under his belt, Taktarov was one of the earliest examples of a “well rounded fighter”
The man swept the UFC 6 tournament, beating Tank Abbott in the finals, and damn near did it again at Ultimate Ultimate 1995.
Often forgotten these days, “The Russian Bear” was a bad dude who showed up and gave it his all every single time.
Other notable wins: The legendary Marco Ruas.
(SEG Record 6-2-2)
Ken’s demeanor alone made him a feared commodity. The fact that he was extremely well versed in the realm of grappling made him more frightening: the fact that he was a capable striker was the icing on the cake.
While Shamrock failed to snag a tournament title, he did turn in an impressive super fight or two (along with one of the most miserable in history).
His 36 minute draw with Royce Gracie remains his greatest feat, as, were proper rules implemented, he would have easily cruised to a decision win.
As it was, the UFC was still a glorified infomercial for Gracie Jiu Jitsu, and as a result some special rules were implemented: namely the lack of decisions.
If you fought until the final bell sounded, you settled for a draw, plain and simple.
Other notable wins: A quick submission of feared wrestler Dan Severn.
(SEG Record 9-4)
Speaking of Dan Severn…
Here’s a guy who relied on brute force and a persistent wrestling attack. Severn grounded opponents, and slowly but surely beat them into the canvas. Back before BJJ was such a prominent discipline, it worked like a charm.
Severn took the UFC 5 tournament by stopping Joe Charles, Oleg Taktarov and Dave Beneteau in a single night.
Other notable wins: Ken Shamrock in the least eventful super fight in history.
(SEG Record 5-1)
During Pedro’s early UFC run, he looked damn near unstoppable. The man had the advantage of being a far superior kick boxer to any man competing at the time, and oh how durable he was when prime.
The tournament format had pretty much died by the time Rizzo signed with the UFC, but he wrecked house all the same, toppling truly formidable opposition like Mark Coleman.
Other notable wins: Tsuyoshi Kosaka and Dan Severn.
(SEG Record 5-1)
Outside of Royce Gracie, no one made quite the impact upon arrival as did Belfort.
With lightning fast hands, a sound submission game and a legendary trainer behind him, “The Phenom” lived up to his nickname.
He destroyed everyone in his path to the UFC 12 heavyweight tournament title.
Belfort stumbled just one time during his first stint with the promotion: Randy Couture bullied the Brazilian for eight plus minutes to stop Belfort’s unbeaten streak.
Things may have looked quite different had Vitor not chosen to come in bulked up to the size of the incredible hulk.
Other notable wins: Wanderlei Silva in what is still recognized as one of the most amazing finishes ever witnessed.
(SEG Record 9-1)
When you think rugged, just don’t give a damn, let’s go brawl, you think Don Frye.
This man, although a fine wrestler, preferred to let his fists lead him to victory. His visually appealing style gained him a legion of fans and a damn fine 9-1 promotional record.
The man beat the breaks off many a tough opponent, including Gary Goodridge and the best bar brawler to earn a decent paycheck for dishing out punishment, Tank Abbott.
Other notable wins: A vicious trouncing of then highly touted prospect, Amaury Bitetti. Frye put an end to that hype.
(SEG Record 5-2)
Whether you love Tito, or you absolutely despise the man, it must be said that this guy never got much of a break.
In the first three years of his professional career he tangled with Guy Mezger, Jerry Bohlander, Frank Shamrock and Wanderlei Silva. Save for Shamrock, he beat them all (Mezger in a rematch).
In fact, his win over “The Axe Murderer” earned him promotional gold, which he went on to defend five times.
He may have talked the talk, but no one can accuse him of sitting out the walk.
Other notable wins: Isn’t that enough as it is?
(SEG Record 6-3)
Mark Coleman revolutionized ground and pound.
Sure the tactic had been implemented on numerous occasions prior to Mark’s arrival at UFC 10, but no one delivered the punishment from top position like “The Hammer”.
Coleman picked up the tournament title twice consecutively at UFC 10 and 11.
The man beat down a prime Don Frye and a game Gary Goodridge in the process.
Other notable wins: a startling quick submission over a still dangerous Dan Severn.
(SEG Record 5-0)
Frank has never been a full blown fan favorite, and a part of that stems from his thinly veiled arrogance. But, the man blitzed competition in his heyday and quite frankly, he earned the right to be arrogant.
Shamrock entered the promotion at UFC 15.5 and within five events had amassed an unbeaten streak, picked up promotional gold and looked damn impressive doing so.
What’s even more impressive in this specific case is the men he beat in order to accomplish such a feat: Tito Ortiz and Kevin Jackson are no easy outs.
Other notable wins: Jeremy Horn in a Hail Mary come from behind win and Igor Zinoviev who himself was a fine prospect until Frank sent him packing from the sport.
(SEG Record 5-0)
Randy not only proved that positional control can be one of the most important elements of an offensive attack, he also proved one need not be a spring chicken to find success in MMA.
Couture was already well into his 30’s when he debuted at UFC 13.
He swarmed the heavyweight tournament bracket, stopping his two foes in a combined 4:09.
Did I mention he also took heavyweight gold from the waist of Kevin Randleman within three years competing as a professional?
Other notable wins: That stunning upset of Vitor Belfort.
(SEG Record 7-0)
Pat Miletich doesn’t get the credit he deserves. Not only did the man lead one of the most successful teams of the late 1990’s (deep into the 2000’s), he also steamrolled a hefty load of foes inside the octagon.
During his prime fighting years (1995 through 1999), “The Croation Sensation” did very little other than win. In fact, while SEG still owned the UFC, all he did was win.
Pat beat some great competition inside the octagon and out (as in, fighting for other promotions… not that “backyard” business), with his greatest victory under the UFC banner being his thrashing of Andre Pederneiras.
Other notable wins: Jorge Patino, Mikey Burnett and John Alessio.
(SEG Record 11-0-1)
Whether you agree with my number one pick or not means nothing to me. The proof is in the pudding, and the pudding in this case is a (pretty much) blemish free record.
I added that “pretty much” in there for two reasons, technically, he really should have lost his half hour plus snoozer with Shamrock, and he did enter the octagon to meet Harold Howard before forfeiting due to exhaustion.
The Howard fight has since been wiped from his record, as the two never actually fought, and on the books, the Shamrock fight is still a draw, not a loss.
The greatest argument that I can see made about this selection is the fact that Royce didn’t beat all too many tough guys.
That said, it’s important to remember that this guy showed up for UFC 1, and introduced the world to a style of fighting that would forever change the face of full contact fighting.
Besides, a legit win over a prime Ken Shamrock is impressive, as is a submission stoppage of the behemoth Dan Severn.
Other notable wins: A dramatic rally against the reckless Kimo Leopoldo and a solid victory over Keith Hackney, who was well ahead of the curve in 1994.
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