MMA in 2003: A Retrospective Look at the Sport a Decade Later
We all have moments in time that stand out to us as great periods in our lives: when we had our first child, fell in love or, as the case usually is for fight fans, got to enjoy some truly excellent moments in combative sport.
Outside of all things having to do with the ring or cage, Metallica released St. Anger, Black Label Society released The Blessed Hellride, Nickelback was being jammed down our throats on the radio and Kill Bill: Vol. 1, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl were dominating movie theaters.
And in the world of MMA, Pride FC (and not the UFC) was the top promotion in the sport.
It really was a different world back then. You had two premier organizations fighting to get the best fighters under their respective banners while proving theirs were the only championship belts that mattered.
The competition between the UFC and Pride was fierce back then, and you would never have guessed in a million years that the UFC would actually buy Pride; the Japanese-based organization just seemed too large.
But here we stand, 10 years later, and I for one enjoy the view of what was a great year in MMA.
Here is a list of the events, from both the UFC and Pride, for 2003, along with the fighters of note. With it all will hopefully come a realization and appreciation for what once was, and what is.
UFC 41: Onslaught
Date: February 28, 2003
Location: Atlantic City, New Jersey
Attendance: 13,401 (approx.)
Billed as a night of heavyweight action, UFC 41 would see Ricco Rodriguez attempt to defend his heavyweight title for the first time against Tim Sylvia. In addition, David “Tank” Abbott was making his return to the UFC, facing Frank Mir.
But there was also another title on the line: the lightweight belt.
In the prelims, Yves Edwards submitted Rich Clementi and Din Thomas was almost robbed of a decision victory over Matt Serra. One of the judges had tabulated a score wrong, getting the names confused, it seems, but after the smoke cleared, Thomas was awarded the victory.
The main card saw Vladimir Matyushenko wrestle his way to a unanimous decision victory and likewise saw Matt Lindland do the same thing to Phil Baroni in a highly anticipated rematch of their first exciting bout at UFC 34.
Then, Tank Abbott stepped into the Octagon for the first time since UFC: Brazil, when he was stopped by Pedro Rizzo. Many expected Abbott to win the bout due to the fact that Ian Freeman had recently pummeled Mir badly as the latter allowed himself to remain vulnerable for too long while going for a leg submission.
Instead, Mir submitted Abbott with a toe-hold submission inside the first minute of Round 1 in a bout that proved not only to be anticlimactic, it also showed that the sport had passed Abbott by.
Then, Caol Uno and B.J. Penn stepped up to fight for the UFC lightweight title. The last time they had faced each other, Penn had run over Uno in under 25 seconds.
This time, both men battled for a full five rounds before the bout was judged a draw and thus no champion was declared. The lightweight belt would disappear for a long while after that.
Finally, Ricco Rodriguez took on challenger Tim Sylvia and was promptly knocked out in the first round courtesy of a hard straight right hand and the ground-and-pound that followed.
Pride 25: Body Blow
Date: March 16, 2003
Location: Yokohama, Japan
There were many good fights during this event, but of course, the fight that left everyone stunned was the heavyweight title bout between then-challenger Fedor Emelianenko and reigning champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.
Before the headlining bout, fans saw five bouts end via stoppage, and some of those stoppages were brutal.
Anderson Silva defeated Carlos Newton via a jumping knee strike to the head as Newton shot in for a takedown. With the victory, Silva also avenged his teammate, Jose Pele Landi-Jons, who had been submitted by Newton at Pride 19: Bad Blood.
Next on deck, Dan Henderson took out Shungo Oyama via first-round TKO in a bout that proved little but entertained nonetheless.
Then, Japanese darling Kazushi Sakuraba suffered a surprising defeat at the hands of unheralded Antonio “Nino” Schembri, getting caught with a knee strike in the clinch. Sakuraba fell and Nino swarmed, gaining a victory in a bout that had seen him schooled at nearly every turn.
Quinton “Rampage” Jackson then slipped through the ropes to face Kevin Randleman, with the winner getting a shot at reigning champion Wanderlei Silva, who was watching ringside.
Jackson managed to overcome the tough Randleman, dropping him with heavy punches before climbing aboard and ending the fight with some hard ground-and-pound to the face.
But the excitement wasn’t over. After the bout, with microphone in hand, Jackson praised Randleman, then pointed to Silva at ringside and said: “I want you, boy.”
While Silva may not have understood the words, he clearly understood the intent. He climbed into the ring, slapped his chest, said: “My belt!” and then shoved Jackson with both hands.
Security, officials and members of both camps swarmed the ring to keep them from ripping into each other the moment Jackson threw the microphone down. It was a wild melee that left people salivating at the thought of a bout between Jackson and Silva.
And come the finals of the middleweight Grand Prix, their patience was rewarded.
UFC 42: Sudden Impact
Date: April 25, 2003
Location: Miami, Florida
Attendance: 6,700 (approx.)
As the UFC brought its show to Florida, two MFS (Miletich Fighting System) fighters were leading the charge: Robbie Lawler and Matt Hughes.
But before the boys from Iowa took the stage, UFC fans were introduced to a new face: Rich Franklin. The former math teacher took on UFC vet and former light heavyweight title contender Evan Tanner.
Franklin pulled off the upset by stopping Tanner via TKO in the very first round. Tanner seemed to have trouble dealing with the footwork and range of Franklin, who landed many clean punches from range before stunning Tanner and dropping him to the floor and finishing the bout in impressive fashion.
Robbie Lawler, who was seen by many to be the next big thing in the welterweight division, suffered a loss via hip injury in Round 2 of his bout with Pete Spratt.
Then, Matt Hughes stepped up to defend his welterweight title for the fourth time, taking on fellow wrestler Sean Sherk in a bout that saw Hughes tested and forced to fight for a full five rounds before earning the unanimous decision.
It was the first time in his title reign that Hughes had been taken the distance.
UFC 43: Meltdown
Date: June 6, 2003
Location: Las Vegas, Nevada
As one of the first two UFC events to be sold on DVD via national retail outlets, UFC 43 was both excellent and significant.
The main event of the night was a bout between No. 1 contender Chuck Liddell and former two-time heavyweight champion, Randy Couture. The prize was the first interim UFC title ever in the light heavyweight division.
Dana White and Zuffa had been trying to get current reigning champion Tito Ortiz to defend his belt against Liddell, but Ortiz was playing hardball, citing that his friendship with Liddell was worth more money that either fighter would be paid for the bout.
Thus, as Ortiz would not step up, Couture had been chosen to be Liddell’s opponent, and there was a great deal of anticipation surrounding the fight.
But before that, fans were treated to some excellent fights. In the opening bout of the night, Pedro Rizzo and Tra Telligman engaged in another back-and-forth brawl that saw both men rocked and bloodied, just as their epic first bout had, way back at UFC 20.
Just as Rizzo had won their first encounter, he also won the rematch, via TKO stoppage due to cuts.
Then, in the first bout of the main card, Frank Mir stepped into action to face Hammer House fighter Wes Sims. Sims came out aggressive and got scooped up and slammed to the mat in short order, and it looked like Mir was going to end this one quick.
Instead, Sims managed to avoid being submitted time and again. Eventually, Mir locked up an armbar and Sims stood above him, picking him up and slamming him on his head.
Sims then stood above Mir, who was flat on his back, and began to stomp his head. The bout was quickly stopped and Sims was disqualified.
In the third bout of the main card, Vitor Belfort made short work of MMA journeyman Marvin Eastman, catching the latter with a knee and then following him down to the floor with a flurry of punches to win the fight early in the first round.
When Eastman stood up, we got to see perhaps one of the nastiest cuts ever in MMA; you could see Eastman’s skull through the gash above his eye.
Then, Tank Abbott took on another fighter from the early days, Kimo Leopoldo, in a bout many figured Abbott would win. Instead, Kimo took him down and submitted him in short order.
Finally, Liddell stepped into the Octagon to face Couture for the title. As Couture was coming off two defeats and was 39 years old, many expected Liddell to snatch the interim belt and begin calling out Ortiz to unify the titles.
Instead, Couture defeated Liddell by beating him to the punch when both men were standing and taking him to the floor anytime Liddell stood still. Couture defeated Liddell via TKO in Round 3, had the belt wrapped around his waist and promptly called out Ortiz.
Pride 26: Bad to the Bone
Date: June 8, 2003
Location: Yokohama, Japan
If there is one thing the Pride FC organization was not shy about, it was revisiting rivalries that had been established in the UFC.
In the case of Pride 26: Bad to the Bone, the rivalry in question was Mark Coleman vs. Don Frye.
When they met the first time at UFC 10, Coleman simply beat Frye down all night long, eventually winning the bout by stoppage and claiming the tournament victory. Frye had been dying for a rematch for Coleman ever since. Nearly seven years later, he was finally getting his chance.
Well ahead of that storyline, we saw something that would no doubt shock the fans of today: Anderson Silva being defeated by Daiju Takase via triangle choke. Takase was no world-beater, but then again, back in 2003, Silva wasn’t near the fighter he would become by 2006.
We also saw Quinton “Rampage” Jackson defeat an overmatched fighter in Mikhail Ilyukhin, and Mirko Cro-Cop Filipovic made short work out of Heath Herring.
Of course, the bout of the night was Coleman vs. Frye. Although the bad blood between both men was gone, Frye still felt he had something to prove. After a long fight that saw Coleman enjoy most of the positional advantages, he was awarded a unanimous decision victory that closed the book on their feud.
Also, Fedor Emelianenko defeated Kazuyuki Fujita via rear-naked choke after the Japanese fighter caught Emelianenko with a punch that rocked him and left him walking in post-holes. Emelianenko regrouped and pulled victory from the jaws of defeat, but it was the first time we had seen him look human.
Pride Total Elimination 2003
Date: August 10, 2003
Location: Saitama, Japan
Attendance: 40,316 (approx.)
Sometimes, in order for an event to make the leap from being great on paper to being great in real life, everything has to come together just right.
While I won’t say anything as florid as the planets needed to align, Dana White giving Chuck Liddell over to the tournament was exactly the alignment needed. In doing so, the event became something bigger than simply a tournament—it became about bragging rights.
It was the UFC vs. Pride on one hand and on the other it was about Kazushi Sakuraba, Quinton Jackson and the man they both had in common, Wanderlei Silva. Everyone was watching the event for these four men, and in the opening round, they were not disappointed.
It’s shocking to think that in 2003 an MMA event could boast such a crowd. It wasn’t until recently (UFC 129) that the UFC managed to attract a crowd like the one on hand that night in Japan.
The simple fact is, MMA was ahead of its time in Japan and this tournament proved to be one of the best MMA events ever.
The sheer scope and grandeur of it all took even White by surprise; you can hear him talking about it from ringside on the DVD. It was one of the biggest moments in MMA to date, and it was happening in a ring instead of a cage.
Although their three biggest heavyweight names (Fedor Emelianenko, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Mirko Cro-Cop Filipovic) all competed that night, the real story was the tournament; all other bouts were simply a preamble toward the formation of the final four.
Jackson and Liddell both moved forward into the semifinal round (to be held in November) by defeating Murilo Bustamante and Alistair Overeem, respectively.
Hidehiko Yoshida also advanced to the semifinal round, submitting countryman Kiyoshi Tamura and thus guaranteeing at least one Japanese fighter would make it to the next round of the tournament.
But then the superstar of Japan, Kazushi Sakuraba, stepped into the ring to face Wanderlei Silva for the third and final time. While some questions would not be answered until November, the question of “Can Sakuraba defeat Silva?” would be answered without further ado.
And the answer was “No.” Once again, Silva was just too much for Sakuraba, knocking him out by the middle of Round 1 and advancing to the semifinals. With Liddell and Jackson waiting for him there, Pride Final Conflict 2003 became the closest thing MMA had to “must-see TV” back in 2003.
UFC 44: Undisputed
Date: September 26, 2003
Location: Las Vegas, Nevada
Attendance: 10,400 (approx.)
If there was one UFC fight in 2003 that was pondered, debated and anticipated above all others, it was Randy Couture versus Tito Ortiz at UFC 44: Undisputed.
It was the big fight of the year for the organization, and White and Co. built a solid card around the matchup, booking Andrei Arlovski, Nick Diaz, Caol Uno, Rich Franklin and Tim Sylvia, who was making his first defense of his heavyweight title.
And the card started off strong, with Hermes Franca defeating Uno via knockout in a fight that was all over the Octagon for seven minutes and 41 seconds. At one point, it looked like Uno had broken his neck thanks to a throw that caused him to land on the point of his head.
Uno came back, but eventually he was caught with a hard punch that knocked him senseless. The end followed quickly.
Then, Nick Diaz made his UFC debut, fighting Jeremy Jackson for the third and final time. Their first bout had seen Jackson blitz Diaz and win via TKO, and their second bout had seen Diaz even the score, winning by submission.
Both men looked good in the fight, with Diaz looking to avoid most of the striking exchanges in favor of getting the fight to the floor. The strategy paid off; Diaz won the bout via armbar at 2:02 of Round 3.
Josh Thompson and Karo Parisyan both won the next two fights (by TKO and submission) in the first round, the prelims were in the books, and the main card was about to begin.
Rich Franklin took out the overmatched Edwin DeWees with relative ease, stopping him in Round 1 via TKO. It wasn’t a fantastic fight, but it was emphatic, giving the card its fifth fight in a row to end by stoppage, with three of those fights ending in the very first round.
That all came to a halt when Jorge Rivera and David Loiseau fought hard for all three rounds of their bout, which ended with Rivera earning a deserved decision. He survived the vicious elbows of Loiseau early (which left many nasty lacerations on his head) and battled back to attack the Canadian in the clinches, finally knocking him down.
Rivera couldn’t seal the deal, but both men fought hard and there was enough action to keep the crowd entertained.
Following Rivera and Loiseau, Arlovski stepped into the Octagon to take on the always-tough Vladimir Matyushenko. Arlovski battered Matyushenko badly, sprawling often in the beginning before catching “The Janitor” with a hard uppercut that dropped him. From there, a few hard shots on the ground saw the bout stopped and another first-round stoppage in the books.
The action continued, this time for the UFC heavyweight title. Tim Sylvia took on Gan McGee in a bout of truly big men, but it was of little importance as McGee came out looking to strike with his hands down and his chin up and out in the open.
Sylvia landed a hard right hand that buckled McGee, but the challenger paid no heed to what should have been a clear warning of what was to come. The next time Sylvia landed his right hand, McGee fell and Sylvia followed him down, unloaded countless punches and earned his first successful title defense.
After the fight, Sylvia would test positive for banned substances and would be stripped of his title.
Finally, the main event had arrived: Randy Couture versus Tito Ortiz.
Nearly everyone cage-side who was interviewed before the bout predicted that Ortiz would simply be too much for Couture, save for Joe Rogan, who felt that Couture was bringing into the bout a package Ortiz had never faced before.
As the story unfolded, round after round, he was proven correct.
Couture took Ortiz down in Round 1, which had never been done before. He continued to take Ortiz down in every round, controlling from the top position, gaining the mount position and basically dominating the entire fight.
It was shocking how easy Couture made it look. Granted, he had to fight for some takedowns, but even when Ortiz reversed the position, Couture would reverse it again and go back to work, sending Ortiz back to his corner, frustrated and more and more desperate as the rounds slipped away.
During the final round, it was all Couture once again, forcing Ortiz against the cage and snatching another takedown 95 seconds into the round. From there, Couture pounded on Ortiz as he had done all night, ending the bout on top as the buzzer sounded.
Couture was the new undisputed light heavyweight champion, and Ortiz was not.
Pride: Bushido 1
Date: October 5, 2003
Location: Saitama, Japan
Pride: Bushido 1 was an interesting event. It seemed to really be a Brazil versus Japan card; no less than five members of the Gracie family fought on the card.
Ironically, none of the Gracie family members who won that night secured their victory via submission; Ralph and Rodrigo both won their fights via unanimous decision and Ryan won via TKO (soccer kicks).
Renzo Gracie was defeated by the slick Carlos Newton via split decision and Daniel Gracie was bested by Kazuhiro Nakamura by unanimous decision.
The other notable fight of the night saw Mirko Cro-Cop Filipovic win his bout with Dos Caras Jr. in typical fashion: KO via head kick early in Round 1.
Pride Final Conflict 2003
Date: November 9, 2003
Location: Tokyo, Japan
Attendance: 67,450 (approx.)
If Pride Total Elimination 2003 was the setting of the table, Pride Final Conflict 2003 was the feast, and over 65,000 fans showed up to be fed. To say they went away satisfied is an understatement.
Before the night was over, the fans would get to see if it was Chuck Liddell, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Hidehiko Yoshida or Wanderlei Silva who would claim the tournament title.
The evening began with “Big Daddy” Gary Goodridge taking on the massive Dan Bobish. Goodridge may have looked the part of the smaller man, but he overwhelmed Bobish and won the bout via TKO in under 20 seconds and provided an omen of things to come.
The first bout of the tournament semifinals was up next. Chuck Liddell stepped into the ring to face Quinton Jackson with Dana White taking a seat beside Bas Rutten to call the fight. It was just so strange to hear White talking about the fight as it unfolded, especially since he knew (as did everyone else) that Liddell was having a lot of problems with the style and power of Jackson.
White often spoke using the word “we,” as in “like we worked on.” As Jackson continued to back Liddell up, landing hard punches to the head from up-close and at range, White commented that Liddell wasn’t using many leg kicks, as had been the strategy they developed for the bout.
But it wasn’t so much the exact words of White, but the tone he was using. As the fight grew longer and more painful for his fighter, you could hear the distress in White’s tone; it was more than just a UFC fighter taking a beating, it was his friend, and you could tell it was taking a toll on him.
Then, in the second round, Jackson took Liddell down and began to work on him with ground-and-pound, landing very hard blows to the body that clearly hurt the UFC representative. Finally, the referee stopped the bout and White was not complaining. In fact, he said he was going to send Liddell’s corner to help Jackson get ready for the finals, something most new fans would not believe possible of White.
In the next fight of the tournament, Yoshida took on Silva in a spirited fight that went the distance. The Japanese Judoka kept the fight close, absorbing some hard shots and dealing out his own in return, but in the end Silva was given the victory.
The next bout was a non-tournament affair that saw Dan Henderson run over former UFC middleweight champion Murilo Bustamante in a little under a minute, and then Heath Herring defeated Yoshihisa Yamamoto via rear-naked choke in the third round of their bout.
Kazushi Sakuraba, no longer in the tournament, slipped through the ropes to face Kevin Randleman. Sakuraba managed to survive some dangerous positions and finally caught Randleman with a slick armbar at the halfway point of Round 3.
And then, fans were treated to one of the best heavyweight bouts in Pride history: Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira versus Mirko Cro-Cop Filipovic.
The majority of the bout was one-sided; Cro-Cop continually stuffed all of Nogueira’s takedown attempts and lit him up on the feet with straight punches and kicks. Cro-Cop was incredibly precise and his strikes were finding their intended target with shocking ease.
Going back to his corner after a disastrous Round 1, Nogueira realized that he couldn’t contend with Cro-Cop on his feet, and thus he had to continue to try and take the fight to the ground.
His persistence paid off in the second round. He got the fight to the floor and pulled off a thrilling come-from-behind victory via armbar.
Then, Jackson and Silva made their way to the ring for the tournament finals, and it almost seemed like destiny. What started at Pride 25 would be finished now.
The fight itself was something else; both men were coiled tight, ready to explode at any moment. Jackson found he didn’t have as easy a target in front of him as he had with Liddell. Eventually he took Silva down and began to attack him with ground-and-pound and knees.
Then, in an odd moment, the referee stood the fight up even though there was plenty of action. This proved costly for Jackson, who found himself in the middle of a storm of punches and kicks.
Finally, Silva locked up the Thai clinch and began to land brutal knees, one after the other. How many knees landed to Jackson’s head I do not know, but it was several, and Jackson finally fell to the floor, saved by the referee.
Silva jumped onto the ring ropes and screamed, reigning supreme in the middleweight division.
UFC 45: Revolution
Date: November 21, 2003
Location: Uncasville, Connecticut
Attendance: 9,200 (approx.)
The UFC ended 2003 with UFC 45: Revolution; a card that would not only see Matt Hughes attempt to earn his fifth title defense in a row, but would also see the creation of the UFC Hall of Fame.
But above all, it was a night of fights, and there were two very memorable bouts on the card, albeit perhaps for the wrong reasons.
The first of them was a bout between Evan Tanner and Phil Baroni. It started very badly for Tanner, who got rocked early by a hard Baroni hook that didn’t even land flush.
Baroni pressed the attack and, to be honest, was giving Tanner a beating. Eventually, Tanner managed to hold on and clear the cobwebs and mount his own attack, working Baroni to his back and attacking with his trademark elbows.
Then, confusion struck.
The referee, sensing that Baroni was in serious danger, began to talk to Baroni, apparently asking him if he wanted the fight stopped. Baroni said “Yes,” but he thought the referee was asking him if he still wanted to keep fighting.
The referee jumped between them, Tanner got off Baroni to celebrate and Baroni proceed to throw punches at the referee from his back. Officials swarmed he ring, Baroni was in a rage, and we saw Dana White assert himself for the first time ever, screaming in Baroni’s face, telling him to calm down.
Tanner got the victory, but it was hollow.
Then, David “Tank” Abbott stepped into the Octagon, desperate for a victory after going 0-2 since UFC 41. Standing opposite of him was Wesley “Cabbage” Correira, an iron-jawed fighter who loved to brawl.
Both men let their fists fly, but it was Correira who was winning the exchanges, landing hard Thai knees to the head and opening a cut on Abbott. The cut was deep enough that the doctor stopped the bout.
Cabbage did his little dance, Abbott's corner took offense and chucked a water bottle at him, both corners entered the ring, and oddest of all, Chuck Liddell had to restrain an overeager fan who climbed into the Octagon with a mind to teach Abbott and company a lesson.
Thank god for Liddell; if he had not gotten there in time, odds are Abbott would have gotten his first Zuffa-era Octagon win, via knockout, over a civilian.
Finally, Matt Hughes took on wrestling rival Frank Trigg in a fight that was nearly all grappling.
Trigg took Hughes down almost immediately, but after some positional scrambling, Hughes defeated Trigg via rear-naked choke and retained his title.
Pride Shockwave 2003
Date: December 31, 2003
Location: Saitama, Japan
Attendance: 39,716 (approx.)
The final event of the year for Pride was its Shockwave card, boasting 10 bouts and some of its bigger names.
While it wasn’t an epic night of fights, fans still got to watch as Quinton “Rampage” Jackson bounced back from his crushing defeat at the hands of Wanderlei Silva, stopping Ikuhisa Minowa via TKO.
Gary Goodridge got some sweet revenge over a nemesis from his UFC days, knocking out Don Frye with a surprising head kick in less than 40 seconds of the opening round.
But perhaps the biggest fight on the card saw Royce Gracie step into the ring to prove his family's brand of grappling wizardry was still the best. His opponent was Japan's own Hidehiko Yoshida, an Olympic gold-medal-winning Judoka.
Yoshida surprised everyone by holding his own with Gracie, but the fight was slighted by controversy. Yoshida was on top of Gracie, his gi covering Gracie’s face as Yoshida tried to sink in a gi-choke; upon prompting by Yoshida, the referee took a look at the action from the side and seemed to panic because he couldn’t see Gracie doing anything.
If he had gotten there seconds sooner, he would have seen Gracie snaking his hand between himself and Yoshida, presumably in an attempt to get some breathing room.
The referee stopped the bout prematurely as Gracie was in no danger at all. Backstage, after the Gracie family made a strong protest, the bout was declared a draw.
2003 was a great year for Wanderlei Silva.
His victory in the Pride middleweight Grand Prix saw him trounce Kazushi Sakuraba for the third time (completing their trilogy) and defeat perhaps his great rival in Pride, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson.
Oddly enough, Silva didn’t fight in any other events aside from the tournament, but he scored three victories when it mattered the most and made himself the top dog in the sport for the middleweight division.
His undefeated record in Pride was intact and his overall record improved to 24-3-1 with one no-contest (against heavyweight Mirko Cro-Cop Filipovic).
With his crushing defeat of Jackson, who had in turn crushed UFC standout Chuck Liddell, it didn’t look like there was anyone at middleweight who could contend with the unbridled fury of Silva—especially under Pride rules.
As one of the biggest stars of the Pride organization, 2003 was not kind to Kazushi Sakuraba.
The man who had once been the crown jewel of the promotion, defeating a string of Brazilian fighters, including many members of the Gracie family, lost three of his four fights for the year.
It started off on a bad note in March when he was caught by a surprise knee by Nino Schembri, which led to more strikes and a stoppage loss in a fight he was winning handily before it all went bad.
Then, he was knocked out by Wanderlei Silva in the first round of the middleweight Grand Prix, sustaining his second KO/TKO loss in a row to go 0-3 against the feared king of the division.
He bounced back with a submission victory over Kevin Randleman before losing a decision against Antonio Rogerio Nogueira during the final Pride card for the year on December 31.
While 2003 wasn’t the beginning of the end for him, it was a sign of things to come.
Quinton “Rampage” Jackson
While we may think of Quinton “Rampage” Jackson as a pedestrian fighter with little left to offer other than the occasional knockout and if we are very lucky, a huge slam, back in 2003 he was excellent.
Jackson had a whopping six fights in 2003, going 5-1 for the year with four wins via KO/TKO.
Aside from his lone loss to Wanderlei Silva in the finals of the middleweight Grand Prix, Jackson bested Kevin Randleman, Mikhail Ilyukhin, Murilo Bustamante, Chuck Liddell and Ikuhisa Minowa.
He looked very tough in his lone loss and he proved himself a monster in his victories. And along the way he built up a pretty good head of steam toward a rematch with Silva, which would take place in 2004.
By the close of the year, Jackson had cemented himself as one of the bigger names in Pride and looked like he was honestly having fun as a fighter.
Quite a contrast to the Jackson we see today, who simply looks like a man who’s become bored with it all.
While Randy Couture may not have had many fights in 2003, they were big fights, and in each he proved the underdog spot was not a bad place to be.
First, he jumped at the opportunity to fight for a title in the light heavyweight division. He was coming off back-to-back losses at heavyweight, and at 39 years of age, he still wanted to fight.
Chuck Liddell was his opponent, and to be honest, the UFC probably jumped at the chance to have Couture as his “opponent.” Couture was the former two-time heavyweight champion, he was “old” and he was gritty enough to give Liddell a good fight.
But nearly everyone expected the younger Liddell to win; he was riding a 10-fight win streak and he’d beaten Kevin Randleman, Guy Mezger, Murilo Bustamante, Vitor Belfort and Renato “Babalu” Sobral.
Couture, for his part, would be fighting in a lower weight class for the first time and had a pedigree good enough to mask the fact that he “was old.”
Instead, Couture upset everyone by coming to win. And win he did, beating Liddell to the punch all night long (when they were standing) and taking Liddell down with conviction as he pleased.
He finally did the latter in Round 3, and from there he mounted Liddell and pounded him out in short order, leaving reigning heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia, watching from the outside, stunned.
And then, suddenly, Tito Ortiz didn’t have entertainment commitments anymore.
Sensing he was getting another chance to dine from the veterans buffet table, Ortiz came off the sidelines to claim another victory over another “old man.” Ortiz had last fought at UFC 40 against a one-legged Ken Shamrock, and never had he looked better.
Now, the aged Couture had disposed of Liddell, and Ortiz had the chance to gain a victory over Liddell by proxy; all he needed to do was beat up another old man and he could strut once again.
Ortiz signed for the bout and began to promote it with a vengeance (see his appearance with Couture on the Best Damn Sports Show Period, above) and the fans began to wave the Ortiz flag well in advance, predicting another easy victory for Tito.
Instead, Ortiz got taken down with ease—over and over, for the first time in his MMA careerbeaten up, spanked and sent home sans title via a five-round domination so total that he was crying as the decision was announced.
And Couture was just turning 40.
2003 was supposed to be the beginning of great things for Chuck Liddell.
While Tito Ortiz was keeping the UFC light heavyweight title on the sidelines, the company created the first interim title ever and Liddell was finally going to get his shot, which had been long overdue.
Then, at UFC 43, when the lights were their brightest, Liddell saw his title bid derailed by Randy Couture, who dominated the fight before throwing Liddell on the canvas and raining down punches until the bout was halted in Round 3.
Liddell took the good with the bad and was chosen to represent the UFC in the Pride middleweight Grand Prix, held in Japan.
Liddell wore a UFC jersey into the ring and took on Alistair Overeem in the opening round. Surviving a few tough moments, Liddell came back storming, caught Overeem with an overhand right, stunned him and then unloaded a brutal flurry to win the bout, bringing him one step closer to his dream bout—a fight with Wanderlei Silva.
While Liddell and White were all smiles backstage after the win over Overeem, things quickly went south in the next round.
Liddell came into a serious hurt machine in Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, who was fighting like a man who wanted a bout with Silva every bit as much as Liddell.
Jackson looked fantastic against Liddell, landing with both hands to the head and body before finally getting Liddell to the floor and assaulting him with a head-and-body attack that was painful enough that you could see the hurt registering in Liddell’s face.
He lost the bout via stoppage and went 1-2 in a tough year that saw two dreams dashed. But he would persevere and not only win the UFC light heavyweight title, but defeat Couture twice and get his dream fight with Wanderlei Silva, which turned out to be one of the greatest fights in UFC history.
It’s hard to believe that at one time, there was no one who seemed like they could threaten Matt Hughes as the top welterweight in the world, especially in 2003.
It wasn’t a year that saw a lot of action for the champion, but he beat Sean Sherk at UFC 42 and then defeated bitter rival Frank Trigg at UFC 45 to become the longest reigning welterweight champion in UFC history.
He looked unstoppable at 170 pounds; his physical power was nearly unmatchable and his submission skills were growing at a considerable rate.
For many, Matt Hughes was the pound-for-pound best fighter in the planet in 2003. But 2004 would see him try for his sixth straight title defense, against B.J. Penn...
When longtime fans of the sport speak of Fedor Emelianenko, they usually remark on his first fight that really impressed everyone: his title bout with Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira at Pride 25: Body Blow.
Emelianenko started off the fight with a hard punch that sent Nogueira reeling, and from there, he never took his foot off the gas pedal. He gave Nogueira a pounding in their fight. Above all else, he survived the legendary guard of Nogueira, deftly negating every submission attempt the Brazilian threw his way.
He claimed the title in a huge upset, and that was the beginning of a great year for the newly crowned champion.
Emelianenko fought and won five bouts in 2003, and everyone after Nogueira lost due to stoppage. Granted, they weren’t the best in the world at heavyweight, but there was little doubt that Emelianenko was.
2003 was the year his fabled reign began.
Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
After starting off 2003 by seeing his title yanked from his waist by Fedor Emelianenko in what was one of the bigger upsets of the year, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira took a little time off.
That turned out to be a wise decision when you consider the pounding he took at the hands of the new champion.
Nogueira came back and won a highly disputed bout against UFC notable (and former heavyweight champion) Ricco Rodriguez, and then, in his last fight of the year, he pulled off a come-from-behind submission victory over Mirko Cro-Cop Filipovic in one of the most exciting bouts in Pride heavyweight history.
It also gave him some momentum to begin 2004, which would see him make a run at the title and the man who bested him, Emelianenko.
2003 was a good year for the UFC president, if you weigh the good with the bad.
The bad came in two forms, really. First, the company had to create its first interim title ever because the reigning light heavyweight champion, Tito Ortiz, had removed himself to the sidelines due to a contract dispute.
The second came when Chuck Liddell was defeated in the semifinals of the Pride middleweight Grand Prix tournament.
Aside from all of that, White saw his company put on five pay-per-view events for the year, with UFC 44 coming close to matching UFC's most successful PPV event ever: UFC 40.
His company was growing slowly but surely, he had an undisputed light heavyweight champion in Randy Couture, and the UFC was beginning to establish a policy on substance abuse without stumbling into disaster.
It also officially established the UFC Hall of Fame, inducting Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock at UFC 45.
And I think White still had some hair on his head.
While he no doubt thought he was doing the right thing by abstaining from competition and keeping his UFC title on the shelf, 2003 turned out to be costly for Tito Ortiz.
Up until UFC 44, he was still a figure of note for the company. He had legions of diehard fans who thought he was the greatest thing to ever happen to the sport. Most of all, he was still champion, and god did he love that belt.
Then, it seemed a problem had been solved for him: Randy Couture defeated Chuck Liddell. Ortiz quickly came off the sidelines and signed to fight Couture and once again bathed in all the pre-fight hype and promotion.
And then he marched into the Octagon, alive in the moment and clearly expecting another easy victory against another “old man” in Randy Couture, only to get totally dominated in every single round.
He didn’t just lose a close fight; he got manhandled in a way most of his fans and advocates never dreamed possible.
It was his first loss in over three years and only the third loss in his entire career. The belt was gone and he would never get it back.
His lone fight in 2003 was the most painful loss in his career, and to make things worse, Chuck Liddell was waiting for him in 2004.
Top Event: Pride Middleweight Grand Prix 2003
Perhaps one of the best “big” events of all time, the Pride middleweight Grand Prix was broken up into two events (although thankfully, you can buy them on DVD as one boxed set): Pride Total Elimination 2003 and Pride Final Conflict 2003.
Both events had many great fights among the top names in the sport, but the most memorable aspect of it all was the fulfillment of a kind of promise: Chuck Liddell from the UFC was going over to Japan to fight the best Pride had to offer in a middleweight tournament that featured Kazushi Sakuraba, Hidehiko Yoshida, Alistair Overeem, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Wanderlei Silva, among others.
Bragging rights were on the line and the UFC was stepping up to prove that the fighters under the banner were second to none. It was something else to see (and hear) Dana White, sitting ringside with Bas Rutten, watching and calling the fights at a Pride event.
Liddell would defeat Overeem via KO to advance, but he lost a painful bout against Jackson in the semifinals. Hearing White’s commentary as he watched Liddell being picked apart by Jackson really gave fans an inside look at the UFC president as a fan and a friend of Liddell; wearing so many hats at once clearly isn’t easy.
We also got to see Wanderlei Silva square off against Jackson in the finals. Both men had nearly come to blows at Pride 25, where Jackson had defeated Kevin Randleman in order to claim the top contender slot.
When the tournament was announced, many were thinking that the odds of Jackson and Silva actually meeting were slim. The tournament format is grueling, and even if they did meet, would it be on equal terms?
Jackson’s defeat of Liddell had been taxing, but Silva’s defeat of Yoshida had actually taken him longer, so many felt Silva would be going into the bout with less gas in the tank. But somehow, they both made it through the tournament and faced each other in their second fight of the night.
And it was a fantastic fight that saw Silva survive some rough situations before mauling Jackson with an unending attack of knees to the head that prompted the referee to stop the bout.
Other fights of note were the fantastic clash between Mirko Cro-Cop and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, which was one of the greatest heavyweight fights in Pride history, and a very entertaining bout between Kazushi Sakuraba and Kevin Randleman.
The impact of this event was so big that many of the biggest names in the sport saw their stock rise or fall as a result of their performances.
Everyone wanted to be involved, save perhaps for Tito Ortiz.
Top Organization: Pride FC
While Pride FC only staged six events in 2003 (just one more than the UFC), it was still the premier organization in the sport.
The roster boasted some of the biggest names in MMA: Wanderlei Silva, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Kazushi Sakuraba, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Dan Henderson, Mirko Cro-Cop Filipovic, Fedor Emelianenko and so on.
And the fact that Dana White and the UFC sent Chuck Liddell to its middleweight Grand Prix is very telling. That was really the only time the UFC did anything resembling co-promotion, and it did it because it wanted to prove it was second to no one in the world of MMA.
Of course, just because it was the biggest organization, selling out huge stadiums, didn’t make it the most legitimate. Pride was an unpredictable blend of sport and entertainment, and it didn’t mind giving some of the top names very easy fights against outmatched opponents, which threw the idea of honest divisional ramifications out the window half the time.
But when Pride put on a show, it pulled out all the stops, and it was something to behold.
How Far We’ve Come...
It really is shocking just how much the sport has grown since 2003, how the names have changed and how many more fights are held in a given year.
Pride is gone, absorbed by the UFC in 2007 thanks in no small part to its mismanagement of funds and poor bookkeeping. Since Zuffa bought it out, there has never been another true rival for the UFC.
And the number of shows? In 2003, the UFC and Pride put on 11 events in total. In 2013, the UFC alone has basically tripled that amount, including The Ultimate Fighter finale shows.
And as for the fighters, things have changed a great deal.
Men such as Randy Couture, Tito Ortiz, Matt Hughes, Fedor Emelianenko, Chuck Liddell and Kazushi Sakuraba—all of the big names from that year—have all retired.
In their place stand men like Georges St-Pierre, who was only in his second year of professional MMA in 2003, fighting in Canada and entering 2004 with a record of 5-0.
Anderson Silva was just 2-1 in 2003, losing a bout in Pride to Daiju Takase via triangle choke, toiling in the shadows of Wanderlei Silva in the Chute Boxe camp.
And then there is the welcome addition (and recognition) of the lower weight classes, which was all but absent in 2003. In fact, the UFC didn’t even have a lightweight champion in 2003; since then it has had five champions.
And the idea of a successful MMA-based reality show was nothing more than a pipe dream, probably never to be realized.