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MMA in 2004: A Retrospective Look at the Sport a Decade Later

Levi NileContributor IIIJuly 19, 2014

MMA in 2004: A Retrospective Look at the Sport a Decade Later

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    With the events of UFC 175, the finale of season 19 of The Ultimate Fighter and UFC Fight Night McGregor vs. Brandao now behind us, it seems a good time to look back upon the sport as it was a decade ago.

    The year is 2004 and the sport has seen some changes of late. Tito Ortiz is no longer the champion of note at 205, and Randy Couture looks like the second coming of Henry Armstrong, partnered perhaps with James J. Braddock.

    Outside of the world of MMA, Shrek 2, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Spider-Man 2 dominated movie theatres across the nation while the first Saw film opened more than a few eyes. In music, Metallica released their hard-hitting documentary Some Kind of Monster and Dimebag Darrell, former lead guitarist of Pantera, was shot and killed onstage at a show while performing with his post-Pantera band, Damageplan.

    Yet, amid so much change, the song seemed to remain the same at the beginning of 2004.

    Wanderlei Silva was still thought by many to be the most violent fighter the sport had ever seen, and his detractors were still reeling from his destruction of Quinton “Rampage” Jackson in the biggest event of 2003: the Pride Middleweight Grand Prix.

    In addition, fans still wanted to see Chuck Liddell fight Ortiz and Matt Hughes was still considered by many to be the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport, poised to set new records for consecutive title defenses.

    Meanwhile, when eyes turned toward Japan, many were awaiting the final resolution between Fedor Emelianenko and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira as to who really is the best heavyweight in all of MMA.

    The sport was still defined and realized by two main promotions: the UFC and Pride FC, and the latter was still the bigger organization, at least on paper and sales slips.

    Consider: In 2003, total attendance numbers for the two organizations showed one aspect of the advantage Pride enjoyed over the UFC.

    The UFC had an approximate total number of 49,500 over five shows. Pride FC had approximately 147, 500 in attendance for just three shows: parts one and two of their middleweight Grand Prix (Pride Total Elimination 2003 and Pride Final Conflict 2003) and their year-end show, Pride Shockwave 2003. If hard attendance numbers were available for all of the Pride shows for 2003, the disparity would have been shocking.

    In 2004, the same tale would be told yet again, but it also pointed out one very important fact; being second place globally was not a bad thing at all if you were first place in America. The UFC was growing the sport, slowly and surely, one show at a time, and their aspirations were founded in reality.

    Historically speaking, 2004 was the last year the UFC spent making sure the ground floor was solid. It set the bedrock firm and began erecting the scaffolding for the next level, which would be realized in 2005.

    And from there, the sport would never be the same.

UFC 46

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    Date: January 31, 2004

    Location: Las Vegas

    Attendance: 10,700

    UFC 46: SuperNatural—a name for a fight card both biased and clearly dependant on light heavyweight history if there ever was one.

    Set to defend his new and undisputed light heavyweight title for the first time, Couture was matched against Vitor Belfort, an old foe Couture had defeated way back at UFC 15 in what was possibly the biggest upset of that year.

    While fans debated as to which Belfort would show up, they also, by and large, were amused at the thought of BJ Penn trying to contend for the welterweight title against the best fighter in the sport, Hughes.

    In the early 2000s, UFC cards were usually eight or nine bouts at most. The company was still nursing the wound that was UFC 33a card that saw every single bout go to a decision. In order to ensure that any card did not go past the allotted running time for a pay-per-view event, Zuffa did the basic math and cut down the number of fights to make sure it never happened again.

    At UFC 46, Dana White and Co. got a different kind of bizarre; where UFC 33 was a case of too much, UFC 46 was a case of not enough.

    But when you look at the cards back then, they really were stacked with talent. On the preliminary card, three fights showcased three names that are now headline-proven talent: Matt Serra, Josh Thompson and Georges St-Pierre.

    All three men went on to win their fights via decision, with St-Pierre making his UFC debut against Karo Parisyan, who many expected to win.

    Then, the main card unfolded in front of our eyes.

    Lee Murray, then known for his after-fight altercation with Tito Ortiz in the streets of London after UFC 38, fought and quickly submitted Jorge Rivera in Round 1, via armbar. Murray wasted no time in front of the microphone, calling out Ortiz, who was seated in the crowd, making throat-slashing motions toward the middleweight when the camera found him.

    Next, Renato “CharutoVerissimo defeated former UFC welterweight champion Carlos Newton in just about every way one fighter can beat another, save violent KO. Verissimo was simply too much for Newton, especially in the grappling department, lending new gravity to the notion that Penn’s camp was overflowing with grappling assassins.

    Next, fans got to see a rematch of UFC 43, when Wes Sims got himself disqualified for stomping on the head of Frank Mir. This time around, Mir defeated Sims via TKO, thanks to hard knees in the thai clinch, followed up by punches that left him flat on his back and done.

    Then, the first of two title fights: Penn vs. Hughes.

    Penn was the clear underdog going into the fight given that Hughes was the five-time defending welterweight champion and a powerhouse to boot. Hughes was a monster for the division, having only been tested once in his reign; a five-round decision victory over the then-undefeated Sean Sherk. This is noteworthy since Hughes had only spent two weeks training for that bout.

    The idea that Penn, a fighter who had failed to win the title at lightweight, could suddenly jump up 15 pounds and dethrone the king was almost laughable.

    And then, Penn went into the cage, worked Hughes to the floor, landed a heavy punch to the face, then jumped on his back and secured the rear-naked choke as if Hughes was an amateur.

    Then, as the crowd was trying to reconcile what they had just seen, Couture stepped into the Octagon to defend his title against Belfort. After UFC 43 and 44, Couture had looked unbeatable and most expected another dominant performance from “Captain America.”

    For all the history and hype, the fight ended up being called very early due to a freak occurrence. In a very early exchange, Belfort threw a punch that Couture seemed to slip; when they settled against the cage, it was revealed that the seem of Belfort’s glove had lacerated Couture’s eye lid and damaged his eye.

    To his credit, Belfort held back and did not press any attack and even seemed concerned for Couture in the heat of battle. The fight was quickly broken up, the doctor called in and then the bout called almost as soon as it started.

    Belfort was the new light heavyweight champion, but it came in a fashion he did not want.

Pride 27

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    Date: February 1, 2004

    Location: Osaka, Japan

    Attendance: 13, 366

    Dubbed “Inferno,” Pride 27 was mainly a showcase for a single man: Mirko Cro-Cop Filipovic.

    The card was really a small effort by the promotion, featuring seven bouts, most of which were booked in order to give great fighters of the past a chance to re-establish themselves in the ever-changing landscape of the sport.

    Igor Vovchanchyn was pitted against Dan Bobish and would once again assume the role of punching bag, being defeated via TKO in Round 2.

    Mark Kerr returned to the Pride ring to face Yoshihisa Yamamoto only to suffer a bitter defeated when he knocked himself out on a takedown attempt in the opening round. For fans of Kerr, this was the moment when we realized that his time in the sport was sadly over.

    There were other bouts that featured fighters of note, such as the fight between Murilo “Ninja” Rua and Alexander Otsuka. Rua defeated Otsuka via submission early in their fight, winning his second fight in a row.

    Pride would also return to its feasting of UFC cast-offs as it pitted Gan McGee against Heath Herring. McGee’s most recent bout was at UFC 44, where he was blown out of the water by then-champion Tim Sylvia.

    Against Herring, McGee made a good showing, losing the bout by split decision.

    Finally, in the headlining bout, Cro-Cop took on Ron Waterman. In Waterman, Cro-Cop was facing a good fighter with strong wrestling skills, but no one really had any doubt as to how the fight would end.

    Cro-Cop defeated Waterman by TKO via soccer kicks midway through Round 1.

Pride Bushido 2

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    Date: February 15, 2004

    Location: Yokohama, Japan

    Attendance: unknown

    Long thought of as the promotion's “smaller” show, the first Bushido card of 2004 was many times better than the first “big” show, Pride 27.

    Pride Bushido 2 boasted 11 bouts with some very big names, and it was an excellent card, overall.

    No fewer than 11 Japanese fighters were showcased (including Takanori Gomi, Hayato Sakurai and one Yushin Okami), in addition to other big names like Sherk, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Wanderlei Silva and once again, just 14 days after his last fight, Filipovic.

    Silva and Rua dispatched their Japanese opponents in Round 1 stoppages that were typical of the Chute Boxe brand of ruthlessness, Gomi finished his Brazilian opponent via TKO in Round 1, Sherk and Okami won via decision and Cro-Cop notched his second TKO victory in just two weeks—this time with punches, ending the bout in Round 1.

    These Bushido cards were honestly an excellent idea when it came to introducing more Japanese fighters to their home audience; putting them on the same card with such big names is a tactic the UFC should employ.

    Can you imagine a Fight Night card that has such names as Junior dos Santos, Robbie Lawler and Matt Brown, coupled with other lesser-known fighters on the same event, spread equally throughout the night?

    That would get a lot of basically unknown fighters a lot of attention, which is never a bad thing.

UFC 47

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    Date: April 2, 2004

    Location: Las Vegas

    Attendance: 11, 437

    After UFC 44, fans were still feeling deprived of the one bout they had waited so long for: Ortiz vs. Liddell.

    In 2004, they finally got what they wanted, although it turned out to be far more one-sided than Ortiz fans had imagined.

    It was also a night that saw the matchmaking savvy of Joe Silva tested as many of the fights on the card (Andrei Arlovski vs. Wesley “Cabbage” Correira and Wes “The Project” Sims vs. Mike Kyle) were finalized in a last-minute shuffle after Sylvia was yanked from the card due to the lingering presence of banned substances in his system.

    In the opening bout of the night, we got to the consummate showman, Genki Sudo facing off against a little-known fighter by the name of Mike Brown. Sudo would win the bout via submission in Round 1, while Brown would later go on to win the WEC title by defeating Urijah Faber in 2008.

    Next on deck we had a wildly entertaining (not to mention ugly) heavyweight bout between Jonathan Wiezorek and Wade Shipp. The plan of Wiezorek, evidently, was to bull-rush Shipp, face-first, until Shipp grew weary of punching him in the face, over and over and over again.

    Oddly enough, it worked. Wiezorek got his face battered, swollen and bloodied en route to a TKO victory in Round 1. It stands perhaps as the best example of how to not win a fight while winning a fight.

    After that, Kyle defeated Sims via KO at 4:59 of Round 1. This was marred by the accusation that Kyle actually bit Sims on the chest.

    Then, Nick Diaz stepped into the cage to face Lawler, and it was a dandy. Diaz showed us his penchant for trash talk early and throughout their wild slugfest, until he finally caught Lawler napping in the middle of the cage, knocking him out with a single shot.

    Lawler was up quickly but not quick enough, and Diaz was suddenly a fighter to watch.

    Right after that, we were treated to the one-sided thumping of Correira at the hands of Arlovski. Correira was a very tough customer, and anyone who doesn’t think so hasn’t seen his fight with Sylvia at UFC 39.

    This time was much like that; Arlovski was simply too much for the Hawaiian, unleashing punches in bunches, then sliding away. This process repeated over and over until Correira finally fell and the bout was called off.

    Could Correira have continued? Yes, but to what end? It would have been more of the same, with the end coming later, after much needless punishment.

    Following that, we witnessed Yves Edwards taking on Hermes Franca.

    Fans of the sport may dismiss Edwards now, but back in the early 2000s, he was one of the very best lightweights in the world, bar none. Against Franca (who was sentenced to state prison in January of 2012 and was deported back to Brazil this year, h/t Brent Brookhouse of Blood Yelbow), Edwards was facing a tough slugger with a gritty ground game. Edwards won the bout by split decision, and Franca would go on to challenge Sherk for the lightweight title at UFC 73.

    Then, the sluggable and lovable Chris Lytle took out Tiki Ghosn via choke midway through the second round of their fight. Ghosn had done well in the stand-up portions of the fight, but Lytle proved to be too much for him on the ground.

    Finally, after countless debates and contract disputes and entertainment obligations, Ortiz walked into the Octagon to fight former training-partner-turned-enemy, Liddell.

    And it wasn’t much of a fight.

    Ortiz had the look of a man who wanted to fight once the bell rang, but he never seemed to look like a man who thought he could win. It was Liddell who carried the fight and pushed the action with any true intent to finish.

    And in Round 2, finish it he did. He caught Ortiz up against the cage, unleashed a flurry of punches and the former five-time defending champion fell to the floor and the fight was called.

    This had to be a satisfying night for Liddell; it was also the beginning of a seven-fight streak that would see him capture the title and defend it four times before falling to Jackson, again, at UFC 71.

Pride Total Elimination 2004

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    Date: April 25, 2004

    Location: Saitama, Japan

    Attendance: 42,110

    After the Pride Middleweight Grand Prix of 2003, fans of the sport wanted more, and moreover, they expected greatness.

    As an answer to that demand, Pride applied a lesser version of the same formula (with the same names), this time in the heavyweight division.

    For this first round of the tournament, there were only eight fights, all within the tournament bracket. While that was indeed a downsizing of bouts, it was also easily understood; the middleweight Grand Prix had been conducted over two shows, where this Grand Prix would be realized over three events.

    Anytime the tournament format is implemented, some upsets are expected, mainly because the previous tournaments have all been conducted in a single night. We did not expect much of the improbable on this tournament, given it was broken down to allow for fighter recovery.

    Then, as the event unfolded, we were reminded that there are more causes for upsets than fighter injury or time constraints.

    First off, we saw  Herring dispatch Kazuo Takahashi in the first round via TKO due to punches.

    Then, if we look back at the tournament with today’s appreciation of weight classes and the like, suddenly we get a newfound appreciation for the rules and fighters like Penn, who confounded the notion that a smaller fighter could move up in weight and do well.

    This is because the next fight of the evening saw the heavyweight monster that is Sergei Kharitonov throw a beating onto the former middleweight Murilo “Ninja” Rua. The simple facts are that this fight should have never happened, but it did and Kharitonov won via KO due to punches in Round 1.

    Other fighters of lesser note advanced through the opening round as is often the case. But it was when Filipovic stepped in against Kevin Randleman that we started to pay attention again.

    Randleman was a former UFC heavyweight champion and a very aggressive fighter. We figured he would at least put up a spirited fight for the man everyone expected to win: Cro-Cop.

    The fight didn’t honestly last that long, but it remains one of the most memorable fights in MMA heavyweight history, nonetheless.

    After some time spent successfully defending the takedown, Cro-Cop found himself in favorable range: in the middle if the ring, with Randleman standing right in from of him.

    Normally, in this position, with such range, Cro-Cop had been nearly unstoppable; especially after having discovered the best way to thwart the takedown attempts of his current foe. And now, Randleman was standing right in front of him, waiting to be knocked out.

    Then, it happened.

    Cro-Cop opened up his hips to let loose one of his damn-near patented fight-ending head kicks, and just as that gate of doom was swinging open, Randleman jumped in with a seriously savage counter left-hook to the jaw that caught Cro-Cop flush and dropped him to the canvas like a Croatian puppet getting its strings cut.

    Randleman pounced on his fallen opponent, landing hammer fists in number, but it was really already over. The referee jumped in, and Randleman let loose his monster and celebrated as the crowd sat in shock and utter disbelief.

    While this may seem laughable to the modern fan, imagine a middleweight Johny Hendricks knocking out Dos Santos. Yeah, it was that big of an upset.

    Then, after the larger of the Nogueira brothers (Rodrigo) defeated his Japanese opponent by submission, we got to the final bout of the night: Mark Coleman vs. Emelianenko.

    Although three years removed from his historic win during the Pride Grand Prix 2000, Coleman was 7-1 in his last eight fights, with his lone loss of that time coming at the hands of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, which was nothing to be ashamed of.

    Still, Emelianenko was the rightful king, and that played a great deal into the anticipation of the bout would go. It was, of course, balanced in equal opposition to the fact that Coleman’s teammate, Randleman, had just pulled of an incredible upset, ergo perhaps lightning would strike twice in the Pride ring.

    It did not, of course. Emelianenko ended up submitting the always-game Coleman via armbar in just over two minutes, solidifying his place in the next round.

    All in all, it was a very good night of fights that, while lacking any additional bouts, clearly served the theme at hand: elimination.

Pride Bushido 3

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    Date: May 23, 2004

    Location: Yokohama, Japan

    Attendance: unknown

    Picking up the thread of Bushido 2, Bushido 3 featured 12 Japanese fighters in another card that saw some participation by the MMA elite: the Gracie family.

    But the card was much more than that. It was an honest night of fights that kept the fighters busy and growing in their stature, which was the intent in the first place.

    Like most preliminary Fight Night cards, Bushido 3 saw many less-than-notable faces building their names up, but as the hour grew long, we began to see some fighters we recognized.

    Newton, former UFC welterweight champion, was bested via split decision by Japanese fighter Daiju Takase, and Filipovic got back to his winning ways, albeit not without some struggle. Cro-Cop won the bout via unanimous decision, when we all knew he was craving a knockout.

    After, Renzo Gracie student Ricardo Almeida would defeat Ryo Chonan, who looked nothing like a fighter who could, later in the year, defeat Anderson Silva by submission.

    Next up was a truly intense bout pitting perennial Gracie bad-boy, Ralph Gracie, against Japan’s resident bad boy, Gomi.

    For those who don’t know, Ralph Gracie had long been the most aggressive fighter of their legendary family. He did not need much to dislike an opponent, and his dislike was honest and true. He wanted to hurt whoever was across the ring from himfriendships could be formed after, on his terms.

    Gomi, for his part, was a fighter on the rise and was rightfully thought by many to give him a stern test, if not defeating him utterly with his brand of wrestling and punching.

    The faceoff between these two men was intense, and we knew it was going to be a violent contest. We were right. Sadly, we had no idea just how short it was going to be.

    The fight started, Gracie charged and was knocked out by Gomi via counter-knees to the head off the shot, at six seconds of the opening round.

    Just like that, Gracie had been blown out of the water, and we were all a bit shocked.

    Finally, Ryan Gracie defeated his Japanese opponent, Ikuhisa Minowa, via split decision, to bring the card to a close.

    Not a bad night's worth of fights, for any year.

UFC 48

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    Date: June 19, 2004

    Location: Las Vegas

    Attendance: 10,000

    As fans were trying to adjust to the fact that the boss at light heavyweight was neither Liddell nor Ortiz, UFC 48 put another legend back into the spotlight in the main event: Ken Shamrock.

    Well before we would see old times mined for new gain, we got to see the fighters of the future scrapping for a place in the now.

    In the listed opening bout of the night, St-Pierre stepped into the Octagon to square off against Jay Hieron. While it seemed like it would be a close fight in the beginning, St-Pierre simply blew him out of the water with punches on the stand-up, earning the victory via TKO at 1:42 of Round 1.

    After Trevor Prangley chocked out Curtis Stout early in Round 1, Serra defeated Ivan Menjivar via unanimous decision, ending the prelims and setting the table for the main card.

    In a rematch of their highly controversial fight at UFC 45, Evan Tanner faced Phil Baroni for a second time, and this time he set it in stone, beating Baroni to the punch, over and over, securing a rightful unanimous decision.

    Then, in a title-elimination bout, the former welterweight king, Hughes, faced off against Penn's teammate, Verissimo. After three razor-close rounds, Hughes was given the nod although many who saw the bout felt he had honestly lost.

    After that, fans were treated to a bit of bad blood resolution as Frank Trigg fought Dennis Hallman in a rematch of their first bout in the WFA, which saw Trigg win after a questionable low kick below the belt. This time, Trigg nailed the coffin shut, pounding Hallman out via TKO at 4:17 of Round 1.

    With just two fights remaining, it was time for the title bout of the evening: Sylvia vs. Mir. Sylvia was coming off a defeat versus the NSAC, who stripped him of his title after he tested positive for banned substances after his victory at UFC 44.

    With the belt vacant, Sylvia was finally back in a position to reclaim what he thought was his; all he needed to do is defeat Mir. Instead of playing to his strengths, Sylvia ended up driving Mir to the ground and from there, he got caught with an armbar and had his arm broken in short order.

    Mir was the new champion, but an accident outside of the cage would prevent him from ever defending the belt.

    Then, last but not least, Shamrock was stepping back into the Octagon to face a former foe in Kimo Leopoldo.

    While it was clear that no divisional ramifications were on the line, this was still the Octagon that Shamrock helped build; to have him back after UFC 40 was more a matter of justifiable prose than anything else.

    Shamrock won the bout fairly early, catching Kimo with a knee from the clinch and ended the bout moments after with some blows to the head of Kimo that were more flourish than finish, but it was enough to see the fight stopped.

    Also, as a little fun “aside,” if you go to this link, you will note that during the post-fight press conference, Dana White is plugging the release of UFC DVDs (approx. 1:20 mark), which were still quite a new thing back then.

Pride Critical Countdown 2004

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    Date: June 20, 2004

    Location: Saitama, Japan

    Attendance: 43,711

    As the second phase of the Pride heavyweight Grand Prix, Pride Critical Countdown 2004 was another big event that, while delivering some grand moments, still seemed to miss the mark that was established by 2003’s middleweight Grand Prix.

    For this second stage in the tournament, there were only a total of seven bouts; not exactly in keeping with the “bigger is better” theme that both heavyweight fighters and the Grand Prix term signify.

    In the first bout of the night, the darling of Japan, Kazushi Sakuraba, faced Antonio Schembri in a rematch of their Pride 25 contest. The first time they met, Schembri pulled a proverbial hammer out of the hat and stopped Sakuraba via TKO after spending most of the bout getting pummeled and basically outclassed from top to bottom.

    The second time around, Sakuraba made sure he didn’t get sloppy, winning the fight via unanimous decision, defeating yet another Brazilian submission specialist.

    Then, Jackson met Ricardo Arona for top contender status; the winner got a shot at Wanderlei Silva and his title.

    There was a great deal of debate around the water coolers about the subject of the first bout between Jackson and Silva. Many Silva detractors felt that the tournament format had given the Brazilian wrecking machine too much of an advantage. They further felt that if both men met a second time, outside of the tournament, that Jackson would win the bout and end Silva’s reign.

    Had those same detractors been paying attention to 2003’s Grand Prix, they would have noted that Silva actually fought longer in his first bout of the night (against Hidehiko Yoshida) than Jackson had when he pounded out Liddell.

    Thus, Jackson was sent in to face the very dangerous ground specialist, Ricardo Arona, who had his own designs for the title.

    The fight itself was honestly excellent. After some time feeling each other out on the feet, Arona tied Jackson up and pulled him into his guard. Jackson defended himself admirably, but he eventually found himself locked up in a triangle leg choke.

    The end looked very near until Jackson decided to shake things up a bit.

    He locked his hands tight, stood up and then lifted Arona high over his head. It was at this moment that time seemed to slow down; we were stunned at what was actually unfolding right before our eyes.

    Jackson was going to slam Arona down to the canvasand not just any slam, but the Godfather of all slams.

    And that is exactly what happened. Arona was knocked out cold instantly, and the momentum of the slam drove Jackson's head into Arona’s, cutting Jackson.

    Rampage was now, once again, poised to fight Silva for the title, and we were all counting the days until that epic showdown.

    In the next two quarterfinal bouts of the tournament, Kharitonov defeated Semmy Schilt via TKO late in Round 1 and Naoya Ogawa defeated Paulo Cesar Silva via TKO early in the opening frame.

    As a break between quarterfinal fights, Mark Hunt faced Judo gold medalist Yoshida and ended up being submitted via armbar halfway through Round 1 in a bout that was more anticlimactic than anything.

    Then, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira stopped Herring in a rematch of their first meeting, which occurred at Pride 17. Their first fight had been an epic back-and-forth bout that saw Nogueira earn a unanimous decision.

    The second time around, Nogueira was simply too much for Herring, submitting him with an anaconda choke in the first minute of Round 2. With the victory, the first half of the highly anticipated rematch between Nogueira and Emelianenko was set.

    But then it all looked compromised in the final bout of the evening as Emelianenko battled Randleman, who had shocked the MMA world with his brutal KO upset over Filipovic in Pride Total Elimination 2004.

    Early into the bout, Randleman managed to take Emelianenko down, and as both men grappled their way to their feet, Randleman had his back. Then, Randleman heaved Emelianenko high and both men’s feet left the canvas as “The Monster” turned in midair and powerbombed Emelianenko down on his head and neck.

    It was easily one of the most shocking and terrifying moments fight fans had ever seen. It honestly looked—at the moment of impact—that Emelianenko was going to be dead or paralyzed.

    Instead, as the crowd roared and the broadcast team screamed, he simply rolled with it, quickly coming out on top of Randleman. From there, he used punches to acquire one of Randleman’s arms, and in seconds, he had won the bout via kimura.

    And he did it all as if he had not suffered what looked to be (and probably should have been) a career-threatening injury. It was this fight that began the talk in earnest of Emelianenko being nearly indestructible.

    Now, fans exiting the arena did so with no small degree of satisfaction; the next middleweight title fight was set between Jackson and Wanderlei Silva, and Emelianenko would once again face Big Nog.

    If Critical Countdown 2004 proved anything, it’s that sometimes, honest conflict and due process can still deliver; our anticipation is not for naught, and that can be worth the price of admission all on its own.

Pride Bushido 4

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    Date: July 19, 2004

    Location: Nagoya, Japan

    Attendance: unknown

    After Critical Countdown 2004, Pride gave fans another heaping helping of Bushido, albeit it left some of us scratching our heads; if it could put 11 bouts on such cards, then why couldn’t it augment other cards, such as the last show?

    The answer, of course, is obvious.

    Much like the UFC Fight Night events, the talent assembled on Bushido cards wasn’t top dollar from beginning to end. It could afford to have some big names on there, but it couldn’t do it all the time.

    Thankfully, the fights themselves are still their best advocate, and Bushido 4, while not setting the world on fire, was an acceptable event.

    Once again, 12 Japanese fighters were fighting before their countrymen, in addition to six Brazilians, two Americans, one Armenian and one Croatian.

    The bigger names on the card, Filipovic, Gomi, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Hayato “Mach” Sakurai all won their bouts in an event that, in addition to promoting lesser-known fighters, seemed politely intended to keep the attention of MMA fans focused on Japan, and Pride.

Pride Final Conflict 2004

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    Date: August 15, 2004

    Location: Saitama, Japan

    Attendance: 47,629

    With the final event of the heavyweight Grand Prix, once again clocking in with just seven bouts, the event as a whole could be seen as a huge success, given the attendance for each show. But aside from seats sold and gate receipts, each event seemed lacking.

    Obviously, there had been some very good fights and upsets, but overall, the “Grand” in Grand Prix seemed to be absent when portioned out in such small amounts. Final Conflict 2004, while ambitious, did not deliver the resolution we had hoped for.

    In earlier bouts, former UFC middleweight champion Murilo Bustamante was defeated via unanimous decision by Kazuhiro Nakamura, while Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira advanced to the finals by defeating Kharitonov, also by unanimous decision.

    Emelianenko also advanced to the finals, stopping Ogawa by armbar inside the first minute of the fight. It was at this time that it became clear that this heavyweight incarnation of last year's Grand Prix would have been well served by having some representatives of the UFC involved, but after Pride failed to deliver on the promise to send some of its fighters to the Octagon, this was simply not going to happen.

    In the next three “filler” bouts before the final, Waterman submitted Randleman by keylock; Filipovic defeated the brother of Fedor, Aleksander Emelianenko, via KO; and finally, Wanderlei Silva stomped the holy hell out of Yuki Kondo early in Round 1.

    Then, we finally arrived to the finals of the heavyweight Grand Prix: Fedor vs. Big Nog.

    The last time they fought, at Pride 25, Fedor pounded Big Nog mercilessly en route to becoming the new heavyweight champion. It was a one-sided bout that left many wondering if it was a fluke, given just how great Nogueira really was.

    And we didn’t get the answer in the rematch as the bout was called to a halt and ruled a no-contest when a clash of heads opened up a cut on Fedor. As a result, a true rematch was scheduled for the final Pride event of the year, Shockwave 2004.

    While these things happen in the sport, it was still the kind of disappointment that, when coupled with fewer fights per event, left some fans, myself included, wanting much more.

UFC 49

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Date: August 21, 2004

    Location: Las Vegas

    Attendance: 12,100

    If you are ever in Las Vegas and somehow, someway find yourself in the position of getting free tickets to a UFC event, you should go, no matter what.

    It may sound funny, but for UFC 49 (like other previous shows), some free tickets were given away near the end, to give the television viewing audience the idea that the promotion was packing arenas to the rimsalesmanship at its finest.

    And those fans who did take advantage of free tickets were treated to one hell of a great night of fights.

    UFC 49 was the exact opposite of UFC 33; nearly every fight ended in a stoppage, and many of those stoppages were highlight-reel worthy. It wasn’t just a good night of fights, it was great.

    It was also significant; UFC 49 was the last event that saw lightweights fighting under the UFC banner until UFC 58, in 2006. It’s honestly hard to believe this little mini “Dark Era” for lightweights ever happened, given the fact that the UFC now has weight classes for fighters below 155 pounds.

    But with Penn gone, Jens Pulver gone, Caol Uno no longer significant, etc., there didn’t seem like much of a division to be had, perhaps. The UFC has never been in the business of promoting the average alone; if it is going to showcase something, it wants to have great names leading the way.

    Whatever the reasoning, the lightweights went out with a bang that left many fans sad their time was over.

    In the opening fight of the night, Lytle defeated Ronald Jhun via guillotine choke early in the first round; a good beginning to the night. Jhun looked like the kind of fighter who would run all over Lytle, but once again, appearances are not what the sport is based upon.

    Next, the only lightweight bout on the card: Edwards vs. Thompson.

    It’s ironic that now Thompson is one of the top lightweights in the division for 2014, whereas Edwards is perhaps on the downhill slide of a once-great career.

    At UFC 49, both men were fighting not for a title (since there wasn’t one to be had) but for the bragging rights of being dubbed by the UFC as the best lightweight in the world.

    Both men came out tight, coiled and ready to explode, showcasing the speed and skill we now sadly take for granted in the lower weight classes. It was an excellent fight that turned into a jaw-dropping ending near the end of the very first round.

    After a grappling exchange that saw both men rise to their feet, Edwards had Thompsons back and it looked like he might get a trip-takedown if he wanted it. Instead, Thompson ended up getting enough room to throw a kind of spinning backfist.

    Well, the backfist missed, but the counter of Edwards did not. He seemed to anticipate the move of Thompson and timed a jumping roundhouse kick to the head that landed perfectly, just as the backfist of Thompson passed by.

    Thompson ate the kick flush, and both men fell to the floor. Edwards pounced and landed more blows until the referee called the bout off. It was an incredible display of timing and aggression and easily one of the greatest head-kick endings ever.

    Then, Justin Eilers of the Miletich camp threw down with friend Kyle in a heavyweight slugfest that did not last long, but it was memorable. Eilers stopped Kyle via knockout at 1:14 of Round 1 and somewhere James Irvin was smiling.

    After the preliminary bouts had concluded, it was time for the main event, which started off with a bang as Matt Lindland took on David Terrell, teammate to the Diaz brothers, Gilbert Melendez and Jake Shields.

    Coming into the bout, Lindland was making it known that he was involved in a new love affair with the art of striking. This affair was being enabled by John Hackleman, the coach of Liddell.

    Sadly for Lindland, Terrell was having the same affair, and it turns out he had been there longer and had the better tools. Terrell rushed Lindland and blew him out of the water, knocking him out cold in under 30 seconds.

    Next up, Diaz took on Parisyan in a fight that saw Diaz uncharacteristically less than optimistic about his chances against Parisyan in the pre-fight preamble (which can be seen on the DVD release of the event). Diaz said he didn’t feel like the matchup suited him, but that didn’t stop him from giving Parisyan all he could handle in the fight, which saw a great deal of grappling and striking involved.

    If the two were to fight again, no doubt Diaz would be much bolder and would probably wipe the mat with Parisyan; but at UFC 49, it was the latter who won the bout, via unanimous decision in the only fight that went to the judges.

    Next came Joe “Diesel” Riggs vs. Joe Doerksen. It was a spirited bout that saw Riggs finally pour it on in Round 2, winning the bout via submission due to strikes. Riggs was not happy about how he performed, but a finish is a finish.

    Then, in the second-to-last bout of the night, Liddell faced Vernon “Tiger” White in a bout that had been building for some time. Many in the camp of White had felt that Liddell had been ducking him, while Liddell dismissed this utterly. None of that mattered anymore as both men brought their animosity into the ring and let it all hang out.

    This was a very exciting fight, even if Liddell controlled most of the action. He rocked White many times, knocking him down over and over. Still, White landed more than a few hard shots, making the bout more two-sided than it appeared at first glance. If nothing else, White came to fight and did so far better than Ortiz, who seemed to simply assume the role of punching bag.

    Once Liddell finally caught White stepping in, dropping him with a hard punch, the bout was over and Liddell had his second win of the year, by stoppage. White had gone out on his shield, earning the respect of all, including Liddell.

    Finally, the main event: Light heavyweight champion Belfort was facing Couture for the third time, although their second bout at UFC 46 ended far too quickly to be considered a true fight.

    This time around, there was no freak cut to the eyelid, and the bout went on for three rounds before the doctors finally called a halt to the bloodshed and Couture recaptured the title.

    Couture was on point the entire fight, dominating Belfort in nearly every area. But there was one interesting wrinkle. In watching an early exchange, where the cut of most importance occurred, it appeared that it was due to a head-butt from Couture as he rushed inside to close the distance.

    Regardless, Couture was once again king at 205, and a rematch with Liddell loomed in the future. In addition, after his victory, Couture invited Wanderlei Silva into the ring and challenged him to a bout to unify the UFC and Pride titles. Silva accepted and both men faced off in the Octagon, holding their belts.

    While we would never get to see that fight, we got positive affirmation that the tension and rivalry between the UFC and Pride was still very real and ongoing.

    UFC 49 was truly an excellent card, full of action and the kinds of finishes you want from MMA bouts.

Pride Bushido 5

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    Date: October 14, 2004

    Location: Osaka, Japan

    Attendance: unknown

    As the final Bushido card of 2004, Pride offered just eight bouts for the night, which was a considerable step down from past cards.

    Once again, most of the fights had a “Japan vs. Everyone else” feel about them, thus once again there were more Japanese fighters than any other.

    It did see the return of Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, who bested Yasuhito Namekawa via TKO in Round 1, as well as Igor Vovchanchyn knocking out Katsuhisa Fujii.

    Additionally, Gomi returned to defeat Charles Bennett via kimura.

    Bushido 5 marked the fourth appearance in the series for Gomi, which had started earlier in the year at Bushido 2. He was perfect in his Bushido run for 2004, stopping all four opponents and setting the stage for his jump to Pride’s biggest stage, which would occur at Pride Shockwave 2004.

    Given how large a star Gomi would become, it was clear that Pride brought him along the right way, feeding him fights that would allow him to showcase his talent while also giving the public a fighter they could follow from humble beginnings, sharing in his aspirations for greater things.

    It is also this kind of storyline that helped The Ultimate Fighter resonate with viewers. Had Pride been able to manage its spending better, who knows what it could have accomplished over the long haul.

UFC 50

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    Date: October 22, 2004

    Location: Atlantic City, New Jersey

    Attendance: 9,000

    As the UFC got halfway to 100, its last event of 2004 was a good effort that saw fans entertained, even though the co-main event bout between Ortiz and Guy Mezger had to be rebuilt after Mezger suffered a stroke-like event.

    In his place stepped Patrick Cote, making his UFC debut as a light heavyweight.

    Leading up to Ortiz’s comeback fight and the welterweight title fight between Hughes and St-Pierre, we saw some good quality bouts; there just wasn’t enough of them.

    UFC 50 only had seven bouts totala stark contrast to the number of fights even the smallest fight cards have today.

    On the main card, the late Evan Tanner defeated Lawler by submission while Trigg fought a spirited bout against Verissimo, finally overcoming some bad positions in order to pound him out early in Round 1.

    Next, Rich Franklin staged a come-from-behind victory over the rugged Rivera, who had been giving Franklin problems all night long before the soon-to-be middleweight champion won by armbar late in Round 3.

    Then, in the final two bouts, Ortiz faced Cote and Hughes fought St-Pierre. Ortiz dominated the fight with the undersized Cote but managed to get dropped by a glancing elbow strike as he rushed in, bringing to question that sturdiness of his chin once again.

    As far as Hughes and St-Pierre, both men accounted well of themselves, with the deciding factor being the experience of Hughes, who managed to execute a stunning submission, via armbar, with one single second remaining in the round.

    It might not have been a buffet table of MMA violence, but it was still satisfying.

Pride 28

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    Date: October 31, 2004

    Location: Saitama, Japan

    Attendance: 24,028

    While there were many fights on the Pride 28 card, the one fight that everyone was watching was the rematch between Wanderlei Silva and Jackson.

    When looking at the results of the card in total, it was not an evening where the true intentions of the matchmaking were realized, save for the Silva-Jackson rematch.

    Granted, Hunt defeated Dan Bobish, but shoulder injuries forced early stoppages in two of the bouts, starting with Dan Henderson’s victory over Nakamura.

    Then, perhaps the only other real bout of any significance was the fight between Barnett and Filipovic, which ended almost before it began due to yet another shoulder injury to Barnett that had him tapping from within Cro-Cop's guard at 46 seconds of Round 1.

    Thankfully for fans, the headlining bout was worth it all because Silva really was as violent and passionate about defending his title as Jackson was eager to dethrone him.

    Their rematch was more of the same of their last fight, except this time around Jackson did better.

    I won’t rob you of the joy of discovering this fight for yourself if you have never seen it. Just check it out on UFC Fightpass (link here) if you are so inclined. It was one heck of a fight and worthy of any title contest.

    In the end, once again Silva defeated Jackson via violent knockout, but that is the conclusion that was inevitable after such a contest. No other resolution would do.

    Had the other bouts on the card been fought with such passion and void of injury, it could have been the event of the year for 2004.

Pride Shockwave 2004

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    Date: December 31, 2004

    Location: Saitama, Japan

    Attendance: 48,398

    While UFC 49 was the shinning star for the year of 2004 for the UFC, Shockwave 2004 was the same for Pride. When you look at the event, both on paper and after the fact, you can see why.

    While Pride seemed to miss the mark often in 2004, as the year drew to a close, it finally got it right—with a vengeance.

    Fist off, we had the Olympic angle: gold medalist in wrestling vs. gold medalist in Judo as Rulon Gardner faced Yoshida. Then, there was the rematch of one of the biggest upsets in recent years as Filipovic fought Randleman, again.

    Next, Bushido star Gomi was stepping up to the big leagues, taking on former UFC lightweight champion Pulver, and middleweight king Wanderlei Silva was fighting heavyweight power puncher Hunt.

    And if all of that wasn’t enough, you had the long-sought realization of the rematch that almost was at Pride Final Conflict 2004: Emelianenko vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.

    In its own way, this was the Pride equivalent to UFC 100.

    Oddly enough, it was the bouts that ring profound years later that also make the event special. For instance, the fight between Chonan and Anderson Silva—which saw the former, outgunned and outclassed, come from behind to land a stunning leg-sweep turned heel hook submission, forcing the latter to tap out quickly—that makes us realize that significance comes when we least expect it.

    The loss to Chonan was Silva’s last true defeat before Chris Weidman, so many years later. Silva turned into a different fighter after the Chonan bout, and one can only wonder what kind of effect that submission loss had on Silva as a fighter, and how it inspired him to become the machine we would come to see as the greatest MMA fighter of all time.

    Such bouts also teach us to expect the unexpected. We thought we would see some elite grappling when Gardner faced Yoshida. What we got was a terribly boring fight that saw the wrestler win the fight via the jab alone.

    Next, the unexpected came again when Cro-Cop, the most feared striker in the heavyweight division, defeated Randleman via guillotine choke incredibly early in Round 1. First time around, the wrestler had outstruck the striker, this time the striker had outgrappled the grappler.

    After all of that, we were treated to the sight of Gomi, rising to the occasion by defeating Pulver via KO in Round 1 of their spirited fight. Pulver made a good accounting of himself, but it was not enough to overcome the youth, power and timing of his younger opponent, who would go on to become one of the best fighters ever to come from Japan.

    Then, the man who never turned down a fight (even when he should have), Wanderlei Silva, stepped up in weight to square off against Hunt. Yes, even in their later years, Pride still couldn’t help but indulge in freak show bouts; Silva never should have been in the ring with a man who outweighed him by close to 50 pounds, but this was still Japan, so it happened.

    Silva did well in the bout, even with the gross weight disadvantage, but in the end, Hunt was given the decision but thankfully not the middleweight title. Apparently, the divisional hypocrisy of Pride did have some boundaries after all.

    Then, at long last, the final bout: Fedor vs. Big Nog.

    Much like the first time around, Fedor simply dominated the fight from top to bottom, although this time around, Nogueira didn’t take nearly as many lumps as he did first time. Both men had gotten better, but it was still Fedor who was the best between them.

    It was a great card and it was a fitting conclusion to the year of 2004, which saw so much change while even more staying the same.

Figures of Note: Wanderlei Silva

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    Eric Jamison/Associated Press

    They say that history goes unrecognized, to the detriment of all, and as far as the sport of MMA is concerned, nothing could be more profound than the case of Wanderlei Silva in 2004.

    So many fans today call him a coward and the like, especially after the on-and-off soap opera with Chael Sonnen, who has never met a fighter so great he couldn’t make them look awful with words. Yet in 2004, Silva, once again, proved himself willing and able to face anyone, no matter how dangerous, even if they were heavyweights.

    There is not one single fiber in Silva’s being that is cowardly when it comes to the combative sports. Like Penn, Silva was about the fight and never met a fight he didn’t like.

    Would Silva have beaten Sonnen? Probably not, given that styles make fights and the style of Silva was tailor-made for a takedown artist like Sonnen.

    But was Silva afraid? To even think so is nothing more than willful ignorance and self-serving bias.

    In his fight with Hunt (like his fights with Cro-Cop), Silva fought heavyweights where they were their strongest, on the feet. Granted, he went for a few takedowns against, but he never shied away from slugging it out with Hunt; a man who possessed far superior striking skills, power and the superior chin.

    But that was how Silva had always fought. He was a gunslinger when he started, he remains so today, and he was certainly so in 2004.

    Silva fought four times in 2004, and aside from his loss in the heavyweight division, he was perfect for the year, with three fights at middleweight and three knockouts, including his stunning victory over Jackson at Pride 28, which was voted Fight of the Year by many outlets.

    He ended the year with a record of 27-4-1-1.

Figures of Note: Randy Couture

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    Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

    2004 was a mixed bag for Couture; he lost his title on a fluke accident and had to spend precious time recovering, just for a chance to win it back against the same opponent, Belfort.

    But so goes the sport of MMA. Couture recovered from his eye injury, and then he came back to make a statement against Belfort at UFC 49.

    Couture was simply far too much for Belfort, who at times looked lost as Couture had his way in the bout. During one point of the broadcast, the cameraman actually had to wipe Belfort’s blood off his camera lensesit was that ugly.

    But as 2004 came to a close, Couture was still the man to beat at 205, and he was still an ageless wonder to behold—a testimony to the value of hard work, dedication and the benefits of being a student before proclaiming oneself as a master.

    His record at the close of the year was 13-6.

Figures of Note: Chuck Liddell

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    Branimir Kvartuc/Associated Press

    After a rocky 2003, Liddell came back to make 2004 his year, and he did it with his knockout power and patented aggression.

    First, he finally got his chance to prove what he had been saying for years (that he was better than Ortiz), knocking out Ortiz in Round 2 of their bout at UFC 47.

    Next, he put to bed a rivalry with Vernon “Tiger” White, via KO at UFC 49, setting himself up for a coaching stint on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, opposite friend and rival, Couture.

    Although he only fought twice, Liddell’s star was clearly on the rise. Defeating a big name like Ortiz did wonders for his career and firmly placed him near the top of the UFC’s list of stars to be promoted.

    Watching Liddell fight in 2004 was honestly something special. He was one of those rare fighters who knew how to come back from a loss to make himself better, and when he was walking into the Octagon to face Ortiz, you knew you were watching a man who loved what he was doing.

    The sheer emotion he had walking into the cage that night was that of savage anticipation, tempered by a sense of cold, calculated self control. There were no nerves or tremors of fear going into the biggest bad-blood fight of his life; there was just total and utter confidence which worked to restrain the joy that was seeping out of him with every step.

    You could tell he knew he was going to destroy Ortiz, and everything else that happened before that was simply parade and glory.

    This continued into the fight with White at UFC 49 and would reach out into the future, taking him to the UFC title and beyond.

    Liddell’s record at the end of 2004 was 15-3.

Figures of Note: BJ Penn

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    Jon Super/Associated Press

    It’s hard to believe that Penn has officially retired. The man we saw fight Frankie Edgar in 2014 looked nothing like the man of 2004, who seemed like he could go on forever. He also didn’t fight like that version of his younger selfstanding there on his toes, hardly moving, happy to assume the role of punching bag.

    No, the Penn of 2004 was a nightmare matchup for anyone, regardless of their weight. 2004 had to be one of the greatest years of his career, yet it was also a year of drastic change.

    First off, he achieved one of his greatest ambitions (to win a UFC belt), which was found in a place no one thought he should look: the welterweight division.

    At UFC 46, Penn pulled off the upset of the year (save perhaps for Randleman’s upset of Filipovic), defeating the unconquerable Hughes, by rear-naked choke, in just the first round.

    To put that into terms today’s fans can understand: Imagine if Belfort moved up to light heavyweight, threw Jon Jones around like a child, hammered on him with heavy punches, then easily took his back and choked him out as if he were a rank amateur. Not just taking him by surprise, but dominating him totally.

    Only imagine it with Belfort having far less experience.

    Even with all of that as a hypothetical, Penn was at a greater disadvantage on paper.

    Then comes his departure from the UFC, which quickly turns into an all-out war with Dana White, who, according to Penn’s book, declared Penn as “scorched earth,” saying he will never be in the UFC again.

    Penn would fight two more times in 2004, both in the K-1 promotion. He would quickly defeat Duane Ludwig via submission in Round 1 before moving up to middleweight to defeat Rodrigo Gracie via unanimous decision.

    As the year came to a close, Penn was 9-1-1.

    We can only stop and wonder at what would have been for his career if he had been enticed to stay in the UFC.

Figures of Note: Quinton “Rampage” Jackson

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    Eric Jamison/Associated Press

    While the man known as Jackson may be floundering in his MMA career as of 2014, in 2004, he was earnest and serious in a way that all MMA fighters should be.

    In 2003, he suffered the most physically and psychologically damaging loss of his career: a violent TKO stoppage at the hands of his hand-made bitter rival, Wanderlei Silva.

    How did he respond?     

    He made jokes about it (see the Pride Middleweight Grand Prix 2003 DVD set, extras selection) and then jumped right back into the ring, hungry for revenge.

    Jackson only fought twice in 2004, but both times were incredibly memorable.

    First up, he faced off against another Silva foe, Arona. Arona was an incredibly skilled submission artist with a great deal of physical power, fighting out of the BTT (Brazilian Top Team).

    In his fight with Arona, Jackson found himself seriously threatened, especially when the fight hit the floor and Arona locked up a triangle leg choke. Jackson responded in tried-and-true fashion; he relied upon his physical might.

    He stood, lofted Arona first off the floor, then high above his head, and slammed him down so hard that it knocked him totally unconscious. This wasn’t any ordinary slam: It was the stuff of legend and to this day is the greatest slam in MMA history.

    After this fight, Silva detractors were once again jumping up and down, pointing to the man from Tennessee as the one to dethrone the man from Brazil.

    And during Pride 28, there appeared more than a few times that they would get to celebrate a second time.

    But eventually, Silva was back on his feet, and from there, Jackson was lured into a fight that throws caution to the wind. Back then, if you were going to go toe-to-toe with Silva, you had to do that; if you didn’t, you’d simply get run the hell over.

    Kondo learned that lesson the hard way.

    Jackson, for his part, made a good accounting of himself, until Silva ducked under a Jackson right hand and landed his own, flush to Jackson's face.

    From that moment on, he was at the mercy of the most merciless finisher the sport had seen to date, and he was overwhelmed with knees before finally being knocked out cold and left to dangle between the ring ropes, blood pouring out of his face in one long stream.

    And still, despite all that, he was still “Rampage,” the man who fought with the courage of his convictions, happy to go out on his shield rather than live the tepid life of those fighters who declare much or war and toe-to-toe, only to engage cautiously, thinking more in terms of winning than fighting.

    That is the reason why Japanese fans loved him, not to mention fans of the sport in general in 2004, where he finished the year with a record of 21-5.

    Not a bad way to go at all.

Figures of Note: Matt Hughes

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    John Gichigi/Getty Images

    It’s rare that a fighter experiences his biggest defeat to date while redeeming himself on the championship dais within the same calendar year, but that is exactly what happened to Hughes in 2004.

    Losing to a former lightweight had to be a brutal blow to Hughes, but that is exactly what happened at UFC 46, and Penn defeated him so soundly that denial was simply not available.

    Then, as fortune would have it, Penn was no longer in the picture, and suddenly, the welterweight title was available once more.

    Hughes got his second chance, albeit via a disputed judges' decision in his fight with Penn teammate Verissimo, who had previously outfought and outclassed Newton at UFC 46 to earn a top-contender spot.

    The fight with Verissimo had been terribly close, and many thought Hughes had lost. Yet he took the victory (head bowed in open concession to the fact that it was not an authoritative victory) and marched into UFC 50 to fight for the vacant welterweight title against hot prospect St-Pierre.

    Everyone following the sport at the time knew St-Pierre was something special. He had defeated some excellent opponents and made it look shockingly easy. Yet when the fight was announced, most felt Hughes was just too much, too soon, for the Canadian prospect.

    The fight itself was one round of promise and validation. St-Pierre showed he was indeed a fighter to watch, and Hughes showed he really was the better man for 2004.

    And the cast of the very first season of The Ultimate Fighter was watching it from the fighter house, shocked and amazed as Hughes executed that beautiful kimura to armbar counter that saw him claim the title once again at 4:59 of Round 1.

    When 2004 came to a close, the record of Hughes was 37-4.

Figures of Note: Fedor Emelianenko

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    Tomokazu Tazawa/Getty Images

    So much has been said about Emelianenko that at this point it is almost redundant, but in 2004, he proved his hold over the heavyweight division was ironclad as he dispatched his closest rival, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, for the final time via unanimous decision at Pride Shockwave 2004.

    Today’s fans really don’t realize just how significant a victory this was for Emelianenko. Nogueira may be a shadow of his former self and out of his depth in 2014, but in 2004, he was easily the second-best heavyweight in the world, far better than anyone in the UFC or anywhere else.

    He had the greatest submissions in the game and perhaps the greatest transitions, yet Emelianenko once again defeated him much the same way a math professor solves a long division problem. It took hard work and commitment, but Emelianenko proved he was the best of the best in the land of the heavyweights, and that is something special.

    Simply put, he was fighting anyone put in front of him, and he was beating them all, be they cans or the greatest in the world.

    That’s the kind of consistency that saw him go undefeated for the year, stretching his winning streak to three years, eight months and 25 days and his record to 21-1 with one no-contest.

    And it would keep going for a long while.

Figures of Note: Takanori Gomi

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    USA TODAY Sports

    As the star of Sakuraba began to slowly set on the horizon in 2004, Gomi saw his own star rising.

    Gomi fought in four Bushido events in 2004 (Bushido 2, 3, 4 and 5) before getting the call to be on the big stage for Pride, and he made the most of it, defeating Pulver via TKO. Perhaps it was because the tough losses of 2003—a decision loss to Joachim Hansen within the Shooto promotion and a three-round shellacking at the hands of Penn before being submitted at Rumble on the Rock 4—had lit a fire under him to match his flaming shorts.

    Either way, he came storming back after a rocky 2003 to make 2004 his year, and he won all five fights by finish with four KO/TKOs and one submission.

    At the close of 2004, his record was 19-2 and he had a serious head of steam built up, which would see him have an even greater 2005.

Figures of Note: Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira

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    Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images

    After reaching the heights of championship gold (or silver in the case of Pride), anything less must seem like a hell for fighters like Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.

    In 2003, he was king of the mountain, until Emelianenko knocked him off. From that moment on, it seemed like every fight he had was to put him back in against the man who bested him so thoroughly at Pride 25.

    In 2004, he went to work and earned his right to face the champion for the silver, chopping through three opponents in the heavyweight Grand Prix, only to see it all shut down (temporarily) due to an accidental clash of heads and a cut across the face of the champion.

    Then, when the fight was rescheduled for the Shockwave 2004 card, he was finally getting his chance and you could tell that this time he wanted to make it work.

    And once again, he was thoroughly defeated. He was not outclassed or blown out of the water and he did much better than in their first meeting, but he was still beaten beyond any doubt.

    Nearly all great fighters eventually find their foil—that one opponent who just seems to have their number—and for the man known as Big Nog, that foil was Fedor.

    As the year came to a close, Nogueira had a record of 24-3-1-1.

Figures of Note: Mirko Cro-Cop Filipovic

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    Anonymous/Associated Press

    For a man who fought a staggering eight times in 2004, the year still had to be a rough one for Filipovic.

    There are some losses that seem to resound with the public and the men in the ring, and when Randleman landed that brutal punch to the jaw that saw Filipovic crumple like he’d had his light switch turned off, he was always going to be associated with that image.

    Even though he went 7-1 for the year and even defeated Randleman in their rematch, that moment still had to haunt him.

    Still, he was on his way to bigger and better things, as 2005 would see him work his way up to a title shot against Emelianenko.

    At the close of 2004, Filipovic was 14-2-2.

Figures of Note: Georges St. Pierre

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    Eric Jamison/Associated Press

    Everyone starts small (unless your name is Brock Lesnar) and such was the case for St-Pierre, whose moniker back in the day was “Rush.”

    He would become so dominant that the masses shortened his name to “GSP”—that would come later.

    In 2004, St-Pierre was clearly a fighter to watch; his dominant victories over Parisyan and Hieron (at UFC 46 and 48) made this point clear to all.

    But perhaps his best performance came in his losing effort to Hughes at UFC 50.

    To be honest, St-Pierre should have been blown out of the water by Hughes in that fight. Hughes had a massive experience advantage. Coming into UFC 50, Hughes has a record of 36-4. St-Pierre had a record of 7-0.

    But none of that stopped St-Pierre from drilling Hughes in the chest with a beautiful spinning back-kick, nor did it prevent him from taking Hughes to his back. St-Pierre fought like a nervous man who was trying to gain something great (the UFC title) and thus tried to rise above those paper limitations.

    Had he survived that armbar in Round 1, he might have.

    Still, in defeat, we are all terribly impressed with St-Pierre, and for myself, I found that watching him became a priority.

    They say that fighters grow the most from tough losses, and nothing could be more profound when you consider Mr. St-Pierre, who finished 2004 with a record of 7-1.

    Had he won that fight, he would probably be standing as the GOAT, without any doubt. Certainly he would own the most title defenses, which goes a long way in those kinds of debates.

Figures of Note: Tito Ortiz

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    Ortiz (left) and Fernando Vargas
    Ortiz (left) and Fernando VargasJeff Gross/Getty Images

    2004 was both good and bad for Ortiz.

    With his reputation on the line (not to mention his pride), he found himself fighting Liddell at UFC 47, and in truth, he didn’t look like he wanted to be there.

    As he walked to the Octagon, at times he looked like a man heading to the gallows while Liddell looked positively seething with a kind of poisonous joy.

    Ortiz got blown out of the water that night, but in the defeat he was able to put much of the past 24 months behind him.

    Then, Ortiz got back into the cage at UFC 50 and got back to his winning ways. His victory over Cote also was the beginning of a five-fight win streak that would carry him to his final title shot at UFC 66.

    He ended the year with a record of 11-4.

Figures of Note: Anderson Silva

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    Felipe Dana/Associated Press

    It is still hard for me to remember a time when Anderson Silva wasn’t known as the best, but 2004 certainly qualifies.

    In truth, he was basically unknown for the year, winning two fights for the Gladiator and Cage Rage promotions, defeating Jeremy Horn and Murray, respectively.

    Then, he fought in the final Pride show for the year and ended up getting caught with one of the slickest heel-hook submissions I have ever seen.

    He was winning his bout with Chonan up until he found himself on his back with his leg already locked up. From there, he was tapping out very quickly.

    To be honest, no one would have guessed Silva would become perhaps the greatest MMA fighter of all time by watching him in 2004.

    But then again, all eyes were on his teammate, Wanderlei, Emelianenko and the bigger names in the UFC.

    As 2004 came to a close, Silva was 14-3.

Figures of Note: Dana White

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    Angel Valentin/Getty Images

    It’s hard to believe that in 2004, when Dana White addressed the press at pre-fight meetings and post-fight scrums, when he said, “Thank you for coming,” he was not being glib or simply formal—he really meant it and was really thankful.

    Back in 2004, the UFC was still a business that was losing money instead of making it. Today, with the UFC making money hand over fist, when White gives thanks, he still means it, but he doesn’t need every single bit of press coverage now like he did back then.

    That’s because back then, there wasn’t much of that going around when it came to UFC events. Back then, getting a write up in Black Belt magazine was a pretty big deal.

    2004 was a good year for White in the fact that the UFC did just good enough to keep itself alive going into the new year. It was also good for White in the fact that as a fight fan, he was putting on meaningful bouts as best he could, and he did have some very meaningful fights that year.

    He also began to show signs of being so totally vested in the UFC that the company wasn’t just a business to him—it was personal.

    When Penn decided to leave the UFC for a chance to make more money with the K-1 promotion, White took it very personally, telling Penn he was “scorched earth” and would never fight in the UFC again, according to Penn’s autobiography, Why I Fight: The Belt is Just an Accessory.

    Of course, no doubt White has a different version of those events, and the truth is likely to be found somewhere in the middle.

    But there can be no doubt: White was in for a penny and a pound, learning as he went along, fighting for every chance to make sure the UFC got its next chance, never taking anything for granted while still going after everything he could.

    In short, during 2004, he was hungry and he was a believera combination that has seen empires built many times before.

Top Event: UFC 49

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Perhaps the chief standard for focused aggression is a finish.

    When a bout ends in a finishvia KO, TKO or submissionthere is a clear and fair understanding that the bout was fought with pure motives and a clarity of intent that often makes us think of two fighters spending themselves utterly toward that lofty goal.

    While that may not always be the case, at UFC 49, it certainly seemed so, and that is what MMA is all about.

    Of the eight bouts on the card, seven ended by way of finish, and more than a few of those fights left us jumping out of our seats when we saw them.

    No matter if you prefer the highlight reel-worthy jumping head kick from Edwards to Thompson, the back-and-forth slugfest between Liddell and Vernon White (a bout that no doubt made the Underground forum member striker18 cheer and cry into his beer all at once) or the splattering of Belfort’s blood onto the Octagon-side camera as Couture worked him over against the cage, this was the event that defied expectations and thrilled more than any other for the calendar year.

    While Pride’s Critical Countdown 2004 and Final Conflict 2004 were clearly bigger events with some shocking moments that made us shout, bigger isn’t always better. Still, those events deserve to be recognized as well, coming in second and third place.

    But top honors belong to UFC 49, and no one saw that coming.

    When Dana White gathers fighters before an event and gives them the pre-fight talk about going out there and leaving it all in the Octagon, one of the cards he is dreaming of a repeat of is UFC 49.

    And think about some of the names assembled on that card: Thompson, Diaz, Lytle, Liddell, Couture and Belfort. If those kinds of names were assembled on a pay-per-view card in 2014, it would be thought of as a mega-event.

Top Organization: Pride FC

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    If there was one single thing that Pride did better than anyone else, it was the staging and promotion of huge events.

    It did it to perfection in 2003 with the middleweight Grand Prix, and in 2004, it used that same template for the heavyweights, almost to the same level of success. Had the finals of the heavyweight Grand Prix not suffered the inglorious ending of a no-contest ruling, it would have succeeded utterly.

    But when you shoot for the stars, even if you fall short, you are still miles above everyone else.

    Consider this: In 2004, the UFC had a total attendance number of 53,237 for its five events of the year. Pride put on 10 events total, but we only know the figures of six of them, which yielded 219,242 in attendance.

    Quite simply, Pride was putting on the bigger shows and was putting them on more often. When you do that, you are the top promotion in the world of MMA in 2004, or any year.

How Far We’ve Come…

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    Angel Valentin/Getty Images

    In reflecting on 2004, it’s no wonder that Dana White seems to feel that saturating the market with fight cards is a signpost of success and prosperity.

    After all, during 2004, the UFC was outdone in successfully staged events by its only-ever true competitor, Pride FC, by two-to-one.

    In 2004, the UFC staged five events while Pride staged 10, solidifying the Japanese promotion as the top dog in the sport, globally.

    2004 was an excellent year for MMA fans overall, and much of it was due to the fact that both the UFC and Pride FC forced each organization to do its best. Sometimes they failed, but overall, it was a very good year.

    As far as the fighters are concerned, 2004 was a reckoning for some and just another year of dominance for others.

    Back then, the idea of Ortiz fighting in any other organization but the UFC was starting to become more and more likely, but we still didn’t think it would happen. Indeed, even without the title, Ortiz was still one of the top draws for the company, and his fans hadn’t given up hope just yet.

    Now, in 2014, Ortiz has fought his very first bout outside the UFC (in Bellator) since he became the light heavyweight champion all those years ago. And as far as the fans are concerned, most act as if they never had much hope to begin with.

    Such are the fickle natures of the masses.                              

    But looking at it 10 years later, we can appreciate the work of such fighters as Cro-Cop, Wanderlei Silva, Jackson and many others.

    These men were carrying the sport upon their shoulders, during a time when the idea of MMA on free television seemed like just another fantasy drifting out of a cloud of smoke from a Joe Rogan bong hit.

    But it is also important to note the confidence such men as Rogan and White had in the sport, especially back then, when nothing could be taken for granted.

    I remember that time well, as do many fans who were shocked whenever the UFC or the sport of MMA would somehow find its way onto the cover of a magazine. We as fans knew the sport was great, and we loved it because it was ours.

    But the idea of it catching on in the way that fans of today take for granted, as soon as 2014?

    Yeah, sure buddy, it’s a nice dream, but it’s going to take a lot longer than that.

    Yet, men like Rogan and White continued to beat that drum, never wavering in their confidence that times were changing and the time of MMA was coming.

    They really didn’t know any more than we did, when it came to what the future held. They just knew the same thing we did—that the sport was simply fantastic—and that love fueled their belief, which in turn fueled the machinery that has brought us where we are today…

    Sixteen Fight Night cards thus far in 2014.

    One UFC on Fox card thus far in 2014.

    Seven UFC PPV events thus far in 2014.

    And we’ve still got five months to go.

    Soon, the UFC will stage its first pay-per-view event in Mexico; the importance of this cannot be understated. Should it be a success and the doors of the country swing wide and more fighters from that nation of truly great fighters comes pouring forth into the world of MMA…

    Well, 2014 could be remembered as the year “it” happened.

    Here’s to crossing our fingers.

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