Despite the relatively short history of modern mixed martial arts there have been many crucial points at which the fate of the sport—as well as the fate of the athletes within the sport—was decided.
From events taking place before the UFC was created up until more modern times, there have always been junctions where the swelling popularity of MMA could have taken a turn for the worse or been catapulted even further into popularity or some other calamitous/favorable could have happened.
What are these "what if" moments embedded throughout MMA history? What alternate reality would have unfolded if the historical choices/circumstances did not occur?
Read and find out!
What if the belt went around Gina Carano's waist?
Gina "Conviction" Carano vs. Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos was the most hyped and anticipated fight in the history of women's mixed martial arts.
Carano tried her best but was simply overwhelmed by the ferocious Brazilian and lost the fight via TKO at the very end of the first round.
But what if Gina Carano had not botched her roll for a knee-bar in the first round and successfully tapped out Cyborg?
Her popularity would have climbed even further and eyes of many new fans would have been brought to MMA by being brought to Carano's exposed midriff and other assets in promotional material.
However, this alternate reality would ultimately bear a stark resemblance to our current one; Carano would still have been forced to sit out of the sport due to film deals.
Nevertheless, women's MMA would have been more popular and Gina Carano would have likely been elevated to a much higher status (think Anna Kournikova or some other female sports sex symbol).
The only deleterious effect of this would be that hard-working fighters such as Meisha Tate, Marloes Coenen, Tara LaRosa, and many others would not receive as much press as they are receiving now; a burgeoning plant cannot grow in the shadow of a mighty oak. Just so other female fighters would have too much difficulty becoming popular.
The poster-boy for EliteXC.
Kevin Ferguson (popularly known as "Kimbo Slice") became famous as a street brawler on YouTube. It didn't take long before someone came up with an idea to exploit Slice's popularity. That someone was Gary Shaw.
Shaw's EliteXC promotion signed Kimbo Slice and promoted him like no other. They touted him as one of the greatest heavyweights in the world yet they put him against has-beens and cans. Slice was eventually defeated by last minute replacement Seth Petruzelli in a fight that shamed the companies cash-cow and in doing so destroyed the company.
But what if Kimbo Slice had dismantled Petruzelli?
They would have continued feeding washed up and lower-level fighters to Kimbo Slice and in doing so continue to embarrass the sport of MMA (remember those "Kick ass, Kimbo! signs?).
Kimbo's growing feud with Brett Rogers would finally come to a head and Rogers would knock out the brawler in only 14 seconds. It's doubtful that EliteXC would have developed other talent so that when Slice finally lost the companies collapse was imminent.
EliteXC lasting longer delays the growth of Strikeforce since the Strikeforce roster doesn't receive an infusion of talent thanks to the demise of EliteXC. Their attempts to compete with the UFC and the UFC's eventual acquisition of Strikeforce are pushed back as a result.
Fedor Emelianenko was one of the most dominant fighters of all time and many consider him to be the greatest fighter ever. He was also the heavyweight champion of the Japan's now defunct Pride organization during the height of the UFC-Pride rivalry.
After Pride went bust many expected to see the Russian sambo expert in the Octagon, however, this wasn't the case. UFC brass and Emelianenko's management couldn't come to an agreement and Fedor instead went to another now defunct promotion, Affliction.
What if Fedor's management and the UFC had come to an agreement?
The highly anticipated matchup was Randy Couture vs. Fedor Emelianenko. There would be no red tape in the way of this fight and it would finally happen—with Emelianenko managing to submit Couture in the third round after initially being frustrated by the intricacies of the cage rather than the ring.
Emelianenko would carve a path of terror through the UFC heavyweight division—which would include a one round devastation of Brock Lesnar—before losing an edge and dropping his title to Brazilian slugger Junior Dos Santos in late 2011.
Despite not retiring unbeaten, Fedor's legacy was never truly tarnished and he was remembered as the greatest of all time.
Pride Fighting Championships (a.k.a. Pride FC or just Pride) was one of the most legendary organizations in MMA history. Some of the most exciting and most anticipated fights took place under their banner. The UFC, in all their success, still hasn't been able to surpass Pride's highest attendance record of slightly over 70,000.
Despite such accomplishments, Pride was sold to and dismantled by Zuffa—the company that owns the UFC—in 2007.
But what would have happened to MMA if Pride had managed to succeed and not collapse?
The best fighters in the world would have been split between two organizations and, as a result, the growth of the sport would have been significantly slowed.
Dana White's ambition and marketing abilities would have guaranteed the UFC's eventual victory but it would take place much later since it would've had much less of a talent pool to fuel its expansion.
Because many MMA legends would have never made it to the UFC, the casual fan (and even UFC fans who would be moderately in the know) would have little or no knowledge of such incredible figures like Fedor Emelianenko, Wanderlei Silva (who would only be famous for saying he wanted to "f*** Chuck"), Dan Henderson, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, the Nogueira brothers, and many others.
Tito Ortiz vs. Chuck Liddell was one of the rivalries that helped put the modern (meaning under Zuffa ownership) UFC on the map.
It was certainly the cause for a significant amount of hype since Tito Ortiz was the "bad boy" and the silver-tongued devil that fans loved to hate and Chuck Liddell was the "good guy" or at least wasn't blatantly disrespectful to his opponents like Ortiz was.
Liddell's victory over Ortiz in their first fight at UFC 47 cemented the Kenpo stylist's reputation as an elite competitor and helped make him into the UFC's most recognizable fighter and first celebrity.
But what if Ortiz had smashed Liddell at UFC 47?
Liddell's career would have been temporarily derailed and Ortiz would have received a boon in popularity and likely another title shot at Randy Couture (which he likely would've lost).
The UFC's popularity growth suffered until they found another figure to market in place of Chuck Liddell; people could only "love to hate" Ortiz for so long so a new star was needed. Couture's "Captain America" shtick was fine but wasn't marketable enough to the youth.
The UFC attempted to make Andrei Arlovski the "Chuck Liddell" of this alternate timeline but, unfortunately for them, his hype train was suddenly derailed by unlikely losses.
The UFC eventually rebounds from the conundrum but many years growth are lost; Chuck Liddell isn't even a coach on the first season of the Ultimate Fighter.
In 2000, Pride set out to invite 16 of the worlds best fighters to an openweight tournament. One of these fighters was the famed Royce Gracie, hero of the early UFC events and perhaps the most well known Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighter of the time.
Gracie was eventually eliminated in the second round in a loss to legendary Japanese figher Kazushi Sakuraba in a 90-minute contest with modified rules (one of which was unlimited rounds); Gracie's corner didn't let their fighter come out for a 91st minute.
The Grand Prix was eventually won by wrestler Mark Coleman when he earned a tap out by battering Igor Vovchanchyn with knees.
Would anything have changed if Gracie had one the tournament?
The Gracie name would have still been synonymous with excellence at MMA and top-tier MMA skill. Their hegemony over the sport would have continued and they would have used this to their advantage, bullying Pride into altering rules in fights where a Gracie was present.
Sakuraba remained popular but never achieved the rank of true legend; he never became the "Gracie hunter."
By the late '90s and early 2000s, the UFC was in trouble; their owner, SEG (short for Semaphore Entertainment Group) had been hemorrhaging money and was nearing bankruptcy.
Historically, this was when Station Casinos—owned by the Fertita Brothers who are current co-owners of the UFC along with Dana White—stepped in and purchased the UFC.
But what if Vince McMahon had either beaten the Fertita's the the proverbial punch or offered more money and ended up with control of the UFC?
There would likely be no MMA today.
The organization would have been botched worse than Brock Lesnar's shooting star press. Even if McMahon did the right thing people still wouldn't believe that anything that happened in the UFC was real thanks to McMahon's influence. Was a great comeback really a great comeback or a fix? Questions like this as well as crossovers between WWE and UFC superstars that only blurred the lines between real and fake would plague the UFC and ultimately lead to it's demise.
The Ultimate Fighter reality show opened the eyes of testosterone laden youth's across the country to MMA and in doing so skyrocketed the UFC's popularity more so than anything else in the organization's history.
This was in large part due to the herculean efforts put forth by Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar in their fight to determine the winner of the reality series. The fight is the most storied in UFC history because of it's immense excitement and significance to the company.
But what if the fight was boring? What if both men played it safe and the fight ended up as a staring contest or worse, a "lay and pray" match?
The notoriously fickle demographic of youths would have likely turned their attention elsewhere. High schools and colleges across America where young men praised MMA would now be homes to MMA's derision. "Who wants to watch a bunch of half naked men hug each other anyway?" they would say.
The sport would never catch on with people; its one chance was blown.
Many don't know that the concept of "style vs. style" was nothing new in the United States when the UFC first did it in 1993. It had already been done in the 1960s.
In 1963 boxer Milo Savage took on Judoka Gene LeBell in what could be considered the first televised mixed martial arts fight in the United States. LeBell choked the boxer out but despite the fact that the gaping flaw of pure striking arts was shown to the world, grappling and the mixing of martial arts never caught on.
But what if it had? What if what happened in the early-mid '90s had happened in the early-mid '60s?
"MMA" (who knows what it would've been called in the '60s so we'll just stick with MMA) would have become the new boxing, in a bad way.
Without the authority and the vision of Dana White and the Fertita brothers as well as the Internet to aid the sport's growth, the sport falls prey to egotistic promoters and a veritable alphabet soup of organizations. While MMA enjoys a golden age due to many superstar boxers crossing over into the sport, it ultimately withers away and becomes largely irrelevant as a sport.
Bruce Lee is considered by many to be the grandfather of MMA since he pioneered mixing styles and knowing all the ranges of fighting.
Would MMA have ever come about had Bruce Lee never been born?
Yes but it still would have been different.
UFC 1 still would've happened since it was planned by Rorion Gracie, who wanted to show the dominance of his family's fighting system; this wasn't dependent on Bruce Lee existing.
However, many MMA fighters were inspired by Lee. Without him, MMA would have been robbed of many amazing characters.
Nevertheless, some "fighters" (put in quotes because in this reality they wouldn't be fighters) would manage to make themselves famous by sheer personality. In a world where there was no Bruce Lee, Bas Rutten would have had to make use of his degree from culinary school and, with his colorful personality, would've likely become a celebrity chef; Rutten's Kitchen Nightmare's anyone?
Everyone knows the story of Royce Gracie easily disposing of his opponents but, when one thinks about it,there was a tremendous amount of pressure on Royce Gracie in his first UFC fight against one-gloved boxer Art Jimmerson. The Gracie family's pride and financial future were dependent on Royce winning!
Gracie ended up winning UFC 1, 2, and 4 and in doing so helped to make MMA what it is today.
But what if Art Jimmerson managed to beat Gracie? What if the boxer unleashed a devastating combination that left the Brazilian flattened out on the canvas with his limbs starched? And what if Jimmerson ended up winning the whole tournament with his footwork and punching power?
The UFC and MMA may well have died that day.
The Gracie family would be shamed and Ken Shamrock would be humiliated.
The Gracie's would likely put on another show in which one of their family members was victorious but it wouldn't matter by then; "boxers are the real tough guys, not those losers in pajamas and those gay grapplers" the people would say.
Boxing would be the combat sport of choice for the foreseeable future. What a sad reality it would be.