MMA: The 25 Most Compelling "What Ifs" in the Sport's History
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?
These questions have previously been answered in a previous article detailing the 11 most compelling "what ifs" in MMA history but 11 simply wasn't enough; there were too many "what ifs" left unanswered.
Thus, here is an expanded version of the slideshow complete with 14 more "what ifs" for your reading pleasure as well as the original 11.
What If Gina Carano Beat Cristiane Cyborg Santos?
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 in the short term 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.
So, in the long run, Carano winning would have actually been worse for women's MMA since its popularity would be hinged upon the success of one fighter who would eventually abandon the sport for Hollywood and other ventures. Because the other female fighters were overshadowed by Carano, there wasn't anyone who could immediately take her place as the "face of women's MMA" and the sport would come close to perishing.
What If Kimbo Slice Had Beat Seth Petruzelli?
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 company's 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.
What If Fedor Emelianenko Made It to the UFC?
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 fighting in the cage rather than in 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 his 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.
What If Pride Hadn't Failed?
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.
What If Tito Ortiz Had Beat Chuck Liddell?
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.
What If Royce Gracie Had Won the 2000 Pride Grand Prix?
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."
What If Vince McMahon Had Bought the UFC?
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.
What If Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar Was Boring?
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.
What If MMA Had Become Popular in the 1960s?
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.
What If Bruce Lee Hadn't Been Born?
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?
What If Art Jimmerson Had Won UFC 1?
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.
What If Gabriel Gonzaga Never Knocked out Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic?
When Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic was brought into the UFC, he was being touted as a heavyweight Chuck Liddell and as a fighter who was practically invincible.
The Croat managed to defeat journeyman Eddie Sanchez in his UFC debut and was then matched up with Gabriel "Napao" Gonzaga at UFC 70. Despite the fact that Gonzaga was on a five-fight winning streak, everyone believed that the Brazilian was a sacrificial lamb for Filipovic.
What took place in the match was one of the most unanticipated and most classic head kick knockouts of all time. Gonzaga managed to knock out Filipovic with a crushing kick to the temple with only nine seconds remaining in the first round. This was ironic since it was the Croatian that had made a name for himself by knocking people out with head kicks.
The stunning victory earned Gonzaga a title shot, which, sadly, he didn't make good use of. He was dominated by then heavyweight champion Randy Couture and only went 3-4 after the loss en route being kicked from the UFC to retiring from the sport.
But what would have happened if fortunes were reversed and it was Cro Cop who landed his signature head kick knockout against Gonzaga?
On the back of such an epic KO victory, Cro Cop was given a title shot against Randy Couture, in which the kickboxer managed to knockout the aging Couture, which prompted Couture to retire permanently. Filipovic went on to successfully defend his title against Brock Lesnar by a crushing TKO. From the moment Lesnar got hit he began to run away.
However, Filipovic's victory was short-lived, since he ultimately lost his heavyweight title to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira via submission. Filipovic's decline began shortly after this fight until his career ended with a string of terrible knockout losses. Nevertheless, he retired a UFC heavyweight champion and his legacy managed to remain untarnished because of that.
What If Wanderlei Silva Beat Tito Ortiz at UFC 25?
Few MMA fans realize that Wanderlei Silva—famous for his exploits in Japan—actually fought in the UFC twice before becoming the legendary figure he would become in Pride.
It is Silva's fight at UFC 25 that is most interesting since it pitted him against Tito Ortiz—only 4-2 at the time—in a fight for the UFC's light heavyweight championship.
Ortiz managed to beat Silva by decision which started the Huntington Beach Bad Boy's reign of dominance in the UFC.
What would have happened if Silva had managed to beat Ortiz?
Wanderlei Silva would have become the UFC Light Heavyweight Champion and as such would've enjoyed a significant uptick in name recognition and popularity. Despite the Brazilian's limited English skills, his fighting style would've managed to draw the same fans that Ortiz's brashness did.
Wanderlei Silva becomes one of the faces of MMA along with other notable light heavyweights such as Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell, the latter of which has an epic rivalry with Silva which is finally settled at UFC 66, where Liddell narrowly edges Silva and wins the rubber-match.
Ortiz, having lost two straight, leaves the UFC for greener pastures in Japan and becomes a superstar in the Pride organization, winning their middleweight championship. His path still manages to cross with Liddell's since the two finally meet at UFC 79 in one of the most-hyped matches in MMA history. Although both men were past their primes by then, Liddell proves one better than Ortiz and earns a decision victory.
What If Matt Serra's Fight in Pride Hadn't Been Canceled?
It is not a well-known fact that former UFC Welterweight Champion Matt "The Terror" Serra was set to compete in Pride before his stint in the UFC. What happened? In a freak accident akin to the one where Micheal Jackson's hair caught fire, Serra's opponent was temporarily blinded in a pyrotechnics accident and was forced out of the bout at the last minute.
A replacement was unavailable so Serra was left wanting. He eventually found his way to the UFC where he most notably pulled off the biggest upset in UFC history against Georges St-Pierre to win the UFC welterweight title.
But what if Serra's fight hadn't been canceled? What if the accident didn't happen or a replacement was found?
Serra would have a fairly decent career that remained in Japan and would bring his brother Nick Serra and other standouts from his gym, such as Luke Cummo and Pete Sell, along with him.
However, Serra never joining the UFC would have an adverse effect on St-Pierre and his career. Without Serra to knock sense back into St-Pierre, St-Pierre grows lazy and never becomes as dedicated as he is today. He becomes a fighter who doesn't train seriously because he feels he is talented enough already to win without training.
This attitude spells trouble when GSP fights Jon Fitch and gets completely outworked, losing his title in the process. GSP rebounds briefly but ultimately never reaches his full potential since he just never becomes consistent enough; the question asked before each of his fights is, "Which GSP is showing up to fight, motivated or unmotivated?"
What If Chuck Liddell Knocked out Rampage Jackson at UFC 71?
Chuck Liddell vs. Quinton "Rampage" Jackson II was one of the most anticipated fights in the history of the UFC light heavyweight division for the simple reason that Jackson had actually beaten Liddell via TKO four years prior.
Since then, Liddell became one of the most iconic figures in the sport but fans who were in the know still remembered that Rampage did, and still could, beat "The Iceman."
When the two met a second time, the result was the same but even more convincing of a loss for Liddell. Rampage knocked him out with a single punch at the 1:53 mark in the first round.
What if Liddell had won that fight? Would things have been different?
Not too different. Liddell's superiority over the light heavyweight division is short lived; he suffers a devastating knockout courtesy of Dan Henderson's "H-bomb" (aka his powerful right hand) at UFC 75.
Henderson's superior wrestling base and powerful punching allows him to defend the belt against a multitude of contenders such as Forrest Griffin and Rashad Evans. Henderson attempts to capture the middleweight belt as well but falls short to Anderson Silva. On the rebound he defends his title against Lyoto Machida and grinds out a controversial split decision.
However, Henderson doesn't make use of the victory; He prices himself out of the UFC during contract negotiations and winds up in Strikeforce where his reputation diminishes until the organization is purchased and promoted by Zuffa.
Thus, in this alternate reality, Chuck Liddell defeating Rampage Jackson at UFC 71 changed little; No alternate scenario can stop the passage of time and the diminishing of a fighter's chin and abilities.
What If Ken Shamrock Never Left the UFC for the WWE?
Ken Shamrock was one of the biggest stars in the early days of the UFC but he didn't use his status as an MMA star to help the sport but rather he used it to help only himself, parlaying his success at MMA into a professional wrestling career (which, ironically, was his original goal that he abandoned to pursue MMA).
Shamrock's run in pro wrestling accomplished little for the "World's Most Dangerous Man" and cost Shamrock much of his health; his injuries acquired during his WWE stint helped to make Shamrock a shell of the fighter he once was.
Shamrock left MMA in 1996 and returned in 2000, fighting in Pride. He only went 2-2 there, with his most notable fight for the organization being a split decision loss to Don Frye, a fight which is considered to be the "last hurrah" of both men.
After fighting in Pride, Shamrock returned to the UFC where he went 1-4 (with yet another Pride fight—a loss to Kazushi Sakuraba—squeezed in between the five UFC fights, making his Pride record 2-3). Shamrock's only UFC win in the Zuffa era was against the aged, mediocre Kimo Leopoldo. Three of his four losses were suffered in a feud against then light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz. Shamrock' career suffered an inglorious descent after that...
What if Ken Shamrock had never left the sport that made him so famous?
After John McCain nearly destroyed the UFC, Shamrock still would've left for Japan to seek a greater fortune. He would've very likely stayed in Japan since he was a superstar there initially and his fame would only grow as the popularity of MMA in Japan skyrocketed along with the birth and growth of Pride.
Shamrock would even go on to compete in the famous Pride 2000 grand prix where he would meet Royce Gracie for a third time, finally managing to best the Brazilian in a 90 minute match in which Gracie's corner threw in the towel due to exhaustion.
Shamrock would defeat Don Frye in their epic match at Pride 19 and would then challenge Tito Ortiz for his light heavyweight championship at UFC 40. Ortiz would be awarded with an extremely controversial split decision victory; many believed the fight was fixed to protect the more marketable Ortiz.
The controversy over the decision only helps to add fuel to the fire of the Ortiz-Shamrock feud but by the time of their second fight Shamrock wasn't the man he used t be. He loses via TKO in the second and last fight to Ortiz.
Shamrock would eventually return to Japan for freakshow matches and an occassional professional wrestling match or two. While he wouldn't become rich, he wouldn't become practically bankrupt in this time line either.
What If Catch Wrestling Remained Popular in Its Birthplace, the UK?
In an ironic twist of fate, catch wrestling—which would eventually evolve into modern day collegiate wrestling—actually had its origins in England. The irony is of course that wrestling is something that British fighters severely lack in moder mixed martial arts.
But what would have happened to the MMA world if catch wrestling (known as Lancashire catch-as-catch-can) had stayed popular in England as well as the UK in general and did not succumb to boxing and the Marquess of Queensbury?
The sport would have been radically different.
With wrestling having its western roots in the UK, there is yet another market that appreciated and held early MMA competitions. This brought the total to three, Brazil, the UK, and Japan.
The UFC still starts in 1993 in the United States but before it can be purchased by Zuffa and built up into a juggernaut, an ambitious English television studio came up with an idea; Have a reality show based around competing MMA fighters.
The show is a hit in England but fails to win over support with the Yanks. An American studio attempts to make an Americanized version of the show which earns decent ratings but fails to kindle the flame of the sport.
Thus, with too many global hotbeds for MMA and not one organization with the power to rule them all, the sport remains fractured and stays that way. In the United States, it becomes a fad akin to slamball or some other sport.
What If Fedor Emelianenko Fought Randy Couture Outside of the UFC?
When Pride finally fell in 2007, the biggest question on the minds of MMA fans was whether or not Pride heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko would fight in the UFC. The fight that was on everyone's minds was was an epic clash of champions, UFC heavyweight champion Randy Couture vs the Pride champ Emelianenko.
However, Emelianenko never made it to the UFC and when Couture "retired" from the UFC and tried to fight outside of the organization, he was stymied be the Zuffa's superlative legal efforts.
Thus, the match of the century never came to pass...but what if it had? What if Couture had managed to avoid his legal obstacles and meet the Russian sambo expert in a fight not underneath the UFC's banner?
The fight would've taken place at the Affliction promotion's inaugural event. While the fight would provide a significant amount of hype and would be moderately exciting—it took Fedor only 3:23 to submit Couture—it would ultimately fail to bring in the pay-per-view buys of more than just the hardcore fans.
Affliction would eventually fold and Emelianenko would make the Strikeforce organization his new home. Couture, for his treachery, was never allowed back in the UFC and became a figure in the organization's history that was never spoken of or referenced, much like Frank Shamrock.
The official Zuffa line is that Couture left over money. His "Captain America" moniker is used pejoritavely by "Zuffa zombies;" Couture is "Captain America" because of his purported desire to achieve money above all else.
What a sad end for one of the sport's first legends...
What If B.J. Penn Had Beat Frankie Edgar?
If there was one thing that was certain heading into UFC 112, it was that then UFC lightweight champion B.J. Penn was going to smash Frankie Edgar in their title fight. Edgar had other plans.
"The Answer" managed to elude and frustrate "The Prodigy" with speed and footwork en route to a shocking unanimous decision victory. If this wasn't enough, lightning struck twice at UFC 118. An immediate rematch took place between the two combatants at that event since many thought Edgar-Penn I was a fluke.
The second fight looked like a replay of the first, with Edgar constantly beating Penn to the punch and just proving too quick and elusive for Penn overall. The fight sent B.J. Penn's career into limbo and set up a match between the champion, Edgar, and Gray Maynard that ended in a thrilling draw.
What would have happened if Penn had managed to smash Edgar at UFC 112 like everyone thought he would?
With the crushing defeat, Edgar rethinks his role in the sport and decides to drop to featherweight. He tears up the WEC featherweight division—which eventually becomes the UFC featherweight division—and eventually captures the title from Jose Aldo at UFC 129.
B.J. Penn's triumphant rule of the lightweight division is short-lived, he gets dominated by the superior wrestling of Gray Maynard. Penn's career stalls out after the loss while Maynard's takes off. However, despite Maynard's numerous title defenses, his "boring" grinding/wrestling style never gets over with fans and the lightweight division falls out of favor with many fans.
What If Royce Gracie Beat Matt Hughes?
Matt Hughes was once one of the most dominant champions in UFC history. Throughout the early and mid 2000s, Hughes dispatched of nearly all fighters he faced until the UFC was forced to bring in a legend from the of days of the sport, Royce Gracie.
The fight—which took place at UFC 60 and was actually a non-title fight—garnered a significant amount of hype but turned out to be a mismatch; Hughes steamrolled over Gracie, winning by TKO at 4:39 of round one (and it was a TKO because Hughes opted to be a gentleman and not break Gracie's arm).
Later in the year Hughes would defeat B.J. Penn but lose to a resurgent Georges St-Pierre. Gracie would lick his wounds for a year and then avenge his loss to Kazushi Sakuraba. but the Brazilian's legacy would be tarnished due to testing positive for anabolic steroids.
Would fate have changed much if Gracie had made a triumphant return to the octagon?
A Gracie victory would've enabled the Brazilian to ride off into the sunset with a reputation that surpassed legendary; he would've beaten one of the greatest champions of all time!
However, Gracie's victory would also slow the growth of the sport since, thanks to his win, pure Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioners undergo a massive ego enlargement and feel that they do not need to cross-train in other aspects of fighting. Thus, BJJ players wind up losing ground to fighters from other disciplines who take in as many other arts as they can. When Dave "Pee-Wee" Herman asks if jiu-jitsu even works in MMA anymore, he is met with acclaim rather than laughs.
What If Zuffa Hadn't Purchased the UFC?
While the UFC was initially popular amongst martial arts enthusiasts an others upon its creation in 1993, it drew the ire of many hypocritical moralizers who managed to get it outlawed from many states and removed from many pay-per-view carriers.
Under these circumstances, the UFC and the company that owned it, the Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG), couldn't remain financially viable. In 2001, a financially beleaguered SEG finally rid itself of the money sink that was the UFC, selling it to the Fertita Brothers and Dana White and their company, Zuffa.
The meteoric rise of the UFC from that point on is well known but what would've happened if the Fertitas decided to not by the fledgling promotion?
The UFC would've gone bust but MMA would have still existed albeit in a limited capacity. It wouldn't have achieved mainstream recognition if not for a fortuitous circumstance: the 2007–2008 Writers Guild of America strike.
CBS, sensing that a writer's strike was near and that NBC had American Gladiators as a proverbial ace up its sleeve, sought to provide the most captivating and exciting content that didn't require writers: Fighting.
Seeking to have complete control over production rather than work with an existing promotion, CBS decides to purchase the rights to the UFC name; the MMA phoenix rises from the ashes. Who runs the organization for CBS? None other than a former boxercise instructor named Dana White.
With a major network backing the promotion, the popularity of the UFC soars exponentially.
What If Antonio Inoki Beat Muhammad Ali?
In 1976, the most famous precursor to an MMA fight took place. This fight was between boxing heavyweight champion Muhammad and famous Japanese professional wrestler/submission grappler Antonio Inoki.
There is still a significant amount of controversy over whether or not the fight was meant to be fixed as well as other circumstances. All that is known for sure is that the rules were changed shortly before the fight and were severely limiting to Inoki. The two most important rules were the ones that decreed that Inoki could not take Ali down and could only kick if one of his own knees were on the ground.
Due to the absurd rules, the fight was a dud. Inoki spent nearly the whole time on his back throwing kicks at Ali's legs while Ali taunted him. Many did not know of the rule change and simply assumed that a grappler was clearly no match for a striker.
But what would've happened if the rules weren't changed and Muhammad Ali was taken down and submitted by Antonio Inoki?
Grappling would have caught on with the United States after many Americans saw Ali humiliated.
Many submission wrestling/early MMA promotions would begin to rise up across the United States, with each dominating a particular region. Vince McMahon Sr.'s promotion, the WWWF (later renamed to just the WWF) does well in the northeast but begins to expand out of its turf upon the ascension of Vince McMahon Jr. to the helm of the company.
The WWF does increasingly well until a rivalry forms with the WCW promotion. The WWF's style of flashy gimmicks for their fighters with less actual fighting ability as well as the rumors that McMahon fixes many of the fights doom the WWF.
The WCW and the "southern style" of submission wrestling which emphasizes technique and fighting skill over hyping fights and "storylines" ultimately wins out and eventually the sport of submission wrestling becomes diverse enough to earn a new moniker: Mixed martial arts.
What If Fedor Emelianenko Had Beat Fabricio Werdum?
One of the greatest upsets in MMA history was Fabrcio Werdum submitting Fedor Emelianenko, a man many thought was practically invincible. Due to the circumstances of the upset (Fedor had rocked the Brazilian but then made a costly mistake by hanging out in his guard), many felt it was just a fluke.
These same people believed that Fedor would return to form against another Brazilian, Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva. This wasn't so. Fedor was dominated for the first two rounds and the doctor was forced to stop the fight. Fedor's reputation as a living god died that day.
But what would've happened if Emelianenko had beat Werdum?
People would have still criticized Fedor for not fighting top competition...that is until he would've faced K-1 champion Alistair Overeem.
Fedor loses to the far stronger and quicker Overeem by TKO. Strikeforce attempts to resurrect Fedor's reputation by giving him an easy win against Chad Griggs, but that only furthers the notion that the Russian was a can-crusher all along.
How unforgiving MMA fans can be when a fighter loses but once...
What If James Toney Had Knocked out Randy Couture?
If the early UFC events weren't enough to settle the grappler vs. striker debate for some people, the UFC settled it again at UFC 118 when boxing champion James "Lights Out" Toney met former UFC champion Randy "The Natural" Couture.
The answer to the debate was still the same in 2010 as it was in 2011: the grappler embarrassed the striker; Couture took Toney down and submitted him. The latter didn't even land a punch nor did he know how to tap out (instead he "waved out" of Couture's arm triangle).
Toney was dismissed from the UFC (but didn't stop running his mouth) and yet another nail was added to boxing's coffin.
But what would have happened if Toney had devastated Couture?
Toney would have been on top of the world and would've kept running his mouth for practically all eternity.
Toney's trash talk would've angered Quinton "Rampage" Jackson enough for Jackson to put his aspirations of UFC light heavyweight gold on hold and meet Toney in a catchweight bout.
Foolishly, Rampage stands in front of Toney and boxes with him; he doesn't mix up his attack with kicks, knees, elbows, clinch work and dirty boxing! Due to this unfortunate circumstance, Toney knocks out Rampage. A 2-0 boxer in MMA beat two former UFC champs.
While Toney eventually loses and is released from the organization, it takes nearly a decade for MMA to recover from the two horrible losses.
What If Dana White Had Never Been Born?
Dana White is perhaps THE key figure in the growth of the UFC and of mixed martial arts. It was White who convinced the Fertitas to purchase the UFC and it was White who guided the promotion through tough times and continues to guide it into its rosy future.
But what if he hadn't been born?
Without White, the Fertitas would never get into the MMA business and, in the United States, the sport would exist only in backwater casinos and other shady venues. While the sport would be popular in Japan for several years, it would prove to be a fad and would die out. Saddest of all is that many of the fighters who used MMA as their salvation would suffer grim fates without the sport (as would many wrestlers who wouldn't have an outlet for their skills).
What a horrible world it would be where the letters "U", "F" and "C" mean nothing!
Matt Saccaro is a Bleacher Report featured columnist and an avid MMA fan. For articles like the one above and for brilliant 140-character insights into MMA, follow him on twitter @mattsaccaro