The 50 Most Important Events in MMA History
As we near the middle of 2012, it never ceases to amaze me at just how far the sport has come since the early '90s, when the UFC first came to be.
The sport has expanded greatly since then, enjoying high periods of prosperity and suffering low periods of interest, and all that comes in between.
Through it all, it’s the fights that have sustained the fans, to be sure, but there has been so much more to it than that.
Here is a look at what I think have been the 50 most important events in the history of the sport.
You will notice that I have focused almost solely upon the happenings of the sport since its inception in America, as that is the time frame that I know best.
There are no doubt many important events—and for the sake of this piece, events are not just fight cards, but moments in time pertaining to many aspects of the sport—that occurred before the UFC came into being, especially in Brazil and Japan; but they have not been included here because I am not a native of either Brazil or Japan, and thus cannot accurately gauge their importance.
So read and hopefully enjoy, and of course please do share your opinions, for this is not my sport, but our sport, and yours is just as good as mine, if not more so.
No. 50: UFC Undisputed Video Game
Even though many people regard video games as a childish pursuit, they are also a signpost of mainstream acceptance in today’s day and age.
When they sell at a high rate, they become even more: a possible franchise that further exposes the sport to new fans while thrilling those firmly set in the rank and file.
UFC Undisputed, for both the PS3 and the XBOX 360, did all of that and more.
It sold much better than anyone thought it would, and in doing so, it appealed to a new audience of action fans who found the fighters they battled with so attractive that they began to follow their real life counterparts in the sport.
The game became proof positive that the sport could set its hooks into just about anyone; that it was so compelling that it could be translated into any medium and find success.
Now, it is in its third incarnation and so well built that it is used to predict upcoming fights with a surprising degree of accuracy.
There may come a time soon when fans get together to play out fight cards in their entirety before watching the PPV, prognosticating with a digital aid that is as close to real as it gets.
No. 49: The Inception of the UFC Hall of Fame
Many older fans remember UFC 45 mainly as the night that Matt Hughes made his fifth successful title defense against bitter rival Frank Trigg.
But another event of equal, if not greater, importance occurred: the establishment of the UFC Hall of Fame.
Inducted were two of the true founders and fathers of the sport, Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock.
The night also recognized Randy Couture as the most popular fighter in the company.
But above all else, it was a fitting beginning for the recognition of those fighters who put the good of the sport above all else and made it their sole end.
Since that night many other fighters have been inducted, and years from now fans may be able to travel to Vegas and see the shrines made for those fighters who have fought hard to make the sport great, just like boxing fans.
No. 48: UFC on DVD
When the UFC finally started releasing their events on DVD, it was a sure sign that the company was progressing forward, intent on delivering to the fans what they craved: unlimited access to those events that made the sport so near and dear to their hearts.
While not everyone could afford a PPV, they could buy the DVD for much cheaper, watching it as often as they liked.
This was important because it allowed the faithful to spread the word the best way possible: by showing instead of telling.
VCRs were on the way out, and the UFC on DVD was very important; not only as a signpost of things to come, but because it showed that the company was more than willing to give the fans what they wanted.
Now, if only they will take the next step and begin releasing all singular events in Blu-ray format as well.
After all, this was a sport made for high-definition.
No. 47: UFC Primetime
When it was announced that GSP would attempt to make his second successful title defense against BJ Penn, it was rightly thought to be the biggest fight in the history of the sport.
The UFC took this and ran with it, delivering what has now become a staple in their promotional efforts: UFC Primetime.
Primetime is perhaps the perfect storytelling vehicle. It rivals Boxing’s 24/7 in all the good ways, and more importantly it builds the drama of big fights, making them even bigger by humanizing those fighters who can seem larger than life.
Slick, polished, compelling and fun as hell to watch, Primetime is the ultimate primer for the ultimate combative sport.
No. 46: Eddie Bravo Submits Royler Gracie
If there is one name in the world of MMA that is synonymous with greatness and tradition, it is that of the Gracie family.
Producing more high-level jiu-jitsu experts and teachers than any other family before them, the Gracies and their academies are the Ivy League of submission grappling.
They are generous with their family art and seem to be the happiest group of men and women in the sport. And they are even happier when they are fighting or competing.
And they rarely lose.
In the sport of MMA, where striking is allowed, they have enjoyed victory and defeat, but on the mats, in jiu-jitsu competition, a Gracie losing was so rare that you had a better chance of giving a Kodiak grizzly bear a noogie than you had of witnessing their defeat.
All of that changed when Eddie Bravo submitted one of the Gracie family’s best, Royler, at the ADCC.
It was an excellent match to watch if you are a fan of grappling. And when Bravo slapped on that triangle leg choke, you almost couldn’t believe your eyes.
It was the first time an American had defeated a Gracie by submission, and it is still talked about to this day.
Of course, many fans still attribute Bravo’s victory to the greatness of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu; after all, Bravo was trained by JJ Machado, and he in turn was trained by a Gracie himself.
But on that night, Bravo proved that the art of jiu-jitsu was no longer the sole providence of the native sons and daughters of Brazil.
Afterwards, it was clear that jiu-jitsu had become so widespread that it belonged to everyone who had the dedication and heart to claim it.
No. 45: JJ Machado and the ADCC in 1999
Staying with a theme, we consider the second ever meeting of the ADCC, or Abu Dhabi Combat Club, a competition of the world’s greatest submission grapplers.
In 1998 Sheik Tahnoon Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, student of Nelson Monteiro, fell in love with the art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to the extent that he founded the ultimate submission grappling competition—a Superbowl level event for submission grappling purists and MMA fans alike: the ADCC.
Then in 1999 a Brazilian named JJ Machado brought the ADCC to a new level of notoriety with his incredible performance, which was inspiring not only for the incredible skill he displayed, but by the handicap he overcame: that of having no fingers on his left hand.
He defeated notable fighters such as Caro Uno and Hayato Sakurai, both by rear naked choke, almost effortlessly.
Not only did he win his division by a country mile, but he also won the award for the most technical grappler at the event.
Thanks to his dominant display, the ADCC was the featured event in more than a few martial arts magazines, which was big time exposure back in 1999.
To this day the ADCC is a highly-sought proving ground for those practitioners who want to showcase their skills outside the world of competitive MMA.
Fighters and jiu-jitsu standouts such as Renzo Gracie, Royler Gracie, Eddie Bravo, Matt Serra, Matt Hughes, Tito Ortiz, Mark Kerr, Ricardo Arona, Mario Sperry, Enson Inoue, Vitor Belfort, Jeff Monson, Josh Barnett, Ricco Rodriguez, Dean Lister, Nate Marquardt, Matt Lindland, Diego Sanchez and countless others have all come to the ADCC to test their skills.
Some of the best grappling matches in history have occurred on ADCC mats, and they probably will for many years to come.
No. 44: TUF Season 7 / UFC 86
As The Ultimate Fighter reality show continued to roll along, season 7 reintroduced a familiar face: the winner of the first season, Forrest Griffin.
Griffin was set against reigning champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson in the tried and true battle of coaches and their teams.
One of the reasons why that season was so important is that it saw the fighters battle their way into the house, thus weeding out those whose desire did not match the dedication needed for the competition.
And it also showcased one of the greatest Cinderella stories the show has ever seen: that of underdog turned show winner, Amir Sadollah.
Sadollah fought and defeated four highly skilled opponents during the show, each time overcoming serious deficits in experience, strength and skill.
Then it was time for the coaches to finally do battle for the UFC light heavyweight title at UFC 86.
Mirroring the show Forrest Griffin pulled off the upset, defeating Jackson via decision in a hard fought battle.
Griffin became the first ever TUF contestant to win a title belt, save for Matt Serra from Season 4.
From start to finish, season 7 and UFC 86 provided an exceptional experience for viewers, proving that the TUF fighters were winning respect the old fashioned way: fighting for it.
No. 43: Pulver Defeats Penn at UFC 35
BJ Penn may be sitting on the sidelines right now, but for fans who remember when he burst onto the scene in a way that makes Jon Jones' rise to stardom seem slow, we’re just thankful he didn’t retire years ago.
Why would I say something like that?
Because heading into his first ever title fight at UFC 35, he was a heavy favorite to defeat reigning champ Jens Pulver, and after Penn had only been fighting a little over a year with the company.
Had Penn defeated Pulver that night, he would have achieved the unthinkable for one so new to the sport.
And by his own admission, he was planning on retiring after he won the belt that night. For Penn, given how easily he had mowed through the best the lightweight division had to offer at the time, a victory over Pulver seemed to be a given.
Thankfully, Pulver proved himself one tough cookie, made of several ingredients that Penn had never had to deal with.
With the win, Pulver pulled off an upset and also gave Penn some pause when it came to thinking about retirement.
That in turn allowed us to keep on watching one of the best lightweight fighters the world has ever seen.
Penn would come back and capture the welterweight title and finally the lightweight title.
Had he defeated Pulver, he probably would have ridden off into the sunset, bored with the sport he had dominated so easily, and we would not have gotten to see Penn do what he does best: fight hard against the best.
No. 42: UFC 33 "Decisions, Decisions..."
After the wake of the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the American fans of the sport and the UFC came out in droves to “get back in the saddle,” as the saying goes.
They were determined that the terrorists wouldn’t change the way the lived their lives, and to celebrate they focused on UFC 33.
In the March issue of UFC magazine (issue 13), Dana White said:
The problem was every fight on that card sucked. The place was going crazy waiting for anything to happen—and nothing happened. I’m not kidding. Every fight went to a decision. Lying on the ground—horrible, boring bullshit.
And on top of that, the fights went so long that we went over our pay-per-view window. So the title fight that night, people didn’t see the last three rounds. A lot of people wanted their money back. I was so depressed I almost did a backflip off Mandalay Bay.
The UFC bounced back from this of course, doing what they are supposed to do: putting their heads down, pushing forward and giving us the fights.
But to this day, UFC 33 is the one event that has never been offered on VHS or DVD in America by Zuffa.
And in a sport as chaotic as MMA, sometimes the things that go wrong are every bit as defining and important as the things that go right.
And on the night of UFC 33, everything went wrong.
No 41: Running out of Time at UFC 4
In the early days of the UFC, one of the main points of interest was the fact that fights could go on as long as they needed to.
It was the time of Royce Gracie, reigning and undefeated UFC champion; a man who could do it all and didn’t want to be hampered by time limits or needless rules.
That kind of thinking took a disappointing turn during the final fight of the night, Dan Severn vs. Royce Gracie.
As the fight began, there was only twelve minutes left of the three hour pay-per-view window.
Three minutes before Gracie pulled off the most dramatic upset the young sport had ever seen—defeating Severn from the bottom thanks to a then never-before-seen triangle leg choke—the PPV went dark in most major markets.
The customers in those markets figured Severn had won, as he had been dominating Royce easily. When they found out they had been “robbed” of the dramatic finish, the calls for refunds began in earnest.
Another mistake made, and an all-important lesson learned.
No. 40: Jon Jones Begins His Reign at UFC 128
If there is one saying that really seems to belong in the sport of MMA, it’s “he who dares, wins.”
And in 2011 Jon Jones was very daring indeed.
Just a little over a month earlier, Jones had defeated Ryan Bader via guillotine choke in another shockingly one-sided victory. He was then offered a shot at the title against Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.
Shogun had been slated to defend his belt against Jones' training partner Rashad Evans, but due to an injury, Evans had to pull out.
Jones seized the opportunity, and on March 19th, 2011, he took Shogun to the butcher shop and showed him how the sausage gets made.
From the start of their bout, Jones was damaging Shogun, taking all the fire out of him. The first solid blow he landed—a jumping knee strike to the face of Shogun—set the tone for the fight.
After that initial blow, Shogun was never really the same.
He fought with all the heart he could muster but was simply outgunned by Jones. He had no answers for how to beat the young challenger, who battered him almost at will, using his superior grappling game and longer frame to maximum advantage.
The fight was stopped in round three as Shogun wilted against the cage under the relentless onslaught and the era of Jon Jones, UFC light heavyweight champion, had officially began.
Since then, Jones has defended his title three times and shows no sign of slowing down.
Poised to become the longest reigning light heavyweight champion the UFC has seen, this night is important because this is where it all started; the night we saw a future pound-for-pound great taking the title by storm.
No. 39: UFC Adds Bantamweight and Featherweight Divisions
For what seemed to be a needlessly long time, two of the most exciting weight classes—bantamweight and featherweight—seemed doomed to forever toil under the lesser lights and smaller stage of the Zuffa’s other promotion, the WEC.
Finally, that all changed when Dana White announced that the company was going to be bringing those fighters into the fold and thereby expanded the number of weight classes from five to seven.
The smaller men were finally on the big stage, and it was long overdue.
Since that time, fighters like Jose Aldo, Dominick Cruz, Urijah Faber and others have thrilled us with their fast pace and razor sharp skills.
The fighters from the WEC proved to be every bit as skilled as their UFC counterparts, defeating longtime UFC fighters such as Clay Guida, Frankie Edgar, Kenny Florian and others.
Very soon, the flyweight division will be decided and a champion crowned, giving the UFC eight total divisions, which in turn will bring in more talent from other countries such as Japan, where most of the best fighters are smaller.
In their pursuit for global dominance, nothing could have been more important than expanding their divisions to recognize the greatness of fighters who, at their best, are weighing in south of the lightweight limit.
No. 38: The Return of Royce Gracie at UFC 60
Just when it seemed that there were no new big names for Matt Hughes to face in the welterweight division, Royce Gracie accepted a lucrative offer from Dana White and Zuffa, and came back to the house he helped build.
After years away, the news spread and just about every kind of Royce Gracie fan you can imagine started to get giddy.
They even managed to talk themselves into believing that Royce had more than an even chance of defeating the reigning champion.
Royce coming back to the UFC was huge for all the obvious reasons, but perhaps the biggest was that it showed that the UFC could still compete with Pride FC when it came to pulling in the big names.
It also signified the passing of the torch from Royce to Hughes, who battered the Brazilian legend relentlessly after controlling him on the ground easily.
But no matter how badly Royce got handled, it was still a treat to see him in the octagon once again; and boy did it bring back memories.
He will always be the first, and he will never be forgotten.
No. 37: The End of an Era Comes as Tito Ortiz Retires at UFC 148
What started on May 30th, 1997, comes to a somber conclusion on July 7th, 2012.
Tito Ortiz will step into the octagon for the last time at UFC 148, facing off against fan-favorite Forrest Griffin in the third part of their trilogy.
It will be the last time we see Tito carry his flag into the cage, and it will be the last time we see him wearing his trademark flame shorts.
It will also be the last time we either see him win or lose on the stage that has seen him win and lose on many occasions.
When you think about it with due calm and focus, Ortiz has seen just about every era the UFC has known.
He has seen the rise and fall of fight teams; the sale of the company to Zuffa; bitter feuds with Ken Shamrock, Chuck Liddell, Dana White and Forrest Griffin; meager and mega paydays; the beginning of the Ultimate Fighter; and the slowly building explosion in popularity the sport has enjoyed over the years, usually one day at a time.
Tito has seen both the highs and lows of the sport, spending time atop the light heavyweight division as a five-time defending champion, and near the bottom of the division as a fighter on a long-time losing skid.
And through it all, he's been putting butts in seats, wearing his inflammatory tee-shirts, talking his smack and doing it his way.
When Ortiz exits the cage for the last time at UFC 148, you can be assured of one thing: even though many dislike him for obvious reasons, we are all going to miss him, even if we don't know it.
Because when he leaves, he's taking with him a piece of the sport we've been counting on for nearly fifteen years, even if we couldn't name or recognize it.
And then suddenly we can because that which Ortiz has is the "it" factor; that magical, unquantifiable, nearly impossible to ignore quality that allows a man to transcend what should be limitations.
And that is what made Ortiz such a star.
No. 36: The Final Fight of Chuck Liddell at UFC 115
Much like his former training partner, Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell enjoyed a rich career that is still respected by friends and enemies alike.
His fight bout with the UFC came at UFC 17 and from that point on, he was a fighter the company could count on, no matter who owned it.
His career is just as synonymous with the history of the UFC as those of Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture, Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie. The blue shorts, the Mohawk, the victory cross…all of it signature Chuck Liddell.
But perhaps the thing that truly signified Liddell the most was the way he destroyed his opponents. The men he defeated comprises a who's-who list of MMA greats: Kevin Randleman, Randy Couture, Tito Ortiz, Alistair Overeem, Jose Landi-Jons, Wanderlei Silva, Vitor Belfort, Guy Mezger and many others all suffered defeat at the hands of “The Ice Man.”
Of course, time eventually bests the best of us, and Liddell started to grow old. He began losing fights he would have won in his prime, and near the end it was clear that it was time for him to hang up his gloves.
Most fighters miss the game when they leave it. What probably made it easier for Liddell was the knowledge that no one could ever replace him.
No. 35: Zuffa Returns to Japan for UFC 144
For several years the land of the rising sun has been full of fans fully devoted to the sport of MMA.
It’s a country that has enjoyed a rich history with the sport, and companies like Pride FC, DREAM, the Pancrase organization and others have been homes to some of the greatest fighters the sport has ever seen.
And no matter what it seemed like, Dana White and Zuffa had never lost sight of that.
For a long time they worked to return to Japan, aware of the market that awaited them in the void of big promotions and great fighters.
At UFC 144 the octagon finally made a triumphant return to Japan.
It was a great night of fights and a new beginning for the UFC and it’s relationship with Japan, and it proved that even bitter rivalries can be overcome when two sides share the same appreciation and passion for a single thing.
When the UFC returns, it seems obvious that they will build upon a solid foundation of support from the Japanese fans who long to see their native sons fighting for championship gold on what is now the biggest stage in the sport.
And with the new weight classes, there is more than a sporting chance we will see a Japanese fighter wearing a UFC title belt.
No. 34: UFC 118 Finally Provides an Answer to the Question
For a long time, more than a few boxers talked about the inadequacies of MMA, and vice versa. Fighters always look for their rivals, and so it goes with their respective sports.
At UFC 118, one boxer had the nerve to attempt and back up all the hard talk.
James Toney stepped into the octagon as the most dangerous and accomplished striker the sport of MMA had ever played host to, and playing host was exactly what it was.
No one really had any illusions as to what was going to happen.
James Toney was taken down by the legendary Randy Couture, and then submitted by an arm triangle choke in short order.
Many thought it to be an indulgent moment for Dana White; the freak show he never said he would entertain, yet there it was.
It wasn’t important to the division, and it wasn’t important to the fans themselves because the outcome was really never in doubt.
Boxing will always be around, enjoying the same highs and lows as MMA, albeit at different times.
But at UFC 118, both sides were unified for a few minutes: They came together because they eventually had to.
And that’s what made it important. It answered the question and then cleared it from the blackboard.
It was important because it allowed the fans and the company to get back to the business of MMA fighters in MMA fights.
The fight provided no real losers on that night: only a healthy separation between two sports who will forever share parts of the same family tree.
No. 33: Randy Couture Unifies the Titles at UFC 44
When Tito Ortiz defeated Ken Shamrock at UFC 40, everyone was trying to imagine how the champ would deal with Chuck Liddell, the fighter next in line.
When Ortiz began talking about re-negotiations based on a friendship, the fans quickly learned that he had not intention of dealing with Liddell at all.
Thus, after Couture defeated Liddell and became the interim light heavyweight champion, a problem arose.
Who is the real champion?
Tito Ortiz stepped into the octagon to face Randy Couture and decide the matter.
After twenty-five minutes, Couture was declared the undisputed UFC light heavyweight champ after dominating Ortiz in every area of the fight.
The reign of Ortiz had come to an end, and a new beginning was ushered in the only way it could be in a fight sport: violently.
The division had a clear-cut title holder and the championship would no longer suffer the identity crisis that comes with two belts and two champions instead of one.
No. 32: Frank Shamrock and Kazushi Sakuraba Emerge at UFC: Ultimate Japan
When the UFC went to Japan for the first time, it was with the hopes that they could cultivate a new market. They also went to crown the first ever middleweight champion.
When the smoke cleared, the event had seen the birth of two fighters who would become MMA legends.
Frank Shamrock and Kazushi Sakuraba both earned titles that night. Shamrock became the first ever middleweight champion by quickly defeating heavily favored Olympic gold medalist Kevin Jackson via armbar in under thirty seconds, while Sakuraba won the heavyweight tournament by defeating Conan Silveira via armbar.
Shamrock would go on to defend the title four times before “retiring” from the company, while Sakuraba would go on to become a legend in the Pride FC organization, defeating several members of the Gracie family and a slew of other good fighters, becoming a national hero in the process.
In truth, no one knew how important that night would become; but in the persons of Shamrock and Sakuraba, they at least knew it was special.
No. 31: The Ice Age Begins at UFC 52
After coaching against each other in the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, Chuck Liddell and reigning champion Randy Couture met again, for the second time, at UFC 52.
Thanks to the audience the first season and finale had brought, Liddell and Couture enjoyed a higher level of popularity than they had ever known before.
The build-up had been shockingly easy. After all, their teams had fought, and they themselves had fought once before, so the second fight had all the momentum it needed.
Liddell managed to do something that no other fighter had ever done before: knock out Couture.
It was a shockingly simple fight that saw Liddell in top form, fending off takedown attempts and throwing accurate punches while avoiding any real damage, something that had been missing in his first fight with Couture.
With the win, the UFC had a new champion who would become one of the most beloved fighters the company had known to that point.
Thanks to The Ultimate Fighter, it was not only the beginning of a new era, it was the beginning of the "Ice Age," and nothing would be the same.
No. 30: Tito Ortiz Gets the Gold at UFC 25
After Frank Shamrock retired from the company, the middleweight title needed a new champion, and as the first champion had been crowned in Japan, so would the second.
The man Shamrock had defeated in his last fight, Tito Ortiz, was the natural choice and the heir apparent. But to get the belt, he had to face fearsome striker Wanderlei Silva.
It was a fight that was at some moments exciting, some moments dull; both men were knocked down by punches, and both men seemed to see their pace slow here and there.
In the end Ortiz won the decision, despite actually turning his back and running the full length of the octagon after being dropped by a Silva punch.
Ortiz would go forward, becoming the biggest star the company had until The Ultimate Fighter, defending his title five times and cultivating a massive fan base in the process.
The bad boy finally had his belt.
No. 29: Matt Hughes Becomes the Welterweight Kingpin at UFC 34
After Carlos Newton had lifted the UFC welterweight belt from Pat Miletich via choke, it looked like Team Miletich was on the ropes.
After UFC 34, the world learned what Pat and the rest of his team already knew; the amount of talent gathered under the MFS banner was so deep that they would reign for quite a while.
Rather than push the company for an immediate rematch, Miletich called one of his prize students, Matt Hughes, and urged him to take his shot at becoming champion.
Matt reluctantly accepted, mainly because he didn’t like the idea of depriving his coach a chance to regain the belt.
But he did do his coach proud, defeating Newton via KO thanks to a slam that is still talked about to this day.
In a transition on the ground, Newton secured a tight triangle choke. Hughes responded by lifting Newton high into the air, and walking him to the cage, pressing him there.
Newton wouldn’t let go of the choke, and Hughes, becoming unconscious, slammed him down to the mat, knocking the champ out cold.
But after the dust had settled, Hughes was awarded that title, much to his surprise. He rose while Newton, still out cold, was being attended to, and you could hear him talking to his corner, saying: “I was out.”
Hughes would erase all doubt of who was the better fighter in a rematch with Newton at UFC 38, dominating the majority of the fight before pounding Newton out on the ground.
It was the beginning of the first reign of Matt Hughes, who currently stands as the greatest welterweight champion the company has ever known.
No. 28: Mark Coleman Grounds 'em and Pounds 'em at UFC 10
As the sport continued to march forward, certain fighters emerged as forces to be reckoned with: men like Royce Gracie, Ken Shamrock, Oleg Taktarov, Marco Ruas, Dan Severn and Don Frye.
Frye had won the UFC 8 tournament, and most expected him to win UFC 10.
They had no idea who Mark Coleman was, or how important he would become.
Frye and Coleman mauled their way to the finals, and from there Coleman mauled Frye, giving him a sustained beating that opened eyes everywhere.
Coleman was a savage on the mat, an excellent wrestler with all the confidence in the world and the physical strength to go with it.
His style of fighting was to take his opponents down and pound them out—which became dubbed by fans and media as “ground-and-pound”—and no one seemed to have an answer for it.
That would all change at UFC 14, but at UFC 10, Coleman made an impression that lasts even to this day.
The ground-and-pound style of fighting is a staple rightly attributed to Coleman, one of the Godfathers of the sport.
No. 27: GSP Begins His Title Reign, Again, at UFC 83
Rare is the time when you get a second chance to make a first impression, at least on the championship stage that is.
If anyone knew this to be fact, it was Georges St-Pierre.
GSP was on a roll after his loss to Matt Hughes at UFC 50. He was crushing all opposition, making them look like rank amateurs in the process: Jason “Mayhem” Miller, Frank Trigg and Sean Sherk all fell before GSP. This set up a rematch with reigning champ Matt Hughes.
GSP defeated Hughes via TKO, and the world looked to be his oyster.
Then at UFC 69, at what was taken for granted to be GSP’s first successful title defense (how could it not be, everyone thought), The Ultimate Fighter season 4 winner, Matt Serra, made a mess of things.
Serra caught GSP high on the back of the head, enough to knock his equilibrium out of whack. From there Serra was all over him, knocking him pillar to post with accurate haymakers that finally put GSP flat on his back.
Serra reigned down blows, and GSP lost his belt without ever achieving a successful title defense.
But GSP being GSP, he mounted a comeback and found himself positioned to face Serra again, and this time he took care of business just like everyone thought he would have done at UFC 69.
GSP took Serra down repeatedly and controlled him on the ground, landing heavy shots and massive knees to the body, time and time again. Eventually, it was just too much; the referee called the bout as GSP was landing thunderous knees to the body of Serra as he was turtled up on the mat.
It was an odd turn of fate; Serra dethroned GSP before he could defend the title once, and then GSP dethroned Serra before he could defend the title once.
GSP had gotten his second chance and has never let go since.
No. 26: Gina Carano and Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos Deliver the Goods
Very few fans or critics probably thought much on the subject of women headlining an MMA card, but after the sales receipts were tallied and numbers were crunched on August 15th, 2009, the owners and the loaners were thinking about doing it again.
It was a historic night not only because it showed the women were a viable attraction to the MMA community, inspiring them to give their money and time to the event, but also because it showed that the women could fight.
It might not have lasted long, and it was basically one sided, but it was still dramatic. It drew a lot of attention to the ladies, who went in there in front of a huge audience and put it on the line.
The bout between Carano and Santos was the moment that announced that women’s MMA was here to stay.
Now, the scope of media attention is widening to include other female fighters such as Ronda Rousey, Marloes Coenen, Miesha Tate and others worthy of recognition.
Thanks to the bout between Carano and Santos, more women will be seen headlining cards and furthering their interest in the sport.
No. 25: UFC 100
When UFC 100 was being promoted, there was a lot of selling going on, but some things sell themselves, and with big names like Brock Lesnar, GSP, Dan Henderson, Mark Coleman, Stephan Bonnar, Michael Bisping and others, the show did just that, to the tune of over 1.5 million in pay-per-view buys.
It was a milestone event that had just about everything you could want, including two title fights and a bout between the coaches of The Ultimate Fighter season nine.
It was a stacked card that helped mark UFC 100 as one of the greatest shows in a great sport, both domestically and world wide.
Often times, big shows end up giving less than they promised; UFC 100 did not suffer that ailment as the fighters fought hard to deliver for the fans, and the fans loved it.
UFC 100 is the benchmark for events in the sport, and it is going to be a tough act to follow, even given the UFC’s partnership with FOX and Flash Entertainment.
UFC 100 was a celebration that set the bar, and set it high.
No. 24: The Creation of the First Interim Title at UFC 43
The first time Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture squared off in the octagon, it wasn’t just to see who was the best; it was to show the world that the light heavyweight division was not the property of Tito Ortiz.
When Ortiz placed himself on the sidelines as the defending champion, a void was created. The division was left in a state of limbo, waiting and wondering when Ortiz would face the next in line, Chuck Liddell.
Unable and unwilling to wait any longer, a decision was made, and the first interim title in the history of the UFC was created.
At UFC 43, Randy Couture proved the age 39 was just a number as he beat Liddell in striking exchanges and on the floor, eventually mounting him in the third round and raining down punches until the fight was called.
Randy Couture was the new interim UFC light heavyweight champion.
It was of course an important night for Couture, but above all else, it was a night that proved that the sport waits for no one without good reason.
No. 23: Fedor Becomes King at Pride 25
In 2003 there was but one name on the lips of every fan and most fighters as the true heavyweight champion of the world in the sport of MMA: Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.
He was a submission machine with no equal in the division and in the sport in general, and if that wasn’t enough, he loved to stand and trade, and was damn good at it.
If an opponent went to the ground with Nogueira, they got tapped out; it was as certain as the sun rising and setting.
Enter Fedor Emelianenko, a quiet, humble fighter with an easy smile and unassuming demeanor who was next on deck.
Almost no one gave Fedor a chance, mainly because he was an unknown quantity to most. Pride FC was the biggest stage he had competed on, and he hadn’t exactly looked like a world beater in his victory over Semmy Schilt.
Then, early in the first round, Fedor clubbed Nogueira with a massive right that dropped the champion. Fedor happily pounced on him, and then, for the remainder of the fight he did the unthinkable: He battered Nogueira on the ground brutally, and he escaped each and every submission the champ threw at him, and he did it deftly.
Nogueira showed he had serious granite in his chin, but his role in the fight that night was that of the nail to Fedor’s hammer, and hammered he was.
Fedor won the decision and was the new Pride FC heavyweight champion of the world, and the look on Nogueira’s face showed that he knew it well before it was announced.
Pride FC: Body Blow was the beginning of the longest successful run of a heavyweight champion in MMA history, and those who saw it will never forget it.
No. 22: Frank Shamrock and Tito Ortiz Collide at UFC 22
It is a wonderful thing for a fight fan when two of the best fighters meet to slug it out.
At UFC 22, reigning champion Frank Shamrock and top contender Tito Ortiz brought hype, skill, strength, intensity and bad blood into the cage, and what they created was damn near a masterpiece.
Ortiz had walked all over Jerry Bohlander and Guy Mezger, two of Frank Shamrock's friends and students from their time together in the Lion's Den.
In fact Ortiz hadn’t just walked over them, he wiped his feet on them and then put on those now infamous tee-shirts to rub it in. The most famous of those tee-shirts—“Gay Mezger is my Bitch”—sent Frank's elder adopted brother Ken into a frenzy.
Ortiz, playing the role of black hat to perfection, was poised to become the new middleweight champion, and only Frank Shamrock could stop him.
I know, it almost sounds like a comic book, but at the time, that was one of the prevailing notions being sold, and many MMA fans bought it.
No, Ortiz wasn’t really a villain, and Shamrock wasn’t a saint, but they were as close to opposites as they needed to be to sell the fight.
When they got down to business at UFC 22, a lot of the pre-fight trash talk and hostility seemed to come from some very real places.
For the first fifteen minutes, Ortiz continually took Shamrock down and tried his best to pound him out. Shamrock never stopped moving on the bottom, defending and countering, always keeping Tito on edge and spending energy.
Then, in the forth round, things changed. Shamrock reversed Ortiz, exploded to his feet and attacked. Tito tried his best to throw leather with Shamrock but quickly decided it was in his best interests to take the champ down.
Once they hit the ground, Shamrock managed to lull Ortiz into an extended moment of complacency and then secured a guillotine choke.
Ortiz tried to fight it, but he was simply too tired. They rolled over and Shamrock got to his feet and dropped elbows onto the head of Ortiz until he tapped the mat.
It was an incredible showing by both fighters, and it was the closest thing the company had seen to a mega-bout since UFC 5.
Both men showed respect to each other after the fight, and then Shamrock retired from the company, marking UFC 22 as the last time Frank Shamrock would fight in the octagon.
No. 21: The Pride Middleweight Grand Prix 2003
What UFC 100 is to Zuffa, the 2003 Pride Middleweight Grand Prix was to Pride FC.
This mega-event took place over two nights: the first was held in the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan on August 10th, 2003, dubbed Pride Total Elimination 2003, and the second in the Tokyo Dome in Tokyo, Japan on November 9th, called Pride Final Conflict 2003.
The list of men who competed in both the single matches and the middleweight tournament still ranks as the greatest ensemble of fighters to come together in MMA history: Kevin Randleman, Kazushi Sakuraba, Mirko Cro Cop, Dan Henderson, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Wanderlei Silva, Alistair Overeem, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Fedor Emelianenko and others all fought at least once during this two night event.
It was so big that the UFC sent Chuck Liddell to compete in the tournament and bring home the trophy as proof that the UFC was the best. Dana White was in attendance for both events, joining Bas Rutten for commentary detail when he wasn’t watching the bouts.
Both nights of this tournament were epic, and it was the best Grand Prix Pride FC staged. The fights were fantastic, full of dramatic endings and come-from-behind finishes.
It was so great that it may have given Dana White a sense of urgency that comes when you see how your competition is delivering the goods. At the very least, it showed him that there was a huge market for the sport in Japan.
But more than anything, it was the first time both companies went head-to-head in the same ring.
No. 20: The Sport Comes Full Circle with UFC 134
With the UFC jumping from country to country, it almost seemed as if they had forgotten all about the homeland of their first champion.
Turns out they hadn’t forgotten at all.
When Zuffa brought the octagon to Rio, they came in heavy. The goal wasn’t just to make money, but also to make a statement: You were right to trust us with the sport.
To that end, they put some of Brazil’s favorite sons front and center. Anderson Silva, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Edson Barboza and many others fought in front of their countrymen, and they took the roof off the place.
For some of the Brazilian fighters, they had never fought at home, and in that aspect, it was part gift and celebration; a party Dana White never wants to end, given the rabid response of the crowd and the numbers that indicate they could sell out a soccer stadium.
UFC 134 was important for all the common reasons associated with a great night of fights, but above all, it’s important because it was the night the sport came full circle by coming home.
No. 19: Zuffa Sells out the Rogers Center at UFC 129
Speaking of selling out stadiums…
UFC 129 was a huge moment for the sport and the company. They finally hit the big time, selling out the Rogers Center in Canada, the home of their welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre.
It was, by far, the largest crowd the UFC had ever managed to assemble under one roof; proof positive that the sport was growing and popular outside of America.
Of course, part of the allure for the crowd was the treat of getting to watch one of their own, GSP, defend his title against Jake Shields.
The crowd of 55,000 plus erupted when their man made his way to the cage and watched his every move when the fight began.
And to top it all off, it was the final fight of a UFC legend: Randy Couture.
Selling out the Rogers Center broke the records for an MMA event in both gate receipts and attendance, so North American fans can count on more such shows in the future.
No. 18: The Rise and Fall of Brock Lesnar
When Brock Lesnar made his debut in the UFC, the general consensus was that he wasn’t going to last.
This was real fighting, after all, not scripted “entertainment.”
Lesnar proved there was much more to him than his size and a stint in the WWE.
After losing his first fight to Frank Mir, Lesnar bounced back, defeating Heath Herring and then Randy Couture to capture the UFC heavyweight title. From there, he defeated interim heavyweight champion Mir in their rematch at UFC 100.
After defeating Shane Carwin in a thrilling fight at UFC 116, Lesnar lost the belt to Cain Velasquez and then was defeated once again by Alistair Overeem. The loss to Overeem prompted him to retire after just over three-and-a-half years and seven fights with the company.
It was a short ride, and not always sweet, but it was compelling nonetheless.
Lesnar’s time in the octagon introduced the sport to many new faces, boosted ticket and pay-per-view sales and proved that his time inside the cage was unscripted and unforgettable.
No. 17: Anderson "The Spider" Silva Catches the Title in His Web at UFC 64
After having only one fight in the UFC—blowing an over-matched Chris Leben out of the water—Anderson Silva was granted a title shot against reigning middleweight champion Rich Franklin.
Many questions surrounded Silva, mainly revolving around his short time in the cage, the rule differences, and if he was really ready for someone like Franklin.
He answered all of those questions emphatically, cutting Franklin to pieces and ending the fight in the first round.
Many who were familiar with Silva thought him to be a good fighter, but the man who rendered Franklin unconscious in under three minutes was more than good.
He was incredible.
A new middleweight champion was crowned, and it was the beginning of the greatest title run in the history of the UFC, and perhaps the sport.
No. 16: Mark Coleman Wins the Pride Grand Prix 2000
As the UFC began to enter into a bleak period, known by some of the older fans as “the dark shows”, their biggest competitor, Pride FC, was staging the biggest MMA event in history.
The Pride Grand Prix 2000 was a 16-man open-weight tournament that was so big it managed to pull Royce Gracie off the sidelines and back into active competition.
Broken up into two events, the best and biggest names in the sport slugged it out for the title.
Mark Kerr, Mark Coleman, Royce Gracie, Kazushi Sakuraba, Gary Goodridge, Igor Vovchanchyn, Enson Inoue, Guy Mezger and several other Japanese fighters did their best to advance to the finals.
During the second round, Royce Gracie and Kazushi Sakuraba competed in the longest recorded match in MMA history, a staggering 90 minutes in length.
Royce eventually yielded when he could no longer feel his foot thanks to dozens of sharp leg kicks, but it was still an epic bout for both the right and wrong reasons.
Mark Coleman defied all the odds and made it to the finals, and then pulled off the upset by defeating Igor Vovchanchyn thanks to a strong takedown, achieving the North-South top position and dropping brutal knees to the head.
Vovchanchyn tapped out, and Coleman exploded off the mat in a victory celebration that is almost as memorable as the event itself.
When all was said and done, it was the best of the biggest tournaments in the sport to date, and the Cinderella story of Coleman made it even more remarkable.
No. 15: "The Smashing Machine"
When HBO aired The Smashing Machine: The Life and Times of Mark Kerr, MMA fans didn’t know what to think at first, mainly because it was hard to believe.
This was HBO, after all, and the sport had never had this kind of exposure before. Back then, this was huge.
It was also compelling.
What the show gave us was an entertaining, enlightening and sobering look inside the life of a professional MMA fighter who was desperate to remain on top for as long as he could.
From his addiction to pain killers to his roller coaster ride with his girlfriend and beyond, to his relationships with trainer Bas Rutten, former Hammer House stablemate Mark Coleman, and the leaders of the Pride organization, “The Smashing Machine” gave us an unvarnished look into the life of a man who was at one time at the pinnacle of the sport.
It showed us just how far the fall can be for one who reaches the top, and reminded us all that these men who do battle in the cage and ring are simply human, no more and no less.
No. 14: The UFC Buys Strikeforce
There is a saying: “The best way to defeat an enemy is to make him a friend.”
In the case of the UFC, that seems to have been changed to “Buy them out and give them a seat at the table and keys to the house.”
Before the purchase, Strikeforce, under the leadership of Scott Coker, had been quite content to live in the UFC’s shadow.
They had no intention of competing with the biggest show on earth; they just wanted to give the public good fights and wanted to give good fighters all the exposure they could.
They also gave the women of MMA an audience that has grown strong, show by show.
Perhaps the key to Coker’s success is the way he conducted business: openly, honestly, with near total transparency. He never suffered from any delusions of grandeur, didn’t overspend the budget (something that damaged Pride FC considerably), and put the fights and fighters first.
When the UFC purchased Strikeforce, it was under the declaration that business would run as usual: Coker would pursue and represent the best interests of Strikeforce, as Dana White did with the UFC.
Strikeforce is still around today, enjoying a good deal of success, especially in women’s MMA, thanks to fighters like Ronda Rousey.
Upon further consideration, perhaps the best saying that applies here is “keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”
No. 13: Ken Shamrock Steps in to Fill the Void at UFC 6
After Ken Shamrock fought Royce Gracie to a draw at UFC 5, Gracie departed the company, claiming it had strayed to far from his families’ ideas about true competitive combat.
Time limits and the like were not in the true keeping of the Gracie way, and thus they bowed out.
But the UFC remained, and they needed someone to take the stage so the show could go on.
Hence, Ken Shamrock stepped in to face the heavily favored Dan Severn, winner of the UFC 5 tournament.
The fight itself didn’t last long, but most back then didn’t. Most thought Severn would manhandle Shamrock, taking him down and having his way with him.
That never even came close to happening.
Shamrock showed that he was every bit the grappler that Severn was, and in the realm of submissions, Shamrock knew intricacies the Severn didn’t even know existed.
Shamrock allowed Severn to push him against the cage, and then as Severn reached up to push Shamrock's head back, Shamrock cleared his head and sank in a deep guillotine choke.
Severn did his best to fight it, but he was soon tapping out, and the UFC had their first Superfight Champion.
This was an important night for two reasons: It showed that the company could continue on without Royce Gracie, and it was also the birth of what would become the heavyweight title.
No. 12: The UFC on the Best Damn Sports Show Period
When Zuffa bought the UFC, the recurring theme espoused by Dana White was the need to get UFC fights on free television.
But who would take a chance on the sport and broadcast it?
Back then, the UFC was still a fringe sport, just waiting to break out.
On June 25th, 2002, Dana White’s faith in the sport and willingness to put his money where his mouth was finally paid off; fans watched Robbie Lawler in an exciting scrap with Aaron Riley on The Best Damn Sports Show Period.
The hosts were perfect, the fight was excellent, and the machine had been set in motion.
Given how popular the sport is today, and how one can see a TAPOUT shirt almost anywhere they go, remembering that night, and that fight, is not only a treat, but it speaks to the proof that Dana White is indeed the best man for running the company.
From the very beginning, he has never been satisfied with anything less than forging forward, and on that night he broke new ground, putting the sport front and center, right in our living rooms.
No. 11: The UFC Partners with Spike TV
One of the biggest achievements the UFC has accomplished was finding a television partner who would meet them half way; a group of like minded men that would roll up their sleeves and help carry the heavy water.
They needed someone who believed in them and the sport, who they in turn could trust and believe in.
Enter Spike TV.
Spike stepped up and welcomed the UFC with open arms. They also began to give them as much exposure as they could afford to do.
And they remained steadfast up until the very end.
No one else was willing to take a chance on a company like the UFC and a sport like MMA, but Spike TV did, and the day both sides signed the dotted line changed MMA forever.
No. 10: Zuffa Purchases the UFC
By now, just about everyone knows the story of how Zuffa came to own the UFC.
Dana White approached the Fretita brothers and told them the UFC was for sale. After some talk they decided to buy it for a cool $2 million.
To say it was a wise choice in retrospect is a bit of an understatement.
But the real point to consider is what would have happened to the company (and thus the sport by proxy) if that conversation never would have taken place and that buyout had never occurred.
The UFC was in bad trouble. They were not getting any help from cable companies and the notion of pay-per-view revenue was an almost unattainable dream.
The bottom line is, had Zuffa never bought the company, fans like you and I would probably be watching boxing.
No. 9: Pride FC 1
On October 11th, 1997, the country of Japan officially possessed a company that joined the UFC as promoters in the sport of MMA.
And they hit the ground running.
Having more money to spend than the UFC, Pride FC was able to attract big names in the fight game, including many who had been established in the UFC.
They also had much larger crowds. Pride 1 was held in the Tokyo Dome in Tokyo, Japan, before an audience of over 45,000. The people of Japan had always loved martial arts, and the sport of MMA spoke to them; it was the ideal of the samurai spirit in motion.
Pride FC would go on to hold over sixty total events, bringing the sport and several talented fighters into the public eye while maintaining a healthy level of competition with the UFC, which raised the bar for both companies.
Pride 1 was more than just an event. It was a sign that MMA had grown well beyond the boarders of North America.
No. 8: Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock at UFC 40
While most of us remember the early days of the Zuffa-run UFC as fantastic, the company was still taking a beating in the accountant’s office due to stacked cards for every show.
They had a love for the sport and clearly had faith in it as they had poured millions toward bringing it back to life. What they needed was drama and intensity.
Enter Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock.
Of course, the story is so old to everyone now that I won’t try to breath new life into it.
But it was a very important night for the sport. Shamrock brought a lot of attention back to the sport with his return, and he and Tito played off each other to beat the war drums so loud that even the mildly curious tuned in to see the battle.
The pay-per-view numbers for UFC 40 tripled what the average had been for UFC’s 34-39, and it proved to be the biggest selling card the company had seen under the Zuffa banner.
It also gave Dana White and the Fretita brothers hope that they could really turn the ship around.
No. 7: The UFC Embraces the Rules and Regulations of the NSAC
One of the first things that Dana White and Zuffa did was run headlong in the direction of more rules and regulations in order to take it out of the realm of spectacle and into the world of professional sport.
They had to find out what the rules were and abide by them, and the sooner the better.
They were already working against a stigma that had been the basis of which the UFC had originally been built, and that drew the ire of fighters and fans that feared more rules and regulations would dilute the sport and thus its attraction.
The UFC had always been more spectacle than sport, even when additional weight classes and time limits had been first imposed. It was Nu-Rome for new Romans, so to speak, and more rules and regulations were seen by many as a sign of trying to control and limit the unpredictable quality that made MMA fights so exciting and compelling.
But it had to happen in order to take it to the next level, and it needed to get to that next level very badly.
In taking away some of the ways a fighter could win a fight (knees to the head of a downed opponent, for instance), they gave back to the sport the element of sport. It was no longer brutal and random. It was a skilled contest where fighters had to find a way to win within a specified context of competition.
And most importantly, it lost none of that “new” feeling. It was still a vastly different sport than its closest cousin, boxing, and now it abides by the same commissions.
The commissions brought a standard of professionalism to the sport, and without it, MMA in America would have been doomed to toil at the lowest levels of respect and exposure.
Contrary to popular belief among the die-hard fans of the early days, a sport like MMA does not grow and thrive solely of its own accord. It must adapt and change in order to evolve, or else the spectacle eventually becomes novelty, no matter how bloody.
Embracing a working relationship with the commissions was one of the first and most important steps in getting MMA and the UFC back on pay-per-view, and that in turn was necessary for more growth. With growth comes more money and the fighters finally began to see themselves as paid professionals.
In short, it stopped being a hobby and became a profession that paid more and more each and every year.
Working with the athletic commissions and embracing new rules not only helped keep the sport (and its fighters) from starving, but allowed it to go from crawling to running like a beast.
And MMA is one beast that looks beautiful when it runs.
No. 6: The UFC Sells 10 Percent to Flash Entertainment
If one has true plans for global domination of any kind, they need help not only being accepted by different countries but getting the access needed to walk in the door.
The UFC has always banked heavily upon the notion that fighting was the one true universal language in the world of professional sport. They wanted to take it all over the globe, and to that end, they sold 10 percent of the company to Flash Entertainment.
At first, there were more questions and doubts as to the validity of the sale. Was it because the company needed a partner to help them bankroll their plans, or was it really a matter of more access?
It turns out the partnership with Flash Entertainment is a bit of both.
The company plans on visiting just about every country from the UAE to China and beyond, and Flash Entertainment is known in those locations, and more importantly, knows how to do business there.
With 2011 seeing the company hold more large shows in such countries as Japan, Brazil and Canada, it is clear they plan on taking full advantage of their partnership with Flash Entertainment.
No. 5: The UFC Buys Pride FC
When news broke that the UFC had bought out their biggest rival on the MMA stage, Pride FC, hardly anyone could believe it.
Most were unaware of the financial problems Pride was having, and the news brought cries of doom for the sport from those fans who felt the UFC was a second-fiddle organization by comparison.
The UFC had originally planned on keeping Pride alive as a separate entity, much as they have with Strikeforce, and then holding huge fight cards that featured the best of the UFC’s fighters squaring off against the best that Pride had to offer.
Although that idea never really set sail, the company did manage to integrate most of Pride FC’s biggest and most exciting fighters into the company fold.
Wanderlei Silva, Shogun, the Nogueira brothers, Takanori Gomi and many others now fight for the UFC, giving the company a truly global flavor.
This in turn has allowed the UFC to expand into other countries with greater success.
The purchase of Pride FC was a monumental moment in the sport, and it showed that sometimes the fundamental concerns of budget and balance are worth far more than fighter entrances and fireworks.
No. 4: The UFC Partners with FOX
When the deal that no one thought would happen finally happened, it was FOX who ended up proving they could work with the UFC to provide for the fans the product they had come to expect, but without overreaching their bounds.
For the longest time, the biggest stumbling block to a major deal with a broadcaster the size of FOX was a matter of control. The other company wanted more of it than the UFC felt comfortable giving away.
Dana White has proven to be as passionate about promoting the sport as he is defending it, and it seemed that if he never saw the right deal, so be it.
After all, the UFC had grown in leaps and bounds without the help of any true major players, so he and the rest of Zuffa felt no pressure to make a deal they weren’t fully behind.
But the day finally came, and now the UFC is on FOX.
The deal is good, the promotions and potential audience are much bigger than they ever have been, and the essence of the UFC brand remains the same.
Hard to believe for a company that not long ago couldn’t get their events on pay-per-view.
No. 3: The Ultimate Fighter, Season 1
It was only natural that a sport dubbed “As real as it gets” would get its own reality show.
What was up for grabs would be how good or bad it was, and thusly if it would succeed or fall flat on its face.
All of that is probably why Zuffa had to shell out $10 million to have it made all by themselves.
Looking back on it, it was a big risk. The company was already over $40 million in the hole, and The Ultimate Fighter was the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass with seconds to go.
Over 15 seasons later, it’s clear that the public who loves the sport also loves the fighters and the drama of their lives, not to mention their hopes and ambitions, just as much as Zuffa and Spike TV hoped they would.
Were it not for The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC may very well have gone under.
No. 2: The Ultimate Fighter, Season 1 Finale
After watching Diego Sanchez run over a much smaller Kenny Florian, the pressure to prove the validity of The Ultimate Fighter fell upon the shoulders of Stephan Bonnar and Forrest Griffin.
That may sound a bit melodramatic, but it’s true. The whole allure of an Ultimate Fighting reality show was the promise of the “ultimate fight”, and with a six-figure contract hanging in the balance, die-hard fans were hopeful while casual fans were just waiting to see if they were going to be entertained.
Entertained they were.
Stephan Bonnar was not the slick, polished fighter that many fans expected, but what he did have was heart, guts, resolve and most of all, the courage of his convictions.
Fans had seen other fighters on the show that wilted instead of fighting as if they wanted that contract; Bonnar and Griffin didn’t suffer from that lack of desire.
When they squared off, you could just tell: They wanted that contract badly.
Those who saw the bout, established fans and newcomers, recognized that fact quickly. People in the arena were texting their friends, telling them to watch the bout at home. People at home viewing the bout on Spike TV did the same thing.
The excitement about the fight spread via good, old fashioned word-of-mouth and peaked at 2.6 million viewers, far more than anyone expected.
Bonnar and Griffin gave us a masterpiece of violence and desire that today stands as one of the top-5 best MMA bouts of all time and is seen by many as the most important fight in the history of UFC.
It turned casual fans into hardcore advocates, and everyone was in agreement with Dana White when he announced that there were no losers in the bout and awarded both men with a UFC contract.
When you consider how deep the company was in the hole at the time, and the additional money they spent to film the show themselves, Bonnar vs. Griffin proved to be their ace in the hole, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
The fight illustrated the true virtue of making a MMA reality show: two men willing to stop at nothing in order to get what they said they wanted.
No. 1: UFC 1 Starts It All
It was the event that became a spectacle that became a sport, and it was born on November 12th, 1993.
It wasn’t just a fight card. It was “reality” combat, and it shattered just about every preconceived notion most Americans had about martial arts.
No one expected a man like Royce Gracie to win. He was smaller than everyone, and he had almost no striking in his resume.
Almost no one had any idea about the efficiency of good grappling, and they had even less understanding about jiu-jitsu.
That would all change as Gracie dominated everyone he faced, finishing them all in short order via submission.
It was more than the birth of a sport. It was the birth of a new understanding about what really works in a fight and what doesn’t.
Based on the strength of his victories on that night and at the next three events, the Gracie name became synonymous with winning, and the American public fell in line, eager to learn the martial art that beat them all: Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.