B/R MMA in 2005: A Retrospective Look at the Sport a Decade Later
Once again, a year (and some change) has passed, and as MMA fans we look forward to the second half of 2015—anxious and hopeful as we always are amid so much change.
Whenever another year falls off the calendar, the fan in me cannot help but look back on the past, ever grateful that the sport is still alive. You’ve probably heard it a million times from old-time fans, but you’re about to hear it again.
While the future of MMA is a given these days, it wasn’t always so, and I am both thankful and relieved it has not only survived but grown to a level I never expected.
2014 wasn’t the greatest of years for MMA for many reasons. Be it contractual issues or the injury bug, last year seemed to be more about what didn’t happen than what did, although it wasn’t for a lack of effort.
Now, deep into 2015, Zuffa and other promotions are looking at an old problem that has grown terribly large: performance-enhancing drugs. No one knows for sure how the movers and shakers in the world of MMA are going to handle this over the long haul (or if the UFC will revise its current policy), but it isn’t going away on its own—that much is certain.
Then, of course, there are other problems that come from the UFC growing too big—perhaps for its own britches, as the saying goes. Multiple parties are suing the UFC, and the government is renewing past investigations into the legitimacy of the company's dominance of the sport.
Additionally, more than a few of fighters are noting their unhappiness with the Reebok deal, and new prospects of note (such as Ed Ruth) are choosing to fight with rival promotions simply because sponsorship monies are greater outside the Octagon. This is a particularly salient point given that this kind of situation—more money being available elsewhere—saw the formation of Pride FC and more than a few big fighters jumping ship to sail overseas (back in October 1997) where the grass was honestly greener and of a shade that only money can be.
Still, it’s a stark contrast to the sport in 2005, when the problems of today would have seemed like dreams come true, simply because times of plenty (even if it is plenty of problems) always look better than times of uncertainty.
And that is exactly what 2005 was: a time of uncertain promise, with the UFC playing the role of demanding midwife to a desperate sport.
So, as Sin City, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Batman Begins and Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith tried to pull us into the theaters, Dana White and the brass at Zuffa were still doing honest work in 2005, pushing that boulder uphill while trying to find ways to keep their checkbooks balanced, which would prove a wise move in the years to come.
Yet, they were also daring, crossing their fingers as the debut episode of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter aired on Spike on January 17. As they continued to do their best to put on successful pay-per-view events, they were watching the ratings, hoping against hope that two seasons of a reality show could help them break new ground and wrest first place in the sport from Pride FC, which was still going strong in Japan.
Once again, we stand and look back at the sport a decade later—older, wiser and hopefully every bit as excited and entertained now as we were then.
Here is a list of the events from both the UFC and Pride FC in 2005, in order of occurrence, as well as a list of the top fighters for the year and the top promotion and event. Once again, we hope it will bring about a realization and appreciation of what was and, more importantly, what is.
Date: February 5, 2005
Location: Las Vegas
The UFC fired the first shot of 2005, giving us a glimpse of the cast of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter by giving them prime seating for UFC 51, and in truth, they got to see a fine event.
The preliminary card saw three of four fights end by KO or TKO in Round 1. Nick Diaz overwhelmed Drew Fickett with punches, Karo Parisyan outworked Chris Lytle to earn a unanimous decision, David “The Crow” Loiseau defeated Gideon Ray by doctor stoppage at the end of their opening frame, and Mike Kyle stopped undersized heavyweight James Irvin inside of the first two minutes of their fight.
After just 26 minutes of fighting, the main card was underway, and the crowd was primed and eager.
Paul Buentello kept the parade of first-round stoppages going, defeating Justin Eilers via KO. Then Evan Tanner captured the middleweight title, surviving a furious start by David Terrell and winning the belt by TKO in Round 1 thanks to some ground-and-pound from the top.
Next came another title fight, this time in the heavyweight division as Andrei Arlovski faced former heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia for the interim title, while reigning champion Frank Mir tried to recover from a bad motorcycle wreck.
Arlovski proved to be too fast for Sylvia, knocking the big man down and then swarming all over him. He finally ended the bout with an ankle lock.
Oddly enough, the heavyweight title bout was not the headliner of the evening; fans still had two bouts remaining, with the final fight of the night speaking to the drawing power that Tito Ortiz still enjoyed, even though he was well removed from the title.
Pete Sell faced and defeated Phil Baroni via guillotine choke late in Round 3, announcing the arrival of a newcomer to the UFC while serving a veteran his walking papers. The loss to Sell marked Baroni’s fourth straight defeat in the Octagon, and he was released to wander the landscape before finding a home with Pride FC.
Then, finally, Ortiz and Vitor Belfort squared off in a bout that was years in the making.
It was a fine bout that saw both men fight with true desire; both men took damage and looked like they had the other in serious trouble, but it was Ortiz who proved to be the more consistent fighter, landing the takedowns when he needed them and scoring enough points to win the bout via split decision.
All in all, seven out of nine fights ended in stoppages, and of those seven, six were finished inside Round 1.
Pride 29: Fists of Fire
Date: February 20, 2005
Location: Saitama, Japan
Although its penchant for naming events was equally bad as the UFC’s, Pride 29: Fists of Fire was actually a good card when it came to the number of bouts involved. It also nearly doubled the attendance of the UFC’s first event of the year, which was telling for the MMA landscape in 2005.
As fans waited to buy a Yoshida cookie or a Quinton “Rampage” Jackson action figure from one of the many merchandise booths outside the arena, they were anxious to see fighters from both the old guard (Igor Vovchanchyn and others) and new (Mauricio “Shogun” Rua), unaware that these shows in 2005 would begin the final last steps of Pride FC.
Indeed, six of the fighters would eventually find a new home in the UFC—a shocking thought considering back in 2005, fans had no idea what was to come in 2007.
In the first bout of the night, “The Zen Machine” Mario Sperry, faced off against Hirotaka Yokoi in a bout that was thought to be nothing more than a welcome-back fight for the Brazilian. After Sperry suffered a cut along his left eyebrow from a hard right hand, it looked like his return to MMA competition might be short-lived.
The fight was allowed to continue, and with neither man owning any considerable takedown skills, they locked up tight and pushed each other around the ring for most of the first round. Then Yokoi managed to get a trip takedown, only to see Sperry slip out the side and lock up a front headlock, attacking with knees in number.
With Yokoi unable to get out from under Sperry and the knees that were slamming into his head and crossed arms, the referee finally saved him from any further punishment, awarding Sperry his first victory of the year.
Next, Tom Erikson, who was returning to the sport after a three-year absence (with Jon Fitch in his corner), faced Pride newcomer Fabricio Werdum, whose main accolades at the time were his grappling skills and his training association with Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic.
After a quick takedown by Werdum, Erikson managed to reverse the position and throw his opponent to his back; this pattern would continue until Werdum managed to get Erikson’s back and from there sink in the rear-naked choke, ending the bout at 5:11 of Round 1.
The parade of stoppages would continue as Shogun made short work of Hiromitsu Kanehara, attacking the Japanese fighter until he wilted under the pressure and from there kicking, stomping and punching him into oblivion in just 100 seconds.
Pride veteran Igor Vovchanchyn stepped into the ring to take on a former King of Pancrase, Yoshiki Takahashi. The bout started slow, with both men pawing with their strikes, but as things began to heat up, Vovchanchyn worked Takahashi against the ropes and let his hands go, scoring a brutal KO that was reminiscent of his destruction of Francisco Bueno, way back at Pride 8 in 1999.
Once Vovchanchyn landed his right hand, Takahashi just went limp and fell to the canvas, looking like a man who had been in a sudden car wreck. Thankfully, he didn’t endure the kind of prolonged beating that Enson Inoue suffered at the hands of Vovchanchyn at Pride 10.
After three more first-round stoppages, the table was finally set for the three-course feast that had been what everyone was waiting for.
In a fight of middleweights (under Pride rules, that is), Alistair Overeem, tall and svelte at 205, met Antonio Rogerio Nogueira.
The first round (which was 10 minutes long, as all Pride opening rounds were), saw Overeem get the better of the stand-up exchanges, but not so much so that he could win the round in the face of a late charge from Nogueira, who secured a takedown late in the frame and attacked from above. He stole the round with those two final minutes of action.
Round 2 went much the same way; Overeem was in control for most of the frame—both on the feet and on the ground—but near the end, Nogueira landed a strong throw and from there passed to mount (for a moment) before working from side mount and then back to full mount, attacking with fists the entire time.
The last round saw Nogueira press his advantage from all areas, while Overeem seemed to run out of gas, defending himself as best he could until the final bell. When the judges made their tally, they gave the victory to Nogueira in a fight that proved the importance of finishing strong.
Then, in the co-main event of the night, Rampage, who was still stinging from his KO loss to Wanderlei Silva at Pride 28, took on Murilo “Ninja” Rua, who was trying to rebound from a loss at the hands of heavyweight powerhouse Sergei Kharitonov.
If any man had something to prove in the bout, it was Jackson. He had to remove from the minds of fans the image of him hanging between the ropes, face-down, hands at his side while blood flowed from his face. The fact that he had the chance to do so against a stablemate of Silva’s was a blessed opportunity, albeit a dangerous one.
He came out looking like a different man this time around: He had a Bible in his hand and a head full of short, curly hair, but the intensity and pride that had served him so well in the past was still there—and against a Chute Boxe member, he’d need it.
The first round saw both men struggle as they threw hard knees, chest-to-chest, while looking for slams and trip-takedowns. While the audience was quiet, both men went at each other in a war of attrition to gain position.
Finally, four minutes into Round 1, Jackson got deep enough into Ninja’s legs to get a single high-crotch lift and drop, landing in side control. But just as quickly as it happened, Ninja spun and scrambled his way back to his feet, and their dance of clinching, pushing, kneeing, punching and turning continued.
By the end of the frame, both men had traded takedowns and strikes, remaining nearly chest to chest the entire time, but the advantage seemed to go to Jackson. He was fighting gamely, but he didn’t seem like the same man who he had been before getting annihilated by Silva, twice.
Rounds 2 and 3 were mainly all grappling with both fighters enjoying moments of advantage. It was odd to note that Bas Rutten felt that Ninja had won the bout, although it seemed as if Jackson had been on top most of the time and had at least as many takedowns and slams, if not more.
The key seemed to hinge on how Jackson had looked in comparison to his previous outings; that stark contrast showed a more conservative fighter who fought to maintain advantage rather than wreck his opponent. Coupled with two substantial submission attempts by Ninja, more than a few people felt the Brazilian had won.
When the lights came back up and the judges rendered their decision, Jackson was given the nod via a split decision. I, for one, felt it was a just ruling. Still, it was close—so much so, in fact, that Jackson was shaking his head when the decision was announced and told Ninja, “You won, man.”
Just imagine if the fighters of today were so honest.
Then, finally, the main event was upon us: Cro-Cop was stepping into the ring to face Pride legend Mark Coleman.
Back in 2005, Coleman was not even a decade into the sport, and he was still a hungry fighter with belief in himself and his wrestling ability. Cro-Cop, for his part, was of the same faith in his abilities, and his eye was fixed on the heavyweight title.
Thus, Coleman (13-6), winner of UFC 10 and 11 and former UFC heavyweight champion and winner of the Pride Grand Prix 2000, faced off against heavyweight top contender Cro-Cop (14-2-2), while Fedor Emelianenko waited upon his throne.
By the end of the fight, as Coleman lay on the ground after having been knocked out from a series of left hands, we learned that Cro-Cop had developed into a serious mixed martial artist.
The story of the bout was a simple one; Coleman couldn’t get the fight to the floor because Cro-Cop’s sprawl was too fast and tireless. From there, all that was left for Coleman was punishment, no matter how big his heart was.
Cro-Cop had the faster and more accurate strikes, and he threw with conviction. He won via KO in less than four minutes, drawing a close to the night and giving fans something to look forward to in imagining a bout between Filipovic and Emelianenko.
Not a bad way for Pride to start off 2005.
Pride: Bushido 6
Date: April 3, 2005
Location: Yokohama, Japan
Like many of the previous Bushido cards, Pride: Bushido 6 was implementing the plan that many of the UFC’s current non-pay-per-view cards do today: entertain and grow the promotion (and by proxy the sport) at a grassroots level.
The Bushido series had long been the promotion's playground for making the kind of matchups that spoke to themes or rivalries that would play upon storylines while still delivering real fights with divisional ramifications.
It was a fine distraction, but more than a few fights should never have been made.
With Bushido 6, entertainment seemed to be the only concerns of the day, and no doubt the fans were entertained by the known names on the card while getting to see newer fighters who needed the money and exposure.
The first three bouts saw Dennis Kang, Paulo Filho and Dean Lister finish their opponents by submission inside the first round: two by armbar and one by triangle choke.
Next, Marcus Aurelio earned a unanimous-decision victory over Daisuke Nakamura, and then Luiz Azeredo bested Luiz Firmino by split decision. Both bouts were competitive yet quickly forgotten in the face of the action to come.
Daniel Acacio and Aleksander Emelianenko finished their bouts via stoppage, with Acacio defeating Daiju Takase by TKO from soccer kicks to the head. Meanwhile, Emelianenko stopped Ricardo Morais by KO from punches, leading us to the final three bouts of the night.
Former UFC middleweight champion Murilo Bustamante earned a unanimous decision over Ryuta Sakurai before Ikuhisa Minowa defeated one of the dirtiest fighters in the game, Gilbert Yvel, via the uncommon toehold submission early into their bout.
Then, in the last bout of the night, some long lingering business got attended to as the reigning heavyweight champion of the sport, Fedor Emelianenko took on the only man to defeat him at the time, Tsuyoshi Kohsaka.
Granted, the defeat in question was hardly legitimate, but men such as Fedor don’t take any loss lightly, and thus he faced an old foe once again.
The fight was as lopsided as one might imagine, with Fedor winning via doctor’s stoppage after Round 1 came to a close.
Thus, the first Bushido card of the year came and went; it was a pleasing distraction that whetted our appetite and kept the MMA machine rolling in Japan.
The Ultimate Fighter Season 1 Finale
Date: April 9, 2005
Location: Las Vegas
After weeks of watching Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell coach unknown fighters wanting more than most felt they deserved, fans tuning into Spike TV got to watch the cast of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter slug it out.
It was a culmination of all that time spent focused on fighting and forming friendships based around fighting; in the end, it’s all about the fight, and thus we gathered around our televisions to watch the resolution of weeks of orchestrated conflict.
We started with Josh Rafferty vs. Alex Karalexis in a short and sweet bout. They stepped into the Octagon in front of a sparse crowd, as the opening act to a small show with huge implications for the sport.
After a failed guillotine choke attempt, Rafferty was caught on his back under the heavy-handed Karalexis, which would prove to be his undoing. Karalexis caught Rafferty with a hard right hand, rendering him senseless.
The next fight pitted Mike Swick against Alex Schoenauer in a fight that interested many diehard fans of the show.
Swick had nearly derailed the hopes of finalist Stephan Bonnar in their fight on the show, locking up a tight choke that had The American Psycho gurgling and purple-faced before he could turn the tide and win the bout via submission. Schoenauer had given finalist Forrest Griffin all he could handle in their fight, giving Griffin a cut that almost knocked him out of contention before Griffin took him down and pounded him out.
As Bruce Buffer made the introductions, fans could see Kevin James among the empty seats, which gave them their first taste of Hollywood appreciation.
In return for the meager reception, the fighters delivered a furious, albeit short, display of violence. Swick let his blisteringly fast hands fly, catching Schoenauer flush and often and knocking him out in less than 15 seconds.
Next in line was Nate “The Rock” Quarry vs. Lodune Sincaid, who has the dubious distinction of being the first fighter to lose a bout in the series of the show, thanks to the heavy hands of Bobby Southworth.
From the get-go, Quarry circled, turning and throwing his right hand. He looked poised and calm, working behind an almost pawing left jab—as Joe Rogan called it, “poking and pecking.” As Quarry continued to move and throw, Sincaid offered little offense, as if he were waiting for something.
Then, Sincaid worked Quarry to the fence for a moment, and both men began to throw, with Sincaid getting the better of it before Quarry circled back to the center of the cage. As the more time passed, The Rock began to land more and more, until finally he stunned Sincaid with a combination and jumped in, letting his hands go.
Sincaid was stunned and stumbling around the fence when Quarry sealed the deal, landing a flurry of unanswered punches that caused Big John McCarthy to call a halt to the bout.
Josh Koscheck and Chris Sanford faced off in another short bout that showed Koscheck had improved leaps and bounds since the filming of the show. He got the takedown, worked from the leg-in side mount and then landed hard punches, knocking Sanford out with little effort at all.
Next, we saw Chris Leben, the bad boy of the show, take on Jason Thacker in a fight that would be sweet revenge if the latter could win. Sadly, Leben ran over him, earning the stoppage in Round 1. After, he called Thacker to apologize for all his antics on the show.
Bobby Southworth faced Sam Hoger in a battle that had some heat behind it because of the dislike between them. The fight turned out to be a lackluster affair, as both men fought not to lose rather than to win. Hoger won by decision, but it failed to deliver on the promise of bad blood that had been so evident on the show.
Then, with the preliminary bouts finished, it was time for the main card, which had all the bouts we had been waiting for.
Fighting for the middleweight contract, Diego Sanchez squared off against Kenny Florian. The smart money was on Sanchez, who had been a buzz saw for most of the show. In fact, he had fought three times during the show, while Florian had only fought once.
As fired up as Florian looked to seize such an opportunity, he was simply no match for the powerhouse that was Sanchez. Florian tried to keep the distance and circle away, but Sanchez closed the gap quickly, pushed Florian to the fence, grabbed the takedown off a quick ankle-pick, climbed aboard and let his fists fly until the referee stopped the bout.
It was short, violent and exactly what we had come to expect from Sanchez. Sadly, it was also a one-sided bout on a night of fights that desperately need a barnburner.
As it turns out, the light heavyweight finalists were evenly matched and wanted that contract more than anything else in the world.
The fight was well-known in 2005; by now, 10 years later, it is legend.
Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar slugged it out for three straight rounds in one of the most two-sided fights ever seen in the Octagon, before or after. It wasn’t just good—it was glorious in the full definition of the word, and there is a strong chance that the UFC (and the sport of MMA by proxy) wouldn’t have made it to a second season on Spike TV, let alone its current home on Fox, without it
At a time when the sport needed the kind of fight that delivered on the promise of future greatness, two unknown athletes paid a fitting tribute to all the greatest fights of the past. Now, a decade later, we still don’t know how important that fight was.
But we know how great it was, and it still ranks among the great fights of MMA, and it always will.
Griffin won the decision, but both fighters earned a contract; anything else would have been a terrible injustice.
After such an incredible fight, fans got to the last bout of the night, which pitted a fighter of the future in Rich Franklin against an icon of the past in Ken Shamrock.
The bout was short and relatively one-sided, even though it looked like Shamrock might have a glimmer of hope on the ground when he was in the midst of locking up a heel hook or ankle lock. Franklin proved to be too young and too much for the aged yet game Shamrock, winning the fight in Round 1 off the strength of a two-fisted ground-and-pound assault.
It was a fitting ending to an event that was all about celebrating the future of a sport at a time when the glory days of the past looked like they might outshine anything the near-future could provide.
Date: April 16, 2005
Location: Las Vegas
With the finals of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter still resonating in the minds of MMA fans, UFC 52 arrived to answer the final remaining question: Which coach was the better fighter?
While Team Liddell had basically run all over Team Couture in the show, it was Randy Couture who had run all over Chuck Liddell in their first fight at UFC 43, back in 2003.
Now, Liddell had a chance to even the score, grab the title and make the most out of a newfound audience that was—as Anthony Bourdain likes to say—hungry for more. Of course, no one tuning in or paying the money for a seat thought it was going to be easy for Liddell, especially since Couture had never been knocked out, even as a heavyweight.
Before we would have our answer to that lingering question, seven other fights served as the perfect preamble to the rematch of the year.
Starting off the event, Mike van Arsdale faced John Marsh in the light heavyweight division. Marsh put up a much better fight than many expected, especially since van Arsdale was considered a much better grappler.
But in the end, after both men had given each other some lumps, van Arsdale was rightfully awarded a unanimous decision.
After the opening bout had gone the duration, middleweights Joe Doerksen and Patrick Cote battled it out for nearly three full rounds until Doerksen caught Cote with a rear-naked choke in the middle of the third frame. Cote, a new face who had impressed many when he dropped former light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz with a short strike at UFC 50, had to go back to the drawing board, while Doerksen moved onward.
Ivan Salaverry managed to make short work of power puncher Joe Riggs, tapping out the former heavyweight with a slick triangle choke midway through Round 1 and bringing the preliminary card to an end.
Starting off the main card, Georges St-Pierre, fresh off a great showing against Matt Hughes (now at the beginning of his second reign as welterweight kingpin), took on Jason “Mayhem” Miller.
Very rarely had we seen Joe Rogan get excited about a fighter and his submission prowess, but Miller had Rogan singing his praises from start to finish, even as St-Pierre battered and bloodied him with such consistency and efficiency that it seemed damn near scripted.
St-Pierre won the fight in a one-sided drubbing that made Miller look like he’d woken up from a weeklong bender to find out he’d been picked up by a tornado and dropped among the jagged rocks of mythical Mordor.
Next, Matt Lindland of Team Quest fame (not to mention Olympic fame as a silver medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling at the 2000 games) managed to submit the superior submission artist (at least on paper) in Travis Lutter, forcing the Machado student to tap out to a guillotine choke midway through Round 2.
Then, Matt Hughes, former and then-current welterweight champion, took on No. 1 contender Frank Trigg in a rematch of their UFC 45 title, which Hughes won via rear-naked choke in Round 1.
There had always been bad blood between these two wrestlers, and that had not changed since Hughes had beaten Trigg in 2003. This time around, we saw a much bolder, arrogant Trigg, who had dispatched of two-time Hughes conqueror Dennis Hallman (by TKO at UFC 48) and had pounded out the last man to make Hughes look beatable on the floor: Renato “Charuto” Verissimo.
With two victories over opponents who owned a record of 2-1 against Hughes (or 3-0 depending on who you asked), Trigg looked ready to seize the day and with it the title.
Of course, by now we all know how the fight went down; Hughes mounted a come-from-behind victory over Trigg in one of the greatest one-round battles the sport has ever seen. Hughes eventually won the fight by rear-naked choke (for the second time) and handed his rival another stinging loss.
Next, Renato “Babalu” Sobral defeated Travis Wiuff by armbar early in Round 2, establishing himself as a top contender to face the winner of Couture vs. Liddell. Sobral looked slick, possessing a newfound polish that was surpassed only by his love of violent finishes, and he looked like a man who was coming to play hard, time and again.
Then, it was finally time: Couture and Liddell, coaches and friendly rivals on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, stepped foot into the cage to decide who would walk out with the 205-pound crown.
Most fans predicting Couture to retain were doing so off the strength of his last three showings; he had dropped down to light heavyweight at UFC 43 and had run amok over Liddell, stopping him via TKO in Round 3 and making it look easy along the way.
So easy, in fact, that Tito Ortiz, owner of newfound love for the sport after seeing an old man stop Liddell, came off the sidelines for UFC 44, attempting to make history as the only fighter to ever defend a UFC title six consecutive times in a row. His fifth defense—at the expense of legend and fellow old-timer Ken Shamrock—had been a wild success, and as a mentor to Ricco Rodriguez (the last man to stop Couture at heavyweight, sending him down to 205), Ortiz had figured this was another easy night in the big lights.
Then, Couture manhandled Ortiz, dominating in every area of the contest and sending The Huntington Beach Bad Boy home without his belt.
Following up two shocking upset victories by a thumping of Vitor Belfort, Couture looked unbeatable, and many felt that Liddell just didn’t have the tools or style needed to contend with Captain America.
Nevertheless, Liddell went out there and kept Couture at bay with excellent movement and stiff punching (empowered by the kind of excellent takedown defense that everyone had expected to see in their first bout). When he finally let the champion into his wheelhouse, he slammed the door hard, catching Couture with a nasty right hand that dropped him to the floor.
Liddell finished up with some additional blows, but they were superfluous; Couture had been honestly starched for the first time in his professional career, and Liddell was the new light heavyweight champion of the world.
And thus the Ice Age began and would continue for two glorious and violent years.
Pride FC: Total Elimination 2005
Date: April 23, 2005
Location: Osaka, Japan
In 2003, Pride FC had struck gold when it staged a middleweight tournament featuring the biggest names in the sport to date, including a representative of the UFC, Chuck Liddell.
In 2004, it tried the same recipe, but it was the heavyweights who were up to bat. Given that 2004’s Grand Prix hadn’t lived up to the promise of 2003, Pride went back to the middleweights, hoping what had been great in 2003 could be even greater in 2005.
At Pride FC: Total Elimination 2005, 16 of the best middleweight fighters that the company had access to climbed into the ring for the first round of the Middleweight Grand Prix for the year, and it looked like it was going to be great.
There were familiar names—such as Wanderlei Silva, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Kazushi Sakuraba and others—while new talent found their way into the tournament—most notably Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.
A lot of big names were involved, and in Japan, the tournament format held a special place of esteem and respect. He who could master all that was planned and all that unfolded randomly (as was the chaotic nature of the tournament format) was truly a man among men.
So, in April 2005, 16 fighters gathered to see who would take the first steps forward.
In the opening bout of the night, Kazuhiro Nakamura defeated one of the most chaotic fighters around, Kevin Randleman, by unanimous decision. Randleman had always been a bit of a wild card; sometimes he fought well below his level, and other times he looked like he could beat anyone in the world.
Nakamura was hardly given an easy road into the tournament, but his consistency and constitution helped him earn the decision and move forward to the next round.
Ricardo Arona earned a unanimous decision over Dean Lister, and Igor Vovchanchyn got the nod from the judges over Yuki Kondo.
In the fourth fight of the night, a svelte Alistair Overeem scored the first finish of the tournament when he locked up a tight guillotine choke on Vitor Belfort, making The Phenom tap out late in Round 1.
Following the theme of submissions, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira faced the always scrappy Dan Henderson, finally getting a favorable moment and latching on a fight-winning armbar at 8:05 of Round 1. That made Henderson the third American to be forced out of the tournament in just five fights.
It was not a great opening night for Team USA in Pride.
Then, fireworks came from an unlikely place as Japan’s favorite son, Sakuraba, made his way to the next round of the tournament by defeating Dong Sik Yoon via an early KO rather than a submission. Sakuraba blasted Yoon out of the tournament, earning the victory in less than 40 seconds, which pleased the crowd to no end.
After such a quick fight, when Jackson and Shogun entered the ring, most fans were expecting their bout to be a longer affair, given that both men were tough as nails and had some seemingly unfinished business. Jackson had been awarded a questionable decision over Shogun’s brother, Murilo “Ninja” Rua, back at Pride 29 in February, and thus Shogun wanted to avenge that slight to the family name.
This was easily the biggest fight for the fans, at least on paper. It had a compelling storyline—would Jackson rise from the ashes of his previous two defeats at the hands of Wanderlei Silva, or would he fall to yet another member of the Chute Boxe Academy? Plus, both men were among the best in the division, hands down.
Instead of a protracted war, Shogun ran all over Jackson, mauling him in the corner with that relentless Chute Boxe style. He ended the bout via a brutal assault of knees and then soccer kicks to the head as Jackson lay on the floor, stunned and undone at 4:47 of Round 1.
It was a shocking sight, especially given that the last time the middleweights engaged in the Pride Grand Prix, Jackson had done so well. As he lay on the floor, clearly hurt, it looked like 2003 was decades in the past; the fighter who had come so close to winning it all was now a distant memory and perhaps a victim of his own ambition.
After all, his hunger to defeat Silva was the same vehicle that had delivered him to two of his most brutal defeats—losses he looked like he was still reeling from in 2005.
Then, in the final fight of the night, the reigning Pride middleweight champion, Wanderlei Silva, faced a familiar opponent in Hidehiko Yoshida.
Their first meeting had taken place in the semifinal round of the Grand Prix in 2003, where Silva had won a close decision over a tough Yoshida. Now, they met again, and it looked to be every bit as close as their first encounter in 2003.
And it was.
Yoshida was an Olympic gold medalist in judo, and thus his style could be quite smothering when he closed quarters and locked up with his opponent. This was an excellent style for robbing Silva of his most prized weapons, both of which enabled the other: striking and violence.
Much like their last bout, Yoshida enjoyed more than a few moments of positional advantage. This in turn seemed to inspire Silva to frantic outbursts of striking, as he fought desperately to get any range by which to attack. The Japanese audience appreciated this ebb and flow, even as Silva won again, this time by split decision.
And thus, the first round was in the books.
In the next event, fans would get to see Shogun vs. Nogueira, Overeem vs. Vovchanchyn, Arona vs. Sakuraba and Silva vs. Nakamura.
The table was set; now all that was left was the waiting.
Pride: Bushido 7
Date: May 22, 2005
As the second Bushido show of the year, Pride: Bushido 7 gave us more of what we had come to expect, but this time we got a little extra in terms of stars of the now and notables of the past.
With 10 bouts on the card and a Japanese fighter in every fight, hometown fans were getting to see their friends and loved ones take to the ring, all with an eye toward greater glory in the future.
It was hometown cooking for a hometown crowd, and no matter how far you range, from Philadelphia to Las Vegas to Japan, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who has a legitimate objection to that.
Starting off the night with a bang rather than a whimper, Charles “Krazy Horse” Bennett knocked out Yoshiro Maeda at 1:55 of Round 1. The fight was entertaining in that Bennett was living up to his moniker, as usual, and from there you didn’t know what was coming next.
When he landed that hard right hand, he did it perfectly, knocking Maeda flat on his back.
Not to be outdone by a man never to see a title, former UFC lightweight champion Jens Pulver starched Tomomi Iwama in a minute flat, recalling the same kind of ferocity and power that saw him fell John Lewis way back at UFC 28 in November 2000.
With two fights down in less than three minutes total, Yves Edwards was up next. The parade of first-round finishes continued, as he defeated Dokonjonosuke Mishima by armbar at 4:36 of Round 1, putting the Americans up 3-0 for the night.
Aaron Riley was up next, taking on Michihiro Omigawa in another bout that ended in a bang as Riley landed a head kick for the KO win at six minutes even. He proved that he was more than just a gritty grinder who wore his opponents out.
He could finish them too.
Of course, the night of finishes couldn’t go on forever. Hayato Sakurai defeated Milton Vieira by decision, returning to the win column after being submitted via armbar by Crosley Gracie at Pride: Bushido 5 in 2004.
Akihiro Gono slipped through the ropes next to take on Crosley Gracie in an exciting fight that showed a fighter with the last name of Gracie was actually good with his hands and feet. Good as he was, it wasn’t enough; Gono won the decision and moved his record to 23-10-7.
After the success of his countryman, Tatsuya Kawajiri looked to maintain the national form and succeeded with a relatively quick TKO stoppage of In Seok Kim. With that victory, the card's contingent of Japanese representatives notched their third win in a row, which is a good thing after Team USA had flattened the first four Japanese fighters of the night.
They say that while Japanese fighters falter overseas (and they honestly have, for the most part), when they are at home and the pressure is on, they rise to the occasion like the sun on their flag. Thus, Ryo Chonan defeated Antonio Schembri via unanimous decision, much to the delight of the crowd.
Honestly, I didn’t expect Chonan to defeat Schembri, even given the latter’s limited striking tools. Chonan always seemed like a fighter who tinkered and toyed with the idea of victory as openings presented themselves. Granted, when pushed he could jump on a chance like no one else (see his victory over Anderson Silva), but mainly he seemed like a fighter who was waiting on a victory bus that may or may not pick him up out of the rain.
With a full head of steam and four victories in a row for Japan, Ikuhisa Minowa went against Phil Baroni in an attempt to hand the Americans their first loss of the night. Instead, Baroni handed Minowa a serious ass-kicking to bring a close to the bout in Round 2.
Both men were tired and getting needlessly caught up in the one-two game, but soon Baroni began to land meaningful jabs. Then, catching Minowa against the ropes, he connected with hard punches in bunches, including a knee-numbing left hook and a hard right that knocked Minowa to the floor moments later.
The fight was rightfully called at 2:04 of the second frame, and the Japanese crowd saw their fifth countryman fall before the American visitors.
But then, the headlining bout of the night had arrived, as Takanori Gomi slipped through the ropes to tangle with Luiz Azeredo.
Coming into the bout, Gomi was 19-2, with 10 victories coming by way of stoppage later in his career. He was on a hot streak and the most popular fighter in Japan.
His winning ways continued as he won the bout via KO at 3:46 of Round 1.
With six straight victories on his record—all by stoppage—since his one-sided thumping at the hands of BJ Penn, Gomi had just started what would turn out to be one of the greatest years in his career.
Date: June 4, 2005
Location: Atlantic City, New Jersey
The purpose of these retrospectives has always been to explore the deep well of nostalgia and how the sport affects us as fans during significant moments of our lives.
I will never forget UFC 53 because it occurred at the same time as the death and burial of my uncle.
As we all gathered in Missouri to lay my father’s little brother to rest, I remember seeing UFC 53 offered via repeat pay-per-view on the basement television, while everyone else was upstairs, trying to shepherd the situation, in bits and pieces, to a righteous and honorable conclusion. It then struck me how odd life was—not good or bad, just odd.
How else can I describe my appreciation for violent sports during such a sad time, especially given that now I am expected to find and elevate all that is positive in a sport that is nothing more (in the words of Boxing historian Bert Sugar) than glorified assault?
All sentimentally on my side aside, UFC 53 was nothing more than a needed chapter in the ongoing schedule of the UFC. That is not to say that it didn’t answer important questions, because it did.
But a great and noteworthy card by conventional or historical standards it was not.
Perhaps it is just and appropriate that now, 10 years later, a certain fighter named Andrei Arlovski reminds me (and hopefully you, dear fan of the fights) that he is not ready to be dismissed—that he is not ready to be buried just yet.
Maybe it’s just me.
In 2005, when Arlovski looked to make his first-ever title defense at UFC 53, it was for the interim title, while Frank Mir still went through the trials and tribulations of his life.
Of course, it was not the only important fight of note on June 4, but it probably resonates the most given recent events in 2015.
Starting off the night with a bang, we got to see future star Nick Diaz meet No. 3-ranked Pancrase fighter Koji Oishi in a welterweight bout that ended in typical Diaz fashion: violently.
It looked bad for Oishi from the beginning as he walked forward, his body stiff as a board and upright, his hands down well below his chin and head stiff and open for punishment. Diaz, never one to pass up on an open invitation to slug someone in the chin, took full advantage and bounced his fists off his opponents face early and often.
Predictably, Diaz rocked Oishi early and then used his reach to batter him against the cage. Oishi continued to try to use his face as a lure for some unknowable advantage, but he got knocked out before his unfathomable plans could see fruition.
I’m still baffled by that one. Given the freedom that Oishi allowed Diaz to enjoy while measuring the distance, the Japanese fighter might as well have given Diaz a tape measure so he could fit him for a straitjacket, because that strategy was crazy.
Next up, David Loiseau brought his experience and vicious elbows into the cage against Charles McCarthy in a middleweight bout.
In truth, the main reason why fans were watching this bout was because of the elbows of Loiseau; yes, they were that brutal and noteworthy, which isn’t bad for a preliminary bout.
McCarthy got a takedown in less than 60 seconds and shortly after got the back, while fans of The Crow and his bloody elbows were wondering if they tuned in for nothing. Then, Loiseau turned the tables, scrambled into the top position and let the strikes fly.
McCarthy endured the hostilities safely until the close of the round and may have had an advantage on the scorecards, depending on what you liked in a fight.
Round 2 began, and after eating a hard knee from the clinch, McCarthy pulled Loiseau to the floor with him, trying to wrap him up. After the fight was restarted on the feet by Big John, Loiseau landed a brutal spinning back kick to the gut of McCarthy, dropping him to the floor. After that, the fight was mercifully stopped in short order.
We may not have gotten to see a river of blood opened up by the elbows of Loiseau, but we got a different ending that was equally memorable.
After just two bouts, fans got to see one of the unknown fighters from Season 1 of The Ultimate Fighter, Nate Quarry, scrap with longtime vet Shonie Carter. Back in 2005, the idea that relatively unknown contestants from a reality show could pose a credible threat to any established UFC fighter seemed laughable, and thus many were expecting to see Carter send Quarry home early.
When Carter landed a hard right hand to the jaw of Quarry early as both men tied up, it seemed that the new guy was going home even sooner than expected. But Quarry stood his ground and opened up with both hands, blasting Carter and sending him stumbling back toward the cage.
Quarry pressed the advantage, landed a straight kick to the body that crumpled Carter, and then The Rock rained down punches and elbows. Carter fought back to his feet, but pinned against the cage, he had no room to evade. Quarry tagged him with hard punches in a wild exchange that ended with Carter falling to the floor, badly stunned and beaten.
After the fight, Quarry gave thanks to his sponsors, reading off a cue card. This is especially telling now, in 2015; it is so easy to forget that many an unknown and forgotten sponsor was helping feed and further the causes of many fighters who were not getting the paydays many assumed were a given for any fighter under contract with the “Super Bowl of mixed martial arts.” Those sponsors were helping the fighters back then (and the UFC by obvious proxy), and it looks like they will be helping fighters find new homes outside the UFC in 2015.
Next on deck was a heavyweight bout between Kevin Jordan and Paul Buentello.
It was a lackluster bout that ended with Buentello on top, on the floor, while Jordan tapped out from what seemed to be exhaustion that was exasperated from a partial guillotine choke. Although proffered as a one-arm neck crank, it seemed more a result of simple fatigue.
The winner of The Ultimate Fighter in the light heavyweight division, Forrest Griffin, made his pay-per-view debut against Bill Mahood. Griffin won the bout with little fanfare, getting the fight to the ground and securing the rear-naked choke in 2:17 of Round 1. It wasn’t a stern test for Griffin, but it was a good beginning for bigger things.
Then it was time for the first title bout of the night. Newly crowned champion Evan Tanner was set to defend his middleweight belt for the first time against Rich “Ace” Franklin in a rematch of their first meeting at UFC 42, when both fighters were in the light heavyweight division.
The first time around, Franklin seemed to catch Tanner flat-footed, using his size and reach advantage to devastating effect and scoring the TKO victory midway through the first round. Both men seemed like different fighters in 2005, especially Tanner, but Franklin just looked like a bad stylistic matchup for the champ in almost every way.
As the fight began, you just knew there was going to be some hard shots thrown and absorbed, and that is exactly what happened.
Through most of Round 1, both men circled, trying to gauge the distance, and it was clear the reach of Franklin was going to be a serious hurdle for Tanner to overcome. Franklin utilized his southpaw stance well, working behind his right jab to land inside leg kicks and left hooks.
Even though Franklin was throwing and landing more, Tanner was still game. After absorbing some heavy kicks to the legs, body and head, not to mention punches in bunches, the champion stepped into the pocket and landed a short, powerful right hand that dropped Franklin to his back, with his head bouncing off the canvas.
Tanner pounced, briefly taking Franklin’s back, but the challenger slipped out and managed to end up on top, landing some punches while defending a steady chain of submission attempts.
Bleeding from his left ear at the start of Round 2, Tanner began his slow walk to the gallows, eating countless punches to the face, over and over. For the next 13 minutes, 25 seconds of action, Tanner was the toughest, gamest punching bag to be found in Atlantic City; his heart was on full display, but it just wasn’t enough.
By the time the fight was called in Round 4, his face was a bloody, swollen mess. It was a clear testimony to just how much the title meant to him.
With Franklin crowned the new champion, Tanner would go back to the drawing board, but his efforts would be remembered by everyone who had watched him give the full measure of a champion's devotion to his title.
After that bout, fans saw Matt Serra come back to the welterweight division to face judo ace Karo Parisyan.
After surviving a hard right hand that knocked him down and looked to have him in serious trouble just seconds into the opening frame, Parisyan went on to win the bout thanks to his constant aggression and strong grappling base. It was a grueling fight that saw both men enjoy moments of success (and a few good judo throws to boot), but in the end it was a grinder's affair, and Parisyan won the unanimous decision.
Finally, in the heavyweight division, Arlovski defended his interim title against Justin Eilers in a bout that was long on hope and short on delivery. Arlovski was simply far too much for Eilers, who seemed to be coming into the bout with a pre-existing injury that would bring the bout to a quick close.
After a period of both men testing the distance as they bounced and circled around the cage, Arlovski began to find his range with punches and kicks. Eilers, a fighter with big power, was still punching, but his blows seem to sail just a bit too late to find a port.
Then, with his face already bloodied, Eilers went deep into the pocket for a striking exchange, and his leg gave out, just like that. He hit the floor, clearly in serious pain, and the fight was called off with barely a minute left in Round 1.
Arlovski had his first successful defense of the interim title, although it was not the conclusion anyone expected or wanted.
Pride FC: Critical Countdown 2005
Date: June 26, 2005
Location: Saitama, Japan
With the opening round of the middleweight Grand Prix for 2005 out of the way, the second installment—Critical Countdown—started the necessary process of separating the chaff from the wheat, as they say. Of course, the fighters who had made it to this round weren’t there by luck. It seemed, at least on paper, that all the matches could show some serious fireworks.
Before we could see the remaining middleweights fight their way to the semifinal round, longtime UFC veteran and three-time heavyweight title challenger Pedro Rizzo looked to make one last run at things. Standing in his way was Sergei Kharitonov, a heavy-handed Russian with a true love of the sport and serious power to boot.
The fight didn’t last long. Kharitonov simply had his way with Rizzo, who looked lost, three steps behind the music and without a clue as to how to proceed in righting his ship, which was being ripped apart—aft to stern—by his massive Russian opponent.
When the end finally came, Rizzo was being battered on the floor by punches and kicks to the head, and a great fighter like that shouldn’t be reduced to such a hapless figure. The bout was mercifully stopped at 2:02 of Round 1, and his first fight since November 2003 had come and gone with a whimper.
Next came the first middleweight bout of the night, and what a great scrap it turned out to be.
When Mauricio “Shogun” Rua of the Chute Boxe Academy slipped through the ropes to take on Antonio Rogerio Nogueira of the Brazilian Top Team, you sensed things were going to be razor-close, and they were.
Both men were evenly matched on the feet and the floor, and the ebb and flow went both ways, all the way to the end. Both men dropped each other with hard shots, and both had moments of dominance on the floor in a fight that only slowed down before the tides switched. It was much closer than the unanimous decision revealed, but Shogun got the nod and advanced to the next round in a great fight.
After Shogun and Nogueira showed the crowd how evenly matched they were, Alistair Overeem took to the ring to face longtime Pride veteran Igor Vovchanchyn in what was expected to be a striking affair. Instead, Overeem reminded everyone that even between strikers, submissions were still on the table as he ended the bout quickly, utilizing his length of frame to secure a guillotine choke at 1:20 of the opening frame.
With half of this round of the middleweight tournament in the books, it was back to the heavyweight division as Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic faced off against Ibragim Magomedov. As expected, Cro Cop ended the night early, stopping Magomedov with a brutal kick to the body and securing the win via TKO in less than four minutes.
As the card churned along, Kiyoshi Tamura faced Makoto Takimoto in an all-Japan bout that went the full distance. Takimoto was a green novice, coming into the bout with an MMA record of 1-0 but was highly touted nonetheless given his gold-medal performance at the 2000 Olympics in judo.
Against Tamura, who came to the bout with an MMA record of 28-11-3, Takimoto was simply outmatched all over and lost via unanimous decision.
With five of the eight bouts on the card complete, the heavyweights took to the stage for the final time of the night. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira faced off against judo ace Pawel Nastula, who won the gold medal in judo in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
Nogueira won the bout off the strength of his grappling and his striking, as he stopped Nastula in his pro MMA debut via TKO from punches at 8:38 of Round 1.
It is interesting that two gold medalists in judo competed and were bested with marginal fanfare given how dominant Ronda Rousey, a bronze medalist in Olympic judo, has been in the sport. Perhaps that is proof positive that there is more to a fighter than his or her core discipline—that his or her spirit and style of fighting enable their skills as much as it is vice versa.
Finally, the final two bouts of the middleweight Grand Prix had arrived, and we were waiting anxiously.
The crowd watched as their to-date favorite son in the sport, Kazushi Sakuraba, ascended into the ring to face Brazilian Top Team member, Ricardo Arona.
It has always been somewhat hard for foreign fans to gauge the hopes and dreams of Japanese fans, but it is safe to say that they had high hopes for Sakuraba, who had been one of their greatest offerings to the sport. It is equally safe to say that the fight broke their hearts, as Sakuraba ended up suffering one of the greatest beatings in his professional career.
No matter what happened preceding the end, the true story of the fight is in how the bout ended.
Pride FC rules fully allowed the kneeing, kicking and stomping of the head of a downed opponent, and on this night, such rules wrought brutal havoc on Sakuraba.
He ended up on the bottom, kneeling for most of it, while Arona kept the high ground thanks to his superior size and savvy. He punished the head of Sakuraba as it floated side-to-side below him, bouncing wildly from the knees he was driving forward.
There was more to it than that, of course; there was more punishment from a different assortment of blows, but the lion’s share of the damage came from the knees of Arona, which were in the perfect position to slam into the face and head of Sakuraba, again and again and again.
There have been many fights in the history of combative sports that have seen valiant fighters escape horrendous punishment—perhaps saved by the bell or the ability to pull guard or tie their opponent up.
But those periods of history never saw a smaller fighter fight off both an opponent and a brutal disadvantage in rules and position.
In the early days of pugilism, boxers (wearing gloves rivaling the four-ounce trappings of today’s MMA) would fell opponents and linger right above them, waiting for their fallen foes to rise so they could level them again with a blow that was measured and waiting. They were allowed the full prejudice of superior elevation, leverage and timing against dazed and wounded opposition.
When such fights happened, the hapless victims never staged a come-from-behind victory; they were beaten down in the best of circumstances and outright annihilated in the worst-case scenarios.
When Jack Dempsey—perhaps the most savage and capable wrecking machine the sport of boxing ever produced in the years before 1950—destroyed most of his more formidable opposition (many bigger men, such as Luis Angel Firpo in 1923), he started their downfall by landing a brutal punch, but he finished them by being allowed by the rules of boxing to stand damn near right over them, waiting for them to try to struggle to their feet.
As they tried to pull themselves upright, they came up just high enough to be in direct line of his next powerhouse blow, which was already coming down the pike, fired off his capable hips, given the full power of kinetic linkage and professional accuracy.
The results were horrific and left no room for fairy-tale endings. The same was true for Sakuraba as he tried to absorb the brutal knees of Arona.
When the fight was finally called, his face was grotesquely swollen and oozing blood. He didn’t look like the Sakuraba of old who could be beaten up but still seem valiant and, in some ways, unconquerable.
This time he looked like a victim of a crime, and there was no optimism to be found in the bloody mask he wore around his head. It was a harsh thing to see and a sign of harder times to come.
Then, after Sakuraba and Arona left the ring, the final bout of the night was upon us, as Wanderlei Silva met Kazuhiro Nakamura.
As predicted by nearly all, Silva won the bout early; Nakamura simply wasn’t up to withstanding the tornado of violence that The Axe Murderer brought into the ring with him every time he fought. The Japanese fighter was overwhelmed with punches until the bout was called, as Silva won via TKO at 5:24 of Round 1.
With the winnowing complete, only two more bouts remained before the finals. Overeem would face Rua, and Silva would face Arona; from there, the winners would face each other in the finals to decide the winner of the Middleweight Grand Prix for 2005.
Pride: Bushido 8
Date: July 17, 2005
Location: Nagoya, Japan
With its third Bushido card of 2005, Pride was working hard to entrench itself as the current and future MMA promotion of note. With 11 fights on the card, fans would be exposed to more fighters than the usual cards would provide, and said fighters knew that solid victories could propel them onto bigger stages, such as a slot on the next big Pride PPV event.
In the first bout of the night, Josh Thomson got the event going on a good foot, stopping Daisuke Sugie with a kneebar at 4:35 of Round 1. Although perhaps most famously known for getting creamed by a beautiful flying head kick by Yves Edwards at UFC 49, Thomson had always been a serious fighter with serious skills and was more than a match for Sugie.
The next two bouts saw Denis Kang and Marcus Aurelio win their fights via unanimous decision, paving the way for Kazuki Okubo to secure an armbar submission over Ryuichi Murata at 9:30 of the opening stanza of the fourth bout of the night.
The next two fights came and went with some substantial fury, as heavyweight monster James Thompson knocked out Henry Miller with a punch in 81 seconds of Round 1. Then, Joachim “Hellboy” Hansen starched Masakazu Imanari with a brutal knee to the face that left the Japanese fighter out cold.
In the end, the true fights of the night saw Phil Baroni blow out Ryo Chonan via KO from a punch and Takanori Gomi defeat Jean Silva via unanimous decision.
It wasn’t the best card of the year, but it wasn’t the worst. Given Hansen's walk-away KO, it was a notable night for fans of the knockout.
UFC Fight Night 1
Date: August 6, 2005
Location: Las Vegas
In the organization's second-ever fight card on free television, UFC Fight Night was the beginning of great things for the promotion. It is a program that continues to this day in one form or another.
The concept of free fights on “regular” television was a long-lost staple in the world of professional sport, and as a fan of boxing back in the day, I was happy that these cards were together because it was in many ways a reward to the longtime fans of the sport. It was also done in part, I hoped, for the fan White saw in the mirror.
Much of his decisions are influenced by what he would like to see as a fan. We may think he has lost sight of the common Joe on the street, but if you look at many of his moves, you can see a kind of personal wish fulfillment: UFC events released on VHS (and then more frequently on DVD), his efforts to co-promote with Pride FC, his interactions (good and bad) with the fans and, of course, free fights on television.
It’s easy to forget just how big a deal this is for most fans who found the sport from 2007 until now. But there was a time when the idea of watching a UFC event on free television was exciting, especially in 2005.
It was also great for the fighters, giving them the kind of exposure they wouldn’t have enjoyed otherwise.
Consider: UFC Fight Night was seen by 2 million viewers at its peak, with an average of 1.5 million overall.
That's a shocking number of people when you consider that prior to the deal with Spike TV, the biggest audience the UFC had enjoyed came when Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture met at UFC 52, which pulled in a buyrate of 280,000.
And so, the UFC staged UFC Fight Night at the Cox Pavilion in Vegas, and in truth it was a fine show indeed.
Opening the night in the welterweight division, Drew Fickett defeated Josh Neer via rear-naked choke at 1:35 of Round 1, starting off the night with a bang while showing new audiences what a real submission looks like.
Next, former alumni of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, Kenny Florian and Alex Karalexis, slugged it out. Florian was all over the place, attacking from angles and darting in and out. He left Karalexis to assume the role of plodding power puncher and to chase an opponent who always seemed a bit out of reach.
Florian connected with a hard kick to the body, and suddenly Karalexis was in big trouble, trying to fend off Florian's punches, kicks and knees. Karalexis managed to tie up long enough to recover, making a fight out of it near the final minute. He put Florian’s back to the fence, and both men began to let their fists fly.
With Round 1 in his pocket, Florian came out strong in Round 2 and wasted no time in taking Karalexis to the floor. When it seemed like just a matter of time until Florian found the submission, Karalexis fought from his back and managed to turn a partial guillotine choke into an escape. Suddenly, they were back on their feet again.
From there, it looked like Karalexis might dash all of Florian’s aspirations as he drove the fight to the fence, attacking with both fists and landing well. Somehow, amid all that leather, the elbow of Florian swung wide and true, catching Karalexis across his nose and opening up a nasty gash that would see the fight stopped by Margaret Goodman at 2:52 of Round 2.
With two fights and two stoppages in the books, the action rolled onward, as Mike Swick mauled Gideon Ray with fast punches and earned the TKO in just 22 seconds of Round 1. Swick caught Ray walking in with his hands down a little too low, landing a stiff left that started a two-fisted combination that ended the night quickly.
Josh Koscheck stepped into the cage next, facing off against veteran Pete Spratt. Koscheck was simply too much for Spratt, ending the night with a rear-naked choke at 1:53 of the first frame.
While the first-ever fight night was clearly designed to showcase the fighters from The Ultimate Fighter, perhaps the one man who made the most of the night was Nate Quarry. He had never gotten the chance to showcase his skills during the airing of the first season because of an ankle injury.
On this night, he earned his second stoppage victory in the Octagon, and it was a big one.
Quarry stopped tough Pete Sell via TKO in just 42 seconds of the opening round. While Quarry’s defense left much to be desired, it also allowed him to leverage serious power into his punches. He ended the night quickly for Sell, who would later fight Quarry in a barnburner rematch in 2007.
This was also a big fight for Quarry, as it also put him in position for a title shot at Rich Franklin later in the year at UFC 56.
With five fights in the books for the night—and five finishes—fans got to see Stephan Bonnar make his first post-TUF finale Octagon appearance against Sam Hoger. Bonnar won the bout by unanimous decision, and like Griffin’s victory over Mahood, it was a good and humble beginning.
Wrapping up the night, Chris Leben took home a split-decision victory over Patrick Cote, and Nate Marquardt earned the nod from all three judges over Ivan Salaverry.
Both were tough fights that gave all fighters involved precious time in front of a large audience in a night of firsts that will go down in the history books for all the right reasons.
Date: August 20, 2005
Location: Las Vegas
With Chuck Liddell reigning atop the light heavyweight heap, everything seemed to be going forward with a new spirit. There was a sense of gravitas that was lacking in the early days when Tito Ortiz was the champion at 205 pounds and the MMA world was wondering what would come next.
As a result, UFC 54 provided fans with an excellent card that delivered not only great fights but answers to questions that had been posed in the past.
At UFC 19, Liddell had lost to Jeremy Horn via triangle-arm choke. Now, some years later, Liddell was the champion, and one of the few people to defeat him had a chance to do so again, but could he?
That was indeed the question, and anyone who had been following the sport knew better than to count out Horn—especially Liddell.
In the first fight of night, we saw a dramatic ending to a blase fight, as James Irvin came on strong in Round 2, after being controlled in the opening frame by Terry Martin. Irvin landed a stunning jumping knee to the face of Martin at the outset of the round, knocking him to the floor and ending the fight dramatically.
It was one of the best jumping-knee finishes ever.
The next two fights of the prelim card weren’t as exciting but were every bit as passionate. Trevor Prangley and Matt Lindland defeated Travis Lutter and Joe Doerksen, respectively, via unanimous decision in typical grinder style, with all eyes on a chance to move up the middleweight ladder to face champion Rich Franklin.
Then, the main card came with a bang as Georges St-Pierre squared off against Frank Trigg.
As both men had lost to champion Matt Hughes, this fight would decide who stood the tallest in the reckoning process for the next title shot.
Both men had tested Hughes, and it seemed like a natural fight to help refocus the contenders in the welterweight division. It also looked like it could be a close fight, given that St-Pierre was a young lion and Trigg was still looming above the rest of the division like a dark cloud with his experience and growing confidence.
Instead, St-Pierre ran all over Trigg, making the most recent title challenger look nearly helpless in every area the fight was contested. St-Pierre didn’t just beat Trigg; he erased him from the minds of those who watch the sport with a critical eye for future title fights. That’s how lopsided the bout was.
St-Pierre wrapped up Trigg—and all his future hopes in the UFC—and submitted him at 4:09 of Round 1, making one of the most accomplished and respected figures in the welterweight division weep in embarrassment. That is no small feat when you consider just how good Trigg had been up to that point.
Yeah, it was that impressive, and one couldn’t help but feel for Trigg because the monster that had devoured him that night had taken everyone by surprise. No one expected to see GSP come out with such fire and confidence. He was a new man about the business of taking the division by storm.
Even Hughes had to feel a sense of foreboding when watching one of his greatest rivals get crushed by the Canadian upstart who had, up until that night, seemed almost overwhelmed by the increasing gravity of moments that his ability was affording his career.
Right before our eyes, St-Pierre turned into a full-blown predator, and he was still discovering just how many sharp teeth he had in his maw. Clearly, this was one of the defining moments in the changing of the guard in the welterweight division.
Next, Diego Sanchez, fresh off his contract-winning victory at the finale of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, made his welterweight debut against “the opponent” of the night, Brian Gassaway. Sanchez won the fight via submission due to strikes. With the victory, he set off a tide of fury among many established fighters who felt he was getting easy treatment on what had been the hard highway of their careers.
Whatever they thought, Sanchez had earned his first official UFC victory, and it would propel him forward to an incredible career that was defined by some outstanding wars.
With the main card rolling ahead on the power of two straight stoppages, Randy Couture took to the Octagon in his first fight since losing the title to Chuck Liddell at UFC 52. Standing across the cage from him was Mike Van Arsdale, a fighter with a strong wrestling base and no small amount of physical power.
It was a fight between two capable and powerful wrestlers, and in truth it was fun to watch. Couture won the back-and-forth contest via anaconda choke early in Round 3, and in doing so proved he was still a serious contender for the title.
In the co-main event of the evening, former heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia was still working to build up the resume to get a chance to regain the title he had lost due to stoppage in his bout with Andrei Arlovski at UFC 51. On this night, he went toe-to-toe with Lion's Den notable Tra Telligman in an exciting bout that ended when the big man launched an unexpected high kick that landed on Telligman’s head and knocked him out with just one second remaining in Round 1.
As the event was coming to a close, Liddell and Horn met for the second time in their storied careers, but the time the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship was on the line.
For four straight rounds, Liddell battered Horn from pillar to post, administering a brutal beating that finally came to a close when Horn, flat on his back in Round 4, signaled John McCarthy that he simply couldn’t see through his battered eyes.
Liddell was sharper than ever, landing brutal punches at will, almost from every angle. As valiant as Horn was, he was also simply outmatched, especially since he couldn’t overcome Liddell’s takedown defense in order to get the fight to the ground.
Liddell had the first successful title defense of his light heavyweight reign, and he had, once again, avenged a previous loss, which left Quinton “Rampage” Jackson as the only man remaining on his revenge list.
Pride FC: Final Conflict 2005
Date: August 28, 2005
Location: Saitama, Japan
At long last, it was here.
The final night of fights to determine the winner of the Pride Middleweight Grand Prix for 2005 had arrived, and the card was excellent.
Not only did we have the final four middleweights fighting for that gold belt, but we also had Fedor fighting Cro Cop for the heavyweight title.
It looked to be a great night of fights, even though it was short; only seven bouts were scheduled, no doubt in anticipation to some fights running long.
As we waited for it all to start, it was with due appreciation that we reflected on the road that got us here. In 2005 we had seen 16 middleweight fighters of note engage in 12 bouts, leading up to the final four fighters and the last three fights.
Like any tournament, there was some good and bad. On one hand, we got to see an assembly of great fighters come together in grand fashion, by choice. On the other hand, it was hard to see Kazuhiro Nakamura as a superior fighter over such men as Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Dan Henderson and Hidehiko Yoshida, just because he made it past the opening round by defeating Kevin Randleman.
Of course, that has always been the rub in any tournament; some matches end up favoring and thus advancing the cause of possibly inferior fighters, but in the end, everyone is fighting for his spot, and luck of the draw alone does not elevate one to the top, unless your name is Steve Jennum.
In the opening bout of the night, Nakamura (who had been knocked out of the tournament at Pride: Critical Countdown 2005) defeated Igor Vovchanchyn by unanimous decision. It wasn’t a great bout, but it wasn’t bad either, and it did give us just enough time to get cozy for the first real fight of the night: the middleweight semifinal bout between Arona and Silva.
It was everything fight fans hope for as they anticipate an epic clash. You had the rivalry between two Brazilians teams, as Arona came from Brazilian Top Team and Silva from the Chute Boxe Academy.
Then, you had the natural dislike that both men felt for each other, which seemed to run far deeper than any camp-based rivalry. Lastly, you had the clash of styles: the strong grappling-based game of Arona against the violent striking style of Silva.
All in all, it gave us much of what we hoped for (especially honest resolution) while falling short of a true back-and-forth tilt.
No matter how much the sport had advanced, on this night, in this fight, the clash of styles favored the grappler and also empowered his striking; therefore, the decision rightfully went to Arona. The fight was full of dramatic moments and bad intentions, but minute by minute, Arona was walking away with it.
Yes, he had to endure some tense moments, but his only true worry was avoiding a wild knockout blow. Silva had to avoid the same while also trying to defend against the takedown and the time that would be leeched out of the bout, to the advantage of Arona.
When the bout came to a close, Arona, who was atop Silva, knew he had won and screamed in Silva’s face before the men got to their feet to hear the decision. Arona was now in the finals, and moreover, he had handed Silva his first legitimate loss at middleweight in a long time.
The second middleweight semifinal bout saw Silva training partner and new Chute Boxe star, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua take out Alistair Overeem in an action-packed fight that was all over the place in the opening minutes.
Overeem was using his length well in the beginning, sprawling out of numerous takedown attempts, maintaining a good top position and scoring when he could with strikes while looking for submissions.
Then, the tide turned as Shogun kept surging forward. He began to win the fight on the floor by scrambling to the high ground first, scoring with punches and kicks to the head, while Overeem tried to find any safe avenue to get to his feet without getting blasted.
Eventually, Shogun got the side mount and landed heavy knees to the head, followed by hammerfists and then a pass to full mount. From there, he let it all go, clipping Overeem’s head with heavy hooks until the referee stopped the bout at 6:42 of Round 1.
And thus the finals were set. Once again, for the third time in the tournament, the Brazilian Top Team (Arona) would tangle with the Chute Boxe Academy (Shogun).
For the fourth bout of the night, Fabricio Werdum submitted Roman Zentsov via armbar from within a triangle leg-choke attempt. Werdum looked fantastic against Zentsov, who was game but outmatched on the floor.
Following that, Hidehiko Yoshida, an Olympic gold medalist in judo for Japan, slipped through the ropes to take on UFC brawler Tank Abbott. By this time in his career, Abbott had little in the way of conditioning, and the fact that he managed to survive against an Olympic-level grappler for anything longer than three minutes was surprising. What was not surprising was the outcome, which saw Yoshida win the bout via armbar at 7:40 of Round 1.
Then, one of the most anticipated fights of the year had finally arrived. CropCop, clearly the No. 1 contender in the heavyweight division (in Pride or the UFC) was going to get his chance at the belt owned by Fedor.
This was the heavyweight fight of the year; both opponents had been tested by a variety of notable opposition and were in their prime. The legitimacy of their fight—and just how significant it was based upon the fact that both were meeting as a result of due process within the division, with their positions earned the hard way—went totally unrecognized by Pride from a promotional standpoint.
Seriously; this was Jose Aldo vs. Conor McGregor times 10, but Pride was as nonchalant as Fedor was when, months earlier, he accepted Cro Cop’s challenge and walked toward the ring, wearing his signature Winnie the Pooh grin and his silver title belt over his shoulder.
This fight should have been promoted with vigor and energy due the importance of the bout; these two men were clearly the best in the division in Pride or the UFC. When you added to that the fact that the winner was the true heavyweight champion of the world in all of MMA, the idea that Pride didn’t push this bout with all its considerable resources shows that the company's minds were elsewhere.
The fight was a perfect marriage of ebb-and-flow, with both men fighting hard to enjoy the moments of advantage they held, acting and reacting with excellent timing and bravado while using their considerable and specific skills to their advantage.
It was back-and-forth offense and defense, standing and on the floor, action and reaction, and above all, it was passionate. Both men knew what was on the line and just how dangerous his opposition was, but they were going for it anyway, willing to take great risk in order to gain greater advantage.
By the time it was over, Fedor was bloodied and bruised but still king, and deservedly so. It had been a terribly close fight, but he had rightfully won, and both men had served the division and the standard of the title in the best traditions of the sport.
With six fights on the books, the final bout had arrived, bringing with it the conclusion of the saga that was the Middleweight Grand Prix for 2005. After 14 total bouts, Arona and Shogun were the last two men standing, and we couldn’t wait to see who would win.
Given that Shogun had much the same kind of style that Arona had so handily dealt with earlier in the evening, more than a few fans felt Arona would be walking out of the ring as the victor.
The fight started off respectfully but explosively as Shogun began his attack with a series of high kicks that saw him end up on the floor. Then, he locked up an omaplata that resulted in a desperate scramble for Arona—too desperate as it turned out.
Shogun lost the arm but sprawled to his feet and began to attack Arona, who was still on the floor. Shogun began to kick Arona, jumping through the air to stomp his head, only to be pulled back to the floor and attack with punches from top position.
From there, Arona just couldn’t seem to get the space and time required to mount any kind of attack. Shogun was all over him with strikes, and when both men got to their feet, he landed a heavy right hand followed by knees from the clinch.
Shogun got the fight to the floor for the final time, delivering a solid trip takedown and landing on top. Working from within Arona’s open guard, Shogun passed to the side and then to the mount, only to see Arona scramble out of trouble.
Shogun stood up and then jumped in, landing a stomp to the head, followed by repeated (and undefended) hammerfists to Arona’s jaw, leaving him out cold on the floor at 2:54 of Round 1.
Shogun was the Grand Prix champion for 2005, and Chute Boxe was a perfect 2-0 in the middleweight championship series.
All in all, it was a great ending for an entertaining card.
Pride: Bushido 9
Date: September 25, 2005
The fourth and final Bushido card of the year saw Pride really pull the curtain wide. Bushido 9 had 14 total bouts, including the opening and semifinal rounds of its welterweight and lightweight tournaments.
It was from this staging point that Pride would set up the finals (to be decided at Pride: Shockwave 2005) that would then crown its first welterweight and lightweight champions.
Easily the most ambitious and important Bushido card ever, in hindsight it is clear that it came too late. As big as Pride had been since the beginning, it had never fully committed to recognizing (and thus serving) MMA as a legitimate sport.
Pride waited years before implementing a system that would recognize champions, possibly because doing so would tie its hands when it came to making those bizarre bouts that appealed to fans who enjoyed oddity as much as they enjoyed consistency. Pride didn’t seem to want to conform to an ideal that would force it to serve due process when establishing bouts—not when doing so would hurt its credibility if it decided to pit a reigning champion against some hulking monstrosity with no real MMA experience or path to victory, save for ridiculous size and overwhelming strength.
But in 2005—perhaps feeling some pressure from the advances the UFC was making in America—Pride decided to push for conformity than be left so far behind the times that it looked clueless. By the end of the year, it would have four solid divisions and four champions, just like the UFC.
In the opening fight of the night, Paulo Filho faced Ryuta Sakurai, getting the crowd warmed up before the first of the tournament fights began. Filho won the bout rather quickly, securing an armbar at 3:49 of Round 1.
Then, the first bout of the opening round of the welterweight tournament began; Akihiro Gono, owning a record of 23-10-7, faced the 10-1 Daniel Acacio.
This was a respectable bout given that after losing his first professional bout, Acacio had won 10 straight and looked to be gaining some momentum in his career. Weighed against the experience of Gono and the pressure for the Japanese fighter to perform well at home, it looked like it could be explosive.
Gono went on to win the fight via unanimous decision after both men spent equal time proving they didn’t want to win more than they didn’t want to lose. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t awful either.
Next, Dan Henderson made it know he intended to take the welterweight crown by storm, blowing Ryo Chonan out of the tournament courtesy of a brutal punch that gave him the win via KO in just 22 seconds.
The fireworks had officially begun, and everyone watching could see Henderson was ready and hungry.
For the third bout of the opening round of the welterweight tournament, Japan’s bad boy, Ikuhisa Minowa defeated UFC veteran Phil Baroni in a rematch of their first exciting fight that ended with Baroni hammering Minowa on the feet and then kicking and head-stomping him into defeat.
This time around, Minowa won the bout via unanimous decision in a fun but ultimately lacking follow-up to their first clash.
For the final opening-round fight in the welterweight division, Murilo Bustamante made his way to the semifinals after submitting Masanori Suda via armbar at 3:20 of Round 1. It was short, sweet and mostly predictable.
Then, as a buffer for fans before the start of the lightweight tournament, Dokonjonosuke Mishima defeated Charles Bennett via submission off a slick ankle lock at 4:04 of Round 1. With the victory, the oddball that was Mishima proved that sometimes the best way to fight fire is with fire; Bennett may have been “The Krazy Horse,” but Mishima was just too damn bizarre in his own right to be intimidated by the enormity of the moment or his opponent.
With the last of the pleasant distractions out of the way, it was time for the lightweights to push forward as best they could toward the Pride title.
Beginning the night strong, former UFC lightweight champion (and the first ever for the promotion) Jens Pulver faced Hayato Sakurai in one of the better bouts of the night by far.
While Pulver may have been on the downslide of a historic career, he was still dangerous. Utilizing his experience and skill, he managed to keep the fight with Sakurai close until the Japanese star began to find his range and groove.
From there, Sakurai showed a newfound versatility in his striking, stopping Pulver with punches and earning the TKO victory after a hard eight minutes, 56 seconds in Round 1.
Next, Joachim “Hellboy” Hansen won a hard-fought split-decision victory over another UFC stalwart, Yves Edwards, and then Takanori Gomi bested Tatsuya Kawajiri via rear-naked choke at 7:42 of Round 1.
In the last fight of the opening round of the lightweight tournament, Luiz Azeredo came out blazing, starching Naoyuki Kotani with a hard punch and winning the bout via KO in 11 seconds of the opening frame.
While fans reeled from Azeredo’s fast win, the semifinals of the welterweight and lightweight tournaments were upon us; just four fights were left to determine which fighters would go on to fight for the belts at Pride: Shockwave 2005.
Ten fights had already come and gone by the time Henderson climbed back through the ropes for the second time that night, now facing Gono. The American clearly had an advantage going into the bout; his first fight had only lasted 22 seconds, while Gono had to fight to the decision.
Henderson was simply too much for Gono from start to finish. He dominated the fight on the ground and eventually boxed Gono into the corner and let his hands go. He dropped the Japanese fighter to the floor and finished with more strikes, claiming a spot in the finals via KO at 7:58 of Round 1.
Next, Bustamante met Minowa to determine who would face Henderson in the finals on New Year’s Eve.
Bustamante, ever the tactician, didn’t let his desire to face Henderson in a rematch of their first bout cause him to be rash or impulsive. He took his time, waited for any opening of significance and eventually found it, winning the bout via TKO at 9:51.
With the victory, the welterweight finals were set: Henderson would face Bustamante for the crown, and it was an excellent fight on paper, especially since most were willing to throw out their first fight, given just how quickly it ended.
Then, the semifinals of the lightweight tournament were upon us, and as a result we got two excellent fights.
It started with Sakurai locking horns with Hansen, and I, for one, was excited for it. It was a great clash of styles between two hungry fighters, and even though Hansen wasn’t as established in the MMA world as Sakurai was, he was dangerous and savvy at surprising times.
The fight turned out to be excellent. Hansen had come to play hard, and early on, he barely missed a few stomps to the head that were thrown out with such violence that had they landed, Sakurai might have died.
Yet for all the violence swirling about him, Sakurai was moving fluidly, dodging harm and using his wits and guile to close quarters and slow things down to his pace. This kind of patience and sense of timing allowed him to catch Hansen with a surprise left, knocking Hellboy to the ground as he stepped in to throw early in Round 1.
This fight had it all, and both men really looked good, keeping us all on the edge of our seats. When all was said and done, Sakurai had accomplished just a bit more, getting the nod from the judges, and rightfully so.
Finally, we had the final bout of the night and the lightweight semifinals: Gomi vs. Azeredo.
Gomi won the bout via unanimous decision, setting up a fight against Sakurai in an all-Japan final for the lightweight title.
UFC Fight Night 2
Date: October 3, 2005
Location: Las Vegas
The UFC’s second Fight Night gave fans seven fights for free while serving as a nice primer for UFC 55, which would take place four days later.
Granted, the number of bouts it staged during the Fight Night cards weren’t as great as they are today, but it still seems like a solid effort because it was so condensed. It was a potent lineup: Jon Fitch, Josh Koscheck, Chris Leben, Thiago Alves, Brandon Vera and David Loiseau were scheduled to fight, in addition to a former middleweight champion in Evan Tanner.
The card also saw six of seven fights end by stoppage.
In the preliminary bouts, Jonathan Goulet defeated Jay Hieron by TKO after the doctors called a halt to the bout early in Round 3. Fitch then ground out a unanimous-decision victory over Brock Larson, and from there on out, it was nothing but finishes.
In the final prelim fight of the night, Spencer Fisher managed to defeat Alves, submitting The Pitbull with a triangle choke late in Round 2. Alves—who was 8-3 heading into the Octagon—would get much better as he went along, but his first fight in the big show saw him lose to a gritty challenger in Fisher, who was 14-1 heading into the fight.
Then, in the main card, Koscheck got his first taste of defeat in his post-TUF career, getting caught late in his fight with Drew Fickett and being submitted via rear-naked choke at 4:28 of Round 3. The loss was a big learning experience for Koscheck, who would go on to win his next five fights before meeting a rebounding Georges St-Pierre at UFC 74.
Vera was up next and proved to be too much for Fabiano Scherner, claiming the win via TKO from knees in Round 2.
Then, Leben took to the cage to face off against Edwin Dewees. Leben ended the night early by submitting Dewees with an armbar at 3:26 of Round 1 and in doing so showed a depth of skill many didn’t think he possessed.
Then, in the final bout of the night, Loiseau stepped into the Octagon to face recently dethroned middleweight champion, Tanner.
Loiseau had some difficult moments in the bout, as Tanner proved to be a tough customer to handle, but when Loiseau got his opportunity, he attacked Tanner with some wicked elbows. From there, the blood began to flow enough to see the bout stopped at 4:15 of Round 2.
In a way that only makes sense in the combative sports, it was ironic and poetic that Loiseau, the master of the slicing elbows (for lack of a better term), took out Tanner, the master of the clubbing elbows (for an even greater lack of a better term). It could almost be seen as a passing of the torch, were it not for the fact that Loiseau was about to see his career derailed by Franklin at UFC 58.
Such are the stories in MMA—a sport where almost everyone spends equal amounts of time as both hammer and nail.
Date: October 7, 2005
Location: Uncasville, Connecticut
UFC 55 was one of those cards that kept the company rolling forward, as all promotions must do. To stand still is to die in such a cannibalistic sport, and the UFC had not survived a near-death during its “Dark Shows” period by simply waiting for the weather to clear before pitching its tent and staging the next event.
It had new faces of promise in Griffin, Bonnar and Sanchez, and it had men like Arlovski, who would be fighting for the third time in 2005 on this card.
But UFC 55 also showed that Pride FC was not the only promotion brazen enough to give a shout-out to the “Just Bleed” crowd in hopes of renewing their patronage. Zuffa had signed Sean Gannon to fight on the event and in doing so included themselves in the “freak show” that had been falsely believed to only exist in Japan.
Starting off the night on the preliminary card, Alessio Sakara faced off against Ron Faircloth in the light heavyweight division, and it ended up a painful beginning to a respectable night of fights.
Sakara was proving to be too much for Faircloth, who was 10 years his senior. Sakara had the faster hands, and his stand-up was far better; he battered Faircloth with ease, knocked him to his knees early and then spent the rest of Round 1 within his guard, landing hard blows and running away with the opening frame.
Then, starting off Round 2, Faircloth landed a subtle yet heavy kick to the groin that dropped Sakara and had him rolling across the canvas in agony.
It’s rare to see a man get the kind of low blow that can stop a fight, but it happens. It’s even rarer when such a blow looks as if it could make him vomit in his need for relief, and that is what we saw Sakara endure. His pain seemed to radiate through the television screen, and no one doubted it when the fight was rendered a no-contest.
After such a rough beginning to the event, Marcio Cruz faced Keigo Kunihara in the heavyweight division. Cruz earned a victory from a rear-naked choke at 1:02 of Round 2.
Kunihara looked as if he posed little more threat than an animated grappling dummy, and the end never really seemed in doubt. When Cruz managed to get his back as both men were standing—locking up the choke and sticking out his tongue—there was little to be had in the way of true reverence for Cruz valiantly overcoming anything, save some physically displayed indifference as Kunihara went through the motions on his way to defeat.
After such an uninspired bout, Jorge Rivera and Dennis Hallman met as middleweights in a one-sided fight.
Hallman got an early takedown, and given his expertise on the ground, he figured to have Rivera in a bad position. Instead, we saw Rivera remain calm in the face of guard passes and superior positioning, eventually gaining his feet off a slick reversal.
From there, Rivera spent the rest of the fight sprawling, stalling and brawling his way to a unanimous decision. By the start of the third frame, Hallman was spent, and Rivera took his foot off the gas and coasted the rest of the way to the finish line, which was a bit disappointing given that it seemed as if Hallman was there for the taking.
Starting off the main card, future fan favorite Chris Lytle took on Joe Riggs in a spirited battle of welterweights.
Lytle had the advantage early, getting on top of Riggs on the ground, but soon Riggs reversed the tide, and the position, using an omaplata to roll Lytle over. From there, Riggs was on the offensive for the rest of Round 1, landing some hard shots, roughing up Lytle and causing a cut around his eye.
Round 2 saw Riggs gain an early advantage on the ground, only to see Lytle get a sweep of his own. It was then, after moments on the bottom, that Riggs landed a nasty elbow and opened up a fight-ending cut above Lytle’s right eye.
In the next bout of the main card, Renato “Babalu” Sobral faced Chael Sonnen in a rough-and-tumble fight that eventually came to a close when the Brazilian locked up a triangle leg choke, forcing the American to tap out at 1:20 of Round 2.
Sonnen showed glimpses of the kind of aggression and ground-and-pound style that would see him become a major attraction in the years to come. He was unafraid of Sobral, fighting him anywhere there was distance to do so, and it was one of the more entertaining bouts on the card thus far.
Next on deck was Forrest Griffin, who was trying to earn his second official UFC victory. The man standing in his way was the former title challenger, Elvis Sinosic.
Griffin would go on to win the bout after some shaky moments that saw him eat enough leather from Sinosic to look wobbly and in trouble before the man who predicted he could thrive in the role of underdog.
Then, Griffin regained his senses, aligned his priorities and forged ahead, hands up and chin down (for the most part), eventually landing a hard left hook that sent Sinosic to the canvas. From there, Griffin swarmed until the fight was rightfully waved off at 3:22 of Round 1.
Following such an important bout, UFC fans got either a bizarre treat or a needless burden on their hard-earned dollar, depending on how they looked at it. Longtime veteran Brandon Lee Hinkle, an established name in the game among older fans, faced off against the B-side of the Internet fight that would go on to launch Kimbo Slice into the combative sport world: Sean Gannon.
Gannon’s fight with Slice was equal parts brutal, comical and shameful; it was an underground bout between two men seemingly divided between both race and reason. Gannon, a police officer in Boston should never have been engaging in such a contest, but there he was, slugging it out with Slice on video.
Said video can still be seen online, with the most recent versions owning well over 1 million views.
The infamous bout saw both men badly battered and bruised before Slice finally succumbed to exhaustion. It is amazing to think that the UFC signed Gannon to a fight; it's proof positive that it wasn’t all that long ago that the promotion felt the need to capitalize on any kind of publicity.
Still, for fans of the sport, when we saw Gannon about to face Hinkle, we knew it was going to end badly, and it did.
Hinkle was too much in all areas for Gannon; for all of Gannon’s boxing credentials, he allowed Hinkle to close quarters with no resistance and from there got locked up by the wrestler and then dumped on his backside in 26 seconds.
Another oddity in the bout was born out of the clear mismatch of skills; Hinkle was so superior that he began to try attacks that he never would have against a legitimate opponent, and in doing so he looked a bit amateurish himself.
None of that stopped him from passing to side control, then the mount, then back to side control, then back to mount, etc.
Gannon endured a near-kimura from the mount, showing a lot of grit, but then Hinkle began to land brutally hard shots to the face. Soon, elbows and punches had blood pouring from the face of Gannon, and the fight was called as he was reduced to nothing more than a punching bag.
This is one of those fights that never should have happened in the Octagon.
Finally, the final fight of the night was upon us. Arlovski, now promoted from interim to undisputed heavyweight champion, faced Paul Buentello.
The fight looked like it would be exciting as Buentello came out strong, firing with both hands and seemingly putting Arlovski on his heels. However, the champion took a second to appraise the situation and then stepped in behind a straight right hand that landed flush to the jaw, knocking Buentello cold in just 15 seconds.
Just like that, the bout was over, and Arlovski looked utterly unstoppable in the heavyweight division, just like so many of his successors.
Pride 30: Fully Loaded
Date: October 23, 2005
Location: Saitama, Japan
I have a hard time trying to find a way to appreciate Pride 30: Fully Loaded. It’s not that I don’t appreciate fights of all shapes and sizes, but this event, sold on the same level and with the same gusto as so many previous pay-per-view events, was honestly not up to par.
This seemed like a bait-and-switch by Pride—a lot of filler and little substance.
Still, the Saitama Super Arena was jam-packed, although attendance numbers could never be honestly verified. If anything, Pride 30 proved that MMA in Japan was still big business, even with a lukewarm card.
But then again, it was fantastic to see Ken Shamrock and Kazushi Sakuraba ready to fight, in addition to Josh Barnett and Cr -Cop. Everything else seemed like window dressing by comparison, but some substance was better than none.
In the opening fight of the night, I am sad to say that the freak-show aspect of Pride was on full display—something that would have been forgivable for the promotion back in 1997 to 2001, but in 2005 it was simply ridiculous.
To start things off, we had Wagner da Conceicao Martins (aka Zuluzinho), a fighter from Brazil who was 25 years old, 6’5” and 341 pounds with a questionable MMA record of 6-0. He was facing Henry Miller (aka Sentoryu), a Pride veteran with a record of 1-3 who stood 5’9” and weighed 267 pounds.
Yeah, it was a fight for the Godzilla fans in the audience. Sadly, the bout ended just as they began to trample Tokyo from afar; the fight seemed to be called simply because Zuluzinho was getting his trunks pulled down as Sentoryu tried to stuff the takedown by holding onto the trunks as his bigger opponent poured over his back.
It was goofy as hell, my friends.
Thankfully, after that avalanche of flesh, we got to see Murilo “Ninja” Rua fight Murad Chunkaiev in a bout that showcased actual professionals. Rua went on to win the fight with a nice heel-hook submission inside of four minutes in Round 1.
Following that, James Thompson creamed Romania’s Alexandru Lungu in a heavyweight brawl, and there was a lot of weight and power in this one. Thompson was a massive fighter at 6’5” and 264 pounds, while Lungu stood at 6’0" and weighed 368 pounds.
The fight looked like it could be sloppy, but when Lungu landed a hard overhand right in the opening seconds, knocking Thompson to his shoulders and knees on the canvas, the fun crept into the bout.
Lungu achieved a strong top position over his longer opponent, but Thompson worked his way back to his feet and began to land heavy strikes and knees to the leaning-inward Lungu, who finally missed with a punch, fell through the ropes and from there took several shots to the head before the referee called a stop to the sloppy slobberknocker of a bout.
After all that, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson creamed Hirotaka Yokoi, Sergei Kharitonov won a split decision over Fabricio Werdum and Makoto Takimoto won a unanimous decision over Dong Sik Yoon.
It had been a somewhat tedious yet exciting night by the time Shamrock and Sakuraba finally stepped into the ring, and for fans who were enjoying experience and history that had finally landed before them, it was not to be a long moment of nostalgia.
Quite honestly, Shamrock had looked like an aged fighter since his defeat at the hands of Rich Franklin earlier in the year. Sakuraba looked revitalized, especially with a new corner and a new style on full display.
It was that new style that saw the Japanese legend land a heavy left hook from range, stunning Shamrock and knocking him off balance in a bad way.
From there, Shamrock turned away, falling to his knees and his head drifting between the ropes as Sakuraba pounced with punches, which prompted the referee to intervene before things got too ugly.
As a longtime fan of Shamrock, I had a hard time watching, but the stoppage was justified; for a moment, after he fell, he looked unconscious and unable to defend himself. That is a hard thing to note, but the truth is there for all to see in the footage, and thankfully only his pride was hurt on that night.
Saving the best for last, the final fight of the night showcased Barnett and Cro Cop, and it looked to be a dandy, both on paper and in the ring.
In their first bout, the action came to a close quickly as Barnett suffered a freak shoulder injury early, losing via TKO before the action ever got started. The rematch looked to be much more entertaining, especially given the bad blood that seemed to flow both ways.
The fight was entertaining with a great deal of clinching and, surprisingly enough, a good deal of time with Cro Cop on top of Barnett on the ground, especially during Round 2. By the end of the bout, Cro Cop had spent too much time getting the better of single-strike moments and top control on the ground to be denied by the judges.
He won the bout and closed the books on an uninspired night of fights for the Japanese promotion.
The Ultimate Fighter Season 2 Finale
Date: November 5, 2005
Location: Las Vegas
After the second season of The Ultimate Fighter had rolled out the next crop of potentials (while also showing Rich Franklin to be the positive influence opposite the never-satisfied-overly-critical taskmaster that was Matt Hughes), we looked forward to another finale, quietly hopeful while outwardly skeptical.
Of course, we were thinking it would be great if we got another fight on par with Griffin vs. Bonnar, but as lightning doesn’t usually strike the same place twice, most of our hopes were pinned on the prospect that bad blood just might runneth over when Nick Diaz took to the cage to face Season 1 winner, Diego Sanchez.
Opening the night was a fight between Keith Jardine and longtime veteran Kerry Schall, who had been cut from the show early because of a knee injury.
Schall came into the fight with Jardine with a record of 19-7, with many of those losses against some of the best heavyweights in the sport during the day. Sadly for The Meat Truck, he was still clearly injured and in no shape for the contest at hand.
Jardine attacked the leg of Schall with painful kicks that eventually dropped him to the ground in agony. It’s hard to believe that for a combined total of eight minutes, 28 seconds—the same running time as Track 7 from Metallica’s Master of Puppets—Schall took the abuse until he finally gave way to the damage in Round 2, much as “Orion” gives way to “Damage Inc.”
Following that exercise in dream crushing, the always-explosive Melvin Guillard stopped Marcus Davis via TKO due to a cut, but in truth, Guillard was just far too good for Davis on that night, and it showed early and often.
In the third scrap of the event, Josh Burkman stopped Sam Morgan quickly, slamming him into unconsciousness in less than 25 seconds. Although the slam resulted in the KO, the elbows that followed were a gruesome testimony to the reality of these fights; the contestants may have not been known before the show, but that didn’t mean they weren’t risking their health in pursuit of their dream.
Burkman was clearly upset by what he saw on the monitors of the replay (which showed Morgan out cold and stiff before the first elbow ever landed), but he managed to prove that his dismissal from the show (due to suffering a broken arm in his victory over Guillard in the first fight of the show) would not stop him from proving his quality.
Then, in the first bout of the main card, Season 1 finalist, Kenny Florian took on noted kickboxer and new MMA fighter, Kit Cope. Although Cope was game, Florian looked like a new man compared to the fighter who lost to Sanchez in the last finale, besting Cope with a polished ease that was shocking and spoke well for the fighters from the first season.
Then, it was time to see who would win the plaques in the welterweight and heavyweight divisions and beyond that Sanchez vs. Diaz.
In the welterweight division, finalists Joe Stevenson and Luke Cummo came together in a bout that, on paper, looked like it would be a blowout in favor of the powerhouse grappler, Stevenson.
Instead, we saw two men fight every bit as hard as Griffin and Bonnar had, engaging in a clash of styles that had them both flying all over the floor while landing telling shots in a bout that was in doubt all the way up to the end. They both fought like they wanted to win, and in truth it was much closer than the scoring indicated, as all great fights are.
Stevenson won the unanimous decision, but it was close; Cummo proved that you could be picked last and still make a name for yourself if you were willing to throw it all against the wall.
Then, the heavyweights were up as Rashad Evans (the smallest heavyweight on the show) took on another last pick (for Team Franklin) in Brad Imes. Just like Stevenson and Cummo, they left it all in the cage in a wildly entertaining slobberknocker of a bout.
It was shocking to see just how much larger Imes was, as he towered over Evans. Honestly, it was like the kind of matchup you would expect from Pride FC, but that was what The Ultimate Fighter was doing; the promise of winning a UFC contract was pulling in fighters well north and south of the divisions for the show, and thus smaller fighters like Evans (and Florian before him) were locking up against men more naturally acclimated to the weight class.
For three full rounds, Evans and Imes knocked the hell out of each other while keeping both of their respective families on the brink of cardiac arrest the whole time. On more than a few occasions, the fast hands of Evans found the chin of Imes and had him badly rocked—and down in Rounds 1 and 3—only to see the latter survive the storm and rally back against the exhausted Evans, who took his own lumps while trying to regain his wind.
After three rounds of back-and-forth action, Evans finished strong and ended up getting the split-decision victory in a fight that may not have been as great as Griffin vs. Bonnar but was so damn close.
White and the Fertittas couldn’t believe their good fortune and couldn’t stop smiling.
Then, finally, Sanchez took to the cage to face his new tormentor, Diaz, in a bout that many felt would reveal The Nightmare as just another pretender who was bound to melt before Diaz's heat.
Given the edge in UFC experience that Diaz had over Sanchez, it was hard to believe that he was a year younger than the Season 1 winner; looking back on it now, it is just amazing that Diaz was so young back then and has managed to stay so angry a decade later.
The staredown between both men was excellent and rightly reflected their positions; Diaz loomed tall and angry over Sanchez, who looked up unflinchingly into the eyes of his detractor like the proud upstart he was. They were quickly separated while Big John McCarthy recited the rest of the instructions, but that was all we needed to know that the final bout would be much longer and fiercely contested than Shamrock vs. Franklin.
With all due respect to Diaz and how good he was on this night (and how good he remains to this day), the performance of Sanchez was probably the strongest advocate up until that point for the contestants of the show having a legitimate place among everyone else on the roster.
Honestly, Sanchez could have wilted under the pressure and probably would have been given a pass, but instead he rose to the occasion, attacking, defending and competing with an energy and passion due the moment. That remains a huge feather in his cap to this day.
It was an action-packed bout that had Sanchez attacking, attacking, attacking, and Diaz defending and eating his anger to keep him sated as he waited for his chance to dish out the punishment as only he can. Sadly for Diaz, that moment wasn’t to be found with his back to the mat as Sanchez swarmed above and around him, always transitioning and finding new courage and a boldness of spirit as each second passed into history.
While the fight may have favored Diaz on paper, the clash of styles favored the takedown-savvy Sanchez, who knew it and used it to his advantage, just like a wily veteran would. Just imagine Sanchez, after the main takedown in Round 1, looming above Diaz, who was fighting from the bottom as his back lifted off the King Kong advertisement on the mat for the year, throwing down punches and elbows with equal relish, as if it wasn’t Florian he had to defeat to get the contract, but Diaz.
Maybe that’s the way it should have been all along, because the results were inspired.
Still, it was a fistfight of sorts, and Diaz was far from a novice in that hostile environment. After spending nearly all of Round 1 under Sanchez (and clearly losing the frame, no matter who you asked), Diaz opened Round 2 with a high kick that saw him slip and fall across the Xyience logo plastered across the center of the Octagon.
Not to be deterred, Diaz made it to his feet and landed a few shots before getting swept to the floor again. Finally, for Diaz fans, he closed his guard, and suddenly Sanchez was a far less mobile opponent.
But that didn’t stop him from posturing up and attacking with hard right hands, slipping in and out of that guard to attack from on high, while Diaz continued to reset and restart under Sanchez, looking for any opening to mount an offensive.
After eating a stiff knee to the midsection, Diaz managed to reverse the position and attacked Sanchez from within his guard. Sanchez reversed the situation when Diaz got too high (pardon the obvious pun), sliding out in order to get back to his feet after an intense scramble and throwing hard hooks before ducking under a Diaz straight to get the fight to the floor once again. With all that movement, Sanchez took Round 2.
Starting Round 3, Diaz seemed to land a sharp punch that stunned Sanchez, but it wasn’t nearly enough. Diaz managed to continue sprawling for the next minute but eventually found his back to the canvas once again inside the first minute of action.
The final round was a mad scramble for dominant position, with both men bleeding on each other, but in the end it was another Sanchez round in the books, especially with Diaz losing a good amount of blood from a cut on his head that was turning the canvas into a red mess as they continued to scramble and scrap all over the place.
Sanchez ended the bout much the same way he had started it—atop an angry Diaz—and won a unanimous decision, 30-27 on all three cards.
All in all, it was a terrific night of fights that as a whole lived up to high hopes.
Date: November 19, 2005
Location: Las Vegas
The final UFC card of the year for 2005 was another eight-bout event that was intended to give us two title fights featuring the coaches of the second season of The Ultimate Fighter.
It ended up being just one title bout when Joe Riggs failed to make weight for his welterweight clash against Matt Hughes. Their fight went forward anyway, but the belt was no longer on the line.
This event ended up as a minor work for the UFC, especially given the significance of previous shows of the year. In all honesty, UFC 56 seemed like a disappointment.
Riggs failed to make weight for his shot at the title, and Rich Franklin almost seemed to be given an easy fight when he faced Nate Quarry, who was simply pushed to the front far sooner than he should have been. Quarry, as tough, honorable and gritty as he was, just didn’t have the experience needed to deal with a fighter the caliber of Franklin, who also enjoyed a significant reach advantage.
Granted, Riggs ended up looking outmatched as well; Hughes made short work of him, ending the bout via kimura, but Quarry fared much worse. As the first-ever contestant from The Ultimate Fighter to earn a title shot, Quarry took a hellish beating before getting knocked out cold in Round 1, and in all honesty, the bout shouldn’t have happened.
The only other real fight of note saw rising force Georges St-Pierre annihilate Sean Sherk in a lopsided affair that left the latter bloodied and badly beaten.
It’s hard to appropriately judge such events, given that on paper it appeared to hold some promise and 200,000 viewers felt the same way, paying their money in anticipation and making it the second biggest pay-per-view success the company had enjoyed to date.
But this event was almost perfunctory in real time; it was a final stretching of the limbs for the UFC before embarking on a bigger and better 2006.
Pride FC: Shockwave 2005
Date: December 31, 2005
Location: Saitama, Japan
Finally, the final MMA show of the year had arrived, and as usual, it was one of the biggest events of the year, to boot. Pride always made its year-end shows a serious event, and Pride: Shockwave 2005 was no exception.
Additionally, it is interesting that Pride was staging big events with 12 bouts on the card. In 2015, fight cards with 10 or more bouts is expected, but back in 2005 it was the exception, not the norm.
The opening bout saw then-wild man Charles “Krazy Horse” Bennett, resplendent in plain, gray gym shorts, take on Pride newcomer Ken Kaneko.
The fight was nothing more than a promotional vehicle for Bennett, who came out to the ring late in a not-unusual display of gamesmanship. Bennett was inside the head of Kaneko early, and it paid off later in Round 1 when he used the better positions afforded him by his experience and patience to lock up a fight-ending armbar at 4:14 of the opening frame.
Next, James Thompson ran over 7’2” giant Paulo Cesar Silva inside of two minutes, earning the stoppage early in a bout that took the phrase “big overture, little show” to new heights.
Thompson bull-rushed Silva with punches, landing flush on the big man’s jaw and knocking him to the floor and through the ropes in the opening seconds of the round. After the fight was restarted, Thompson mauled him again, getting him to the floor and brutalizing him as if he was a whale on the beach.
While the fans probably enjoyed such a spectacle, it was just bad theater. Near the end, it was just a smaller fighter playing the temporary role of paid bully, brutalizing a hapless giant who just showed up for a payday, and it was honestly sad.
Thankfully, the fight only lasted 90 seconds; which was about 60 seconds too long. The charge of Thompson into Silva was much akin to the charge of Gilbert Yvel into Semmy Schilt but missing all of Schilt’s skills and abilities, and it was damn near a travesty.
Following that sham, Sanae Kikuta faced Makoto Takimoto in a bout that saw the former defeat the latter via unanimous decision, displaying some excellent grappling and positioning to mind-numbing effect. Long story short: The man in the shorts beat the guy in the gi, and somewhere, Eddie Bravo was nodding his head, noting how unrealistic it is to preach about sleeve/lapel control in an MMA fight, grappling or no.
Speaking of gis, judo luminary Pawel Nastula was next on deck, facing off against Aleksander Emelianenko, brother of MMA heavyweight royalty, Fedor.
Nastula fought without a gi and ended up being submitted, via rear-naked choke, at 8:45 of Round 1. He wasn’t exactly hapless in the ring, but he was no Ronda Rousey. He got outworked and outpositioned by a bigger man, and eventually he tapped out, simple as that.
For those who argue that Rousey is simply succeeding because she is showing a game no one has really seen before, well, they probably don’t want to delve too deep into the history of the sport if they don’t want their argument to sink like a skiff made of paper in a hurricane.
Oddly enough, Pride’s heavyweight champion Fedor was next in line on the card instead of being in the headliner’s slot, but given his lacking opposition, it was fitting. He was fighting Zuluzinho, and it was yet another fight thrown together to appeal to Fedor fans while giving the champion easy time in the ring to add to his highlight reel of finishes.
Yeah, this is a fight that never should have happened, especially on such a notable card.
Fedor came out, Fedor landed, Zuluzinho fell down, Fedor mauled him, and the fight was over in less than 30 seconds.
Following such a blowout, Hidehiko Yoshida (fighting without his gi) defeated Naoya Ogawa via armbar at 6:04 of Round 1.
Next up was the fight to crown the new Pride welterweight champion: Dan Henderson vs. Murilo Bustamante. The first time these men fought, Henderson ran all over Bustamante, earning an early TKO stoppage that was almost anticlimatic.
This time, Bustamante was more prepared, and the fight went to the judges, who scored the bout in favor of Henderson via split decision. It was a close bout, but the decision for Henderson seemed to be just.
After that came another title fight, this time to realize the first Pride lightweight champion. Takanori Gomi met Hayato Sakurai in a bout that pitted a rising star against an established legend.
The former training partners started off the opening moments cautiously, with Gomi being the more anxious of the two. The fight started in earnest when Gomi sprang in and landed a good right hand to the head.
Both men engaged in some spirited boxing exchanges, tagging each other with stinging hooks to the head, punctuated by hard, chopping kicks to the leg by Sakurai.
After a takedown attempt by Sakurai saw Gomi take his back—attacking with both fists to both sides of his head while riding him with a body triangle—he rolled into the full mount of Gomi before finally getting back to his feet.
Fatigued, Sakurai walked into a right-left-right combination to the face that saw him drop to the floor, and the fight was stopped at 3:56 of Round 1.
Gomi became the first Pride lightweight champion by KO, and it was a fitting conclusion to a historic bout, as Gomi was also the first ever Japanese champion Pride FC had ever seen.
After Kazushi Sakuraba forced Ikuhisa Minowa to tap out from a kimura with just one second remaining in the opening round, Mark Hunt faced Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic in a fight that brought K-1 fans to their feet.
The version of Hunt that MMA fans enjoy today has a chin that is far removed from the chunk of granite that was on display in 2005. The Hunt of today is a better all-around MMA fighter, to be sure, but his chin of yesterday was far more substantial, which is saying something when you consider that he is still one of the most immovable fighters in the sport in the face of horrendous punishment.
As far as Cro Cop, he was younger, faster and more accurate, and his timing was better. Basically, his blows were harder because they came faster and landed at the right time, on target, again and again. The fact that he was wearing wrestling shoes for this bout was puzzling, but it ended up being to no advantage as they teed off on each other all night long.
Yeah, it was a special fight on paper, and it was even better in the ring.
They started off exchanging hard leg kicks; Hunt caught Cro Cop first, knocking his leg outside of the ropes with one shot. However, it was Cro Cop who landed first upstairs with his rightly feared left kick, which landed flush to the dome of Hunt, who reacted as if nothing had happened.
They continued to exchange powerful kicks for the rest of a round, throwing in some stiff jabs and hard right hands. Cro Cop was effective as a counterstriker, wary of getting caught in a corner as Hunt continued to stalk him, walking into hard kicks and punches along the way. Hunt was clearly the aggressor, and when he got in close, he threw his punches with bad intentions, inspiring Cro Cop to escape via any direction that was open to him.
Any time they separated, they watched each other with a rare level of intensity; they were focused like hawks, ever aware and deadly serious. None of the nonchalant demeanor that we have seen both men exhibit in bouts—before and after—was in the ring that night.
When it came to pure, K-1-style striking, this was the master class for MMA in 2005.
Midway through the round, Hunt managed to stagger Cro Cop with a short left hook as the latter charged in and then landed a hard knee from the clinch moments later. Cro Cop became more cautious, backing away, but then he landed another hard left kick to the head of Hunt. The dance continued for the rest of the round, with Hunt playing the role of effective aggressor, landing some hard punches and winning a close first round.
After Hunt proved to be the better boxer in Round 1, Cro Cop opened the gate and let his kicks fly, even landing the rare axe kick to the neck and head of Hunt. Midway through Round 2, both men continued with their punches and kicks, all but forgetting knee strikes and the ground game; Hunt continued to stalk, and Cro-Cop continued to move, evade and counter up until the bell.
Behind two rounds, Cro Cop came out with new purpose in Round 3, closing quarters behind his punches and kicks and then pushing Hunt back to give enough space to land his kicks. He landed a straight left that knocked Hunt back and then unleashed his best left high kick of the fight, slamming into the side of Hunt’s head and knocking him off balance for a split second. Then, Cro Cop waded in and landed a strong straight left. Hunt countered with a glancing right, and both men went wild against the ropes before Cro Cop slipped away, looking for that favorable range again.
Hunt continued to stalk, but Cro Cop was kicking more now and landing more, which would prove the story to the final frame, which went to Filipovic.
The judges gave the victory to Hunt via split decision in a bout that lived up to the promise of a true striking battle.
In the co-main event of the night, reigning Pride middleweight champion Wanderlei Silva faced off against the last man to defeat him, Ricardo Arona, in a rematch of their last fight, just three months prior, in the Pride middleweight Grand Prix for 2005.
With a victory over Silva in his pocket, Arona was eager for a chance to do it again with the belt on the line, and Silva was equally as eager to get a chance for revenge.
It was the Brazilian Top Team vs. Chute Boxe Academy rivalry in full effect, and the fans loved it.
Sadly, the fight was not as good as the anticipation. Some bouts just seem destined to be lackluster because of the clash of styles; it happened in their first bout, and it happened again at Pride: Shockwave 2005.
Like their first bout, Arona’s takedowns and grappling advantage were significant enough to keep Silva defensive and distracted, always wary of the takedown. From that position Arona was able to land strikes while Silva’s attentions were divided.
For all of Silva’s pre-fight talk of not letting his emotions get the best of him the second time around, as soon as the bell rang, he surged forward, overextended himself and let Arona snatch the easy takedown. As the fight progressed, Silva proved to be better at sprawling this time, but he couldn’t do much with any position on the ground, be it from his back or within the guard of Arona.
Still, given the basic stalemate on the feet, it was enough for Silva to earn a questionable split decision. On the ground, he spent more time on top of Arona, and Arona was also penalized with a yellow card for stalling in Round 3. This paved the way for the image of Silva, looming above Arona, kicking his legs and getting the crowd to chanting with each kick, to be the last thing the judges saw in the bout.
Figures of Note: Georges St-Pierre
While Georges St-Pierre has remained out of competition thus far in 2015, in 2005 he was forging forward like a man possessed.
Fueled by new purpose and possibilities after having such a good showing against champion Matt Hughes at UFC 50, St-Pierre was no longer content to be given anything. He looked to have lost his taste for the waiting game after his last outing, clearly recognizing that he was one of the front-runners in the division.
He certainly fought like it, and more.
At UFC 52, he ran all over Jason “Mayhem” Miller, getting right back into the mix at 170 pounds. But it was his total and complete destruction of No. 1 contender Frank Trigg—who was fresh off giving Hughes his closest call to date—at UFC 54 that spoke the loudest on his behalf as the heir apparent to the throne.
St-Pierre didn’t simply beat a fighter who was just a hair’s breadth from owning the title; he blew him out of the water with such ease and authority that Trigg was reduced to tears after, telling St-Pierre “you’re so good, you’re so good.”
To quote Megadeth: You know your worth when your enemies praise your architecture of aggression.
By the close of 2005, St-Pierre, now with a record of 10-1, was the biggest threat to the throne and a herald to what the next generation of MMA fighter would look like.
Figures of Note: Robbie Lawler
When it was announced that Robbie Lawler would be returning to the UFC in 2013, no one was expecting much from the man. He had lost his most recent fight to Lorenzo Larkin and stepped back into the Octagon with a modest record of 20-9-1.
But for some of us (myself included), we were not ready to write Lawler off as quickly as everyone else. After all, the body of his career had seen no small amount of success to go along with the disappointments.
Given his current standing, it’s surprising that 10 years ago, he was fighting for the first time outside of the UFC, having been released by the promotion after losing to Evan Tanner in 2004.
His first post-UFC fight saw him defeat Falaniko Vitale via KO from punches at Superbrawl: Icon in July. Then, he defeated Jeremy Brown by submission at King of the Cage: Xtreme Edge, raising his record for the year to 10-3.
It’s hard to believe that a decade later he would be the reigning UFC welterweight champion at 33 years of age.
The case of Lawler should remind us all to never, ever, write off a fighter, no matter how he may stumble.
But of course, it won’t, and far too many naysayers at the time will now declare that they predicted his career resurrection all along. But who can blame them if they don’t find it easy to admit they were too quick to be too dismissive; that is a common fault among all fight fans, myself included.
But in the case of Lawler, this was one of the rare times when I was not wrong, so please indulge me while I gloat just a little bit.
Figures of Note: Fabricio Werdum
The newly crowned UFC heavyweight champion, Fabricio Werdum, is a well-rounded fighter and has no shortage of accolades.
He was the first man to defeat the legendary Fedor (by submission, no less!) since The Last Emperor took the top spot in the division and held it for nearly a decade. As a multiple-time gold medalist in the ADCC (Abu Dhabi Combat Club) Submission Championships, he also is one of the best submission artists in the heavyweight division and holds the honor of being the only fighter to own submission victories over Emelianenko, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Cain Velasquez.
That’s an impressive trifecta, to say the least.
With his victory over Velasquez at UFC 188, he became just the second Brazilian to hold the UFC heavyweight title. Given his come-from-behind victory over Mark Hunt to claim the interim title at UFC 180, there will be few opponents who can give him pause, save perhaps for the battered Junior dos Santos and Velasquez in a probable rematch.
It wasn’t an easy road for Werdum, but his story has been one of continued evolution, as he always strove to better himself and never shied away from an opponent or an opportunity.
In 2005, he was a fledgling with great promise; he started the year with a record of 4-0-1, defeating Tom Erikson via rear-naked choke at Pride 29 and then beating Roman Zentsov via submission at Pride: Final Conflict 2005.
Then, in his final appearance of the year, he dropped a split decision to Sergei Kharitonov at Pride 30, enduring the first loss of his professional career.
Heading into 2006, he was 6-1-1 with an eye toward becoming one of the best. It’s nice to see his ambition realized after so long.
Figures of Note: Wanderlei Silva
While not as epic as 2003, 2005 was not a bad year for Wanderlei Silva.
He was still one of the most feared fighters on the planet, even though he was handed his first loss in many years by a non-heavyweight fighter in Ricardo Arona.
Arona had long sought a fight with Silva, and their rivalry helped draw the line between the Brazilian Top Team and the Chute Boxe team. Although not exactly a rivalry up to the term “civil war,” it was still a tense division that saw most battles fought in Japan in the Pride FC ring.
Silva lost to Arona in much the same way he lost to Tito Ortiz; he was taken down and held down most of the night, which rendered his best offensive weapons useless against a superior grappler. As the fight was part of the Middleweight Grand Prix for 2005, Silva’s title was not on the line that night, but it was clear who the No. 1 contender for the belt was.
Thus, Arona met Silva again, outside of the tournament format. He was denied the official title due to a split-decision loss that honestly could have gone either way. Silva was the victor, but no one seemed to get any sense of satisfaction from the bout.
There is little doubt that 2005 was the year that we saw Silva beginning to age in the ring. He was still as furious as ever, but his opponents had been watching him for a long time, and coupled with his fight age and his reckless style, holes in his game were growing evident.
Regardless, he was still the king of the middleweight heap in Japan, closing the year with a record of 30-5-1-1 and remaining the Pride middleweight champion.
Figures of Note: Tito Ortiz
Although now well over a year removed from the UFC light heavyweight title, Tito Ortiz was still a main draw who was capable of putting fans into seats.
In his lone fight of 2005, he managed to make the night a memorable one, defeating Vitor Belfort by split decision and then going on to insult past rival Ken Shamrock and soon-to-be-champion Chuck Liddell, both of whom were cageside.
Although he was doing nothing more than making sure his name continued to circulate, Ortiz looked like a fighter who was finding a new kind of stride since being dominated by Randy Couture and knocked out by Liddell.
His bout with Belfort had been long overdue; they had been slated to meet in 2001 when Ortiz was still the champion and confident as hell. After he had lost back-to-back fights, many wondered if Ortiz could bounce back.
His victory over Belfort, although terribly close, showed a fighter who was eager to fight for the spotlight, and the UFC was happy to give him the microphone for as long as he could remain relevant and sell the fights the fans were willing to pay for.
Given that he was still within the top three of the weight class for the UFC, Ortiz wasn’t going away anytime soon. Now, a decade later, he is still competing and drawing in fans for Bellator.
He finished 2005 with a record of 12-4.
Figures of Note: Forrest Griffin
If you would have told Forrest Griffin in 2004 that he would be not only fighting in the UFC in 2005 but would also be involved in one of the most important fights in the company’s history, chances are he would not have believed you.
But just as Dana White and Zuffa were game to take a chance on a reality show, so was Griffin, and to that end he gambled and won big.
He endured the emotional stress of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, and then, on the biggest stage he had been privileged to step upon, with stakes bigger than any of us can imagine, he co-authored a fight that surpassed even the most optimistic of expectations.
Griffin and Bonnar proved to be exactly the kind of odd couple the sport needed, as they attacked each other with energy and passion due the moment. The result was the kind of three-round war that changes everything; it certainly changed the life of Griffin.
He won the bout and the six-figure contract, endearing himself to the next generation of MMA fans as he went on to defeat Bill Mahood and Elvis Sinosic in 2005. Even against modest competition, the fans connected with him and his quest to make his Cinderella-story victory into a lifelong career.
He finished the year with a professional record of 12-2 and was about to see his level of competition rise in the coming year.
Figures of Note: Kazushi Sakuraba
Far removed from his glory days in MMA, Kazushi Sakuraba enjoyed a kind of career resurgence in 2005, and no one deserved it more.
His first bout of the year saw him conquer Yoon Dong-Sik early in the opening round of 2005’s middleweight Grand Prix. He got the win via KO by punches, showing that he was still a work in progress.
Then he suffered one of the most damaging defeats of his career at the hands of Ricardo Arona. It’s hard to put into words just how bad a beating Sakuraba took in the bout, but had he retired that night, no one would have thought less of him.
The bulk of the punishment happened when Sakuraba found himself on his hands and knees with Arona maintaining a strong top position and landing brutal knees to the head, a la Tito Ortiz vs. Guy Mezger I, only several times worse.
Sakuraba could not get out of the position, and Arona used the high ground to brutal effect, turning the visage of Sakuraba into something akin to a Halloween mask. His face was grotesquely swollen and badly bloodied by the time the referee called a halt to the bout. As Sakuraba sat there, battered and streaked in scarlet, most fans were left to wonder why.
It was a grim reminder that fighters willingly trade their health and mortgage their futures in exchange for fleeting moments of glory that can only be bestowed by the mob and their appreciation for courage and excellence in the face of ruin.
After such a shellacking, the fact that Sakuraba returned to fight just three months later was nothing short of baffling. Yet there he was, facing Ken Shamrock at Pride 30 on October 23.
And if his presence alone was not enough to bestow faith in the hordes of MMA fans who believe in little save finishes and their own homespun conspiracy theories, Sakuraba had gone into the darkness of his most brutal rivalry—against Wanderlei Silva—to find a new lease on his fighting career.
Sakuraba’s decision to train with his most brutal conqueror had many fans taking new notice of MMA’s greatest joker. The idea of a new Sakuraba, fueled by the fury-first-and-always mentality of Silva and the Chute Boxe Academy that had spawned him, had many fans wondering if the results would see him reborn or reduced to ash from the fires of violent industry.
The result was a positive for Sakuraba fans, albeit somewhat anticlimatic. Shamrock, not being nearly what he used to be, was overwhelmed and turned away in the midst of the action, and the fight was quickly called before we could get an honest answer to just how fruitful the Chute Boxe influence could be on Sakuraba.
With a 2-1 record for the year, he went into battle a final time in 2005, facing off against Ikuhisa Minowa during the final card of the year on December 31.
Although it was not as easy as many expected, Sakuraba once again came out victorious, earning the submission victory deep into the first round via kimura. Although Minowa wasn’t the caliber of fighter fans were used to seeing Sakuraba face, he was still good enough to worry onlookers. Sakuraba rose to the occasion, though, proving he was not quite ready to bid the violent sport a final farewell.
At the close of 2005, he possessed a record of 19-9-1-1 and perhaps more wear and tear on his body than any fighter active at the time.
Sometimes, the life of a joker mandates that the cruelest joke is found, time and again, at the expense of the teller, but Sakuraba was still laughing...and we were still watching.
Figures of Note: Stephan Bonnar
As the B-side to the feel-good story of the year in MMA, Stephan Bonnar was still half responsible for one of the most important and exciting fights in UFC (and MMA) history. While Griffin was enjoying the lion’s share of the spoils of his victory at the finale of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, Bonnar was making the most of his newly gifted contract, one fight at a time.
His first true fight on a UFC card came against castmate Sam Hoger at the first UFC Ultimate Fight Night. Bonnar won the fight via unanimous decision, but moreover, he expanded his fanbase while keeping audiences watching and hopeful for a rematch with Griffin sometime down the road.
Bonnar was a likable and watchable fighter in 2005, bringing his professional record to 8-2 at the close of the year.
It might not have been as auspicious a beginning as that of Griffin, who was enjoying the PPV spotlight, but it was still significant for a man who would eventually get inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame.
Figures of Note: Chuck Liddell
After years of waiting and fighting as a point of pride, Chuck Liddell saw his dreams realized by the force of his own will when he captured the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship at UFC 52. He reigned supreme for all of 2005, and anyone who saw him knew he was living his dream to the fullest.
It is a rare thing to see a fighter who loves existing in that dangerous space with everything on the line, but that is what we saw with The Ice Man in 2005, and it was a true privilege.
Be it coaching against Randy Couture during the first season of The Ultimate Fighter or knocking him cold in their highly anticipated rematch at UFC 52, Liddell was on fire and would not be denied.
He got to avenge two losses during the year, conquering Couture to reverse the negative images of UFC 43 and then beating up Jeremy Horn for four rounds.
Liddell closed the year as a surprising reality television star with a professional record of 17-3 and the UFC light heavyweight belt around his waist. After so many years of fighting and waiting, 2005 was the beginning of the Ice Age, and it was a fine time indeed.
Figures of Note: Mauricio "Shogun" Rua
Although many of the fighters in this retrospective have enjoyed a resurgence of sorts (or at least a favorable recollection of their accomplishments), the story of Mauricio “Shogun” Rua is a harsh reminder that fortunes can turn on a dime in this sport.
In 2015, Rua seems but one knockout away from some tragic ending; if he announced his retirement today, I would give a prayer of thanks. This might sound dismissive, but it comes from an appreciation of the man and his career.
Back in 2005, Rua looked simply unbeatable and the heir apparent to the throne held by his friend, mentor and training partner, Wanderlei Silva.
After all, Rua had mauled Quinton “Rampage” Jackson with an ease his mentor never enjoyed; he also defeated the man who displaced his mentor in the Pride Middleweight Grand Prix in 2005, crushing Ricardo Arona after Arona had defeated Silva.
He was young, hungry and fierce and came from a ruthless camp that was noted for producing the kinds of fighters who gave their opposition nightmares. Shogun was a finishing machine who was only limited by his imagination; jumping head kicks, flying head stomps, brutal ground-and-pound and excellent submissions enabled his hunger for violence, and he loved to throw down.
In 2005, he fought five times and won five times, defeating Hiromitsu Kanehara, Jackson, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Alistair Overeem and finally Arona. Out of that list of top fighters, only Nogueira managed to avoid being stopped by KO or TKO.
When you look at 2005, you can see why Dana White was salivating when he signed Rua to fight in the UFC in 2007. At the close of the year he owned a record of 12-1 and was clearly the future of the division and quite possibly the sport.
After only fighting for two years, Rua had made a huge impression in 2005; he started the year with a tender record of 7-1 and by the close of the year had bested four notable opponents with a combined record of 66-13 before being defeated by him.
In 2005 he put the MMA world on notice that he was coming to advanced the Chute Boxe Academy’s claim on the throne, much like the Miletich camp had done with the welterweight title for all those years in the UFC.
And with knees, kicks and stomps to the head of a downed opponent allowed, there didn’t look to be any way to hold back the parade of violence Rua led every time he walked to the ring.
They say that those who live by the sword also die by it, and truer words could not be spoken in the case of Rua, who is every bit as willing today to die by the blade that he swung so well in 2005. In recalling that year, we see that the steel was long, fast and so very, very sharp.
Figures of Note: Fedor Emelianenko
After Fedor Emelianenko’s second “honest” victory over Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in 2004, 2005 saw a new opponent of note rise in the formidable Mirko Cro-Cop Filipovic; the Pride FC heavyweight champion had another rival to keep him honest.
With Nogueira in his rearview mirror after two highly entertaining but relatively one-sided bouts, Emelianenko was in need of a new challenger and Cro-Cop—arguably the best pure striker in all of MMA in 2005—fit the bill, with a vengeance.
After defeating Tsuyoshi Kohsaka (who, up to that point, had been the only man to beat Emelianenko, albeit via a questionable stoppage from a cut caused by an illegal blow) at Pride: Bushido 6 on April 3 of the year, he had cleared away all his past issues and, thus, Cro-Cop was next, plain and simple.
The fight itself—at Pride: Final Conflict 2005—was every bit as good as we dared hope and even a little better. In fact, it was honestly excellent.
Both men brought out the best in each other, but it turned out that on that night, Emelianenko was just a bit better. He outthought Cro-Cop on his way to outfighting him, keeping him guessing and on his heels when the dangerous striker desperately needing to be going forward.
Fedor fought three times in 2005 and finished a great year with a record of 24-1-1, and he’s still the greatest heavyweight fighter in the sport, bar none.
Figures of Note: Diego Sanchez
Many newer fans of MMA cut their teeth with The Ultimate Fighter’s first season, and as viewers found a new love in a harsh environment, Diego Sanchez found unlikely success beyond the reality-television format, and that saw his career’s legitimacy rightly advanced from the very beginning.
With his one-sided rout of Kenny Florian in TUF’s first-season finale, many a critical fan of the UFC felt Sanchez would be getting nothing but soft touches in the early stages of his career with the big show. Those notions were blown away like cigarette ash when he stepped into the cage to face the always-hostile Nick Diaz during the show’s second-season finale, late in 2005.
Diaz’s attitude prior to the fight seemed to speak for many older fans who felt TUF could not honestly yield true UFC-caliber talent. Those very same fans felt Diaz was going to prove this point, and quite painfully, at Sanchez’s expense.
While Sanchez may have looked slightly overrated in his first fight on a UFC pay-per-view card (a stoppage victory over Brian Gassaway at UFC 54), he rose to the occasion against Diaz and won a close but clear decision in an action-packed fight that saw both men flying all over the Octagon.
He was able to match Diaz’s energy and bad attitude, and his superior wrestling seemed to give him top position more times than not, when they were on the floor, which could very well have been one of the deciding factors in the judges’ eyes.
No matter who judged the fight or what criteria they used, the simple fact is that conventional wisdom said Sanchez was going to fold under the pressure of a legitimate UFC fighter like Diaz, and he didn’t. Instead, he proved himself a UFC-worthy talent and won the fight, bringing his professional record to 14-0, with three UFC victories under his belt, and all before the age of 25.
Figures of Note: Evan Tanner
They say it is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all, and one could say the same is true for winning a true title in the world of combative sport. If that kind of sentiment gave any comfort to Evan Tanner, then we are all better for it because Tanner gave nothing away for free in 2005, and in the combative sports arena, nothing means more.
After winning the middleweight title at UFC 51, he would end up handing it over to Rich Franklin at UFC 53, after slugging it out and enduring a thorough thumping in the process. As formulaic as it sounds, there was a great deal more to it; Tanner was making a stand, belt around his waist, and not just against Franklin, but against the idea that his time was over.
Tanner had long been a rare fighter—a man who had learned grappling from video tapes, fighting his way up the ranks while proving that the sport would yield to men and women who had the courage of their convictions, willing to bleed for their place, one rung at a time.
While the term “pioneer” gets thrown around a great deal, it is fitting for a man like Tanner, who wore the shoes of both a student and a teacher. He bridged the gap between the early UFC and modern day, still relevant and improving as the sport continued to leave so many of his older contemporaries in the dust.
Tanner may not have been the champion long, but had it not been for Rich Franklin, he probably would have held the title for a while. He certainly proved that he was willing to bleed and suffer for it, and in doing so he made that gold shine just a bit brighter.
Figures of Note: Randy Couture
After achieving such heights in 2003 and 2004, Randy Couture was brought back to earth hard in 2005, even while enjoying a shocking swell of popularity in the sport due to his time as coach on The Ultimate Fighter’s breakthrough first season.
Couture had gifted the light heavyweight division with his unique brand of grit and honor, taking on all comers and providing a third contemporary for Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz. He was an excellent man in a demanding sport, and he was smiling all the way through.
In 2005, he was also half of a partnership that spoke to the best traditions of The Odd Couple, proving to fans old and new that competitors could also be friendly as he spent week after week playing the punching bag to Liddell and his Blue Team on TUF’s first season.
Then, at UFC 52, he took to the stage again and suffered the first knockout loss of his career, getting starched by Liddell in Round 1 and, thus, bringing to an end one era (that of the Methuselah) and helping usher in the Ice Age of Liddell.
Couture would mount a comeback, defeating Mike Van Arsdale at UFC 54 in a stirring bout that saw him prove that he was still the No. 1 contender and still ahead of Ortiz, even being past 40 years of age. He might not be the champion, but he still brought integrity and passion to a sport that was supposed to leave the aged behind.
And he was still Captain America.
Figures of Note: BJ Penn
Even though he was no longer with the UFC, BJ Penn was still making waves and turning heads with his bravery and willingness to wager that his skill and desire could overcome all odds, not to mention weight divisions.
He only fought twice in 2005, but the fact that he faced light heavyweight Lyoto Machida (at K-1: Hero’s 1) made us all take pause, remembering the days of Royce Gracie, fighting much larger men, back at UFC’s 1, 2, 3 and 5. The difference was, his larger opponent was much more skilled and athletic than anyone Gracie fought back in the day, and even now, it stands as an example of just how rare and special a fighter Penn was.
While Ronda Rousey (and her greatest advocate, Dana White) harp on issues of weight anytime a proposed fight with Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino (formerly Santos) is mentioned in 2015, Penn was giving all such considerations the middle finger in 2005 (and honestly, for his entire career, god bless him), living by his motto of “Just Scrap,” at all times.
Although he dropped a unanimous decision to Machida (who weighed over 220 lbs at the time of the bout), Penn went on to win his next K-1 fight—this time in the middleweight division—against Renzo Gracie.
Penn finished the year with a professional record of 10-2-1, with only one loss at the hands of a fighter smaller than 170 pounds.
That’s more than “just good,” it’s incredible and probably never to be realized again in the sport, and that’s the damnable shame of it all.
Figures of Note: Josh Koscheck
Another fighter coming into the public eye thanks The Ultimate Fighter’s first season, Josh Koscheck found 2005 to be the beginning of great things in a lucrative career for the promotion.
Now that he has signed with Bellator after a five-fight losing skid in the UFC, it is somewhat hard to believe that he has been fighting for a decade. It seems like just yesterday that he was stepping into the Octagon to battle Chris Leben on the show.
Since then he has fought in the UFC 25 times, besting such notables as Matt Hughes, Frank Trigg, Anthony Johnson, Diego Sanchez and others. He’s also been a coach on the show that launched his star, and he fought for the title against Georges St-Pierre.
Although his UFC career may be over for now, 2015 could see him reborn in Bellator. Fans may voice their contempt or worry about the signing, but he will be a big name for Bellator and could see far more money coming his way than was the case in the UFC, especially when it comes to sponsorship monies.
More than a few fighters have been able to take a step back, gather their wits, rebuild their bodies and game and, with that, their career. For those who are predicting Koscheck’s utter disaster, one only need to look at Lawler and Arlovski to find proof that a career slump is not a career death.
Koscheck still has power in his fists, a strong grappling game, a wealth of experience and, with Bellator, a new perspective. Comebacks have been realized on smaller rolls of tape, and with Koscheck, it isn’t, having had to believe that he has the one thing needed above all to succeed: faith in himself.
And I, for one, am anxious to see what comes next for Kos.
Figures of Note: Rich Franklin
I remember thinking two things when Rich Franklin finally won a UFC title in 2005: “Finally!” was one, and “that’s a shame,” being the other.
When it comes to the former, Franklin had proven himself the kind of fighter who was about more than just what happened in the cage. He was (and still is) upright, honest, humorous, dignified, highly competitive and above all, faithful to the cause at hand, which was being a champion and upholding all the best standards that such a title has long been thought to exemplify.
When it came to the latter, it was simply because in order to rise to such a position, Franklin had to displace another true (and highly underappreciated) warrior in Evan Tanner.
Of course, both men were in a cannibalistic sport that was built upon the precept that nothing can be given away—it must be taken by force—and as such, the fact that their final meeting was both bloody and passionate did both men (and the title, by proxy) true and honest service.
And when it comes to a title in combative sports, no matter how great the champion or how high he (or she) seems to rise in transcendence of their station, it is still about the service they do to the title; for only it will remain as the constant attached to their name when all else passes to the grave.
Thus, in 2005, Franklin won the UFC middleweight title and became a champion and in doing so helped elevate the sport by both fighting and serving as a role model for future fighters as a coach on the second season of The Ultimate Fighter.
With Franklin as the UFC at 185's standard bearer, fans could feel proud of their sport in 2005, and that is a terribly rare thing, especially as we look back 10 years later, when the fighters of note in 2015 seem more than a little lacking.
Figures of Note: Matt Hughes
With the loss to BJ Penn in his rearview mirror, Matt Hughes rolled on, heavy, in 2005 and continued to solidify his claim as the then-best welterweight fighter in MMA history.
Given Georges St-Pierre’s reign, more recent fans can’t truly appreciate the authority Hughes exerted over the division during his time at the top. Had it not been for a brief stumble against Penn, Hughes could quite possibly still reign as the greatest welterweight ever, with a title defense streak nine- or 10-deep, perhaps even greater.
Consider: His first title reign saw him best five opponents and only one of them—Sean Sherk—made it to the final bell. Had he bested Penn, his next loss would not have come until UFC 65 and the rematch with St-Pierre.
That is an additional four more consecutive title defenses that would have been afforded Hughes, minus non-title victories over Joe Riggs and Royce Gracie, in addition to throwing out the rematch with Penn at UFC 63 since a defeat over Penn at UFC 46 would have rendered such a rematch unnecessary.
Obviously, positing in this species of counterfactual is a pure-fantasy indulgence, but it is also not far from the truth when considering the sheer dominance Hughes enjoyed up until the rematch with St-Pierre.
However, Hughes did lose to Penn, and even then, he enjoyed a second reign that saw him win one of his greatest victories in 2005 over an old foe in Frank Trigg at UFC 52 and, boy oh boy, was it a dandy.
After defeating Trigg at UFC 45 via rear-naked choke in the first round, Trigg had won two UFC fights via stoppage, defeating two men who had given Hughes major problems in the past: Dennis Hallman and Renato “Chaturo” Verissimo.
Trigg defeated Hallman via TKO and could claim a victory over Hughes by proxy; Hallman had faced Hughes twice and defeated him twice, both times by submission inside of 60 seconds, each time making him look a bit like an amateur.
Then, Trigg pounded out the dogged and slick Verissimo, who was not only a training partner of Hughes-conqueror Penn but also had Hughes in all kinds of trouble with submissions in their title-eliminator bout at UFC 48.
With two such victories under his belt, the powers that be at Zuffa felt Trigg had earned the rematch, and, thus, Hughes faced him again at one of the promotion's biggest pay-per-view successes to date: UFC 52.
Unlike their first meeting, when Trigg seemed nervous under the UFC big lights (he wouldn’t even turn to face Hughes or the crowd during the introductions), the second time around Trigg was confident and eager to take the title.
The bad blood between both men returned at the staredown, when Trigg got nose-to-nose with Hughes, earning a shove from the champion. Trigg blew him a kiss as they backed away from each other, and you just knew it was going to be a great fight.
It didn’t take long for the fireworks to start. Trigg had worked Hughes toward the fence and landed a low blow that had the champion looking to the referee—for a brief moment—for acknowledgement. That proved to be his near-downfall as the referee did not see the blow and Trigg pressed his sudden advantage.
A flurry of punches dropped Hughes, and Trigg pounced, unloading and eventually working for a rear-naked choke. Just as it looked like Trigg would not only get the title but also the sweetest kind of revenge available in the sport, Hughes remained calm, fought off the choke and turned the tables in dramatic—and almost unbelievable—fashion.
The champion then locked up Trigg, lifted him off the ground and ran across the Octagon, slamming him down hard and then unloading with fists in a furious flurry that had bad intentions written all over it.
Although he didn’t do much damage, he did do enough to slip into position for a rear-naked choke, and once he had it locked in, Trigg was forced to tap out to the same submission, to the same man, in the same round, twice.
After such a shocking and compelling victory on such a big card, his second and last win of the year against Joe Riggs at UFC 56— which ended up being a non-title bout as Riggs couldn’t make weight—seem anti-climatic by comparison.
Hughes dominated that fight and won via kimura in Round 1 to remain the man at welterweight, bringing his professional record to 39-4 at the close of 2005.
Figures of Note: Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
Ever since losing his title to Fedor Emelianenko back in 2003, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira career seemed to be all about two very important things: defeating Fedor and getting the title back.
In 2004, he went after both again and was rebuffed again, looking very much like Junior Dos Santos after Cain Velasquez soundly defeated him for the second time.
Nogueira was still one of the Top Three in the division, but no one felt he had any real chance of defeating Emelianenko, and in 2005, it almost looked like he was stepping away from it all as he only fought one time.
At Pride: Critical Countdown 2005, he faced Pawel Nastula, a relative newcomer to MMA and Pride FC, and defeated him via TKO late in Round 1.
It was a quiet and uneventful year for Nogueira, who went into 2006 with a professional record of 25-3-1-1, with two of the three losses on his record (and the lone no-contest) handed to him by a man who would always remain just beyond his grasp.
Figures of Note: Andrei Arlovski
They say that some years we live to the fullest and others we simply endure. In Andrei Arlovski’s case, 2005 and 2015 look to be about the former, not the latter.
In 2005, Arlovski took the UFC interim heavyweight title by stopping former champion Tim Sylvia in Round 1 at UFC 51 and then defending the strap at UFC 53 and UFC 55, winning both bouts by stoppage in Round 1, and owning a record of 10-3.
He looked like an unstoppable monster back in the day, which is quite a contrast to the fighter we currently see, who is remarkable for nearly just the opposite.
Since returning to the UFC in 2014, Arlovski is undefeated, but his latest bout against Travis Browne at UFC 187 may be the greatest victory of his newly found lease on fighting.
A one-round brawl against the most dangerous fighter he’s faced since his return to the Octagon, Arlovski won the dramatic bout via TKO, surviving a hard knockdown only to jump back into the fray like a man who had no doubts at all about his chin.
Pretty damn impressive considering that at one time, after losing his UFC title to Tim Sylvia via TKO, he lost four fights in a row (from 2009 through early 2011), three of which came by violent KO.
Indeed, since his great year in 2005, Arlovski has lost seven bouts and has seen his career reduced to fights in much-lesser promotions and against lesser opposition; the idea of ever being anything as great as he once was had been dismissed by many as a pipe dream.
But he kept fighting, no matter the promotion, and now he’s back in the UFC, riding a five-fight winning streak, and he suddenly finds himself a contender, once again, looking better than he has in a long time.
From 2005 to 2015, the wheel has turned favorably for “The Pitbull,” due to no shortage of desire, determination, courage and defiance toward everyone who had written him off.
And thank God for that, because the heavyweight division is much more interesting for his return.
Figures of Note: Quinton "Rampage" Jackson
After a crushing rematch loss to Wanderlei Silva late in 2004, 2005 looked to be the year when Quinton “Rampage” Jackson rebuilt himself and went back to the top of the heap in Pride. He was still a physical powerhouse with brutal punching power and an aggressive style that was damn hard to deal with.
And with his endearing, devil-may-care-I-gotta-have-that-money personality, he was still a true personality in a sport that at times could seem terribly dull and by God, they loved him in Japan.
But the second loss to Silva clearly had an impact on him. He was no longer acting like he was invincible, and in truth he spent 2005 fighting like a man who didn’t want to lose instead of a man who wanted to win.
His first fight of the year came against another Chute Boxe fighter in Murilo “Ninja” Rua. Jackson won the bout, although it was a terribly close fight that saw Jackson looking tentative.
Then, in the opening round of the Pride 2005 Middleweight Grand Prix, he ran into a buzz saw in the person of Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and his night ended quickly, violently and painfully.
Mauricio ran all over him, eventually forcing him to the corner and mauling him with brutal strikes that left him crumpled on the floor, badly hurt and looking very much like victim of a wild-animal attack. It was almost as if the Jackson we saw in the ring that night was nothing more than a stunt double for the real fighter who was still lost somewhere in 2003 or 2004.
Of course, Jackson would come back, fighting one more time in 2005, earning a victory over Hirotaka Yokoi, but it was barely enough for hopeful fans who still felt he could be a force to be reckoned with in MMA.
He ended the year with a professional record of 23-6, as a Pride 2003 Middleweight Grand Prix finalist, as a Pride Middleweight title contender and, unbeknownst to us, as a future UFC light heavyweight champion.
Who would have thought that possible at the close of 2005? Who would have thought he would still be fighting in 2015, much less with the UFC?
Not many; not me, although I am terribly happy it is so.
Figures of Note: Mirko Cro-Cop Filipovic
2005 was a very busy year for Mirko Cro-Cop Filipovic.
He fought five times, and while his record for 2005 was a modest 3-2, the opposition that handed him his two defeats was both significant and considerable.
He started off the year by defeating notable Mark Coleman by TKO and then the less-than-established Ibragim Magomedov, both via TKO. This earned him the shot at the title, owned by Fedor Emelianenko, at Pride: Final Conflict 2005.
It was an epic conflict that proved Cro-Cop to be one of the division’s very best (and Pride FC to own the best heavyweights in the sport); but it also proved that as good as he was, the champion was just a bit better.
After such a stirring bout, he jumped right back into the ring, facing Josh Barnett at Pride 30, in October.
Barnett was an excellent opponent that, on any night, could upset the understanding of divisional positions by beating anyone put in front of him. Cro-Cop earned a decision victory over the former UFC heavyweight champion, by being consistent and, shockingly enough, spending most of their time on the ground atop Barnett.
Simply put, Cro-Cop had bounced back from the loss to Emelianenko and, as good as Barnett was, Cro-Cop was better.
Then, in his last fight of the year, MMA fans were treated to a kind of fight that really belonged in the K-1 ring: Cro-Cop vs. Mark Hunt.
Today’s fans can appreciate the toughness of Hunt’s toughness...but just barely. The version they currently see was but a shadow of the beast that existed in 2005 when it came to “toughness.” In 2005, Hunt was far more akin to his countryman, David Tua, than today’s version of Hunt, which is more like the late, great Arturo Gatti in the realms of chin and durability.
In 2005, Hunt was able to, without nary a sign of bother or amusement, walk through the best head-kicks Cro-Cop could throw his way; in 2005, Cro-Cop’s kicks were hellishly perfect, capturing both blunt-force trauma and the surprise of being delivered with shocking speed and expert accuracy.
And Hunt took many of them, flush to the face, sweat flying and the audience cringing, while marching forward, pursuing the retreating Cro-Cop as if both were fighting outside during a mild May shower.
Cro-Cop scored well in the bout, but Hunt was too aggressive and too confident, letting his strikes go anytime he had the favorable range. The judges gave the bout to Hunt via split decision, but Cro-Cop remained undeterred.
He finished the year with a record of 17-4-2, and 2006 loomed, looking very promising indeed.
Figures of Note: Dan Henderson
After a stirring KO victory over Tim Boetsch at UFC Fight Night: Boetsch vs. Henderson, Dan Henderson snapped a two-fight losing streak, giving him just his second victory in seven fights.
Once you consider just how long Henderson has been fighting, one can understand that with age comes an eventual decline for all. Upon watching Henderson flatten Boetsch with his powerful fists, we also are reminded that power is one of the last things to go.
In 2005, that power was on full display as he stopped two of his four opponents via KO in his march toward the Pride Welterweight championship.
He started off the year with a hard fought loss to Antonio Rogerio Nogueira via armbar in the opening round. Never one to dwell on the negative, he jumped right back into competition, stopping both Ryo Chonan and Akihiro Gono in Round 1 in the welterweight tournament, setting himself up for a rematch with Murilo Bustamante.
Henderson defeated Bustamante via split decision, becoming the first-ever Pride welterweight champion.
Ten years later, he’s still swinging for the fences, older, slower but every bit as confident in the power of his strong right hand.
Henderson ended 2005 with a record of 19-4, with the Pride title hanging around his waist and his eyes set on a Wanderlei Silva rematch.
Figures of Note: Rashad Evans
Although he never set foot in the cage during 2014, Rashad Evans is still a force to be reckoned with in the light heavyweight division.
Should he return as planned in 2015, he will be riding a two-fight win streak, and he will also be bringing the knowledge of how to sidestep the perils of ring rust, as was seen when he came back after an injury to defeat Tito Ortiz in 2011.
As we wait for his return, it’s fun to remember that his introduction into the UFC started in 2005, as he emerged the winner of the heavyweight plaque during The Ultimate Fighter’s second season.
His back-and-forth bout with Brad Imes during the finale was every bit as exciting as we had hoped and in winning the fight, Evans showed he had heavyweight heart inside a light heavyweight frame. The fact that he would drop down to 205 and claim the light heavyweight title just three years later is proof positive that the show does indeed recognize true talent and passion.
Should Evans drop down to middleweight, he could reinvigorate that already-exciting division while posing a serious threat to the title.
No matter what division he decides to attend, I am just happy that he will soon be back.
It’s painful to think that MMA has spent a full year “Suga”-free.
Figures of Note: Takanori Gomi
As 2015 has not seen Takanori Gomi step into the Octagon yet, it would be easy to forget that he is still fighting, especially given his brutal loss to Myles Jury in 2014. When a notable fighter is beaten like that, there seems to be a tendency to assume the weeds have overgrown the road, and the dark wood is ahead.
I have never been one to entertain notions of superstition or generalization, but it is hard to ignore the puzzling consistency that attends Japanese fighters when they leave their homeland and fight overseas. Many a notable son of the Rising Sun has attained great heights on their home soil, only to falter—and sometimes fail outright—when they try to expand their realm into the rest of the world, especially America.
When examining Gomi, that oft-troubling pattern is on full display and in fact comes into specific relief when considering just how incredible he was in 2005.
Ten years ago, Gomi was arguably one of the best lightweights in the world. He went 5-0 for the year, winning the first-ever Pride lightweight title, stopping Luiz Azeredo via KO, Jean Silva by unanimous decision, Tatsuya Kawajiri by rear-naked choke, Azeredo again by decision and, finally, he bested notable countryman and mentor, Hayato Sakurai by KO to win the lightweight belt.
He was coming into his own, finishing the year on a 10-fight win streak, putting behind his one-sided loss to BJ Penn back in 2003 and stepping into 2006 with an overall record of 24-2.
Now, his record rests at 35-10-1, with half of his defeats suffered in the UFC. Since 2010, he is 4-5, although his decision loss to Diego Sanchez is debatable to say the least.
Regardless, now he stands at a crossroads in his career. He is 36 years old and looking to rebound from a hard loss at the hands of a younger fighter in a sport that is notoriously hard on anyone who isn’t evolving.
Can Gomi rebound like fighters such as Andrei Arlovski and Robbie Lawler?
While it looks like it will be an uphill battle, it’s hard to dismiss his chances outright, especially given his punching power and the enviable status of underdog.
2015 could be a great year for Gomi, or it could be one of his last.
Either way, he can look back on 2005 with no small measure of pride, and the rest of us can remember it with the respect due a champion.
Figures of Note: Urijah Faber
It’s hard to believe that as we look on Urijah Faber in 2015, he was just a youngster in the sport 10 years ago. He’s always seemed like a veteran in the cage, fighting with a poise and polish that belies his record, oftentimes making his opposition look amateurish by comparison.
Starting 2005, Faber had a tender record of 6-0, fighting in such promotions as King of the Cage, scrapping against fighters who would both pass into obscurity and rise to greater heights. But none were greater than he himself would attain in the coming years.
In his first bouts of the year, he defeated David Granados and Hiroyuki Abe, by decision and TKO.
Then, he stepped in against newcomer (and future UFC notable) Tyson Griffin at GC 42: Summer Slam. The fight was outdoors in a small cage; typical for many up-and-coming fighters back in the day, hungry to make a name for themselves for little pay and great risk.
Griffin would prove to be too much for Faber, handing The California Kid his first professional loss via TKO in Round 3.
Faber fought two more times in 2005, stopping Shawn Bias via guillotine choke and Charles “Crazy Horse” Bennett by rear-naked choke, bringing the year to a close with a record of 10-1.
While his first loss no doubt stung, he was marching into 2006 and with it a new promotion—the WEC—that would see him reach great heights and newfound levels of respect as one of the sport’s best lighter-weight fighters.
Figures of Note: Ken Shamrock
For anyone who has been following the sport of MMA since the 1990s, Ken Shamrock has been both a respected pioneer and a tragic study in fighter pride.
Just a week ago, Shamrock took to the cage again at the age of 51, facing Kimbo Slice. Not only was he facing a younger fighter, but significant ring rust and advanced age. Shamrock had not fought since 2010 and in all reality, probably should have retired long ago.
This point is enabled by looking at his career in 2005, when he lost to Rich Franklin and Kazushi Sakuraba, both by TKO in under three minutes each.
But even now, it is hard to fault the man for his pride. After all, it was that same pride that saw him step into the ring against Tito Ortiz way back at UFC 40—an event that greatly helped the promotion at a time when it needed tremendous help.
I have always been a fan of Shamrock, just as I have been a fan of his younger adopted brother, Frank, Royce Gracie, Don Frye, Mark Coleman and countless others. They were among the first to give the sport the traction it needed to be what it is today, and that should never be forgotten.
Perhaps it is this affection that has me both cringing at the thought of Shamrock taking any more damage in the cage while marveling at how good he looked preparing for his comeback fight against Slice. Once again, he lent his name to a promotion that looks like it could be at a turning point, and once again he put his health on the line for a sport that he seems to love far more than it loves him.
And once again, I was rooting for him, hopeful that the fans would appreciate the spirit they were seeing—an old fighter bravely living life, in direct defiance to the notion that old men have no value when weighed against the prospect of younger ones.
It is a damning point that we all too quickly forsake those who came before in favor of that which may come to be; we're forgetful that the pioneers’ blood is spent with equal desire and daring to that of the new generation.
In a time when the sport’s new partners are all too quick to forsake the uncommon traits that make fighters great—spirit, dedication, heart and willingness to endure great pain for a moment’s advantage—Shamrock is a reminder that fighters are an uncommon breed existing in a sport that is about far more than good looks and brash talk.
In MMA, if there was ever an “it” factor to be prized and recognized by a financial windfall, it is that which is proven through combat, rather than that which is only notable outside of the cage in inflammatory sound bites and provocative photo shoots.
It’s the fights that matter and only the fights; everything else is just window dressing and product placement.
Thus, to that end, Shamrock endures; it’s a harsh reminder that fighters aren’t some docile lapdog species, content to be forgotten in favor of what is shiny and new and trending on Yahoo.
They are about what is left behind on the canvas, when the fans have left and the arena has turned off the lights—a career writ in blood and passion, victory and defeat.
Give ‘em hell, Ken.
Figures of Note: Jose Aldo
As the second half of one of the most anticipated fights of 2015, Jose Aldo is arguably the top pound-for-pound fighter in the sport today.
Owning a record of 25-1 with seven defenses of his UFC featherweight title (nine if you count his time in the WEC), Aldo has been at the top of the heap since 2009. His only blemish on a staggering record comes in the form of a submission loss, via rear-naked choke, to Luciano Azevedo, in a lightweight bout in 2005.
Beginning his career in 2004, Aldo started 2005 with a record of just 2-0. He fought six times in 2005, winning the first five by stoppage and thus bringing his total record to a perfect 7-0, with all wins by stoppage.
He was a finishing machine in his early days, blending blinding speed with ferocity and surprising accuracy. Then, he ran into Azevedo, who pulled off the victory by being determined, catching Aldo with the submission midway through Round 2 and sending him home with a record of 7-1 for the year.
Now, 10 years later, Aldo has won his last 18 bouts and his first fight of 2015 looks to be one of his toughest, not to mention biggest in terms of public demand.
Suffering a broken rib from training, his highly anticipated bout with Conor McGregor has been derailed for the time being. After Aldo heals, should he emerge victorious over McGregor or Chad Mendes, he will be a young champion on pace to break Anderson Silva’s record for consecutive title defenses, which stands at 10.
It’s a perfect position for Aldo, given his youth and experience, and beyond McGregor and Mendes, he has a slew of excellent opposition to test him and instill his reign with even more legitimacy than it already possesses.
But first he has to heal up and get back into the cage.
Figures of Note: Frankie Edgar
As Frankie Edgar waits to see the winner of UFC 189, he enjoys ideal real estate as the probable No. 1 contender for the next shot at the title.
When he started his career in 2005, he was a small lightweight with a great wrestling base and a huge heart. Still, his size for the division put him at long odds to ever become a champion, let alone in the UFC’s lightweight division, which was deep and violent.
But he overcame those odds, defeating BJ Penn to claim the title and then beating Penn again to retain it.
Now, he is one of the best fighters in the UFC’s featherweight division; his win over Urijah Faber this year put his overall record at 19-4-1.
And it all started in 2005 as Edgar fought three times and won all three bouts by stoppage in the first round.
Humble beginnings for the man from Toms River, New Jersey.
Figures of Note: Dana White
After years spent fighting tooth and nail for every inch of real estate he could gain on behalf of a sport that no one in the mainstream wanted to even acknowledge even existed, 2005 must have been a sweet period of relief for Dana White.
After countless years of fighting for meetings with anyone who could give him the time of day (even if it was while waiting for someone else more favorable in the Nevada sun), White had gained just enough honest ground to drive the flag home, on the Vegas strip, and MMA would never be the same.
That, ladies and gentleman, is vision and dedication, and the whole of the sport needed it more than we can ever know.
Looking back on things from such a period of advantage, one who was following the sport so desperately back then can finally begin to appreciate what White and the Fertitta brothers authored in 2005.
Many write off the gamble that Zuffa took with the UFC simply because they were in the gambling business; following that line or reasoning, what’s another company but just another gamble, even if it is outside of the casinos proper?
It goes deeper than that, much deeper.
When Tommy Hearns challenged Marvin Hagler for his title in the 1980s—and the bragging rights that went along with it—more than a few gamblers jumped on what they thought was a sure thing: Hearns' mighty right hand that had felled so many excellent, iron-jawed boxers.
They were confident enough to bet the deeds to their automobiles, nest-egg savings, even their homes and life savings. They were established gamblers as well, practiced in the wagering of money versus the risk (often intangible) for yet another well-calculated reward.
But they overstepped their bounds by just a hair; the power of Hearn’s right hand was very well-established, but those same bettors had not done enough research on Hagler's mountain of a chin upon which his rested.
After Round 1 was over, and Hagler had taken that freakish right hand, time and again, many stopped watching the fight and started watching the crowd; that was where some heartbreaking entertainment was bound to be found.
After the end of the bout, in Round 3, when Hearns fell to the canvas, beaten down after offering the fullest measure of devotion any fighter can muster, it was Hagler, full of blood, that was victorious.
And many a car, nest-egg savings accounts and home deeds passed to the House in Vegas, with nothing but a whimper. Well, perhaps not with a whimper.
In her book On Boxing, Joyce Carol Oates (author of the greatest and shortest book ever on the combative sports), who was in attendance on that night, described it honestly and tragically, bearing witness as those souls screamed: “Tommy! Tommy!” as Hearns was reduced to ruin before the fury of one of the most underrated and destructive forces the division had seen in many, many years.
The risk those bettors took on Hearns was nothing compared to the risk White and Zuffa took on the UFC and, specifically, The Ultimate Fighter, in 2005.
They were going against the government—Uncle Sam, for God’s sake, with no positive association of historical worth—and they were going against an entire generation of movers and shakers that was all about the fight game as long as it extended no deeper and darker than the dealings and undisclosed monies of professional boxing.
You want to talk about an unstoppable right hand and an iron chin? Think John McCain (who’s right hand had put the UFC on shaky legs in the late 1990s) and the rest of the old boy’s network in the U.S. government (with a constituency of members that had been raised on boxing as the only combative sport of worth).
Yeah, Zuffa did more than just gamble on the UFC; it put a huge and consistent tithe into the "church of MMA," and to that religion, and it’s faithful; the members were faithful.
And you, dear fight fans of that time, responded, waving the flag high and taking to The Underground and any other website that would hear your voices, screaming “We told you so! We told you!”
Think that sentiment is hyperbole? You should talk to anyone watching The Ultimate Fighter Season 1 finale live, rushing to their computer to revel in it, second-by-second, with the also-faithful on The Underground.
2005 was a great year for MMA in America, and, most importantly, it was the year that Dana White—the man whom Tito Ortiz had held hostage—stepped forward and took charge of the movement, giving a face and a common voice to the movement.
“Do you want to be a f--king fighter?!”
We couldn’t speak for those true fighters in attendance on that night, but we were all nodding our heads from behind the safety of our television and computer screens, eager to live vicariously through those who had the courage to participate in one of the most demanding and dynamic sports in the world.
“Yes,” we said.
But since we didn’t have the right stuff to do it for real, we watched and smiled and then watched and cried in outrage. And then we watched and smiled and watched and pointed our finger at White, screaming “Villian!” and watched some more.
And we’re still watching.
Difference is, we’re watching on Fox, real time, and that is something that still has me shaking my head in shock and appreciation of White and his ambition.
Make no mistake about it; I think Dana White has made some big mistakes and continues to make them today.
The UFC 151 fiasco.
The CM Punk signing.
The Reebok deal.
And so on, etc.
To be blunt, I think that even the idea that a promoter would blame an entire fight card's cancellation (which is the creation and result of forces far beyond any one fighter, be it conceptually or specifically) on a single fighter to be offensive to the public.
It's also defensive in a way that preys upon the worst understandings of the promotional responsibilities of any company (like the UFC) in the sport, not to mention being downright abusive in the public eye for the sake of being controlling as a safeguard for unpreparedness.
I don’t think he should have signed CM Punk because he did so in a way that was openly dismissive of the other true MMA fighters who fought their way into the UFC fold, based upon hard work and real competition, unknown but hungry, proceeding forth on nothing but a promise that all in a promotion that bills itself “ss real as it gets” will be treated equally, based upon real blood and real results.
I don’t think the Reebok deal was made with true and honest appreciation to the fact that every fighter is different, and, thus, every fighter has different financial needs. It is a policy that was imposed rather than offered, dismissing the immediate needs of the many in favor of attending to the marketability of a select few.
Many fighters are being charged a dollar for keeping a quarter, and some of those fighters have children—children who need those dollars for milk more than Reebok needs cheap real estate.
All these objections I have with White do nothing to take away from what he has done for the sport, because I fully believe, no matter what, that he has no intent to injure. He may be blindly devoted to some ideals to the point that he cannot see the forest for the trees, but he possesses the courage of his convictions, which is very rare and cannot be fully appreciated without looking into the past.
White has always been a man of action, and we saw this for the first time in 2005, when he called all the fighters into the gym and gave them the epic “Do you want to be a fighter?” speech.
Now, a decade later, we can hopefully appreciate the man and what he did for a sport that needed a fierce advocate who wasn’t content to talk about many things while doing nothing.
The sport needed a fighter to wage all the wars outside the Octagon the fighters could not, and, to that end, White has proved himself the heavyweight champion of the world.
And when no one was looking, White also turned out to be St. Nicholas and Robin Hood, all rolled into one. Many times he has answered personal cries for help, especially when it comes to children in need, helping them get the medical attention they need to save their lives and paying the tab himself.
He’s never called attention to these deeds, proving without a doubt that he gives freely because he wants to do so, and, for me, that proves he’s earned the benefit of the doubt.
Top Event: The Ultimate Fighter Finale, Season 1
It’s hard to believe that so much risk and promise could be fulfilled in one single, 15-minute bout between two hungry young men who wanted to be UFC fighters more than anything else in the world. But that single fight did make good on the entire premise of The Ultimate Fighter’s very first season, making it the top event of the year.
I know; it seems impossible that a small event—with only one truly excellent bout—could overshadow so many other events that took place before crowds over 40,000 strong, but it did, for obvious and subtle reasons.
Simply put, the finale gave us a Cinderella-story ending with a Rocky honesty; it wasn’t the best theatre, but it was honest because the blood was as real as the desire. Everyone watching was living vicariously through those two men who were going to the wall to make their claim for a dream, and when the final verdict was read, we found out that they both got what they had so clearly earned.
It is a rare thing when fight fans get to see a great fight; it is something else when said fight is so epic in the way it speaks to the baser emotions in us as people who, fans of all stripes, and fighters, tune in to see it unfold, humbled by common men doing uncommon work when the pressure is on.
It wasn’t just the best event of the year because of that fight, however. The fight itself was just the final time we got to hear those men—whose stories we had followed, week by week—give their closing argument as to why they should get to be recognized among their peers as professional fighters in the top organization in America.
It was the stories of their lives—lives utterly common, frail, foolish and hopeful—that afforded that fight the possibility of true gravitas. Those stories served as a preamble, spoken in a language we could all understand, that gave the fight both a harsh and beautiful contrast.
Yes, the language was crude, but their voices were heard so loudly because actions speak louder than words; that is why, minute by minute, the television audience grew to staggering proportions.
They seized the moment, and we got to see it.
That's why The Ultimate Fighter Season 1 finale was the top event of the year; the moment was realized with passion, blood and honesty and with it came a second birth of the sport in America.
Top Promotion: Pride FC
Even though MMA in Japan enjoyed a strong following in 2005, as a fight promotion, Pride FC was beginning to show signs of becoming distracted, amusing itself with matches that seemed to speak to the idea that the organization was losing sight of the intent inherent to its design.
Still, it was big enough and boasted a roster strong enough to remain the top MMA promotion in 2005, although the winds of change were blowing.
It’s hard to put into words how big of a coup the UFC had enjoyed by putting on two successful seasons of The Ultimate Fighter in 2005. The organization was sowing seeds for its future, while Pride was spending its money now, indulging its love of bad fistic theatre at the cost of its own legitimacy.
But as a promotion, it was still the biggest player in the room, and as such, it was bound to lead the way once more, albeit without the grandeur and gravitas of previous years, when the UFC was still struggling to find a way to include its brand name into the conversation without being hurt by the contrast in size.
They say that necessity is the mother of invention; perhaps that is why the UFC was doing something new, while Pride was continuing with the same exact theme. It had struck gold with the Middleweight Grand Prix in 2003, and that was a well it was still trying to draw water from...two years later.
Sometimes, it’s enough.
How Far We've Come...
Although it wasn’t a time of plenty like we are used to now, 2005 did give fans 20 events that saw big names come into their own while two organizations grew ever closer to their eventual reckoning.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that the UFC managed to conquer its greatest rival in Pride FC, only to have to face a new rival, in the form of its own pride (i.e. hubris) in 2015, just 10 years later.
Zuffa and Dana White’s ambition has always been a strong point; it is what saw them rise to the top during a period of economic decline in the country, and, now, it seems as if we (and possibly they) are finally learning that their reach has exceeded their grasp.
There are many reasons why a promotion wants to have nearly total control of its domain, but when it becomes clear that its authority is deaf to the needs of the majority, things change.
Fighters begin to voice their displeasure, more and more.
They begin to look to other promotions for financial relief.
And the fighters of tomorrow—men and women of great promise—see the situation with a clarity and perspective that comes with distance and freedom to choose. They decide that what’s in their best interests should never be controlled by anyone who believes that any system conceptualized in a void can meet the needs of all fighters better than said fighters can do for themselves.
Or, to put it simply, money talks; it’s what enabled Pride FC to come into being, pulling away big names from the UFC, and it looks like it might be happening again.
In 2005, Zuffa was reinventing the game and taking big risks that would see it grow in size with incredible speed. That same spirit of innovation and vision is still driving Zuffa today; will it be for the better, as seen in 2005, or will the organization fall short, only to pull itself back to its feet and find it’s no longer alone in the cage?
No matter what happens, the sport will be served, one way or the other.
Buyrates info courtesy of Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s Dave Meltzer (via MMAPayout).