By Thomas Gerbasi
On July 11th, it’s the biggest day in UFC history, as UFC 100 hits Las Vegas. To celebrate this milestone, Spike TV will be counting down the 100 greatest fights ever to grace the Octagon, and it needs your votes to do it. We’ll be doing our own countdown from the list as well, revisiting some of the UFC’s most memorable moments from the last 15 years.
Royce Gracie vs. Gerard Gordeau
November 12, 1993 – UFC 1
Result - Gracie Wsub1
I’ve said it a hundred times and I’ll say it again – if Royce Gracie didn’t win UFC I, we’re probably not talking about mixed martial arts today. Let’s go back for a second…No one knew what MMA was at the time that the show debuted in 1993, but everyone wanted to see it. And if a guy like Ken Shamrock – who looked the role – won the tournament, everyone would have said, ‘okay, that was pretty cool. Next.’ But when skinny Royce Gracie went in there and dominated three opponents in a row, including Gerard Gordeau in the final, people said ‘damn, what did that guy just do, and when can I see it again?’ I even think that if Royce’s brother Rickson won the tournament, it wouldn’t have been as big a deal to the mainstream fight fan as Royce’s victory was. This was simply Royce’s show.
“It was just the right time,” said Gracie when I asked him why he was chosen to be the family’s rep in the UFC. “I was the right size. I wasn’t bulked up and big and I didn’t look very scary, so to speak. It was just the right timing for me.”
And it made a sport. Plus, say what you will about the level of competition in the early UFC days, but the fact that you had to prepare for three opponents on the fly certainly added a degree of difficulty not seen these days, and makes Gracie’s feat of winning three one night tournaments even more impressive.
“It was very different from the way it is now,” said Gracie. “You draw the fighter right before the fight and your strategy is done right there on the spot. You train for everybody. When you’re in training camp you train for a big guy, little guy, fast guy, slow guy, heavy guy, strong guy, everybody. So when you get an opponent, you say, ‘okay, that’s the guy – here’s the strategy for him. He’s a boxer, so I’m gonna shoot.’ It was a lot more on the fly. You have to be prepared for everybody. Now, you get an opponent, you know who he is, you have the footage, and you train for him. It’s different.”
Randy Couture vs. Pedro Rizzo
May 4, 2001 – UFC 31
Result – Couture W5
Pedro Rizzo was the Golden Boy around May 4, 2001. 11-1 and less than three months removed from a second round knockout of Josh Barnett, the Brazilian banger was being groomed for the UFC heavyweight title, and 37-year old Randy Couture, the current champion, seemed like the perfect foil at the time. But as we were soon to find out, counting out Couture was the worst thing you could do.
In a lot of ways, his legend began that night. Sure, he was a helluva fighter and competitor, but when you go five hard rounds with a younger and stronger opponent who may have been at his best that night, well, that’s one for the time capsule. Here’s how I covered the fight that night:
The 37 year old champ, the man who is never supposed to win, but who keeps doing it, almost scored a spectacular first round stoppage, as he performed the ground and pound strategy to perfection early on. Rizzo, caught under a barrage of punches and bloodied, looked like he was done, and referee John McCarthy was inspecting the Brazilian very closely as he absorbed heaps of punishment.
The second round was a carbon copy of the first, but this time it was Rizzo doing the damage, pounding a winded Couture with lefts, rights, and stiff leg kicks. Couture, now bleeding heavily from the nose, staggered with practically every blow, but Rizzo’s reluctance to pounce on the champ proved to be his downfall. Couture barely survived the second round, and at that moment, a distance fight seemed highly unlikely.
In the third and fourth rounds, Couture stood up with Rizzo, and Pedro refused to press his advantage. A stoppage by McCarthy to allow the ring doctor to check Couture’s nose, gave Randy the second wind he needed, and as the pace slowed, he stole two rounds.
Rizzo finished the fight strongly, but his lackadaisical follow up on a hurt Couture ultimately hurt him on the judges’ scorecards.
It was a memorable war to say the least, but my clearest memory of that fight was the post-fight press conference, as Couture painfully shuffled into his seat on legs battered by Rizzo’s debilitating low kicks. That’s heart.
Carlos Newton vs. Pat Miletich
May 04, 2001 – UFC 31
Result – Newton Wsub3
One of the great parts of mixed martial arts is that at any given moment, a tactical fight can erupt in a flurry of action that ends the bout immediately. That was the case in the welterweight title bout between champion Pat Miletich and challenger Carlos Newton. Leading up to the fight, Miletich’s first priority was clear – he was there to win and defend his title, and putting on a blood and guts brawl was far from a concern
"The only person I have to impress is the person I'm fighting, and the judges," Miletich told me. "That's the way I look at it. I'd rather keep my title and collect the money. If they're booing, that's tough luck because they're not the ones that have to come home and pay my bills. That's just the way it is. I'll fight my fight. If Carlos pushes the pace with me, that's fine with me. I'm in shape to go. I don't remember him ever fighting at 170 pounds, so I think if he pushes the pace with me, he's going to gas."
Miletich and Newton did put on a tactical fight, but “The Ronin” didn’t gas out, and in the third round, he took the belt. As I wrote that night:
Carlos Newton and Pat Miletich waged the expected tactical battle, with Newton winning the war and the UFC welterweight title by choking out “The Croation Sensation” at 2:50 of the third round. “Somebody’s got to go for broke,” said the new champ. “I just waited and snuck in there.”
Newton and Miletich kept it standing in the first round, with Miletich’s strong striking skills winning him the round. Newton got Miletich to the ground late in the first, and he repeated his good fortune in the second. Once Miletich was able to get back up, his opponent made him pay with some strong head kicks.
The champion looked to be a bit winded at the end of the second, but he came out strong in the third, landing 1-2’s to the head, which didn’t hurt Newton, but scored points. The two combatants tumbled to the ground again, and as Miletich rose, the Canadian grabbed him in a standing side choke. It was academic at that point. Miletich tapped, and a new champion was crowned.
Jens Pulver vs. BJ Penn
January 11, 2002 – UFC 35
Result - Pulver W5
In writing up this lightweight championship fight, I wanted a quote that truly summed up Jens Pulver as he looked to defend his title for the second time against heavy favorite and seemingly unbeatable BJ Penn in the first 155-pound main event in UFC history. Luckily, the boys from Seattle’s Alice in Chains came through with "You'd be well advised, not to plan my funeral before the body dies," from the song “Grind”.
And frankly, that was the way the fight was perceived from the time it was announced. Sure, Pulver was a helluva fighter and a world champion, but Penn was an unstoppable juggernaut who was coming off three straight UFC knockouts, the most recent being an 11 second blitz of Caol Uno, the same Caol Uno who Pulver took five rounds to beat in February of 2001. It wasn’t a question of if Penn would win the lightweight title, but in what round. That perception ate at Pulver.
"I just can't believe it," Pulver told me before the fight. "I'm dumbfounded. At the same time I'm glad. If they think he's that unbeatable and unstoppable, then more power to him. I felt that making me a 3-1 underdog just showed a big-time disrespect to me. But I get to prove more people wrong."
For two rounds though, Penn was in control, almost submitting Pulver at the end of the second stanza. Pulver was baffled, but then inspiration came in an odd form.
“After that second round ended, when he had that armbar which I did not tap to, I remember sitting in the corner and going ‘oh my God, I’m gonna walk out in this third round, he’s gonna take me down, he’s gonna mount me and beat the hell out of me again – what am I doing?’” he recalled. “(After that) Somebody in his corner, one of his little entourage, was jumping up and down and doing the cut throat (gesture) at me. “And I looked right at him and I was like ‘are you kidding me?’ So because of that guy, I said ‘no way’ and he never got another takedown. That was the thing that I needed in my head. If I get beat, I get beat, but I ain’t going out like this.”
Pulver roared back in the final three rounds and retained his belt via a majority decision. It was the fight that made Jens Pulver.
“I basically staked my mark and made my dent in the MMA world,” said Pulver when asked the impact of his upset win over Penn. “Not as being the champion, not as being undefeated in the UFC, it was the fight with BJ Penn. Like I said after the fight, ‘yeah, I was in trouble, but I’ve been hit all my life.’ I think it showed my heart, my personality, and the person that I am. People still ask me about it all the time.”
Rory Singer vs. Josh Haynes
October 10, 2006 – UFC Fight Night
Result – Singer W3
As two of the more interesting people in mixed martial arts, Rory Singer and Josh Haynes always provide compelling stories and soundbites which are gold for any writer. Luckily, when the two Ultimate Fighter 3 alumni stepped into the Octagon to fight, they provided some gold when the bell rang as well.
Given their styles and histories, that shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but consider that the two were friends, and all of a sudden there was speculation this had the potential to be a snoozer between two guys who didn’t want to pull the trigger on each other.
Then the bell rang, and after a bit of a slow start, Singer landed with a thudding kick to the head that dropped Haynes and sent blood flying out of his nose. Okay – time to go to work. In my fight report that night, I wrote:
After surviving the round, Haynes waded back into battle in the second round, and Singer’s crisper standup technique continued to dominate as Haynes swung wildly, looking for the haymaker that would equal things up. With a little over three minutes left, Haynes got a takedown, but after Singer failed with a quick triangle attempt, Haynes decided to take his chances on the feet. And a minute later, Haynes hit paydirt with a looping right hand that dropped Singer to the mat. He pounced on his foe, but Singer survived and now both fighters were covered in Haynes’ blood.
Singer was the fresher of the two leading into the final round, and he shot a series of punches down the middle which bloodied Haynes’ face again and caused referee John McCarthy to call a halt to the action for the doctor to check him out. Upon resuming, Singer kept the heat on but the courageous Haynes wouldn’t wilt as he looked for another big right hand to change things around. Two and a half minutes in, Haynes slipped to the mat and Singer followed in search of a rear naked choke, but Haynes fought his way back into his opponent’s guard briefly before the two stood and McCarthy again brought the doctor in, but again, Haynes was allowed to continue and he lasted the distance by simply showing a ton of heart from bell to bell.
It was my lead graph that really told the tale though:
Rory Singer and Josh Haynes may be good friends outside of the Octagon, but the two veterans of the third season of ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ certainly fought like enemies in their three round middleweight bout, which saw Singer rise from the canvas in the second round score a bloody three round unanimous decision over his buddy.
Even Singer’s mom approved. Well, maybe not, but she was glad her son got the win and left the Octagon as the less bloody of the two.
“She stayed and watched most of it,” said Singer of his mom’s night at the fights. “I told her that I wasn’t giving her a ticket to come watch the fights and then when my fight comes, you leave. If you want this ticket, you’re gonna stay and watch this fight. She did and gave me a big hug and she was happy to see that I was okay. She obviously still hates it. I know in the depth of her being, she hates seeing her baby boy out there getting beat up. She’s always like, ‘don’t let them hurt the nose,’ and ‘you have such a nice smile,’ and I know how much money she spent on that smile with braces and a retainer, so I know how much she hates it, and I know she’s going to breathe a giant sigh of relief when I’m done with this. But she supports it.”
Stay tuned to UFC.com for more Countdown to UFC 100 content…