UFC 44: Tito’s spanking

Randy Couture already was a three-time champion going into UFC 44 on Sept. 26, 2003, but it was his victory that night in Las Vegas over Tito Ortiz that first made people talk of him as perhaps the greatest champion in company history.

Ortiz hadn’t fought in ten months, between injuries and filming a movie.

For the first time, UFC, frustrated that Ortiz wouldn’t face top contender Chuck Liddell, created an interim light heavyweight championship. Couture had moved down from heavyweight to face Liddell and stopped him at UFC 43 to become the first three-time titleholder.

With Couture, not Liddell, now as his top opponent in the division, Ortiz was quick to agree to return and was the heavy betting favorite in a match to unify the two versions of the title.

The match had one of UFC’s best buildups to that point, as Ortiz did his usual trash talk, appearing on Jay Leno and Carson Daly’s network talk shows. Ortiz talked like Couture had a fake title, but the usually reserved Couture fired back, saying that he beat Liddell, whom Ortiz had continually refused to face, and in doing so, made himself a huge crowd favorite.

The two appeared together on FOX Sports Net’s “The Best Damn Sports Show Period,” with the hosts scoffing at the idea that the 40-year-old Couture stood a chance, even though most fighters at the time predicted Couture. The insider talk was that it would turn into a wrestling match and Couture was the better wrestler.

Nevertheless, to the average fan, Couture seemed like an old sacrificial lamb being laid at the altar of the biggest star in the sport. ESPN even aired clips of the weigh-ins. While none of that sounds unusual today, UFC never had gotten that kind of exposure.

The match, held before a sellout crowd at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, would not look all that spectacular today. The 40-year-old Couture simply outwrestled Ortiz from start to finish, winning all five rounds, and literally turning over Ortiz and spanking him in the closing moments in one of the UFC’s all-time memorable scenes. But fans were so into the rivalry from the trash talk that it came across on that night like a dramatic classic with the old underdog putting the young punk in his place unexpectedly.

NOTEWORTHY

The show also featured a heavyweight title match in what was billed as a battle of giants, as 6-foot-8 Tim Sylvia bested 6-10 former Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo wrestler “Giant” Gan McGee in just 1:54. Sylvia caught McGee with his hands down with two rights to the jaw, the second of which was the beginning of the end.

Sylvia tested positive for steroids after the fight and was stripped of his title and suspended. At the time, there were no rules in place in Nevada to overturn results, even though McGee later tried legal action to get the result changed.

Two of the top stars of today’s Strikeforce promotion fought in prelims. Current Strikeforce lightweight champion Josh Thomson knocked out Gerald Strebendt in 2:45 of a good stand-up battle. And Strikeforce headliner Nick Diaz finished Jeremy Jackson in the third round with an armbar. Diaz and Jackson previously had fought twice, with each beating the other in the first round.

RESULTS

Hermes Franca def. Caol Uno, 2:46 R2
Nick Diaz def. Jeremy Jackson, submission (armbar), 2:04 R2
Josh Thomson def. Gerald Strebendt, KO, 2:45 R1
Karo Parisyan def. Dave Strasser, submission (Kimura), 3:52 R1
Rich Franklin def. Edwin DeWees, TKO, 3:35 R1
Jorge Rivera def. David Loiseau, unanimous decision
UFC heavyweight championship: Tim Sylvia def. Gan McGee, TKO, 1:54 R1 (Sylvia retains title)
Andrei Arlovski def. Vladimir Matyushenko, KO, 1:59 R1
UFC light heavyweight championship unification: Randy Couture def. Tito Ortiz, unanimous decision (Couture wins undisputed title).