UFC’s greatest hits: the middle years

This month marks the 15th anniversary of the debut of the Ultimate Fighting Championships. In this second installment of the company’s 15 most memorable matches, we look at 2001-2005, the early Zuffa LLC years. For the top five moments of the early days, check out part one.

In early 2001, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a business barely clinging to existence as it was run by a tapped-out Bob Meyrowitz, was sold to casino magnates Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, the latter a former member of the Nevada State Athletic commission, who put high school friend Dana White in charge.

The UFC’s financial issues were thought to be largely because virtually every major pay–per-view carrier refused to air the events. The 1994-96 success of the company built around Ken Shamrock, Royce Gracie, Dan Severn and David “Tank” Abbott, wasn’t a gimmick that ran out of steam as much as something that fell because the shows weren’t available to most of its fans, who moved on to other things.

In 2001, when the company was purchased, the belief was that once they got back on pay-per-view, the early success would be repeated. As it turned out, that wasn’t the case, and the company, by its own accounts, lost about $33 million from 2001-05 until the magic ingredient, “The Ultimate Fighter” reality show, turned their fortunes around.

The most memorable matches of that struggling period were:

May 4, 2001: Randy Couture vs. Pedro Rizzo

Couture at this point was the heavyweight champion. He was almost 38 at this point, and Rizzo, with a good sprawl, savage leg kicks and good hands, was believed to be the next big star. Zuffa thought so much of him that he was signed to a $175,000 per-fight contract, making him the highest paid fighter in the promotion. This fight in Atlantic City was one of UFC’s best back-and-forth matches in history. Couture shockingly destroyed Rizzo, taking him to the ground and pounding him out with Rizzo bleeding and barely defending. In fact, many were critical of ref John McCarthy for not stopping the fight, and the horn clearly saved Rizzo from what appeared to be certain defeat.

The second round was reversed, as Rizzo came back and was on the verge of winning. Couture was on his knees, putting up no defense, and for some reason, Rizzo paused rather than throw what could have been the finishing punch, and time ran out.

Rounds three and four saw two completely spent fighters in slow-motion battling like wounded animals just trying to survive. Couture took Rizzo down in both rounds and did minimal damage, but it was enough to win both rounds, and ended up making the difference in the fight. Rizzo took control in the last ten seconds of the fifth round and seemed on the verge of defeat when time ran out. Couture got a decision that could have gone either way, although more felt it went the wrong way. In fact, Frank Shamrock, announcing at the time, when Couture’s hand was raised, asked what fight the judges were watching. A rematch was set up for November 2, 2001. Couture conclusively answered the question as to who should be the champion, as he dominated the second meeting.

Nov. 2, 2001: Matt Hughes vs. Carlos Newton:

This match in Las Vegas is famous for the most unique title-change finish in UFC history. Newton was defending the welterweight title that he had won from Hughes’ coach, Pat Miletich. A hot first round saw Hughes score with high slams, but Newton was able to reverse him twice on the ground. During the second round, Newton clamped on a triangle and looked to have the match wrapped up.

Hughes picked Newton up from that position while caught in the move, draped him on top of the cage, paused, and planed him with one of the hardest pro wrestling power bombs you’ll ever see. Newton was knocked cold by the move, and ref McCarthy saw it, and stopped the fight, not noticing that Hughes had actually passed out at the same time from the triangle. By the time McCarthy turned around, Hughes had recovered and the look on his face when he was told that he won was priceless. He had no clue what had happened or that he had just won the championship. Like with Couture-Rizzo, a rematch was held on March 13, 2002, in London, England, and Hughes won this one conclusively.

Nov. 22, 2002: Tito Ortiz vs. Ken Shamrock:

This was one of the key matches in history, because UFC was losing money and gaining no ground. When the Fertittas purchased the company in early 2001, the belief was they would start at around 100,000 buys on pay-per-view, and grow to the level the company was doing in its 1994-96 heyday. The reality was different. The first pay-per-view event was a disaster, with every match going to a decision and time running out in the middle of the main event, leading to massive refunds.

Subsequent shows were doing 35,000-50,000 buys and showing no sign of growth. It was looking like a bad investment, when the decision was made to bring back Shamrock, an early star who had become even more famous after three years as a star during a period when pro wrestling was having its most mainstream success. Between clips of Shamrock waving his finger at Ortiz, and Ortiz flipping off Shamrock after beating one of his proteges from 1999, Zuffa had its first grudge match with well-known names.

After the two went after each other on “The Best Damn Sports Show Period,” the result was the company’s first sellout at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, the first million-dollar gate, and 150,000 buys on pay-per-view. Shamrock, fighting with a torn ACL, stunned Ortiz with a punch early. But for most of the fight, the younger Ortiz was too quick for the 38-year-old Shamrock, massacring him before Shamrock, his face a mass of cuts and bruises, asked out and McCarthy stopped the fight.

The success of this match gave hope that UFC could be a success. The bad news was, most of the people who bought this show, didn’t come back, and it wasn’t until 2005 before the company became a pay-per-view success.

Shamrock and Ortiz had two more matches, both won by Ortiz, in 2006, that caught the attention of the mainstream sports world with the pay-per-view numbers of the first (775,000 buys), and the TV ratings of the second (still the highest rated cable MMA special). Even though the three matches were one-sided, it was without a doubt the most important series of matches in company history.

Sept. 26, 2003: Tito Ortiz vs. Randy Couture

Ortiz, as light heavyweight champion, kept coming up with reasons not to face Chuck Liddell, the top challenger. By the spring of 2003, Dana White had enough, and created the first interim championship, pitting Liddell against Couture, with Couture moving down from heavyweight.

Couture had lost two fights in a row and the company believed Liddell was its next big star, but Couture spoiled Liddell’s coronation by stopping him on June 6, 2003. Suddenly, with Couture as the interim champion, Ortiz was ready to come back. The normally calm Couture responded to Ortiz’s trash talking to show a new-found personality edge. The dynamic led to Couture becoming one of the most popular fighters in UFC history, as people wanted to see Ortiz get his mouth shut. Couture was the father teaching the son a lesson in respect, outwrestling him for five straight rounds, and in a moment that couldn’t have been scripted any better, literally turned Ortiz over and spanked him with seconds remaining, as Couture won the first of his three championships past the age of 40.

April 9, 2005: Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar

Dubbed by White the most important fight in UFC history, this was the light heavyweight final of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, and more important, the first time UFC ever aired live on television. It was the perfect fight on the right night. Griffin and Bonnar threw down for three straight rounds. Griffin won the first round. Bonnar solidly won the second round. The third round was even, with Griffin outstriking Bonnar in the last minute to win a 29-28 decision that really could have gone either way.

The emotion was incredible as the fight ended, particularly as White proclaimed that there was no loser in that fight, and gave Bonnar the same winner’s contract that Griffin got. UFC had spent $10 million in production costs on the season in a last-ditch effort to get the sport rolling. The first season was an experiment. Immediately after this match, Spike TV signed UFC to a long-term deal. A week later Couture and Liddell set the company record with 280,000 buys on pay-per-view. The UFC’s growth was about to skyrocket.

Dave Meltzer covers mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Send Dave a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Nov 24, 2008