If you thought Randy Couture's interim light heavyweight title victory over Chuck Liddell in their first match marked the first time "The Natural" messed with the UFC's plans, think again.
UFC 15 was designed to be Vitor Belfort's launching pad to superstardom. Dubbed "The Phenom," the Brazilian striker created a ruckus with a series of flash knockouts, winning the heavyweight tournament at UFC 12 and making short work of Tank Abbott at UFC 13. Another quick win or two could have been all the company needed to fill the void left by departed stars Royce Gracie, Dan Severn and Ken Shamrock.
Couture was simply supposed to be an active witness to Belfort's coronation. "The Natural" was the UFC 13 tourney champion, but was considered the underdog going into their match on Oct. 17. 1997 at Casino Magic in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.
This was considered a slam-dunk for Belfort, a style mismatch of a feared young striker and a wrestler 14 years older without a proven standup game.
But in the first example of what made him one of the sport's most beloved figures, Couture thrived when the odds seemed most stacked against him. Couture stunned Belfort by taking the match to him in the standup, slowly wearing Belfort down in the clinch.
Belfort managed to neutralize Couture on the ground the first time they hit the ground, but he wasn't so lucky the second time. Couture peppered Belfort with a series of uncontested shots until referee "Big" John McCarthy stopped the fight and gave Couture a TKO victory at 8:17.
Belfort, while a respected veteran, has never quite lived up to the initial expectations. Couture, of course, went on to a record five title reigns at heavyweight and light heavyweight.
While Belfort fell, the UFC appeared to be grooming another phenom, Mark Kerr. "The Smashing Machine" followed up on his UFC 14 heavyweight tournament win by claiming the UFC 15 crown with a pair of wins in just one minute, 10 seconds.
Tank Abbott got his shot at the UFC heavyweight title, challenging Maurice Smith. Abbott was told a month before the show to be prepared to step in as an alternate, as challenger Dan Severn had accepted a match with Kimo Leopoldo at the first PRIDE card, a week before UFC 15. Severn was peppered with leg kicks in the match in a 30-minute draw and had to pull out of UFC 15. Abbott, meanwhile, didn't train until getting word six days before the show that Severn pulled out. Abbott held his own in the fight, but gassed and verbally surrendered in just over eight minutes.
As political pressure continued to mount, then-UFC owner Semaphore Entertainment made its first real attempt to clean up the action inside the octagon. Gone were strikes to the back of the head, kicks to a downed opponent, small joint manipulation, and hair pulling. This was the first in a series of maneuvers designed to attract sanctioning from state athletic commissions.
UFC marked the final show announced by Bruce Beck, who was replaced on the next card by current UFC play-by-pay man Mike Goldberg. Beck is currently the weekend sports anchor for WNBC-TV in New York City.
Dwayne Cason def. Houston Dorr, TKO, 3:43
Alex Hunter def. Harr Moskowitz, split decision
Mark Kerr def. Greg Stott, KO, 0:19
Dave Beneteau def. Carlos Barreto, unanimous decion
Kerr def. Cason (substitute for Benetaeu), submission (rear naked choke), 0:54
Randy Couture def. Vitor Belfort, TKO, 8:17
UFC heavyweight championship
Maurice Smith def. Tank Abbott, submission (fatigue), 8:08
- Vitor Belfort
- Randy Couture
- Tank Abbott
- Dan Severn