UFC 76 was supposed to set up what may have been the biggest match in UFC history. After Chuck Liddell had been knocked out by Quinton Jackson and lost the UFC light heavyweight title, Liddell was on the road to a rematch.
His opponent, former "The Ultimate Fighter" star Keith Jardine, was expected to give him a spirited match but eventually be flattened.
The show, UFC's third event at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif, also was to set up a new headliner in the division in Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, who was coming off winning a PRIDE tournament in 2005 and some felt was the actually the No. 1 fighter in the world at that weight.
Instead, it was a night of upsets, and in the eyes of the UFC promotion, vindication of all the criticism of "The Ultimate Fighter" reality show.
Jardine, who didn't even make the finals during Season 2, scored a split decision over Liddell in the main event.
But the real vindication came a little earlier in the night when Forrest Griffin, the winner of Season 1, beat Rua via choke with 15 seconds left in the third round.
Liddell vs. Jardine was a three-round war. Jardine got the better of the standing exchanges, but Liddell's punches did tremendous visual damage and Jardine's face was a mass of cuts and bruises. Liddell didn't lose to a better fighter as much as a better-prepared fighter, who studied his style and countered Liddell's reliance on the home run punch.
Jardine was cut near the right eye during the first round and staggered at one point. The second round was the turning point as Jardine knocked Liddell down with a punch, and his confidence grew from there. Jardine was bleeding badly from the nose and eye but got more aggressive. By the end of Round 2, he was bleeding from the ear and top of his head. Jardine really took in the third round with kicks to the leg and body, opening Liddell up for effective punches. In particular, the left side of Liddell's rib cage took a major beating. Liddell kept going for the knockout, and he kept getting countered.
Coming into the fight Griffin was regarded as entertaining but not a threat to championship-caliber opponents. Few gave him a serious chance against Rua.
Rua was not at his best because of a bad knee, but forgotten is that Griffin was essentially fighting with one arm, with a shoulder that needed surgery.
Jon Fitch scored the biggest win of his UFC career with a split-decision victory over Diego Sanchez, which put him in line for a championship match. It was a tough fight, with Fitch's size advantage making the difference.
In a battle of stars who were well-known in Japan, Lyoto Machida out-pointed Kazuhiro Nakamura, a former national champion in judo. The crowd was quiet, not really knowing either fighter. Machida won on a unanimous decision.
There were no knockouts on a card billed as "Knockout." Six of the matches went the distance, and the other three finished via submission.
Quoteworthy: "There's a hunger thing that you have to have to be an elite fighter, and I just didn't see a Chuck Liddell who was as hungry as he used to be." – UFC president Dana White broaching the subject of Liddell's retirement two years ago. RESULTS
Matt Wiman def. Michihiro Omigawa, unanimous decision
Christian Wellisch def. Scott Junk, submission (heel hook), 3:19 R1
Jeremy Stephens def. Diego Saraiva, unanimous decision
Rich Clementi def. Anthony Johnson, submission (rear naked choke), 3:05 R1
Tyson Griffin def. Thiago Tavares, unanimous decision
Lyoto Machida def. Kazuhiro Nakamura, unanimous decision
Jon Fitch def. Diego Sanchez, split decision
Keith Jardine def. Chuck Liddell, split decision