From Dan Severn to Randy Couture, the history of the Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight title has been about the evolution of the American top-level wrestler turned mixed martial artist.
Severn, who was 36 at the time, was the first big-name wrestler to compete in UFC. He was a collegiate star at Arizona State in the early 1980s. After graduation, Severn coached and was an Olympic team hopeful at his wrestling peak. He placed sixth in the world in the 1985 freestyle championships.
By 1994, he was doing professional wrestling, mostly in Japan, and still competing in amateur tournaments, when he heard about the UFC. With only three days of training, which consisted of he and a few pro wrestling buddies trying to hit him while he ducked and took them down, he came to UFC 4 in Tulsa, Okla. on Dec. 16, 1994, the night that made him a star.
UFC was in its infancy, a very different world than it is today. There weren't any true mixed martial artists in those days. There were guys coming from different fighting disciplines who were thrown in a cage in an attempt to find out what worked in something approximating a real fight.
There were no stand-ups if the action got boring. There were very few rules. Severn was asked by the promoters to wear an amateur wrestling singlet to represent his sport, but opted inside to wear black trunks like a pro wrestler, because under the rules, the singlet could be used by his opponent to choke him. The Japanese wrestling organization he was under contract with told him not to compete, as it feared his losing would make it look bad. They shouldn't have worried.
In those days, nobody could stop the takedowns of a big, powerful wrestler. Severn tossed around a much smaller Anthony Macias with a series of back suplexes and was nicknamed "The Beast" by NFL legend Jim Brown, then a UFC commentator.
In an eight-man tournament, Severn lost in the finals to Royce Gracie due to a triangle choke in what was an epic battle at the time, but would probably look boring by current standards. Gracie had beaten every opponent in minutes, and Severn took him down and pinned his shoulders, and held him there for 15 minutes. No match had ever gone that long.
It was actually something of a disaster because UFC was just taking off on pay-per-view, and when the three-hour satellite window for the show ended, Severn was still holding Gracie on the ground. After many of the cable systems switched off, Gracie submitted Severn from his back.
But Severn came back to win a couple of tournaments and on May 17, 1996, in one of the worst UFC fights in history, he beat Ken Shamrock via split decision after 30 minutes to become the company's second "Superfight" champion, the title which evolved into today's UFC heavyweight championship.
Promises of paydays
The success of Severn, who earned $150,000 in winning the 1995 Ultimate Ultimate tournament, opened the wrestling community's eyes. Wrestlers trained as hard as athletes from any sport, but there were no financial rewards without a professional circuit.
Lured by the promises of such rewards, numerous active Olympic-level wrestlers like Mark Coleman, Kevin Randleman, Dan Henderson, Kevin Jackson, Couture, Mark Kerr, Tom Erickson and Matt Lindland started to break into the sport.
Coleman, a member of the 1992 Olympic team who failed to qualify in 1996 in a loaded weight class that included Kurt Angle, came right out of Olympic training to UFC. After winning two tournaments, he beat Severn to win the championship. With his style of takedowns and punching, as well as head-butting, he looked unstoppable.
At the time, most of those wrestlers came in with the mentality that they were fighting to make money while hoping to make the 2000 Olympic team. They also went into the sport with a wrestler's mentality as opposed to today, where wrestlers learn all aspects of fighting and may use wrestling as their MMA base, but wouldn't dare think that all they need is wrestling to win a championship.
It wasn't long before it became clear you simply couldn't compete at a high level in both sports, and in most cases, money won over lifetime dreams of medals. Couture, who came out of Oklahoma State, was the exception to the rule, as he was 1999 national champion in Greco-Roman wrestling well into his MMA career.
During the summer of 1997, the wrestlers were looking unstoppable.
The UFC's top heavyweights were Coleman, Kerr and Dan Bobish (a former Division II national champion). Couture, a multi-time national champion in Greco-Roman, was just getting started. Weight classes were being established in the sport, and 1992 gold medalist Kevin Jackson looked unbeatable in the under-200 pound weight class. Kerr then walked out on his UFC contract to fight in PRIDE, and until drug issues started the destruction of his career, he was considered the No. 1 fighter in the group.
The game changes
But the game was changing. At UFC 14 in the summer of 1997, Coleman was expected to steamroll Maurice Smith, a top level kickboxer, because he'd take him down and pounded him. And that's exactly what happened until Coleman got tired. Smith picked apart a gassed Coleman to capture the heavyweight title in a match that was a turning point for the sport. But his title reign was short-lived.
On Dec. 21, 1997, Smith faced Couture, who didn't tire, and Couture kept Smith on the ground for 21 minutes to win a decision. On the same night, Jackson, a heavy favorite, was submitted by Frank Shamrock in 14 seconds. Before the fight, Shamrock vowed he was going to teach wrestlers a lesson. Jackson's fighting career ended shortly afterward, as UFC was coming under heavy criticism for its alleged barbarism. Mark Schultz, a gold medalist in 1984, was told he'd have to give up his college coaching job if he continued. Jackson and others at the Olympic training facility were given similar ultimatums to get them out of the sport.
As athletes began training MMA, as opposed to being athletes from other sports testing their discipline, the domination of the wrestling camp started to waver. The elimination of head-butts took away a major weapon to nullify the Brazilian jiu-jitsu guard. And strikers began to learn to avoid takedowns. Kept standing, the single discipline wrestlers were in trouble.
A key match in this transition was a 1999 UFC 18 bout in which Townsend Saunders, who had won a silver medal in the 1996 Olympics, couldn't take down Mikey Burnett, who fought with Ken Shamrockâ€™s Lion's Den. Burnett had enough of a wrestling background to avoid being taken down, and Saunders couldn't stay with him standing.
Another change was the introduction of stand-ups when the action slows down, a rule implemented to keep wrestlers from taking guys down and holding them there until the time limit expires, and winning boring decisions.
Perhaps the most outstanding example of the idea that a superman in wrestling simply can't walk through MMA competition came in 2004. Karam Gaber Ibrahim of Egypt was the dominant wrestler of that year's Olympics.
At the 96kg Greco-Roman weight class, Ibrhaim threw one world champion after another like rag dolls en route to the gold. He got a huge offer from K-1 in Japan, and with a few weeks of stand-up training, went against Kazuyuki Fujita. Ibrahim made the mistake of thinking a few weeks of striking made him a striker, and didn't even try to lock up and use his Greco, and in trading blows, was knocked out in seconds, and never fought again.
Ibrahim had fallen in a trap. Japanese promoters like to recruit wrestlers who have won gold medals, but had little MMA training, and match them with Japanese stars who are more experienced at the sport. The promoters usually got the result they wanted. But it didn't always work out.
Rulon Gardner, the 2000 gold medalist in Greco-Roman as a super heavyweight, had his only MMA match against Hidehko Yoshida, a popular Japanese fighter who won a gold medal in judo, on December 31, 2004. Gardner's size, at 300 pounds, proved too much for Yoshida to handle. Gardner was probably the last example of a wrestler coming in with only a month or so of serious MMA training, and walking right into the sport by beating a star.
The modern era
When Couture left the UFC in a money dispute in 1998 (yes, this has happened before), the heavyweight title ended up in the hands of Randleman, who won NCAA titles in wrestling in 1991 and 1992, and was a protege of Coleman. Couture came back to UFC and beat Randleman to win his second heavyweight title at UFC 28 in November of 2000.
Chuck Liddell was a Division I wrestler at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, but he used his skills in a completely different manner than his predecessors. Liddell was a kickboxer, and his wrestling background came in handy because it enabled him to avoid takedowns and keep his fights standing.
In Japan, Mirko Cro Cop became a huge star. He was the first man who started as a world-class kickboxer to become a dominant top-level heavyweight, by developing the speed and sprawl to avoid takedowns. Cro Cop knocked out one U.S. and Japanese national champion wrestlers after another standing.
But despite style changes, wrestling is the original sport of many of UFC's biggest stars to this day. Of its five current champions, three, Couture, Sean Sherk and Quinton â€œRampageâ€ Jackson, came from wrestling. And at 170, Matt Hughes, a two-time All-American at Eastern Illinois, has become the icon of the division, and is favored to beat champion Matt Serra in their Dec. 29 match. The top American at 145 lbs., WEC champion Urijah Faber, started as a college wrestler at Cal-Davis.
Another of the worldâ€™s best pound-for-pound fighters, Japan's current biggest box office attraction, 138-pounder Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto, started out as part of a famous wrestling family, as his father was an Olympian and later Japan's Olympic coach, and his two older sisters were world champions. He was a college champion, who has top level striking skills.
UFC's closest equivalent is Georges St. Pierre, who doesn't have the on-paper wrestling credentials, but trains with the Canadian national wrestling team and in recent fights, has beaten two of UFC's best wrestlers at their own game. His defensive skills were enough to thwart every attempt Hughes made at taking him down in their 2006 match in which St. Pierre won the welterweight title. And he actually outwrestled former NCAA Division I champion Josh Koscheck in their August 25th match.
No less than four NCAA champions have started their MMA careers in the United States in recent months. The most famous is former University of Minnesota standout Brock Lesnar, 1-0, who is set to debut with UFC on Feb. 2.
Three others toil in anonymity, but are undefeated. All three are products of perennial wrestling powerhouse Oklahoma State. Mark Munoz, the 2001 champion at 197 pounds, is now 3-0, competing in small shows in California, and trains with Faber. Jake Rosholt, 2-0, won championships in 2003 at 184 pounds and in 2005 and 2006 at 197. Johny Hendricks, 1-0, was champion at 165 pounds in 2005 and 2006, and placed second in 2007. The latter have been used as headliners in shows in Oklahoma City, and now live in Las Vegas and train at Couture's gym.
The jury is out as to how far all four of these champion wrestlers will do in their new sport. The one thing for sure is, they are all aware you can't take only your wrestling, and three days of training trying to duck when your buddies hit you, and walk in and be a star.
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- Randy Couture
- Dan Severn
- Mark Coleman