The first big sign that the new-era UFC might turn into a success happened when Tito Ortiz met Ken Shamrock at UFC 40.
UFC president Dana White spent most of his first two years running the company figuratively banging his head off the wall trying to get mixed martial arts attention. But after a horror show of a return to pay-per-view, when the 75,000 people who bought UFC 33 didn't get a main event finish when the show ran long, the company fell deep into the red. UFC 34-39 averaged a mere 45,000 buys. Enter Ortiz and Shamrock, a pair of charismatic figures with a longstanding grudge.
Shamrock wanted a piece of Ortiz for several years, because Ortiz donned profane t-shirts disrespecting Shamrock protégés Jerry Bohlander and Guy Mezger after defeating them. In the interim, Ortiz had become the most marketable name in U.S. mixed martial arts as the cocky light heavyweight champion. Shamrock, for his part, left the UFC after the early days and became a pro wrestler, which may not have helped his sports credibility, but taught him how to sell a fight.
And that they did. UFC 40 garnered the company's first flicker of mainstream sports media attention under White. Major media outlets, in their infinite wisdom, had decided UFC was dead and never coming back, but they paid lip service to this card. The trash-talking Ortiz and Shamrock managed to jaw their way through appearances on shows like FOX Sports Net's "Best Damn Sports Show, Period," and was discussed in USA Today and on ESPN panel shows.
The marketing worked, as old fans tuned back in to see how Shamrock, the legend they remembered from the early days, would fare against the trash-talking punk. UFC 40 drew a near-sellout of 13,022 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, for a then-UFC-record gate of $1,540,000. The event drew 150,000 buys on pay-per-view, the largest buy rate since Shamrock vs. Royce Gracie at UFC 5 garnered 260,000.
The match illustrated the point that MMA was a rapidly changing game. Fans expecting the Shamrock of old were disappointed, as Ortiz grounded him at will and spent the better part of 15 minutes working him over. After taking a particularly brutal beating in the third round, Shamrock's corner called things off before the start of the fourth. The victory was Ortiz's UFC record fifth consecutive successful title defense, a mark since matched by Matt Hughes and Anderson Silva.
Though the main event was one-sided, this was far from the last time we heard from Ortiz and Shamrock. The two served as coaches on the third season of The Ultimate Fighter in 2006, which remains the reality show's highest-rated season. At UFC 61, the two rematched, which Ortiz won on a stoppage some considered too fast, in just over a minute. That drew a then-UFC record 775,000 buys. Because of the controversy, they were matched a final time in Oct. 2006 on SpikeTV. 5.7 million viewers saw the third fight, making it at the time the most watched U.S. MMA fight.
Chuck Liddell was the elephant in the room at UFC 40. Most observers already considered "The Iceman" the rightful No. 1 contender to the light heavyweight title. He cemented that status by defeating Renato "Babalu" Sobral with a highlight-reel first-round knockout head kick and ran his record to 11-1. Ortiz ducked Liddell, and the two didn't meet until UFC 47 in 2004, after Ortiz lost the title to Randy Couture. Liddell won that fight via second-round TKO.
UFC 40's financial success was not the company's turning point. Buy rates immediately dropped again, bottoming out at 35,000 for UFC 42. UFC 40's buyrate and gate stood as a modern-era UFC record until the second Liddell-Couture match at UFC 52 in Apr. 2005 drew 280,000 buys and a gate of $2,575,000 at the MGM Grand.
Phillip Miller def. Mark Weir, submission (Rear naked choke), 4:50 R2
Vladimir Matyushenko def. Travis Wiuff, submission (strikes), 1:25 R1
Andrei Arlovski def. Ian Freeman, TKO, 1:25 R1
Robbie Lawler def. Tiki Ghosn, TKO, 1:29 R1
Carlos Netwon def. Pete Spratt, submission (Kimura), 1:45 R1
UFC welterweight championship: Matt Hughes def. Gil Castillo, TKO, 5:00 R1 (Hughes retains title)
Chuck Liddell def. Renato Sobral, KO, 2:55 R1
UFC light heavyweight championship: Tito Ortiz def. Ken Shamrock, TKO, 5:00 R3