When the UFC broke big, the company's established drawing cards were the likes of Randy Couture, Matt Hughes, Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz, fighters whose roots in the sport dated back to MMA's darkest days.
Georges St. Pierre, however, was the first superstar borne of the boom era. New fans got to watch the kid from the Montreal suburbs slowly blossom into one of the world's best mixed martial artists, tracking his progress from a nobody on the undercard all the way to the main events.
His fan base's emotional investment paid off in one of the most emotional matches in UFC history on Nov. 18, 2006, when he defeated Matt Hughes in UFC 65's main event in front of a sellout crowd at the Arco Arena in Sacramento, Calif., to win his first welterweight championship.
Hughes earned his status as a future Hall of Famer by winning an amazing 19 bouts in a 20-fight span from 2001-06. The two-time welterweight champion was at the peak of his game, having just dispatched of B.J. Penn, the only person who defeated him during that span.
Whether through hubris or financial inducement, Hughes agreed to face St. Pierre just seven weeks after his match with Penn, which was one of the most grueling three-round wars in UFC history.
He was facing a motivated St. Pierre. GSP, who lost to Hughes in 2004, had spent the interceding two years working his way back to another title shot. He thought he had that shot sewn up when he defeated Penn at UFC 58, but a groin injury forced him to pull out of UFC 63, where Penn took his place.
Hughes stirred the pot by questioning St. Pierre's heart, saying he had fought through worse injuries than the one that caused St. Pierre to withdraw.
From the early going, though, it was clear UFC 65 was St. Pierre's night. He came in with a strategy of using low kicks to set up the high kick – one that almost backfired when he twice unintentionally kicked Hughes in the groin going for thigh shots in the first round. St. Pierre nearly finished the fight in the waning seconds of the first with a brutal right, but Hughes was saved by the bell.
"When I was in my corner I was hoping he was still dizzy," St. Pierre said after the fight. "But when he came out of his corner he was OK and I thought 'Oh damn, now I have to do it again.' "
By the second round, though, St. Pierre wasn't going to be denied. Hughes shot for a takedown and walked right into a big head kick. St. Pierre followed up with a series of unanswered elbows on the ground and John McCarthy stopped the fight at 1:35. The crowd become unglued, reacting as if a home team had just won an NFL playoff game on the final play, as St. Pierre was pig-piled in center octagon by his entourage.
"I practiced a lot in training that he would possibly put his hands down if I hurt him with leg kicks," St. Pierre said. "I faked like I was looking down for a leg kick and I throw a high kick on his head and that's how I finished the fight."
Tim Sylvia was defiant in the postfight press conference after he defended his heavyweight title against Jeff Monson in a dull unanimous decision. Sylvia, who was roundly booed after the match, said he had worked hard to win the championship and blamed the fans for not understanding that he was going to do what it took to hold on to his crown. Former champion Randy Couture, though, watched Sylvia that night and came to a different conclusion. Couture, who was color commentator at UFC 65, claimed that analyzing Sylvia's style in this fight made him feel he matched up well with Sylvia and could come out of retirement and defeat him. He followed through on that hunch four months later at UFC 68, when he took Sylvia's crown.
Frank Mir caused a stir at the weigh-ins the day before the show by showing up in absolutely ripped condition. But before you could say "The old Frank Mir is back," he was run over in just 1:09 by Brandon Vera. While this served as Mir's career low point and Vera's high point, the roles have since reversed. Vera, considered a can't-miss prospect, went on an ill-advised contract holdout, lost out on a potential heavyweight title shot, and has never regained his footing. Mir, who at the time appeared one loss away from getting dropped by the UFC, has since gone on to beat Brock Lesnar and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and will meet Lesnar in a heavyweight title unification match at UFC 100.
Prior to 2006, the UFC never reached the 300,000 mark on pay-per-view purchases for a single card. UFC 65, however, did approximately 500,000 buys, the seventh consecutive show with at least 300,000.
Jake O'Brien def. Josh Schockman, unanimous decision
James Irvin def. Hector Ramirez, TKO, 2:36 R2
Antoni Hardonk def. Sherman Pendergarst, KO, 3:15 R1
Nick Diaz def. Gleison Tibau, TKO, 2:27 R2
Joe Stevenson def. Dokonjonosuke Mishima, submission (guillotine choke), 2:07 R1
Brandon Vera def. Frank Mir, TKO, 1:09 R1
Drew McFedries def. Alessio Sakara, TKO, 4:07 R1
UFC heavyweight championship: Tim Sylvia def. Jeff Monson, unanimous decision (Sylvia retains title)
UFC welterweight championship:Georges St. Pierre def. Matt Hughes, TKO, 1:25 R2 (St. Pierre wins title)