The mixed martial arts (MMA) world was a wildly different place eight years ago.
While Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) sunk deeper into debt, Pride FC had a stronghold on the best talent in the world and was selling out mega arenas overseas. Yet, this Saturday (Nov. 16, 2013), a UFC event headlined by the best Welterweight ever will celebrate its 20th Anniversary, while Pride FC hasn't held an event since 2007. Furthermore, not a single Pride Fc veteran will be on the card.
It may be hard to accept, but Pride FC has died.
Of course, this raises quite a few questions, with the main one being, "How?" There's more than a few possible answers, but anyone who doesn't mention The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) is fairly delusional.
It may seem odd that reality television saved a fight promotion, but that's exactly what happened. While UFC hemorrhaged cash, President Dana White -- who still had a bit of hair at the time! -- convinced Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta to attempt one final push before conceding defeat.
The Fertitta brothers, and eventually Spike TV, accepted the plan. The team quickly gathered 16 prospects, threw them in a house, and figured out the rest as it went on. By mixing exciting matches, alcohol-fueled fighter drama, a few competitions, famous coaches, and a dash of Willa Ford, the UFC had a hit show on their hands.
After the first season aired and early ratings were in, the UFC was moving in the right direction for the first time since the Zuffa purchased. While it was no longer in immediate danger, it still had a serious cash flow problem. Frankly, it needed more viewers, which is where the TUF finale comes in.
A fight card consisting almost entirely of TUF contestants on live TV. At the time, it was an unheard of idea. Luckily, it succeeded, as channel-flippers quickly became fans after stumbling upon one of the best brawls in martial arts history. But before we get to that, the entire card is worth a look.
In the first preliminary bout of the evening, Alex Karalexis, who was eliminated from Team Couture early in the competition, took on Team Liddell cast mate Josh Rafferty. Karalexis quickly finished off Rafferty with punches just two minutes into the first round.
After his victory over Rafferty, Karalexis lost to Kenny Florina then became a victim of the infamous Von Flue choke. He was cut but quickly picked back up by the World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) organization, where he would spend a majority of his professional career. Unfortunately, he was not absorbed into the UFC with the rest of the WEC and retired not long after.
Afterwards, Mike "Quick" Swick lived up to his nickname, finishing Alex Schoenauer in twenty seconds via TKO. Swick, despite being undersized, had impressed during the season, and many expected him to do well in whatever weight class he chose.
These expectations were fairly accurate, as Swick nearly closed in on a title shot at both Middleweight and Welterweight. Since a loss to Paulo Thiago in 2010, Swick has been dealing with a oft misdiagnosed stomach illness, which prevents him from building muscle. Despite this, Swick managed to make a successful return in 2012, when he knocked out DaMarques Johnson on Fox TV.
Next, Nate Quarry made his UFC debut against Lodune Sincaid. For the third straight time, a fight ended via first round knockout, with Quarry emerging as the victor. Quarry was an early favorite on the show, before an injury tossed him out of the competition.
After the finale, Quarry scored two more quick finishes, which earned him a title shot. Despite the loss, Quarry remained a popular fighter and spent the next five years of his career brawling with rising contenders and journeyman. Not long after he retired, Quarry became a host on MMA Uncensored Live, which is hosted on Spike TV.
That's one hell of a full circle ending for "The Rock."
Arguably the most improved of all the contestants, Josh Koscheck made quick work of Chris Sanford in his debut. While on the show, Koscheck had no skill other than his elite wrestling, which he used to blanket his opponents. He demonstrated vicious ground striking against Sanford, and "Kos" has developed powerful striking since that time.
Koscheck, alongside his American Kickboxing Academy stablemate Bobby Southworth, established one of the key roles in the modern TUF formula: the heel. Antagonizing his housemates, namely Chris Leben, and then partaking in boring fights made Koscheck easy to hate, something he's still encouraging to this day.
The wrestling champion spent most of his post-TUF career as a top contender, even earning a title shot in 2010. In fact, Koscheck is still a top contender and will look to defend that status this Saturday against Tyrone Woodley.
Another vital role in the modern TUF chemistry is the wild child. The wild child is easily identifiable, as one must merely search for broken doors, empty vodka bottles, shattered glass, screaming, and urine stains to find him. The original bad boy is none other than Chris Leben, the self-proclaimed "Cat-Smasher."
Speaking of urine, that happened to be Jason Thacker's motivation to take off Leben's head at the TUF finale, who had "spritzed" on Thacker's bed, because the Canadian was rather smelly. Unfortunately for the one known as "Strange Brew," he wasn't very good at fighting, and Leben quickly blasted him with heaters.
That's correct, five straight first round knockout finishes.
Leben has had an up and down career, including multiple drug suspensions in between excellent fights, vicious knockouts, and a miraculous comeback. The highlight of Leben's career must be the two week span where he defeated both Aaron Simpson and Yoshihiro Akiyama. Unfortunately, Leben has looked absurdly slow in his last two bouts, losing both by decision. His upcoming fight with Uriah Hall may be his last opportunity inside the Octagon.
In the next bout of the evening, Sam Hoger upset Bobby Southworth via unanimous decision. Hoger's UFC career did not last very long, and his professional career fizzled out on the regional scene. On the other hand, Southworth managed to become Strikeforce's light heavyweight champion before retiring in 2010.
To open the main card, undersized Kenny Florian looked to upset Diego Sanchez, who held the role of silent psychopath on TUF. "Kenflo's" nerves failed him, which allowed Sanchez to ground Florian out in the first round from top position.
Florian spent the rest of his UFC career in the upper echelon of the lightweight division, as well as making a brief splash at featherweight. Florian, who once announced "I finished fights at 155!", consistently put on entertaining fights throughout his entire career. Challenging for the title three separate times, the recently retired Florian is widely considered one of the best fighters to never hold a belt.
After the finale, Sanchez won five straight fights at welterweight before losing consecutive bouts to fellow TUF season 1 veteran Josh Koscheck and his team mate Jon Fitch. Not long after, he dropped to lightweight and fought for the belt, losing via cut to BJ Penn. Since then, Sanchez has had mixed results.
"The Nightmare/Dream" has managed to maintain his reputation as a very, very strange man during his lengthy UFC career. He also has a reputation for putting on incredible fights, as evidenced by his seven "Fight of the Night" awards and recent brawl with Gilbert Melendez.
Onto the fight that has been hailed as the both the most important and most exciting fight in UFC history by many sources, including Dana White. Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar stepped into the Octagon believing that only one of them would walk away with a contract.
Both men had more than enough motivation to fight to the bitter end
In the first round, Griffin was the better man. He out-struck Bonnar and finished the round on top, however, he seemed to slow down a bit. The second round started, and Bonnar capitalized on Griffin's fading cardio, blasting Griffin with punches whenever he felt like it, as Griffin was too tired to maintain any semblance of defense.
The two bloodied men were at about the same level of exhaustion to begin the third round. Bonnar, who was tired from punching the resilient Team Liddell fighter, and Griffin, who had a bit of a second wind, slugged it out for the final five minutes. Neither man accepted defeat as an option, pushing forward until the final bell rang.
When the judges announced Griffin as the winner, Bonnar dropped to his knees, believing his UFC career was over. Of course, we know now that this is not the case, as both men received the same contract.
The effects of this fight cannot be understated. As it happened, people who had never been exposed to MMA got to see one of the best fights ever. Not only were they hooked but judging by the rapidly increasing numbers during the bout, these new fans were calling their friends and telling them to watch this bangfest.
This fight, more than any other, propelled the UFC forward. They were not yet mainstream, in fact, they still aren't, but they were a fringe sport, rather than a dying one. Things like the Pride Fc buyout, WEC absorbtion, Fox deal, twentieth anniversary, and other important milestones may not have been reached by the UFC if not for Griffin vs Bonnar. Or, they'd have been considerably delayed.
This alone makes the TUF finale worthy of number two on our list, as well as making a damn compelling case for the first seed.
After the fight, Bonnar spent the rest of his career as a gatekeeper. A majority of his fights were entertaining and his fanbase was well-established, meaning Bonnar was often on the main card, visible to the casual audience who once saw him duel with Griffin. Despite Bonnar's fairly pedestrian UFC career, his performance in the Griffin fight earned him a spot in the Hall of Fame.
At the end of any great fight, all that's left is two men striving to be the best. One of them, briefly, achieved this goal. Griffin managed to go on an incredible run, defeating both "Shogun" Rua and "Rampage" Jackson to become the light heavyweight champion. During this run, he was also a TUF coach, showing his full transformation from student to teacher. Finally, in an unexpected turn, Griffin published two best-selling books, which this author highly recommends.
Griffin lost his belt just a few months after winning it to Rashad Evans, and never regained his position as a top contender afterwards. It seemed like the fire was gone for the TUF champion. Recently, Griffin announced his retirement and was accepted into the Hall of Fame alongside a long-time friend and foe, Stephan Bonnar.
After this fight, an aging Ken Shamrock lost to future champion Rich Franklin via early TKO. This fight, though entertaining and important for "Ace's" career, is not especially relevant to the overall card, as the TUF veterans are the ones who made the event unique.
In the last couple years, respect for both Griffin and Bonnar has dropped considerably for various reasons. For Griffin, his embarrassing loss to Silva and post-fight antics lost him some fans, as did his ugly attempt to interview Tito Ortiz after his retirement fight. Well, it was supposed to be a retirement speech at any rate.
Bonnar, on the other hand, tested positive for illicit substances a second time in his match up with Anderson Silva. This, as well as his induction into the Hall of Fame, has irritated more than a few members of the MMA world. However, the MMA community as a whole may need to bite their tongues with these two.
We owe them quite. And you can watch their historic performance below.