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Three UFC fights that (almost) changed the world of MMA

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By Jesse Holland

I remember ordering UFC 61: Bitter Rivals and telling a friend how excited I was to see Andrei Arlovski and Tim Sylvia duke it out to finally see (once and for all) who was the top heavyweight in the UFC.

Like most friends who have no concept of how exciting this sport can be, he nodded politely and feigned interest until he was rescued by our unconversant waitress who was about as interested in getting me another Mr. Pibb as my friend was about hearing me describe a bicep slicer.

Now I can't imagine how hard I might have laughed had he told me that a retired Randy Couture would once again become the UFC heavyweight champion.

Yet here we are almost a year later and "The Natural" is in fact king of the heavyweights.

I shopped this scenario around to some of my colleagues and the prevailing thought has been "What a difference a year makes."

While that may be true, there are times when a single fight, possibly even a single punch can alter the course of history.

With that in mind, I present to you three fights that (almost) changed the world of MMA.

Tim Sylvia vs Andrei Arlovski, UFC 59: Reality Check

The origin:
By the end of 2005 Andrei Arlovski had pretty much cleared out the heavyweight division. To call his bout against Paul Buentello a "Main Event" was so much of a stretch I think I recall seeing dried corn syrup on one of the promotional posters.

This is by no means a knock on Arlovski. The heavyweight division was laughably anemic and the usually durable Buentello was asleep in fifteen seconds.

When Frank Mir went Evel Knievel and turned his leg into peanut brittle, it left the UFC little choice but to rematch "The Pitbull" with Tim Sylvia, a man he already bested (in dominating fashion) back at UFC 51.

Like Arlovski, Sylvia was running out of opponents. Although most fans were forgiving enough to accept the rematch, very few (if any) expected such a dramatic turn of events.

The fight:
Not unlike their first encounter, Arlovski came out looking confident and aggressive. After a few brief exchanges, Sylvia was dropped with a devastating right. What looked like a foregone conclusion was anything but.

After flopping around for a few seconds Sylvia (to his credit) made it back to his feet. An overzealous Arlovski rushed in for the kill and instead ate a perfectly placed uppercut that sent him, and his legions of fans, directly to the floor.

Sylvia pounced and it was goodnight Irene.

The significance:
I remember seeing Sylvia hit the floor and thinking that the fight was over. And had Arlovski been a little less reckless, it might have been.

Had Arlovski won, we may never have witnessed the return of "The Natural" to the ranks of heavyweight.

It was after all, the holes in Sylvia's game that lured him back (that and a nice fat paycheck from the boys in accounting).

Randy Couture told the world that he knew exactly how to beat the tepid "Maine-iac", and he came out of retirement to do just that.

But if Arlovski was champ, could we assume he would have followed the path of Sylvia and faced Jeff Monson? And would Sylvia have battled Mauricio Cruz and Fabricio Werdum?

Would Arlovski as champ have put Cro Cop on the fast track to the title instead of building up momentum against Sanchez and Gonzaga?

None can say. But good, bad or indifferent, I'm sure glad that Randy's back. Even if it is just a curtain call.

Matt Hughes vs. Frank Trigg, UFC 52: Couture vs. Liddell 2

The origin:
Much like Arlovski, Hughes was set to face an opponent he'd already owned in their first encounter. With Penn missing in action and St. Pierre still wet behind the ears, Hughes was expected to carry the torch for quite some time.

Take nothing away from Trigg: Aside from getting choked out by Hughes at UFC 45, Trigg had only one other loss in fourteen professional fights.

In addition, Trigg had two easy first round victories over Dennis Hallman, the man who twice defeated Hughes with relative ease.

And Trigg knew how to get under Matt's skin.

He dismissed the first loss to Hughes, attributing his poor performance-not Hughes dominance as the main factor. To quote "Twinkle Toes:"

"I gave him my back three times. It took him to the third time to finally take it."

Not content with just verbal abuse, Trigg also planted a little kiss during the staredown-which may or may not have given him a psychological edge (but it certainly gave him a hard shove from Hughes).

The fight:
Early in the first round Hughes was throwing jabs and looking for the shoot. He closed the gap and Trigg tied him up. Hughes pushed him to the fence and Trigg threw a knee that went straight into Hughes groin. Matt buckled for a moment and staggered backwards, writhing in pain.

Hughes made a weak gesture towards referee Mario Yamasaki (who was either out of position or asleep at the wheel) but the unintentional foul went unnoticed and Hughes had no reprieve.

Trigg was not about to look a gift horse in the mouth as he cracked Hughes with a straight left that sent him crumpling to the canvas. Trigg mounted and began dropping bombs and the fight was seconds away from being stopped.

Somehow Hughes managed to weather the storm but had no choice except to give up his back. Trigg had the rear naked choke but once again couldn't seal the deal and what happened next is perhaps the greatest comeback in UFC history.

Hughes rolled right, scooped up a bewildered Trigg, carried him across the Octagon and slammed him on his back. A few hard elbows forced Trigg to roll to his belly and Hughes finished him for the second time with a rear naked choke.

The significance:
After several replays, I can say that a stoppage would not have been unjustified. Hughes was in a world of trouble and took a few unanswered blows. There have certainly been earlier stoppages in the UFC and Hughes was hanging on by a thread.

A Trigg victory could have quite possibly made Georges St. Pierre a welterweight champion a year before his time.

Trigg's first fight after Hughes was against St. Pierre. I don't think that would have changed unless the nature of the win (the groin shot) was played up to hype an immediate rematch.

Karo was next in line against Hughes (which eventually became Riggs after an injury), and since Hughes already faced GSP prior to Trigg, it would have probably been too soon to face him again.

I don't want to get on Trigg too much about the fight against GSP, but if he were holding the belt, it would have been quickly relinquished.

I don't remember the exact time of stoppage, but it was such an ass kicking that Trigg made Kenny Stevens look like William the Conqueror.

But how would this scenario have affected the cash dump on the return of Royce Gracie? I find it hard to believe either party would have been interested (at that time) if it was anyone other than Hughes.

And what about the return of BJ Penn? Or the influx of TUF finalists?

Murky waters indeed ...

Stephan Bonnar vs. Bobby Southworth, The Ultimate Fighter

The origin:
It may be hard to believe that an exhibition bout could potentially rewrite history, but in retrospect it almost did. The UFC and SpikeTV were testing the waters with a reality show that pitted sixteen MMA fighters against one another with the finalists facing off at a live event later in the year.

At the time of concept (and even through filming), the UFC brass had no idea how the show would be received. It's risky business to try and promote exhibition fights with fighters that no one has ever heard of in a sport that is still evolving itself.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on who you ask), the personalities were able to add a human element to the series, and viewers found themselves curiously addicted.

It was also an easy way to introduce cheapskates and naysayers to a work-in-progress without it costing them forty bucks. It was a recipe for success, but so much of that had to do with the coronation of Forrest Griffin after his war with Stephan Bonnar at the TUF finale.

The fight:
Bobby Southworth had been around the block prior to his stint on TUF, and he looked like an early favorite after his second round KO of Lodune Sincaid on episode three.

Bonnar however was no pushover. In addition to being a former Golden Gloves boxer in Chicago, he trained Brazilian jiu-jitsu under Carlson Gracie.

The fight itself took awhile to get going but once underway things were pretty much even. Bonnar took one on the chin in round two but was able to recover and seemed to be pushing the pace for most of the fight.

With the bout only lasting two rounds it was very difficult to identify a clear-cut winner. The judges awarded Bonnar the split-decision but it could have easily gone the other way.

Always humble in defeat, Southworth went on a tirade that made The Great Santini look like Bob "Happy Trees" Ross.

The significance:
Without question the Griffin/Bonnar fight was a critical moment in UFC history. That battle did more than just galvanize a passive audience; it legitimized the cast of fighters from The Ultimate Fighter and added a much-needed level of credibility to the reality series.

Would there be a Season six without Griffin/Bonnar? Would the financial capability to puchase PRIDE exist without Griffin/Bonnar? That might seem like a stretch, but compare the pay-per-view buys a year before and a year after the TUF finale. Who knows where we might be.

Yet none of it would be possible without a certain variable: Stephan Bonnar. Imagine if the Southworth decision went the other way (which it easily could have)?

If so, perhaps we would have seen Mike Swick against Southworth in episode 12. Swick would have won easily (because it's my article and I say so) and the finale would have been Mike Swick vs. Forrest Griffin.

A great fight in its own right, but would it have been the war that was Griffin/Bonnar? What direction the careers of Griffin, Bonnar, Southworth and Swick would have taken has its usual "what ifs", but the significance of Griffin/Bonnar as it relates to a turning point in the history of the UFC cannot be denied.

Without it, I might not even have a website for which to write.

Honorable mention:

Diego Sanchez vs. Josh Koscheck: The Ultimate Fighter
Sanchez won a close split-decision, but it could have just as easily gone to Koscheck. Imagine if Diego was sent home after episode 12? No question he would have lost a lot of the momentum his perfect record brought him. Without it, his entire shtick seems even more obnoxious and megalomaniacal. Would we have seen Koscheck vs. Parisyan?

Rich Franklin vs. David Loiseau: UFC 58: USA vs. Canada
While Franklin dominated the entire five rounds, Loiseau landed a huge left hook in the third round that sent "Ace" to the canvas. Loiseau mounted but couldn't finish him off. If he had, it's hard to say where the debut of Anderson Silva would have fit. Franklin took seven months off to heal his injuries and in the interim we might have seen Loiseau face Chris Leben. Maybe Silva/Marquardt a year early?

BJ Penn vs. Jens Pulver: UFC 35: Throwdown
Penn had an absolutely bone-crunching armbar locked in on "Little Evil". The only problem was it came at the end of round two. A few seconds earlier, and Penn would have ended it. How would that have affected his decision to move up in weight? Maybe he would have never defeated Matt Hughes at UFC 46. That means that The Ultimate Fighter season five would have featured different coaches. Liddell vs. Jackson? If only.

Got another one? Add it to our list in the comments section below.

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