The Ultimate Fighting Championship will celebrate its 20th anniversary on Saturday with a stellar card headlined by Georges St. Pierre vs. Jonny Hendricks for the welterweight championship. It’s exciting to see how far this sport has come, and it’s interesting to compare this card to their last anniversary show that took place ten years ago.
A former ring girl, Amber Miller, handed me a free full color program as I stood in line and waited with baited breath to meet these legends of the Octagon. When I finally got to see the fighters, there were some fun stories being told in one form or another. Dan Severn couldn’t attend due to a scheduling conflict and was replaced by UFC 2 veteran Fred Ettish. It was sad to hear people talk about him like he is some scrub, but he deserves props for putting it on the line in a situation where there were no rules. Tank Abbott simply no showed with no replacement to be found. Mark Coleman was either very exhausted or hung over, Oleg Taktarov enjoyed being back where it all began for him, and Marco Ruas was extremely nice and bowed to everyone as he shook their hand. Ken Shamrock was visibly annoyed and that’s probably because he was seated in-between Royce Gracie and Don Frye. That had to be a rib because no one who knew what they were doing could have legitimately thought that was a good idea. Pat Miletich was the life of the party but Randy Couture was the coolest kid in school just coming off his career defining wins over Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz.
Evan Tanner was hanging out in the hotel lobby during the autograph session and was very approachable. He was making his middleweight debut that evening and told me how all of the weight came off easily except for the last three pounds. Our conversation came to an abrupt halt as Tanner’s opponent that evening, Phil Baroni, entered the lobby with a five person entourage. They were wearing matching gray Everlast tracksuits and surrounding Baroni as if he was the President while he rocked out with his yellow Walkman (remember Walkmans?). That night was a turning point in the career of the New York Bada$$. Not only did he lose the fight, but he protested the stoppage and punched referee Larry Landless in the face. Baroni served a six month suspension as a result and lost to Tanner in the rematch.
The gods above must have deemed Frank Mir unworthy of competing on these celebratory cards. UFC 167 marks the second time he has been bumped from a UFC anniversary show through no fault of his own. This year, Mir was scheduled to fight Alistair Overeem in what was deemed as a“loser leaves town” bout. The fight has been moved to super bowl weekend, next year, in an effort to give Mir more time to recover from a knockout loss he suffered in August.
Ten years ago, Mir was scheduled to face Tim Sylvia for the heavyweight title. A month before the bout, Sylvia tested positive for steroids and the suspension that followed stripped him of the title and kept him out of action for nine months. Wes Sims was the next contestant in the Frank Mir sweepstakes. Even though Mir was no longer fighting for the title, revenge would have to be the martial objective since Sims illegally stomped on his head while holding the fence in their previous encounter at UFC 43. However, fate would delay their rematch as Sims suffered a broken arm in training and withdrew from the bout.
Patrick Smith, a veteran of UFC 1, 2, and 6 was the next fighter summoned to take on the bone breaking submission specialist. No one expected Smith to win much less put up much of a fight but it was the nostalgia factor of having someone who fought on the first UFC card, fighting a decade later that sold the bout. However, the third time would not be the charm as it was revealed that Smith had not paid a fine levied by the NSAC in 1997. Smith was scratched from the card and with no time to find a fourth opponent, so was Frank Mir.
Ricco Rodriguez vs. Pedro Rizzo went down as the most expensive prelim fight in UFC history with each making over $100,000. It also went down as the most boring prelim of all time. It was painfully obvious that both men wanted to be anywhere but fighting in a cage. They just circled each other and threw the occasional leg kick and one-two combo. Fans voiced their disapproval as deafening chants of “This Fight Sucks” filled the Mohegan Sun Arena. Rizzo won a unanimous decision, but no one cared. Fans wanted them gone from their sight and neither of them has fought in the UFC since.
Tank Abbott fought Wesley “Cabbage” Correira which was the third and final fight on his Zuffa contract. He was making $150,000 per fight, which a lot of fighters were vocal about since the top fighters of that time were making a lot less. Hell, there are not a lot of fighters making that now. The fight was even until the doctor stopped the bout due to a cut over Abbott’s right eye. Tank was pissed; Cabbage did a little dance in celebration and flipped Tank the bird. Tank’s corner man, John Marsh, threw a water bottle at Cabbage and all hell broke loose. It looked like something you’d see on Monday Night Raw as both camps started brawling while others scaled the cage in order to get in on the action. Armed security, Dana White and Chuck Liddell entered the octagon to break up the melee and Joe Rogan called it perfectly on commentary when he stated “The sport is trying to gain mainstream acceptance and this Bullshit is the last stuff we need.”
The 10th anniversary event also marked the inaugural UFC Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock were the first two entrants and no one was more deserving. Both gave speeches with two different messages in mind. Royce reiterated how he helped introduce his family’s art, Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, to the United States and how it has revolutionized martial arts forever. Ken thanked the fans, and especially internet fans in particular, for keeping the sport alive when everyone else had dismissed it as something barbaric and unworthy of their time. It was heartfelt and his genuine appreciation could be heard in every syllable of his speech.
I can’t think of a better example of how MMA has progressed then looking at Gracie, Hughes, and St. Pierre. These are the king of kings and their ascension to glory represents not only the passing of a torch, but the changing of an evolutionary guard in combat sports. It would be only fitting if Saturday’s main event ended with either a new ruler to the throne or a third rear naked choke to finish another centennial affair.