I've tried to avoid talking about the business or legal history of the sport since that's been dwelt on ad nauseum by plenty of other writers. But now we reach a point in MMA history where it just can't be avoided. As 1996 ended, a beleaguered SEG aired the last UFC to get full PPV distribution for rest of the 20th Century. For the rest of the decade, the UFC limped along, and put on many classic bouts, but without the PPV revenue it once had, it increasingly lost out to events in Japan and even Brazil for the biggest name fighters. But it tried to go out with a bang at least, booking the 2nd "Ultimate Ultimate" to end 1996. I kind of skipped over the 1995 Ultimate Ultimate because it proved to be pretty much a dud. Despite an all-star lineup of past UFC tournament winners: Dan Severn (UFC V), Oleg Taktarov (VI), Marco Ruas (VII), and fluke winner Steve Jennum (III) and a murderer's row of challengers who had already proven themselves in the Octagon: Tank Abbott, Keith Hackney, Dave Beneteau, and Paul Varelens, the event itself was a dud. Marco Ruas, after an impressive opening win over Hackney, tried to dance away from Oleg and lost a decision in a snoozer while Severn layed and prayed his way to wins over Tank and Oleg to take it all. UU95 was the last UFC hurrah for Ruas and Taktarov both. They tried to bring back Ruas to face Don Frye at UFC IX but that didn't work out. Severn went on to take Ken Shamrock's "Superfight" belt in the worst match in MMA history at UFC IX. Sadly, until the emergence of Don Frye and Mark Coleman, the top UFC fighters of the post-Royce era just couldn't finish top competition.
After an up and down year in 1996 that saw continuing legal and public relations fiascos, but also saw the emergence of quite a bit of exciting new talent, SEG tried again with UU96. Mark Coleman, the dominating winner of UFC X and UFC XI, was injured and couldn't compete. Severn was considered the "champ" so he sat out the tournament as well. But they did manage to bring back Ken Shamrock, Kimo, Frye, and Tank plus Gary Goodridge and Brian Johnston (watch his best fight here) who had impressed in their UFC debuts. There were some good fights but ultimately Tank cruised to the finals after Ken Shamrock got injured in the course of winning his opening fight. And Don Frye won two rematches -- over Goodridge and alternate Mark Hall. Kimo gassed while battering Paul Varelens and dropped out. Here's a good video of the final fight, an entertaining if somewhat unsatisfying affair: The finale: Don Frye vs Tank Abbott. This event pretty much killed the idea of the three round, eight man tournament. Too many variables to guarantee a good night of fights. This was the last UFC fight for Frye, and his last MMA fight for 5 years. With the business troubles, pro wrestling proved a much more lucrative career for "the Predator". Ken Shamrock too went the way of sports entertainment after UU96, not returning to MMA for four years. Kimo and Severn would go on to fight possibly the dullest match in MMA history at PRIDE 1 and Severn lost his Superfight crown to Coleman at UFC XII and left the Octagon behind (don't mention his loss to Rizzo at UFC 27). Although the ageless Beast has continued to fight to the present day, racking up a 7-1 record in 2007 alone. Tank stayed in the UFC to diminishing returns for the next couple of years but Goodridge found greener pastures in Japan.
The extended entry has some of the other notable fights from 1996 and early 1997 including: the MMA debuts of Frank Shamrock and Kazushi Sakuraba (Pancrase doesn't count); Renzo Gracie with a stunning upkick KO; and a personal favorite from the early SuperBrawls -- muy thai fighter Danny Boy Bennett KOFO's dominant ground and pounder Jay R. Palmer in one of the early matches that showed how strikers could prevail in MMA.
Here's another fun one, Renzo vs Oleg from the MARS event in November 1996. This fight headlined the tournament where Murilo Bustamante and Tom Erikson fought to a draw as I discussed last time. It's notable for being the first time American MMA fans saw an upkick result in a KO and also was a key part of building Renzo's rep as the Gracie who fought the toughest competition.
Renzo Gracie vs Oleg Taktarov
This next one might not have as much historical significance because neither fighter went on to much, but this match between SuperBrawl 1 & 2 champ Jay R. Palmer and muy thai champ Danny Bennett, was a barnburner and is still fun to watch. It, along with Maurice Smith's wins over Conan and Coleman, was one of a series of pivotal matches that showed how a striker could learn to defend himself off his back, scramble to his feet and get the win in dramatic fashion. Do not miss Palmer's dead man drop at the end of this fight.
Danny "Boy" Bennett vs Jay R. Palmer
On that same SuperBrawl fight card, Pancrase standout and Lion's Den representative Frank Shamrock made his No Holds Barred debut. Yes he had 18 Pancrase fights under his belt, but back in the day, Pancrase didn't allow closed fist striking at all and banned all strikes on the ground. So full-on NHB was a much different game and the very tough John Lober gave Frank a very rude welcome. We'll be talking quite a bit more about Frank in a couple of episodes.
The first John Lober vs Frank Shamrock fight
And last but not least is another inauspicious MMA debut by a future legend, Kazushi Sakuraba. He he is up against UFC star Kimo at Shootboxing's S-Cup event of 1996. True MMA history geeks will note that Russian tournament champ and RINGs fighter Mikhail Illoukhine used the same chin-in-eye submission that he beat Igor Vovchanchyn with in 1995 to beat Brazilian tournament champ Mestre Hulk at the same event. The Kimo fight sets some precendents for Sakuraba's future career -- his bad habits of fighting heavyweights and turtling up.
Kimo Leopoldo vs Kazushi Sakuraba at S-Cup 1996
Previous installments of MMA History:
XXII: Catch Wrestling and Kazushi Sakuraba's Early PRIDE Run
XXI: The Amazing UFC Championship Run of Frank Shamrock
XX: Kazushi Sakuraba and Frank Shamrock Emerge at Ultimate Japan
XIX: The Humbled PRIDE of Nobuhiko Takada
XVIII: The Losses of Luta Livre
XVII: The Lion's Den Roars
XVI: Rico Chiapparelli and the RAW Team
XV: Pancrase, RINGS, and Shooto 1996
XIV: Boom and Bust in Brazil
XIII: Coleman Gets His Kicks
XII: End of the UFC Glory Days
XI: Carlson Gracie's Mighty Camp
X: The Reign of the Wrestlers
IX: Strikers Attack
VIII: From Russia With Leglocks
VII: A New Phase in the UFC
VI: A Dutch Detour
V: The Reign of Royce
IV: Rickson Brings Jiu Jitsu Back to Japan
III: Proto MMA Evolves Out of Worked Pro Wrestling in Japan
II: The Ur-Brazilian MMA Feud: BJJ vs Luta Livre and the Style They Never Saw Coming
I: UFC 1 Pancrase meets BJJ