Some of the 50 fights we'll list aren't necessarily the best MMA bouts, but all of them are milestones for one reason or another, for better or for worse. The idea is to show how the sport has evolved. These are the fights that made the sport what it is today.
Here's the first 10 fights, covering 1993 to 1996 (the links go to previous MMA History pieces we've done that discuss the fight in question):
Ken Shamrock def. Masakatsu Funaki, Sept. 21, 1993; Pancrase 1
You can watch this fight here. The Pancrase rules will be a bit of a shock to modern MMA fans. They didn't allow closed fist strikes while standing and a "gentleman's agreement" precluded striking on the ground. Nevertheless, this match from the premier event of the "hybrid wrestling" promotion was a key moment in the development of modern MMA. Shamrock surprised everyone by beating Funaki, the man who had taught him submission grappling in their several years of doing worked wrestling matches together. Thus, when Ken Shamrock traveled to the states a couple of months later and fought in the UFC, he was truly fighting as the champion of Japanese shootfighting. Their 2nd and 3rd fights are worth a look too.
Royce Gracie def. Ken Shamrock, Nov. 12, 1993; UFC 1
Unfortunately for Ken, once he got there he found that he was in the same quarter finals bracket as a representative of an even more robust proto-MMA tradition: Royce Gracie. Royce's jiu jitsu allowed him to capitalize on the weaknesses of Shamrock's submission over position style. His gi allowed him to sink a choke that Shamrock probably didn't know was possible. This fight is still a hoot to watch today. One thing I've always found kind of ironic is that Gracie's Brazilian fighting tradition was based on Japan's ancient jiu jitsu fighting style, while Shamrock's Japanese fighting tradition was based on the English/American catch-wrestling style first brought to Japan by Ad Santel and Karl Gotch. Right from the beginning, modern MMA was a cultural melting-pot.
Royce Gracie def. Kimo Leopoldo, Sept. 9, 1994; UFC 3
This was the first MMA fight I ever saw, but that's not why it's on the list. Kimo was the first opponent to expose cracks in Royce Gracie's seemingly invincible aura. Kimo showed that a mad brawling intensity and a major size and strength advantage could really give Royce trouble. Take a look. Its a very ugly fight by today's standards. There is hair pulling and repeated and deliberate nut shots and it was all legal. This fight occured in a tournament that was designed to end in a Gracie vs Shamrock finale, but Royce had to drop out after this fight (which he did in the cage at the beginning of his next fight, picking up a loss) and Shamrock injured himself/quit after his quarter-finale win. This began a pattern of Shamrock botching major events that continued all the way up to the death of EliteXC.
Ken Shamrock vs. Royce Gracie, draw, April 7, 1995; UFC 5
This is NOT a fun fight to watch and probably did as much to kill the commercial momentum of the early UFC as John McCain. Shamrock had been watching Royce closely in the two years since their first match and had figured out that if he just turtled up in his guard, Royce wouldn't be able to do much about it. This was before the stand up rule so Shamrock literally stalled for the full 30 minute regulation period. In the overtime, he landed a right hand that put a big mouse on Royce's face before they returned to Royce's guard. It was officially a draw, but it effectively ran Royce Gracie out of the UFC. After this event, his brother Rorion sold his ownership share in the UFC and Royce wouldn't return until UFC 60, eleven years later.
Ken Shamrock def. Dan Severn, July 14, 1995; UFC 6
This one was a fun one, well worth a viewing. Severn was the first modern MMA fighter to come out of a collegiate/Olympic wrestling background. His run at UFC 4 ended with an epic loss to Royce Gracie (in a match that's on my top 65 list for sure). Royce showed everyone what a triangle choke was -- a move so unexpected that the UFC commentators had no idea what was happening. Severn went on to win the tournament at UFC 5, setting up this "Superfight" at UFC 6. Effectively this is the beginning of the UFC heavyweight championship belt that Brock Lesnar and Frank Mir will fight for next week. In this one, Severn shows that he is a physical force to be reckoned with, but he just isn't ready for even the most basic submission holds -- in this case a guillotine choke. Shamrock would hold the UFC superfight title until Severn took it in their UFC 9 rematch, also known as the worst MMA fight of all time.
David "Tank" Abbott def. John Matua, July 14, 1995; UFC 6
This was acutally earlier in the same evening as the Shamrock vs Severn fight so technically should be #5 on this list. Oh well. Its also the first UFC fight I ever saw live on PPV. I wasn't the only budding jiu jitsu acolyte who was stunned and staggered by the brutal beating the thuggish Abbott inflicted on his burly opponent. Abbott made MMA safe for testosterone addicts who wanted to see pure brutality and raw power get their due. Abbott actually had a fair amount of wrestling and boxing training, but that wasn't really dwelt on in the presentation of this outsized new character. He went on to lose in the tournament final to Sambo stylist Oleg Taktarov in a fight with a good bit of drama, but Tank is the one who got people talking.
Marco Ruas def. Paul Varelens, Sept. 8, 1995; UFC 7
UFC 7 saw the emergence of yet another new stylistic tradition that would go on to become a major influence in the modern MMA mix: Muay Thai. The brutal traditional prize fighting style of Thailand was brought to the UFC by a Brazilian, Marco Ruas. His use of leg kicks to chop down the giant Paul Varelens was a triumph of technique. Ruas was also the earliest UFC competitor to combine effective grappling with a solid standup attack. He had studied no-gi grappling with Brazil's top Luta Livre camps. Unfortunately, he didnt get to continue his rivalry with Jiu Jitsu (see this fight from the 1980s for Ruas vs BJJ) in his MMA career, nor would he ever top this win, but his influence is seen in virtually every modern MMA fight when the leg kicks fly.
Dan Severn def. Oleg Taktarov, Dec. 16, 1995; Ultimate Ultimate '95
The UFC's Ultimate Ultimate tournament was the kind of event that MMA fans have come to know all too well, a fight card so impossibly stacked with dream matchups that it can't help but disappoint. Bringing four UFC tournament champions (Severn, Taktarov, Ruas and Steve Jennum) together with four of the most formidable also rans (Tank, Varlens, Keith Hackney, and Dave Beneteau) into one eight man tournament delivered a few good fights, but it also featured some dancing from Ruas and a bravura display of lay and pray from Severn. Nevertheless, the final between Taktarov and Severn, a rematch of their UFC 5 bout, was the kind of battle between an expert positional grappler and a master of submissions that I still find to be a treat. This event firmly established a clear pecking order among the early major UFC fighters not named Shamrock or Gracie and Severn emerged on top, setting up his rematch with Shamrock at UFC 9.
Don Frye def. Gary Goodridge, Feb. 16, 1996; UFC 8
If the Ultimate Ultimate closed the books on the first chapter of UFC history, chapter two opened with a bang at UFC 8. It was possibly the most action packed UFC to date. Both Frye and Goodridge scored spectacular knockouts in the early rounds of the tourny and their collision in the finals was one of the best back and forth fights in the early years of the promotion. Frye brought a more polished version of the boxer-wrestler blend and Goodridge relied on raw power. That wouldn't be enough as Frye unleashed some of the first dirty boxing MMA fans would see.
Bas Rutten def. Frank Shamrock, May 16, 1996; Pancrase - Truth 5
This bout was the apex of mid-period Pancrase. Still hobbled by their eccentric rule set, they continued to put on great fights. Rutten was a Muay Thai trained Dutchman who had learned submissions on the job in the hybrid wrestling league. Frank Shamrock was the adopted younger brother of Ken Shamrock and a key member of the early Lion's Den gym team. Not just an epic battle, this bout was a key formative experience for the young Shamrock. It marked the end of his early run of triumphs and began a series of defeats that he would have to dig deep to recover from. For Rutten, it represented a star at his apex. Dominating his league and reaching a career high even his brief run as UFC champ wouldn't match. Watch the fight in the full entry. Also see this post on Bas Rutten.
Keep your eyes peeled for the next installment of this series and let me know where you disagree in the comments.
Bas Rutten vs Frank Shamrock