Here's our third installment of the USA TODAY/Bloody Elbow Top 50 MMA fights in modern history. Sergio Non has written up the next block at USAT's Fighting Stances blog. To start, here's our criteria:
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 next 5 fights, covering 1997 to 2000:
Randy Couture def. Vitor Belfort, Oct. 17, 1997 — UFC 15
Looking back on this match, both men are still active fighters, but one has gone on to a Hall of Fame career and the other is still driving fans to ask "what if?" But coming into the fight, there was only on superstar in the Octagon -- Vitor "Phenom" Belfort. The Carlson Gracie protege's fast hands and string of KO wins had everyone assuming he would become the next UFC heavyweight champ. Enter Randy Couture and a textbook display of dirty boxing. Their careers would intertwine over much of the next decade, with Couture consistently reaching higher peaks than the mercurial Belfort.
Frank Shamrock def. Kevin Jackson, Dec. 21, 1997 — UFC Ultimate Japan
This fight decided the first UFC Middleweight title (now the Light Heavyweight belt). Instantly it became the marquee belt of the promotion. Jackson was heavily favored to win. An Olympic Gold medalist free-style wrestler, Jackson had steamrolled every opponent he'd faced in his young MMA career. Shamrock was on the comeback trail. In 1996 a combination of back stage politics and in ring losses had run him out of Pancrase. He then went on to lose his first true No Holds Barred fight to John Lober, an opponent Jackson had mauled in his MMA debut. Frank redeemed himself by winning a war against Tsuyoshi Kohsaka. The momentum from that win got him the opportunity to face Enson Inoue at Vale Tudo Japan 97. The UFC had already indicated that they wanted the winner to face Jackson for their MW title. Most expected Inoue to win, but Shamrock pulled out the win (technically a DQ win, but he'd already dropped Enson when Enson's brother entered the ring) to face Jackson. The UFC title fight itself was an anti-climax as Frank instantly armbarred Jackson for the win, the first of a string of dazzling wins for Frank as UFC champ.
Pat Miletich def. Mikey Burnett, October 16, 1998 — UFC Ultimate Brazil
This fight was for the first UFC lightweight title, now the Welterweight belt that GSP and Thiago Alves will fight for on July 11. Burnett was an impressive talent out of Ken Shamrock's Lion's Den, the top MMA camp of its day. He'd pioneered the sprawl and brawl style that Chuck Liddell and others would later use so well to batter top wrestler Townsend Saunders and Luta Livre ace Eugenio Tadeu. His opponent had already won a UFC lightweight tournament and was probably the top talent to come out of Iowa's pioneering regional MMA scene. The fight itself was a typical Miletich grinder, going to a decision after an appalling lack of action. But its on the list because the title it awarded has a linear legacy that still matters to this day: Miletich > Carlos Newton > Matt Hughes > Georges St Pierre (yeah yeah I know about B.J. Penn and Matt Serra being in the mix two, but they are just blips on the belt's history).
Frank Shamrock def. Tito Ortiz, Sept. 24, 1999 — UFC 22
This fight on the other hand is not only of historical significance, it was also an epic bout, truly one of the all-time best MMA fights. Shamrock had defended his UFC title three times since taking the belt, virtually cleaning out the division at the time but one challenger stood out. Tito Ortiz had exploded onto the scene by humiliating Shamrock's former Lion's Den teammates Guy Mezger and Jerry Bohlander. Tito seemed unstoppable. One of the first fighters to cut a lot of weight, he would enter the Octagon with a 20lb+ weight advantage over his opponents. His wrestling skills and knack for devastating ground and pound made most expect him to win. But Shamrock delivered one of the greatest ever performances in the fight. Pulling guard and riding out Tito's blitz for three and a half rounds, he stood up in the fourth round, reversed Tito and unleashed a battering that won the fight and had the fans roaring. The UFC is writing this fight, and Frank's whole reign, out of their official history, but don't be fooled, this is probabaly the greatest UFC fight of all time. Bonus animated gif in the full entry.
Kazushi Sakuraba def. Royce Gracie, May 1, 2000 — PRIDE Grand Prix 2000
In the last installment, I talked about Rickson Gracie's humiliation of Nobuhiko Takada at the first PRIDE. Well payback's a bitch and Takada protege Kazushi Sakuraba met Rickson's younger brother Royce at the first PRIDE Open Weight Grand Prix. Royce Gracie demanded and got special rules, including no time limits. This came back to bite him as Sakuraba's superior conditioning and wicked leg kicks wore him down over the course of the longest match in modern MMA history. Here's a nice condensed version of the match. This fight, along with Sakuraba's wins over Royler and Renzo, established the legend of "the Gracie Hunter" and ensured Sakuraba's place in MMA history. Modern fans coming to Sakuraba for the first time are strongly urged to watch his bouts with Carlos Newton, Vernon "Tiger" White and Alan Goes to see some grappling battles that are still some of the most entertaining MMA bouts ever waged.
Here we see Frank Shamrock getting a sweep on Tito Ortiz (after 3 and a 1/2 rounds of defending from the guard) and putting a beatdown on Tito standing. I still fondly remember the way my packed house of MMA fans went apeshit at my PPV viewing party when Frank turned the tables on Tito.
Thanks for the memories guys! Even if Dana White hates you, both of you contributed to the history of the sport.