"Rivalry adds so much to the charms of one's conquests" - Louise May Alcott
Throughout the history of sport, there has always been heated rivalries. Yankees/Red Sox, Celtic/Lakers, Red Wings/Avalanche, Bruins/Canadiens, Michigan/Ohio State, USC/Notre Dame, Barcelona/Real Madrid, Man U/Man City, Ali/Frasier, Ward/Gatti. Each of these rivalries tend to draw us as fans into it, whether it be vitriol between two teams or individuals, or just two of the best facing off with one another almost constantly. In MMA's short time, it has been no different. Despite the young age of the sport, we have seen a number of rivalries over the years. After the jump, I have listed off some of the best rivalries that we fans have been treated to over these last number of years in MMA. At the end of the series, there will be a poll to see what the community has to say about the best rivalries in the business. As usual, these are in no particular order of importance or anything. (Note: I began this piece before Jonathan Snowden posted his solid piece on The UFC's Five Greatest Grudge Matches. I had invested to much time into this thing to not post it.)
Here we have two men who just plain hate one another. This rivalry actually began at UFC 18 after Tito defeated Lions Den fighter Jerry Bohlander. After the defeat, a pumped up Tito Ortiz pointed his fingers at Bohlander's corner and made a shooting motion at them all. At UFC 19, Tito stepped in for an injured Vitor Belfort to rematch Lions Den fighter Guy Mezger. Mezger had defeated Tito in his second pro fight back at UFC 13, and had won the tournament with that victory . Tito would use his superior strength to ground and pound Mezger and finish him (via a number of punches the the brain stem, apparently before the Unified Rules were enforced). After the victory, Tito flipped off the Lions Den, which enraged Ken Shamrock. Shamrock (then a WWE wrestler and not competing in MMA at the time) jumped up on the cage and began screaming and waving his finger at Ortiz. It would be almost 4 years before fans would actually get to see these two step into the cage together, when Shamrock returned to the organization at UFC 40. At the time, this event was the highest purchased UFC card since Zuffa had purchased the company. This fight would be the most competitive of the three, and that says a lot. For the better part of three rounds, Tito would lay a beating on Shamrock, throwing vicious elbows from Ken's guard and leaving his face a swollen and twisted mess. Before the beginning of the 4th round, Shamrock's corner would throw in the towel, awarding Ortiz the victory.
Three years later, Shamrock and Ortiz were named the coaches for the third season of The Ultimate Fighter, reigniting the rivalry between the two men. During the show they had a number of confrontations, most famously getting into a shoving match with one another and Shamrock needing to be restrained at the training center. They would meet at UFC 61. This fight would end in controversy, after Ortiz landed 5 elbows in a row on Shamrock from his guard, referee Herb Dean stepped in to call a halt to the bout. Shamrock bounced up almost immediately, complaining about the stoppage and indicating that he was not hurt at all. This led to Dana White rematching the two a third time, this time free on Spike TV to end the rivalry. The third fight would be similar to the 2nd, with Tito securing an early takedown and landing some big ground and pound to Shamrock. They apparently buried the hatchet after that fight, which would be Shamrock's final appearance in the Octagon.
Fights: UFC 35 (No video found) TUF 5 Finale (Here)
These men where literally born to not like one another. It was the classic "rich kid vs poor kid" matchup, as Penn was from a wealthy and loving family, whereas Jens was from a broken home with an abusive father. This rivalry started back in early 2002 when the two men met for Pulver's UFC Lightweight title. At the time, BJ was literally "The Prodigy". BJ had won his first 3 UFC fights, all in the first round, including an impressive stoppage of Caol Uno via strikes in just 11 seconds. When these two men met at UFC 35, everyone assumed that this would be the young BJJ phenom's crowning glory. What ended up happening was very different. Despite some early success from BJ (including a deep armbar at the end of the 2nd round) Pulver would take the young Hawaiian into deep water, eventually taking a very close decision. After this victory, Jens would vacate his title and leave the UFC.
After both men eventually left and returned to the organization, they were pitted together as coaches in the 5th season of TUF, where they would fight as the main event of the finale show. This fight would go much different, with BJ essentially outclassing Pulver and eventually submitting him in the second round with a rear naked choke. At the end of the fight, the two men buried the hatchet (they even appeared together on a video on BJ's website).
Kazushi Sakuraba vs The Gracie Family
Fights: Pride 8 vs Royler Gracie (Here) Pride Grand Prix 2000 vs Royce Gracie (highlight video here) Pride 10 vs Renzo Gracie (Here) Pride 12 vs Ryan Gracie (Here) Dynamite!!! USA vs Royce (Here) DREAM 14 vs Ralek Gracie (Here)
They don't call him "The Gracie Hunter" for nothing. It would all begin at Pride 8, when Sakuraba would face Royler Gracie. At the time, the Gracies had a certain aura around them (not that they still don't) and had never been defeated in mixed martial arts competition. Sakuraba would make history, as he battered the BJJ black belt with kicks to the legs and head while Royler layed on his back, attempting to bait Saku to the ground. When Sakuraba finally did engage on the ground, he would trap Royler's right arm in a kimura. Royler refused to tap, despite Saku having stretched the Brazilian's arm at a disgusting angle. There was some controversy to the victory tho, as Royler never tapped, and it was very close to the end of the round. This would lead to perhaps the most famous of the Saku vs Gracies fight, against former UFC 1,2, and 4 champion Royce Gracie.
Royce and Sakuraba would meet in the quartefinal match of the Pride Grand Prix 2000. At behest of the Gracie family, who had felt cheated by the defeat of Royler Gracie 6 months prior, the match was made with no time limit, and no referee stoppages. The only way to win was via submission or KO. Royce and Saku would go on to battle for 90 minutes (that is six 15 minute rounds). Sakuraba would frustrate the UFC champion, dictating where the fight would take place by utilizing his wrestling background to negate Gracie's takedown attempts. He even utilized Gracie's gi against him, using it to leverage and clinch with Royce, and to grip limbs while he fired punches at the BJJ legend. Finally, after 90 minutes, Royce's corner would throw in the towel, granting Sakuraba the victory and cementing his legend with fans around the globe.
He would move on to fight Royce and Royler's cousin Renzo Gracie at Pride 10. Renzo was a different fighter than his cousins in the fact that he was a more well rounded fighter than either of them. He had solid kickboxing to go along with his superb ground game. They would engage in a methodical battle for over 19 minutes, until the dying seconds of the 2nd of two 10 minute rounds when Saku would snatch a beautiful standing kimura, taking Renzo down and breaking his elbow in one of the most gruesome injuries I have ever seen.
After defeating Renzo, he was challenged by Ryan Gracie where they met at Pride 12. Gracie went into the fight with an injured shoulder, so the rules were amended to a single 10 minute round. In a mostly uneventful fight, Sakuraba controlled Ryan for 10 mins to take the decision
He would eventually rematch Royce 7 years later at Dynamite USA in 2007, where he dropped a unanimous decision in a slow paced fight that did not live up to the expectation of fans. After the bout, Royce tested positive for Nadrolone (apparently an athlete can produce 6 ng/ml, Royce had 50 ng/ml. I am surprised he didn't glow green and tear Saku apart Mortal Kombat style).
An aged and battered Saku would meet his final Gracie at DREAM 14, losing to Rorion Gracie's son Ralek. This doesn't have quite the same impact, as by the time this fight took place in May of 2010, Sakuraba was a shadow of the once great fighter he was.
Where there was some bad blood between the Garcie family and Saku, this rivalry is significant due to its historic outcomes. No one had ever dominated the Gracie family like Sakuraba has, and no one probably ever will again.
Ken Shamrock vs Don Frye
Fights: Pride 19 (Here)
Although they only ever fought once, the animosity between Ken Shamrock and Don Frye was real, and very very apparent. It had started back in 1999, when Frye had made a comment about Shamrock getting a divorce to date a 19 year old woman (Ken was 35 at the time). Now, it is well documented that Shamrock has literally the shortest fuse in MMA history, and I suspect he flips a table or two when even the smallest of things don't go his way. But regardless, Shamrock took great offense to the comments and wanted a piece of Frye. The animosity would continue to grow (just watch the beginning of that video with a pre fight interview with both fighters, where they need to be separated within like 5 mins of talking to one another.) until they would eventually meet in a Pride ring in 2002, to settle the score. In one of the best fights in Pride history, neither man gave the other any quarter. Frye would land some huge shots standing and in the clinch, but Shamrock survived. Shamrock would catch Frye in a couple of painful leg locks, which Frye would later say "I talked a bunch of trash, so I had to back it up. I couldn't walk away after talking all that garbage. You're damn right it hurt. He messed up both my ankles real bad. That caused me to start taking the pain pills and I got a little dependent on the pain meds for a couple of years."
Frye would end up taking a razor thin decision from Shamrock, but it is said (with much validity) that neither man was the same after that fight. Both of them left everything they had in the ring that day in May. After this fight, the men would shake hands and make up, but the intensity and brutalness of this rivalry make it one of the best in the history of the sport.
Wanderlei Silva vs Kazushi Sakuraba
One of the most one sided rivalries on this list is between former Pride Light Heavyweight champion Wanderlei Silva and Kazushi Sakuraba. When they first met at Pride 13, Saku was at the peak of his powers and celebrity in Japan. He was fresh off of his victories over the Gracie family, and Sakuraba was essentially the face of Pride. Wanderlei was not quite the legend he is today, as he had only been in Pride for 7 months, but those 7 months included victories over Guy Mezger and Dan Henderson. In the first fight, Saku made an early mistake and decided to try and trade with the vicious Muay Thai striker. Despite clipping Wand with a right hand and knocking him down, Saku would taste the power of Silva's strikes, and attempted to take the fight to the ground. Pride had recently changed their rules which allowed knees to the head of a grounded opponent, as well as soccer kicks. As we would later all find out, these rule changes helped make Wand an unstoppable force. Silva would end up sprawling on a Saku takedown, and landed a series of vicious knees and soccer kicks until the ref was forced to step in.
The second fight would take place 7 months later for Pride's inaugural Middleweight (205lbs) title. Saku would have more success in this fight, taking Wand down early and working within his guard. They would eventually work back to their feet, where late in the fight, Saku would grab a standing guillotine on the Chute Boxe trained fighter. Using incredible strength, Wand picked up Sakuraba and drove him hard into the mat. He would continue to work from Sakuraba's guard until the end of the round. As you can see in the fight video, when Saku got up, you could see his clavicle bone in his shoulder was severely broken. The doctors would stop the fight, awarding the title to Silva.
They would meet a final time in the opening round of Pride's 2003 Grand Prix. Much like the first fight, the fighters stayed standing until Wand dropped Saku with a monstrous 2 punch combo midway through the first round. Many believe that Sakuraba was never the same fighter after his first two fights with Wanderlei, as he was 13 - 3 - 1 going into their first fight, and would be 14 - 7 - 1 after their third fight. Despite their violent history, they eventually buried their rivalry when Sakuraba came to train with Wand at Chute Boxe in 2005.
Well, that is the end of Part 1 of what will probably be a 3 part series. Please click click here for Part 2.