New Year is a special time for MMA. It’s the time of year for big name fights and marquee events. It’s also the time of year that best singles out and identifies the MMA fans within a group of friends.
When others are planning nights out, organising house parties or clamouring for club tickets, MMA fans are solicitously checking event times, plotting groggy, sleepless nights in front of computer screens, and calculating time differences between their homes and Japan.
I remember watching my first New Year’s MMA event, I remember my most disappointing one, and I remember the most important to me in my time as a fan of this sport. I remember MMA at New Year.
2004 was my first serious year as an MMA fan. I had been watching, on and off, since UFC 40, when I sat in awe as Chuck Liddell kicked “Babalu” Sobral in the head before wheeling off in maniacal celebration, and as Tito Ortiz more or less abused Ken Shamrock for the best part of fifteen minutes following it up, of course, with his gravedigger routine. But it took a couple of years of catching Japanese events a month or so late, and missing the occasional UFC card due to various other reasons, before I really committed to the sport.
Until this point, still a casual fan, I was yet to really experience MMA at New Year. But in 2004 I was ready. I was prepared. And, as I sat bleary eyed and slightly overwhelmed, through the misty conduit of a grainy internet stream I watched my first New Year’s MMA event: PRIDE Shockwave 2004.
Considering the quality of the event itself, it is no wonder, really, that it spawned a fascination with MMA at New Year that continues to beleaguer my imagination today. PRIDE Shockwave 2004, as the line-up before the event suggested it would be, was one of the greatest cards of all time, and its eleven bouts themselves encapsulated my early love for the sport.
There was a kickboxer, Stefan Leko, fighting a leg lock specialist, Ikuhisa Minowa, in a comically predictable MMA rules bout. There were wild freakshow fights, with the two Goliaths, Giant Silva and Henry Miller, both losing to their respective Davids, Mu Bae Choi and Makoto Takimoto.
The late Ryan Gracie submitted Yoji Anjo, and Ryo Chonan out-struck Anderson Silva for two rounds before finishing things with one of the sport’s most memorable submissions. Dan Henderson took a contentious decision against Yuki Kondo, Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipović found redemption in submitting Kevin Randleman and, for the first time in the sport’s history, we saw two Olympic Gold Medalists, Rulon Gardner and Hidehiko Yoshida, do battle inside an MMA ring.
To use an expression I generally dislike, it was a stacked card. And it didn’t end there. Takanori Gomi stopped Jens Pulver in the best lightweight striking battle ever in MMA, before Wanderlei Silva--somehow holding onto his invincible aura of the day, even in defeat--dropped a controversial split decision to Mark Hunt, who outweighed him on the night by over 80 lbs.
And then we had the main event. The two best heavyweights in the world, possibly the two greatest heavyweights the sport has seen, finishing their trilogy. Fedor Emelianenko put in another impressively dominant performance, out-boxing and out-wrestling Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira over three rounds to take a clear decision win.
And this was all on one card. It was the event that began my fascination with not only New Year MMA, but also Japanese MMA as a whole. PRIDE Shockwave 2004 was the perfect way to end my first real year as an MMA fan; its wondrous synthesis of technique, heart, violence and spectacle being everything I loved about the sport.
With it taking place on December 27, 2008, the next event, my most disappointing, only just qualifies as a New Year’s event. But qualify it does, and it serves, eternally I assume, as a harsh reminder of the downside of emotionally investing in fighters.
There has been a running joke over the last few years, amongst a few members on the FightLockdown Forum, where whenever UFC 92 is mentioned in conversation, one quickly reminds everybody that in actual fact the event never happened (the bold font being both necessary and appropriate), so I’ll keep this description brief.
UFC 92 saw Frank Mir treat a zombified Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira like the once human punching bag he appeared to be. Dominating the striking from the start and dropping Nogueira several times, Mir became the first ever man to finish the former PRIDE Heavyweight Champion, just over a minute into the second round. Wanderlei Silva was also viciously knocked out for the third time in his last five fights, this time by his long time rival, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson.
It feels almost unnecessary to mention that, for people who started watching the sport at the same time I did, these were both heartbreaking moments. While I would like to write further about the sobering effect this event had on me as an MMA fan, I’ll instead just remind you that UFC 92 never happened.
And so we come to my most important New Year MMA event, Pride Shockwave 2006, and just what makes it so important to me.
It wasn’t the still slightly green Shinya Aoki submitting Joachim Hansen (with only the second ever successful gogoplata in MMA), it wasn’t Takanori Gomi giving what was perhaps his best performance, defending his title and stopping Mitsuhiro Ishida in little over a minute, and it wasn’t the rematch between two heavyweight greats, Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira and Josh Barnett.
It was my own search for a stream that made this event special to me.
As every MMA fan knows, leaving things until the last minute is never the best way to ensure the proper viewing of a Japanese MMA card, even one as big and momentous as a PRIDE Shockwave event. After several unoriginal Google searches, I found my way to a decent sized MMA forum where, thankfully, a link to a working stream had been posted.
December 31st, 2006: the day I first joined an MMA forum.
Five years later (notwithstanding a much needed mass exodus from the original forum to FightLockdown) and I’m still arguing about the same sport with most of the same people. While that may show a concerning lack of personal development or progress, it still highlights, I hope, one of my genuine enjoyments of having been an MMA fan over the last seven or eight years.
The grass roots nature of this sport since its inception, as well as its previous lack of mainstream recognition, led to hundreds of sites like this one, where complete strangers from all over the world, united by just one common interest, will sit for hours discussing at length their favourite fights, fighters, techniques and events - past, present and future.
Now, I don’t know about you, but there is a certain allure there that has always appealed to me. I’m sure it’s something shared by many people with other niche interests, but to me it will always be the charm of being an MMA fan, and it will always be associated with New Year.
These were just some of my memories of MMA at New Year. Feel free to discuss them below, and share some of your own, too.
Just something I wrote for FightLockdown.com