MMA Origins: UFC Searches for New Stars at Start of the Dark Age

Vitor Belfort celebrates winning the Heavyweight Tournament at UFC 12

The UFC was not yet five years old and already it was fighting for its life. Taken off PPV and struggling to find locations hold live events, the leadership of SEG looked for new stars in a fresh generation of fighters.

Authors Note: We've reached a point in MMA's history where the majority of events are starting to take place in the United States and Japan, and with the introduction of weight-classes, the growth of new promotions, and an increasing number of fighters means that there is a lot happening around generally the same time.

I've tried to keep this series mostly in chronological order, but now I'm going to try to cover all the major narratives taking place, even if that means going over the same time periods or events a few times in different articles. So if you find yourself wondering why I didn't talk much about Maurice Smith's win over Mark Coleman in this article, I'm working up a separate article for that, so stay tuned.

UFC 12 was a night of firsts. Held on February 7, 1997, it was the first UFC event to feature weight classes, splitting UFC fighters between the Heavyweight division (200+ lbs) and the Lightweight division (199- lbs). At Heavyweight, Mark Coleman continued his run of dominance with a neck crank win over UFC Superfight Champion Dan Severn .

The evening also featured the UFC broadcast debut of Joe Rogan, introduced as a second degree Taekwondo black belt. Rogan would be in the primary fighter interviewer for the UFC and was also charged with reporting on injuries that could affect the tournament.

The event also included the UFC's first out reach to the already growing online community, being the first of several broadcasts where the production crew would plug a UFC event chat room on the America Online Martial Arts website. It would be the first of several times the UFC would show the chat room live on TV, often to humorous results, as those in the chat rooms would vie to try to get the most offensive statements on the PPV, firmly establishing the proud tradition of MMA fan online trolling.

The Heavyweight tournament featured the UFC debut of Vitor Belfort, a 19-year-old athletic prodigy and black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu under Carlson Gracie. The UFC commentators Bruce Beck and Jeff Blatnick were extremely impressed as Belfort used lighting quick and powerful punches to first defeat Tra Telligman of the Lion's Den and then the much larger Scott Ferrozzo in a combined two minutes. The Carlson Gracie camp, feeling their fighters represented Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, then began chanting "Jiu Jitsu" in celebration.

Belfort, with his youth, athletic talents, and obvious skill, looked like a fighter with an extremely bright future. But the future for the UFC looked very bleak. UFC 12 had been moved from New York, where they had been denied sanctioning, to Alabama, and the UFC would be forced to conduct their shows in unsanctioned states for years to come.

At this point, it was difficult to argue the UFC looked like a sport. Steroid use was rampant and without weight classes, it had devolved into clashes between gigantic fighters that involved as much, if not more, brute force and toughness as it did technique.

The addition of weight classes and other efforts by head referee "Big" John McCarthy were all attempts to address the problem, but the damage had been done.

Just a few days after UFC 12, Leo Hindrey took over as CEO at the TCI cable company and immediately canceled all UFC broadcasts. Time Warner followed suit, and suddenly the UFC had lost 27 million households. Fans of the UFC could only watch on satellite or wait for VHS tapes to be released for sale. This is the beginning of the UFC "Dark Ages", which would span from 1997 to 2001. The loss of PPV revenue had a huge impact on the UFC's ability to offer their fighters competitive pay. As a result this time is characterized by Bob Meyrowitz, the head of the Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG) and the UFC, desperately casting around for new stars to keep the promotion alive and having nearly all of them leave the UFC in search of larger paychecks.

One of the first fighters to leave was Ken Shamrock, who left for the bigger paychecks of pro wrestling after taking part in the Ultimate Ultimate 1996. With the cable PPV gone, the UFC's profits disappeared, and they were unable to retain their stars. Don Frye sat out of UFC 12 citing injury after winning the Ultimate Ultimate 1996, but he would never fight in the UFC again, as he went to Japan to perform in the New Japan Pro Wrestling promotion and then fight in Pride. Dan Severn, following his loss to Coleman, also left the UFC.

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A fan expresses her displeasure at Ken Shamrock leaving for professional wrestling at UFC 13

But heading into UFC 13 Meyrowtiz still had pieces with which to build. Mark Coleman looked unbeatable at 6-0, all dominant stoppage wins. And at UFC 13, there were two fighters who would become vital to MMA's survival in the United States, but they were not the fighters Meyrowitz were counting on.

In a heavyweight bout the UFC paired their new star Vitor Belfort against David "Tank" Abbott, a divisive character the UFC was giving quite a bit of air to in the hopes creating interest around him. Abbott was a brawler who, while he claimed to a have 250-0 (200 KO) in no-rules fighting. His personality, more than his fighting skills, was the reason SEG was investing time in Abbott. During Belfort's debut Abbott had been in the commentary both. When Beck and Blantnick began to express how impressed they were with Belfort's performance Abbott became so defensive and threatened that a match between Belfort and Abbott  was a must. Belfort made quick work of Abbott, knocking him out in less than a minute, and Meyrowtiz knew he had a real star in the making.

In the heavyweight tournament, the winner was a wrestler named Randy Couture. A boxer in the army and an internationally accomplished Greco-Roman wrestler, Couture was a natural athlete on top of being a skilled and analytic fighter. In his first match, Couture faced the boorish former WWF wrestler Tony Halme, who in his pre-fight interview said he was looking to kill Couture and rip his arms and legs off. Couture later found out his mother cried when she saw the interview, but the tears more than likely stopped when Couture took Halme's back and applied a choke in a minute. Couture then won the final with a Technical Knockout over Steven Graham.

In the newly minted Light Heavyweight division, a Tank Abbott protege took part in an alternate bout. Tito Ortiz, a street fighter turned wrestler from Huntington Beach, made quick work of his karate based opponent with the ground striking that would become his signature. Ortiz was then picked to as a substitute for Enson Inoue who pulled out of the final due to injury. Ortiz lost to Guy Mezger by guillotine choke, but it was still an impressive showing for a UFC new comer.

And at the start of UFC 14, the first event where gloves were required, things looked even more promising for the UFC as two wrestlers dominated the Heavyweight and the Middleweight tournaments. Mark Kerr took the Heavyweight tournament title, while Kevin Jackson won easily his two Middleweight matches. Keep in mind these are not the current weight classes as we know them today. Heavyweight remained 200-pounds and above the UFC juggled the name for the sub 200-pound division.

Then in the main event the unthinkable happened. The unstoppable wrecking machine that was Mark Coleman lost to a kickboxer, Maurice Smith. Coleman would end up losing three straight fights in the UFC, ruining any chance he had of becoming a star in that promotion.

There was an opportunity in this upset. The UFC finally had two exciting strikers in Smith and Belfort. UFC 15 was an all-heavyweight card that was geared towards creating that match-up organically. Abbott, coming off a loss, was given a title shot against Smith, while Belfort was paired with Couture. It was assumed both would win and then the UFC could create a super-match. Smith held up his end of the bargain, beating Abbott on the feet and causing Abbott to give up the fight after eight minutes.

But in the co-main event things did not go as planned. Randy Couture showed off his boxing experience early in this fight with a crisp jab, agile footwork and good head movement, all of which helped him stave off the Brazilian's famed hand speed. What really set Couture apart was the way he mixed together his boxing with his wrestling, keeping Belfort off balance the entire fight. Couture even used the fence to fight off Vitor's single leg attempts as it became clear Belfort wasn't going to be able to run over Couture on the feet. After eight minutes Beflort finally collapsed to the canvas and Couture overwhelmed the young Brazilian for the stoppage win.

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The final moments of Randy Couture's UFC 15 victory over Vitor Belfort as referee John McCarthy prepares to stop the fight

When Belfort lost, Bob Meyrowitz slammed his hands on the table in frustration, having lost a potential star. This loss has been cast in the light as an example of Belfort's lack of focus, but in reality Couture was the better, more complete fighter and was ahead of his time in that fight. To add insult to injury, Mark Kerr again dominated his bracket but after this event he would jump at a larger paycheck and leave the UFC for Pride FC.

For their next show the UFC looked to a try to get some cross over at the other hub of Mixed Martial Arts, Japan. It likely also was a factor that the UFC was happy to be away from the U.S. regulators for an event. For the event the UFC brought on several fighters from Japanese promotions, including Frank Shamrock and a very young Kazushi Sakuraba.

Sakuraba would end up fighting Marcus Silveira, a Carlson Gracie fighter, twice that evening. In their first fight, after some fun grappling, Silveira caught Sakuraba with a few punches that caused Sakuraba to cover up and lean against the fence. Now in hindsight, it is clear Sakuraba was biding his time, but in the moment, John McCarthy saw a fighter covering up and not attacking back, and he stopped the fight. The same moment McCarthy stepped in Sakuraba shot for one of his soon to be famous single leg takedowns. The result was ruled a no contest, and due to injury in the tournament, they re-matched in the final and this time Sakuraba won by armbar. This would be the only time Sakuraba would fight in the UFC as Pride FC would pounce on this young prospect and develop him into one of the biggest stars in the history of the sport.

Shamrock was similarly successful as he won the first official Light Heavyweight Championship with a lighting-quick armbar win over star prospect Kevin Jackson, who would on have one more win in MMA as his submission grappling deficiency was badly exposed.

But in Shamrock, the UFC had found a true star and one they would be able to retain for at least a few key fights. And the next two events would bear fruit for the UFC.

In the main event Randy Couture used his wrestling to dominate the defending Heavyweight Champion Maurice Smith, again toppling over the UFC's apple cart. MMA judging was in its infancy and despite having strong top position Couture only got a majority decision as one judge score the fight a draw.

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Randy Couture wearing the UFC Heavyweight belt for the first time after beating Maurice Smith at UFC Ultimate Japan

Couture had won his first Heavyweight Championship and in two fights that Meyrowitz had bet against him, Couture had emerged the winner. Now Couture wanted to be paid like a champion and contract disputes would cause Couture to be stripped of his title. In the following three years Couture would spend most of his time fighting in Japan and would only fight once in the UFC, where he won back his title at UFC 28.

UFC 16 featured a Lightweight (170 lb) tournament which was won by a fighter from Iowa named Pat Miletich. Showing well rounded skills, Miletich had backgrounds in wrestling, jiu jitsu, boxing, and karate. At UFC 17, SEG would add fresh faces to their roster in Chuck Liddell and Carlos Newton. That card also had Dan Henderson on it, but he left for Japan almost immediately after that event.

The "Dark Age" of the UFC, when their access to PPV was limited and at times completely gone, was just beginning and it would get so dire that the survival of the UFC would seriously be in question. Bob Meyrowitz would do everything he could with the limited resources available to him, but in the end he would have to sell the UFC.

****

I'd like to thank Mr. Zane Simon for helping me get copies of the events and for letting me bounce thoughts, both serious and humorous, off him while I watched them.

If you want more on this area, besides watching the events your resources are limited but I recommend checking out the following Sherdog Rewind podcasts with Jack Encarnacao which are fantastic.

Randy Couture Interview with Jack Encarnacao on Sherdog Rewind. Sep 23, 2012

Tito Ortiz Interview with Jack Encarnacao on Sherdog Rewind. May 26, 2013

For more on MMA history or to share thoughts go to the comment line below or reach out to T.P. Grant on Twitter or Facebook.

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