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The USA TODAY/Bloody Elbow Top 50 MMA Fights in History V: 2002-2003

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Nogueira-sapp_mediumHere's our fifth installment of the USA TODAY/Bloody Elbow Top 50 MMA fights in modern history.

Beau Dure 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:

  • Jens Pulver def. BJ Penn, Jan. 11, 2002 - UFC 35
    MMA fights are like pool shots, when you see the shot set up you usually know what to expect, but you never know exactly how the balls will break. And like a pool shot, once a fight has been decided, the fighters' career trajectories are set on their new path and the shot can't be taken back. This fight was the definitive example of that metaphor. Everyone expected B.J. "The Prodigy" Penn to come in and take the UFC lightweight belt in only his third MMA fight. Instead, Jens Pulver won a gritty five round decision and it would be six years before B.J. finally wore the belt. And thanks to Jens' walking out on the UFC to seek greener pastures and an ill-fated tournament that failed to find a replacement champion (the final ended in a draw between Penn and Caol Uno), the UFC lightweight belt itself was suspended for four long years.

  • Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira def. Bob Sapp, Aug. 28, 2002 - Pride Shockwave
    Never say that a freak show match can't be a transcendent MMA event. The Bob Sapp of 2009 is just a parody of the Bob Sapp of 2002. Before this fight he'd never been beaten, and it would be another two years before an opponent would physically dominate him in the ring. As a 375lb former NFL player, he was a precursor of Brock Lesnar: the powerhouse behemoth with legitimate athletic skills. MMA had seen nothing like Sapp before. It had also never seen anything like Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, a powerful heavyweight with some of the best jiu jitsu for MMA skills we've ever seen. He also brought the biggest heart in MMA history into the ring. After sustaining a brutal beating at Sapp's hands -- including a power bomb that spiked him on his head, Big Nog caught the tiring giant with an arm bar. But its not just what happened inside the cage that makes this fight matter. Bob Sapp became a ture pop culture phenomenon in Japan, leading the way to the biggest popular peak of MMA so far. As big as the UFC has gotten in the U.S. since 2005, it still hasn't matched the massive popular success that MMA acheived in Japan from 2001-2004 and Bob Sapp led the way.

  • Robbie Lawler def. Steve Berger, June 22, 2002 -- UFC 37.5
    This is a fight that has almost no significance in and of itself, but it is on the list because it was the first MMA fight ever aired on free cable televsion in America.  Zuffa had only recently taken over ownership of the UFC, gotten sanctioned in Nevada and gotten back on PPV. So when the opportunity to air a fight on Fox Sports Net's The Best Damn Sports Show Period they jumped at the chance, even though it meant whipping up an entire fight card. They called it 37.5 because they had already booked UFC 38 for the UK. Chuck Liddell vs Vitor Belfort was the headliner, but they chose Lawler vs Berger to air on the show. Those of us who were excited at the time, thinking MMA was finally going mainstream would find that we had a long way to go, but it was a major breakthrough for the sport.

  • Tito Ortiz def. Ken Shamrock, Nov. 22, 2002 - UFC 40
    You can say what you like about Dana White and the Fertitta brothers, but you can't say they got into the UFC to make a quick buck. A full ten events and almost 18 months after they took over ownership of the sinking promotion, they had still yet to put on a commercially successful event. It took bringing back one of the biggest stars of the original UFC and pitting him against the biggest star of the "Dark Ages" to put a Zuffa PPV in the black. Shamrock and Ortiz had been feuding since Ortiz beat Shamrock protege Guy Mezger at UFC 19 and put on a T-shirt reading "Gay Mezger is my bitch" after the fight. The fight itself was pretty one-sided, but Ken acquitted himself much better than he would in either of their two rematches. More importantly, the Zuffa UFC had begun to build some momentum with fans.

  • Fedor Emelianenko def. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, March 16, 2003 — Pride 25
    Its not often that the greatest heavyweight on Earth, a man whom I still consider the #2 all-time heavyweight in MMA history, passes the torch. How fitting then, that Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira met his match in the #1 all-time heavyweight in Fedor Emelianenko. Of course at the time, Fedor wasn't really Fedor yet and few expected him to utterly dominate the great Nogueira and on the ground no less. Fedor was content to remain in Big Nog's guard, firing some of the most devastating ground and pound ever seen in MMA. He shrugged off Nogueira's feared submissions from the guard like nothing and just continued to inflict the beating. Six years later, PRIDE is a distant memory, but Fedor Emelianenko is still the undisputed #1 heavyweight in MMA.

Read Parts One, Two, Three, Four and the Prequel.