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The USA TODAY/Bloody Elbow Top 50 MMA Fights in History VII: 2005-2006

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Fedor-emelianenko-mirko-crocop_mediumHere's the seventh installment of our 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:

  • Fedor Emelianenko def. Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic, Aug. 28, 2005 - PRIDE Final Conflict 2005
    MMA, or any combat sport for that matter, rarely sees a bout between the clear-cut, no-doubt-about-it, undisputed heavyweight champion of the world and the clear-cut, no-doubt-about-it, most dangerous challenger to his throne. Sure Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira was still out there and had beaten Cro Cop in 2003, but Fedor beat him soundly in their third and final match. Cro Cop's on the other hand was the challenge Fedor hadn't answered. Before the fight it was assumed that Fedor would have to take the fight to the ground to beat the fearsome K-1 kickboxer. But just as he had awed the MMA world by going into Big Nog's dangerous guard to score his first win against Nogueira, he shocked everyone, especially Cro Cop by taking the fight to Mirko on the feet. Cro Cop got his licks in, but at the end of the night there was no doubt as to who was the better man. There was also no doubt about what the top MMA promotion in the world was as PRIDE's 205lb Grand Prix saw Mauricio "Shogun" Rua emerge as the new light heavyweight sensation in a crowded field.

  • Dan Henderson def. Murilo Bustamante, Dec. 31, 2005 - PRIDE Shockwave 2005
    Four short months later, PRIDE put on one of the epic New Year's Eve cards that Japanese MMA is so famous for. One of the top attractions pitted Dan Henderson against former UFC champ Murilo Bustamante for the first ever PRIDE 183lb belt. Both men had already had stellar careers by the end of 2005. I've written about some of Bustamante's early days adventures before: his legendary draw against 285lb wrestler Tom Erikson and his KO of Lion's Den star Jerry Bohlander but by 2005 he was a little diminished from the world beater that had choked out Matt Lindland, KO'd Dave Menne and gone the distance with Chuck Liddell. He had a rough welcome to PRIDE, losing three straight, including being KO'd by Henderson in under a minute. The rematch would prove a very different affair. Both men had earned their way to the title fight by winning two fights in one night in September against a solid field. The final was a total war that saw both men get their licks in, it also clearly established Dan Henderson as the top middleweight of the day as Bustamante's brave performance only swayed one of the three judges to see it his way.
  • Takanori Gomi def. Hayato "Mach" Sakurai, Dec. 31, 2005 - PRIDE Shockwave 2005
    Also awarded on that fateful eve was the first ever PRIDE lightweight (160lbs) championship. Since the UFC had abandoned the division in 2003, the field was wide open for PRIDE to stake their claim to preeminence in yet another division and did they ever. Mounting a tournament featuring four Shooto champions as well as Jens Pulver, the only UFC lightweight champ to that point in time there was no doubt that the winner would earn the #1 ranking in the division. The first two rounds of the tournament had been fought in September at PRIDE Bushido 9 (acquire the DVD by any means necessary, its one of the best cards of all time).  Top shelf lightweights like Chute Boxe's Luiz Azeredo, the UFC's Jens Pulver and Yves Edwards, Joachim "Hellboy" Hansen, and Shooto champs Naoyuki Kotani and Tatsuya Kawajiri had all been swept aside. Only Sakurai, already an MMA legend and a long-time top 10 welterweight coming down to 160lbs, and Gomi, the "Fireball Kid" remained. The final did not disappoint, nor did the Fireball Kid. Despite his loss to B.J. Penn only a couple of years earlier, his performance in the PRIDE lightweight tournament was so dominating that he held on to the #1 ranking on many sites until last year. And those who saw him bring a brutal style of sprawlNbrawl MMA to Japan know why.
  • Chuck Liddell def. Randy Couture, Feb. 4, 2006 - UFC 57
    After the TUF breakthrough year of 2005, the UFC needed a breakout star to emerge and Chuck Liddell stepped up. In 2005, he avenged two of his three career losses and claimed the UFC light heavyweight belt. His rubber match with Randy Couture put the "icing" on the cake. He dominated their third fight as clearly as he had the second and the Iceman became the first U.S. media star to come out of the UFC or MMA. Its easy to forget how brightly Liddell's star shone from 2005-2007 but have no doubt, as long as the Ice Man was winning fights, his media profile steadily rose and he led the charge for the UFC's first big wave.
  • Matt Hughes def. Royce Gracie, May 27, 2006 - UFC 60
    Another essential piece of Zuffa's strategy for building the UFC was laid in May of 2006 when Matt Hughes finally put the Royce Gracie legend to rest. Unlike Japanese fans who had seen Royce lose to Kazushi Sakuraba, American fans had only ever seen him held to a tie by Ken Shamrock and many who had tuned out after the early days of the UFC still refused to believe that any of the modern era stars could match the legendary Brazilian jiu jitsu master. Finally Zuffa was making enough money to justify the cost to lure him back and they were willing to give him a catch-weight bout. Matt Hughes did the rest, which to anyone paying attention was no surprise. Hughes was much younger, more well-rounded, far more powerful and just plain too much for the aging Gracie. But for those who hadn't been paying attention and had just tuned back in, the "new" UFC was suddenly a very legitimate proposition.

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