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Ultimate Fighting Photo by Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images

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Photo Vault: Gladiators of the new millennium

Rare and gritty images showcase stars of tomorrow competing at Gladiator Challenge in 2003 and 2004.

In late 2003 the sport of MMA was still in its infancy. On November 21 the UFC was at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, CT with a card that ended with Matt Hughes choking out Frank Trigg to retain his welterweight title. 9,200 people attended that event and the card did 40,000 PPV buys. The company was hemorrhaging money. But change was on the horizon. In a few short years the UFC would explode in popularity and turn into a runaway train that would eventually lead to a $4 billion purchase and a deal with Disney.

The success of that boom period was stoked by the talent that, back in 2003, was paying dues on the regional circuit. Of those circuits, not many were as hopping as Northern California’s. In today’s edition of Photo Vault we have a gallery of rare pictures from 2003 and 2004 that depict three shows from Gladiator Challenge held in Colusa, CA.

The gritty images were taken by Jeff Hutchens on black and white 35mm film. In his series of pictures he paid special attention to a young Urijah Faber, who was debuting with the promotion. Also found in these images is future UFC champion Rashad Evans. He came to Gladiator Challenge as a 2-0 prospect, won three fights in two nights and joined the cast of TUF 2 immediately after. Former UFC champion Dan ‘The Beast’ Severn also makes an appearance, while taking on Ruben ‘War Path’ Villareal.

The captions found in this gallery are from the photographer, each was accompanied by the lines, “No-holds-barred fighting found itself under attack by moralists and politicians across the United States when it first arrived on the fringes of the athletic scene. As its popularity and pay-per-view revenues have increased political pressure has gradually died off and Ultimate Fighting is on its way to establishment as a mainstream sport.”

Hutchens had a pretty clear view of the future, but I wonder if he could have guessed just how mainstream cage-fighting has become. Check out the gallery below to see Hutchen’s incredible images, which each fantastically capture the raw and untamed essence of the sport.

If you want to read more about the NorCal fight scene, check out my longform series The Mitchell Paradox which covers the highs and lows of David Mitchell’s life inside and out of MMA.

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