UFCScene.com presents it’s first recurring column: The Forgotten Stories of the UFC. This column will bring to the forefront some of the great events, fights, and fighters featured in the UFC before it’s recent popularity boom. Expect to see big names like Gracie, Shamrock, Severn, and Taktarov. Expect also to hear some more obxcure ones like DeLucia, Worsham, Jennum, and Hackney. Whether you’re a “noob” or an old-school NHB fan, The Forgotten Stories of the UFC will have something for you.
There have been a number of nights in the history of the Ultimate Fighting Championship that have earned their place in the collective memory of fans and fighters alike. Robbie Lawler’s KO of Steve Berger welcomed the UFC to free television. Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar marked the beginning of the MMA boom with their display at the first TUF finale. Randy Couture absolutely astounded (again) in his dismantling of Tim Sylvia to regain the Heavyweight championship. If we look back to the promotion’s early years, Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock’s Superfight at UFC 5 was as anticipated as any fight MMA has ever seen. Of course, there have been many other great nights and fights to play themselves out in the Octagon. Some of these moments, however, have seemingly faded into history without being given their proper due as worthy of legend. One such night was May 15, 1998 in Mobile, Alabama where the Ultimate Fighting Championship presented “Redemption.”
UFC 17’s subtitle was an allusion to the return of former champion Mark Coleman, who was coming off his upset loss to Maurice Smith. Originally slated to face Randy Couture in the main event, Coleman was instead matched up with Pete Williams. Williams was a student and training partner of Ken Shamrock. For the first half of the fight, Mark Coleman looked as dominant as he had ever looked, following the ground and pound blue print that had earned him his championship in the first place. Williams, however, had brought a blueprint to the fight as well. It was the same blueprint that Smith had used to defeat Coleman. The blueprint could not have worked more flawlessly. When the fight was restarted for the overtime period, Coleman was exhausted and barely moved from his corner as Williams stalked across the Octagon and began peppering him with punches and leg kicks. With little time remaining in the fight, Williams brought a kick high. Coleman reached down with both hands, as he expected another leg kick. What he got, instead, was crushing blow to his jaw that left him glass-eyed as he lay against the fence. The entire building erupted. With all the recent upsets in MMA, calling this fight the “biggest upset of all time” would certainly be hyperbole. It was, however, the biggest upset of its time.
Though it was not featured on the broadcast, or subsequent video release, Jeremy Horn’s near-upset of Frank Shamrock helped electrify the lucky few who attended this classic UFC event. Frank Shamrock was the reigning middleweight champion, and was spending an average of 19 seconds in the Octagon during each of his two fights. Jeremy Horn was a kid with little muscle-definition who had been fighting in small shows in Iowa. A severe mismatch, it seemed, was in the cards. 16 minutes and 29 seconds later, Jeremy Horn had re-defined “moral victory” with his performance. Using the submission grappling and defensive skills that would become his trademark, Horn confused and frustrated the heavily-favored champion. Whether Shamrock had taken Horn lightly will forever remain between Shamrock’s ears. What is certain, is that Horn brought out the best in Shamrock. More than a year later, Tito Ortiz would attempt to control Shamrock. At UFC 17, Jeremy Horn had engaged, challenged, and countered him. Unfortunately for Horn, he met the same fate as all of Shamrock’s UFC opponents.
Adding to the excitement inside the Mobile Civic Center that night was a middleweight (200 lbs. at the time) tournament. The semi-finals of the 4-man tournament featured Dan Henderson grinding out a decision victory over the always-game Allan Goes in one bracket, and Carlos Newton quickly cinching a triangle choke onto Bob Gilstrap. With their victories, Newton and Henderson set up another legend-worthy encounter for fans that night. The UFC had seen its fair share of Wrestling vs. Jui-Jitsu, often with lackluster fights resulting. Probably because of their willingness to push the action, Henderson and Newton avoided putting on a boring fight. The action would be close throughout, with both fighters landing solid punches and controlling the action on the mat at one point or another. After the regulation time period had expired, it seemed to most viewers that Henderson had gotten the better of the grappling using positional control and Newton had landed the better strikes. The overtime period was clearly won by Newton. Head spinning shots had Henderson wobbly on his feet and even injured his jaw. After the time had expired, the then-champion Frank Shamrock, working as part of the pay-per-view broadcast, said that he would give the fight to Newton. The judges apparently disagreed, and gave the decision to Henderson. Despite the controversy, the fight remains one of the most competitive (if unheralded) bouts in the history of the UFC. This event would also mark the last time that the UFC would hold a single-event tournament on American soil, the end of an era.
The Big Names
Like so many other UFC’s before and after it, UFC 17’s card looks much more star-studded in hindsight than it did as it was playing itself out. There were the requisite stars on the card. In addition to Coleman and Shamrock, long time fan favorite David “Tank” Abbott was also featured in a heavyweight bout. It was the debuting athletes, however, who make this event such a memorable one. Williams and Horn would both become staples of UFC events in the following years with their impressive performances. Though the finalists in the middleweight tournament would leave the promotion following UFC 17, they would both go on to become international superstars in MMA. There was another UFC debut that night, and MMA debut in fact. It would be met with very little fanfare. The fighter, himself, would receive little attention from fans and promoters for years. In 2007, it would be a disservice to the UFC, and MMA in general, not to mention that UFC 17 was the event where Chuck Liddell first entered the Octagon. He defeated the forgettable Noe Hernandez in an alternate match up, and was never called into the finals of the middleweight tournament. Though he looked younger, more slender, and paler than his current appearance; all the trademarks were there: Mohawk, scalp tattoo, and punching power.