Continuing with a theme, I decided to make a list of great fights I think everyone should see. Soon, 2010 will be upon us, and a new decade of MMA will begin. When pondering what the future holds, I have always found that a bit of perspective of what has come before is a good place to begin. MMA is still relatively new, as far as combat sports go, but we have already seen the sport evolve in huge ways. As more mega athletes come onto the scene, it will be far too easy to forget that in the end, MMA fights will be won and lost with the basics, and those basics are rooted in the past. So here is my humble offering to MMA fans: a simple list of fights I think every fan should see at least once. Hopefully, the coming decade will have more of these kinds of bouts, not less.
CARLOS NEWTON VS. DAN HENDERSON
To date, this is one of my favorite UFC cards, hands down. It saw Tank Abbott destroy Hugo Duarte, Pete Williams level Mark Coleman with a shockingly violent head kick, and the UFC debut of fights Chuck Liddell, Carlos Newton and Dan Henderson.
This fight was action packed from start to finish. Both fighters were hurt, only to come back and hurt the other. On the feet and on the mat, they were looking to hurt each other, and along the way, they showed some serious heart as the fight was flying all over the place. Both men seemed to be drawing strength from each other, attacking with a kind of reckless abandon that is normally found in desperate situations. As each minute passed, it looked as if they were discovering the fight game on one hand, while inventing it on the other. It was two great fighters daring to put it all on the line, and in the end, we got to see one hell of a fight that demonstrated just how dynamic the sport was.
TAKANORI GOMI VS. NICK DIAZ
This was Nick Diaz’s first appearance with the PRIDE organization, and he made sure it was a dandy. Across the ring from him was the explosive darling of the country of Japan, Takanori Gomi. While Gomi was the favorite, it was clear to fight fans that they had better get the chips and beer before the bell sounded, because this one could end suddenly.
For the first part of round one, Gomi was in control. He did damage on the feet, and was the aggressor from top position on the ground. The fight was stood up, and Diaz went on the attack, landing punches. Then, Gomi dropped Diaz with a counter left that opened up a huge gash on Nick’s face, and all pretense of defense went flying out the window. Diaz got back to his feet and let his hands go, knocking Gomi all over the ring with punches in bunches. Gomi landed his fare share as well, but Diaz was clearly in control for the last half of the round, finishing strong, battering Gomi along the ropes. The buzzer sounded and the crowd went wild in appreciation. Diaz threw up his hands as if he hand won, even though another round was waiting in the wings. It was this display that showed the casual fan that Nick Diaz loves a scrap, period.
The second round started with Diaz going after Gomi, landing even more punches with both hands. The ref stopped the fight to have the doctor check Diaz, who was now cut below one eye and above the other, not to mention the swelling that was occurring. Once the doctor signaled the fight could continue, Diaz took a page from Marvin Hagler’s book, storming after Diaz as Hagler had stormed after Tommy Hearns. Gomi got a takedown, but fell into a go-go plata submission, and quickly succumbed to the moment. Diaz never got to fight in PRIDE again, as the organization finally drown in debt, only to be consumed by the UFC. However, Diaz and Gomi put on an inspired show, and the crowd in attendance will never forget it.
FORREST GRIFFIN VS. STEPHAN BONNAR I
TUF FINALE, Season one
It has been called “the fight that saved the UFC”, and at the time, it not only commanded the attention of fans, but fighters as well, who posted on THE UNDERGROUND with the same kind of disbelief as everyone else. It was three rounds of sheer heart, guts and a lot of blood, and in the end, it had captured the hearts of just about everyone who had seen it.
It was a back and forth fight between two guys who both wanted the same thing, and they fought like it was their last fifteen minutes on earth. Yes, it was that good. It was so good that even established fighters were in awe, applauding the guts and determination these two hopefuls were showing. It was what fights were supposed to be, and then some.
RANDY COUTURE VS. PEDRO RIZZO I
In a five round war, Pedro “The Rock” Rizzo and Randy “The Natural” Couture went at each other, hard. Both men would leave the octagon hurt and glad the fight was over. In the first round, it looked like Randy might pound Rizzo out. In the second round, Rizzo pounded on Randy and it looked like Pedro could finish it. Randy went on to win rounds three and four, with Pedro finishing strong in the fifth. Randy got the nod, but his face showed the surprise. It was an excellent title fight, with both men having to rally back, through blood and pain, in order to keep going. Easily one of Randy’s toughest fights to date.
WANDERLIA SILVA VS. QUINTON “RAMPAGE” JACKSON I
PRIDE FC, Middleweight Grand Prix, Finale There was a lot of bad blood between these two fighters when they stepped into the ring. They had almost come to blows after Quinton Jackson stopped Kevin Randleman in order to claim the # 1 contender position for Wanderlia’s title. Both men had fought through a middleweight tournament held across two events, and it seemed like destiny that these two would fight each other.
It was a violent affair, to say the least. Both men had high points, but in the end, Wanderlia found his range and threw everything he had at the challenger, including the seventeen unanswered knee strikes to the head that finally brought the fight to it’s conclusion. Wanderlia won, but there were many in attendance who thought Quinton was too tired from his fight earlier that night, when he stopped Chuck Liddell to advance to the finale. But none of that mattered on that night, as Wanderlia was riding high on a wave of destruction through PRIDE’s middleweight division. Bad blood fights usually don’t culminate in such dramatic and violent fashion, but this one did; with a vengeance.
WANDERLIA SILVA VS. QUINTON “RAMPAGE” JACKSON II
In a rematch of their first fight, Wanderlia Silva stepped into the cage opposite Quinton Jackson again, but the song remained the same. Quinton was picked by many to upset Wanderlia, as this time he would be fresh. Once again, they went at each other, just as hard as they did the first time. Rampage would do better than the last time, getting Wanderlia to the mat and opening a cut near Wanderlia’s eye, but once again, the fight found its way up, and then they went for broke.
Wanderlia landed a hard right hand that stunned Jackson, and then came the clinch, and in typical Chute-Box fashion, with the clinch came the end, courtesy of a violent knee strike that left Jackson falling face-first through the ropes, blood pouring out of his broken nose. It looked like he’d been shot by a gun, he fell so hard. Of course, Jackson would rebound from this loss and find himself a new home and title in the UFC, but on that night, Wanderlia reigned supreme.
MATT HUGHES VS. FRANK TRIGG II
Another bad blood fight, Hughes vs. Trigg II is a one round, back and forth battle. The first half belongs to Trigg, who at one point has Hughes on his back, raining down punches into his face. The last half is Hughes, and even through it is only one round, it is still amazing.
CLAY GUIDA VS. ROGER HUERTA
TUF FINALE, Season six
Clay Guida was heavily favored going into his fight with Roger Huerta, who many thought had been given a steady diet of easy fights in order to market him to the Hispanic fans. Huerta is a good looking guy, and that is never a bad thing for a fighter; just look at Oscar De La Hoya. However, the general consensus was that Huerta’s gravy train was going to be seriously derailed once Guida got his hands on him. And it almost was.
Through the first two rounds, Guida was all over Huerta, taking him down almost at will and grounding and pounding every inch of exposed flesh Huerta offered. In the second round, Guida looked to be going for another takedown, and Huerta started a sprawl that saw him caught with a savage right that probably had Huerta out cold for at least a second or two. Guida pounced, attacking like a madman, but could not finish Huerta in the time allowed.
By the start of the third round, Guida looked to finish the fight, but so did Huerta. Huerta caught Guida with a knee that staggered the carpenter, and then Huerta managed to take Guida’s back and sink in the rear-naked choke. It was a come from behind victory for Huerta, and a validation that there was more about him than just good looks; there was heart and a desire to win, and that carried the day.
MATT LINDLAND VS. PHIL BARONI
One of the main reasons why people tuned in to see this undercard fight was the amount of verbiage these two men tossed at each other. It was almost like a high school jock against a level one freshman in college. Baroni had threatened to kick Lindland’s ass in about every style of New York euphemisms imaginable, while Lindland mocked Baroni, saying that after he beat him in the octagon, he was going to let the air out of the tires of Baroni’s IROC-Z. It was with a childish delight that I watched these two men go at it, and it did not disappoint.
KEN SHAMROCK VS. DON FRYE
PRIDE 19: BAD BLOOD
Some people reading this list will not agree with me on the choosing of Ken Shamrock vs. Don Frye as a fight you need to see. Sure, they won’t deny it was entertaining, but many fans seem to demand an elite performance from every fight that comes down the pike. Well, not all great fights are about athleticism; indeed, some are simply about the purity of motive and clarity of intent that comes from one of those “bad blood” feuds. Don Frye and Ken Shamrock did not like each other, at all. In fact, you could say they hated each other. God knows they fought like they did. Both men wanted to be the one to end the career of the other, and when the fight was over, it was hard to decide what was more important: winning the fight or winning the war. Seldom does a fight, especially in the safety prone world of MMA, end up injuring fighters. This one did.
The big moments were to be found in rounds one and three. The first round saw both men clinching, hammering each other with heavy shots to the body, via punches and knees. Frye seemed to get the better of these exchanges, but it was still close. Then, the fight spilled to the mat, and Shamrock was looking to close the show, as violently as possible. He managed to secure one of his money-moves, the heel hook, and then he went to work. How Don Frye managed to keep from tapping, I don’t know. How he managed to fight two more rounds with the damage done to his ankles is probably a result of the kind of true grit you only find in a John Wayne movie.
The second round was mainly both men back in the clinch, pounding to each others body. Hard.
Then, the third round came, and the fire works starting to go off. Frye caught Shamrock with a counter left hook that flattened him, only to see him somehow bounce back up and begin to defend himself as Frye pounced. Shamrock would later admit that the punch knocked him out, and the impact with the canvas woke him up, but either way, they kept going. Nearing exhaustion, Shamrock managed to reverse Frye, and once again locked up a heel hook. Frye, unable to get out of it, decided to take a page from Shamrocks own book and lock on a heel hook of his own. Both men then tried to destroy each others legs while trying to avoid tapping to the damage being done to their own. Those final moments of that third round will always stand out in my mind. I was stunned at how committed these men were to hurting each other; both men were fully resolved to not only enter that dangerous territory, but exist there at the expense of each other. The heel hook is one of the most dangerous lower body submissions in existence. It attacks both the ankle and the knee, and it can end an athletic career, and that was what both of these men were trying to do to each other: end their careers. As irony would have it, they did anything but. In fact, they managed to amplify each others careers while exhausting every ounce of bad blood they had for each other in the process.
When the decision was handed down, Don Frye won the fight via a split decision, but as doctors reports would later confirm (as would Frye himself), both of his ankles suffered either fractures or torn ligaments, thus giving the war to Shamrock. Either way, the fans were the real winners, and when you consider how many fights seem empty of true emotion, this one is heavy enough to make up for all the rest.
DON FRYE VS. TANK ABBOTT
ULTIMATE ULTIMATE 2
Although the blood between these two fighters wasn’t really bad, it was still aplenty. Tank Abbott was one of those terrifying fighters who you knew would be happy losing a fight as long as he got the chance to do some damage. In spite of his record, he was one of the UFC’s true tough guys, not only blasting out fighters who were “more accomplished” in the martial arts (Abbott was basically a wrestler turned street fighter), but he made it to the finals of UFC 6 and The Ultimate Ultimate 2. He’d also fought some of the best in the world, on sometimes as little as two days notice. Simply put, he loved to fight.
Well, when he stepped into the octagon opposite Don Frye, who he’d dubbed “Magnum P.I.”, he let it all hang out once again. Abbott and Frye went toe-to-toe for most of the first sixty seconds of there bout, with Abbott getting the better of the exchanges. Every time Tank seemed to connect with a punch, the force would send Don sliding this direction and that. Then, with blood pouring out of his face, Don seemed to receive a bit of a gift; Abbott stumbled. Don Frye, never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, pounced, and managed to secure the rear-naked choke. It was a short fight, but oh so sweet.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Clay Guida vs Diego Sanchez, Jared Rawlings vs. John Kopenhaver, Robbie Lawler vs. Aaron Riley, Nate Quarry vs. Pete Sell II, Eugene Jackson vs. Royce Algier Gomi vs Kawajiri, Shogun vs Nogueira.