The Ultimate Fighting Championship will celebrate its 20th anniversary on Saturday with a stellar card headlined by Georges St. Pierre vs. Jonny Hendricks for the welterweight championship. It’s exciting to see how far the sport has come, and it’s interesting when comparing this card to their last anniversary show, ten years earlier.
UFC 45 took place on November 21, 2003, at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Connecticut. It was the promotion’s fifth and final event for the year. That is a far cry compared to the 33 fight cards the promotion will put on this year.
Fans who watched at home on pay-per-view critically panned UFC 45. PRIDE FC held their Final Conflict card in Japan a week earlier, and it’s one of the most memorable nights in MMA history.
I was fortunate enough to attend this event, and it was one of the greatest times of my life. The fighters were much more accessible to the general public since the sport wasn’t that popular back then. Fans were treated to a free autograph session with what was voted on by fans as the ten greatest UFC fighters of all time.
This was an incredible deal considering at the fan expo last year, it cost $30.00 just to meet Clay Guida, which is a sign of how acceptance of the sport has changed. Plus, so much has happened over the last ten years that the top ten list of today would look remarkably different from that of yesteryear.
Former ring girl Amber Miller handed me a free full-color program as I stood in line and waited with bated breath to meet these legends of the Octagon. When I finally got to see the fighters, some fun stories were being told in one form or another.
Dan Severn couldn’t attend due to a scheduling conflict and was replaced by UFC 2 veteran Fred Ettish. It was sad to hear people talk about him like he is some scrub but he deserves props for putting it all on the line in a situation where there were no rules.
Tank Abbott simply no-showed with no replacement to be had. Mark Coleman was either very exhausted or hungover. Oleg Taktarov enjoyed being back where it all began for him. Marco Ruas was extremely nice and bowed to everyone as he shook their hand.
Ken Shamrock was visibly annoyed, and that’s probably because he was seated in between Royce Gracie and Don Frye. That had to be a rib because no one who knew what they were doing could have legitimately thought that was a good idea. Pat Miletich was the life of the party, but Randy Couture was the coolest kid in school just coming off his career-defining wins over Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz.
Evan Tanner was hanging out in the hotel lobby during the autograph session and was very approachable. He made his middleweight debut that evening and told me how all of the weight came off easily except for the last three pounds.
Our conversation came to an abrupt halt as Tanner’s opponent that evening, Phil Baroni, entered the lobby with a five-person entourage. They were wearing matching gray Everlast tracksuits and surrounding Baroni as if he was the President while he rocked out with his yellow Walkman.
That night was a turning point in the career of the New York Badass. Not only did he lose the fight, but he also protested the stoppage and punched referee Larry Landless in the face. Baroni served a six-month suspension as a result and lost to Tanner in the rematch.
After the autograph session, I grabbed lunch at the hotel a saw a couple of the writers from Full Contact Fighter.com. They had a bunch of their monthly magazines with them, and I wanted one. However, the MMA junkie in me was star-struck by this media entity.
This didn’t make sense considering I was shooting the breeze with several fighters earlier in the day. I winked at my friend and loudly asked him if he thought Tank or Cabbage was going to win. My plan worked as the writers handed us two free issues of the magazine!
The gods above must have deemed Frank Mir unworthy of competing on these celebratory cards. UFC 167 marks the second time he has been bumped from a UFC anniversary show through no fault of his own. Mir was scheduled to fight Alistair Overeem in what was deemed a “loser leaves town” bout. The fight has been moved to super bowl weekend, next year, to give Mir more time to recover from a knockout loss he suffered in August.
Ten years earlier, Mir was scheduled to face Tim Sylvia for the heavyweight title. A month before the bout, Sylvia tested positive for steroids, and the suspension that followed stripped him of the title and kept him out of action for nine months.
Wes Sims was the next contestant in the Frank Mir sweepstakes. Even though Mir was no longer fighting for the title, revenge would have to be the martial objective since Sims illegally stomped on Mir’s head while holding the fence in their previous encounter at UFC 43. However, fate would delay their rematch as Sims suffered a broken arm in training and withdrew from the bout.
Patrick Smith, a veteran of UFC 1, 2, and 6, was the next fighter summoned to take on the bone-breaking submission specialist. No one expected Smith to win, much less put up much of a fight, but it was the nostalgia factor of having someone who fought on the first UFC card, fighting a decade later that sold the bout.
However, the third time would not be the charm as it was revealed that Smith had not paid a fine levied by the NSAC in 1997. Smith was scratched from the card, and with no time to find a fourth opponent, so was Frank Mir.
Ricco Rodriguez vs. Pedro Rizzo went down as the most expensive prelim fight in UFC history, with each making over $100,000. It also one of the most boring fights of all time. It was painfully obvious that both men wanted to be anywhere but fighting in a cage.
They just circled each other and threw the occasional leg kick and one-two punch. Fans voiced their disapproval as deafening chants of “This Fight Sucks” filled the Mohegan Sun Arena. Rizzo won a unanimous decision, but no one cared. Fans wanted them gone from their sight, and neither of them has fought in the UFC since.
Tank Abbott fought Wesley “Cabbage” Correira in the third and final fight on his Zuffa contract. He was making $150,000 per fight, which a lot of fighters were vocal about since the top fighters of that time were making a lot less. Hell, there are not a lot of fighters making that now.
The fight was even until the doctor stopped the bout due to a cut over Tank’s right eye. Tank was pissed, Cabbage did a little dance in celebration and flipped Tank the bird, Tank’s cornerman, John Marsh, threw a water bottle at Cabbage and all hell broke loose.
It looked like something you’d see on Monday Night Raw as both camps started brawling while others scaled the cage to get in on the action. Armed security, Dana White and Chuck Liddell entered the octagon to break up the melee, and Joe Rogan called it perfectly on commentary when he stated, “This bullshit is the last thing we need.”
This event also marked the inaugural UFC Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock were the first two entrants, and no one was more deserving. Both gave speeches with two different messages.
Royce mentioned how he helped introduced his family’s art, Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, to the United States and how it had revolutionized martial arts forever. Ken thanked the fans, and especially internet fans in particular, for keeping the sport alive when everyone else had dismissed it as something barbaric and unworthy of their time. It was heartfelt, and his genuine appreciation could be heard in every syllable of his speech.
Matt Hughes defended the welterweight title against Frank Trigg in the main event, and it served as one of the more memorable finishes in UFC history. Hughes jumped on Trigg’s back in a standing position, applied a rear-naked choke, and Trigg tapped as he fell to the canvas. The victory was poetic since Royce Gracie also defeated Gerard Gordeau with a rear-naked choke in the main event of UFC 1.
Welterweights and main event anniversary shows seem to go hand in hand. If there were weight classes, in the beginning, Gracie would probably be the best in the division, while Hughes was the best welterweight of his era. Georges St. Pierre, the greatest welterweight of all time, will headline on Saturday against Johny Hendricks.
I can’t think of a better example of how MMA has progressed than looking at Gracie, Hughes, and St. Pierre. Their ascension to glory represented the changing of an evolutionary guard in combat sports. It would be only fitting if Saturday’s main event ends with either a new ruler to the throne or a third rear-naked choke to crown another centennial affair.