Let me just start by saying I have nothing against the Post-TUF era fans. I love and embrace the casual fans, they’re the ones who have and will continue to allow MMA to grow into a global sport. However, in today’s MMA world, some of the more hardcore fans can’t help to feel that the newcomers are missing out on a vital piece of the MMA mythos. If you haven’t done the legwork, and haven’t scoured the annals of the internet there are some fights that exist that simply must be watched by all fans of the sport. Some were technical wars, some all out brawls, and some changed the sport forever. However what I don’t want to do is criticize anyone for this. What I want to do is help to share the feelings and excitement that these fights brought to me the first time I saw them, so I’ll do my best to bring a handful of these fights to the surface for air.
1) Frank Shamrock vs. Tito Ortiz
In many ways this match was a direct predecessor of the matches we see today. We saw conditioning truly play a factor, we saw wall walking against the cage, we saw wrestling used to create opportunities for damage, and we saw much more active Jiu Jitsu than we had in the very early days of the sport. Strategy, tactics, transitions, combinations, no sir, this was not your granddaddy’s MMA. Eventually though, Tito would not be able to do enough damage to get a stoppage, and suffered a beating on the feet. After he ran out of gas, Frank made quick work of him, earning the submission via strikes.
2) Nick Diaz vs. Takanori Gomi
Here Stockton, California, meets up with the pride of Japan, and the results are epic. Nick Diaz’s unorthodox boxing, iron chin, and endless cardio clashes with Gomi’s brawling style, heavy hitting hands, and wrestling prowess in a stunning display of skill, conditioning, and unparalleled balls. One broken orbital bone, 2 rounds, and 1 gogopalata later, only one man can have his hand raised. That man was Nick Diaz, who boxed Gomi up with an ever increasing volume of punches, while working through the damaging looping punches Gomi threw at him. Clearly Nick’s punches were having a profound affect on Gomi though, since The Fireball Kid fought like a man who had 5 too many beers after a few minutes of fighting. It seemed almost easy for Nick to earn only the second Gogopalata submission victory in MMA.
3) Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Kestutis Smirnovas
Did I say unparalleled balls? Well, god DAMN, do I apologize, and retract that statement. Coming back to win after the beating received in this fight can only be attributed to either an act of god, or the unadulterated tenacity that lives deep inside The Gracie Hunters massive ballsack. Never mind the questionable Japanese reffing..everyone knows Sakuraba isn’t done until the fat lady sings, and in this fight he showed us why his fights should go on that long. Its simple really..step 1 is to LET your opponent beat their fists into your skill, step 2 is to win by armbar once their lungs give out, and step 3 is celebrate with thousands of adoring fans.
4) Donald Cerrone vs. Benson Henderson
This fight differs slightly from the rest on this list since it did not taking place before the premier of The Ultimate Fighter, and it took place on United States soil. The WEC though, rarely gets the ratings it deserves. Focusing on the lighter weight classes, rarely can you point to a WEC fight that is not action packed from bell to bell. This fight is exactly that, with the added bonus of not straying from the realm of solid technical fighting, and giving us a taste of every aspect of MMA. This bout, a 5 rounder for the interim lightweight title, puts on display what kind of show two elite, well conditioned lightweights can put on. We saw Henderson put Cerrone on his back almost at will, in between spurts of damaging kickboxing. While there Cerrone twisted Bendo’s limbs in all sorts of unnatural angles, and also was able to lock on more than one very tight choke. Proving to be preternaturally resistant to submission, Henderson was able to survive attempt after attempt and punish Cerrone enough from the top to earn an extremely close decision. An easy fight of the year nominee for 2009.
5) Mark Coleman vs. Maurice Smith
Here’s one that hearkens back to the golden age of MMA, when strikers were strikers, and wrestlers were wrestlers, and never did those two things overlap. Here we have a shining example of what our sport used to be, and how far we’ve come. Coleman and Smith were fighting for the heavyweight title here. Think about that. These are the two best guys they had to offer at the time. And fans absolutely ate it up. Unfortunately for Mark, after an early dominating performance due to his wrestling acumen, his gas tank gave out and Smith was able to land at will with little retaliation from Coleman, picking up the last two rounds, and the Heavyweight title along the way. An entertaining fight regardless. Plus, headbutts!
6) Josh Barnett vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira I
Big Nog is THE name in heavyweight submissions. No mans guard had been as feared since the days where Royce Gracie brought the mystical art of Jiu Jitsu to the United States. It seems that Josh Barnett didn’t hear about that though, and he engaged Nog in a three round war of back and forth Catch Wrestling and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Neither style really showed any sort of superiority, but Josh Barnett was able to do enough to earn himself a victory in the judges eyes. The match was close enough and entertaining enough though, to warrant a rematch a little later down the line, that would see different results.
7) . Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic vs. Fedor Emelianenko I
This fight was uniquely special for its time. It heralded the first time in MMA that the number 1 ranked heavyweight would face off against the number 2 ranked heavyweight. It was a time when the names Emelianenko and Filipovic served to strike fear into opponents hearts. Both men also seemed invincible on their rise to the top. One man would be forced to find a chink in the others armor and prove that they deserved to be called the best. Ultimately that man would prove to be Fedor, who possibly came up with the blueprint for beating the former K-1 standout, with constant forward aggression. In doing so, the number 2 heavyweight in the world was eliminated from any position to contend for the Last Emperors throne.
8) Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira vs. Bob Sapp
Being really, really, abnormally big has pretty much always been the extent of Bob Sapps skill set. But oh…what a skill set it is. It pretty much was the foundation for an entire MMA career, as well as cult status in Japanese culture. And when Man met Beast, for a few terrifying seconds when Sapp lifted Big Nog and executed a Jerry Lawler style pildriver, then proceeded to lift him to do it again, it seemed it would be enough to also get him the Pride Heavyweight belt. Big Nog’s head though, being made of three parts concrete, was able to withstand the impact with the only damage to Nog being the mild confusion as to why there was suddenly 350lbs of Sapp on his neck. What followed was a lot like watching a Gorilla try to mate with a bear trap. He’s so big and strong, you’re wondering the whole time if he just might pull it off, or if the inevitable will happen and he will get caught. Well after nearly 15 minutes of Bob Sapp Flailing around on top of Nog, the trap finally did snap shut, and Nog locked up an arm for the submission victory.
9) Wanderlei Silva vs. Quinton Jackson II
Back before Juanito Ibarra taught Quinton Jackson the finer pointers of counter-punching, Rampage and Wanderlei Silva were knee deep in one of the most heated feuds in MMA. It wasn’t friendly competition, these two men genuinely hated each other, and both went into this bout with bad intentions for the other. At the time Wanderlei was riding his legendary 18 fight win streak, one of which was over Rampage himself. Jackson promised this time it would be end differently, while Wand promised only violence. Well, Wand certainly did deliver. It seemed early on that Wands trademark aggression and windmill hooks would steamroll Quinton, but he was able to bring Wand to the ground and ride out round 1. Halfway through round 2 though, Wanderlei’s Chute Boxe training kicks back in, and he lands a devastating right hand. After grabbing up the Thai clinch and delivering several knees to Jackson’s face, The Axe Murderer leaves him unconscious and face down on the bottom rope. The fight perfectly displays why Wand was so feared in his Pride run: his savage striking style, his constant forward pressure, and his killer instinct that was always on a hair trigger.
10) Mauricio “Shogun” Rua vs. Antonio Rogeirio Nogueira
So we come to one of my absolute favorite fights of all time. While Chuck Liddell and Wanderlei Silva were vying for the number one spot at 205 pounds, the man called Shogun was working his way into claiming that spot above both men. He mastered all the usual techniques of the Chute Boxe camp; devastating Thai clinch skills, and savage soccer kicks and stomps. He also brought his own blend of high-flying and athletic kicks and smooth, tricky Jiu Jitsu into the ring. Every ounce of that was more when he stepped up to face Brazilian Top Team representative, and “little” brother to the heavyweight champion, Antonio Rogeirio Nogueira. Both men were able to knock each other down on the feet, and Shoguns flashy kicks was countered by Nogueira’s solid technical boxing. Eventually the ability to take Lil Nog down from will in the clinch, and a lack of fear of his guard made the difference, as Shogun battered Lil Nog for a unanimous decision victory.