All fights matter to the fighters in the cage but some fights MATTER. Every once in a long while a fight takes place that impacts not just the careers of the fighters involved, but the very course of the sport. One such fight happened on July 27th 1997. No less an authority than Big John McCarthy cites it as one of the three most important fights in UFC history:
In case you don’t recall, at the time Mark Coleman and his groundNpound style of fighting were at the absolute apex of the MMA world.
The fight is a little long but well worth a watch if you can track it down. Matt McEwan has a blow by blow of the match at 411 Mania. His lead in establishes the tone at the time:
Before the fight, Coleman says this is a grapplers game, and unless Smith has learned to wrestle, he is going to lose.
Those who had been following MMA closely weren’t entirely shocked however. Smith had just beaten a much larger grappler in Marcus “Conan” Silveira at EFC 3 using the same game plan he used against Coleman — use jiu jitsu to survive the ground and pound and then get back to the feet. Smith had not only been fighting in Pancrase for a few years, he’d also formed “The Alliance” with Frank Shamrock and RINGS fighter Tsuyoshi “TK” Kohsaka. And sure enough, against Coleman the gameplan worked to perfection. Smith’s two wins proved conclusively that a fighter with a big advantage on the feet and good defense on the ground could beat even the most powerful one-dimensional grappler.
In a previous chapter, I’ve covered the rise of several other pioneers of the striking approach to MMA: kickboxer Igor Vovchanchyn, dirty boxer Don Fry, and Muy Thai fighters Pele Landi-Jons and Wanderlei Silva, but Maurice Smith was the first to prove that a big advantage in the striking arts could overcome a major deficit in grappling.
Unfortunately for Mark Coleman, he came back at UFC 17 and was on the wrong end of a second shocking upset. This time to Lion’s Den fighter Pete Williams. Take a look at the classic KO kick to the head. John Salton of UFCScene has a good write up of that fight:
I’ve thrown in a Mark Kerr fight from Brazil since his UFC fights don’t seem to be online in the extended entry. Kerr never had a tough fight in the UFC and made his way to Japan where he would meet his own downfall.
World Vale Tudo Championship 3 1/19/97 Mark Kerr vs Paul Varelens
The other fighter making big waves in the UFC around this time was Carlson Gracie protege Vitor Belfort. But it wasn’t Belfort’s BJJ (which has still never been proven) that was amazing people, it was his smooth and powerful boxing skills. Watch his UFC debut against highly touted Lion’s Den heavyweight Tre Telligman from UFC 12. Belfort won a four man tournament that night and went on to demolish Tank Abbot at UFC 13 (video). We’ll talk about Belfort’s fateful encounter with an unknown named Randy Couture in a future installment.
The other key events in the UFC around this time were in the newly formed 200lb “middleweight” division. At UFC 13, the new 200lb division debuted with a four man tournament featuring the Lion’s Den fighter Guy Mezger, Shooto star Enson Inoue, and former NCAA national champ Royce Alger. Inoue shocked most observers when he beat Alger with an armbar. But he also suffered an injury that let unknown alternate Tito Ortiz squeak into the finals. Mezger won quickly with a guillotine but the future would be different.
At the next UFC, Olympic gold medalist Kevin Jackson, fresh from destroying John Lober at the same Extreme Fighting event where Maurice beat Conan, debuted at UFC XIV and plowed through a 4 man tournament. Jackson was expected to be the first UFC 200lb champion. It was rumored that Enson Inoue would return and face him for the belt . Events played out differently as we will see.
As a tease for my next post on events in Brazil, here’s a clip of Oleg Taktarov’s greatest moment — a KO of Carlson Gracie heavyweight Sean Alvarez.
Previous installments of MMA History:
XXII: Catch Wrestling and Kazushi Sakuraba’s Early PRIDE Run
XXI: The Amazing UFC Championship Run of Frank Shamrock
XX: Kazushi Sakuraba and Frank Shamrock Emerge at Ultimate Japan
XIX: The Humbled PRIDE of Nobuhiko Takada
XVIII: The Losses of Luta Livre
XVII: The Lion’s Den Roars
XVI: Rico Chiapparelli and the RAW Team
XV: Pancrase, RINGS, and Shooto 1996
XIV: Boom and Bust in Brazil
XIII: Coleman Gets His Kicks
XII: End of the UFC Glory Days
XI: Carlson Gracie’s Mighty Camp
X: The Reign of the Wrestlers
IX: Strikers Attack
VIII: From Russia With Leglocks
VII: A New Phase in the UFC
VI: A Dutch Detour
V: The Reign of Royce
IV: Rickson Brings Jiu Jitsu Back to Japan
III: Proto MMA Evolves Out of Worked Pro Wrestling in Japan
II: The Ur-Brazilian MMA Feud: BJJ vs Luta Livre and the Style They Never Saw Coming
I: UFC 1 Pancrase meets BJJ
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