Last week, Strikeforce announced that their heavyweight title would not be up for grabs in their upcoming heavyweight tournament. That’s their choice. But some titles are bigger than any promotion. The Strikeforce title may not be at stake this year, but MMA’s lineal heavyweight championship certainly will be. Over the next few days we’ll chase the history of this mythical title, one bigger than any promotional entity, one that transcends nation states or lines on a map.
History was made in little Dothan, Alabama in 1997 when Mark Coleman was crowned the UFC’s first heavyweight champion at UFC 12. How the sport’s most prestigious MMA event ended up in Dothan, Alabama is a story for another day (or alternately, you can read it in my book Total MMA: Inside Ultimate Fighting). Suffice to say, the sport was being banned right an left all over the country. Alabama and Mississippi would become a refuge, a safe haven where they were probably going to have 10 fist fights on a Saturday night anyway. Why not get paid, collect some tax revenue, and send everyone home drunk and happy?
Coleman, the UFC 10 and UFC 11 Tournament Champion, won UFC gold by destroying UFC Superfight champion Dan Severn. Even though it had been just three years since his MMA debut, Severn looked like the product of another time. Coleman was stronger, quicker, meaner, younger, and to cap things off a better wrestler to boot. Severn was helpless and hopeless. It was a true changing of the guard. Royce Gracie, Severn, and the great Ken Shamrock were all firmly in the past. Coleman and a new generation of exciting fighters were the future.
Of course, predicting the future is an even tougher business than cage fighting. While fans and pundits were quick to proclaim Coleman unbeatable, a kickboxer was lurking in John Peretti’s Extreme Fighting. Maurice Smith had been around the fringes of the sport since the very beginning. He had fought in Pancrase and trained with the Lion’s Den in California. Working with Frank Shamrock, he was perfecting a plan to counter Coleman’s explosive wrestling. In one of the sport’s major paradigm shifts, Smith took the UFC to new places in a single night. No longer was the ground game enough. Smith proved strikers could survive and even score points on the ground, just waiting for their chance to attack. Coleman’s unstoppable title reign? Over before it started. The former Olympian ended up with zero successful title defenses.
Not all wrestlers were quite as one dimensional as Coleman, something Smith learned to his detriment. Randy Couture, one of Coleman’s peers, wasn’t quite as explosive an athlete. But he was whip smart and flexible. Couture understood right away that wrestling was just a good base -by itself it wasn’t going to be enough to take his MMA career to the absolute top. Couture was a work in progress when he faced Smith at UFC Japan, but even a neophyte Couture was too much for the kickboxer. Working a very careful gameplan, doing a much better job of controlling the dangerous Smith on the bottom than Coleman had, Couture became the UFC champion in just his fourth pro bout.
As Couture rose to the top of the sport, he found himself standing on a very shaky pinnacle. The foundation had crumbled beneath him. To fans, the UFC seemed as important and vibrant as ever. To accountants, it was a nightmare. Banned, not just in civilized states but on cable as well, the UFC was going backwards fiscally. Unable to pay Couture what his contract demanded, the promotion made him their best offer. The wrestler sounded back with a resounding no. The champion would leave his UFC title behind and journey to Japan where the sport of MMA was at the beginning of what would be a meteoric rise. The top competition was there – and so was the top money. But while Couture would be leaving his UFC championship with Bob Meyrowitz and SEG, the lineal title would go with the champion to the far east.
More twist and turns and the fight itself after the break.
Couture’s first stop with his lineal title would be at Vale Tudo Japan. The event, made famous by the superlative Rickson Gracie, was SHOOTO’s year end spectacular. Many of the greats had competed there, including John Lewis and Frank Shamrock. In 1998, it was Randy Couture’s turn to be the foreign showcase. His opponent was Enson Inoue.
Undersized but tough as a two dollar steak, Inoue was an import himself. Although ethnically Japanese, the fighter was actually born and raised in Hawaii. This created a gap that couldn’t quite be bridged, no matter how many bouts he won or how many Japanese gangsters he impressed with his fighting spirit. It drove Inoue to amazing heights and startling lows. Self destructive at the best of times, his career was fought with the volume turned constantly to ten. It was filled with brilliant moments and plenty of head scratching foolishness. This was one of the brilliant moments.
Couture may have been the UFC champion, but he was far from a complete fighter. Inoue capitalized on his one significant weakness – submission defense – locking on a picture perfect armbar in the first round. In less than two minutes he had destroyed more than the UFC champion. Inoue had blown up our expectations as well. The UFC had long been considered the summit, the pinnacle of the sport. If an unheralded Japanese fighter could beat the UFC champion so thoroughly what did that say about MMA in Japan?
As PRIDE rose to prominence, this is a result that would fuel many arguments. Modern MMA as we know it today was born in the famous Octagon. But after Couture-Inoue there was little doubt: it was being practiced at the highest level in Japan.
Join us tomorrow as we follow the lineal title into the PRIDE ring and find two alternate routes leading to the same destination: Stary Oskol, Russia.
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