It’s common knowledge that the UFC originated with running one-night tournaments. What’s also commonly known is the UFC debuted in 1993, especially since the UFC is hammering home this is their 30th anniversary. What isn’t commonly known is when the UFC moved away from the tournament structure. After a few experiments to walk away from the format, the UFC produced their last international tournament May 15, 1998, at UFC 17: Redemption, 25 years ago today.
For full transparency, the UFC did run one more single-night tournament at UFC 23. However, that was at the request of the Japanese audience for what was intended to be the beginning of a separate promotion, UFC Japan. Clearly, things didn’t work out that way and while UFC 23 may have been the last official tournament, the last international tournament was UFC 17 as UFC 23’s tournament was limited to Japanese participants.
‘Decision’ Dan Henderson gets UFC tournament title
It’s fair to call it an international affair as well. The four-man middleweight — which was 199 pounds and under at the time — tournament consisted of two Americans, a Canadian, and a Brazilian. For those versed in MMA around the turn of the century, three of those names were amongst the most prominent in the sport: Dan Henderson, Carlos Newton, and Allan Goes. The fourth participant, Bob Gilstrap, faded into anonymity, but he entered the evening with more official MMA experience than the other participants.
Henderson would kick off the UFC 17 tournament with a nip and tuck contest with Goes. It was a bit of a clunky mess as neither were well-versed in striking. Goes delivered a pair of knockdowns on the inexperienced Henderson, not to mention some heavy leg kicks. Nevertheless, it was the right hand for Henderson that made the difference, scoring a series of heavy uppercuts in the overtime, securing a late knockdown to impress the judges enough for the decision. On the other side of the bracket, Newton spammed for an armbar that turned into a triangle choke, eliminating Gilstrap in less than a minute.
The finals remains controversial to this day… at least for those who remember that far back. Newton hurt Henderson on several occasions, including right out of the gate. Henderson relied on his wrestling skills to not only take Newton down, but hold him down for long stretches of time. The most notable moment was a knee from Newton that had Henderson dancing before going down. Unfortunately for Newton, the judges preferred Henderson’s control to Newton’s dynamic offense.
By the time Henderson retired, he was known for his powerful right hand, it affectionately being known as the “H-Bomb” by fans. Prior to his successfully patenting his power, Henderson was known as “Decision Dan” for two reasons. Obviously, one of those reasons was the propensity of his fights to go the distance. The other was for his ability to secure decisions he probably didn’t deserve. The roots of that moniker can be traced back to Henderson’s winning of the tournament. Not only is it widely believed Henderson didn’t deserve the decision against Newton, there’s a fair population that believe he lost the Goes fight too.
UFC 17 Notable Debuts
The official start of the tournament saw a pair of fighters new to the UFC squaring off to serve as the alternate should anyone get hurt. Noe Hernandez had the greater resume at the time, but his debuting opponent would go on to secure a dominant decision in a largely forgettable fight, at least by today’s standards. The legacy that man had was anything but forgettable, as the MMA world got their first look at Chuck Liddell.
Even with Liddell touching down, Pete Williams made the biggest splash. In fact, it’s up there with Anderson Silva as the best non-tournament UFC debut. Brought in as a replacement after Mark Coleman’s original opponent – Randy Couture for the heavyweight title – was forced to pull out due to a rib injury, Williams was a MASSIVE underdog. After all, the PPV was named Redemption in anticipation of Coleman regaining his title. Now that he was facing a promotional newcomer, redemption of some sort seemed to be even more likely.
Coleman started out strong, scoring some takedowns and delivering some of his trademark GnP. Unfortunately for him, Coleman blew his wad pretty quickly without having put Williams away. Williams delivered a series of kicks to the legs of Coleman, helping to immobilize Coleman. Coleman proved immobile enough for Williams to deliver one of the all-time highlight reel head kicks, something that has been played over and over in the annals of UFC history. The fight would eventually be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame fight wing.
Given the UFC was a transient organization at the time, it wasn’t unusual for fighters to make their promotional debut fighting for a title. That’s what Jeremy Horn did, challenging Frank Shamrock for what would become the light heavyweight title. The 22-year-old Horn was clearly nervous, securing takedowns but doing little with them. Much like Shamrock would do in his title defense against Tito Ortiz, he bided his time until he found the proper opening, securing a kneebar immediately after the larger Horn dragged him to the mat for the final time for Shamrock’s second successful title defense.
Mike van Arsdale also debuted at UFC 17, fresh off winning a notable eight-man tournament in Brazil. He secured an armlock after pounding out Joe Pardo on a fight that was almost exclusively on the mat. For many, it was van Arsdale’s coaching career they are more familiar with, having a notable role in TUF 10 with Rashad Evans’ team. His most notable accomplishment in his fighting career was being the lone non-title fight for Couture from 1997-2008.
Many have forgotten about Andre Roberts, also known as “Big Chief.” Even more have never heard of him. Nevertheless, the massive and charismatic Native American was a UFC favorite for a few years, delivering a brutal elbow against the cage to drop Harry Moskowitz. As the UFC moved away from super heavyweights, Roberts became a largely forgotten figure.
Other Fun UFC 17 Facts
The title fight between Shamrock and Horn wasn’t originally shown with the rest of the UFC 17 event. The UFC was going to be running what was essentially a best-of PPV not long after this event. In order to get distributors to carry it, they needed to offer a never-before-seen fight fans would be willing to pay money for in order to sit through other fights many would already be aware of the outcome. Nothing better to attract them than a title fight….
UFC 17 would feature the last time longtime UFC veteran Tank Abbott would secure a win within the organization. When Abbott won, fights rarely took a long time to play out, only one of his career wins coming past the three minute mark. His win over Hugo Duarte took just 43 seconds, escaping an armbar attempt before delivering his heavy brand of GnP. In classic form, Abbott threw in a kick for good measure after Big John McCarthy had already pulled him off.
A commentator for the organization at the time, Jeff Blatnick addressed all the fighters and the members of the athletic commission in a pre-fight meeting. In the meeting, Blatnick stressed the need to make the sport more palatable for the general public. After all, this was a time when most cable and satellite providers wouldn’t carry the PPV’s. He asked to have them all refer to the sport as “Mixed Martial Arts.” There were several names going around at the time, most notably “No Holds Barred.” It wasn’t the first time the sport was referred to as MMA, but it was the first concerted push to refer to it that way. Obviously, it stuck.
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