For many, the Golden Era of the UFC commenced with the original TUF Finale. The legendary battle between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar has gone down in history as both one of the most entertaining and impactful fights in MMA history. However, the moment that became the flagship moment for the era came a week after the TUF Finale when Chuck Liddell claimed the light heavyweight title from Randy Couture at UFC 52. Liddell was the first UFC fighter to gain mainstream recognition, gracing the likes of ESPN the Magazine. That all came crashing down at UFC 71, 16 years ago today.
The Chuck Liddell Era
Liddell became the poster boy for a myriad of reasons. His signature mohawk and ice-cold stare created an image of a killer that instantly made him an attraction to old school blood and guts fans. However, his soft-spoken nature, while proving to be menacing in its own way, allowed for less bloodthirsty fans to appreciate taken-care-of-business attitude. Most importantly, Liddell consistently mowed down his opposition in the cage. He wasn’t just beating them; he was knocking them out.
Liddell’s reign as champion consisted of a bunch of sequels. Not a single one of his opponents in that time represented a fresh opponent. Of course, Liddell was also looking to get back all of his previous losses. He pulled ahead of Couture in his second defense, to give himself a 2-to-1 edge in their trilogy and pummeled Jeremy Horn in his first defense to avenge his first career loss. The only loss left to redress was to Rampage Jackson. And Liddell was fortunate enough to be getting that opportunity.
In 2003, the UFC loaned Liddell to Pride to represent the organization in the Pride Middleweight Grand Prix. The expectation was Liddell would clash in the finals with Wanderlei Silva. Jackson upset Liddell, putting a beating on the Iceman severe enough that Liddell’s corner threw in the towel. Thus, Liddell was one fight away from avenging all his career losses.
Despite Jackson having a win over Liddell and being nearly a decade younger, Liddell entered the contest the favorite. Jackson clearly did his homework though, giving Liddell nothing to counter. Liddell ended up being the one to push the action, resulting in Jackson catching Liddell with a short right hook as Liddell attempted to retreat. In less than two minutes, the Liddell era came to a stunning end.
Liddell never re-entered the title picture again, though the Lord knows the UFC tried to get him back in the picture. Jackson was given every opportunity to develop into a generational star — though he might say otherwise — but couldn’t quite fulfill the lofty expectations for a myriad of reasons. That isn’t to say he didn’t achieve a level of fame 99% of fighters wouldn’t be jealous of, but it always felt like Jackson was capable of more, only successfully defending his title a single time.
Night of Fast Finishes
Even though Jackson finished Liddell in less than two minutes, it was just the fourth-shortest fight of the UFC 71. To say there was some tough competition for KOoTN was an understatement.
Keith Jardine was originally supposed to face the undefeated David Heath. Injuries on UFC 70 necessitated Heath being moved to that card and Jardine – coming off the biggest victory of his career over Forrest Griffin – was left with the unknown Houston Alexander. Around the 20 second mark, Jardine dropped Alexander. Alexander popped right up, began throwing punches as soon as Jardine clinched up with him, and dropped him on several occasions before the fight was stopped after 48 seconds. Alexander’s debut proved to be one of the most explosive in UFC history.
However, the most unique KO of the night came at just over two minutes when Terry Martin dumped Ivan Salaverry on his head in a modified suplex. That didn’t officially stop Salaverry – the follow up punches did – but it certainly knocked Salaverry silly and added to Martin’s reputation as one of the more entertaining fights on the roster at the time.
There were three more first round finishes, bringing the total to six for the event, a good two-thirds of the contests on the card.
Other Notable UFC 71 Fights
The official FOTN for UFC 71 went to Kalib Starnes and Chris Leben. When at distance, it was a pretty even contest, both landing good shots. What proved the difference for Starnes was his work on the mat. Takedowns in each of the first two rounds and a slick sweep in the final round did the trick for the native Canadian, giving him the most notable win of his career.
Jeremy Stephens had one of the longest UFC tenures. It all started at UFC 71, against Din Thomas. Now a noted coach, Thomas had his veteran savvy on display against the 21-year-old Stephens. After controlling Stephens on the mat for the entirety of the first round, Thomas managed to pull off a badass armbar from his guard on the overwhelmed youngster for the SOTN. It proved to be the last UFC win of Thomas’ career while Stephens would go on to fight 33 more times in the organization, picking up 15 wins in the process.
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