And though we’re not being stranded on a desert island as the world deals with the Coronavirus situation, there are going to be plenty of days and nights when you just want to see a fight…and not just any fight, but the kind that will take you away for 15 or 25 minutes.
These are mine (at least the first part of the list) …they may not be the greatest fights of all-time and I kept this list to fights I attended in person, but they’re all ones I have a connection to in some way, shape or form. And that’s what this whole thing of being a fight fan is about, right?
BJ Penn WAS “The Prodigy”, and after running through Joey Gilbert, Din Thomas, and Caol Uno in successive bouts, it wasn’t a question of if he was going to win the UFC lightweight title, but when. And eventually, it was determined that January 11, 2002 was coronation night. Someone didn’t tell Jens Pulver though, and in talking to the always brutally honest “Lil’ Evil” before the fight, he was simply amazed, insulted, and angered that he was a world champion being given no shot to win this fight. He vowed to shock the skeptics, but after two rounds, he had almost gotten submitted and things weren’t looking too good. Then he saw a Penn supporter giving him the ‘throat slash’ gesture between rounds, and even though he may not have been as naturally talented as the challenger, he was going to show him that heart and determination was going to be more than enough for him to come back and win. And he did, taking a five-round decision over Penn that would remain the crowning jewel of his precedent-setting career. It was so inspiring that it kinda made up for the food poisoning and flat tire I got on the drive home from Connecticut.
Two of the top young fighters in the game putting it all on the line? After years of covering boxing, the idea of that happening in the sweet science is a pipe dream at best, as rare as a Halley’s Comet sighting. But in MMA, it’s a regular occurrence, and though it wasn’t a main event, in many eyes it was, and it delivered on so many levels. But first a little background. Penn, who had never lost his UFC welterweight title in the Octagon - was returning to the UFC after nearly two years away, and the official announcement of his return came at UFC 56 in November 2005. Even in the days of instant information, this little tidbit stayed secret, and as I interviewed him backstage, he opened his shirt to reveal another shirt that read “The Champ is here.” It was classic BJ Penn, and the winner of the bout between Penn and St-Pierre would get a shot at Matt Hughes. That was the butterflies in the stomach part. The fight itself continued to add to the drama, as Penn issued a beatdown to GSP in the opening round, leaving him bloodied and bruised. But in the next two rounds, St-Pierre roared back and showed his fighter’s heart, earning a split decision win in the process. This was high-level stuff, and a fight that diehards and the casual fan could appreciate.
I admit it, in 15 years of covering combat sports, I’ve asked for one picture with a fighter, and that fighter was Royce Gracie (I later added Mike Tyson to that list). This is the man that started it all, and without him, the sporting world would look a lot different than it does today. So anyway, when he announced that he was coming back to the UFC (another pretty damn good secret), many hoped that he could turn back the clock for one night and show off some of his jiu-jitsu wizardry. If you were being honest, though, you knew that Matt Hughes was just too good at this point in his career to let that happen, and as the fight got underway, you hoped that Gracie would be able to leave the Octagon without an embarrassing defeat. And he did, showing off his warrior’s heart by refusing to submit to Hughes’ submission attempt. He lost, but he remained the great representative for this sport that he always has been. That’s all you can ask sometimes, and if you’re a fan, seeing the great Gracie live in the Octagon, with his father Helio in attendance, would have to be a highlight.
You know that there were people who didn’t know who Anderson Silva was before his UFC debut in 2006. 49 seconds later, they did, as he walked through steel-chinned Chris Leben in one of the most spectacular first-time performances in history. You immediately had the feeling that the Octagon career of “The Spider” was going to be something to remember, and while he had his ups and downs in terms of public perception since then, I got a taste of his quirky and engaging personality after the bout when I asked him how he got his striking to such a high level. He answered with a generic “I just work hard” response, but as we shook hands and I walked away, he said something to manager / translator Ed Soares and tapped me on the shoulder. I turned back and Ed translated. “The real answer to that question about the striking is that he says he’s one of the X-Men.” You know what, I believe him.
The lead-up to the Randy Couture-Tim Sylvia fight reminded me of the lead-up to Evander Holyfield’s first meeting against Mike Tyson. People weren’t worried whether Holyfield was going to win; they were worried that he was going to get seriously hurt. The same held true for Couture. He was returning to the Octagon after a yearlong retirement that followed knockout losses in two of his previous three bouts; he was going to do it at heavyweight, where his last two appearances saw him stopped by the much bigger Ricco Rodriguez and Josh Barnett; and he was 43. Oh yeah, he was fighting a 6-foot-8, 260 pounder in Sylvia. It was like the Rocky IV movie where Adrian told Rocky, “You can’t win.” But Rocky did, and so did Couture, and Couture had a lot easier time of things than Rocky did with Ivan Drago, as he shut Sylvia out over five rounds to win the heavyweight crown for a record third time. But the lasting image of that fight was Couture landing the first right he threw, dropping Sylvia in the process. The over 19,000 fans at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio rose to their feet and didn’t sit down for the rest of the fight. It was a sight you had to see to believe.
There were no titles on the line in this one, no shot at the belt for the winner, but Spencer Fisher and Sam Stout fought like their lives depended on the outcome. Yes, that’s a cliché, but if you looked from the outside and had never seen a prizefight before, you would have wondered what prize could be so big that two young men would put themselves through 15 minutes of hell to earn it. In MMA, boxing, kickboxing, playground at 3pm, or 2am outside a bar, this was one of the best fights I’ve ever seen.
Fighters have gone down two rounds to none on the scorecards before, and they will continue to do so. But what usually happens in a situation like that is that by the time the third round ends, it’s 3-0 or 2-1, the fighter loses a decision, and it’s off to the next one. But Roger Huerta, down 2-0 to Clay Guida in their 2007 bout, had a different view of the final round. He knew that the only way he was going to win the fight was to finish “The Carpenter,” and looking at his face before the bell rang for that third frame, you got the idea that he was going to do everything under the rules to do so. And shockingly, he did, completing one of the great UFC comebacks of all-time with a rear naked choke at 51 seconds of the round. And while Huerta rightfully received praise for his victory, let’s throw some kudos in the direction of Guida, who could have sat on the lead and coasted in the third, but instead fought with the same aggression that is his trademark.
Years and years in the making, Chuck Liddell and Wanderlei Silva finally got together in December of 2007, and it was a belated Christmas gift for every fight fan. Who cares if the fight didn’t take place in their prime – these two 205-pound legends fought as if they had never aged, and with the same ferocity with which they made their names. Every exchange drew oohs and aahs from press row, and roars from the packed house in Las Vegas, and that was the great thing about this fight – for 15 minutes, there was no distinction between fighters, fans, and media. Everyone in the Mandalay Bay Events Center was a fan that night, and Liddell and Silva made sure they gave us a fight to remember.
If you’ve known me for any length of time, you’ll be aware (and probably tired of hearing me say) that my favorite fighter of All-Time is former PRIDE and UFC heavyweight champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. So, after his UFC 92 drubbing at the hands of Frank Mir, the one thing I didn’t want to see was him go to the well once too often. That was the consensus, though, when it was announced that he was taking on Randy Couture in the main event of UFC 102 in Portland. Yet as the fight drew nearer, the more I kept thinking about the third fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, a bout that was expected to be a sad exercise featuring two past their prime legends, but that instead turned into one of the greatest boxing matches of all-time. Well, Nogueira and Couture lived up to that legacy in their bout, going back and forth for three action-packed rounds, and when it was over, Nogueira had resurrected his career – at least for the night – with a signature victory in a career full of them.
I’ve had the pleasure of being in attendance as Michael Jordan and Larry Bird played basketball, Derek Jeter and Albert Pujols hit baseballs, and Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Bernard Hopkins punched people. So to see greatness in action is always something special, and when Anderson Silva knocked out Forrest Griffin in August of 2009, it was one of the most amazing athletic performances I’ve seen, and I’m not alone in that assessment. Offense, defense, confidence, speed, and power – Silva had it all that night, and Forrest Griffin shouldn’t hang his head for the defeat because I’ve got the feeling no one was going to beat Silva that night in Philly.
I don’t care who you are, how much you can appreciate the intricacies of the fight game, or how often you treat yourself to a good bantamweight bout - everybody loves to see two 265-pound fighters punch each other. And when you get two high-level guys like Brock Lesnar and Shane Carwin doing it, the excitement level grows even more. So, when this heavyweight title bout was announced, you knew that there was no chance that this was going to be a boring fight or one that was going to go the five-round championship distance. And they delivered on all counts with a fight that included thudding power, drama, and an incredible display of heart. If you ever doubted Carwin’s power or Lesnar’s heart, you got your answers in this one, as the champion rebounded from a hellacious first round beating to submit Carwin in the second frame. But my favorite part of the bout was between rounds one and two, when Lesnar smiled at Carwin after surviving bomb after bomb as if to say, “You got yours; now I’m gonna get mine.” And he did.
I like Chael Sonnen. Anyone who writes about this sport simply has to because he’s a never-ending quote machine who’s never afraid to shake things up in the interest of selling a fight or getting a particular point across. And he certainly did plenty of both in the lead-up to his UFC 117 bout against Anderson Silva. This is where things deviate from the usual path, though. Typically, when guys talk a lot, their performance rarely lives up to the one they put on before the opening bell. But Sonnen not only backed up his talk, he surpassed it, pounding Silva for four-plus rounds. At Octagonside, it almost seemed to be a foregone conclusion that a new champion was going to be crowned, and I was already thinking up headlines and ledes to fully capture one of the great upsets in UFC history. That was my mistake to underestimate the champion from Brazil, and maybe it was Sonnen’s mistake too, as he got careless with his ground strikes and left his arm out too long. You don’t do that against a world champion, and definitely not against a world champion like Silva, who took that arm and submitted Sonnen moments later. And as bad as you felt for Sonnen to come that far and fall short, you felt just as good for Silva, who showed that he could perform not just when he was the hammer, but when he was the nail.
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