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End of Year Rewind - UFC 79

 

On Dec. 30, the UFC’s customary end of year bash takes place at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, with Cris Cyborg defending her UFC women’s featherweight crown against former bantamweight queen Holly Holm in the main event of UFC 219. To get ready for the final event of 2017, we’re looking back at five of the UFC’s most memorable year-end shows. Today, it’s UFC 79, headlined by a quartet of MMA legends.

UFC 79: Nemesis
Dec. 29, 2007
Mandalay Bay Events Center
WATCH ON UFC FIGHT PASS
https://www.ufc.tv/category/ufc-79-nemesis-2

Here’s a little Holiday game to play with your MMA friends. Bring up the UFC 79 event and ask them what the main event was. I’m guessing many would say it was the light heavyweight bout between Chuck Liddell and Wanderlei Silva.

But alas, it wasn’t. The main event was scheduled to be a welterweight championship grudge match between champion Matt Serra and challenger (and former champ) Matt Hughes. But a November injury scratched Serra from the bout, leaving the door open for a rubber match for the interim 170-pound belt between Hughes and Georges St-Pierre.

That was your UFC 79 main event, and rightfully so, given that it was a championship bout. But to the fans that waited years for Liddell vs Silva, there was no question that this three-rounder was the fight everyone wanted to see.

Why? Here’s a little (okay, a lot of) background from that year that I wrote up in October 2007.

***
Liddell vs Silva – What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

Ever since 1998, when they fought on the same local show in Brazil, Wanderlei Silva has wanted to fight Chuck Liddell. It was something in the attitude of both men, an attitude that said ‘I’m gonna stand here and hit you, and you can hit me back, but one of us is going to go down, and I’m not gonna stop swinging until that happens.’

Both fighters would win that night - Silva over Mike Van Arsdale, Liddell over Jose “Pele” Landi-Jons - and go on to greatness in their respective organizations: Silva in PRIDE, and Liddell in the UFC. Eventually, as both rose up the ranks, the questions got louder and louder – when would these two 205-pound superstars fight?

It was a question the President of the UFC, Dana White, wanted answered as well, and it had nothing to do with the obvious financial rewards that would come with the bout. As a fan, he just knew that putting Liddell and Silva together would be the MMA version of Armageddon.

“Wanderlei Silva and Chuck Liddell both have the same style, they’re both aggressive guys that like to come out and strike, they’re both very intense, they both love to knock people out, and there was always the question of who was better, Chuck or Wanderlei, Pride vs UFC,” said White during a media teleconference.

But despite his best efforts, and after one mishap after another, it seemed that the fight would never come off; that it was destined to only be debated in internet chat rooms and on message boards and never in the Octagon.

The first strike came in 2003, when White sent Liddell to Japan to fight in the PRIDE Grand Prix tournament. Liddell and Silva were in opposite brackets, destined to fight in the November final if both got by their respective opponents. In the quarterfinals, both fighters did their part, Liddell knocking out Alistair Overeem, Silva doing the same to Kazushi Sakuraba. But on the night of the semifinals and finals, Liddell was halted by Quinton Jackson, who went on to face Silva – who decisioned Hidehiko Yoshida that night – in the final bout.

Fast forward to UFC 61 in July of 2006, when Silva was brought into the Octagon to square off with Liddell and announced as the Iceman’s next opponent if the UFC light heavyweight champion got by Renato Sobral the following month. Liddell did, but the fight still didn’t happen, as negotiations with PRIDE collapsed.

In early 2007 though, there appeared to be some light at the end of the tunnel when it was announced that Zuffa had purchased PRIDE, clearing the way for the superfights all fight fans wanted to see, including Liddell-Silva. But there were still hurdles to be negotiated, and when another proposed fight – this one for September 22 – collapsed, even the ever-optimistic White had to admit that things didn’t look too good.

“There were a lot of times when I thought it would never happen,” said White, especially through the whole crazy deal that we had to go through to buy PRIDE and then after that having to acquire the talent.”

“You never say it’s never gonna happen, but until you have something signed, you never say it’s gonna happen in this sport,” said Liddell in July, after the UFC 76 bout with Silva was scrapped. “It’s just one of those things. Before he had excuses, now he doesn’t. There’s nothing in his way now.”

Just a month later though, White delivered Silva, signing “The Axe Murderer” to a promotional contract that would finally bring him into the Octagon for a fight with Liddell.

“As crazy as this sounds, this is the pinnacle of my seven year career in this company,” said White. “I’m so excited to have this guy under contract. He grabbed my arm and looked me in the eyes like one of his pre-fight staredowns and he said ‘I’m gonna fight so good for you, you’re gonna see the best fights ever from Wanderlei Silva.’”

“This guy is a real fighter,” added White. “He reminds me of Chuck Liddell, and he’s the kind of fighter that all fight fans love to see fight. He’s a gunslinger. He will get in harm’s way to inflict damage and pain. This guy comes out like a speeding train and never stops. He goes for the finish, he likes to knock people out, and I just think he’s going to bring so much excitement to the UFC, I feel like I’m going to jump out of my skin.”

Of course there was one more hurdle to the fight, and that was the September bout between Liddell and 205-pound contender Keith Jardine. The afternoon of the fight, Silva was visibly nervous.

“Nervous?” asked Silva. “Of course. I want to fight him (Liddell). I’ve waited so long for this fight and everyone wants to see it. But a fight is a fight and this guy (Jardine) is a strong guy. But they have a movie out now, I see it many times on the TV, it says ‘Good Luck Chuck.’ (Laughs) That’s the message I give for him – good luck Chuck.”

Silva’s well wishes weren’t enough for “The Iceman” though, as Liddell dropped a three round split decision to Jardine, putting the dream matchup on hold once again. Yet despite Liddell’s two fight losing streak (which is matched by Silva’s back-to-back losses to Mirko Cro Cop and Dan Henderson), what fight fan out there didn’t want to see these two future Hall of Famers duke it out, regardless of whether they lost two or two hundred fights in a row?

Exactly. Everyone still wanted to see Silva vs Liddell, especially “The Axe Murderer.”

“He’s a great fighter,” said Silva of Liddell. “There are many good fighters, but for my first fight, I want to go with the best man. Even though he’s not champion anymore, he’s still the best man. There’s only one ending to this fight and it won’t go to a decision. One guy will go down – me or him. I don’t want judges.”

Liddell, who has also spent years waiting for the chance to throw hands with Silva, feels the same way his counterpart does.

“I think our styles will make for a great fight and I always thought I could knock him out,” said the “Iceman.”

They’ll get their chance to prove themselves at UFC 79 on December 29th, but strangely enough, the one most excited about this fight may be the person who tried for years to make it a reality, and who finally has. Not bad for a belated Christmas gift.

***

Hard to believe it’s going to be ten years since that fight on Dec. 29. And we didn’t even get to the main event. I think my main take away from the lead-up to UFC 79 was sitting in an empty parking lot somewhere in Jersey after a Thanksgiving week gathering and interviewing GSP about being put into the main event on short notice.

“I’m so excited to get this fight,” said St-Pierre that night. “I’m fighting Matt Hughes for the interim title right now, and then after that I’m going to go after Serra. I’ve wanted that rematch against Serra, and this is the best scenario that can happen.”

Of course, Serra had pulled off the upset of the century in April of that year when he knocked off GSP, and while the Montrealer wanted some payback, the champ wanted to get a chance to punch Hughes, who he coached against on The Ultimate Fighter, in the face.

“I can’t believe the position this puts me in,” said the New Yorker. “I’m actually rooting for Matt Hughes so I can beat his ass.”

GSP would get his wish to fight Serra in 2008, while “The Terror” wouldn’t get his crack at Hughes until 2009. And the ball got rolling in Las Vegas nearly a decade ago. Here’s how we saw it that night.

***

ST-PIERRE vs HUGHES 3 / LIDDELL vs SILVA

After a forgettable spring that saw him go through personal and professional turmoil which culminated in a knockout loss to Matt Serra at UFC 69, Georges St-Pierre rebounded spectacularly in the second half of 2007, beating Josh Koscheck in August and then ending the year at the Mandalay Bay Events Center with a second round submission win over Matt Hughes to win the interim UFC welterweight title and end their trilogy with a 2-1 edge.

“It’s a good honor, but Matt Serra is the target,” said St-Pierre of his interim title win. “Until I get my belt back, I’m not gonna consider myself a real champion.”

“No excuses,” said a gracious Hughes, who defeated St-Pierre in their first fight in 2004; St-Pierre returned the favor in November of 2006. “I came in 120% and really trained hard for this fight and had a great gameplan. Georges is the better fighter.”

The crowd engaged more than the fighters in the opening 90 seconds, dueling with chants of “USA” and “GSP”. But then the action picked up, with St-Pierre putting Hughes on his back. Hughes, in fairly unfamiliar territory, got pushed to the fence by the Montreal resident, who fired away with ground strikes on the two-time welterweight king. Hughes tried to stem the tide by holding St-Pierre close in order to force a standup, but a series of short slams diluted that plan quickly, and with seconds left St-Pierre looked to be close to a finish before the bell rang.

St-Pierre’s domination continued in the second round as he again took the wrestler down to the canvas. While there, St-Pierre’s work rate was relentless as he fired away with strikes while looking to improve his position. Hughes, while game, was getting outhustled and outfought at every turn. And with under two minutes left, St-Pierre got his foe’s back for a moment before the two stood. In the final minute Hughes tried for a slam but was instead tripped and thrown to the mat. The end followed, with St-Pierre sinking in an armbar that produced a verbal tap out at 4:54 of the round.

At UFC 79, there was proof that there is a Santa Claus. And though he came six years and four days late, he finally showed up with a fight between the two most dominant light heavyweights in history, Chuck Liddell and Wanderlei Silva, and the ensuing three round war lived up to all expectations, with Liddell emerging victorious via three round unanimous decision.

Scores were 30-27 twice and 29-28 for the former UFC light heavyweight champion, who broke a two fight losing streak with his win over the former PRIDE champion, who was trying to stop his own two-fight skid.

“It would have been a travesty if we wouldn’t have fought because it’s a great fight for the fans,” said Liddell in the understatement of the year. “I knew it was a big fight for everybody, especially for me to get back on track.”

“I gave my best,” said Silva. “Win or lose I like to give to my fans.”

Both fighters did that and more.

With flashbulbs lighting up the arena, both fighters circled each other warily early on, not wanting to be the first to make a fatal tactical error. Silva, after dropping his hands to taunt Liddell, engaged first, but none of his blows struck paydirt. Shortly thereafter, Liddell apparently hurt Silva, with Silva backing up to the fence either because his legs were rubbery or because he wanted to lure Liddell in. Whatever the reason, it worked, and the two threw bombs at each other, with Silva getting the worst of it as he emerged with a mouse under his left eye. Silva soon got his licks in and the crowd erupted, growing even louder as Liddell and Silva both scored with power shots that would have crumbled lesser men. After some more furious exchanges, the bell rang, ending one of the most exciting rounds of the year.

The action in round two heated up immediately, with Silva winging bombs at Liddell, whose straighter punches were leaving their mark on the Brazilian’s face. Not surprisingly though, Silva kept trudging forward, eager to engage and loving the battle. A minute and a half in, Silva started to land more on Liddell, but ‘The Iceman’ was accurate with his return fire. A slip to the canvas by Liddell put fans on their feet, but the Californian rose quickly, only to eat some power shots, one of which put him down for real seconds later. With under two minutes to go, Liddell and Silva clinched near the fence, and Silva, now bleeding from over his right eye, took the worst of it. Silva wouldn’t surrender though, and the ensuing exchanges to the bell were spectacular, and that’s an understatement.

“I hit him with a lot of big shots and he kept coming,” said Liddell.

Looking to close the show, Liddell – cut under his left eye - shot in and took Silva down to start the final round, but the two quickly rose back to their feet. The pace dipped for about 20 seconds after that before the haymakers started flying again. Liddell scored with a flush right that Silva shook off, and Silva responded with a shot off the top of the head that Liddell walked through. Surprisingly, a spinning backfist by Liddell jarred Silva, and a follow-up barrage got “The Axe Murderer” in serious trouble against the fence. But just when referee Herb Dean moved in to watch the action closely for a possible stoppage, Silva started firing back with both hands. At this point, with under two minutes left, it appeared that Liddell was winning this war, yet nothing stopped Silva’s forward march, and he gamely followed the tired Liddell in search of the equalizer. And though it never came, there was no question that the years of waiting for the fight were worth it, regardless of who won and who lost.