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The 30 Greatest Oldschool MMA Wars
MMA’s baby years were notorious for producing some of the biggest mismatches in history. These lopsided freakshow battles were crude, brief, and sometimes hilarious. Although these qualities are some of the main reasons why people watch old school MMA (Keith Hackney’s fights against Emmanuel Yarbrough and Joe Son were fucking Godsends), not every fight in MMA’s formative years was like that. Some old school matches featured fighters who were closely contested in skill and actually had the conditioning to fight for long periods of time. These attributes, coupled with a gritty no-holds-barred ruleset, resulted in some grueling wars that can be just as enjoyable to watch as modern MMA showdowns.
To narrow the scope of my selection, I define the “pioneer days” of MMA as any fight that was held up until the UFC’s second Ultimate Ultimate tournament in December of 1996. The conclusion of that event marked a major turning point in the American MMA scene that was both positive and negative in nature. It was negative in that old school heroes like Ken Shamrock and Don Frye disappeared from the game for a number of years and that John McCain’s campaign against “human dick-wrestling” had exiled the UFC from New York. It was also positive, however, in that subsequent UFC events introduced weight classes, mandatory gloves, and a higher level of talent than what had previously been witnessed in the game. Fights held before that point had a distinct, old school flavor to them that began to vanish as MMA initiated its evolution into the sport we know it as today.
The following is a list of what I feel were the best competitive battles held in the era when fighters were still just trying to figure out what worked. Although the technique in most of these fights is far below the level in what can be seen in MMA today, the balls and toughness of these gladiators cannot be denied even by the stiffest MMA snob. Enjoy, or die:
30. Jason Canals vs. Nigel Scantelbury (April/26/1996, Extreme Fighting 2)
In the annals of MMA history, few events are as notorious as Extreme Fighting 2. The show seemed doomed from the start, with at least half of the fighters and production staff being turned down at the Canadian border to prevent them from reaching the Kahnawake reservation in Quebec where they could hold the event. Most of the fights that did end up happening were so short that the show didn’t meet the required two hour pay-per-view block, thus straining Extreme Fighting’s relationship with the cable operators and leading to the promotion’s eventual disbandment. The real trouble started after the fights was held, however, when the Montreal authorities arrested everyone involved. It was an incident that scared the ever-loving **** out of everybody who was fighting in the sport at the time.
Despite the controversy, there were at least a few good things to come out of the event. The opening fight showcasing two unknown 140 pounders named Jason Canals and Nigel Scantelbury was a good effort on both fighters’ parts that lasted until the fifteen-minute draw. Both men, who were obviously cross-trained, engaged in a seesaw battle that had a good mix of striking, takedowns, and leglock wars. Neither fighter ever found success after the show, but in any case they provided one of the few highlight reel battles in the short-lived Extreme Fighting’s history. If you happen to get the DVD, watch the feature about the police raid after the show. Canals can be seen smiling as he’s being hauled away in handcuffs.
Just to note, the DVD also contains a feature where the Penthouse models who served as ring girls get naked together in a hotel room.
29. Yasunori Matsumoto vs. Mark Hanssen (Jan/20/1996, Quad City Ultimate 1)
Thanks in large part to Pat Miletich and Monte Cox, the Midwestern MMA scene produced a mega fuckton of stars back in the day. Guys like Travis Fulton, Jeremy Horn, Dave Menne, and Shonie Carter used to hop around the small-time shows out there and bust up at least one palooka per month just for the experience. Yasunori Matsumoto was one such dude who could be found plying his trade out there in promotions so small they literally didn’t have a venue. A Shidokan specialist, he had beaten such men as Dennis “Mine-Coleman” Reed and Matt “Warrior Training” Andersen, while also lasting upwards of fifteen minutes against the future UFC champion Miletich.
Utilizing a fighting style that somewhat resembled narcolepsy, a typical Matsumoto fight saw him being thrown around for ten minutes by a substantially larger opponent before making a dramatic comeback and pounding his foe into submission after he gassed out. His brawl with the mammoth Mark Hanssen played out exactly that way. After being ragdolled and smothered for somewhere in the realm of ten minutes, Matsumoto launched his counter-assault and slowly but persistently pounded Hanssen out. For his part, the 260 lbs Hanssen would later go on to beat three men in one night in the MARS: Shooting Stars tournament, as well as score victories over Jeremy Horn and notable Chuck Liddell opponent Noe Hernandez.
28. Jay R. Palmer’s Future Brawl Run
Jay R. Palmer was American MMA’s first lightweight star. The only problem is that he fought in an era where weight classes weren’t widely used, meaning the 150 lbs slugger ended up fighting mooks who were sometimes literally double his weight. That never seemed to halt his dominance of the Hawaiian MMA scene, however. Although Palmer’s martial arts background was functionally useless (He boasted blackbelts in everything from Taekwondo to Aikido), he possessed something that made him a borderline superhuman compared to the Toughman-esque thugs he was frequently matched up against: RAW ATHLETICISM. The wiry, little dude packed enough power in his diminutive frame to give even the heaviest goons he faced something to think about, and his conditioning more or less guaranteed him victory when the fight surpassed the two minute mark.
One of his most epic early battles was fought against bouncer and future murderer Robert Kaialau. Palmer started the bout by rushing his opponent with a jumping highkick that landed in the air about a foot in front of Kaialau’s face. Palmer was promptly taken to the ground… But he didn’t stay there for long (Thanks to Future Brawl’s policy of standing fights back up whenever they felt like it). The two then proceeded to brawl in and out of the ring for the next several minutes to the wild cheers of the piss-faced crowd. Palmer even tore off his gi at one point in a manner similar to Kazuhiro Nakamura against Wanderlei Silva, although Palmer looked cooler doing it because he didn’t end up getting knocked out. Eventually, Palmer hit his bulky foe with a sacrifice foe that was apparently too much for Kaialau to handle, as he tapped out due to exhaustion immediately after hitting the ground.
Palmer would dominate Future Brawl (Later Superbrawl) for about a year and would pick up a notable victory against future UFC fighter Brian Gassaway during that time. His undefeated reign would come to an end upon suffering a headkick KO to Muay Thai champion Danny Bennett in 1997. He was never able to keep up with the more technical fighters in the years to come and would subsequently accumulate a record of 18-21-0. For his part, Robert Kaialau would later be indicted on chargers of racketeering and murder in Waikiki.
27. Bart Vale vs. Mike Bitonio (Oct/17/1995, World Combat Championship)
Bart Vale (Aka, Ersatz Randall “Tex” Cobb) is a darling to Black Belt magazine and every other other martial arts periodical that unflinchingly believes a person’s claims of badassery despite substantial evidence to the contrary. In the mid-90’s, Vale was considered one of the top fighters in the world despite having only competed in worked “shoot-style” professional wrestling matches in Japan. A brief video snippet of him pretending to kick Ken Shamrock in the face was all anybody needed to put him in the same class as the Gracies. It didn’t even matter that the organization with which he fought for was named Pro Wrestling Fujiwara Gumi.
Unlike other frauds of his type, however, Vale was actually game enough to step up and do some real fighting. In 1995 he fought in the World Combat Championship, an early PPV knockoff of the UFC that tried to cash in on the no-holds-barred craze. The anticipated fight of the night was supposed to be Vale against Renzo Gracie, but the mulleted shootfighter would have to get by the scrappy Kapu Kuialua stylist Mike Bitonio in order to make that happen.
Bitonio, a student of Kage Kombat founder Kazja Patschull and teammate of UFC VI competitor John Matua, was undaunted by Vale’s superior size and reputation. Taking his larger foe to the ground immediately, Bitonio found himself quickly swept but hung on tight for the next several minutes. Enduring a persistent assault of Vale’s headbutts, the bloodied Bitonio never stopped trying to work his way out from underneath his opponent. After finally reversing Vale himself, the gritty Californian found himself caught in an arm-triangle choke and was finally forced to submit. The fight with Renzo never happened, as Vale would end up dropping out of the tournament due to injury. He would later take on the likes of Andy Hug and Dan Severn, losing both bouts. Bitonio died of a heart attack in 2010 at the age of 45.
26. Bas Rutten vs. Minoru Suzuki I & II (Pancrase
The sheer amount of fights Pancrase held between 1993 and 1996 was awe-inspiring. In a time when the UFC was putting on only a handful of events per years, Pancrase was putting out a new show once or twice per month (Sometimes hosting two separate shows on the same day). I could probably fill this entire list with Pancrase and Shooto fights, but for the sake of fairness I’ll be conservative in my selection.
Minoru Suzuki was easily the promotion’s biggest star upon its inception. He already had an impressive following from his pro wrestling exploits in Fujiwara Gumi and the UWF, and on top of that had legitimate credentials in Freestyle and Catch wrestling that enabled him to dominate his early competition. His feud with kickboxer Maurice Smith fueled interest in the promotion and helped kickstart the MMA craze in Japan (The loss to Smith on his MMA record was actually a kickboxing match, so in truth he was undefeated in MMA for his first seven fights). Mono-dimensional striker Bas Rutten, who had previously lost to grappling virtuoso Masakatsu Funaki, looked like he could fall victim to Suzuki’s own lethal submission skills.
Things did not pan out that way in their two encounters, however. The Dutch Muay Thai fighter cross-trained heavily in grappling and learned how to survive Suzuki’s ground assault, enabling him to break the little demon’s unbeaten streak in their first meeting and to win the King of Pancrase title off of him in their second. Rutten’s wins mark some of the earliest significant victories of a striker over a grappler in modern MMA and cemented the Dutch bruiser’s dominance over the organization. Suzuki would continue to successfully compete for a number of years, but the brutal Pancrase schedule took a hellish toll on his body, leaving his roughly as battered and broken as Kazushi Sakuraba would be years later.