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.
25. Ricardo Morais vs. Mikhail Ilyukhin (Nov/25/1995, Absolute Fighting Championship
The Absolute Fighting Championship of Russia has become well-known in the MMA community recently thanks to a kick ass video posted on Youtube that highlighted the epic 32-man tournament’s most violent opponents. 6’8” BJJ fighter Ricardo Morais and 5’9” SAMBO fighter Mikhail Ilyukhin had both dispatched four opponents respectively before facing each other in the finale. The stocky Ilyukhin, who had previously won another 32-man event hosted by the same organization, had established himself as the villain of the tournament by defeating Igor Vovchanchyn by digging his chin into his eye and having stablemate Achmed Sagidgusenov take a dive for him in the semi-finales. Morais, meanwhile, looked impressive smashing all of his opponents in under two minutes.
The beefy Russian took his Goliath opponent down to the floor early and dominated the fight for the next eight minutes with headbutts and ground-and-pound. Morais held on tight despite having his eye swollen shut. It was the first time he ran into trouble that night, but he wasn’t ready to give up. Pulling off a sweet standing sweep, Morais returned the abuse his opponent gave to him three-fold before ending the fight with a rear naked choke. Morais would go on to be featured in the landmark MMA documentary The Smashing Machine, which featured his decision loss to Mark Coleman in Pride. Ilyukhin would go on to score twenty-one submission victories over the years, including a controversial kimura stoppage of Randy Couture and another chin-in-the-eye to Mestre Hulk.
24. John Lober vs. Igor Zinoviev (Oct/18/1996, Extreme Fighting 3)
Two forgotten champions from the early NHB scene crossed hands in Extreme Fighting 3, fighting to a three round draw in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The steel-toned SAMBO pimp Igor Zinoviev, who had previously bested the likes of Mario Sperry and Enson Inoue, was the Extreme Fighting middleweight champion and was one of the flagship stars of the then-prominent MMA promotion. Jeet Kune Do stylist John Lober, meanwhile, had won the International Fighting Championship heavyweight crown with wins over NCAA wrestler Eric Heberstreit and Hapkido practitioner Jamie Faucett (Despite the two holding titles in separate division, both weighed roughly 200 lbs).
Both men put on impressive performances. One highlight of the fight occurred early on, with Lober suplexing his opponent while caught in a guillotine choke. Afterwards the two warriors gave each other their due respect, although they would never end up meeting again. The two would, however, have notable encounters with UFC legend Frank Shamrock. John Lober would famously defeat Shamrock in his UFC debut before losing to him in a fight for the UFC middleweight title. Zinoviev would also attempt to snatch Shamrock’s title but would end up the victim of a career-ending slam. He later became an IFL coach for the Chicago Red Bears.
“Known as the 69 position here…” – John Peretti
“WATCH THE GODDAMN EYES!!!” – Gene LeBell
“You box for show, you grapple for the dough.” – Douchebag Commentator
23. Rei Zulu vs. Rickson Gracie (Jan/1/1984)
If your lucky ass happened to come upon one of the Gracie in Action tapes back in the day, then you were probably watching MMA years before anybody else would even have the opportunity. The documentaries showcased the exploits of the Gracie clan, featuring many of their most notorious battles along with narrator Rorion Gracie’s unyielding preaching of the Jiu-Jitsu gospel. As the first video began winding down we were suddenly presented with a match from Vale Tudo juggernaut Rei Zulu, a huge dude who had taught himself how to fight and was looking to challenge one of the Gracies to see who was really the best fighter in all the land. While Rorion pumped him to be some sort of monster heel, the wild brawler smashed future MMA promoter Sergio Batarelli before choking him into unconsciousness.
The Gracie clan would need to pick a champion who could tame this caveman/wolverine hybrid. Twenty-year-old Rickson Gracie would be the one to take up the mantle. He had slain King Zulu before, but this time around the iron-bodied mauler had studied the techniques of Jiu-Jitsu in preparation for the fight. The powerful Zulu was able to control his younger opponent in the early goings, but was unable to execute any submission techniques on the better-versed Gracie. As was typical with classic Gracie fights, Rickson spent much of the match “cooking” his opponent in his guard before going for the finish. Eye-gouging was not able to stop the mata leon, and the great Zulu was forced to yield to Gracie a second time. Rickson, of course, would wear the crown of family champion for many years and would amass a dubious fighting record of 400 victories. Zulu would continue fighting on into the ninties, and even had a few odd bouts in 2007 and 2008 while he was almost 60 years old. His son, Zuluzinho, is a noted super heavyweight and Pride veteran.
22. Don Frye vs. Gary Goodridge II (Dec/7/1996, Ultimate Ultimate ’96)
One day Gary Goodridge was just relaxing in his living room, watching UFC II on tape while his friends tried to goad him into to giving it a shot. A few months later and he was in the finals of UFC 8 against Don Frye. Goodridge didn’t have a Kuk Sool Won black belt like he claimed, but he did have a boxing background and was internationally ranked in the world of arm wrestling. He was also designated as a Goliath in the UFC’s David vs. Goliath tournament, which gave him the luxury of being larger than every fighter he faced. After handily dispatching of wrestler Paul Herrera and Lion’s Den protégé Jerry Bohlander, he faced the steel-stached Frye in the blisteringly-hot Ruben Rodriguez Coliseum in Puerto Rico. Exhausted from his previous bout and relying on raw strength, Goodridge gave an impressive effort but submitted as soon as his opponent managed to gain a dominant position two minutes in. “He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day,” was his response to the interviewer’s inquiry about his premature surrender.
Goodridge did get his chance to fight another day. His brutal performances in his first two fights and ability at self-promotion garnered him a following, which encouraged the UFC’s promoters to invite him back several more times in 1996. After lasting good lengths of time against Mark Schultz and Mark Coleman, two wrestlers who were stronger and vastly superior to Frye, Goodridge finally got another shot at his old nemesis in the Ultimate Ultimate 96’. Fresher and more skilled in grappling this time around, Shaquille O'Neal battled Tom Selleck in the clinch for eleven grueling minutes. Despite his efforts, in the end he ended up submitting to position just as he had done in the first fight. Goodridge ran away a second time, but true to his word he would come back to fight another day and would FINALLY get his revenge on Frye seven years after their initial two meetings. At Pride Shockwave 2003, Goodridge Yveled Frye with a head kick forty seconds into the fight, punctuating their feud in a manner similar to how Rampage Jackson finished off his trilogy with Wanderlei Silva.
21. Royce Gracie vs. Kimo Leopoldo(Sept/9/1994, UFC 3
I’m sure you all know this one. It certainly sent the martial arts rags of the day into a giddy frenzy. The first man to give Royce Gracie an actual challenge in the Octagon was not some black-knuckled karate master, flowery-robed kung-fu warrior, or highly conditioned Special Forces operative. He was a steroid-pumped former college football player managed by a rapist looking to score some bit parts in low-budget movies.
The bacne-embossed Kimo seemed to be looking to one-up his lanky adversary from the very beginning, entering the arena bearing a cross on his shoulders in response to the Gracie train. The Hawaiian slugger might’ve not possessed a black belt in Taekwondo as his manager claimed he did, but raw power and aggression would prove to effective substitutes against the outsized jiu-jitsu fighter. Royce was pushed to the point of exhaustion trying to restrain his erratic but mighty opponent. If Leopoldo had the modicum of grappling ability he displayed several months later against Pat Smith in K-1’s first foray into MMA, he likely could’ve won. As we all know, however, Royce pushed through his fatigue and submitted Kimo by armbar after a titanic four-minute struggle. The war took so much out of Royce that his corner threw in the towel before he could even begin his fight with Harold Howard, prompting Kimo and Joe Son to barge into the Octagon and celebrate as if they had won. As low as this action might seem, this douchebaggery pales in comparison to Harold Howard’s proclamation that he was the first person ever to defeat Royce. Sherdog no longer recognizes this “victory,” as an alternate would’ve in fact taken Royce’s place if SEG wasn’t worried about conserving time.
20. Tank Abbott vs. Oleg Taktarov (July/14/1995, UFC60
The finale of UFC 6 featured two fighters with very different backgrounds and motivations. One was a former Russian KGB instructor fighting for his right to continue living in the United States. The other was an American street tough who was competing in the UFC simply because he loved to fight. What resulted from this clash of opposites was a seventeen-minute war of attrition that saw the winner being carried to the hospital afterwards due to exhaustion.
Watching the fight between Oleg Taktarov and Tank Abbott is like watching two drowning men trying to climb on top of one another to keep their heads above water. The mile-high city of Denver is notorious for biting chunks out of fighters’ endurance in MMA events that are held there, and this fight was held without the modern luxury of round breaks. Much of the bout played out similarly to Royce Gracie vs. Dan Severn from UFC 4, with Taktarov trying to negate Abbott’s superior power and wrestling ability fighting from his guard. Unlike Severn, however, Abbott was both capable and willing to clobber him with ground-and-pound and tear at his cheeks with fish hooks. Despite this, Taktarov’s raw determination and lack of nervous tension would eventually allow the Soviet to push through and conquer his monster heel opponent. Just short of eighteen minutes into the scheduled half-hour affair, the badly fatigued SAMBO specialist submitted his American opponent and promptly fell off his back and collapsed like the Blue Mobile. The fact that he didn’t even have a green card at the time, perhaps, might’ve been what held his spirit intact for the duration of this grueling dog fight.
19. Igor Vovchanchyn vs. John Dixson (Mar/30/1996, IFC 1: Kombat in Kiev)
Some people are just ahead of their time. For five years, Igor Vovchanchyn was basically a shark living in a koi pond. Like a prototype amalgamation of Mirko Cro Cop and Fedor Emelianenko, “Ice Cold” was effortlessly smashing BJJ black belts in an era when having grappling experience was like having brass knuckles in MMA. His first exposure to an American audience in IFC 1 was a brutal affair. After obliterating ring giants Paul Varelans and Fred Floyd, Vovchanchyn took on the similarly massive John Dixson for the promotion’s inaugural title. The raucous slugfest saw the facial skeletons of both men end up deformed with fist-shaped craters at the end of the nine-minute affair.
Dixson had witnessed the aftermath of the beatings Vovchanchyn had dealt Floyd and Varelans, but figured he was a superior striker to the Ukrainian’s previous opponents. His speculation proved to be correct, as the hefty but agile Biloxian promptly broke Vovchanchyn’s jaw at the start of their bout. The immeasurably tough Ukrainian would not crumble, however, and came right back at his larger opponent to deal some damage of his own. Despite having spent fourteen minute more in the cage than Dixson, Vovchanchyn appeared to have more energy than the heavy-set martial arts veteran. After having his nose smashed to pieces, Dixson finally submitted on his feet. Despite being the finale to the show, this brawl often isn’t featured on the American release of IFC 1. This is because the event was controlled by the Ukrainian mob, and the American production crew had to make its escape without the finished tape of the show. The full tape was later recovered, although many DVD releases of the show still lack the fight.
18. Frank Shamrock vs. Yuki Kondo (Sept/7/1996, Pancrase 1996: Anniversary Show)
Frank Shamrock was another fighter who was ahead of his time, but he had not reached his full form during his tenure with Pancrase. Karate fighter Yuki Kondo was out to punch the former interim titlist’s ticket during the 1996 Anniversary Show. The fight featured good action all around, with Shamrock controlling most of the action on the ground and Kondo controlling most of the striking. The finish is what makes this clash oh-so awesome, however. Around twelve minutes in, the Japanese whirling dervish would rock Shammy with a barrage of strikes and send him out of the ring unconscious. Kondo would go on to win a plethora of titles in the organization and would famously challenge Tito Ortiz for the UFC lightheavyweight title.
17. Erik Paulson vs. James Warring (Oct/17/1995, World Combat Championship)
There are some people out there who think Ray Mercer vs. Tim Sylvia and Randy Couture vs. James Toney were significant fights. The original clash between a champion boxer and champion mixed martial artist happened fifteen years before either fight occurred, however. The meeting between Shooto Light Heavyweight Champion Erik Paulson and IBF Cruiserweight Champion James Warring is the most substantial and most forgotten match up in the pseudo-rivalry the two combat sports have going on. The fight occurred in the semi-finals of the “strikers bracket” of the World Combat Championships, which disallowed submissions but made legal everything else from headbutting to hair pulling. It might’ve seen like that, along with a twenty pounds weight disadvantage, would’ve been major handicaps to the technical maestro Paulson. The Thor-haired JKD/Shootfighting stylist brought something to the table that helped compensate for these deficits, however: Raw, unalloyed balls.
The fight lasted a bitter sixteen minutes. Warring, who also possessed numerous kickboxing belts and defeated Vitali Klitschko as an amateur, landed some good strikes standing up, but hair pulling would prove to be his most significant offensive move. Most of the fight took place up against the fence, with Paulson looking for a takedown and Warring holding the grappler back by his golden hair. The future Shooto champ would not let up no matter how many hits he had to endure, even after being dragged along the ground and stomped. Finally, after being smashed with a barrage of strikes that seemingly did him in, Paulson’s corner threw in the towel. The courageous grappler immediately stood back up following the end of the fight, nary a hint that he wouldn’t have kept going on. Paulson is a fokin’ Viking badass.
16. Don Frye vs. Tank Abbott (Dec/7/1996, Ultimate Ultimate ’96)
This is the definitive slugfest from the old school days of the UFC, unless you happen to have a soft spot for Cal Worsham vs. Paul Varelans. Despite the fact that Don Frye is mainly known as a brawler-wrestler today, back in the day he was considered the best technical boxer in the promotion (Go figure). The heavy-handed Abbott, of course, was the UFC’s bad boy and the promotion’s most popular attraction at the time. When you look back at it, it almost seems like destiny that these two punchers would meet. And for the UFC title, no less.
You know how it played out. The two met in the center of the cage and banged it out, with the thuggish Abbott getting the better of the exchanges. A slip of the foot turned the tides in Frye’s favor, however, and just as quickly as it started it was finished by a rear naked choke. This was the end of the true pioneer era in the UFC. UFC 12 and many events after saw the UFC predominantly relegated to the US South, with shows getting only a limited PPV release and sometimes no home video. At the same time, weight classes were instituted and eight-man tournaments were retired. Don Frye vs. Tank Abbott, in this sense, is somewhat of a benchmark in UFC history because of the substantial growth and turbulence that followed soon after.
15. Jerry Bohlander vs. Scott Ferrozzo (Feb/16/1996, UFC 8)
A great deal of the batshit theatricalism from the oldschool days of the UFC can be credited to a man named Campbell McLaren. The UFCï¿½s original executive producer, heï¿½s the man responsible for the promotionï¿½s early marketing campaigns that emphasized the brutality of the budding sport and heavily implied that someone would die in the Octagon. He only stuck around for the first nine events (Including UU ï¿½95), but was fortunate enough to witness his magnum opus see light. UFC 8: David vs. Goliath, which pitted smaller fighters against larger fighters as the name implied, was his swan song to the company. One can only imagine the inspiration came to him watching Chun-Li fighting E. Honda in Street Fighter II.
The most awesome battle of the night pitted two newcomers against one another, Lions Den protï¿½gï¿½ Jerry Bohlander and former wrestler and college football player Scott Ferrozzo. Ferrozzo, who was labeled as a ï¿½pitfighterï¿½ by the producers, resembled a 300 lbs. boulder filled with lard and steroids. His stocky, heavy build prompted commentator Jeff Blatnick to remark that he would be a nightmare for the comparatively miniscule grappler Jerry Bohlander to take down. Early on in the fight, the Nevadan Ferrozzo lived up to his nickname ï¿½The Pit Bullï¿½ by thrashing Bohlander with straight suplexes and mauling punches. As the battle wore on, however, it became clear that the 21-year-old Bohlanderï¿½s six months of training were enough to nullify most of the damage the apparent juggernaut he was facing was trying to inflict on him. Ferrozzoï¿½s lungs might as well have been filled with molten plastic as he tried to press on after eight minutes of action. After Bohlander finally did make him tap with a standing guilltoine, the two-ton mook dropped to the ground so hard a mountain rose on the other side of Earth.
14. Don Frye vs. Amaury Bitetti (May/17/1996, UFC 9)
Despite the heinous, one-sided nature of this bout, I canï¿½t help but think of it as a war. Bitetti was like Paul Newman fighting Dragline in Cool Hand Luke. He had nothing but wouldnï¿½t give up, and John McCarthy wasnï¿½t exactly quick to stop the fight. UFC 9 is easily one of the most fucked up cards in MMA history, but the courageous showing from both these men gave the night at least one highlight-reel worthy match-up
The early goings of the battle was actually quite competitive. Bitetti, a late replacement for Marco Ruas, came out aggressive and tried to take down Frye with a bodylock. The former Division I wrestler Frye staved off the takedown and jockeyed for position with his Brazilian opponent all around the ring. As the two brawled up and down the cage, Big John impotently warned them to hit with palm strikes only, a superficial enforcement of the new rule imposed on the UFC by the Detroit courts.
As the fight wore on, Frye seized more and more control of the bout by pounding Bitetti from every angle he could hit him. Elbows to the spine, grounded knees to the face, punches to the back of the head (ï¿½Keep those hands open!ï¿½). It didnï¿½t look like the jiu-jitsu ace had much anything left in him, but Big John let him keep going until a series of knees to the skull finally forced him to stop the fight around nine minutes in. The victory over the Bitetti, 1996 and 1997 Mundials champion in the Absolute division, prompted many fans to declare the well-rounded Frye as being ï¿½just as good of a fighter as a Gracie.ï¿½
13. Mario Sperry vs. Igor Zinoviev (Nov/18/1995, Extreme Fighting 1)
Battlecade Extreme Fighting matchmaker John Peretti knew that the only fighters who would come across as competent in a mid-90ï¿½s NHB tournament were the ones that knew how to grapple. For the promotionï¿½s first event he brought in three Carlson Gracie students (Including Carlsonï¿½s son), two SAMBO fighters, two cross-trained strikers, a wrestler, a Gene LeBell black belt, and a second Gracie. The most accomplished (And hyped) of the lot was 1995 Brazilian national champion Mario Sperry. Heavily promoted as the ï¿½man-to-beatï¿½ in the middleweight bracket, and sporting a blatantly fabricated, Rickson-esque record of 272-0, Sperry looked like an unstoppable ultra-star in the eyes of the audience despite nobody having ever seen him fight before.
After disposing of UFC 6 veteran Rudyard Moncayo with little fuss, Sperry was set to take on SAMBO specialist Igor Zinoviev in the finals. Zinoviev, a former Russian soldier, had defeated his first-round opponent with relative ease as well, but entered the tournament with several broken ribs. Immediately at the sound of the bell, Sperry was able to haul his taut-muscled opponent to the floor and assume side control. The announcers thought it was the end for the Soviet, until Zinoviev did something virtually unseen in the nouveau American MMA scene of the 90ï¿½s: He escaped from underneath a jiu-jitsu specialist. The announcers were blown away, but this was just the first of many surprises in the fight. No matter how many bad positions the Brazilian could put his foe in, Zinoviev was able to pop out and escape. ï¿½Unprecedented activity!ï¿½ shouted John Peretti.
Around ten minutes into the bout, Sperry found himself clinching the back of his Russian opponent, who was grasping the fence from both hands to prevent being taken down. Not wanting to let his good position go to waste, Sperry leapt atop Zinovievï¿½s waist in an attempt to lock on a rear naked choke. This gambit backfired badly when Zinoviev ducked and sent the Brazilian sprawling on the floor in front of him, leaving him open for a massive kick to the face. Sperry actually managed to score a takedown, but a cut that opened up above his eye immediately prompted the referee to halt the action and get it checked. The fight was stopped at the eleven-minute mark in Zinovievï¿½s favor to the booming cheers of the crowd.
John Peretti predicted the jiu-jitsu world would go nuts, and they did. A column written by Royce Gracie appeared in Black Belt Magazine several months later proclaiming that Sperry was not, in fact, a jiu-jitsu expert. He also claimed that Sperryï¿½s supposed record of 272-0 would be impossible to achieve (The irony was not lost on readers, who pointed out the ludicrous winning streak Rickson claimed to have). Royceï¿½s followers leerily believed him for several years until ï¿½The Zen Machineï¿½ Sperry tapped Royler Gracie and racked up numerous Mundials and ADCC victories. For his part, Zinoviev would remain Extreme Fightingï¿½s middleweight champion for the duration of the promotionï¿½s nickname. His ability to escape whatever bad position Sperry threw at him inspired the announcer to christen him with his nickname: Houdini.
12. Marco Ruas vs. Paul Varelans (Sept/8/1995, UFC 7)
At UFC 7, Marco Ruas gave us a glimpse of the future. He was a man not solely limited to the labels ï¿½grapplerï¿½ or ï¿½strikerï¿½ (Punch-kickers as they called them back then), but one who was capable of finishing you whether you were standing or on the ground. Over the course of the event, he displayed adeptness in virtually every skill a modern MMA fighter would need to play the game: Punching, kicking, takedowns, clinching, positioning, submissions. And all with a broken hand!
After two tough, protracted battles he would take on the giant Alaskan Paul Varelans in the finale. Varelans was an ex-college football player who signed up for the UFC after watching an event on TV and deciding it was something he could do. He was always game to fight and had a freakshow appeal because of his size, so the promoter were always willing to put him on card. When he fought Ruas, however, he endured one of the most epic leg kick beatdowns in human history. ï¿½The King of the Streetsï¿½ Ruas chopped his 6ï¿½8ï¿½ opponent down like a redwood tree. Varelansï¿½ s size and strength were made irrelevant by his inability to check a low roundhouse kick.
Much like after Sperry vs. Zinoviev, the NHB community was whipped into a shitstorm after this fight. Many fans speculated that the larger, more well-rounded Marco Ruas would be able to defeat fellow Brazilian champion Royce Gracie. Royce, much like he had with Sperry, wrote an article in BB proclaiming Ruasï¿½ ground skills to be sub-par. After all was said and done, Ruas didnï¿½t do a whole lot after his tournament victory. Despite this, Ruas is widely remembered today as a harbinger for the modern well-rounded mixed martial artist, and as the coach of Pedro Rizzo.
11. Royce Gracie vs. Dan Severn (Dec/16/1994, UFC 4)
Watching this fight in context is nothing short of amazing. I still remember my dad coming into my room after we had seen it for the first time to tell me it was the best fight he had ever seen. Royce was the 2X champion, but he had struggled in the last tournament against Kimo and was looking very human by the UFC 4 finale. Dan Severn, on the other hand, seemed like a juggernaut suplexing Anthony Macias and spearing Marcus Bossett mid-spin kick. By the looks of things, the undersized Royce Gracie was on the verge of suffering his first real defeat at the hands of this unstoppable freight train of manliness.
Royce had an edge over ï¿½The Beast,ï¿½ though, that took both warriors into deep waters. Severn couldnï¿½t get past Royceï¿½s guard and was extremely reluctant to throw a punch. For much of the fight Royce just fended off the powerful but inexperienced Severnï¿½s rudimentary submissions and made the wrestler work in order to wear him out. It was like one of Helioï¿½s old fights: fifteen minutes of the jiu-jitsu player ï¿½cookingï¿½ his stronger opponent inside his guard until he made a mistake and got choked out. The struggle lasted so long the pay-per-view ran out of time and went blank, but Royce made the behemoth pound the mat in submission all the same. It was likely the first time anybody in the audience had seen a triangle choke since the final fight in [i]Lethal Weapon[/i} (Unless Gary Busey was in the audience, as he sometimes was during the early UFC events.).
10. Masakatsu Funaki vs. Bas Rutten (Sept/7/1996, Pancrase 1996: Anniversary Show)
The uncharacteristically boisterous Japanese crowd cheered for their countryman as he bravely fought on against the hammering strikes of the Dutch kickboxer. The two had met before early on in Ruttenï¿½s Pancrase career, with Funaki quickly tapping the then-inexperienced grappler. El Guapo picked up the craft of submission fighting quickly, however, and would get a shot at revenge two years later. Rutten was the King of Pancrase at this point and would need to defeat Funaki to cement his legacy, but it would be a big wall to climb. Funaki was the founder of Pancrase and was a submission god. This fight for the title was destined to be epic.
The seventeen-minute battle saw the pioneer Funaki controlling the early goings with his grappling very well. Rutten wasnï¿½t a sucker like he was in their first meeting and could avoid getting submitted, however. Once he regained his footing he steadily began breaking down Funakiï¿½s defense and overall composure with his world-famous power striking. Funaki pushed on like a soldier marching through turret fire during an amphibious assault, but he didnï¿½t have the energy to take the fight back down to the ground where he wanted. Rutten even sprawled out on one of his takedown attempts during the latter portions of the fight, a rarity for the Dutchman at the time. The Handsome One finally consummated his revenge when Funaki lost all of his Escape points after being knocked down too many times. It was a highlight fight for both men.
9. Don Frye vs. Mark Coleman (July/12/1996, UFC 10)
During the early days of the UFC, the line between being a complete no-name and a world champion was pretty thin. UFC 10 pitted reigning champion Don Frye against a fresh flock of new faces. The Predator was confident he would retain dominance over the UFC and didnï¿½t put much effort into training. Thatï¿½s a bad way to approach things when one of the men in the tournament is a wrestler whoï¿½s substantially more powerful and accomplished than you are. Frye would soon know what it felt like to be Amaury Bitetti.
Coleman was pretty down on his luck before the UFC came into his life, and during his fight with Frye he released that newfound energy all over Fryeï¿½s skull. Using Fryeï¿½s face and body as a drawing board, Coleman invented ground-and-pound in this fight and subsequently revolutionized the game. Frye had the heart of a champion and pressed on no matter what, even throwing up a submission at one point. Colemanï¿½s brutality proved too much, however, and the fight was finally stopped at the eleven-minute mark. This war skyrocketed the popularity of both men to unprecedented heights in the budding MMA scene.
8. Carlos Newton vs. Jean Riviere (April/26/1996, Extreme Fighting 2)
Typically with David vs. Goliath fights you either have a small-but-skilled guy whooping some out of shape slob, or a big guy with training smashing a little guy into a bloody pulp. This fight was different, though. It featured a small-but-skilled guy fighting a very talented big man and making him look clueless. Jean Riviere was an eight-ton Kyokushin guy who moved with an astonishing degree of agility for a man of any size. His nineteen-year old opponent, Dragon Ball Z enthusiast Carlos Newton, gave up 100 pounds to Riviere and only ended up fight him because of their opponents got turned down at the Canadian border. The event organizers added twenty pounds to Newtonï¿½s weight in the tale-of-the-tape to make the fight seem more even.
At the sound of the bell, the announcers immediately began dismissing Newtonï¿½s chances for victory. Their attitude swiftly changed when ï¿½The Roninï¿½ started putting on a clinic of his trademark flashy jiu-jitsu. The striker Riviere couldnï¿½t throw much while his dreadlocked opponent clung to his back, pinned him to the ground, and just in general put him in every position where he wouldnï¿½t be able to hurt him. Handling a big man is exhausting, though, and for all the talent he displayed, Newton was still just an inexperienced kid. Seven minutes in and he tapped out due to fatigue while the big dude was on top. His surrender lost him no respect from those who were watching, and itï¿½s almost certain those who had witnessed the fight were not surprised when he won the UFC welterweight belt off of Pat Miletich five years later.
7. Vernon White vs. Katsumoi Inagaki (Nov/8/1993, Pancrase- Yes, We are Hybrid Wrestlers 30
You donï¿½t need to be top-tier fighters to put on a war. Sometimes balls and aggression are the only ingredients necessary for a good fight. This twenty-two minute, pre-UFC Pancrase match was pretty much all just heart and brutality. The rope escape and open-palm rules, a frequent target of criticism in regards to the organization, actually made this fight MORE violent because the fight was allowed to continue for so long.
If there were ever a fighter who was all heart, it would be Katsumoi Inagaki. The dude was an ex-bodybuilder who didnï¿½t look the part and had little skill to back him up. He NEVER gave up as long as long as he was conscious, though, even while getting his liver kicked into a field goal by Bas Rutten (Watch that fight, too). In the early goings of this battle, he controlled White well in a kesa-gatame and forced the former Taekwondo instructor to give up several of his escape points. White survived, however, and slowly began picking up the pace with his striking. The Lions Den fighterï¿½s offense picked up momentum like a snowball rolling down a hill, and as the fight progressed it eventually became a full-on ass whooping. Not only did Vernon ignore the open-hands rule on several occasions, but he also blew right past NHB territory into just plain dirty pool. Nut kicks, soccer kicks, chops to the back of the headï¿½ Inagaki took it all and kept pressing forward. His body was trashed; he was physically incapable of performing any meaningful offense. Still, in the end, he actually tried begging the referee to let it continue after the doctor had seen enough. The full impact of this fight can only be felt by watching the video.
6. Ken Shamrock vs. Yoshiki Takahashi (Oct/14/1993, Pancrase- Yes, We are Hybrid Wrestlers 2)
Yoshiki Takahashi is an interesting specimen. He had a heart comparable to the aforementioned Inagaki, but he also had skill and power to back him up. Shamrock found himself challenged by all these attributes in their first battle in Pancraseï¿½s second event.
Early on in the bout, the former highschool wrestling champion Takahashi dropped Shammy to the floor with two high-altitude double leg slams. Ken liked to brag in his biography about how difficult it was for people to put him on his back, so apparently this was a big accomplishment. Takahashi wasnï¿½t able to keep control of the match for very long due to WMDM shooting skills, and ended up having to fight through a great deal of punishment. Over the course of the bout he suffered a broken jaw, knee damage, and even unconsciousness after being choked out just after he grabbed the ropes for an escape. Still, he kept fighting on for twelve minutes before finally submitting to a heel hook. The damage he suffered early on probably trashed his body for the remainder of his career, which is still active to this day. He did, however, become the inaugural Pancrase heavyweight champion and also famously defeated Wallid Ismail in UFC 12.
5. Matt Hume vs. Erik Paulson (Oct/18/1996, Extreme Fighting 3)
It was a fight ahead of its time. In an era when overweight mystery men with their own, imaginary fighting styles were still being allowed to compete in the UFC, two men dared to put on a war of finesse and technique. Fluidly transitioning from grappling to striking, going toe-to-toe armed with skill rather than brute force… That’s what this fight was about. Matt Hume might’ve had trouble fighting larger men in Pancrase, but when he made his NHB debut against Shooto champion Erik Paulson he proved his mettle as a fighter. A cut in the third round ended the battle in Hume’s favor, but it wouldn’t be the last time MMA world got to see the AMC Wizard’s technical brilliance despite his short career. In Extreme Fighting 4, Hume fought a similarly skillful battle with the legendary Pat Miletich, winning that fight as well. He also defeated Olympic gold-medalist wrestler Kenny Monday in a pay-per-view grappling contest by submission.
4. Tom Erikson vs. Murilo Bustamante (Nov/22/1996, Martial Arts Reality Superfighting)
In the one-shot Martial Arts Reality Superfighting, two of the most underrated fighters of all time battled to a forty-minute draw in a fight that completely changed the landscape of MMA. Tom Erikson was an All-American wrestler in an era when All-American wrestlers were a dime-a-dozen in MMA. Erikson stood out, though, in that he completely dwarfed his contemporaries in both power and skill. Don Frye, Mark Coleman, Mark Kerr, Kevin Jackson, Randy Couture, and Dan Henderson were all small fry compared to the 6’3”, 280 lbs. Boilermaker. Few wanted to step into the path of this Bagger 288, and thus who did typically paid their fee in brain cells a few minutes in (like Kevin Randleman, for instance).
Murilo Bustamante was a horse of a different color: A lightheavyweight/middleweight Vale Tudo fighter with a jiu-jitsu pedigree. The pair handled their respective first two opponents with relative ease before clashing in the epic finale. All the power and wrestling ability in the world can be stymied by an inability to pass an elite-level guard, as Erikson found out in this lengthy struggle. The future UFC middleweight champion Bustamante was a master of his craft and could keep his megaton opponent at bay. Despite his strength, the only way Erikson would have a hope at hurting his outsized opponent would be to spontaneously INVENT a new method to attack the guard. So he did.
Standing back up, Erikson would repeatedly dive on Bustamante to score punches before disengaging and standing back up. It was somewhat similar to Brendan Schaub’s strategy against Cyborg, although it didn’t make Erikson look stupid because he actually achieved something doing this. By the end of the forty-minute draw, one of the longest fights in MMA history, Bustamante face was visibly damaged. Following the fight, both fighters would continue to be awesome but receive substantially less recognition for their talents than they deserved.
3. Maurice Smith vs. Conan Silveira (Oct/18/1996, Extreme Fighting 3)
When Royce Gracie burst onto the martial arts scene, it completely changed the way millions of people thought about fighting. A 9th degree camo sash in Shaolin Kempo Taekwondo no longer guaranteed you invincibility in the eyes of the people. Many strikers and traditionalists chose to keep their heads warmly rooted within their assholes in the face of this evidence, making excuses rather than trying to learn. Others stepped up to reassert the self-perceived superiority of their disciplines, with universally disastrous results. A few, however, caught on immediately that they would need to learn how to grapple in order to survive in the octagonal Tartarus.
Enter Maurice Smith, former ten-year champion of the World Kickboxing Association. Smith was offered a slot in the UFC since the first event, but knew he wouldn’t be able to achieve victory without grappling ability. A three-year tenure in Pancrase and an alliance with Frank Shamrock, however, got him up to speed enough for him to make his NHB debut. Extreme Fighting wouldn’t be giving him no tune-up fights, though. The first time he stepped into the cage would be against thuggish Carlson Gracie-student Conan Silveira, the heavyweight champion.
The fight started out like virtually all Striker vs. Grappler bouts had before it, with Silveira the BJJ specialist taking Smith the kickboxer down to the ground. What happened next, however, was unexpected: Smith swept Conan and spent the rest of the five-minute round (Or “phase,” as Extreme Fighting called it) on top. The astonished crowd cheered Smith’s name as he took his minute break. “Unprecedented activity!” indeed. The following round saw the tattooed jiu-jitsu fighter too exhausted to bring Smith back down to the ground again, his lunging Gracie Tackles effortlessly deflected and countered by Smith. From that moments onwards, sprawl-and-brawl would be a legitimate strategy in MMA.
The desperate champion did do all in his power to hold the belt. While Smith was backed up against the fence at one point, he unleashed a flurry of arm punches in an attempt to overwhelm his opponent as he did with Pankration fighter Carl Franks in his last fight. Smith, however, was on an entirely different level of striking than anybody Conan had faced prior. After taking a dose of return fire, Silveira resigned not to try and trade with the kickboxer any longer. He was too winded to execute much of anything, however, and when the third round came Smith lowered the boom. A right headkick hit Conan so hard that his body couldn’t even register that he had been lobotomized by blunt trauma. The referee impressively recognized that he was out on his feet, declaring Smith a winner of the most unlikely sort. This victory served as a prelude to Smith’s more-famous foray into the UFC, namely his championship win over Mark Coleman.
2. Bas Rutten vs. Frank Shamrock III (May/16/1996, Pancrase: Truth 5)
A surprising amount of rivalries developed in the first few years of modern MMA’s existence: Ken Shamrock vs. Royce Gracie, Ken Shamrock vs. Tank Abbott, Marco Ruas vs. Oleg Taktarov, BJJ vs. Luta Livre, Minoru Suzuki vs. Maurice Smith, etc. Most of these feuds fizzled out, resulted in ****, or spurred massive riots that tore up the stadium. One early rivalry, however, paid off like a ************.
Frank Shamrock and Bas Rutten had met twice before, both scoring one victory apiece. Their first bout, taking place in the opening round of the King of Pancrase Tournament, resulted in the debuting Shamrock scoring a colossal decision upset over the substantially more experienced Dutch kickboxer. Rutten rectified this loss in their rematch, however, and subsequently won the KOP. When an injury prevented him from defending his crown, however, Frank stepped in and won the interim belt off of Minoru Suzuki. This was the perfect set-up for their unification bout, which ended up being one of the most bombastic trilogy finales in MMA history.
The fight was akin to a pro-wrestling spotfest, in that every significant move made by either fighter was grandiose and awesome. Front suplex to a spinning backfist, followed by a spear through the ropes with a flying guillotine, and capped off with a leglock war. The most famous moment in the fight occurred towards the end, when Frankie tried to goad Bas into to punching him with a closed fist in order to cost him a point. The bid ultimately failed when the doctor stopped the fight due to Shamrock’s cuts eleven minutes in. Two of the best fighters from the 90’s, meeting in one of the best fights from the 90’s.
1. Yuki Nakai’s Japan Vale Tudo Run (April/20/1995)
The star of the Vale Tudo documentary Choke was supposed to be Brazilian legend Rickson Gracie. His face, after all, appears on the box cover and he’s the man focused on most prominently out of the three fighters examined over the course of the movie. But as the film dragged on and viewers were forced to listen to ol’ Rickson repeatedly ask for a towel and Todd Hays complain about the rules, their attentions inevitably shifted to one little dude fighting on the periphery of what the film was focusing on. In the first round he was battered by one of the nastiest fighters of all time but still won after a four round dogfight. In his second fight he took on a heavyweight Greco-Roman wrestler who once battled Alexander Karelin and beat him in two. In the finals, he took on Rickson and lasted six minutes before finally tapping out. At the end of the day, the 155 lbs. Shooto fighter Yuki Nakai was the true star of Japan Vale 1995, and one of the biggest badasses of all time.
The welterweight champion was chosen to represent Shooto by the organization’s commission for the 1995 event. The previous years tournament saw Nakai’s fellow shooters Kenji Kawaguchi and Kazuhiro Kusayanagi annihilated in their first round bouts. The Shooto Commission couldn’t afford to **** around choosing the man whom would represent their art to the world, and the second time around they got it right. With heart and honor like no tomorrow, and a technical pedigree to match, Nakai defiantly took everything his first two oversized opponents could dish and out and finished them off just when it was looking like all hope was gone. Gerard Gordeau and Craig Pittman, as powerful and nasty as they were, ended up Determinated by their seemingly innocuous lightweight foe. The only downside to watching the whole affair is the knowledge that Nakai had to retire following the tournament due to the injuries he sustained. In the first round, Gordeau gouged his right eye to the point of blindness. He fought the rest of the night with only one good eye.