The Top 25 UFC Fights of the Pre-Zuffa Era: Part 1 – 25-16

Over the next few days I’m going to be re-publishing one of my favorite series of articles, one that examines an often overlooked and underappreciated point in the UFC’s history. Many fight fans, especially those newer to the sport are not even aware of the existence of many of these fights, other than knowing that UFC 1 had to come before UFC 100. As a result, some of the classic fights that have taken place in the UFC don’t get nearly the recognition they deserve. Here is their chance.

That was actually the original purpose of this article as well. I was so dismayed by some of the choices and omissions from the UFC’s list of the top 100 fights that I felt the need to highlight an era that was all but erased from the history books. The reason that I like this set of articles so much is because that we have so much MMA going on right now that we rarely get a chance to go back and celebrate some of the great fights this sport has produced. Going back and creating lists like this not only gives you a chance to perhaps learn about some fights you didn’t know about, but it gives me the opportunity to watch amazing fights, and really, that’s what being an MMA fan is all about.

Just so the first couple paragraphs of the article make sense, you should know that I had originally entitled these articles “The Conscientious Objector’s Guide to the Greatest 100 UFC Fights of All-Time”.

Originally Published: August 17, 2009

The Conscientous Objector’s Guide to the Top 100 UFC Fights of All-Time

You read that title correctly. I consider myself a conscientious objector to the list that the UFC recently compiled and passed off as its ‘Ultimate 100 Fights’. I object on behalf of the MMA community to a list that should be considered morally repugnant to all fans of the sport of MMA. There were so many things that made that list an absolute shell of what it could have been. Obviously Dana White’s personal feelings played a role (as no Frank Shamrock or Tito Ortiz victories were included), and obviously the show was used as a way to further advertise the present day UFC brand (which is the only explanation for Lesnar/Mir 1 and Silva/Franklin 1 & 2, among others, being anywhere near the top 10 of what should have been a storied list).

I could not in good faith let this charade of a list go by without offering some sort of response, in the form of my own honestly assembled list, free of the obvious agenda behind the UFC’s creation. So, that all being covered, I present to you the first part of my list, the top 25 fights spaning the pre-Zuffa UFC era (33 events spanning UFC 1-UFC 29), which was the most largely ignored timeframe in the “official” list.

In the compilation of this list, the best attempt possible was made to ignore name value of the fighters, the hype leading up to a fight, or its historical impact. Fights were judged primarily on the merits of what occurred bell-to-bell.

25. Royce Gracie vs. Dan Severn – UFC 4

I can already picture the heads of UFC purists exploding right off their shoulders reading that this ‘classic’ is number 25. The fact is, the only thing this fight really has going for it is drama. Aside from the drama of wondering whether Royce could submit this big strong wrestler, this fight is almost 15 minutes of the epitome of Lay N Pray. Royce threw up about three submission attempts before catching the greener than grass Severn in one of his patented painfully slow submissions. This fight is much less than most people try to remember it as, and is nowhere near close to Gracie’s best Octagon performance.

24. Don Frye vs. Tank Abbott – Ultimate Ultimate 96

It was a quick one, but it was entertaining. In 82 seconds, there were fists flying, knocksowns, reversals on the ground, and eventually Tank Abbott (who was still a feared man at this point, and not a joke) tapping the mat to a bloodied Don Frye.

23. Jens Pulver vs. David Velasquez – UFC 24

This is one of those Rodney Dangerfield fights (which you’ll see a lot of on this list). This fight was about seven minutes of pure action. Some may argue that it was too one-sided to be on a list like this, but Velasquez gave an excellent account of himself, and provided Pulver with a stiff test before finally succumbing to strikes on the ground. Part of one of the most overlooked cards in UFC history, and one of three fights from that card to make this list.


22. Frank Shamrock vs. Jeremy Horn – UFC 17

What a shame that so few people have seen this fight due to the whole ‘Night of Champions’ ordeal. Shamrock and Horn put on one of the most fight grappling matches of the early UFC days in this classic. Jeremy had Frank in trouble many times in this fight, but Shamrock always found a way to extricate himself from the situation. Finally, in overtime Frank found the slight opening he needed in Jeremy’s defenses, and locked in a kneebar to put the (then) youngster away.

21. Dan Henderson vs. Carlos Newton – UFC 17

Alright, so let’s forget about the decision for a second, because that was the only disappointing part of this fight, and remember, the fights on this list are judged from bell-to-bell. This fight had some of everything. Fun striking exchanges, knockdowns, submission attempts, transitions and swings of momentum right up until the final bell. Yeah, the decision might have sucked, but the fight sure didn’t.

20. Don Frye vs. Amaury Bitetti – UFC 9

I know, it’s shocking that anything associated with UFC 9: “Motor City Badness” could make a list like this, but Frye/Bitetti was a shining light in an otherwise embarrassing effort from the UFC. Like Pulver/Velasquez earlier, this fight became quite one-sided towards the end, but in the early moments of this fight Bitetti played the role of Jorge Gurgel’s future inspiration, throwing caution (and his BJJ) to the wind and going to war with Frye in a fight that was actually able to awake the Cobo Arena crowd that fateful May 17th.

19. Shonie Carter vs. Brad Gumm – UFC 24

There was a time when Shonie Carter was one of the most entertaining fighters in the world on a consistent basis, and not just a walking Halloween costume. This fight – which is the second offering from UFC 24 – is a prime example, as Carter and Gumm end up all over the place over this 10 minute battle. The only thing missing from this fight was a third round, which is a shame because it very well could have moved this fight up the list a great deal.

18. Marco Ruas vs. Larry Cureton – UFC 7

I believe that Larry Cureton is the only fighter who is both winless in his MMA career and makes an appearance on this list anyways. Somehow, ‘Thunderfoot’ decided to put on the fight of his life against Marco Ruas, which made for an incredibly entertaining bout. Eventually Ruas put Cureton away (with a heel hook… for extra credit), but not without an incredibly disproportionate amount of struggle considering the skill differential between these two fighters.


17. Bas Rutten vs. Tsuyoshi Kohsaka – UFC 18

Bas Rutten was the most hyped and anticipated fighter to enter the UFC in its early days and his debut did not disappoint. After being controlled by TK for almost the entirety of the fight, and never being able to get into a rhythm, Bas exploded on Kohsaka in the final minute to score one of the greatest come from behind victories seen in the early UFC.

16. Dave Beneteau vs. Carlos Barreto – UFC 15

No matter who won this fight in the semifinals of the UFC 15 tournament, they were doomed in the finals against then unstoppable Mark Kerr, so these two fighters went out and put everything on the line in a show to determine who was the second best fighter in this particular bracket. The fight did not disappoint, and Beneteau scored a somewhat surprising upset in a fight that was extremely entertaining both on the feet and on the ground.

Next time out, we’ll count down fights 15-6 of the pre-Zuffa era, before moving on to the greatest fights that the UFC produced prior to becoming a viable business. Check it out.

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About bradtaschuk

An MMA enthusiast who also fancies himself a writer, I've been following the sport in depth since moving off to University in the fall of 2004 allowed me more free time than I knew what to do with. Quickly, an obsession with watching as much MMA as possible developed, which has continued to this day in the form of writing and editing articles for various MMA sites, and now to my own blog about my views on the sport.
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