Fights That Never Were: Vol. 1
For various reasons MMA fans often forget this, but we’re very lucky. Not lucky that we’re fans of the sport – since we chose to be – but instead because MMA is still such a young sport, and because of that we’ve often been treated to the best fights possible without all of the posturing that takes place in other combat sports.
Whereas in Boxing it is a huge deal when a #1 fights a #2, even if the fight itself isn’t a particularly compelling one – as we recently saw with Klitschko/Haye – MMA has developed a culture where the best fighters are expected to take each other on, and fans are disappointed when it doesn’t happen. We don’t realize how lucky we are to have a sport where the expectation is so grand.
However, in spite of the bests attempts of promotions, fighters and fans, sometimes fights just slip through the cracks. This series is to highlight those fights. To go back and see why we wanted them in the first place, how cool they would have been if they happened, and perhaps even pontificate on how they would have played out.
There are many fights to choose from in this category, simply because I’m looking all the way back to the beginnings of MMA, so rather than choose something like a Fedor/Barnett, I’m going off the beaten path a bit here. One fight that would have been amazing, but never came to fruition, was Jens Pulver vs. Rumina Sato.
Both Pulver and Sato are pioneers of the Lightweight division in MMA, but two guys who peaked at slightly different times, and never had the chance to cross paths. Had Sato defeated Caol Uno in their December 2000 rematch, it would have been him facing Pulver for the inaugural UFC Lightweight title, but alas these two failed to meet up ten years ago, and haven’t clashed since.
Sato was the first person to submit a BJJ Black Belt in MMA competition, and remain’s one of Shooto’s most celebrated figures. He was seen as one of the top P4P fighters in the late 90’s after winning many a bout with fantastic submissions. After starting his career undefeated in his first 11 bouts, Sato then fell in 3 of his next 5 fights. Since 2000, he has gone 11-12-1 in MMA, but has always remained the exciting go for broke type of fighter that made him so successful and entertaining.
Pulver was the UFC’s first 155lb champion and consensus #1 Lightweight through 2001 and 2002. However, after his most impressive title defense – against BJ Penn at UFC 35 – he left the UFC, and was never able to recreate the success he had in his original stint with the organization. Memorable fights in Japan with Takanori Gomi and Hayato Sakurai didn’t help Pulver’s win-loss record, but they solidified his place as one of MMA’s all-time fan favorites.
As if you didn’t already know, a couple of great fighters with vastly different strengths and styles.
The best time for this fight to take place would have been pretty much any time during the summer or fall of 2000.
After suffering his first three losses in 1998 and 1999, Sato was having a banner year in the twelve months following that third loss, with submission wins over Phil Johns, Rafael Cordeiro and Yves Edwards… each in under a minute. Adding to this, he also defeated Takuya Kuwabara – a man who had only previously lost to Takanori Gomi – in August. This put him on track for a rematch with Caol Uno, who beat him for the Shooto Welterweight (154lb) Title in one of MMA’s all-time classic bouts. The rematch would be for a potential shot at the UFC Lightweight Title, rather than the Shooto one. For Sato, this fight would have happened the second time he had risen to the top of the sport, and I can’t think of a better time.
Pulver, on the other hand, was just beginning his ascent to the top of the sport in 2000. He actually only began his career in 1999, and after impressing in a pair of Bas Rutten Invitationals, he got his first shot in the UFC. By the mid-point of 2000, he was 2-0-1 in the organization, and moving towards the top of the division. He suffered a setback in the form of a loss to Din Thomas in August (a minor setback in the Lightweight division in 2000, as Thomas was a top fighter), but quickly rebounded with 2 KO wins to close out the year. From Pulver’s point of view, this fight could come just before the Thomas fight, or late in the year after he pasted John Lewis’ skull and be equally effective.
This fight should have happened because it would have further brought together the Lightweight division in a time when it was still very fragile (as shown by the division’s departure following Pulver’s). Perhaps another top fighter like Sato would have provided sufficient resources to book and give the division more time to develop. Also, who is ever going to argue with two guys who were likely top 5 talents during the time period mentioned here getting put together to fight?
In addition to the logical reasons, the fight would have just been awesome. Pulver’s aggressive boxing and takedown defence against Sato’s all-out offensive grappling attack. If a Striker/Grappler fight like this was made today, people would be concerned about it being a Silva/Leites or Overeem/Werdum type of stalemate, but with Sato in the ring willing to dive for legs and attempt any variation of any submission he could do whilst flying through the air, those fears would be forgotten quickly. Even if it did stay on the feet, Sato had no problem trading with his opponent, which is exactly what Pulver would be looking for. Standing, on the ground or scrambling in transition, this would have been an excellent fight from anyone’s perspective.
HOW IT WOULD GO DOWN
I favour Sato in this fight. He gets a lot of credit (and rightly so) for his flying submissions, but his leg and foot work had a certain art to it as well. The reason this is so important is because back when Jens was at his peak, the only way people had seen him lose was by leg submissions. With that weakness, Pulver’s superior wrestling skills wouldn’t come as deeply into play, as Sato wouldn’t need to establish top position like most other grapplers Jens had faced.
Of course just because Sato enjoys himself some good foot work doesn’t mean he can automatically bust a leg lock at any time he chooses. He would still have to work to get there. As I said, Pulver has the superior wrestling game, as well as more power on the feet, which took him to the #1 spot in the world eventually. Despite those tools, Sato is a grappler who is so unorthodox that he catches submissions from clinches, jumps to his opponent’s back and just generally finds a way to put his foe in a bad spot. We he to accomplish that feat against Pulver (whether it be a leg, arm or neck) I don’t think Jens would have the submission savvy to extricate himself.
Give me Rumina Sato with a spectacular first round submission.