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

I love MMA history. Can’t get enough of it. There are times when upcoming fights don’t necessarily excite me, but I’m always able to throw on some older fights and be thoroughly entertained. Some people can’t do this. I feel bad for them. I suppose knowing the result of a fight takes away some of the intrigue, but at the same time you can watch without having to worry about if you made the right pick, bet, or who is going to think you’re an idiot when this fighter you hyped gets clowned. You get to appreciate the fighters and what they did on that particular night.

This is why I go back and I make lists like these. If you gave my ‘Top 25 UFC Fights of the Pre-Zuffa Era‘ a read, you’ll know that I focus less on the significance of the fight or the names involved, and more on the fight itself. Because when all is said and done, when years have passed and the hype has died down, you’re left with only the fight itself to judge how great it really was.

This second installment of the ‘Top 25 UFC Fights’ focuses on the period just before the sport truly exploded and became popular. I was lucky enough to begin watching during this time, and it remains one of my favourites to this day. Over the next week, I will be unveiling what I consider to be the Top 25 UFC Fights of the Pre-TUF Era. This is the term that I use for all the events the UFC held between Zuffa purchasing the company (prior to UFC 30) and the airing of the first season finale of The Ultimate Fighter (which happened after UFC 51).

It was an interesting time for the sport in North America, as the Fertittas and Dana White had seen the potential in the sport, and were basically going through a trial-and-error method of seeing what worked to parlay that potential into tangible results. In the four-year span in which this particular time period took place, we saw the evolution from Pro Wrestling style entrances replete with pyrotechnics, to the production and more down-to-earth style that is often associated with the UFC today. We watched stars rise (Tito Ortiz, Matt Hughes, Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture), fall (Tito Ortiz, Matt Hughes, Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture) and rise again (Ti… err, Matt Hughes, Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture). We saw relics from the sport’s past try to reclaim their former glory (Ken Shamrock, Tank Abbott), and we witnessed a new breed of fighter which would carry the organization into the future (B.J. Penn, Georges St. Pierre). All in all, we saw a lot. Oh, and there were a couple good fights too.

Anyways, without further ado we begin counting up to #1 with the first ten fights on the list:

26. Tito Ortiz vs. Ken Shamrock – UFC 40

Alright, so I know I’ve got you confused already. First, I said I was counting down the top 25, not 26. Then I said I was counting towards #1, not away from it, and this fight pops up right off the bat. In terms of importance to the sport I would rank few fights higher. However, when you go back and watch the fight it is merely good, where a then-elite fighter puts a beating on a man well past his prime. I even considered leaving this fight out all together, but then I thought to myself “this is Tito Ortiz/Ken Shamrock,” this fight basically saved the UFC. I watched it again, and remember what I was just saying about taking the significance out of the fight when judging it? There are some fights in MMA you simply can’t do that with. This is right at the top of that list.

Oh, and then there’s the small matter of Ken dropping Tito in the first round and you thinking to yourself (even if only for a moment) that he might actually pull this off.

25. Caol Uno vs. Yves Edwards – UFC 37

This fight is like the proverbial snowball gaining steam as it rolls down the hill. The first round was relatively slow, but featured a couple nice exchanges on the ground. The second round was some pretty solid stuff, with a few reversals, submission attempts from both sides, and Edwards even locking in a Bulldog Choke as the round ended. The third is what you come here to see though, and what makes this fight one which puts the UFC’s decision to put the Lightweight division on ice one of their more questionable decisions. I think I counted four separate times one guy took the other’s back in that round alone, some right after one another. The slow build is worth it, as this fight cracks the bottom end of our list.

24. Andrei Semenov vs. Ricardo Almeida – UFC 35

This was just a great all-around fight between two guys who were serious prospects at the time. It was one of those fights that starts nicely, and just continues to get better as it goes. Ricardo Almeida circa 2002 was the typical Renzo Gracie fighter, aggressive and entertaining on the ground, and surprisingly adept on the feet. This meshed perfectly with Andrei Semenov’s style to make for an exciting fight, and while the stoppage left something to be desired, that can only fall on Mason Crosby, not either of the fighters.

23. Matt Hughes vs. Frank Trigg – UFC 45

While their second fight gets much more attention in terms of being a great fight, the original encounter is also quite the match. It doesn’t feature the comeback  that Hughes/Trigg 2 has become synonymous with, but has just about everything else. In terms of technical wrestling combined and submission grappling this fight was excellent, as both fighters traded takedowns, positions, and submission attempts. Late in the first round, Hughes was able to take his opponent’s back whilst standing and managed to lock in a Rear-Naked Choke, eliciting the tap in one of the more memorable finishes the organization has seen.

22. Phil Baroni vs. Amar Suloev – UFC 37

This fight only lasted three minutes, but it was three minutes of awesome. Maybe not the best eva, but pretty damn good. There is one sequence of events that really makes this fight, and it starts with an illegal knee from Suloev. Baroni miraculously shakes the knee off, proceeds to have himself thrown half way across the cage and mounted, escapes a nice armbar from Suloev, and then proceeds to demolish the Armenian’s face. Post-fight, we get some classic Baroni mockery, as well as a work-in-progress version of his famous “Best Eva” diatribe.

21. Genki Sudo vs. Mike Brown – UFC 47

UFC 47 still stands up today as one of the greatest events in the organization’s history. Illustration: I compiled this list based on a time period that included 23 UFC events. That averages out to about 1 fight per card that should show up on this list. Wrong. UFC 47 provided four of the bouts on this list, and that doesn’t even include the main event between Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz that failed to make the cut (or the epic Wiezorek/Shipp clash). The first fight from the card to make the list is the battle between future WEC Featherweight Champion Mike Brown and all-around awesome machine Genki Sudo. Brown’s power and wrestling were evident early, but Sudo’s active submission game kept him guessing, and got the tap before then end of the first round.

20. Philip Miller vs. Mark Weir – UFC 40

Until I went back and rewatched some events, this is a fight that completely slipped my mind. It’s hard for a guy who retired in 2003 and a guy who now sports an almost .500 record to instantly spring to mind when talking about great fights, but this one was. At the time, both of these guys were undefeated, and they fought as if their sole goal was to keep that record in tact. Weir almost stopped Miller on multiple occasions, but most notably with a massive head kick to start round 2, but as was Miller’s style, he persevered, eventually taking Weir’s back and forcing the tap. Did it look like Weir quit? A bit, and that’s why this fight sits here and not further up the list.

19. Yves Edwards vs. Josh Thomson – UFC 49

The strangest thing happened after this fight. The UFC decided that coming off of one of the most memorable knockout’s in the organization’s history, that they would put the Lightweight division on ice. After this, 155 pounders weren’t seen in the UFC for 19 months, until two more incredibly entertaining Lightweight tilts at UFC 58 (Sam Stout/Spencer Fisher 1, and Edwards/Mark Hominick). One of the most baffling decisions the UFC has made under its current ownership, but hey, I guess if you’re going to take a division out, best to take it out on a high note like this.

18. Tito Ortiz vs. Vito Belfort – UFC 51

Up until Tito’s win over Ryan Bader at UFC 132, and Vitor’s most recent UFC tenure, this was really the last great performance by both guys. After being beaten by both Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell, Ortiz needed to prove he was still a top Light Heavyweight. Without an impressive, significant win since his knockout of Wanderlei Silva back in 1998, Belfort was reeling as well. Both fighters came out looking to make a statement, and in a surprisingly back and forth war given their reputations, they delivered. In what turned out to be the last main event before the sport would change forever, two of the biggest stars the UFC had seen put on a performance worthy of all those that had come before.

17. Vernon White vs. Ian Freeman – UFC 43

If you looked at Vernon White’s career record of 26-33-2, you’d probably be amazed he even fought in the UFC. However this fight, as well as the next entry on this list, show that despite being an absurd 20-23-1 at the time of his organizational debut, being entertaining can take a fighter a long way. Freeman, for his part, is no slouch in the exciting fight department either, as his name will pop up once again on this list. In a fight that meant about as much then as it does now (zilch), both guys threw everything but the kitchen sink at one another and were rewarded with one of the most unsatisfying feelings a fighter can have, a draw.

16. Chuck Liddell vs. Vernon White – UFC 49

I’ll be honest, a lot of Liddell’s matches during his heyday in the UFC weren’t all that interesting to me. He produced some amazing knockouts, but many times his opponents fought scared against him. It made for some fights that ended quickly, but also some drawn out affairs because Liddell wasn’t able to really mount the type of offense he would have liked to. However this fight turns that idea on its ear. Vernon White knew he was nowhere near Liddell’s level in any aspect of MMA, so he came out looking for a brawl, and Chuck was willing to oblige. White was dropped on at least four separate equations, but still managed to land solid blows a number of times on his opponent. It made for a wild four minutes of action.

See something you disagree with? Feel free to come hash it out with me on twitter @bradtaschuk. Or head over to the FightLockdown Forums, where I can be found to discuss all the recent fights and news in the world of MMA, along with some great betting discussion (if you like money).

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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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