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The Kazushi Sakuraba Era: April ‘99 – March ‘01
Despite the country’s rich martial arts history, Japan didn’t have an MMA star to call its own until the arrival of a brilliant submission artist who would eventually be known as The Gracie Hunter. Kazushi Sakuraba originally toiled as a professional wrestler in the early ‘90s, picking up catch wrestling from Billy Robinson. As a publicity stunt for their employers at Kingdom Pro Wrestling, Sakuraba and Yoji Anjoh entered the four-man heavyweight tournament at UFC Japan, and despite being severely outweighed, Sakuraba was the last man standing.
Sakuraba immediately found success in the PRIDE organization, scoring submission wins over Vernon White and Carlos Newton (in one of the greatest MMA grappling exhibitions of all time, by the way), but it was his upset decision win over Vitor Belfort at PRIDE 5 that established him as Japan’s official fighting hero. Saku represented all that was great about the Japanese fighting mentality — he was smaller than most of his opponents, but smarter and more inventive, not to mention absolutely fearless. Following the Belfort fight, Sakuraba would go on to win eight of his next nine PRIDE bouts, including victories over Royler Gracie, Royce Gracie (in a 90-minute battle of attrition at the 2000 Open Weight GP), Renzo Gracie, and Ryan Gracie. Though other Brazilian fighters like Wanderlei Silva and Ricardo Arona would later avenge their country’s reputation in brutal fashion, Sakuraba’s colorful personality and inspiring in-ring performances have made him one of the true legends of the sport.
The Tito Ortiz Era: April ’00 – September ‘03
From the moment he put on a custom-made “I Just Fucked Your Ass” t-shirt following his beating of Jerry Bohlander at UFC 18, it was clear that Jacob “Tito” Ortiz was as much a promoter as he was a fighter. Between his entertaining trash-talk, bleach-blonde hair, and aggressive ground-and-pound style, fans went nuts for the Huntington Beach Bad Boy, turning him into the UFC’s first big-money draw.
After losing his first title-fight to Frank Shamrock in a classic four-rounder at UFC 22, Ortiz got another shot at the 205-pound belt the next year when Shamrock vacated his title. This time, he was successful — Ortiz used his takedowns to win a unanimous decision over Wanderlei Silva, and would successfully defend the belt five more times. By the time he lost his title to Randy Couture at UFC 44, he had been holding it for three years and five months.
Later, his multi-fight feuds with Chuck Liddell and Ken Shamrock became blockbuster successes, and helped put the UFC in the black after the lean early years of Zuffa’s takeover. His last post-fight t-shirt, worn after his defeat by Lyoto Machida at UFC 84, carried the message “I Did It My Way.” Say what you want about Ortiz’s malapropisms or increasing irrelevance — you can’t argue with that particular career summary.
The Wanderlei Silva Era: December ’00 – June ’05
In his prime, “The Axe Murderer” was the unfuckwithable bad-ass of Pride. Not only did he sit atop the organization’s 205-pound division, he stomped the hell out of anyone who dared to get close to it. His style wasn’t terribly technical, but it was aggressive and it was violent. He waded into opponents like Kazushi Sakuraba and “Rampage” Jackson with vicious hooks and knees, combining the ability to recover quickly with the complete inability to take a step backwards.
Only when Pride made him fight heavyweights like Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic and Mark Hunt did he look the least bit vulnerable, and his balls-out style made him one of the most popular fighters in all of MMA. His reign only came to an end with a decision loss to Ricardo Arona at Pride Final Conflict 2005, followed later by back-to-back knockout losses against Cro Cop and Dan Henderson. As with most fighters who rely on brutal striking ability, the decline came sharply — but as his peak there was no one more terrifying.
The Matt Hughes Era: November ’01 – September ’06
Hughes slammed his way into MMA lore with his famous knockout of Carlos Newton at UFC 34, and went on to cement his place as one of the most dominant UFC champs of the modern era. All told, the Country Boy has gotten the welterweight championship belt put around his waist nine times, which ties him with Randy Couture for the all-time UFC record. His wrestling ability allowed him to dictate where the fight would be decided, and his absolute unwillingness to quit made him impossible to break over the course of a five-round title bout.
Though his stand-up game was hardly much more than perfunctory and his submissions were more a result of his ground-and-pound skills than slick jiu-jitsu prowess, he decimated the UFC welterweight division by coming in to each fight with a game plan that was a surprise to absolutely no one, and then executing it to perfection anyway. Only a submission loss to B.J. Penn at UFC 46 marred his title reign, though he later avenged that loss before finally giving way to the next generation in the form of Georges St. Pierre.
The Chuck Liddell Era: April ‘04 – December ‘06
It’s no wonder why Chuck Liddell’s battles with Tito Ortiz were so compelling to UFC fans — the two fighters couldn’t be any more different from each other. Tito was the Mexican motormouth, the biter of the hand that fed him, the GnP artist. Chuck was the strong-but-silent California redneck, the company man, stuffer of the takedown and swinger of the overhand right. He was the anti-Tito, and despite his fairly blank persona, he somehow became the most famous and successful fighter in mixed martial arts history.
So how did Chuck go from making 500 bucks per show fighting in virtual obscurity to his current status as millionaire TMZ darling, HBO guest-star, and noted swordsman? Well, it turns out that people really like to see a knockout — and the Iceman could deliver them. During his seven-fight win streak in 2004-2006, the sprawl-and-brawler took out Ortiz (twice), Randy Couture (twice), Vernon White, Jeremy Horn, and Renato Sobral, with all wins by KO or TKO. Plus, his career ascension coincided with the growth of the sport in general; notably, Chuck was a coach on the first season of the game-changing Ultimate Fighter series, which helped turned many of the UFC’s scrappers into legitimate TV stars.
But the party never lasts, does it? After taking losses in four of his last five fights — three of which came by Liddell-esque knockout — Chuck has been forced into retirement. He’s pushing 40, and younger fighters who grew up watching him have long since figured out how to beat him. In a sport where success is now defined by the ability to do all things well (not just one thing, like punching), he no longer has a place. And yet he’s still probably the only MMA fighter that your mom has heard of. Well, him and Kimbo…
In the next installment: The Last Emperor, Rush, the Spider, and the Dragon.