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The Eras of MMA (Part 2: The First Superstars, 1999-2006)

If you missed Part 1, click here.

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.

Cagepotato Comments

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ScrambledEggs- June 11, 2009 at 9:08 am
Sakuraba and Tito Ortiz are both fucking legends in this sport and will both be more respected long after they have retired.
BM2- June 11, 2009 at 5:13 am
I got into MMA thanks to Sakuraba. He made me realise the true intelligence, artform and subtle beauty that is part of fighting - and that it's not just about violence. A true legend.
LOCKCAPSHAL- June 10, 2009 at 4:12 pm
huh, i guess randy corture did nothing for the sport, poor randy, old and feeble. :(
Dojima- June 10, 2009 at 3:42 pm
For shame CP, putting in a clip of Wandy without the Lenne Hardt "Waan-der-laayy-ooohhh Seeeeeeeelvaaahhhh!!!"...
VegasBJJ- June 10, 2009 at 2:28 pm
Sakuraba is the greatest!
831 Son- June 10, 2009 at 2:19 pm
Hahaha thats funny Ben. He shouldve fucking done something in his fights instead of covering up the whole time though.

His blogs were cool though. But awkward at times.
NateGetsIrate- June 10, 2009 at 1:57 pm
@ Ben:

Seriously? Well tell him NateGetsIrate thinks his shit is fantastic!

On a serious note though, his blogs are the definitly best out of the other TUF 9 blogs out there. Santino shouldn't get discouraged by what some anonymous idiots write. Even if they do it in all caps.
Emo Sux- June 10, 2009 at 1:38 pm
@ Fedor vs Bas: Yeah dude... That pre fight wrist twirl means shits about to get real! scares the shit outta me as well...
ben- June 10, 2009 at 1:35 pm
 @ NateGetsIrate:Dude, I think he stopped writing them because he couldn't handle all the CP commenters who told him what a shitty writer he was. Fuckin' savages...
Emo Sux- June 10, 2009 at 1:35 pm
Machida HAS been dominant for years at a time and is almost never in trouble, hence the big fat zero where the losses are supposed to go, as well as his space on this list of bad asses
NateGetsIrate- June 10, 2009 at 1:06 pm

Hey CP, isn't it about time you post Santino's TUF blog?
Walrus- June 10, 2009 at 12:42 pm
Yeah, that Sakuraba video is badass. Real badass.

Notice that Gracie's never tap, but they'll throw in the towel.
Judo Im Right- June 10, 2009 at 12:29 pm
i want a Saku shirt ... i've been lookin for one for like a year now and a Wand shirt those are easier to find
Kazi- June 10, 2009 at 12:16 pm
That Sakuraba highlight reel is badass.
Shatski- June 10, 2009 at 12:14 pm
I wonder if B.J. could have had his own "era" if he stuck to one weight class and consistently dominated it instead of jumping up and whining after the loss. Though, if he had won those fights, that would have cemented the claim for his dominance further.
drummer- June 10, 2009 at 12:13 pm
Wandy rocks! that guy really does not have to do anything more in this sport. His legacy is firmly cemented. That being said i can't wait to see him destroy Franklin on Saturday
Shatski- June 10, 2009 at 12:12 pm
Haha. I never watched any Sakuraba but it turns out I fight just like it looked in those clips on Undisputed. They go to the back I'll stand up and kick the shit out of their legs until they get back up.

I was about to watch the one for Tito until I heard they used Everlong by the Foo Fighters. I don't want that big headed bastard associated with that song in my mind, so no thank you.

Maybe they Machida one will be ambiguous whether it is just the start or will it be a short lived possibility.
Fedor vs. Bas- June 10, 2009 at 12:09 pm
Even though Wandy is super nice, no one would scare me more just by looks if i saw them walking around. Especially if he was doing that weird pre-fight wrist shit.
PaulO- June 10, 2009 at 12:09 pm
and the Dragon

Are you kidding me? You're putting Machida, who has had one title fight, on a list of people who were dominate for years at a time?
CubicleMan- June 10, 2009 at 12:06 pm
What is the point of the reply link? All that does is just post a new comment at the bottom, no?

BTW, I dig these types of articles. Very informative for MMA newbies. Too bad that fighters like Kimura and Sakuraba only emerge from Japan once in a lifetime.
The Mauler- June 10, 2009 at 12:00 pm