Hello, lodeplus.com readers, and welcome to our continuing series, “5 for 5: Five Moments Over Five Days Leading up to Saturday’s UFC on FOX.” This is National MMA Examiner Ryan McKinnell, and we are on day four of the series.
Yesterday we brought you a synopsis of the “Iceman Era,” which focused on superstar Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell and his championship run through 2005-2007. So allow me to continue with the series, as today I take us back pretty much right where Liddell left off. It’s 2007, and the UFC has plans for global dominance.
PRIDE NEVER DIE
On July 8th, 2006 at UFC 61, UFC President Dana White was ready to make an announcement to the crowd in attendance at the Mandalay Bay, but first he needed two guests to join him in the ring. One, UFC superstar Chuck Liddell, who had already joined White in the Octagon, and the second guest was Japanese MMA superstar and rival promotions PRIDE Fighting Championship’s top draw, “The Axe Murderer” Wanderlei Silva.
The two met in the center of the cage for a mediated stare-down as Dana White made the announcement–the first UFC vs. PRIDE super-fight was going to take place in a few months, in November 2006, and it would pit the two biggest names in MMA against each other, in a ‘super-fight.’ The dream match of Chuck Liddell versus Wanderlei Silva was finally going to happen.
Both fighters had represented each organization through the years, as being their most endeared fighters, respectively. They both brought a highly entertaining fighting style into the cage, and most of their fights ended by knockout, and by 2006, neither one of them were losing much.
Silva was the reigning champ over in Japan, and had been for the past five years. At the time, PRIDE FC, was widely considered the crème-de-le-crème of Mixed Martial Arts organizations. It was thought that, not only did they have the superior fighters, but they also put out a superior product.
With its unique ring entrances, and emphasis on fighter character, rather than wins or losses, PRIDE garnered a cult following in the United States. VHS tapes of fans favorite fighters circulated around trading circles, internet message boards were flooded with die-hard PRIDE fans that swore their favorite fighters from Japan would crush any UFC fighter stateside.
It wasn’t baseless claims either. After all, to most, the world’s best fighters really did reside in Japan. Names like Kazushi Sakuraba, Takanori Gomi, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Wanderlei Silva, and the great Fedor Emelianenko all resided on the PRIDE roster.
For fans, this was a time of great excitement. At the time, the sport really revolved around the internet. Fight news, results, and every other facet of the sport, were carried through internet outlets such as MMAweekly.com, sherdog.com, and others. Fans flocked to these sites to converse on their message boards, and to discuss their favorite fighters, and the sport they all loved so much.
Sometimes, that’s where the love would stop though. For many, PRIDE vs. UFC became a hot button issue, especially around late 2005 as an influx of reality show fans from the Ultimate Fighter began to permeate the culture. Affectionately referred to as “TUF noobs” these young fight fans were an easy target for seasoned fight fans who felt a sense of community stemming from the early days. So it was easy for them to turn to an organization that was lesser known, with equal talent. It allowed them to be elitists. It allowed them to belong to something that wasn’t ‘cool.’
I imagine it was like when Metallica broke down the doors of the heavy metal mainstream in 1990. They made a lot of new fans, sure, but the old guard needed something to hold on to as well. Hey, Megadeth needed fans too, right?
So the battle began. The UFC versus Pride arguments dominated those early years of MMA. Everyone thought their fighter could beat somebody else’s favorite fighter with devastating degrees of skill and knockout prowess. By the time UFC President Dana White announced Wanderlei Silva versus Chuck Liddell for November 2006, MMA fan boys across the world were frothing at the mouth at a potential “Iceman vs. Axe Murderer” match up.
Unfortunately for MMA fans across the globe, that November 2006 fight never happened [However it did happen a little over a year later, a bout in which Liddell won in a Fight of the Year winner, and largely considered one of greatest fights in UFC history]. Dana White attributed it to the business end of things. Saying that they couldn’t reach an agreement, and that the Japanese were hard to do business with. For White, I imagine this was the last straw.
After all, PRIDE and the UFC had worked together in the past. The UFC loaned a few fighters, including Liddell, to compete in the PRIDE Middleweight Grand Prix in 2003. It was a tournament in which 16 of the world’s best 205-lbs fighters would compete over a few months period, to determine the best in the division. Eventually won by Wanderlei Silva, this tournament was the first and last time the UFC loaned their fighters to Japan.
By 2007 there were signs that PRIDE FC was in trouble financially. Whispers of financial trouble, coupled with rumors of Japanese Yakuza involved, had crippled the once MMA powerhouse. Fighters like Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Anderson Silva, and Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic had already found their way to the UFC, and others were sure to come.
However no on could have predicted what was about to happen.
On March 27th, 2007 the world awoke to the news that UFC President Dana White along with owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, were in Japan. And the rumors were, they were doing some shopping.
Despite this Saturday’s UFC on FOX, and the monumental moment of it all, that day in 2007, on the shores of the Pacific ocean, may very well be the most important day in MMA history. March 27th, 2007 was the day the UFC purchased PRIDE Fighting Championships.
Bigger than the library of fight footage they acquired that day, bigger than the superstar fighters whose contracts they absolved, bigger than the press coming from the monumental announcement, was the statement it made. No longer would the UFC play second fiddle to anyone, or any organization. If you wanted to be the best fighter in the planet, you had not other options–you would be fighting in the UFC.
What the UFC did that day, was in the long line of sports tradition. It wasn’t a white flag from either organization. Neither was losing face. After all, this was a sport they had helped build together. Were Japanese fighters saddened that their organization would now be leaving? Of course they were, but I’m sure if you ask any of them now, it was for the betterment of the sport as a whole.
The UFC did that day what many great sporting leagues eventually have to do. The ABA was absolved by the NBA, the AFC joined with the ‘NFC’ to form the modern day NFL, and even the World Wrestling Federation (owned by Vince McMahon, whom Dana White has publicly stated great admiration for, and who has said to have modeled his business model after) was forced to buy World Championship Wrestling (WCW) to ensure the longevity of their product.
The UFC knew that if they were to be the ‘next big thing’ in the sporting pantheon of modern day culture, they could not afford to have any competition. Sometimes competition is good, sometimes it’s bad, but with fight sports, the UFC knew it couldn’t be left in the same place as boxing. It couldn’t’ afford to have the world’s best fighters being tied up by sanctioning bodies, or random organizations.
If you wanted to be the best Mixed Martial Artist in the world, then there could be only one place to showcase that talent, and with the PRIDE acquisition, they made sure that they could never be rivaled again. And if someone would happen to pop up, like 2006’s rival Strikeforce, they would just buy them too, as they did in 2011.
It’s safe to say that if the PRIDE acquisition never happened, then we may not be sitting here even talking about a UFC on FOX this Saturday. Fighters and Champions, like Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Josh Barnett, Fedor Emelianenko, and Dan Henderson may have never fought under the ZUFFA banner, and for all we know, Japanese MMA may have rebounded and PRIDE could still be a viable competitor in today’s market.
For some people, the death of PRIDE was the death of MMA. Much like the baseball strike of the early 90’s or any other sensitive subject–for some, the fun was gone.
However, that is solely the opinion of nostalgic, young, and immature fans who can’t see the whole picture. Were the PRIDE days an exciting time in MMA? Of course they were. Some of the best times in MMA history. There were intriguing storylines and discussion at every corner. But let me ask you this, wouldn’t you rather have 12-18 UFC pay-per-view events s a year, along with countless free shows on TV, like the one on FOX this weekend? Wouldn’t rather have a roster stacked with the world’s premiere fighters, ready to take on each other at a moments notice? Wouldn’t you rather have said roster coming to your hometown once a year, whether it be Rio De Janiero, Sydney, Dubai, Chicago, Columbus, Las Vegas, Anaheim, Toronto, Vancouver, or Boston? Yes, the UFC has been to all of those in the recent past.
Point being, the UFC is a global powerhouse, viewable on countless different mediums, in countless countries, with countless fans, and countess more to come. And the end of the day, do you clamor for competition, expansion, growth, and the hope of the future, or one fleeting moment of left over nostalgia? The era of PRIDE Fighting Championships was a glorious one, laden with nostalgia and some of the most classic battles MMA has ever seen. When the UFC purchased PRIDE in 2007, it didn’t signal the end of an era, it symbolized the start of something far more bountiful.
UFC on FOX is this Saturday, and whether you an MMA fan or not, I suggest you watch. Because this is just the beginning…