UFC Howlers (2003 Edition Part 1)
Do you love MMA, but hate Dana White? If so, then you will probably enjoy my next two posts. There was a time where the UFC was far from the powerhouse it is today. Indeed, it seemed back then that everything the promotion touched, whether by virtue of misfortune or incompetence, transformed into raw sewage. That time was 2003.
28 February, 2003: The promotion began the year with UFC 41. An event that, on paper, was headlined by Ricco Rodriguez defending his heavyweight title against undefeated lummox Tim Sylvia. However, the main attraction on the card was the return of MMA folk hero Tank Abbott after a 4 year hiatus from the promotion. The UFC had hoped to entice lapsed fans who had watched Abbott in the 1990s to purchase the show. It seemed like a sound strategy in theory as the UFC had, and would continue to have, occasional success through promoting nostalgia acts during this timeframe. The previous November had seen the UFC set a company record for PPV buys with an event headlined by 90s MMA legend Ken Shamrock and young upstart Tito Ortiz.
The nostalgia effect seemed to be in full force on fight night. Documentary makers for the Bravo Channel in the UK interviewed fans outside of the venue, who claimed that this was the first UFC event they had attended since Abbott left the promotion. Sadly, all the hype surrounding Abbot was an illusion. Inside the cage, he was submitted by young prospect Frank Mir in less than a minute. Abbott didn't deliver at the box office either. The event drew a mediocre 60k buys, which was more or less the same as most UFC cards drew throughout 2001 and 2002.
Elsewhere on the bill, hyped middleweight prospect Phil Baroni lost his unbeaten record against unmarketable wrestler Matt Lindland, and the promotion's lightweight division continued to be stuck in limbo as BJ Penn fought to a split draw with Caol Uni in a bout that was meant to crown a new champion. The UFC had started the year on a sour note and it was only going to get worse for them.
April 25, 2003: On this date, the promotion hosted its second event of the year, UFC 42. The card showcased some of the promotions' brightest prospects, such as newcomer Rich Franklin, and most notably, unbeaten puncher Robbie Lawler. The Miletch prospect had been heavily hyped by the promotion throughout the previous year. There were well-produced hype packages for Lawler on the UFC's DVD releases, and highlights of his fights were featured heavily on the promotion's god-awful music videos.
Lawler was matched against journeyman Pete Spratt, in what I presume was meant to be a showcase bout for the Iowa native. Unfortunately for Lawler and the UFC, things didn't go to script. Spratt peppered Lawler's with lethal low-kicks throughout the first round and was clearly causing damage to the Miletch prospect's right leg. Spratt continued to launch low-kicks in the second frame, one of which landed when Lawler had his foot planted, resulting in a dislocated hip. Lawler was barely able to stand and was forced to retire from the bout. He later had to be carried away from the cage. The UFC's most hyped prospect had lost his undefeated record. To add further insult to injury for the promotion, the show drew a pitiful 35k buys, which remains one of the worst buyrates for a MMA event in North America.
June 6, 2003: The UFC kicked off the summer with its third event of the year, UFC 43. This show was headlined by a Light-Heavyweight title tilt between the ageing Randy Couture and heavy striker Chuck Liddell. It was clear that the UFC expected this to be Liddell's coming out party. He was given an elaborate entrance, with tons of pyro, dark lights, and a video introduction from Mask of Tapout fame. However, Liddell had yet to take MMA training seriously, something that was admitted to on air by the UFC's colour commentator Joe Rogan the following year. Whereas Couture, despite losing his previous two bouts at heavyweight, was not the spent force that many considered him to be and was investing in all sorts of training and dieting methods to stay competitive at the top-end of the sport. Couture dominated the action and grinded Liddell down to force a third round stoppage. For the third event in succession, the UFC's best laid plans had gone up in smoke.
Elsewhere on the card, Ken Shamrock was scheduled to fight Ian "Lee Evans" Freeman, but had to withdraw with an ACL injury. Whereas Abbott was submitted by fellow 90s relic Kimo. The show drew a miserable 49k buys, which was down on events that Couture had headlined in 01 and 02.
August 10, 2003: Pride Fighting Championship, the world's premier MMA promotion at the time. hosted Total Elimination 2003. The show was marked by three UFC vs Pride cross-promotional bouts. The first of which featured Liddell squaring off against Dutch up-and-comer Alistair Overeem in the first round of Pride's MW GP. After 3 minutes of action, Liddell landed a clubbing overhand right on a tiring Overeem, and proceeded to force the stoppage with barrage of strikes.The UFC was officially 1-0 up and Liddell had advanced to the semi-final stage of Pride's MW GP.
The next cross promotional match-up pitted Quinton Jackson against UFC Middleweight Champion Murilo Bustamante, in which was another first round bout in Pride's MW GP. Bustamate technically did not enter the cage as a UFC fighter. He had already vacated the middleweight and chosen to cast aside the American promotion for a more lucrative contract with Pride. However, the Japanese promotion still presented Bustamante as an outsider, by placing a UFC logo beside his image pre-fight video packages. The Brazilian, taking the fight on 5 days notice, dropped a close decision to Jackson. To many of those watching at home, who had no idea that Bustamante was now a Pride fighter, the scoreline now read 1-1.
The final cross-promotional bout of the evening saw former UFC Heavyweight Champion Ricco Rodriguez take on former Pride Heavyweight title holder Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira. Rodriguez had lost his title to Sylvia only 6 months earlier at UFC 41 and was still considered to be one of the UFC's top heavyweights. Whereas Nogueria had been considered to be Pride's beat heavyweight until his loss to Fedor Emelianenko earlier in the year. There was thus plenty of bragging rights on the line here. Many who viewed the bout felt Rodriguez got the better of the action, and that the judges, who all scored the bout to Nogueria, had robbed the American fighter of a well-earned victory. However, Pride had a very specific judging criteria, and this criteria was made known to the combatants before the fought. As Matt Hume, who was a judge that evening, explains here, in accordance with this criteria it becomes clear that Nogueria actually deserved the decision - https://www.sherdog.com/news/news/PRIDE-Judge-Matt-Hume-Defends-Nog-vs-Ricco-Decision-1157 ................................therefore, the night ended with Pride as the victor in the cross-promotional head-to-head, by a score of 2-1.
In part 2, I will cover the events of UFC 44, Pride Final Conflict 2003, and UFC 45.
Trust me, it's no wonder that Dana's completely hair fell out during this period.