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2000-09 in MMA: Top 50 Fights Of The Decade


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Posted (edited)

OK, @ElCece gave me the idea for this in another thread recently. I initially decided I couldn’t be bothered but with us all being stuck indoors for the foreseeable and with no new MMA to get our fix from, fuck it. Why not revisit some old stuff? I was going to just do a Top 25 again but looking back over the cards from 2000 to 2009, I quickly realised it would be a bastard to narrow it down and there were so many fights I wanted to go back to. Sod it, I’m going to try for a Top 50! It’s probably massively optimistic that I’m actually going to finish this. But maybe I will. Depends how long this madness we’re currently living goes on, I guess.

Let’s get cracking.

#50 - Kazushi Sakuraba vs Kestutis Smirnovas - K-1 HERO’S 6 - Aug 5th 2006

So there’s going to be a right mix of promotions in here. Whereas the 2010-19 thread was mostly UFC with a bit of Bellator, Strikeforce and WEC chucked in. 2000-09 was a different kettle of fish. This period in MMA covers loads of promotions. A different time for MMA that saw a lot of changes and evolution. So this should be interesting. 

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Anyway, HERO’S was one of the organisations knocking around back then. K-1 wanted to get a piece of the MMA pie so this was their offshoot MMA league. Bit of a forgotten fed actually. They didn’t get a ton of coverage because Pride were still dominating in Japan back then. But they put on some solid shows and plenty of big names fought there. From prime KID Yamamoto to Genki Sudo, Don Frye, Sexyama started his MMA career there. All sorts.

I remember I bought all the DVDs back when I was in my collector phase. Just dug them out of a box in the spare room.

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Forgot I had those Dynamite ones! Might have to whack Brock’s MMA debut on after this.

Anyway, Sakuraba jumping ship from Pride was pretty surprising at the time. He’d just beat Ken Shamrock and Ikuhisa Minowa in Pride in late 2005. But around this time he left the Takada Dojo and in May 2006, he signed with K-1 and announced he’d be fighting in HERO’S. He was entered into the HERO’S Light Heavyweight Tournament and his first opponent would be Kestutis Smirnovas.

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A Lithuanian Judoka with a solid 18-5 record. He’d competed in the RINGS and Shooto promotions but didn’t really have any notable wins and was relatively unknown. Especially compared to someone with the legendary status of Sakuraba and the names he’d been in with.

Commentary sounds like it’s been dubbed in after the fact, which is never ideal. And it’s the team of Howard Hughes and Pierre Guillet. Which I don’t have fond memories of. Hughes wasn’t so bad from memory. Guillet was rotten. He fought in Cage Warriors or BAMMA or one of them years ago and, if I recall clearly, he was every bit as useless in the cage as he was on the headset. 

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Kazushi Sakuraba vs Kestutis Smirnovas 

K-1 HERO’S 6

August 5th 2006

Tokyo, Japan

Ever the showman, Sakuraba always has something up his sleeve for his walkout. This time he opts for a Tiger Mask themed entrance.

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Nice.

Pierre Guillet then starts with the japes.

“For all the fans, just to let you know what this means for HERO’S. He is the Japanese version of a David Beckham. Other than him not having blonde hair, playing football or being married to Posh Spice, he is EXACTLY like David Beckham.” - Pierre Guillet

Nah, I know what he means. Because other than Floyd Mayweather being black, a multi-millionaire, one of the best boxers ever and a wifebeating scumbag, I’m EXACTLY like Floyd as well. We have a ton of similarities if you ignore the minor differences in skin colour, bank balance, fighting skills and a fondness for smacking women about.

Christ. The UFC missed a trick not hiring Guillet, didn’t they?

Oh fuck. Smirnovas is walking out to that ‘Training Montage’ music from Rocky IV. And he’s all decked out in a magnificent robe.

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I like him already. 

Bit odd that he’s coming out after Sakuraba though. Like he’s the main attraction here.

Round 1: And we’re off. Sakuraba coming out very aggressive right away. Too aggressive, as it turns out, because he gets quickly countered and floored by Smirnovas. And the Lithuanian proceeds to attempting to fucking murder him with ground and pound.

It’s over.

Except, it’s not. The referee isn’t stopping the fight. Despite Sakuraba being completely limp and showing no defence. Or offence in return.

“Sakuraba may even be...out.” - Pierre Guillet

No shit, you absolute spanner!

We’re about 60 seconds into the fight and Saku is toast. He’s completely fucked, I tell ya!

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Horrific.

At this point the ref finally steps in. But not to stop the fight. No. Are you mad? He’s saying they’re tangled up in the ropes so he’s just making them restart in the middle of the ring so the carnage can continue. Seriously! Fucking hell. The ref even has to physically drag Saku away from the ropes himself because the poor get can’t do it on his own power. Shocking officiating here.

The annihilation commences. And it’s disturbing to watch now. Not Smirnovas’ fault. He’s just trying to win the fight. It’s not on him that this ref is wanting to see someone die. Sakuraba’s now holding onto Smirnovas’ ankles for dear life, clearly on pure instincts. He’s desperately trying for a takedown but he’s too wobbly and fuzzy to get it done. And he’s eating more and more punishment in the process. This is one of the worst maulings in MMA history easy.

“He needs to take him down.” - Pierre Guillet

Yeah, cheers for that.

Sakuraba is still trying to fight. There’s no quit in him. Too tough for his own good. But he’s all over the place and can’t keep his legs under him. And Smirnovas is just hammering him with punches on the ground the whole time. Now Smirnovas in full mount dropping bombs. Still no sign of the ref stopping it.

“This referee could actually stop the bout here if he wanted to.” - Pierre Guillet

OK, stop. Jesus wept.

Sakuraba somehow escapes the mount and gets back to his feet. Fucking barely.

Smirnovas looks like he’s slowing down. He might’ve punched himself out. I’m not surprised. I don’t even blame him for blowing his wad early and emptying the tank. Sakuraba has been basically knocked out for 3 or 4 minutes straight now and the ref is standing around planning his bedtime wank.

They’re throwing down now and somehow Sakuraba is able to mount an offence. He seems to sense that Smirnovas is fading and he uses one last burst of energy to land some flailing, sloppy punches.

Sakuraba is somehow back in the fight! Amazing. He’s getting the better of the exchanges now and Smirnovas is gassing terribly. A series of uppercuts from Saku have Smirnovas on jelly legs. Insane.

“You wouldn’t believe this is the same fighter from one minute ago!” - Howard Hughes

Smirnovas, dazed and rocked, drops to the mat. Sakuraba is all over him and trying to set up a Kimura. He switches to the armbar! Smirnovas is fighting it.

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Sakuraba fully extends it and Smirnovas is forced to tap.

Winner - Kazushi Sakuraba by submission. Round 1 - 6:41.

Absolutely mental fight.

I’ve always been quite conflicted about this fight. On the one hand, it’s so hard to watch. The refereeing in this is dangerously awful. Probably the worst I’ve ever seen. It really, really should’ve been stopped. I’m not exaggerating when I say he could’ve got Sakuraba killed here. And not just him, Saku’s corner have a lot to answer for as well. Sakuraba is a guy who took way more damage than necessary over the years and of all the beatings, I think this was probably the worst. That says it all. So I was torn on including this and kind of celebrating it.

But on the other side of the coin, this is amazing to watch. It only lasts 6:41 total. That’s it. And a good probably 4 minutes of that is just Sakuraba getting destroyed. About as crazy and dramatic as a comeback gets. I’d go as far as to say this fight sums up Sakuraba as a fighter more than any other in his career. All the things that Sakuraba became known for - toughness, heart, refusal to give up, his grappling - it’s all on display here. He was far past his prime here. This fight will never be held up on that same level as the classic with Carlos Newton or the series against the Gracies. But if you wanted to show someone a fight that epitomises Kazushi Sakuraba, this is the one.

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Legend. 

Edited by wandshogun09
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If Olaf vs 'Buckets of Blood' Polakowski doesn't place high I'm not going to be happy!

From memory I think the second half of the decade was much stronger than the first but it was a great time to be a fan with so many different promotions (WEC, Dream, Bodog, Elite, Strikeforce, Affliction etc. along with the omnipresent UFC and Pride) and not the nigh on monopoly that there is today.

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22 minutes ago, ElCece said:

I'm stoked about this and I'm going to try and watch along as much as possible. Not seen this one so look forward to giving it a watch tonight. 

Only thing is, if you were planning to use Fight Pass to watch along, I’m not sure if HERO’S is on there. In fact, I don’t think it is. The fight is on YouTube but only with Japanese commentary. Actually, that’s probably a blessing as you’ll be spared Pierre Guillet. 

1 minute ago, Magnum Milano said:

If Olaf vs 'Buckets of Blood' Polakowski doesn't place high I'm not going to be happy!

Shhhhh. Spoilers.

You’ll be happy. 

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I was planning on fight pass but the Japanese commentary one will be just fine by me as your man Pierre Guillet seems to have had a howler going by your run down. 

Edited by ElCece
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Despite taking an ungodly amount of punishment, there were some real highlights in those later year Sakuraba fights. Still all so painful to watch though.

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Posted (edited)
13 minutes ago, jimufctna24 said:

@wandshogun09

Pierre Guillet or Damon Perry?

Guillet was absymal on commentary. I bought a couple of the commerial Hero's DVD's and he close to ruined them all.

I may go back and watch some Guillet fights, he started his career with a decent record but fell off a cliff, got stopped in 10 of his last 13 fights and ended his career 10-10. Wonder what hes upto now?

Related, if you look up Combat Sports Promotions on youtube, the channel has uploaded a goldmine of old school UK MMA.

Edited by Egg Shen
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When K1's parent group (FEG) later hooked up with former Pride executives, they continued to milk Sakuraba's name for every last drop, despite his various injuries. 

Billy Robinson speaking in 2014:

Quote

 

Sherdog: Are you aware of how injured and hurt Sakuraba is today and continues to fight?
Robinson: He should have retired six years ago [or] more. He’s got a bad shoulder, a bad knee [and] his shape is so-so, but they’re offering big money; the promoters are offering him big money to use his name to draw people in for the big arena shows. With Tamura, he should have never wrestled. I was there. It was four years ago Christmas or three years ago Christmas, and they said, “We’re going to use your name, and then two days before, you can say that you injured yourself. We’ll pay you, you know what I mean, but say you injured yourself and can’t make the match, and we’ll bring somebody else in to fight Tamura.” But the promoters double-crossed him. They said, “Well, he’s got to fight. Otherwise, he wouldn’t get paid.” But he was not only not in good shape; he a bad shoulder and a bad knee.

Sherdog: Does it make you sad to still see him compete?
Robinson: I am. He should be a coach. He should be the head of a wrestling federation or he should be coaching. He’s got great knowledge and he’s a super, super guy, but he shouldn’t fight anymore.

 

Of course, Sakuraba isn't blameless himself. He should have retired much earlier. 

His comeback fight against Aoki in late 2015 was one of the saddest spectacles I have witnessed in my 15 years of following MMA. 

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#49 - Chris Leben vs Terry Martin - UFC Fight Night - Sep 19th 2007

One that I’m guessing most will have either forgotten about or just never seen. 2007 was the year we got some of those UFC vs Pride dream matches so these Fight Night scraps often got lost in the shuffle.

Leben still had a pretty strong following at this time, stemming from his stint on the first Ultimate Fighter in 2005. The old ‘fatherless bastard’ thing with Koscheck and Southworth being a big part of it. He scored some big KOs early in his UFC run but at this point he was coming off some losses. He’d lost two in a row and had been crushed by Anderson Silva a year earlier. Despite that, he was still a popular member of the roster.

Terry Martin is a guy I’d forgot even existed until I started looking back at old cards for this thread. First thing that popped into my head was this fight with Leben, him using ‘Billie Jean’ by Michael Jackson as his entrance song and memories of Joe Rogan talking about how “this guy would come first in any Mike Tyson lookalike competition”. He wasn’t lying.

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He was on a nice little run at this time. 16-3 and coming off 4 consecutive knockout victories, including quick stoppages over veterans Jorge Rivera and Ivan Salaverry. He also beat Chael Sonnen back in 2004.

So this was no soft rebound for a Chris Leben who was on a patchy run of form.

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Chris Leben vs Terry Martin

UFC Fight Night: Florian vs Thomas

September 19th 2007

Las Vegas, Nevada

Scene of the crime is the Pearl At The Palms. Used to like it when they did Fight Nights there. The smaller venue made it more...I guess intimate. Not a word I’d usually use when talking about people getting smacked about in cages but I can’t think of a different one. The smaller cage definitely seemed to force more action-filled fights.

Anyway. Here we go. 

Round 1: Right away they’re throwing with heat. Leben’s landing some nice inside leg kicks but Martin cracks him with a few punches and gets a takedown. Both back up trading and Martin’s landing the bigger blows. Nice knees from Leben. They clinch, Martin picks him up for a slam and Leben grabs the fence. Herb Dean immediately docks him a point and then Martin slams him anyway. Yeah, this isn’t going well for the Crippler. Leben turns it up in the last minute and ends the round with some foot stomps. That must suck. Think I’d rather get punched in the face, honestly.

Had that round for Martin. Leben landed some nice stuff but I thought Martin connected with the bigger shots plus he had the takedown and the slam. So with the point deduction that’s a 10-8 for Martin.

Round 2: Leben’s having a much better start to this round. He’s getting the better of the striking and Martin is just headhunting for the KO. But man, Rogan and Goldberg are all over Leben’s ball bag here. Talking about Martin looking gassed, talking like he’s underestimated Leben etc. They’re pretty much cheerleading every time Leben does something. Even when Martin gets the takedown, Rogan’s acting like Leben was about to counter it. I almost forgot how grating him and Goldberg could be together. Almost. Anyway, Martin’s on top now but he’s not getting much done.

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Leben throws up a triangle! Rogan’s rubbing one out under the table. The buzzer goes just as Leben is really synching up the triangle. Leben 10-9. So I’ve got it 19-18 to Martin going into the last round. 

Round 3: Both slinging hammers. Martin looks a bit fresher now. He’s landing some HARD punches. To the head and body. Leben firing back but Martin gets another takedown. Back on the feet and Leben looks knackered. Martin clubbing him with big shots. Rogan sounds a bit concerned now. Another takedown by Martin. This fight is going downhill fast for Leben. It’s all going wrong for him.

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Martin absolutely waffles him with a big right! Leben is rocked badly. Martin with more haymakers, Leben wobbles forward on toddler legs and...

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Martin is fucking out!

Winner - Chris Leben by knockout. Round 3 - 3:56.

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Snot everywhere, but back in the win column.

Crazy. Before anyone heard of Chan Sung Jung, Chris Leben was the king of the MMA ‘zombie mode’. He was quickly heading for another loss there. He’d lost the first round big and was getting battered in the third. Then he pulls that out of the bag.

Of course, he had very mixed results in the years following this win. High highs like his mad knockout over Wanderlei and his awesome fight with Akiyama. And some bad lows with losing streaks and PED test failures. Last I heard of him he was flitting between bare knuckle fights and refereeing...

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I’ll always have time for Leben though. For fans who got into MMA around the time of TUF 1, we kind of grew up with this mad sod. The two times the UFC ever came to Birmingham, Leben headlined. I was there both times and I’ll never forget how gutted the crowd in my section were when he lost to Mark Muñoz. It was like he was an adopted Brummie or something.

Martin fought on until 2017. He went 7-8 after the Leben fight. Only thing I remember of him after this was when Vitor Belfort nearly knocked him out of the ring in Affliction. 

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#48 - BJ Penn vs Takanori Gomi - Rumble On The Rock 4 - Oct 10th 2003

This came at a time when BJ Penn was kind of on the outs with the UFC. In 2003, the UFC had been having a mini Lightweight Tournament with Penn, Caol Uno, Din Thomas and Matt Serra. Penn and Uno went to a draw in their rematch at UFC 41 and Zuffa just decided to fuck the whole 155 division off. Seems mad now, knowing how stacked that weight class would become, but it wasn’t as loaded back in 2003 and the good Lightweights that were fighting were spread out across multiple organisations.

Penn said in his book that Dana wanted him to fight Robbie Lawler around this time. Imagine that? Penn agreed but then talks went cold. And with the Lightweight division gone, Penn was in limbo. So he wanted out of the UFC to pursue either a shot at revenge against Jens Pulver (the only man who’d beat Penn at this time) or Takanori Gomi.

“However much I wanted a fight with Pulver, it didn’t make sense to anyone else. The fight that did make sense was against Takanori Gomi, who, depending on who you talked to, was either the best in the world or second to me. We told them to bring in Gomi for a fight against me, and that this would help bring more fighters over if the two best were here. But we were unable to convince them, and whether it was Gomi or someone else, we were always told the guys we wanted to fight were already under contract elsewhere. After realising the UFC was not going to be active in finding me opponents, we figured we should try to bring Gomi to Hawaii ourselves.

We contacted White and told him of our intentions, and he supported us. My contract with the UFC didn’t seem to be an issue with him as long as the contract would be fulfilled, and of course, it would be.” - BJ Penn

Before the fight could happen though, Gomi lost a close decision to Joachim Hansen in Shooto in August. It was Gomi’s first loss, he was 14-0 before that. Regardless, this was still considered to be a battle of probably the two best Lightweights in the world at the time.

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BJ Penn vs Takanori Gomi

Rumble On The Rock 4

October 10th 2003

Honolulu, Hawaii

This looks fucking ancient. Looks way earlier than 2003. Commentators are some fucker called Mike Onzuka and...

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The ‘New York Badass’ Phil Baroni! Forgot he did the commentary for this show.

The ring announcer Alex Oxendine is awful. He shouts that this fight is for “the MMA Lightweight Championship of the World”. Despite there being no belt. I guess it was just a thing where the winner could lay claim to that title, without there being an actual physical belt. OK.

No surprise that Penn gets the big heroes welcome from the Hawaiians during the intros. Fuck me, that ring announcer is the shits though. Just have to reiterate. He’s gash. Makes Bruce Buffer sound like prime Howard Finkel.

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Round 1: Penn comes storming across the cage immediately and takes the centre of the mat. He’s got Gomi down already. He’s got the back! Disastrous start for the ‘Fireball Kid’ this. Penn’s blasting away with punches from the back. This Hawaiian commentator Onzuka sounds exactly like Max Holloway. Actually, do all Hawaiian men sound like Penn and Holloway? Anyway, Gomi’s weathered the storm and now he’s on top in BJ’s guard. He’s peppering with punches but Penn’s defending well and avoiding most of the heavier shots. Back up and Penn gets a big power double-leg takedown and he’s on Gomi’s back again as the round ends. Penn 10-9.

Round 2: They’re both throwing down now. Penn is getting the better of it but Gomi’s swinging those loopy haymakers and starting to land a little bit. BJ hurts him with a left hook! They wind up back on the ground with Gomi on top in the guard. Gomi’s nose is popped. They’re back on the feet and going after it.

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Bit of a mini Frye vs Takayama exchange there. Both landing their share of punches now. Gomi starting to connect with the jab. Penn gets a takedown right at the end of the round.

“Was that enough to steal the round? What a fight. I gave BJ the first round. That round was very, very close.” - Phil Baroni

I agree. Not sure how to score that one. Think Gomi might’ve nicked it actually but could go either way. Great round.

Round 3: Few striking exchanges and then Penn gets a takedown. He’s got the back again. Man, he was so smooth at that in his prime. Gomi looks knackered now. The mouthpiece has come out. Penn punching away while squeezing Gomi’s ribcage with a tight body triangle. He’s got the choke!

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It’s over.

Winner - BJ Penn by submission. Round 3 - 2:35.

Wild post-fight scenes as people swarm the cage to congratulate Penn. He almost threw a punch at the shite ring announcer as well in the confusion. If only.

Fun fight to go back to. If it happened in the UFC instead of BJ Penn’s brother’s promotion then it’d probably be talked about more. It wasn’t some FOTY barnburner like the fights coming up later in the Countdown. But it was a good scrap and the novelty of seeing Penn and Gomi fight in what was close to both of their primes, is cool as fuck. Simpler times if you were a BJ Penn fan. Before things got sad. He went on to submit Matt Hughes in his next fight to become UFC Welterweight champion. And over the next few years, despite the highs and lows, he solidified himself as one of the best in the game. From 2010 on, it all went tits up but we still have nights like this to look back on.

Gomi had his best years ahead of him after this. He won his next 10 fights, finished 8 of them and 2004 and 2005 were the best years of his career with wins over Hayato Sakurai, Tatsuya Kawajiri, Jens Pulver and a 6 second KO of Ralph Gracie in there. Plus the Pride Lightweight Grand Prix win in 2005. Like Penn, his career dropped off a cliff later on but he shone brightly for a short time. I guess they were similar in that way. 

Watching this back now, I’m glad the fight happened when it did. Could’ve gone down as another ‘one that got away’ like so many other dream fights have over the years. 

Edited by wandshogun09
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The version of Gomi that fought in the 2005 LW GP against the version of Penn that fought Florian and Sanchez in 2009, would have been something to behold. 

Prime Gomi's body punching and cardio would have given any version of Penn issues.

 

 

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That’s the thing, I think when it happened in late 2003, that’s probably the closest to the best versions of both that we realistically could’ve got it. I guess 2004-05 would’ve been possible because Penn was in and out of the UFC back then. That was peak Gomi era but that’s the period where Penn lost many of his marbles and became obsessed with going up through the divisions. When Gomi was beasting through the Pride GP in 2005, Penn was eating himself up to Heavyweight to fight Machida in K-1.

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Then by the time he got himself sorted out he was locked back into an exclusive UFC contract. And then by the time his best period rolled around - some of 2008 and the Marinovic fights in 2009 - then Gomi was falling off. 

It’s kind of a shame we never got the absolute peak versions of both facing off. But not only did their peaks never really line up timing-wise, they were usually in different promotions during that timeframe or Penn was stuffing himself with MacDonald’s. They had that one window in 2003 to get it done when both were in not-far-off-prime form and thankfully they pounced on it. 

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Watched the Leben vs Martin fight last night and I was surprised that the commentators made it seem like Martin was the heavy favourite going in.

 

Was this accurate? Obviously Leben retrospectively and with his TUF appearance has a far more lasting memory and I only had a fleeting knowledge of Terry Martin so I was surprised by that. 

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