Best UFC Fights From the First 10 Years

November 2003 marked the end of an era for the Ultimate Fighting Championship—and by extension, the mixed martial arts in the United States. Over the course of those 10 years, the sport saw more evolution than Darwin's notepad. And through it all, despite rumors of banishment, mortality rates, political machinations or simply the laws of attrition, the UFC has stood its ground. You don't get this far without being persistent—or dramatic. Unlike the stolid world of boxing or the over-dramatized world of professional wrestling, the UFC found its primal appeal in letting the show takes its own course. Feuds fanned their own flames, favorites rushed to the top and plummeted to the bottom, and underdogs made us believe in the impossible. Be it through world-class wrestlers or strikers, or the sheer heart of the pioneers, there is no purer evidence to be found of the warrior's heart than in the stories of the octagon. Let's open up the gates:


UFC 3: Keith Hackney vs. Emmanuel Yarbrough

By the time UFC 3 rolled around, the event was a pay-per-view sensation, creating a spectacle with enough bluster to challenge pro wrestling. The height of such promotion was when 5-foot-11- inch, 215-pound Keith Hackney was paired with 6-foot-8-inch, 600-pound Emmanuel Yarbrough. Despite being nearly swallowed in Emmanuel Yarbrough's girth, Keith Hackney managed to unwind with hammer fists to the side of the sumo's head, resulting in referee intervention. The UFC may never come closer to the fabled gladiatorial spectacles of the Roman Empire. Though many self-important observers were loath to admit it, this was must-see TV.

Don Frye with "Big" John McCarthy

UFC 6: David “Tank" Abbott vs. John Matua

For five installments of the UFC, it was Royce Gracie's formidable finesse that drove the fights and the stories. Enter David “Tank" Abbott, the complete antithesis of the martial artist: a street brawler with an ego as big as his belly. David “Tank" Abbott sauntered in and proceeded to decimate John Matua in seconds, sending him to the canvas with such force that the impact induced a seizure. It was an ugly moment for the UFC, but another reality check. Sometimes the graceless slugger got by on pure bad vibes. David “Tank" Abbott would go on to become the first real villain—and antihero—of the promotion.

UFC 10: Mark Coleman vs. Don Frye

Nearly three years old, the UFC had already begun to weed out the weekend warriors whose sensei had drilled in false hopes of athleticism. Dan Severn was the first to arrive wielding a lifetime in wrestling, but it was decade-younger collegiate star Mark Coleman who married ground control with devastating striking. His first tournament bid was a demolition ending in a weary Mark Coleman pounding out an even wearier Don Frye. Submission experts—the former front men—would now have to contend with Olympic-level conditioning and the threat of a powerhouse grappler steamrolling them into the mat.

UFC 14: Maurice Smith vs. Mark Coleman

A cakewalk? Hardly. Just listen to an inebriated Mark Coleman talk about “grounding and f—in' pounding" kickboxer Maurice Smith in the evening's main event. Mark Coleman had been an unstoppable wrestler; Maurice Smith was merely an Extreme Fighting vet who had picked up a ground game from Frank Shamrock. The outcome was never in doubt. Good thing no one told Maurice Smith, who weathered an early storm and then picked his shots against an exhausted—and aghast—Mark Coleman. Now strikers who could play a good defense were suddenly dangerous. The sport again insisted on never sitting idle.

UFC 3: Royce Gracie vs. Kimo Leopoldo (above)

After two tournament victories, Royce Gracie was every bit the star as the UFC itself. And again promoters sought a heavily muscled action figure for him to manipulate. Kimo Leopoldo had little formal training, but being tenacious—and heavily tattooed—earned him a slot. For seven minutes, the two nearly abandoned all pretense of sportsmanship and worked each other over. An exhausted Kimo Leopoldo tapped from an arm lock, and an exhausted Royce Gracie dropped out of the show. It was the first time the invincible Brazilian revealed a dent in his armor.

UFC Japan: Frank Shamrock vs. Kevin Jackson

Up until this point, no quintessential mixed martial artist had sprung up—none with the ability, charisma and drive to act as a figurehead for an emerging sport. That all changed in the 15 seconds it took Frank Shamrock to armbar Olympic gold medalist Kevin Jackson. The adopted younger brother of Ken Shamrock immediately made a name for himself, the action inside the ring had come full circle for the umpteenth time and Shamrock could back up his cross-trained ways with a bravado that the crowd ate up.

UFC 12: Vitor Belfort vs. Scott Ferrozzo

With dismal compensation in relation to boxing, there was little incentive for world-class strikers to test their chin in the UFC. But there was plenty of motivation for 19-year-old Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighter Vitor Belfort to supplement his groundwork with naturally fast hands. In a four-man tournament, the muscular Brazilian smashed his way through Tra Telligman and Scott Ferrozzo like a bulldozer, offering up the most accurate punching the young sport had seen. Belfort would go on to become a star, and not a single fan watching his debut performance could claim disappointment.

UFC 1: Royce Gracie vs. Ken Shamrock (above)

The sight of a slender, gi-clad Royce Gracie ambling into the cage is now virtually iconic, thanks in large part to his three stunning tournament victories. However, it wasn't his plodding quarterfinal round with Art Jimmerson that stirred interest; it was when he proceeded to manhandle the chiseled Ken Shamrock in under two minutes in the semifinals that same night. The sight of Royce Gracie—built as unspectacularly as any of us—dismantling the Charles Atlas figure was a sensation that sent enough shockwaves to create the jiu-jitsu boom of the 1990s and push “ultimate fighting" into mainstream consciousness.

UFC 4: Royce Gracie vs. Dan Severn (above)

Still at a point where a UFC without Royce Gracie was unthinkable, promoters looked to his quest to regain the title as the selling point. After a tough battle with Keith Hackney, Royce Gracie entered the finals against the mammoth Dan Severn, a decorated collegiate wrestler who had used his mat skills just as Royce Gracie had used his. This time, the two played a chess game for nearly 15 minutes until Dan Severn's lack of submission awareness lulled him into a triangle choke. A deadly-dull draw with Ken Shamrock in April 1995 was Royce Gracie's literal finale, but this performance takes the cake.

UFC 43: Randy Couture vs. Chuck Liddell

As he had heard many times before, 39-year-old Randy Couture was in no position to contend with his opponent. As in the case of Vitor Belfort, Kevin Randleman and Pedro Rizzo, he would be outclassed by a combination of age, cardio and skills. MMA pundits decreed that Chuck Liddell would simply hurt Randy Couture. But did he even get a shot in? To the amazement of all, Randy Couture out-boxed and then finished off his hapless foe in three rounds, taking yet another belt to become the only multiple weight-class champion and embarrass the naysayers. In equal measure, Randy Couture would prove to be the ultimate fighter, champion and gentleman.

UFC 40: Tito Ortiz vs. Ken Shamrock

With the UFC back on pay-per-view television and among the most profitable sporting events in Vegas, the only thing missing was a marquee bout—something with history and opportunity for mainstream interest. That came in the form of returning favorite Ken Shamrock, who had cultivated a following from his WWF days. After light-heavyweight champ Tito Ortiz had taken on Ken Shamrock's students (Guy Mezger [twice] and Jerry Bohlander), it made perfect sense for him to face their mentor. Pummeling Ken Shamrock for three merciless rounds, Tito Ortiz led the charge of the new school against the old guard and prompted Zuffa's biggest success to date.

UFC 22: Ken Shamrock vs. Tito Ortiz

Still stagnating in just a handful of satellite-equipped houses, SEG nonetheless pressed on with a marquee fight that has yet to find an equal. After both men had demolished middleweight contenders in succession, champion Frank Shamrock stepped up to Tito Ortiz when slumping business could've seen both men heading for the door. For four rounds, Ken Shamrock forced the stronger athlete to wear himself down before unleashing a flurry and bringing Tito Ortiz to his knees. From the insane crowd reaction for Ken Shamrock to his defiant flip-off of nemesis John Lober, no fight has told more of a story than this one.

Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock photo by Shin Ichi Anzai

Kimo Leopoldo and Royce Gracie by Clay McBride

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The UFC returned to American network television for the first time in more than two years Saturday on ABC while former featherweight champion Max Holloway returned to his winning ways following two straight losses, earning a unanimous decision over Calvin Kattar in Abu Dhabi. Holloway showed he still has plenty left as a fighter dominating Kattar from the opening bell of the main event with a mix of punches and low kicks.

It appeared as if the former champion might stop his opponent in the fourth round landing a series of vicious body blows followed by hard elbows to the head as a bloodied Kattar sagged against the fence. But Kattar somehow survived managing to keep himself upright through the fifth stanza as well, only to lose a lopsided decision. After dropping his title to Alexander Volkanovski and then losing a controversial rematch, Holloway may have put himself in position for one more crack at the championship following Saturday's impressive performance.

The Legendary Black Belt Magazine Hall of Fame has never before been documented in a single location. Now, you can learn about all the icons that have achieved one of the greatest honors in all of martial arts.

Black Belt Magazine is proud to announce the NEW Member Profiles feature for the Hall of Fame. At the time of this article, the online records account for every inductee from the inaugural year of 1968 all the way through 1990 (upwards of 200 martial artists). The page will be updated continuously and will include every inductee through 2020 in the near future. For now, you can enjoy images and facts about the legendary members for each induction they received before 1991. Take advantage of this never-before-seen opportunity to learn about many of the martial artists who contributed to the lifestyle, culture, and community that every martial artist experiences today.

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The Key Is to Customize Your Forms by Playing With Them!

When facing a real attack, creativity and fast thinking are crucial for overcoming an opponent. The human problem, however, is that in a moment of stress, people tend to resort to a single, familiar response — whether it works or not. The goal of martial arts training is to help the student develop the ability to solve various tactical problems in moments of crisis. To achieve this, several attributes must be cultivated. One of the most important is the flexibility of mind needed to make good tactical decisions. What may be surprising, however, is the method that traditional arts use to develop flexibility of mind: kata.

Kata, or forms, have been taught in the fighting traditions for hundreds of years. The thing that makes them so effective as a learning tool is what's overlooked in most modern schools, where forms are often treated like an annoying curriculum requirement. Classical forms are composed of actual self-defense techniques that are based on sound and reliable principles. So the first step is to actually practice forms "for real." This means that forms training must include not only the solo performances but also the bunkai, or two-person applications.

Now, some people say they practice bunkai, but they're misleading themselves if their practice consists of defending against stylized attacks that bear no relationship to what one is likely to see in a real-world encounter. And they're misleading themselves if the responses to those stylized attacks — supposedly, the movements from the form — depend on distance and anticipation to work. True bunkai is the purely functional use of movements from kata against common forms of aggression.

Note: To test whether you're practicing true bunkai, have your training partner attack with intensity and realism. If you can't make your application work, it probably is not true bunkai.

When kata are taught properly, the first step is to provide students with a simple, realistic and usable interpretation for each movement of a form. Each individual move is taught as a response to a realistic attack. And it's taught on the assumption that the attacker is about the same size as the defender. But what if you're a 5-foot-6-inch, 125-pound woman training in a dojo full of men who are 6 feet tall and north of 200 pounds? Clearly, the standard techniques won't work as standardly taught.

This is precisely what makes kata training so important. The secret lies, first, in understanding that kata are practical and that practicality is expressed in realistic bunkai, and second, in acknowledging that realistic bunkai is ultimately about understanding and applying the principles of a technique. In other words, if you have a practical use for a kata movement, you have one good technique. But if you understand the principles of that one technique, you have a thousand techniques.

So how can kata be taught and subsequently fine-tuned in a way that maximizes practicality and conceptual understanding? The answer is to give yourself permission to think creatively about forms so you come up with a variety of bunkai that work best for you. And to accomplish this, you must give yourself permission to play with the forms.

And how does one play with kata? Any way you want. A simple way to start is to change the timing and emphasis. For example, while performing a downward counter (gedan-uke), the emphasis is usually on the downward strike. Instead, emphasize the beginning of the movement when your hand comes up near your opposite ear. Suddenly, you discover another striking action hidden within the movement. Your downward counter isn't a low strike away from yourself; it's a rising strike that moves toward your own body.

Another way to play is to start with bunkai and work your way backward. Perform a bunkai you already know but on a differently sized or abled opponent. While performing the technique, pay attention to modifications that you make to execute the move effectively. Once you have identified a modification, try to apply it to the solo performance of kata play.

The point is to learn to think freely and creatively. Playing with kata is a form of free expression. This leads to creative thinking and to the discovery of principles of effective self-defense. And this, in turn, leads to different ways to solve tactical problems and ultimately leads to the skill one needs to make good tactical solutions under stress.

Now, some very traditional practitioners will object to the notion of playing with kata because it implies "changing" the forms — a notion that attacks the very heart of the traditionalist sense of orthodoxy. But playing with kata does not imply abandoning the "orthodox" versions, however they're defined within a given style or tradition. In fact, it's the custom of the authors to practice orthodox kata, then to perform a personalized, played-with version of the same forms.

Other instructors might object, claiming that it will create confusion if students are given permission to personalize their own art. But imagine what would happen if students were taught to think on their own — and not simply parrot the teacher's movements. Imagine how much more they could get done during class. Instead of struggling with students who can't get something to work, the students can play with the movement themselves and find alternative methods that work for them. In this way, playing with kata can solve some very important dojo problems.

For example, if students think there's only one correct way to perform a technique, they'll tend to sacrifice technique and muscle their way through the move when necessary to make it work. But when students are encouraged to adapt techniques to suit their strengths, they begin to work independently on improving their technique through proper body mechanics.

Another dojo problem revolves around the fact that karate is a male-dominated adult activity. But if you look at the kids classes, there's a more even mix of girls and boys. What causes girls to quit training?

There's no one single reason, but part of the problem is that girls are not being taught how to adapt techniques to make them work. Most girls, as they grow, find that they can't muscle their way through a technique against an adult male to make it work.

Sadly, most sensei don't have enough time or knowledge to teach a different way of doing the technique when this occurs. Nor should they. Instead, if all the students are given the freedom to play with kata and the corresponding bunkai, those girls — who might be in danger of quitting — can learn to think independently as they modify their moves.

Another dojo problem is that training partners don't always attack in a helpful manner. This is especially an issue for women training with men because the men sometimes will try to demonstrate their superior strength with female training partners. Students who have been taught to play with kata and modify them for different situations have a much better time adapting to meet changing circumstances — all the while, still using the framework of the kata. For students trained in this approach, kata aren't stagnant routines; they're living things that can be manipulated and shaped to fit a variety of combative circumstances.

***

Who knew that playing could be such a useful learning tool? Students who have been given permission to think creatively about kata will become better fighters. They will have already learned how to adapt to different situations and circumstances. Sparring will improve with the freedom to think outside the box.

And should the students find themselves in a self-defense situation, they will be prepared to think on the spot instead of freezing when a technique doesn't work like it was supposed to.

The ability to think is arguably one of the most important fighting skills anyone can learn. A good fighter has a good mind. Kata are the perfect tool for training a strong, effective mind — as long as you're given permission to analyze, adapt, shape, understand and play with those kata.

April Taylor is a practitioner of Ryukyu kempo. She stands 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighs 125 pounds — and regularly trains with 200-pound men. Chris Thomas is a longtime practitioner of the martial arts and a renowned instructor whose articles have appeared in Black Belt since 1981. He is also April Taylor's dad. Click here to visit his website.

Black Belt Hall of Fame member Fedor Emelianenko, considered by some the greatest heavyweight in the history of mixed martial arts, has been hospitalized with the Covid-19 virus. It was reported Thursday that the Russian fighting great had been taken to a hospital in Moscow. Though the hospital has not released any details of his condition, Emelianenko, 44, took to Instagram to assure his fans he's feeling well and recovering.

A former combat sambo world champion and heavyweight champion of the now defunct Pride promotion, Emelianenko retired from fighting in 2012 but returned in 2015. He is currently signed with Bellator MMA where he's gone 3-2 since 2017. There had been plans for him to have an epic farewell fight in Russia but the worldwide pandemic has put those plans on hold.

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