10 YRS AGO: Five Classic MMA Fights every fan should watch, including Belfort, Sapp, Griffin, Frye

Stephan Bonner (photo credit Mike Lano © MMATorch)

Ten years ago this week, MMATorch columnist Randy Rowles listed five fights every UFC fan should watch. We republish it today as the latest in our daily series of article flashbacks from five and ten years ago that we think would be of interest to MMA fans today.

In what should become a semi-regular column here on MMATorch.com, we’ll take a look at five classic MMA matches from the past. This list is not intended as a definitive list of the absolute best matches ever, but instead will chronicle five matches that were exceptional in the performance of the fighters, the spectacle of the match or had a major impact on the sport or viewer. Any number of matches would meet this qualification, but for now, we’ll start with five.


(UFC 13 – May 30, 1997)

This fight took place back in the heyday of UFC, when a bar-brawling hooligan like David “Tank” Abbott and his pitfighting style were a force to be reckoned with. Tank Abbott’s disregard for political correctness, lack of respect for other fighters, and general scary appearance made him a huge draw in the UFC. All Abbott needed to do to win a fight, was to connect with one of his vicious haymakers. Abbott had previously lost in the UFC, to Don Frye and Oleg Taktarov via rear naked choke, and to Dan Severn and Scott Ferrozzo via decision, but what Tank Abbott had never done — is get knocked out in an MMA match. Abbott had done his share of knocking folks out, but himself had never been taken out with a strike.

Vitor Belfort was only 19 years old, when he debuted at UFC 12 in a four-man heavyweight tournament. Belfort beat both Tra Telligman and Scott Ferrozzo in the same night, winning the tournament. Three months later, after his 20th birthday, the Brazilian MMA prodigy Vitor Belfort was put to the test against the nightmarishly frightening Tank Abbott at UFC 13.

Since he had never been knocked out, and he was fighting what he perceived to be a punk kid, Tank Abbott underestimated his opponent. This would be his greatest mistake, as less than a minute into the fight, David slew Goliath. The mighty Tank Abbott got TKO’d by Vitor Belfort. The mystique of Abbott was crushed by the Brazilian sensation. Abbott would go on to have many more MMA matches, but was never feared quite the same as before Vitor Belfort’s shocking victory. Belfort must have felt like the king of the world, but it wouldn’t last long, as Belfort would suffer his first MMA loss at UFC 15, against another relative newcomer to the sport — Randy Couture.


(PRIDE Shockwave – August 8, 2002)

PRIDE Shockwave 2002 would see a match-up of magnificent proportions, as two of the biggest names in the sport, both with undefeated records in PRIDE, went head to head in the one of the most anticipated MMA matches ever.

Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira had already taken out heavy-hitters “Big Daddy” Gary Goodridge, Mark Coleman and Heath Herring in PRIDE matches. Nogueira had proven himself to be the real deal. Bob Sapp, on the other hand, didn’t have to prove anything to anybody — with his unbelievable size and strength. The former NFL Offensive Lineman and pro wrestler had become one of the most famous Americans ever in Japan , as famous as, if not more than, any Hollywood star or American athlete. Before this match, though, Sapp was relatively untested in MMA, having bull-rushed victories over Japanese fighters Kiyoshi Tamura and Yoshihisa Yamamoto, who were quite literally fed to “The Beast.”

The question became — Can the monstrous Bob Sapp bully a top-notch fighter? Sapp did indeed bully Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, using his brute force to punish Nogueira in the first round. In one of the greatest spots ever in an MMA match, Nogueira was working for an armbar on Sapp, when Sapp used his ungodly strength to lift Nogueira up into the air and slam him back down to the mat with a brutal powerbomb. Nogueira would survive Sapp’s punishment, though, finally locking in an armbar for the submission victory. Bob Sapp would not return to PRIDE, instead opting to fight in K-1, and would only lose one more fight. Sapp has not had an MMA match in almost a year now, but has been in the films ELEKTRA and THE LONGEST YARD.


(UFC Ultimate Fighter Finale – April 29, 2005)

At first, the idea that a reality show could produce top-level MMA fighters was something of a joke. By the finale of The Ultimate Fighter, this line of thinking would be proven undeniably wrong. The Ultimate Fighter would turn out to be just the catalyst the UFC needed to create new stars. The WWE had tried the reality show format to create stars, with Tough Enough, but the mistake they made — and the thing the UFC got right, was to not try to create combatants from scratch. The Ultimate Fighter cast was filled with fighters who had already proven themselves, in one way or another, worthy of a UFC match.

It would be hard to find a fight where two fighters had everything to gain and nothing to lose, any more than Stephan Bonnar and Forrest Griffin did at the first UFC Ultimate Fighter Finale. These two warriors left everything they had in the octagon, going toe to toe for three rounds in an all-out war. The fight was so close, and each fighter had fought so hard, that a decision either way would have seemed unfair. Someone had to win, though, and the judges gave Forrest Griffin the decision. In an impromptu act, UFC President Dana White did what was definitely warranted in the situation, as he went into the octagon and offered Stephan Bonnar a UFC contract of his own. Arguably, there have never been two fighters more deserving based on a single performance. Both fighters wanted it more than anything, and as a result, they got it.

Forrest Griffin would win his next two UFC matches, before losing a controversial split decision to Tito Ortiz. Griffin and Stephan Bonnar would have a rematch at UFC 62, which couldn’t possibly live up to the expectations set in their first encounter, and Forrest Griffin would again win the decision. Stephan Bonnar has now lost 2 fights in a row in the UFC, and recently tested positive for steroid use. Currently, Bonnar has his back to the wall in MMA, and hopefully, will be able to overcome his situation to return to the UFC. His story simply can’t end like this.


(PRIDE 21 – June 23, 2002)

To find the greatest spectacle in an MMA match, one might not need look any further than PRIDE 12, where MMA legend Don Frye took on professional wrestler Yoshihiro Takayama, in one of the most brutal fights ever to have taken place, anywhere. Many a pitfight in the darkest of dungeons has to have looked friendlier than this encounter.

Don Frye had already had a storied career in MMA, holding victories over the best of the best in the UFC and PRIDE. Just to name a few, Don Frye had beaten Mark Coleman, Gary Goodridge (twice), Tank Abbott, Gilbert Yvel, Cyril Abidi, and was coming off a win over Ken Shamrock. Yoshihiro Takayama, on the other hand, had his share of worked victories in pro wrestling, but had never won an MMA match, losing in his only two attempts, against Semmy Schilt and Kazuyuki Fujita.

For the better part of 6 minutes, Don Frye and Yoshihiro Takayama stood still in the ring and unloaded punches to each other’s faces. The two put the dirty in dirty boxing. Punch after punch, neither fighter backed down. Words can’t describe how crazy this match was, as each fighter took more abuse than was seemingly possible for a human being to take. Takayama suffered the brunt of the punishment, as Don Frye gave Takayama’s face an extreme makeover this night, transforming it into a bloody pulp. Finally, and mercifully, Takayama fell and Don Frye got the victory. The look in Takayama’s eyes said it all. It seems unlikely there could be a MMA match where two fighters were more willing to go for broke, just standing there taking punches as they gave them, in hopes that the other guy would fall first. This fight was one of the most ridiculously intense MMA matches ever.


(ReMix World Cup 2000 – December 5, 2000)

An MMA match between two female fighters that rivals the drama of some of the greatest bouts ever. The ReMix World Cup 2000 is one of the most dramatic and entertaining MMA events this reviewer has ever witnessed. This event was held in Japan and featured a 12-woman tournament, with all matches to be held the same night.

Svetlana Goundarenko, a 330-pound Russian fighter, would scare most grown men. Goundarenko took out her first two opponents in the tournament, smothering them both until she was able to lock in chokes for the submission victories. Megumi Yabushita, on the other hand, weighed in at 140 pounds. Yabushita was given a bye in the first round of the tournament, along with American fighter Bambi Bertoncello. Yabushita submitted Bertoncello and found herself in the semi-finals of the tournament — matched up against Goundarenko!

The electricity in the crowd flowed through the arena. The mismatch here was exciting, both because of the unadulterated spectacle of the whole thing, and the general concern for the well-being of the much, much smaller Megumi Yabushita. Yabushita’s facials were priceless, as she was genuinely scared of the Russian behemoth. It almost seemed like Svetlana Goundarenko could pick up the petite Japanese fighter, tear her limbs off and eat her, if she wanted.

Megumi Yabushita evaded as much as possible, getting caught by Svetlana Goundarenko several times, before narrowly escaping. The crowd was on the edge of their seats, reacting to each movement with oohs and ahs. I’m not sure if I’ve ever rooted harder for a fighter in a match, than I did for Yabushita in this fight. Yabushita managed to survive two rounds, and got in enough offense to earn the unanimous decision.

The post-fight of this match was priceless. As Yabushita celebrated her slaying of a giant, Goundarenko showed herself to be human after all, as she sat in the corner of the ring — crying, disappointed with her inability to finish her diminutive opponent. Although many had been rooting against her, in favor of the local hero, in this moment, it was virtually impossible not to empathize with the Russian fighter, and respect the effort she had given in her pursuit of victory.

Megumi Yabushita would lose in the final match of the ReMix World Cup 2000, to the Dutch fighting sensation, Merloes Coenen. Although she wasn’t able to capture the tournament crown, Yabushita overcame an obstacle of epic proportions in her match with Svetlana Goundarenko. To have survived this match, let alone won it, is an accomplishment of a goal on a level that most will never find themselves challenged with.

Well, that wraps up this edition of Five to Watch.

Have some feelings about any of these matches you’d like to share? Have an MMA match that you feel should be included in an upcoming column? Comment below…

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