The UFC makes history this weekend when Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos become the first stars to step into the Octagon in front of a live network television audience. This is the dream realized - for years the sport has fought tooth and nail just to survive. Shut down by state governments and cable companies alike, the entire sport of mixed martial arts was once on life support in America.
In 2001, everything changed. Under the leadership of Dana White, Joe Silva, and the Fertitta brothers, the company has conquered cable, become the king of Las Vegas, and a pay-per-view god. Only the mainstream remains, virgin territory to be taken by force with the help of partners at Fox.
Does that make Velasquez-dos Santos the most important fight in UFC history? I think so. The two men will play to a larger audience than any other UFC fighters in history. The pressure is enormous - the show's success in the ratings game will help determine just how big this sport can be. The UFC is coming hard and putting their best foot forward - a heavyweight title fight on free television. They know all eyes will be on the promotion this weekend and success is critical.
Of course, there have been other fights that have defined this sport. Fights that built an empire, fights that made fans take note, contests that helped create stars that shined for years. After consulting an expert panel of MMA media, fighters, and executives, I've pinpointed the five most significant bouts in UFC history:
1. Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar I (The Ultimate Fighter Finale, April 9, 2005): The two Ultimate Fighter contestants reinvented toughness as they battled for a six figure contract on live television. It wasn't the most technical fight, but the two left it all in the cage, going toe-to-toe for 15 solid minutes. The fight not only became an immediate classic, it helped solidify the UFC's relationship with Spike TV, a partnership that helped drive success.
2. Brock Lesnar v. Frank Mir II (UFC 100, July 11, 2009): The UFC had seemingly peaked with the grudge match between Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell, drawing more than a million pay per view buyers to watch the "Iceman" silence the "Huntington Beach Bad Boy." Enter Brock Lesnar. The former WWE champion breathed new life into the promotion, helping take the entire business to a new level of success. A rematch with Frank Mir, headlining UFC 100, wowed not only fans, but also corporate and television executives who saw the next big thing right in front of their eyes.
3. Ken Shamrock v. Tito Ortiz I (UFC 40, November 22, 2002): When Zuffa first purchased the UFC, success was not immediate. The company struggled for years, and there was even talk of abandoning the business. That was before Ken Shamrock made a triumphant return at UFC 40. The UFC's champions at a time had a perception problem. Fans had never seen a passing of the torch - Ortiz was the light heavyweight champion, but some fans weren't convinced the modern crop of fighters could beat old war horses like Shamrock. This fight not only set PPV records for Zuffa, but it made an enduring star in Ortiz, who stopped Shamrock with ease.
4. Royce Gracie v. Ken Shamrock II (UFC 5, April 7, 1995): The two biggest stars in early MMA history met in the very first UFC. The promotion wanted a rematch in the worst way, but the tournament format and a string of injuries prevented that. Finally, the promotion simply inserted the two into a superfight, a bout outside the tournament structure that allowed the biggest stars to compete head to head.
5. Matt Hughes v. Royce Gracie (UFC 60, May 27, 2006): Before this fight, Hughes was an amazing champion but a flop at the box office. The hype surrounding his fight with Gracie made him a megastar, much the same way a win over Shamrock had helped Ortiz become a success. Hughes beat Gracie at his own game and became a linchpin for the UFC's success during the early part of The Ultimate Fighter era.