In just over a decade, Zuffa has promoted more than 100 numbered UFC events. Before every new UFC event we'll take a look back in time to a show 100 UFC's prior. With input from the athletes who were in the cage, we'll bring you the history of the Zuffa era one event at a time.
Venue: Mandalay Bay (Las Vegas, Nevada)
Attendance: 9500 (Gate: $816,660)
PPV Buys: 75,000 (estimate)
Announcers: Mike Goldberg, Jeff Osborne, Elvis Sinosic
Everything had gone perfectly for Zuffa in their first year as the proud owners of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and this event was the culmination of a lot of hard work. The promotion achieved its two major goals, both integral to commercial success, with this show - they were back on mainstream cable pay per view and they were in a major venue in Las Vegas, the fight capital of the world.
Dave Menne: I felt really positive about where the sport was going and what it had taken to get there. Being at the Mandalay Bay in Vegas, being back on pay per view, if you had been watching the sport and had seen where it was coming from, it was very exciting. There were pyrotechnics, I was onstage with Carmen Electra, I remember meeting Mike Tyson back in the hallway after my fight. It was exciting to meet those people, exciting to be involved in the whole process.
Din Thomas: I always tell people, 'I was the first mixed martial artist to ever fight in Vegas - legally.' Me and Fabiano Iha fought first that night. We made history. I felt great. It was on my birthday.
I trained with Rico Chiaparelli and Frank Trigg for that fight. I trained hard. It paid off. At that time Ricco was the best in the business. His knowledge was on par with any other coach. He could have easily been a Greg Jackson had he come up in this era. He was a phenomenal wrestler, he understood jiu jitsu, knew a lot about boxing. He was ahead of his time and I learned a lot. I won that fight and was back on track.
For this big show, a critical show really that would reintroduce the sport to many fans, the UFC booked a huge main event. Vitor Belfort, the company's first prodigy and a man they hoped for years would take the leap to greatness, was taking on the current champion and new poster boy Tito Ortiz. It was a win-win proposition. Either Belfort would finally step up to the plate and knock one out of the park, or Ortiz would add another big name to his list of victims. This was a bout not just for a championship, but to crown the face of the company.
Instead, Belfort cut his arm to shreds while training, apparently missing a punching bag and putting his arm through a window at his gym. "We are devastated by this news," Dana White said at the time. "However, I want to assure the fans that we are doing the best we can to replace Vitor with a credible opponent."
That opponent ended up being Vladimir Matyushenko, a solid wrestler who would test Tito, but thrill no one. What should have been a moment to remember turned into an epic disaster. They booked three title matches for the show and each one ran the full 25 minutes. The show ran over its allotted time window and thousands of fans had the main event cut off mid-fight, never getting to see Ortiz's hand raised. UFC President Dana White, as always, was blissfully blunt when asked about the card: "UFC 33 is the only one I can remember where every fight sucked."
Din Thomas def. Fabiano Iha, unanimous decision
Ricardo Almeida def. Eugene Jackson, triangle choke, 4:06 R1
Jutaro Nakano def. Tony DeSouza, KO, 0:15 R2
Matt Serra def. Yves Edwards, split decision
Chuck Liddell def. Murilo Bustamante, unanimous decision
UFC middleweight championship: Dave Menne def. Gil Castillo, unanimous decision
UFC lightweight championship: Jens Pulver def. Dennis Hallman, unanimous decision
UFC light heavyweight championship: Tito Ortiz def. Vladimir Matyushenko, unanimous decision
The show was scheduled for late September, and on September 11, 2001, the world changed for everyone. Terrorist attacks rocked the nation - and incidentally, put the UFC's return at risk.
Menne: I guess it was up in the air. We didn't know if the show was going to happen. We didn't know if we were going to have to drive there. The airports didn't open back up immediately. I was sleeping on Jens Pulver's couch, I remember, and he woke me up and said 'Oh my God, you've got to see this.' You're thinking 'Oh my God. What's going to happen to the country, what's going to happen to the world after this.' Then a few days later you think 'Well, are we fighting?' It was a big question mark. It changed the mood a little bit. You want to concentrate completely on your fight, but you can't ignore what just happened. We're all part of a nation. It happened to every one of us.
Thomas: The day I was supposed to fly home from my training camp was 9/11. So I got stuck in California. I was at the airport when I saw the Twin Towers go down. I was stuck in LA for a week, just wandering around. The airports were all closed.
Tito Ortiz: Immediately people from the UFC started calling and saying the right thing to do would be to cancel the fight...I said no way. First of all I needed the money and the arena had already sold out...But I also felt that with all that had happened, Americans would need this kind of fight to raise their spirits.
Excerpt from Ortiz's autobiography This is Going To Hurt
Menne's middleweight title fight with Gil Castillo opened the show. It was the closest thing to a good fight on the card that night. Castillo, who had beaten Nate Marquardt in front of White and UFC matchmaker Joe Silva to get the opportunity, was making his Octagon debut. He was a scrappy wrestler, with formidable Gracie Jiu Jitsu skills. But Menne had fought the best in the world, including Matt Hughes and Carlos Newton, and punished Castillo with knees from the clinch, defending most of the grappler's takedowns smartly. He rocked Castillo several times, battering his face, but never managed to put him away.
Menne: I think anybody in that situation - it's the UFC and it's a title fight - you're probably going to fight past what you normally would. I hit him once and wobbled him pretty hard and he came back from that. I hit him with some pretty hard knees. He was tough. I guess from my perspective, to be critical of myself a little bit, I could have pushed the fight a little harder. Maybe I should have...but sometimes, in reality, pushing for a finish is when you make mistakes.
The second title bout of the night, Jens Pulver's first title defense against Dennis Hallman, was billed as a grudge match. The two men had been high school rivals, and to make things even more tense, Hallman had beaten Pulver's teammate Matt Hughes twice.
Dennis Hallman: That was hype. It was artificially induced. They were trying to pump the fight. They said 'Hey, go ahead and run with that high school beef you guys had.' It wasn't a big deal to me. It was for the show.
Jens Pulver: It wasn't a job yet. It's how we were. 'Oh, this guy's talking stuff about Matt?' Okay. We'll see. That's how we were. We were like a pack of wolves. Come fight time, we were a pack of wolves. And all the other wolves were in your corner.
The two men were heated at the prefight press conference, Hallman derisively referring to Pulver as "big guy" and Jens promising the assembled media that "you' guys are going to see some sh*t Friday." When they actually got in the cage, however, all the energy disappeared. According to the research gurus at Fight Metric, less happened in that fight than in any title fight in UFC history.
Hallman: That fight changed the rules of MMA. After that, the referee was allowed to stand fighters up from the ground. The boos were warranted. He couldn't do anything to me on top, I couldn't do anything to him on the bottom. We nullified each others games, and it made for a real boring fight.
Pulver: I felt bad for guys like Hallman. He'd be on his back in our corner and everyone would be yelling at him. "How are you doing there Denise?" They talked junk to him the whole time in the corner. I didn't ever want to be on my back in the other corner. I remember thinking 'If they are half as bad as we are, I don't want any part of it.'
In the main event, the UFC's top star Tito Ortiz defended his light heavyweight title against Matyushenko.Ortiz was a natural showman, and in the aftermath of 9/11, did what he thought the nation needed. When his music hit, Limp Bizkit's Break Stuff, the crowd exploded like he was Hulk Hogan coming out to Real American. The country had swelled to near bursting with patriotism - and Ortiz was right there with the masses.
Ortiz: I came into the ring carrying the American flag....Everybody was going crazy. People were screaming 'USA! USA! I felt so great that this fight was taking place.
Excerpt from Ortiz's autobiography This is Going To Hurt
airs tomorrow night live on pay per view. Check back at MMA Nation for up to the minute updates in real time as the show goes on.