Michael Chandler put forth an inspired performance against the über-dangerous Patricky Freire on Saturday night, and the path that led us to that bout – a path first tread upon in March – saw along the way knockouts, submissions and drama galore. But that’s often what we get when we invest our attentions on a tournament. For when eight warriors with varied skill sets, talents and backstories assemble, and clash on the field of battle until only one remains, there’s an innate sense of theater to the proceedings. In a multiple-man melee, we can play witness to domination and destruction, to utter beatdowns and unlikely comebacks, and when it’s all over, there’s real accomplishment there, regardless of whether it took place in the span of a few events or was compressed into a single night. The tournament is how the UFC first hooked us back in 1993, the tournament is how Pride FC captivated the world, and it’s the cornerstone on which Bellator is built upon. So let’s take a walk down memory lane and recall some of the best MMA tournaments ever, shall we?
Ultimate Ultimate 1996 – At the time, every UFC featured a tournament. But what set the second Ultimate Ultimate apart from the rest was the roster, which featured the best of the best. There was Ken Shamrock, who easily smashed young upstart Brian Johnston but broke his hand and had to bow out, and there was Kimo Leopoldo, who gutted out a win against the giant Paul Varelans but couldn’t continue. The evening belonged to David “Tank” Abbott and Don Frye, though, with Tank almost tossing Cal Worsham out of the cage and pulling off a Mortal Kombat “fatality” on karate man Steve Nelmark before falling – literally and miraculously – in his bout against Frye. To watch it as it happened was to capture raw excitement in a bottle. Yes, it was awesome.
Pride 2000 Grand Prix – Japanese superstar Kazushi Sakuraba added Royce Gracie to his list of defeated Brazilians, punishing the legendary fighter for 90 minutes until Gracie’s corner threw in the towel. And that wasn’t even the best part of the tournament! In 2000, most thought former UFC champ Mark Coleman was washed up, but he proved he still had a lot more to do in the sport, defeating the hard-headed Kazuyuki Fujita and kneeing knockout artist Igor Vovchanchyn into oblivion to win the whole shebang.
International Fighting Championships “Global Domination” Light-Heavyweight Tournament – In September of 2003, the most promising 205-pound up-and-comers clashed in the kind of tournament we can only dream about today. Some of the cool things that happened included: Jeremy Horn submitting Mikhail Avetisyan and knocking out Forrest Griffin with a kick to the head to make it to the finals, and Renato “Babalu” Sobral defeating Trevor Prangley, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and Horn to win it all.
Pride 2004 Heavyweight Grand Prix – Kevin Randleman was supposed to be fodder fed to the fierce and deadly Mirko “CroCop” Filipovic, and then Randleman knocked him out in under two minutes. Yet Pride’s 2004 Heavyweight Grand Prix was all about Fedor Emelianenko, who submitted Mark Coleman, survived Randleman’s “suplex of doom”, defeated Naoya Ogawa, and after a “no contest” due to a cut, beat Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira by decision. If any noob wonders aloud why Fedor is so well-respected, point out this tournament and smack him in the head.
SuperBrawl 13 Heavyweight Tournament – If you took a time machine back to September of 1999 and looked at the Internet, you wouldn’t recognize what you saw. But that’s what we had back then, and we used it to follow the SuperBrawl 13 Heavyweight Tournament in Hawaii, which pitted the world’s best non-UFC heavyweight fighters against each other. Josh Barnett took top honors, defeating Juha Tunkasaari, John Marsh and Bobby Hoffman along the way, but other competitors in the event included Travis Fulton, Heath Herring and Ricco Rodriguez. Recognize any of those names?
Pride Total Elimination 2003 – The UFC loaned out “the Iceman” to Pride, and as a result we got to watch Chuck Liddell KO a young (and much smaller) Alistair Overeem before Liddell was pounded out by Quinton Jackson. However, the man to beat back then was Wanderlei Silva, and in the end, he was unbeatable. After decisioning Japanese judo star Hidehiko Yoshida, the “Axe Murderer” and “Rampage” had the kind of striking battle that would’ve made the gods weep, and Silva wound up kneeing Jackson until the American was an unconscious pile of humanity tangled in the bottom ropes. It was simply amazing.