It was the best of times, it was the… well, it wasn’t really the best of times at all, now that you mention it. When the UFC made its first live appearance in Brazil – the South American nation that had spawned vale tudo competition about three quarters of a century before – the flagship MMA organization was banned from pay-per-view and on the run from athletic commissions not too keen on the whole “human cockfighting” thing. But the SEG-run UFC was puttering along, so why not take the show on the road? In October of 1998, that’s exactly what they did, setting up the Octagon in the city of Sao Paulo and gathering together a select few of the best and most promising the sport had to offer. As UFC 134 kicks off in Rio de Janeiro this Saturday, I think a fond look back at that UFC Brazil from almost thirteen years ago might be in order, no?
To put things in context, know this: I watched the event as it transpired in one of the only sports bars in Manhattan that showed UFCs. The place was packed with students from Renzo Gracie’s academy. Renzo himself was there, as were dudes from other schools, plus there were journalists who didn’t make the trip to Brazil and ardent fans galore. It was quite the atmosphere – as it always was when a UFC was on.
Back then, UFC events were about as frequent as solar eclipses. As such, the span of time between UFC Brazil and the event before, UFC 17, was five months (nowadays, five months will see about four pay-per-views, two UFC Fight Nights, one UFC on Versus and half a season of TUF go down). Five months! That means that those who were lucky enough to be there live five months prior to see Jeremy Horn completely dominate champ Frank Shamrock for fifteen minutes before falling prey to a last-ditch kneebar in overtime, or who read about the results online (the bout was taped for a “best of” event later on and not shown on the UFC 17 satellite broadcast), had all that time to mull over how much of a stud Horn was, and stew in “excitement juices” over who Horn would dominate next. And man, when it was announced he’d be facing Luta Livre fighter Ebenezer Fontes Braga, expectations were pretty high. Sadly, Braga got a hold of Horn’s neck up against the cage and torqued it, eliciting the tap out after only 3:27 had elapsed.
To say that outcome was a letdown would be an understatement. Making matters worse was the lovefest between RINGS veteran Tsuyoshi Kosaka and Lion’s Den representative Pete Williams. At UFC 17, Williams shocked the world by KOing ex-champ Mark Coleman with a surprise head-kick, so like with Horn, expectations were through the roof. Unfortunately, Kosaka had spent time at the Lion’s Den training with the American heavyweight; what followed after “Big” John McCarthy said “Let’s get it on!” resembled more of a friendly grappling match than a fight. Kosaka took the decision after fifteen minutes (back then, a bout was fifteen minutes straight with two three-minute overtimes if needed), and fans like myself were ready to gouge our eyes out.
The inaugural UFC lightweight (weight classes were different then, so today we’d consider it welterweight) championship match-up between Pat Miletich and Lion’s Den’er Mikey Burnett did not help in ratcheting up the thrill factor, as the two spent twenty-one minutes hugging and holding onto each other’s shorts. Miletich won the split decision, and by this point I was prepared to kill myself.
Thank God for David “Tank” Abbott and Brazilian newcomer Pedro Rizzo. At this stage in the game, Tank was 8-6 but revered for his ability to knock opponent’s heads clean off if they let him. Rizzo, on the other hand, was young, sharp and the deadliest Muay Thai-practicing heavyweight we’d ever seen – a which we quickly became aware of when he began seamlessly mixing leg-kicks with jab and cross combos. It didn’t take long for the Brazilian to figure out the American, and at the 8:07 mark Rizzo knocked Tank out with a nice, big knuckle sandwich. There was hope for the night yet.
Almost exactly a year before, Randy Couture had derailed the runaway locomotive known as Vitor Belfort, and since then we’d only seen Belfort in a lackluster grappling-only match with Joe Charles. To say we had trepidation about his performance against the then-unknown Wanderlei Silva would be accurate. Also accurate: everyone had heard of Silva – he was allegedly a stone-cold killer – and if anything less than the best Vitor Belfort showed up, our beloved human buzz saw was going to be leaving the Octagon on a gurney. And truthfully, when the event was delayed because Belfort refused to leave his trailer for the bout, everyone in the bar began to shake their collective heads. But Belfort did eventually make it to the cage, and the forty-four second display of lightning-like hand speed he used to TKO Silva remains in the organization’s highlight reel to this day.
(Curiously, when Belfort blasted Silva and got the stoppage, the entire place erupted into chants of “jiu-jitsu! Jiu-jitsu! Jiu-jitsu!” Zero jiu-jitsu had been used.)
Shamrock was the undisputed champ, but nearly two years before he’d taken an extended beating at the hands of John Lober at a SuperBrawl in Hawaii and lost a decision. Therefore, UFC Brazil’s marquee match-up was the rematch. It wasn’t even close. While Lober was a tough bastard who’d had a decent run in Extreme Fighting (the UFC’s first rival), he hadn’t evolved like Shamrock had. What followed, then, was a beatdown much worse than what had gone down in their first meeting, only this time around it was Shamrock smashing Lober. The champ got the stoppage after seven minutes and forty seconds had passed, and the night came to a close with best kind of violence: the exciting kind.
All of us in that bar filed out sharing one common trait: the night had gotten off to a shaky start, but by the end of it all, we had been entertained.