On Saturday night the UFC returns to the FOX network proper, and with it comes a six-man fight card that features one jiu-jitsu master, one Brit, and four wrestlers-turned-mixed martial artists. Yes, that’s four dudes – a full two-thirds of the main card – who know all too well what it feels like to starve themselves into a singlet and compete in a sporting endeavor whose scoring system is only slightly less complex than that of cricket or Calvinball. I don’t know about you, but to me, that’s worthy of some sort of acknowledgment that wrestling is a huge ingredient in the simmering soup that is an MMA fighter. And what better way to acknowledge that than to harken back to some of the greatest wrestling moments in MMA history? (That’s a rhetorical question; I really don’t care what your answer is. I’m writing this damn thing either way.)
-UFC 4, December 16, 1994 – The year was 1994, and the types of fighters we’d thus far seen in the Octagon wielded backgrounds in either useless, esoteric arts or stuff that (surprisingly) actually worked. Seriously, ninjitsu. Five Animals Kung Fu. Joe Son Do. Need I say more? Looking back, we were even laughing about it then. Of course, a real shock in terms of a style that fell into the “what works” category came at UFC 4, when Dan Severn stepped into the cage, snatched up a much smaller Anthony Macias, and repeatedly suplexed the poor guy into the canvas. It was Division I collegiate wrestling in action, and like an athletic supporter full of Bengay, it was an eye-opener.
-UFC 10, July 12, 1996 – The role of wrestling took a turn for the intense when Mark Coleman entered the Octagon at UFC 10. Yup, intense. Very intense. So intense, in fact, that opponents feared his unstoppable takedowns and headbutt-heavy ground and pound as much as they feared his post-fight victory celebrations and the veins that threatened to explode on his forehead. Coleman is singularly responsible for ushering in the era when wrestlers dominated, as well as the era when no one cared about dangerously high blood pressure and brain aneurisms.
-UFC 15, October 17, 1997 – It didn’t have to all be about getting people down and mushing them, as Randy Couture showed us at UFC 15 when he took on the Brazilian fistic freight train known as Vitor Belfort. No, an extensive background in Greco-Roman (a form of wrestling that most resembles ballroom dancing) meant a fighter could latch onto a foe and repeatedly deliver short punches to the face. It was immediately labeled “dirty boxing” by pundits who recognized its effectiveness, although Belfort called it “Oww, stop, it hurts! Stanky, help!”
-UFC 31, May 4, 2001 – Chuck Liddell had already fought in the UFC four times before he met up with Kevin Randleman at UFC 31, but it was only at that particular event that the world saw wrestling employed in a way heretofore unseen with such complete effectiveness. A little context first, though. Back then, Randleman was the latest version of “unstoppable wrestler with unmatched intensity”, and though he’d secured himself a UFC heavyweight championship belt and subsequently lost it to Couture, he was still a beast, and his bout with “The Iceman” was to mark the beginning of his run at the organization’s light-heavyweight title. But Liddell, who was a Division I wrestler before becoming a dangerous kickboxer, needed only a minute and eighteen seconds to sprawl out of trouble and stun Randleman into the Land of the TKO’d, and that was all she wrote. You see, wrestling skills didn’t have to be about getting someone down; they could also be about preventing yourself from getting taken down so you could punch someone’s lights out.
-Dynamite!! USA, June 2, 2007 – Not since Bam-Bam Bigelow had fought Kimo Leopoldo in Japan and Kimo was fooled into thinking his victory was real (and not predetermined) had a pro wrestler pulled off such a convincing con, but then came Brock Lesnar, who parlayed a win over South Korean grappling dummy/punching bag extraordinaire Min-Soo Kim at a Dynamite!! USA show in Los Angeles into a trip to the UFC. It probably helped that Lesnar hailed from a legitimate amateur wrestling background, but still, you can’t tell me that Dana White and Joe Silva didn’t take one look at his World Wrestling Entertainment credentials and said “Sold!” in unison.
-UFC 117, August 7, 2010 – Chael Sonnen was a pretty okay fighter leading up to his UFC 117 title shot against middleweight king Anderson Silva. But that “okay-ness” transcended into something so much more when he talked endless trash and backed it up by beating the ever-loving snot out of the Brazilian. For four and a half rounds Sonnen employed top-notch wrestling to outwork Silva and batter him relentlessly on the ground (and even get in a few good licks on the feet) before tapping to a submission. It goes without saying that if you replaced the American’s wrestling background with, say, badminton, he’d have never been able to pull off what he did. A great wrestling moment in MMA history? Definitely.