After a stellar season of TUF that saw him destroy all who dared stand before him, Uriah Hall seems on the cusp of superstardom. Already he can’t walk five feet at an MMA expo in Manhattan or through the audience at a Bellator in Atlantic City without being mobbed by fans, each one wanting to shake his hand, congratulate him and get a photo with the man who without fail sent his fellow TUF contestants to the hospital. If Saturday night’s TUF Finale goes as expected, Hall’s entrance into the UFC proper will be one of the most heralded of all time. But Hall didn’t come out of nowhere, didn’t materialize out of thin air in realization of the prayers of the countless thousands who wanted an actual worthwhile fighter to come from the UFC’s aged reality show. No, Hall was hot shit in the Northeast circuit for years, a Ring of Combat champ, a real-life version of a King of the Iron Fist Tournament competitor, and considered up there with Chris Weidman, Costa Philippou and Tom DeBlass in terms of badassery. And if you were there at his first MMA bout – at Ring of Combat 9 on October 29, 2005 – maybe you got an inkling of all that.
Through the lens of history we can say it was a special night, but to be there in the chilly Asbury Park Convention Hall, freezing your ass off while wondering if the ancient building would finally give up and crumble into the Atlantic Ocean, it was just another local MMA show in New Jersey. At the time, options for local fights were limited to ROC and Reality Fighting, and there were only two or three of each a year. But the Ultimate Fighter was finishing up its second season and the sport was growing, and growing into a more attractive outlet for those keen on kicking butt for a living. And so at ROC 9, a bunch of first-timers took the pugilistic plunge.
From my seat at ringside (back then, ROC used a ring – hence the organization’s name), I watched some kid named Frankie Edgar have his first pro bout. It was just a little over three months removed from his lone underground fight at some hole in the wall in the Bronx, and Edgar was a relentless ground-and-pound machine, taking the TKO late in the first round. People cheered. They cheered some more when Phillipe Nover sent his opponent into Dreamland with a fist made of stone, ending things in just 16 seconds. Edgar’s teammate, Jay Coleman, needed only 39 seconds to overwhelm his foe, and because Coleman had put away future UFC competitor Mike Massenzio at a Reality Fighting two months before, the smart money was on him being the first of the bunch to make it into the Octagon (Coleman, unfortunately, never made it out of the local scene).
As is always the case, minor league MMA events are defined by the teams that participate, and this one was a cross-section of most of the ones that mattered – and a bunch that didn’t. Edgar and Coleman were the cornerstones of the Rhino Fight Team; when Kevin Roddy, another member of their crew, won his bout via slick submission from the guard, it seemed like a whole section of the audience belonged to them. The Pitts Pen contingent went nuts when their hero Garrett Carmody scored a 17-second knockout; Steve McCabe’s victory by rear naked choke saw the Fight Factory fans who’d made the trek from Philadelphia go nuts. And when Lyman Good put forth three dominant rounds in his MMA debut, earning the decision and prompting his opponent to barf right there on the canvas, the legion of Tiger Schulmann disciples present went berserk. But for every winner in a fight there’s a loser, and a team – and friends and family – there forced to digest that awful crap sandwich that grows thicker with every subsequent “L”. At ROC 9, the losing team was Dragon Gate Martial Arts.
Dragon Gate Martial Arts was a semi-traditional school from Long Island that wasn’t quite ready for MMA, but they were diving in feet first anyway, in the ring and in the audience in full force. By the time it came for the co-main event, which would pit their number two guy in Mike Iannone against some buff newcomer named Uriah Hall, the DGMA section of the crowd had already seen two of their fighters go down. They needed a ray of hope, some violent validation, maybe some justification for driving down and paying the tolls on the Garden State Parkway. They needed a win. And of course Iannone could be the one to give it to them. After all, at the last ROC seven months prior, he’d tapped out Peter Storm (the promoter of the aforementioned Bronx underground show); Iannone was a seasoned veteran by local MMA circa 2005 standards. What did this rookie named Hall have to offer?
Back then, before the advent of BlackBerry tablets, I did all my ringside reportage in notebooks of the paper variety. My entry for that fight reads:
After a scant feeling out period (of about ten seconds), Hall unloaded with knees and punches that dropped Iannone to the canvas. :44, KO.
There were rumblings among the DGMA people that Hall had delivered knees to Iannone’s head, which would’ve been illegal at that event for some reason, but referee Kevin Mulhall waved that talk off by shaking his head and saying they were to the body, and Hall’s arm was raised when Peter Neglia announced him as the winner. No one got to see any spinning back-kicks, or an orbital bone fractured by a single right cross. The end was quick, sudden and surgical. Yet it was enough of a glimpse to forever label Hall as someone to not be trifled with on the feet. Forty-four seconds of dominance, and it was enough.
ROC 9 ended with a DGMA rep named Marlon Sims (who went on to join the cast of TUF 5) getting a win via KO, so the night wasn’t a total wash for the team from Long Island.
Hall left MMA competition for a stint as a kickboxer in the short-lived World Combat League, returning to MMA to kick ass in a Bellator bout almost four years later. Then came his championship runs in ROC, his entrance into the TUF House, and here we are today. But it all began on that night in 2005.
You should’ve been there.