In 2006 Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock fought a trilogy that burst the UFC from out of the “dark ages”, re-injecting hype, rivalry and mainstream press into the organization that had been ignored by the media and relegated to “remember when” discussions of its inception as spectacle in the early 90’s. Tito was a large fan favorite, brash, young and dominant. On the surface he had run a three year undefeated streak, burying every fighter in pantomime, selling fights with unveiled threats and becoming the face of the largest Mixed Martial Arts organization in America.
His foil, Ken Shamrock, was as much a legend as one can be in a young sport, having fought Royce Gracie and having ties in both the memories and the history of the early UFC tournaments and their fans. This fight was between the old and young lion, and judging from its stratospheric sales, this age old idea, sold by larger than life personalities, had at stake ideas that turned casual fans into regular pay-per-view buyers. That Tito won the first match handily did not diminish the following two matches and their anticipation. In Tito Ortiz, the UFC had a face, sound-tracked by Eminem, with a personality that lulled WWE fans towards the UFC in a way unparalleled until the arrival of Brock Lesnar years later.
Meanwhile, in Japan…
Dan Henderson, Shogun Rua, Alistair Overeem, Wanderlei Silva, Mirko Cro Cop, Fedor, the Nogueira brothers and others were brutalizing each other in tournaments and single matches before humongous crowds in the Saitama Arena. These matches had a fury and an open-ended quality that was missing from the UFC’s then modus operandi of feeding and sacrificing unknowns or those with some level of recognition to the big dogs, building them to larger than life proportions against the backdrop of a sport touted as “as real as it gets.” The win/loss records of Pride fighters seemed to indicate a plot hole in the UFC’s narrative, a flaw in logic whose boom mic in the frame was Chuck Liddell’s performance in the Pride tournament.
While Ortiz wrecked shop in the UFC, some hypothesized match ups between him and Shogun, Hendo, Wandy. However, by the time many of these fighters entered the octagon, Ortiz was on the decline, but the previously near flawless records of fighters began to scar, and in that scar tissue, the MMA game evolved from a feed tank to a wide ocean of possibilities, that still expands and tides today.
As this Cambrian Explosion treks forward, novelty has grown in its Petri dish. The most exciting as of late as been the inclusion of women’s mixed martial arts. The late Strikeforce promotion had the prototype, but it has been the UFC’s star building promotion that has made Dana White the Thomas Edison to Scott Coker’s Tesla. Ronda Rousey has graced magazines, commercials, twitter controversy and television interviews. Her undefeated record and her dominant dismantling of opponents have made her the face of WMMA. Yet, as with any hype built narrative, there are plot holes, questions and names. She was crowned UFC champion prior to fighting in the octagon, and being the champion of the largest fight organization’s only woman division we are offered no alternative options but to accept what we are told. Dana White claims there is no depth in other divisions, that the 135 pound division has the most depth. I venture to question whether the depth he discusses is simply code for Rousey’s comfort zone. The ‘depth’ is in the numbers, in the black, in the profit margins. The best argument against both the proposed pound-for-pound coronation of Rousey and the supposed lack of depth requires merely stepping outside of White’s head and watching Invicta, and specifically, Cris “Cyborg” Santos.
I make the claim that there is a parallel between Rousey’s upcoming rematch with Meisha Tate and the Ortiz/Shamrock fights that took place in the early 2000’s and a parallel between the fighters such as Wanderlei, Henderson, Shogun and Cris Cyborg, all whom were waiting just outside the frame. I do not revise history and state that any of the Pride fighters would have assuredly won against Tito, but instead, I claim that those were the fights, non-compartmentalized by promotions, that should have taken place, for fun, legitimacy and to quell the fans desire to “just see, just know, who the baddest is.”
The rematch between Cyborg and Coenen was illustrative in many ways. The primacy of Cyborg’s dominance remains the focal point, but the sheer toughness of Coenen capped a night of tough fighters on the Invicta card. Arguably this card begins to draw a parallel between Invicta and UFC much in the way Pride’s champions superimposed themselves upon the UFC champions in fans minds. From Rose Namajunas and Tecia Torres kick off fight through the main event, we saw non-stop energy and shifts in momentum that casual fans have only had a sneak peak in the limited WMMA fights in the UFC. The excitement of Julie Kedzie vs. Meisha Tate, Carmouche vs. Rousey, was there strewn across a complete evening.
In the superimposition of Cyborg and Rousey, the most indiscernible overlap rests in the clinch. For Rousey, this is her wheelhouse, and against most fighters this is the stutter step that leads to their fall. Interestingly to consider however, is Cyborg’s effective Thai plum and fight stopping knees in the clinch and whether her horsepower can counteract Rousey’s usual controlling of gravity and balance that leads forward moving fighters past the logic of their game plan and right onto their back.
Similar to superimposing the skill set of Ortiz and Shogun, the battle between Cyborg and Rousey is a Chute Box, untamed and aggressive style versus a grappling, controlling skill set. Rousey’s fights with Meisha Tate and Liz Carmouche have shown a glaring weakness in her stand up skill. While Cyborg can be prone to throwing haymakers, her punches pack a wallop noticeably absent in Tate and Carmouche’s striking. However, Rousey’s ability to endure pain -the neck crank Carmouche had on her for example- means like Coenen, she will have numerous chances to execute her game plan. Unlike Coenen, however, a reset in the match will not delay the inevitable, but instead allow Rousey to return the match to a starting point, where at any moment her Judo/Jiu Jitsu game can end the fight.
Problematic in this fun prognostication is the thick wall of promotion, the vestigial memory of Chuck Liddell and his Pride Tournament run, and most importantly the names behind Rousey and Cyborg. I made the claim in a previous article that Ortiz great rival has been Dana White all the while. Now, besuited and promoting the fighter whose battle with Rousey would best define this era in WMMA, we have to acknowledge the precedent of egos. In 2006 White agreed to fight Ortiz in an exhibition boxing match that never materialized. Now, the grudge match has gone vicarious, and has a high probability to live where Shogun vs. Ortiz, Fedor vs. Couture, Alvarez vs. Henderson live, in the looping what-ifs of fandom.
On the plus side, should this match never happen, WMMA may grow from it in a healthy way. Those fighting behind the big names are building something larger, more resilient than a singular name or a division. Without the scaffolding of Shamrock and Ortiz, we may never have had the chance to see Jones and Aldo. Watching the Shamrock vs. Ortiz trilogy in 2006, we were seeing the be all end all, the next step up from Tank Abbott and Oleg Taktarov. Now, with history and context as archive, we would be remiss to view Rousey vs. Cyborg as the be all end all of anything because, at UFC 40, before Ortiz and Shamrock fought “the biggest fight in UFC history”, Chuck Liddell knocked out his Renato Sobral. It’s knowing this that makes these smaller name fights all the more interesting and countermands my personal looping what-ifs of fandom.