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Has there been a great MMA rivalry?

By Iain Liddle | March 17, 2008

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If you’ll allow me to be self-indulgent then I’ll use this week’s entry to throw out a question that has been niggling away at me of late.

March has already produced another installment in two great boxing rivalries. On March 1st Israel Vazquez and Rafael Marquez stepped into the ring together for the third time. They were tied at 1-1 in their rivalry having fought twice before in the previous thirteen months and both had been nominated for ‘Fight of the year’ for 2007. In fact, most boxing writers who I respect are unanimous in the view that the second encounter was the best to have taken place last year, despite Kelly Pavlik vs Jermain Taylor eventually taking the official boxing writer’s award.

As they prepared to lace up the gloves one more time, fan and promoter expectations were high. Gary Shaw had been proclaiming this fight as the antidote to February’s Klitschko-Ibraghimov snoozefest before it had even taken place. Showtime placed both of the preceding bouts on their website to justify the hype and show fans just how good the sport can be and will be again. It never seemed to cross anyone’s mind that the two Mexicans may disappoint us.

Which is just as well as the third was arguably the best of the bunch. An unadulterated modern-day classic between two great combatants. Boxing Standard columnist Frank Lotierzo said that the trilogy was “everything boxing should be.”

Then, this past Saturday, Rafael’s brother Juan Manuel Marquez and Manny Pacquiao rematched their classic from 2004 which resulted in a controversial split draw. It was four years later and as many pounds heavier but again it was eagerly anticipated in fight circles. Not only was this a fight between boxers but also between two nations with the pride of the Philippines taking on a Mexican hero. Thousands of fans came out in support of each man creating the kind back-and-forth atmosphere one might associate with a soccer match between the two countries.

Even watching on television it was possible to gauge just how electric the building was in anticipation of what was to come. The passion with which the national anthems were sung was mesmerising and showed that this was not just ‘somewhere to go’ on a Saturday night for these fans. They truly cared about the fight and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. This is not an abstract sporting contest, this fucking matters.

Once more the two men delivered a memorable contest, over twelve hard-fought rounds that ended in another close and arguable decision. Richard O’Brien remarked that it was “humbling to see that level of skill and commitment and courage—of true professionalism. Humbling, and immensely entertaining.”

Those are just two fights to have taken place so far this month and whilst not to say we are constantly inundated with fights of this quality, because it takes sitting through a Ruiz-McCline fight to truly appreciate greatness when it arrives, but there are other examples in boxing history.

The sport has produced series of fights such as the aforementioned Vazquez-Marquez, Benn-Eubank, Barrera-Morales, Duran-Leonard, Ali-Frazier and many more besides.

The word ‘great’ encompasses a lot. To achieve this status then the fights have to be between two people not only at the pinnacle of their own career, but also the sport as a whole at that time. The fights have to mean something beyond that of a title belt. A truly great rivalry is two men battling it out for the right to be the best in the world that night, rather than the best in that particular ring.

Also, the key component in all of this, the fights themselves have to be memorable. We’ve all bought into the hype of an upcoming bout before but if combat itself is dull an unmemorable then it will not be being talked about in future weeks let alone years.

In addition to be being merely entertaining the fights need to be competitive too. The key component in drama is being unsure of the final outcome and in fighting terms you need to have genuine belief that either man is capable of pulling out the victory on any given night.

So we’ve determined the ingredients for a classic. A close fight between two evenly skilled combatants that has meaning and relevance on a world level and has also captured the imagination of it’s audience as a whole. It is with this criteria in mind that I ask, even allowing for the relatively short history of mixed martial arts, where are our sport’s great rivalries?

A few immediately spring to mind.

Wanderlei Silva vs Kazushi Sakuraba. Definitely a contender but ultimately too one-sided. Saku was not victorious in any of the bouts and though valiant efforts, was simply overwhelmed.

Chuck Liddell vs Tito Ortiz. This has a claim in the sense that they were between two athletes at the top of their weight class, with a legitimate rivalry and the second bout resulted in the biggest selling pay per view in history. When looked back upon in terms of the sport’s growth – this will definitely be remembered as important.. but does that equal great? Liddell won both fights with relative ease and neither were an outstanding example of how exciting an all-encompassing battle can be. The jury is out.

Olaf Alfonso vs John Polakowski. With the best will in the world, not a chance. Three entertaining scraps but of no relevance and with a distinct lack of technique. Not to be snobby but if this gets nominated with a straight face then maybe we’re in trouble.

Matt Hughes vs Georges St Pierre. If it wasn’t for the fact that the last two fights were so one-sided I would say this has a chance. They are definitely relevant in the sense that the series established a new king in the welterweight division, dethroning one of the true legends in the process. The fights were of good quality too but my issue is that GSP showed too much quality and dealt with Hughes in relatively routine fashion in the last bout especially. If all three contests had been like the second then we’d have a hands down winner but as it stands we have an outsider at best.

Matt Hughes vs BJ Penn. I actually think this has a case. The first fight caused one of the biggest upsets in history when a seemingly unstoppable champion was stopped by a fighter moving up from the weight class below in the first round. The second fight was also incredibly exciting and presented back-and-forth action that distinguishes great bouts. It seemed as though Penn has Hughes’ number only for the farm boy to dig deep and, admittedly with a little help from a rib injury sustained by his opponent, become the first man to ever stop the Hawaiian. They’re tied at one apiece and it seems unlikely that we’ll ever get to see the rubber match unfortunately. Like all great rivalries it will be forever argued between respective fans as to who was the better man. What can’t be argued is that we had fun watching them try to prove it.

Matt Hughes vs Frank Trigg. Apparently I’m a big Matt Hughes fan. This is probably the weakest of the three rivalries mentioned but boasts the best fight to have taken place in any of them. One of the few things that Dana White and I have in common, along with our want to ask people if they want to fucking fighters (for the record, neither my bank manager nor my grandmother are keen), is that we both rate the second Hughes-Trigg fight as maybe our favourite ever example of MMA. That alone should get it nominated, on a personal level at least. Let’s not forget that there was genuine debate at the time of the first bout as to who the better welterweight was. Frank Trigg (WFA champion) was being talked up as the superior wrestler with striking to match. Fans wanted to see the fight and although hindsight shows that Hughes won in comfortable fashion, it certainly wasn’t a foregone conclusion going in.

Dan Henderson vs Murilo Bustamante. I didn’t find any of their fights particularly interesting but historically they are relevant in determining who the world’s best middleweight was at the time. Maybe someone can make a case for this?

Heath Herring vs. Antonio Rodrigo Noguiera. A dark horse. The first fight is possibly one of the best ever heavyweight encounters with both men competing for the recently-established Pride title which at the time was the most meaningful in the weight class. The second fight is also very strong in terms of entertainment and drama. What helps single this example out is that it is the only rivalry to span across both major promotions in the sport’s history (Pride and then UFC) and the third stanza, now in the cage, provided interest when Herring nearly became the only man to KO the Brazilian. Alas he was too tentative and Noguiera went on to win a decision. Which is the reason that I think this falls just short of what’s required for greatness. ‘Minotauro’ has three wins to the Texan’s nil. If you can look past the statistics then maybe this can be considered?

Fedor Emelianenko vs. Antonio Rodrigo Noguiera. Two hall of fame fighters. Too one-sided. Despite entering every bout with different gameplan, Noguiera could not find a way to even get close to beating Fedor. The first fight is essential viewing, much like Hughes-St Pierre II, in that we see the dethroning of a champion and the crowning of a new king but the series as a whole is not strong enough in my mind.

Randy Couture vs Vitor Belfort. This is a rivalry that spans two generations of UFC ownership. Their highly-regarded first encounter took place in SEG’s cage and the other two in Zuffa’s octagon. The first is a classic without doubt. The second is almost a non-event and I’m not sure the third was of sufficient quality. A good rivalry, but not the sort to turn a boxing diehard into a mixed martial arts fan overnight.

Randy Couture vs Chuck Liddell. Is this the best example to have been produced thus far? Two fighters at the top of their weight class worldwide? Yes. Drama / Unpredictability? For sure. Historical significance? Definitely. Fan interest? Without doubt. Entertaining fights? The only possible way to disqualify the series. Is it possible that the second and third fights finished before they and the series as a whole had the chance to be qualified as classical?

Has there been a great MMA rivalry?

Topics: Boxing, Iain Liddle, MMA | 22 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

22 Responses to “Has there been a great MMA rivalry?”

  1. David says:

    Great article, and I’ll let some other people answer the question

  2. 45 Huddle says:

    Liddell/Couture (USA), Sakurab/Gracies (Japan), & Ortiz/Shamrock (USA) have been the 3 best feuds to date.

  3. Mike says:

    Perhaps with a GSP win, maybe GSP-Serra? There’s already intrigue with wondering if Serra’s win was a fluke win or not. Now there is a bit of bad blood stewing between the two. The crowd for fight 2 will be electric. If GSP wins the second installment (and even better if he wins in a later round letting the two showcase the finer points of MMA) the third is probably a foregone conclusion.

  4. PointyShinyburning says:

    Nog vs. Barnett has the makings of one. Great fighters, close fights and the whole catch vs. BJJ thing. It’s just a shame the third instalment looks pretty unlikely for the moment.

  5. Mike Fagan says:

    No love for Pele/Macaco?

  6. ttt says:

    i gotta second Huddle on this one for Sakuraba vs Gracies

  7. Sergio says:

    Definitely Saku/Gracies.

    Shamrock/Ortiz has got to be up there, despite all three fights being one-sided ass beatings.

    And PointyShinyburning has an excellent point. I would love… LOVE a third Nog/Barnett bout.

  8. Sergio says:

    Rampage/Silva and Arona/Silva are also some honorable mentions.

  9. Ultimo_Santa says:

    It goes to show how well Shamrock sells himself. After two brutal losses, he convinced the average fan that he actually had a chance the third time around. Either that, or people tuned in knowing Ken would get demolished again.

    Nog and Barnett are two of the best in the world, and their third fight SHOULD be taking place in 2008 – for the UFC Heavyweight Title. But Josh hurt poor Dana White’s feelings, and when Dana’s feelings get hurt, important fights have a way of evaporating.

  10. KAZ says:

    Ron Faircloth and Wilson Goveia have had 2 awesome fights in the AFC that I seriously think desearves a 3rd go.. they are tied at 1-1 and both were great fights

  11. Zack says:

    The build up to the rematches between Trigg/Hughes & Rampage/Wand were the best two that I can remember.

    The Trigg thing had a lot to do with him co-hosting the radio show with Ryan Bennett every morning. If you followed the show and Triggs career you knew how much that fight meant to him. I was there live and had money on Trigg…pretty much the whole place was going for Hughes. I’d never seen a pop that big @ a UFC and I’ve been to about 10.

    The Rampage/Wand fight was built up in an amazing way the first time. The pull apart after Rampage/Randleman was sick, even if it was way pro wrestling. The first match ended decisively but not without controversy since the standup was WAY too quick.

    The rematch was easily the fight of the year, both in anticipation and fight quality. It offered an even more decisive end. This time with Rampage getting even more ground offense in for most of rd 1, and Wand coming back even stronger to KO the iron jawed Quinton.

    Sak vs Gracies is of course the sentimental favorite. It sucks that the Royce rematch was so bogus. From the length of the fight being only 1/6 of the first encounter, to neither guy attempting to really do anything, it was just a big bummer…especially after being a Sak fan for so long and finally getting to see him fight live. The Royce positive test only made that fight more of a joke.

  12. rainrider says:

    Frank Trigg VS Dennis Hallman

    – They fought in MMA, had rematch in ADCC and then fought again in MMA. Very emotional, very racial.

    Tito Ortiz VS Lion’s den

    – Tito tapped Guy Metzger twice in 2 fights (2-0, officially 1-1 BS), beat Jerry Bolander in high school wrestling then beat him again in MMA (3-0) and finally destroyed aging boss Ken Shamrock 3 times (6-0). Juarez wasn’t representing Lion’s Den when he fought Tito.

    Nick Diaz VS Diego Sanchez

    – Rematch should happen. Go Diaz Go.

    Frank Shamrock VS Bas Rutten
    Frank Shamrock VS AKA, Josh Thompson
    Frank Shamrock VS Zuffa, Dana White
    Frank Shamrock VS Bob Shamrock ranch
    Frank Shamrock VS Gracies
    Frank Shamrock VS ………

    -Why does he creat new enemies every time he opens his mouth?

  13. This is not even close. No, MMA has not generated a great rivalry that can be considered great, especially when compared to boxing. Iain seems to forget that the recent popularity of MMA is a result of the past 2-3 years. Like it or not, MMA the sport and MMA the industry is still in its infancy.

    Great rivalries stir up the Publics imagination and built-up through time. They’re also talked about decades later. Many of boxing’s great rivalries have been based on social, economic, national and, of course, racial lines. Boxing has over a 100 year start.

    With MMA, you’ll be hard pressed to find a rivalry equaling Johnson-Jeffries, Ali-Fraiser, Duran-Leonard, Foreman-Frazier, Holyfield-Tyson, Barrera-Morales, Pacquiao-Marquez…the list goes on & on.

    In due time, MMA will garner that sort of “tag line” known as a great rivalry. But like it or not, MMA is a young sport that still needs to garner acceptance amongst mainstream fans.

    Sure, those feuds Iain selected we’re entertaining but they’ve occurred within the past decade! You’re basically picking from a barrel that’s not even full yet.

  14. ttt says:

    gadget link:
    i see what you’re saying that MMA needs some time to develop some history but just because they occured in the past decade doesn’t make less than strong rivalries.

  15. Jim Allcorn says:

    I agree with Gadjet, it’s just too early in MMA’s history for it to have produced any rivalries even remotely as memorable as boxing’s.

    It’s interesting that two of the most discussed rivalries here have been individual fighters in Sak & Tito vs families/teams ( The Gracies & the Lion’s Den ). Which, as relavent as those two “feuds” were to the sport’s growth, just don’t incite the same sort of passion amongst fans as do individual fighter vs individual fighter rivalries.

    Think about it, when we think of great boxing trilogies, we think of Ali/Frazier & Ali/Norton NOT about Ali’s record vs Eddie Futch who trained Frazier & Norton for four of those affairs.

    And, as much as the promoters & HBO have been trying to push the whole Mayweather family angle with regards to the feud going on between Floyd Jr., his trainer/uncle Roger & Floyd Sr., at the end of the day I think you’d be hard pressed to find a single person who paid $55 for last May’s PPV because of it. No way, they cared about ONE Mayweather & that’s Floyd Jr. & they cared about the man in the ring with him, Oscar Delahoya. And, it’ll be the same thing come September when they have their rematch ( should they both survive their respective tune up bouts that is, Oscar’s with Steve Forbes & Floyd’s with the Big Show … LOL ).

    So, given time, I’m certain that MMA will come up with it’s own great, memorable rivalries, we just have to be patient & wait for them to occur.

  16. karat3 says:

    Nog-Barnett will be the best mma triology by far if a eventual 3rd fight lives up to the greatness of the two others.

    Don’t really think any else qualify.

  17. Mr.Roadblock says:

    I agree with the overall premise that MMA is yet to have a trilogy like Marquez/Vasquez, Gatti/Ward, Holyfield/Bowe, etc. While there have been good feuds and back and forth feuds in MMA we have yet to see a 3+ fight rivalry full of great fights. The boxing feuds I just mentioned (and I know I left a ton out) each fight was great. Two men fought 3 great fights.

    I think we may have seen the first fight of some of those trilogies. I think Tyson Griffin vs Frankie Edgar and Clay Guida were great fights. Both fights will likely be rematched possibly for a title. You could see those guys do trilogies.

    Spencer Fischer and Sam Stout have had 2 great fights. I’m sure we will see number three this year or early next.

    GSP and BJ look to be on course for another fight. Their first fight was a bit disappointing but with the build up for their second fight if its a good one people will be real into it. You could have three fights there.

    Silva and Rampage’s first two fights were awesome. I think Dana will put them together in the cage at some point for number three.

    Part of the problem in MMA is that fights end quicker than they do in boxing. Pac/Marquez on Saturday might have been over in round 3 if it were an MMA fight and Pac jumped on Marquez. Boxing offers more opportunities for a fight to go on, for a hurt man to come back. To make an epic 12 round affair.

    But our sport will get there.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Ikuhisa Minowa/Phil Baroni.

    Their first fight ended with Baroni stomping Minowa’s head into the mat.

    In their rematch, as an act of defiance for Baroni making fun of Minowa’s “speedos”, Minowa lays on Baroni for 15 minutes to earn a decision win and continue in the PRIDE MW Tournament of ’06.

    And I’m going to start a rumor that Baroni is entering the DREAM MW GP and will be matched up in the first round with Minowaman.

    Sounds pretty epic to me.

  19. Chuck says:

    About Sakuraba vs. Gracies (I put that as the greatest MMA rivalry of all time BTW) I would change it to Sakuraba vs. BJJ in general. Don’t forget Saku’s fights against Allan Goes (a draw) and Ebeneezer Fontes Braga (Saku win) as well. If only early PRIDE had judges to decipher a winner (or a draw via score cards instead of the fight going the full distace=automatic draw like how PRIDE was in its infancy) Goes would have won a decision.

    And I can’t believe no one mentioned the BJ Penn vs. Jens Pulver fights. Too bad there hasn’t been a third fight.

  20. TD says:

    They may not have the biggest names in the sport but Sam Stout and Spencer Fisher are on their way toward an epic trilogy.

  21. Thomas says:

    For me Silva-Jackson is the greatest.

  22. MH says:

    nobody has mentioned bj vs. sherk. i think this fight will be one to remember even if it hasnt happened yet. and the fact that sherk thinks bj has his belt makes this great rivalry. Comments?


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