Last week, the fifth anniversary of the high point of MMA in the United States came and went, without all that much fanfare.
July 11 marked the anniversary of UFC 100, a show that at the time felt like a significant step in a long journey.
Today, it might be even more significant. It may not have been a new level in a long journey. It may have been the peak moment of the trip.
UFC has promoted a number of big fights and big shows over the last five years. But nothing they’ve done has reached even close to the level of social significance and mainstream talk as UFC 100 and its main event. On no night have so many key factors fallen into place. Five years later, the big question is no longer when, but if there will ever come a day when MMA is so big in the U.S. national consciousness.
There have been huge fights since that time, like the second Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen, the second Silva vs. Chris Weidman and George St-Pierre vs. Nick Diaz. But as big as they were promoted, none captured the public interest at nearly the level of UFC 100.
Few remember a key part of the story. The UFC 100 main event of Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir, to unify the UFC heavyweight title and interim belts in the climax of a four-man tournament, was not even originally scheduled for the show.
Just the fact that match happened was pure luck. The fact it came with a built-in story was even luckier. The fact fate placed it on UFC 100 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, was the luckiest of all.
Lesnar combined speed, power and conditioning like few heavyweight wrestlers in U.S. history. He wasn’t the most skilled wrestler in his collegiate days, nor would he rank among the top heavyweight wrestlers in U.S. history. But in 1999, his first year of Division I competition, after being a Junior College national champion the year before, he lost in the NCAA finals by a 3-2 score to Steven Neal. Neal went on to win the world championship in freestyle wrestling a few months later.
With Neal having graduated, Lesnar was the dominant heavyweight in 2000, capturing the NCAA title for the University of Minnesota.
His presence and physique caught the attention of the World Wrestling Federation, who gave him one of the biggest money offers in history to someone who had never even had a pro wrestling lesson, let alone a match. In some ways, he was a natural for that business. In other ways, he was all wrong for it.
Soon, he was one of the biggest stars in that world, earning well into the seven figures. Before long, he grew to hate strangers and airports so much that he purchased his own plane and hired a pilot to fly him to his matches from his home in Minneapolis. He was the WWE champion by 2002, and headlined WrestleMania against Kurt Angle in 2003. He was viewed as having more potential than any 300 pound man the industry had ever seen. And by early 2004, he was gone, hating the travel, the physical damage and the endless one-night stands associated with that industry.
Lesnar had an NFL tryout with the Minnesota Vikings in late 2004, where he made it to the final cut and was offered a spot in NFL Europe, even though he hadn’t played a down of football in nine years. He turned that down as well, figuring if he was going to travel, he could have stayed a pro wrestler.
Aside from that brief period with the Vikings, Lesnar hadn’t competed in a legitimate sport in just over seven years when he destroyed Olympic judo silver medalist Kim Min-soo, and got paid $600,000, on a K-1 show at the Los Angeles Coliseum in his first MMA fight.
With one fight, he went into the UFC.
Mir was a former UFC champion whose career was at a crossroads. He was on top of the world, and then a motorcycle accident left him with a broken leg.
UFC 81, On Feb. 2, 2008, was promoted around "Former WWE heavyweight champion vs. Former UFC heavyweight champion." The result was 600,000 buys, a hugely successful number for the time. Perhaps most impressive, of that total, 300,000 of those homes had never previously purchased a UFC pay-per-view. Lesnar was single-handedly expanding the UFC’s audience.
Lesnar took Mir down in a split second and was firing away with hammer fists when referee Steve Mazzagatti jumped in.
Most thought he was stopping the fight, just seconds in. Instead, he was ordering a stand-up for punches to the back of the head. When the match restarted, the same thing happened, but in Lesnar’s uncontrolled frenzy, he left himself open for a kneebar.
On one hand, Lesnar looked impressive, as an inexperienced fighter ragdolling a former world champion. On the other hand, the news reports that gave the sport coverage like it had never before received, joked at how the pro wrestler had lost in 90 seconds.
On the same night, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira beat Tim Sylvia via submission to win the UFC interim heavyweight title.
Shortly after that, the recognized heavyweight champion, Randy Couture, who left the company looking for a goldmine payday for a fight with Fedor Emelianenko while having a valid UFC contract, wasn’t faring well in court. With age and time not on his side, he opted to return.
UFC announced a four-man tournament, with Couture vs. Lesnar and Nogueira vs. Mir. Lesnar won over Couture first to win the heavyweight title. A month later, Mir upset Nogueira to win the interim title.
The two were earmarked to headline UFC 98, on May 23, 2009, also in Las Vegas. But Mir underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in early March and asked that the match be moved back. Lesnar wasn’t happy about it, and got even madder when Mir later said that he was actually ready to fight on May 23.
Georges St-Pierre’s welterweight title defense against Thiago Alves and Dan Henderson vs. Michael Bisping in a battle of The Ultimate Fighter coaches had been long-planned for the century show. While never advertised, the original thought process at the time was that the main event at UFC 100 would be Rashad Evans defending the light heavyweight title against Rampage Jackson, provided Jackson beat Keith Jardine at UFC 96.
The story there was that Jardine was a best friend and training partner of Evans, and Jackson was one of the company’s biggest draws coming off his win over Chuck Liddell in 2007. Jackson had since lost the title to Forrest Griffin, who then dropped the title to Evans. Jackson followed that loss with a one-punch knockout win over Wanderlei Silva, at a time when Silva was still considered one of the most feared fighters in the world. Jackson beating Evans’ best friend and then going after his title sounded like a good storyline.
But in this case, injuries turned out to rewrite history for the better. The UFC opted to move Evans’ title defense to UFC 98, and move Lesnar vs. Mir to headline UFC 100. Jackson beat Jardine, but suffered a jaw injury, which meant he couldn’t fight in UFC 98. Lyoto Machida got the shot instead, and then defeated Evans to win the title.
The end result was that UFC had its biggest mainstream star, Lesnar, and its No. 2 draw, St-Pierre, both headlining on its biggest show in history, with company momentum hitting its zenith.
Instead of Evans and Jackson having a title fight, they ended up coaching The Ultimate Fighter in the fall of 2009. The combination of their personal rivalry and Kimbo Slice being on the show led that to be the highest-rated season in the show’s history.
The hostilities between Evans and Jackson on the set created a grudge match atmosphere that led to a show that was, by a significant margin, the most successful non-title fight in UFC pay-per-view history, at UFC 114 on May 29, 2010.
Lesnar vs. Mir, combined with the idea of UFC 100, and a St-Pierre title defense, created the perfect storm, as the main event struck a nerve to more people than perhaps any fight in history.
MMA fans had been taught, ever since they saw Royce Gracie easily choke out one big guy after another, that skill beats size and power. More important, they knew that pro wrestling was fake, and the real fighters were in UFC. While a lot of the MMA fan base that exploded the sport in 2005 and 2006 came from pro wrestling, by 2009, there was a weird dynamic.
A lot of MMA fans hated that while it was "real," that pro wrestling and pro wrestlers were better known to the masses. It got even more personal when Lesnar, a former pro wrestler, had clearly become the most well-known UFC fighter to the general public.
There was a feeling of superiority tinged with jealousy. Then, the worst thing happened. A large muscled pro wrestler knocked out the sport’s legendary five-time world champion in Couture. Everything they knew had turned upside down.
At this point, Lesnar had become a hero to pro wrestling fans. The UFC was skyrocketing in popularity, and while not as big on television, had surpassed pro wrestling as far as what was cool and hip, with media stories about how the UFC was new and in and WWE was the past, even though they were no more like than the San Antonio Spurs are with the Harlem Globetrotters.
But WWE fans were threatened that UFC was blowing it away when it came to big show interest on pay-per-view. But then Lesnar, a pro wrestler, walked into UFC and, in the minds of people who often created storylines where none existed, got screwed by a biased referee in his first UFC fight. But he had since comeback to win its world title.
Four days before UFC 100, the Countdown show on Spike TV, build around Mir vs. Lesnar, drew 1.06 million viewers, the most of any show of its kind up to that point in history.
It was among the most effective shows in history. Both men watched the first fight and had completely divergent opinions of what had happened. Mir claimed he was in no trouble, and in fact, claimed he was about to finish Lesnar at the time of the first standup, claiming Mazzagatti had screwed him, and not Lesnar with the stand-up.
He claimed that the hammer fists Lesnar was landing on him were like punches from someone’s little sister. Mir was shown mocking Lesnar in the gym, making fun of him like he was some caveman Neanderthal.
The most inflaming comment was when the son of Mir’s manager, stuffing his shirt at the shoulders to make it look like he had giant traps like Lesnar, lifted some dumbbells and said, "Lift weights and my double (leg takedown) is all I need," and growled like an animal. He then charged at Mir, who casually sidestepped him like a matador to a bull, and knocked him out. Dean Albrecht’s son then got up, looked into the camera, and said, "It’s not the WWE," while everyone in the gym laughed.
The portion of the audience who hated Lesnar, loved Mir making fun of him. Those who liked Lesnar were inflamed beyond belief.
Mir talked about all sorts of strikes and submission moves that he would throw at Lesnar during the fight. He joked that Lesnar wouldn’t even know what they were, and be so far behind in the game he’d be lost trying to defend them.
When running down the list of moves, he mocked Lesnar by saying, "Brock, I’ll explain what those moves are after the fight to you."
Lesnar watched the fight, and in the most memorable Countdown scene in history, punched a wall in his house so hard that down the hallway, a door fell off its hinges and collapsed in the background. Lesnar came across at that moment as something closer to a movie monster with bolts on the side of his neck and steam coming out of his ears than a real human being. He was also the heavyweight champion of the UFC, something that weirdly threatened a lot of the UFC’s own fan base.
Spike was drawing even bigger ratings that week counting down the 100 greatest fights in UFC history, a unique list that somehow excluded any wins by Tito Ortiz, and any matches involving Frank Shamrock, Pat Miletich, Don Frye or Maurice Smith. At the time, all of those fighters were out of favor with UFC management. Everything related to UFC was on fire.
Media interest in the product was off the charts. Radio sports talk hosts who didn’t know an armbar from the local bar were having to scramble when callers kept wanting to talk about a sport that, in their traditional ideas, didn’t count, because they never grew up with it.
The momentum built as Mir became the representative of everyone who had been bullied by a bigger kid on the playground.
Lesnar was heavily booed, although no more than Bisping had been earlier in the show. He largely mauled Mir throughout the fight, taking him down and using schoolyard tactics like grabbing him in a headlock with his left arm and punching on the ground with the right, busting Mir’s face.
Mir had his lone moment early in the second round, a flying knee that momentarily led to Lesnar seeing stars. But Lesnar took him down again.
The crowd, which booed Lesnar’s offense the entire fight, started chanting loudly, "Stand them up."
It was one of the more amazing chants in UFC history, because Lesnar was damaging Mir significantly on the ground at that time. It was the first time a crowd hated a fighter so much that they wanted to pervert the sport. A stand up at that moment would have been ridiculous, but the fans saw that their favorite, a skilled fighter, was having no luck getting out of a simple headlock on the ground, a move that isn’t supposed to work in a high-level fight, because of the sheer power and wrestling control of his opponent.
As the chant grew louder, Lesnar’s punches landed harder and Mir was in trouble. The chant suddenly stopped. Seconds later, Mir went limp and referee Herb Dean jumped in to stop the fight.
Lesnar started celebrating to both cheers for the finish, and boos. There was no handshake after this one.
A groggy Mir got up and Lesnar got right in his face and yelled, loudly, "Talk all the s*** you want now," and security grabbed Lesnar and pulled him away.
As Joe Rogan went to interview Lesnar, the champion said, "Frank Mir had a horseshoe up his ass (referring to the win Mir had talked about for the previous 17 months). I pulled it out and hit him over the head with it."
As the crowd booed him louder, he screamed, "I love it. I love it." He threw down his mouthpiece, and with drool coming down his mouth, started head-butting the cage. For the purists of the sport, this was their worst nightmare come to life. Yet, at no moment in history, was the sport ever more alive.
He talked about going home and drinking a Coors Light (which infuriated Dana White, who made him apologize at the press conference since UFC was sponsored by Bud Light). hanging out with his friends, and closed with, "And hell, I may even get on top of my wife. See ya later."
A lot of fans cheered. A lot more booed. Either reaction, it was the sound of money, and lots of it.
"I was so jacked up," Lesnar said at the press conference. "I’m used to selling pay-per-views. I come from a business that is purely entertainment. I screwed up, and I apologize."
The day of the fight, for the first time, and the only time, a UFC event captured the public like an Ali fight or a Tyson fight. The 1.6 million buys on pay-per-view trailed only Oscar De La Hoya vs. Floyd Mayweather and Tyson’s two fights with Evander Holyfield and one with Lennox Lewis on the all-time list.
Of the 20 most searched for items on the Internet that day, nine were related to the show. Some were obvious, like Lesnar, Mir, Lesnar vs. Mir, UFC 100, St-Pierre vs. Alves, Henderson knockout and Henderson vs. Bisping. Others not so obvious included Rena Mero, Lesnar’s wife, a former model and wrestling personality who the champion talked of jumping on; Fedor Emelianenko, who suddenly became Lesnar’s dream match opponent; and even "Jonny Jones," a 21-year-old undercard fighter in his third UFC match. Aside from boxer Arturo Gatti, who had died earlier that day, no other sports related search cracked the top 100.
This continued for days. Three days later, the talk had switched to who could beat Lesnar, as not only was Lesnar still the most searched for item in sports and among the most searched terms overall, but now Shane Carwin and Alistair Overeem hit the top 15. By contrast, the Major League Baseball All-Star game, one of the biggest institutions in sports, that took place that day, was No. 67.
In Mexico, where UFC had never had any significant ratings, the Lesnar vs. Mir fight drew slightly more viewers than the Mexican national soccer team did the next day.
Approximately 5,000 bars, restaurants and night clubs in the U.S. ordered the show, the largest number of locations that had ever ordered any pay-per-view event in history, with turn away crowds being the norm.
Lesnar’s next opponent, his toughest ever, wasn’t Fedor, Carwin or Overeem. It was diverticulitis and diverticulosis. An intestinal infection brought the monster to his knees, and nearly killed him. He missed a year, and came back for a title win over Carwin before he lost the title to current champion Cain Velasquez. The two fights came nowhere near UFC 100 numbers, but were still two of the biggest UFC events in history. While he was as big and strong as ever when he got into the cage with Velasquez, it was clear the illness had robbed him of some of his athletic gifts, and he didn’t have the skill and experience to make up for that.
St-Pierre, who beat Alves by winning every round in a decision, would soon replace Lesnar as the company’s biggest draw, and go on to become an all-time great. Then-prelim fighter Jones, would follow St-Pierre in that position.
Mir continued to fight, and even had two more title fights, losing an interim title fight to Carwin and a later title fight to Junior Dos Santos.
Lesnar retired after a loss to Overeem, and returned to the WWE. With his success in the UFC, he signed an almost unprecedented deal, getting the best of both worlds. He signed a new multimillion dollar contract that called for him to do three matches and make about a dozen television appearances per year. In some people’s eyes, his beating The Undertaker at last year’s WrestleMania before 72,000 fans at the Superdome in New Orleans was more significant than his wins over Couture and Mir.
The UFC has for the most part, continued to flourish. There have been ideas, like a St-Pierre vs. Anderson Silva fight, that never materialized, that perhaps could have rivaled the interest of UFC 100. But they never happened and we’ll never know.
Sometime, which should be around the summer of 2016, UFC 200 will be taking place. It may take some sleight of hand and numbers manipulation, but July, would be the perfect time, as the seven-year anniversary of UFC’s biggest night.
That would a key ingredient. The other is having the right story with the right people come to fruition.
But if the lesson of UFC 100 is to be learned, it’s not going to be something planned, or anything someone can foresee today. All it’ll take is two strong, polarizing personalities from different worlds battling for a title after a first match that people can’t stop debating. It’ll take something that heats up a fan base both in and outside of the MMA. And a door falling off its hinges at the right time wouldn’t be the worst thing, either.