Sometimes, all one has to do to be a fan of a sport is to simply know the sport exists. That logic makes sense when considering that the sport in question gets no real advertising on local or cable stations, or through radio commercial spots. Merely knowing that it exists, then, means that a person has gone out of their way to seek it out. Everyone else will never even realize a sporting event even happened.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship spent a good four years contending with that misfortune after efforts from Senator John McCain succeeded in getting its product pulled from major providers following UFC 9 in Detroit. This misfortune meant that even though fans of the promotion witnessed a stellar end to what the promotion delivered in 1996, the next few years would force them to be vigilant if they wanted to keep tabs on the sport.

The UFC was indeed entering what would later be referred to as its “Dark Ages.” However, the sport of mixed martial arts as a whole enjoyed a great year in 1997. M-1 Global and Pride FC launched. A young Dutch kickboxer named Gilbert Yvel would rack up a nice 7-0 run in 1997, including two wins at M-1 Global’s debut event. Pride FC 1 featured Renzo and Rickson Gracie, as well as Gary Goodridge’s knockout win over former UFC superfight title contender Oleg Taktarov.

Where does anyone start when talking about the light that came in the first year of the UFC’s “Dark Ages,” though? A number of changes occurred, including another raising of the stakes for tournament competitors, and legends of the sport began their respective ascensions to prominence. In fact, a look back at the UFC’s efforts that year will remind many a spectator as to why the opponents of the UFC at that time made a tremendous mistake in targeting its product.

Preventing major pay-per-view providers from carrying the UFC’s events prevented its customers from enjoying their opportunity to watch the events. However, those who found access to the UFC’s shows saw the year that changed the game again, as a number of fights would ultimately alter the UFC’s landscape.

Mark “The Hammer” Coleman, who won the UFC 10 and UFC 11 tournaments, receives credit for the role he played in the promotion’s transformation, and rightly so. After all, history still remembers Coleman’s UFC 12 victory over final UFC superfight champion Dan “The Beast” Severn, which snapped Severn’s nine-fight winning streak, marked Severn’s last bout until coming back roughly three years later, and crowned Coleman as the first UFC heavyweight champion.

Only 45 seconds into the bout, Severn shot for a takedown and Coleman took his back. After picking his moments to attack, Coleman created his opening when Severn turned into him. Coleman locked in his neck crank by first attacking Severn’s body and then securing the crank from Severn’s left side. “The Beast” fought valiantly to free himself, and Coleman did lose his grip momentarily, but he quickly re-secured his hold and forced the tap.

The win capped off an exciting UFC 12 fight card, which in itself brought the company to a milestone. Where a number of post-UFC 4 events introduced time limits, UFC 12 marked the first event to feature established weight divisions. It only fit that the superfight with Coleman and Severn would feature the heavyweight belt at stake for an added attraction.

Coleman lost the belt at UFC 14 in another landmark fight for the UFC. Prior to losing the belt, Coleman stated that unless his then-challenger, Maurice Smith, learned how to wrestle, he would lose. Although Smith, a kickboxer, stood no chance to win on paper, he gave himself more than a chance when he actively worked a form of a jiu-jitsu game from off his back to expose Coleman’s lack of cardio.

Once Smith took away Coleman’s gas tank, his kickboxing proved more effective than Coleman’s ground-and-pound from the top. But the win over “The Hammer” did more than just earn Smith a title. The bout stands as the first MMA bout to win Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s inaugural “Fight of The Year” award for the action that transpired from start to finish. As important as that bout proved, though, the events that followed helped to pick up where Coleman vs. Smith left off in shaping the UFC’s future.

If fans did not know Smith as one half of the 1997 “Fight of The Year” with Coleman, they would come to know him as the man that UFC Hall of Famer and former UFC two-division world champion Randy “The Natural” Couture defeated to win the title. However, it took a win over a young kid named Vitor Belfort for Couture to book his date with Smith.

When UFC 13 tournament champion Couture walked into UFC 15 for his turn in a heavyweight superfight, he knew Belfort as more than just the UFC 12 tournament champion. “The Phenom” earned a reputation for his killer instinct and hand speed, and it didn’t help whatever chance Couture came in with that Belfort’s 4-0 record at the time featured wins over the likes of “Tank” Abbott and Scott Ferrozzo, neither of whom even made it past the first minute with Belfort.

Couture not only lasted past the first minute, but he also took Belfort to a seven-minute affair. When people call Couture “The Natural,” some credit the nickname to the night Couture circled away from Belfort’s vaunted left hand, clinched with him, took him down, tired him out and brought the beatdown to Belfort with dirty boxing. Recognized as the first UFC title eliminator, as well as another “superfight” of the early UFC, Couture vs. Belfort 1 would not mark the last time that the Octagon would prove the perfect battleground for the two rivals.

We must remember the UFC light heavyweight title, now held by something of a natural phenom in Jon “Bones” Jones, once found itself around the waists of Couture and Belfort. In fact, the two would fight twice for the light heavyweight crown at the height of the UFC’s popularity, but as many in MMA know very well, the lineage of the UFC light heavyweight title did not start with Couture and Belfort. Before it was known as the light heavyweight title, the 205-pound division’s top honor was referred to as the middleweight championship, and its emergence coincided with the emergence of a man who went by the name of Frank Shamrock. Shamrock made one heck of an impact on the MMA world one night in Yokohama, Japan.

UFC Japan, tagged as Ultimate Japan, held significance for a multitude of reasons, aside from Shamrock winning the then-middleweight title. First, it marked the UFC’s debut in Japan, a necessity brought about by the very few options the promotion faced stateside for locations in which it could host events. Second, “The Gracie Hunter” Kazushi Sakuraba would make his UFC debut at this event, and controversy would arise when “Big” John McCarthy would accidentally call Sakuraba’s bout with Marcus Silveira after mistaking one of Sakuraba’s takedown attempts for a knockout blow from Silveira.

Couture vs. Smith also fell on the same card, and it deserves its share of accolades as well. Couture and Smith did not engage in the most fast-paced bout in UFC history by any stretch of the imagination, but where Coleman gassed out at UFC 14, Couture showed excellent cardiovascular training during his performance in Yokohama. That training allowed Couture to maintain effective offense, in addition to positional control from the top, and it paid dividends towards a majority decision win, though Smith did not make it easy for Couture.

Shamrock’s title bout against Kevin Jackson proved a much quicker affair. One minute, Shamrock stared down Jackson, and then 16 seconds later, he forced him to the ground and extracted a submission from Jackson via an armbar. The UFC’s future light heavyweight division finally had a champion in the adopted brother of Ken Shamrock, and Frank’s hand in the UFC’s evolution played just as important a role as Ken’s did in the first UFC.

Ken made two defenses of the UFC superfight title before losing it to Severn, and for many, the superfight title served as the catalyst for the development of the heavyweight and light heavyweight division. In the next few years after Frank’s title win, the UFC would establish a new middleweight division, as well as welterweight and lightweight divisions.

Frank’s legacy goes beyond that, though. As time went on, Shamrock cemented his status as arguably the most dominant champion of that era by defending the belt four times. Most champions, after winning the belt, struggle to get past the first defense, but Shamrock proved a much different case, and his reign would inevitably stand as the standard that all future contenders aspired to surpass.

Ultimate Japan closed out 1997 in better fashion for the UFC than what most expected. All of a sudden, rays of light began to burst through the cracks and shine down on this now-underground sport that wanted to reach its renaissance. The UFC would not reach the hearts of mainstream America until several years later, and without pay-per-view, the promotion faced an uphill battle as it entered 1998.

Photo: UFC Hall of Famers Randy Couture (left) and Mark Coleman (right) (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

About The Author

Dale De Souza
Staff Writer

Dale De Souza is a 22-year-old kid straight out of Texas, who grew up around Professional Wrestling but embraced the beauty of Mixed Martial Arts and Combat Sports at a young age. Dale is a Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report MMA, a writer at The MMA Corner.