When sports fans cannot find a mixed martial arts promotion’s pay-per-view events for any myriad of reasons, it can be a significant problem. In fact, it can create a struggle to survive for that promotion.

The UFC lost out on pay-per-view due to the successful efforts of Senator John McCain in 1996, but the promotion headed in the right direction towards a return to the pay-per-view exposure it once enjoyed when it delivered on a blockbuster 1997. The UFC wanted to continue that success in 1998. UFC middleweight champion Frank Shamrock and UFC heavyweight champion Randy Couture planned on collectively aiding the promotion in furthering that success, but a contract dispute forced the heavyweight belt away from Couture before the end of the year. So, Shamrock would press onward in representing the company.

Still, someone else stood out and went on to help Shamrock in showcasing the beauty of the sport of MMA, instead of the spectacle of no-holds-barred fighting. With pay-per-view not looking to broadcast a live “spectacle,” the UFC knew it needed to develop its product into the world’s fastest-growing sport. The UFC’s first 170-pound champion, “The Croatian Sensation” Pat Miletich, proved himself as the man to get the job done alongside Shamrock.

Miletich came into the UFC during a time when the UFC welterweight division stood as the UFC lightweight division. He planned on meeting Mikey Burnett in the finals of the UFC 16 tournament after Miletich eked out a split decision verdict over Townsend Saunders in the tournament’s semifinal round and Burnett scored a TKO of Eugenio Tadeu. Burnett, however, suffered a broken finger in the fight with Tadeu, so Miletich faced alternate Chris Brennan. Miletich knew Brennan all too well. The two met twice in 1997. They fought to a draw in their first bout, but Miletich took a unanimous decision from Brennan in the rematch.

Miletich emerged with the title after securing a shoulder choke to defeat Brennan. Still, Miletich knew only a win over Burnett would help him to get where he wanted to go next.

That desire led Miletich to Ginasio da Portuguesa in Sao Paolo, Brazil, the site of the UFC’s Ultimate Brazil card, where Miletich finally met Burnett for the inaugural UFC lightweight title on Oct. 16, 1998. The bout lasted all of 21 minutes, and Miletich employed a serious defensive guard in telling the story of the bout. Burnett took Miletich down multiple times during the fight, but not since the days of the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu system did anyone neutralize a supposedly dominant top game from the bottom.

Some ran with the belief that Burnett’s game plan proved superior, since Miletich could only play defense and not mount offense against the style Burnett presented. Nevertheless, Miletich earned a split decision, claimed the belt and would actually go on to defend it a total of four times, much like Shamrock would do with the then-middleweight crown. What long-term good did it do the division? Look at the welterweight division in 2013 for the answer.

Could Miletich know in 1998 that the division would grow to where it sits in 2013? Likely, he could not, but after he won the belt, a number of athletes gunned for the title. He would pave the way for the UFC of today, regardless of whether the notion crossed his mind or not. If the scenario in which Miletich found himself sounds familiar, though, it stems from something similar to what Shamrock encountered at light heavyweight after defeating Kevin Jackson at UFC Ultimate Japan.

Shamrock scored a submission win by pounding out John Lober at that same Ultimate Brazil card where Miletich defeated Burnett, but Shamrock’s own landmark fight of that year came at UFC 16: Battle on The Bayou. He looked to make a successful title defense against Igor Zinoviev, who came in with an undefeated run. However, nobody expected Shamrock to end the fight in the manner he did—a slam knockout that essentially ended Zinoviev’s career.

Nowadays, slams usually set up TKOs or submissions. Very rarely will an athlete go out due to the slam, a fact proven by the rarity of slam-knockouts in recent years. Still, when Shamrock slammed Zinoviev just 22 seconds into their UFC 16 tilt, Shamrock essentially opened up the gates for athletes in the sport to incorporate slams and encourage more strength training. The bout also marked one of the quickest knockouts of that year in the promotion, though quick finishes often came in the early days of the UFC. That fact notwithstanding, Shamrock represented the most complete fighter of that time. Unless someone knew how to shut him down in all of his strongest areas, those dreaming of beating Shamrock 99 times would need to wake up and make 100 apologies to “The Legend,” who reigned as an unstoppable force for four straight title defenses.

Speaking of solid knockouts, many still remember Vitor Belfort’s 45-second annihilation of Wanderlei Silva, which in itself proved memorable for that time. After all, Belfort found himself in trouble roughly 35 seconds into the bout, only to bounce back and land his most famous knockout flurry ever en route to the victory. As memorable as Belfort-Silva would become, though, a Lion’s Den fighter named Pete Williams scored arguably the kick heard around the world at UFC 17: Redemption.

Williams filled in for Couture, who planned on defending his heavyweight belt against Mark Coleman before withdrawing due to injury instead. For the brunt of the bout, Williams vs. Coleman looked a lot like Coleman’s performance against Maurice Smith in their 1997 “Fight of the Year” encounter. Coleman took the fight to Williams in the same manner as he did to Smith, but eventually faded in similar fashion as well.

One key difference would stand between Smith’s win over Coleman and Williams’ win over Coleman, however. Where Smith scored on his strikes while zapping Coleman’s gas tank away from him, Williams executed one game-changing roundhouse kick, which helped secure one of the most emphatic upsets in UFC history.

The roundhouse kick that laid Coleman out not only marked the first time a UFC fighter knocked Coleman out, but the bout would symbolize the journey for the UFC moving forward. But how could it when Smith went on to come up short in bouts against Tsuyoshi Kohsaka and eventual UFC heavyweight champion Kevin Randleman, while Coleman would reinvent himself in Pride Fighting Championships?

Well, think about what the UFC wanted to gain from returning to pay-per-view. By promoting a rapidly growing sporting event on pay-per-view outlets and cable providers, the UFC knew it would break a number of doors down to reach mainstream acceptance, regardless of how long the process took. However, it needed to develop the talent required to create demand for the return to pay-per-view.

Williams’ unforgettable knockout symbolized the way in which the UFC would accomplish that goal, because as the UFC fought to survive, nobody ever forgot how hard the UFC would continue to fight to get what it wanted. The promotion would struggle, and every time someone tried to knock it down, it would appear to go out, but it always recovered and kept fighting. As 1998 closed and 1999 approached, the UFC would draw closer to turning things around and landing a knockout shot of its own.

Would that head kick on Coleman give the UFC a sign that good things would come because the UFC decided to stay busy while it waited? In a way, it would, and time would allow more rays of light to burst through the cracks that surrounded the still-underground promotion. But the UFC needed to keep delivering big things with its cards if it wanted that mainstream acceptance as badly as it claimed. Little did SEG know it at the time, but it would take the shots fired from the young guns that came to the UFC in the next year before the UFC could land what it needed in order to roll out the red carpet for the world premiere of the real mixed martial arts world.

Photo: Frank Shamrock (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.