The year 2000 marked more than just the start of a new millennium. Everything in society began to change, from the way people communicated to the way they fulfilled their own entertainment needs. The sports world proved no exception to this change, as a new wave of athletes changed how many perceived a variety of sports by accomplishing feats that athletes of prior generations could not. Some rose to prominence, and others emerged as cult icons.

For an athlete in the UFC during the year 2000, though, national acceptance and mainstream prominence still stood light years away. Major cable and pay-per-view providers still did not carry the product, so the promotion remained underground. The UFC felt itself getting closer and closer to turning things around, but it still needed something to attract some serious attention. The promotion found what it needed in 2000, and it all started with former UFC heavyweight champion Kevin “The Monster” Randleman.

Randleman lost a split decision to “El Guapo” Bas Rutten for the then-vacant UFC heavyweight title belt at UFC 20, but Rutten vacated the belt soon after with the intention to drop down to 205 pounds for a bout with former UFC champion Frank “The Legend” Shamrock. Rutten and Shamrock competed three times against each other in Pancrase, with Shamrock winning their first bout via a somewhat controversial majority decision, Rutten winning the second bout via split decision, and Rutten clinching the trilogy by way of a TKO due to a cut when he and Shamrock met in a King of Pancrase unification bout. Rutten hoped the allure of a fourth bout would pave the way for Shamrock’s return, since Shamrock retired in 1999 due to a lack of competition. Fate planned something else for “El Guapo,” however. He suffered multiple injuries during training, including a blown-out knee and a serious neck injury, all of which forced Rutten to retire.

When the UFC announced that the heavyweight crown stood in a state of vacancy once again, Randleman’s name topped the list of available contenders. This sparked Randleman’s return to the Octagon in November 1999 at UFC 23: Ultimate Japan 2, where he took a unanimous decision win over “El Duro” Pete Williams, thus claiming the title.

Randleman readied himself for a UFC 24 title defense against a then-undefeated Marco Ruas prodigy known as Pedro “The Rock” Rizzo, but disaster struck backstage when Randleman literally slipped and fell on the concrete floor while warming up and suffered a concussion in the process. The UFC rescheduled the bout for UFC 26, which emanated live on June 9, 2000 from the Five Seasons Event Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The bout marked the first time a Brazilian went up for a non-tournament title, but aside from that, it did not hold the landmark moment that the UFC wanted to leave in the history books as part of its year. Randleman picked up the decision win and remained the champion.

The landmark moment that the UFC wanted did involve Randleman, though. In fact, it took the UFC return of Randy “The Natural” Couture for that moment to happen. But in fairness, Randleman needed competition, Couture needed a sanctioned bout, and both men needed to prove that they ruled the roost in the heavyweight ranks.

At UFC 28 in November of 2000, Couture proved his case by defending well against the athletic powerhouse Randleman. He got Randleman to the ground, secured a full mount, and stopped “The Monster” via TKO in the third round. However, Couture’s win told a deeper story than just beating Randleman for a world title. Whereas Rizzo simply marked his name in history by becoming the first Brazilian to contend for a major MMA world title in the post-Gracie era of the UFC, Couture marked his name as the first man to win a belt twice inside the Octagon.

Couture’s second title reign attracted more attention than his tumultuous first reign did, but he was not the first man to win a vacant title in 2000. While Rutten vacated the UFC heavyweight title he held one year earlier, Shamrock vacated the UFC middleweight title. With Shamrock retired, the division needed a hungry individual to support the gold.

Enter Tito Ortiz. A noted wrestler with a knack for finishing fights, Ortiz’s brash confidence represented something that few ever saw out of any previous UFC competitor. Fans loved to hate him for it, but they hated the way he always backed his words up even more. Heading into UFC 25, the third and final card tagged as part of the Ultimate Japan series, Ortiz looked to prove it again, this time against a vaunted, relentless striker named Wanderlei Silva.

Silva carried a style that defined a “kill or be killed” mentality, often engaging in fast-paced exchanges and making effective use of a Muay Thai clinch. That reputation, while a threat to Ortiz, did not prevent “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” from using his skills to wear Silva out and bring enough of a cardiovascular game to ensure that his dominance would last the entire five rounds of the title bout. Silva fought hard to prevent the young upstart from implementing his strategy, but in the end, Ortiz walked out with the belt and a unanimous decision victory.

Even Ortiz’s biggest fans did not truly understand what the win over Silva would mean. The year 2000 would close with Ortiz making a short and sweet defense of his title against Yuki Kondo at UFC 29. As time progressed, Ortiz grew to run the division in a much more memorable fashion than his predecessor. Couture and Ortiz stood as the undisputed apex of their divisions for some time after both won their respective crowns.

As much as Ortiz or Chuck Liddell, Couture’s name can also be associated with that of a “Baby-Faced Assassin” named Josh Barnett.

UFC aficionados know that Barnett did not meet Couture until 2002, but Barnett deserves a mention nonetheless because he did look to make a mark in 2000. In fact, he brought an undefeated 9-0 run into the promotion after fights for the United Full Contact Federation and the SuperBrawl promotion. He debuted against fellow undefeated heavyweight Gan McGee when the UFC invited him to UFC 28. However, whereas many might remember that Barnett fought McGee, few will remember the history that the then-undefeated Barnett made.

To put it in perspective, think to today, when the UFC sports nine divisions. Nobody ever competed as a super-heavyweight in the UFC, right?

Actually, Barnett and McGee did. Barnett would not let McGee damage his unbeaten run. The catch wrestler, who also always stood out for the way he incorporated kickboxing into his repertoire, took McGee past the first round and finished him late in the second stanza with a series of punches.

The bout jump-started Barnett’s UFC run, but it also marked the first and only time that a super-heavyweight match-up happened in the UFC. The UFC 28 card also saw a UFC appearance from Mark Hughes, the brother of eventual UFC welterweight champion Matt Hughes. Mark won via unanimous decision over Alex Stiebling. Still, when one talks about the UFC, they remember Matt more than Mark. Matt made his second Octagon appearance at the same UFC 26 card where Randleman defeated Rizzo.

In Matt’s career, the name Marcelo Aguiar does not hold the same weight as Matt Serra, Carlos Newton, Hayato “Mach” Sakurai, B.J. Penn, Georges St-Pierre or Sean Sherk. Nevertheless, the two competed in a UFC 26 preliminary bout. Aguiar did not last all that long against the future champion and UFC Hall of Famer. Matt always showcased a liking to raining down with elbows during his reign as UFC welterweight champion, and he showed Aguiar exactly how much he enjoyed sticking them, cutting Aguiar up in the process. The referee intervened, and Matt took home the stoppage.

In the history of the UFC, that bout might not mean anything more than Matt winning a fight long before people knew much about him. In hindsight, though, that bout put Matt on a number of radars, and fans who witnessed Matt’s performance figured that something would come of this hungry country boy from Hillsboro, Ill.

Of course, being a UFC fan in 2000 meant buying a ticket to see the events live, due to a lack of pay-per-view exposure. As with most companies that cannot seem to get any pay-per-view exposure, not having that outlet to make itself known on a national level did hurt the company, and the financial problems that the Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG) faced hurt the company more. How did delivering on more of what happened in 1999 come to include woes such as these?

The Ultimate Japan 2 card at the end of 1999 marked the first UFC event to not see home video or DVD distribution. SEG found itself drawing closer to filing for bankruptcy. Hence, none of the UFC’s six efforts in 2000 made it to VHS or DVD at the time. Only years later did they receive a proper release.

Sure, the UFC’s efforts in 2000 provided some rays of light, but with SEG on the verge of bankruptcy, which would essentially shut the UFC down, an even more significant change was needed. As the year came to a close, salvation knocked on SEG’s door with roughly $2 million and three Nevada-based businessmen who had the perfect blueprint for taking the world’s fastest-growing sport to new heights and lead the promotion out of its “Dark Ages.”

Photo: Tito Ortiz (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)