Change causes comfort for some and chaos for others, but it can always work to one’s advantage. In regards to the sports world, changes from within a team roster, a franchise, or the brass in the company can bring about a notable difference between that team’s past and their future, with potential feelings of optimism about the latter. At times, that company machine proves fully functional, and therefore does not need any repairs. But when everything rides on something going differently, organizations will shake things up so as to not spend themselves into bankruptcy.

Semaphore Entertainment Group, otherwise known as the SEG Sports Group, fought as hard as it could to do everything it needed to do in order to help the Ultimate Fighting Championship to prosper during its “Dark Ages,” which ran from 1997 to 2000. During that time period, major pay-per-view providers would not air any form of UFC programming. Additionally, SEG faced a slew of financial problems, most of which stemmed from its attempts to get sanctioned in other parts of the country. From late 1999 through 2000, a total of seven UFC events didn’t see any sort of home video or DVD distribution. Knowing that filing for bankruptcy might lead to the folding of the UFC, the folks at SEG had to make a change.

SEG found its saving grace in the form of a deal it struck in 2001 with Station Casino owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, as well as manager and future UFC President Dana White. For $2 million, the Fertitta brothers took over as the collective figureheads of the company, and White emerged as the man who managed how things operated under the promotion’s new Zuffa LLC banner. The era of SEG, much like the early days with Bob Meyrowitz, Art Davie and Rorion Gracie at the helm, saw a group of people who really did not know how much of a sport they created once they stepped into power. Whether or not the Fertittas and White actually did envision the UFC getting to where it now stands in 2013 remains a mystery, but to their credit, they did hold ideas about the way to create superstars.

They worked with the Nevada State Athletic Commission to re-brand the divisions that year. The 155-pound division changed from being the bantamweight division to the lightweight division, welterweight stood at 170 pounds, the former 205-pound middleweight division officially changed into the light heavyweight division and a 185-pound division emerged as the new middleweight division. Anyone fighting at 207 pounds or above qualified as heavyweights. The UFC featured these “big five” in 2001

In the grand scheme of things, 2001 proved a difficult year for MMA fans to find just one thing to like about the UFC under its new management. Electrifying bouts occurred in those divisions, new techniques began to show themselves, and future legends of the sport made their marks. In the history of MMA, many landmark moments happen, and many more landmark moments of the future lay in waiting, but few can bring up landmark moments in MMA without speaking about UFC two-division world champion Randy “The Natural” Couture.

Couture’s claim to MMA fame comes from being one of the UFC’s “originals.” He made his presences known during the “Dark Ages,” back when many perceived MMA as a blood-and-guts spectacle instead of a legitimate sporting event. He already owned wins over the likes of Vitor Belfort, Maurice Smith and Kevin Randleman, and he looked forward to a first successful title defense against touted kickboxer Pedro Rizzo. Rizzo also made his name known during the “Dark Ages,” but he earned his shot at Couture by virtue of his second-round knockout of Josh Barnett.

Fans knew that, in the case of heavyweight fights, no middle ground existed. In other words, they knew that when Couture met Rizzo at UFC 31: Locked and Loaded, which emanated live from the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort in Atlantic City, N.J., on May 4, 2001, the title fight would either excite all or bore all. Of course, not even the people who anticipate a great heavyweight bout could have predicted the fight playing out as it did. From round one onward, Couture and Rizzo fought to garner significant dominance of each round. The fight proved even through two rounds, with most seeing the second for Rizzo and the first for Couture. Many found it intriguing how Couture, a wrestler, demonstrated a willingness to stand with Rizzo.

Things heated up in the third round when Couture appeared to fade momentarily and received the business end of a Rizzo takedown. Couture hung on, though, and he would make effective use of his own takedowns, as well as his wrestling game, to close the round out. Couture accomplished more of the same in round four, fatiguing Rizzo, but the Brazilian would not back down. He remained in the fight, despite his fatigue, and found himself in advantageous situations on the ground, but could not capitalize. He took the round, but everything about the judges’ decision that followed that fifth round rode entirely on whether or not Rizzo got the third round from any of the cageside judges.

To his disappointment, all three judges scored the bout in favor of Couture, but neither man needed to hang their heads after that grueling bout. In fact, the bout picked up where Tito Ortiz’s storied bout with Frank Shamrock left off in bringing the company to mainstream prominence. It showed people how a sport with multiple techniques could deliver an exciting fight without the allure of a potential bloodbath. The bout also led to a rematch later that year at UFC 34: High Voltage.

Once UFC 34 rolled into the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas on Nov. 2, both men came in with the mindset of not leaving their fate up to the judges this time, even though they knew they would experience a challenge in trying to put their foe away. Despite how difficult a time Couture figured to have on paper in regards to finishing Rizzo, he succeeded in round three. History points out that the fight before the finish, for anyone scoring at home, looked more clearly in favor of Couture than it had when they fought in the eventual “Fight of The Year” in Atlantic City, and again, Couture told the story of this bout with his wrestling.

Couture would go on to serve as one of the biggest names in MMA, along with Ortiz and rival Chuck Liddell, the latter of whom actually fought and knocked out Randleman on the same UFC 31 card that featured Couture vs. Rizzo 1.

In the history of the UFC, though, a gentleman named Matt Hughes contributed to the sport in a similar breadth to that of Couture, Liddell and Ortiz. Sure, he brought a different offensive wrestling game than Couture, his power differed from that of Liddell, and he worked takedowns in a way the Ortiz never did, but the fact that he did not do what the “big three” did is exactly what made him stand out, especially when it came time to defeat a man named Carlos Newton, to whom many refer as “The Ronin.”

To backtrack a bit, Newton served as a challenger to Pat Miletich’s UFC welterweight title in the UFC 31 co-headliner. The two engaged in what would later (circa 2009) be named one of the UFC’s top-100 greatest fights ever. Newton secured a bulldog choke, casually called a “schoolyard headlock,” to win the belt. Hughes trained as part of Miletich Fighting Systems at the time and looked to avenge Miletich’s defeat. His opportunity to unseat Newton came in the co-headliner of UFC 34, which was headlined by Couture vs. Rizzo 2.

The fight lasted all of two rounds, and Hughes established his wrestling early. In fact, the entire first round saw some spectacular displays of grappling from both sides. Newton’s sense of urgency kicked in during round two, and “The Ronin” attempted a triangle choke. Hughes picked Newton up off the ground, and what happened next depends on which side of the story you believe. Some believe Hughes went out due to the choke and Newton won by technical submission, others outright say Hughes slammed Newton, and some might also say the official decision needed to go down in the records as one of the first double knockouts in the history of MMA.

Either way, Newton went out on the slam, and Hughes began a reign of dominance that helped reshape the welterweight division. During Hughes’ reign, he encountered Newton for a second time and defeated him once more. Hayato “Mach” Sakurai, Gil Castillo, Sean Sherk and Frank Trigg all fell to Hughes before Hughes went on to lose the belt to B.J. Penn.

Some years later, Hughes would coach The Ultimate Fighter 6 alongside Matt Serra, the winner of The Ultimate Fighter 4: The Comeback. Hughes and Serra did not like each other at all, to put it lightly. They only shared common ground in their claims of wins over Georges St-Pierre and fights with Penn. Those who did not know Serra before his time on TUF 4 missed out, though, because before arguably one of the top-five greatest upsets in the sport, Serra made a name for himself by way of another one of the UFC’s top-100 greatest fights, albeit one he lost against Shonie Carter.

Serra, at the time, brought in a 4-0 pro record against Carter’s 18-5-5 mark. Serra looked as though he would take a decision win, but the showman Carter put another idea into play. Close to the last 10 seconds of the round, Carter aimed to land something that would impress the judges, so he decided nothing would prove more flashy than a spinning backfist. He not only threw that sucker, but he also put in the technique necessary to score a knockout win with it.

The loss would eventually motivate Serra, as he and Carter both showed up to TUF 4. Once the two made it into the house, Serra avenged the loss en route to meeting Chris Lytle in the welterweight finale. Without Serra involved in that UFC 69 title bout with St-Pierre, nobody knows if anyone else could do anything to throw St-Pierre off-balance, but think about what Carter introduced to the world with his spinning backfist. Nobody did that during that time, and nobody thought about it before that time either, but everyone wanted to find a way to do it after his time came and went.

Does this sound familiar? If it does, then Carter’s contribution to the sport did not go without appreciation. His contribution led the way for unorthodox strikers like Carlos Condit, Jon Jones, Alexander Shlemenko and a plethora of other mixed martial artists who throw spinning techniques more often than not. Carter never won a UFC title, but he did change the way people struck in a manner not all that different from when Gerard Gordeau introduced the Dutch style of kickboxing to the stateside scene or when Harold Howard introduced the art of the “no-hands nightmare” in striking.

Without White and the Fertittas, though, would anyone see this type of marvelous, show-stopping technique? Absolutely not. But thanks to them, the mainstream audience paid attention to what the UFC’s new breed could do, and the UFC marched towards a return to pay-per-view.

Zuffa LLC promoted a number of stellar cards, plus UFC 33, often noted as one of the most uneventful cards in the history of the UFC. But while nothing about UFC 33 stood out in a good way, that one card did not totally tarnish the progress the promotion made in 2001. In only their first year as part of the mixed martial arts business, White and the Fertittas turned a once-struggling promotion into “the little promotion that could,” so to speak. If people thought that they already saw the best that the UFC could do, however, White and the Fertittas casually invited them to stick around, because as 2001 ended and 2002 began, so did the rise of a phoenix that blazed the trail and rolled out the red carpet for the world premiere of the real mixed martial arts world.

Photo: Randy “The Natural” Couture (Jeff Sherwood/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.