A shot of new blood into one’s body can reinvigorate it in a number of ways. Regardless of what reasons lead to the need for a transfusion, it can strengthen the body in areas where it once proved weak and cause the body to feel completely renewed.

In the same way that some people need transfusions to promote their health, sports promotions like the UFC need a shot of new blood in their system every now and then to keep the product fresh and interesting. Under Zuffa management, the UFC began to inject that fresh shot of blood into its veins by featuring athletes like Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell, Kevin Randleman, Matt Hughes and others, but when 2002 began, the promotion knew it needed to keep the new talent flowing in as much as the cash.

The UFC only featured seven cards that year, but it made all seven count.

The promotion put out UFC 35 live from the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., for a jump-off, and the event proved pretty well, despite the flu-like virus that threatened a number of fighters on the card. Despite the virus, the event went on as planned, with Randleman facing a younger Renato “Babalu” Sobral on the preliminary bill, and Liddell taking a unanimous decision from Amar Suloev. Liddell’s win over Suloev marked the first instance of a superstar emerging in the sport, a fact bolstered by Liddell’s post-fight intentions to trek towards a shot at Ortiz’s light heavyweight title. However, one of the first landmark moments of 2002 came in the headliner, which featured then-lightweight champion Jens Pulver against B.J. Penn.

Some fans may remember both men’s stints on The Ultimate Fighter 5 better than they remember the pair’s UFC 35 bout, but it serves as one of the classics in regards to the UFC’s history, as well as the first time a lightweight championship hung in the balance in a UFC headliner. Throughout the fight, Penn looked to showcase his vaunted boxing. He controlled two of the first five rounds because of it. Still, Pulver came in with intentions of leaving with the belt, and he made those intentions clear when he mounted a comeback in the third round. Pulver’s takedowns and ground control told the story of the last three rounds, as did his reversals.

Recalling Penn’s own takedown attempts in the latter rounds, the win for Pulver proves even more impressive. Penn engraved his name in the UFC record books over time due to his boxing, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu wizardry and durability, but after Pulver defended one of Penn’s takedowns in that third round, Penn found himself on the bottom. Pulver’s effort neutralized Penn’s BJJ and made it look non-existent, something that nobody had done or thought could happen in prior Penn fights.

Pulver took a unanimous decision, and the bout with Penn marked the last time “Lil’ Evil” would scrap in the Octagon for a while, as a contract dispute led to Pulver taking his business to Pride Fighting Championships in Japan. Penn and a host of others would eventually follow suit, but they stayed in the UFC for the time being.

Before UFC 40 at MGM Grand Garden Arena in Paradise, Nev., nobody knew and even fewer fathomed the notion that the UFC could ever draw in serious money. The stars aligned, however, and the promotion’s biggest stars did battle at UFC 40, where the MMA world took a life-changing turn once more.

Ken Shamrock and his Lion’s Den camp held an early bit of history with Ortiz, the light heavyweight champion at the time, stemming from the days when Ortiz first broke ground in the Octagon. When both men agreed to finally meet at UFC 40, it marked the most monumental UFC clash ever at that time, and it showed Zuffa how the UFC could make some serious money. Of course, the fact that nobody forgot Shamrock’s name, plus the mainstream exposure that the bout received, also played a hand in the success of the card.

Nevertheless, if the bout showed anything to anyone, it demonstrated a major difference between the athletes of the UFC’s future and the athletes of the UFC’s past. Partially due to Shamrock’s WWF run from 1997 to 1999, after his departure from the UFC in 1996, Shamrock’s style underwent a change. Instead of the more striking-heavy offense that Shamrock once offered, along with a bevy of limb-locks in his back pocket, Shamrock embraced a grappling attack. The change would show more as Shamrock kept fighting in the new UFC, but the fact that he switched his style up posed the question of whether or not Shamrock’s grappling actually stood a chance to stop Ortiz’s wrestling and ground-based punishment.

Throughout the fight, Ortiz punished Shamrock, and the overwhelming offense of the champion drained the Lion’s Den head of his energy. Ortiz brought something that fans and experts of that era needed to recognize when it first stepped on the scene, and Shamrock could not go on by the end of round three. Referee John McCarthy recognized the fatigue Shamrock exhibited and honored his corner’s decision to call the bout right then.

Ortiz kept things going for the UFC after the win over Shamrock. Along with Liddell and Randy Couture, Shamrock played an integral part in the success of the UFC in the long-term. Still, fans knew that the UFC would break into mainstream prominence even before UFC 40. For that bit of knowledge, fans can thank Robbie Lawler, because while nobody forgot Ortiz, Liddell or Couture, fans who did not know about the UFC pre-2002 knew what it promised once they saw Lawler.

Ironically, Lawler’s game-changing bout with Steve Berger came at UFC 37.5, headlined by Liddell, who fought Vitor Belfort in an exciting three-round headliner. Lawler came into the bout with a reputation for knocking guys out, not totally a far cry from his current M.O. He hurt Berger in the first round, though he could not knock him out. Instead, he took the bout into round two and finished Berger off with a series of ruthless punches in only 27 seconds of the round.

Lawler vs. Berger aired during The Best Damn Sports Show, Period as part of its “All-Star Celebration.” More than just making Lawler known to fans, it illuminated the UFC, allowing all in the public eye to see the variety of talent that existed in the promotion, and in a television format that didn’t require viewers to seek it out on pay-per-view. Even today, the promotion boasts everything from knockout artists to technical masters, from creative grapplers and powerhouse wrestlers to jacks-of-all-trades and more complete versions of “one-trick ponies,” and from prospects with the raw potential to dominate all facets of a fight to showstoppers who trade in technique for the ability to take home a fight bonus.

In 2002, though, few could shake the “brutal” tag that tarnished the promotion for so long, so they needed something to show that more existed in the sport apart from the violent nature of fighting. Lawler’s TKO win over Berger allowed new fans a moment to comprehend how these athletes implemented their skills, as opposed to just letting them hear about “that one guy who punched the other guy in the face.” Incidentally, Lawler’s name would not stand as the only man who made something of a major mark in 2002 outside of a landmark fight. One of Lawler’s training partners also went on to make a statement in 2002.

Remember Matt Hughes, the guy who slammed Carlos Newton to win the UFC welterweight title in 2001? Well, he came back in 2002 to defend his title, and he did so on the same card in which Couture dropped the UFC heavyweight belt to Josh Barnett, who would then test positive for banned substances. Hughes, at the time, represented the blueprint for a wrestler in MMA. Even in today’s day and age, when a man hoists his foe on his shoulders, runs across the Octagon and slams them to smithereens, everyone flashes back to Hughes’ days as the alpha and omega of the welterweight ranks.

For all of Hughes’ battles with Newton, Penn, Matt Serra, Georges St-Pierre and others, people could be forgiven if they forget that UFC 36 saw him defeat Hayato “Mach” Sakurai inside the Octagon. Hughes knew that Sakurai would keep the fight vertical, but despite scoring a second-round knockdown, Sakurai never found an answer for Hughes’ wrestling. Hughes controlled Sakurai with it for two rounds, despite the second-round scare, and then put the wrestling into overdrive as the bout went on. The takedowns packed more evil intentions in the third round alone, which set the stage for a fourth-round finish that kept the title on Hughes’ shoulders.

Once the fourth round hit, Hughes knew he needed to put Sakurai away as quickly as possible, so he stuck a superman punch that shocked “Mach” and opened the door for Hughes to execute yet another big takedown. Hughes got the mount and performed his most significant ground assault. Whereas the first three rounds simply saw Hughes control Sakurai, Hughes finished his Japanese counterpart in the fourth after securing the mount.

Hughes cemented his status as the top welterweight in the world, and in the aftermath, Newton challenged him to a rematch. Most MMA aficionados know what happened next, but did Zuffa know what it did when it stood on hand to witness the events that transpired in just its second year in control of the UFC? If so, did the promotion somehow see it coming?

Only Barnett’s post-fight positive test likely went against whatever Zuffa planned to accomplish in 2002. But on the whole, the UFC’s 2002 picked up where 2001 left off, and from there, the promotion only promised to grow faster, especially with Ortiz leading the way. As 2003 dawned, though, a number of other superstars prepared to blast into the spotlight as well. Soon, Ortiz would find that his hand would not play the only role in the success of the promotion he helped build, and little did he or anyone else know it at the title, but while Ortiz would remain a fixture of the promotion in its progression, he would nonetheless pass the torch to Couture just one year later.

It seemed to fit that Couture would take the torch from Ortiz in 2003, but he did not plan to go at Ortiz’s title initially. Flashing back to UFC 36, Couture came off of the two-fight winning streak through two fights with Pedro Rizzo. Facing a new challenge in Barnett, a catch wrestler, Couture sought after a three-fight winning streak, but like every title challenger that ever looked to become a champion in a combat sport, the former “Baby-Faced Assassin” came in with an idea that contradicted that of the champion. In other words, Barnett wanted the belt, and in his mind, the champion couldn’t do anything about it, not even on his best day or with his best career performance.

Though Couture worked Barnett in the clinch, implemented his takedowns effectively, and prevented the challenger from making good on any submission offense from the bottom, Couture’s top game did not neutralize Barnett’s bottom game completely. In fact, the first round saw Barnett remaining more active from the bottom than any previous challenger to Couture’s title. Time ran out in the first round for Couture, who almost submitted Barnett with a guillotine choke and made effective use of his dirty boxing. Nobody doubted that Couture found a way to take one of the most exciting first rounds in the history of the sport.

The second round promised more of the same. Since Couture’s clinch game worked in the first, he decided to stick to more of the same, complete with nice double-leg takedown. However, he did not damage Barnett, and that turned the tide of the bout. Barnett worked his way into Couture’s full guard and shocked everyone after taking Couture’s back. He pounded away at Couture after the champion unsuccessfully tried rolling to his back. Once Barnett trapped Couture, he beat the champion down with a mixture of sharp elbows and damaging punches before McCarthy, the ref in charge of the headliner, halted the bout.

Once the post-fight drug test came back, though, things changed dramatically. The UFC stripped Barnett of the title, and Barnett challenged the results before eventually departing from the promotion. If not for that positive result, a title defense with rising contender Ricco Rodriguez almost certainly awaited Barnett. But with the title vacant and Barnett gone, Couture met Rodriguez at UFC 39, which took place on Sept. 27 and marked the UFC’s return to the Mohegan Sun Arena.

Only four fights in UFC history ever ended in round five. This bout marked the first occasion, but neither man made it an easy fight to score before that fifth round came. Couture’s striking narrated the first two rounds, while his takedown defense and his wrestling dictated the pace in vintage Couture fashion. The third round, however, proved a case of a close round, better known as a cageside judge’s worst nightmare.

How did that happen? Couture kept Rodriguez at bay with his jab, but Rodriguez stayed in the fight. Rodriguez, touted for his flying knee in some circles, got taken down for his troubles, and appeared on the verge of losing via TKO, but he still kept composed. Eventually, Rodriguez returned to his feet, found a takedown of his own and worked for submission attempts. Couture reversed Rodriguez’s attempts at the end of the round, but from any perspective, the challenger owned as much of a case for winning round three as the former champion.

Rodriguez dominated all but the last 30 seconds of the fourth round. He controlled Couture from the top and pounded away at the champion, who did a commendable job of protecting himself throughout the onslaught. Depending on who you ask, Rodriguez either created an opening to submit Couture via armbar or surrendered a chance to take a 10-8 round from the champion. Either way, Rodriguez ended round four defending Couture’s punches and nearly soccer-kicking Couture on the ground.

So, where did Rodriguez end up beating Couture in round five? He won it in the stamina department, where he supposedly was inferior, and in the ground department, where Couture proved superior to most of his opponents. It all clicked when Rodriguez took a big right hand from Couture and then successfully took the future UFC Hall of Famer down again, showing better stamina than expected by working elbows and punches inside Couture’s guard, just as Barnett looked to do months earlier, only this time, the result was much different.

Much like the fight with Barnett, Couture fended off the initial assault, but Rodriguez never dialed down his barrage. Every fist and elbow that rained down on “The Natural” found a home, and it forced the former champion to verbally submit. With the result of the Barnett fight containing an asterisk, those who followed the sport in 2002 viewed Rodriguez as the man to legitimately dethrone Couture.

Rodriguez never enjoyed a successful reign with the belt, however, as he would lose to Tim Sylvia in his first defense. Couture closed his 2002 with two losses and needed a fresh start. In the grander scheme, that desire symbolized the UFC’s desire to keep its product fresh. The same names would not resonate with fans forever, so the promotion and the talent needed to switch things up a bit. Everyone asked about where that switch could occur, but a man soon stepped up and delivered what the UFC needed.

“The Iceman,” Liddell, provided that switch when he fought Belfort, but before we return to the Bellagio Hotel and Casino, where Liddell defeated Belfort, let’s revisit what brought Liddell to the dance. Prior to his tilt with “The Phenom,” Liddell went 6-1 in the world’s premier proving ground for MMA athletes, including unanimous decision wins over the Armenian ace Suloev and future middleweight champion Murilo Bustamante. What does any competitor at 205 pounds want, though?

No matter which promotion or division gets the spotlight, every competitor wants the world title. And although a win over Suloev led to Liddell’s first declaration of a desire to hold the gold, he needed to beat someone else if he wanted the belt that badly. Belfort, who saw a UFC 33 date with Ortiz fall through due to injury, wanted to fight for the gold as much as Liddell did, if not more.

Hence, UFC 37.5’s headliner of Belfort vs. Liddell took place at the UFC’s final “half-number” card. Featured as a last-minute event during the period in which the UFC already began promoting UFC 38: Brawl at the Hall, UFC 37.5’s headliner demonstrated an exciting array of stand-up action from both men, though it certainly did not begin that way. As a matter of fact, Belfort surprised many with how he opened his bout with Liddell.

Known more for his boxing and hand speed than his takedowns, Belfort took Liddell down at will for much of the first round. Normally, nobody dreamed of trying to take down the legendary sprawl-and-brawler with the noted kickboxing background, and Liddell showed why when he returned to his feet before Belfort could do anything with his first takedown. Liddell forced Belfort to hold him down after the second takedown, thereby leaving Belfort unable to damage him on the ground, and Belfort closed out the first round with a leg kick.

Liddell told the story of round two via leg kicks, which eventually caused Belfort to absorb a knee. Belfort then found himself cracked with a right and briefly taking knees to the legs before the referee separated them. Liddell found an opening to take Belfort’s gas away from him with a spinning back kick to the body, but ate Belfort’s trademark left hand in the process. Belfort caught Liddell’s subsequent efforts and landed a combination of a high kick and a left cross, but time ran out. Both men went into the third, knowing they needed to finish the other.

Neither finished the fight, but they left the crowd with a lasting image. Liddell mixed a spinning backfist into his offense and traded shots with Belfort, but Belfort stuck a high kick that helped him refuel for a moment. With a minute and a half to go in the final frame, Belfort’s combinations promised to end the fight, but Liddell scored big on a haymaker that dropped Belfort and caused the crowd to erupt. Liddell closed the round in the dominant position, and although Belfort brought his warrior spirit, the same of Liddell ultimately prevailed. “The Iceman” took his spot in line after all three judges scored the bout in his favor, with two scoring the bout as a 30-27 sweep.

Ortiz told Liddell after the bout that he would be next, following the bout with Shamrock at UFC 40, but things did not go that way. Liddell actually took on another challenger in Sobral and scored a first-round TKO via head kick and punches. Liddell’s sprawl-and-brawl style overwhelmed the BJJ expert, who ate a number of right hands from Liddell before taking a left high kick to the dome from Liddell.

As 2002 closed for Liddell, he hoped to see Ortiz down the line, but fate intervened when an injury shelved Ortiz for much of 2003. Liddell would find himself in the same mix as a number of rising light heavyweights and one former heavyweight champion in Couture.

Once Ortiz returned in 2003, however, MMA found itself in another state of serious change. But this time, it woke mainstream America up and introduced them to the future of the sports world.

Photo: Jens Pulver (Stephen Martinez/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.