Everyone recognizes something special when they first see it. They cannot necessarily put their finger on the “it” factor that it possesses, but they know that it holds tremendous potential to ultimately change things. Sometimes, though, this special something comes in a group of three, and with a number of different “it” factors presenting themselves to audiences around the world, it generates the kind of attention that an organization needs if it wants the rest of the world to sit up and take notice.

At the dawn of 2003, Zuffa LLC operated the UFC, the worldwide leader in mixed martial arts, especially with the likes of B.J. Penn, Caol Uno, then-UFC welterweight champion Matt Hughes, Pedro Rizzo and others on the roster. That host of others included a trio of light heavyweights consisting of then-reigning champion Tito Ortiz and future champs Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell. The trio shared common ground, as all three began their UFC careers in the early days of the sport, and though very few saw it coming at the time, this trio would define the UFC’s height of popularity and help the sport take a giant leap forward in reaching mainstream acceptance.

Still, the job would not come easy, especially with Ortiz sidelined after his UFC 40 bout with Ken Shamrock. Ortiz’s only fight of 2003 came against Couture, and for some, the way Couture earned the shot against Ortiz came as something of an upset. After all, Couture did spoil an early plan for Ortiz vs. Liddell for the title, and even though Couture proved himself as a top-tier talent on multiple occasions, many expected “The Iceman” to wallop “The Natural” en route to the fight with Ortiz. The irony behind what actually happened would create the launchpad from which the UFC blasted off.

As the story goes, Liddell stood far and away as the top contender to Ortiz’s belt heading into 2003, a fact which nobody disputed. But the fight took its time in coming to fruition. First, Ortiz wanted to settle his score with Shamrock. Then he told Liddell that he would renegotiate matters, citing the money offered for him to fight Liddell. Then he cited a number of injuries. Although Ortiz was nursing some injuries, his decision to still not fight Liddell came only partially because of the injuries.

As time passed, Ortiz found himself in a contract dispute. Ortiz, then developing himself into the company’s biggest draw of the era, not only cited a number of entertainment obligations, but he also reaffirmed a claim of inadequate pay, which he initially cited after Liddell defeated Renato “Babalu” Sobral at UFC 40. The UFC did not strip Ortiz of the belt due to this dispute, but with few other options, the promotion decided to force his hand by creating an UFC interim light heavyweight title, which essentially served as a “No. 1 contender’s title.” In the eyes of many fans, the idea behind this revolved around the mere concept of Ortiz vs. Liddell, since an interim title defined the legitimate next-in-line for the title, and if Liddell defeated former heavyweight champion Couture, he would get the title shot he craved.

UFC 43: Meltdown, live from the Thomas and Mack Center in Paradise, Nev., took place on June 6, 2003 with Liddell vs. Couture as its headliner. Liddell came in as the favorite to win, not only because of his proven striking prowess, but also because many felt Couture lost a number of steps in a UFC heavyweight title bout loss to Ricco Rodriguez. People forgot that, even as an elder competitor at light heavyweight, Couture still packed one of the most intense wrestling games in the sport, and that beating Liddell meant taking his striking away from him. People carried a good reason to believe that Couture’s wrestling would play little to no role in the bout, though, because even though the likes of Kevin Randleman, Sobral and other vaunted ground-based masters did not bring Couture’s style of wrestling with them, Couture never needed to execute his game plan against a guy like Liddell, who proved nearly impossible to take down.

Couture told the story of this bout by way of two items. First, he neutralized Liddell’s power with his straight punches. Every time Liddell looked to sink a hook, Couture found a home for one of his straights. Second, he took Liddell down at will. Eventually, the takedown offense drained Liddell of his energy. Couture experienced no difficulty in finding the mount before forcing the referee’s intervention in round three. The upset meant that when Ortiz came back, he would fight the former UFC heavyweight champion and fellow MMA pioneer instead of his fellow Californian, Liddell.

Nobody should question if Liddell vs. Couture 1 brought the UFC to a landmark moment in the sport. It not only accomplished that goal, but the aftermath led to another landmark moment in UFC history. That moment took place just three months later on Sept. 26, 2003, when UFC 44: Undisputed took place at the Mandalay Bay Events Center with the Ortiz-Couture showdown taking precedence over a Tim Sylvia vs. Gan McGee tilt for Sylvia’s UFC heavyweight title.

The fight with Ortiz marked one of the most dominant performances in the career of “Captain America.” Ortiz fought with the heart of a champion and tried throughout to gain the upper hand on Couture. But despite hunting for high kicks, submissions, sweeps and anything big that he could land in order to put Couture away, the captain of Team Punishment was punished by Couture, who used his own wrestling game and his own brand of ground-and-pound offense. The lasting image of the fight, however, came when Ortiz rolled for a kneebar and Couture literally spanked him. Ortiz’s corner argued that it constituted a tap, but it nevertheless symbolized Couture’s performance in the eyes of his fans and critics.

Couture took two scores of 50-44 and one score of 50-45 in a unanimous decision victory, emerging as the first man to reign as undisputed world champion in two separate weight classes. By defeating Liddell and Ortiz in succession, Couture actually helped the stars align for the fight that fans would see in 2004, when Liddell would come off a 1-1 run in Pride Fighting Championships, albeit as a UFC representative, and combat his bitter rival, Ortiz.

The light heavyweight trio fueled the UFC rocket and prepared it for the moment when it blasted off into prominence, but none can speak of the Ortiz-Liddell-Couture era without also somehow working Matt Hughes, a welterweight, into the discussion. Hughes delivered a dominant 2002 with fourth-round TKO wins over Hayato “Mach” Sakurai and Carlos Newton and a first-round TKO win via doctor stoppage over Gil Castillo. Hughes only fought twice in 2003, but he looked to make a statement in both affairs.

A 19-0-1 prospect named Sean Sherk challenged Hughes at UFC 42: Sudden Impact, and he looked to push Hughes at every turn. But Hughes’ takedowns asserted themselves throughout the contest. His efforts scored him the first two rounds, but Sherk looked to turn things around in the third stanza when he showed a gutsy display and landed shots that returned him to the bout. Still, Hughes found takedowns and ways to dominate from the top, even when he did not initially get the takedown.

Ultimately, Hughes’ output in the first two rounds, as well as the last two, earned him scores of 48-45, 48-47 and 49-46, meaning that he won a unanimous decision, handed Sherk his first pro loss and scored his fourth successful title defense. After the win, Hughes called out the division’s top two emerging contenders, Pete Spratt and former WFA welterweight champion Frank Trigg. Both men easily earned cases towards their respective cracks at Hughes, but Spratt turned down the offer to fight Hughes. However, Trigg didn’t.

Trigg met Hughes when the UFC returned to Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on Nov. 21 for UFC 45: Revolution. Hughes did not allow the fight to last long. At one point, Hughes executed his signature takedown on Trigg, picking up “Twinkle Toes,” running across the Octagon and slamming Trigg with the authority of a spinebuster from a prime Arn Anderson. Now, to Trigg’s credit, he did hold his own by tying Hughes up, threatening with a kimura and sweeping to come out on top. When Trigg postured up, however, Hughes swept him and secured his back before jumping with both hooks in and forcing a tap from a standing rear-naked choke.

Trigg fought hard, but he would not get the rematch with Hughes until some time after Hughes lost the belt to B.J. Penn and inevitably regained it. For Hughes, though, the UFC 45 win over Trigg and the UFC 42 win over Sherk cemented his reign as the pinnacle to which future UFC welterweight champions aspired to ascend.

At that same UFC 42 card where the then-undefeated “Muscle Shark” Sherk faced one of the pound-for-pound best in the world in Hughes, a Cincinnatian named Rich Franklin made some waves of his own at the expense of Amarillo, Texas, native Evan Tanner.

In today’s MMA world, everyone knows the story of how these two would each go on to capture the UFC middleweight title. After former champion Murilo Bustamante vacated the belt, Tanner defeated David Terrell, Franklin dethroned Tanner months later, and Franklin, after defending successfully against Nate Quarry and David Loiseau, lost the belt to Anderson Silva, who defended the title 10 times in succession before his UFC 162 knockout loss to Chris Weidman.

Before any of that transpired, though, Franklin and Tanner competed at light heavyweight. Tanner suffered a knockout loss to Ortiz, but rode a four-fight winning streak into his bout with the then-undefeated Franklin, who made his UFC debut that night. Throughout the bout, Tanner made it clear that he wanted to clinch with Franklin, and he remained undeterred by some of Franklin’s best shots early on. Tanner made one critical error, though, in leaving himself open. That allowed Franklin to open up more with his striking, connecting a left uppercut and a right hook in succession en route to a TKO win.

Both men came in as small light heavyweights, but this bout, while not a landmark in comparison to the rematch, did hold a key moment. If Tanner won at light heavyweight, would he have still chosen to go to middleweight? Nobody knows, but, having lost, the late former UFC middleweight champion did make the move down in weight. Franklin, meanwhile, lost to a younger Lyoto Machida outside of the UFC, but remained unbeaten in the Octagon until his failed title defense against Silva.

Tanner closed out 2003 on a controversial win over Phil Baroni where Baroni punished the future middleweight champion early, but Tanner mounted a comeback. Baroni held on for as long as he could and clearly did not want to quit, despite taking a series of unanswered elbows and punches, but miscommunication between “The New York Bad Ass” and referee Larry Landless caused Landless to halt the bout, sparking a heated exchange with an irate Baroni and creating one of the most controversial stoppages in the UFC’s history. This led to a UFC 48 rematch, which Tanner won with more clarity and conviction.

As 2003 closed on the heels of UFC 45, 2004 promised big things for the little promotion that could. The UFC did not know for sure whether it would get what it wanted in the coming year, but with tempers flaring and fighting spirits intensifying, all signs foreshadowed the MMA world getting the fight that it wanted to see. The era of a once-dominant champion with a brash personality and a hunger for battle was coming to an end, but when it ended at the hands of a future legend, it served as an appropriate catalyst of a brand new era.

Photo: Chuck Liddell (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.