A changing of the guard from an old ruler to a new monarch brings with it questions about what the people should expect. In all walks of life, great legends like those of the old guard die hard. That’s especially true in the sports world, where the thought of dominant athletes experiencing more misses than hits becomes an absurd notion. Sadly, but truthfully, when an athlete’s time comes to pass the torch to another, the athlete passing the torch only discovers the fact long after everyone else finished accepting it.

A number of events in the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s 20-year history represent these facts very well, especially those of 2007. As the year began, Chuck Liddell ruled the UFC light heavyweight division, Anderson Silva prepared to begin his rule as UFC middleweight champion, Sean Sherk was coming off a UFC lightweight title win over Kenny Florian and a young, 13-1 French-Canadian phenom named Georges St-Pierre aimed for a successful first defense of his newly won UFC welterweight title.

Now, a look at the UFC’s year in 2007 will show a multitude of landmark moments. At UFC 73, live from the ARCO Arena in Sacramento, Calif., on July 7, Sherk made a successful first defense of his lightweight title against Hermes Franca, only to test positive for banned substances afterwards. The same UFC 73 card saw Silva defeat Nate Marquardt in his first official middleweight title defense, as well as a bout between then-undefeated Rashad Evans and former UFC light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz, which ended in a draw.

The year stands out for the UFC, however, because of three upsets in which titles changed hands. St-Pierre, who avenged his then-only pro loss to Matt Hughes at UFC 65, lost his strap first. What happened? He came across Matt “The Terror” Serra, who capitalized on an error committed by St-Pierre and scored arguably the biggest upset in the sport.

Serra was coming off a win over Chris Lytle in The Ultimate Fighter 4 welterweight final to combat St-Pierre at UFC 69 in Houston. Serra came in as an 11-1 underdog to the champion. With those odds in effect, it came as a complete shock when Serra landed the right hand of a career to throw St-Pierre off-balance and proceeded to swarm on him. Initially, when Serra went in to secure the finish, St-Pierre weathered the storm and looked to reclaim his legs. But the pressure that Serra mounted overwhelmed St-Pierre to the point where Serra finally finished the fight with relative ease once he sent St-Pierre to the ground with little to no way of defending himself properly.

Serra’s upset victory set up a UFC 79 title defense against Hughes. When Serra sustained a back injury in training, however, Hughes found himself staring down an interim belt, provided he defeated someone for it first. As fate desired, St-Pierre came off a UFC 74 win over Josh Koscheck to stand between Hughes and the UFC interim welterweight belt in the tilt that would headline UFC 79. As memorable as the third bout in the St-Pierre vs. Hughes trilogy would prove, though, it would not steal the show or the year.

There can be much debate among fans and pundits on which of 2007’s landmark bouts truly flew under the radar. In terms of significance, did Liddell’s UFC 71 loss to Quinton “Rampage” Jackson fly under the radar because it eventually led him to a long-awaited dream fight with Wanderlei Silva, and also prompted a classic bout between Jackson and former Pride two-division champion Dan Henderson? Did a UFC 70 headliner of Gabriel Gonzaga vs. Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic fly under the radar because it marked one of the biggest non-title upsets in MMA history?

Actually, for a major landmark fight that also served as one of the most under-the-radar moments of 2007, few could really top one of the consensus best fights of that same year. It took place at UFC 68, which emanated live from the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. On that night, Randy Couture returned to MMA in the most dominant fashion imaginable with a lopsided victory over then-champion Tim Sylvia.

Heading into the bout, the Pat Miletich protégé, Sylvia, earned wins over notables Andrei Arlovski and Jeff Monson. But as much as those wins did for Sylvia, they did little to put him on the same level as a Fedor Emelianenko or an Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Sylvia needed another legitimate adversary to add to his list of victims, but finding one was an issue. Former champ Frank Mir was on the comeback trail and needed to reassert his status as a top contender before any notion of a title shot could be thrown his way, and Couture stuck to the sidelines and an occasional commentary gig when he retired after his UFC 57 loss to Liddell.

Yet, when Sylvia needed a foe for UFC 68, Couture signed on to the fight, confirming the bout with Joe Rogan and also revealing that he signed a four-fight deal with the promotion. When fight time came, Couture landed his first punch eight seconds into the bout. Once the crowd witnessed how Sylvia first hit the mat, they not only roared in excitement, but also realized that Couture did indeed return as only “The Natural” could.

For the duration of the bout, Couture never allowed Sylvia to steal so much as a second of the fight away from him. Utilizing the takedowns and striking that made him one of the most revered athletes of his earlier career, as well as one of the most dominant of his era, Couture smothered and overwhelmed Sylvia, who, to his credit, weathered the storm until the final bell. At the end of the fifth round, though, everyone knew that Couture won every single second of the fight. All three cageside judges agreed, granting Couture the bout via unanimous decision.

How would this fly under the radar, when Liddell’s loss to Jackson led to one of the most intense fights in the sport, featuring two of its all-time greatest light heavyweights at the forefront? In the modern era, people don’t find it difficult to remember when Liddell scored four successful title defenses and lost the strap to Jackson, because the light heavyweight crown became a bit slippery once Rampage won it. Sure, he defeated “Hendo” to unify his newly won UFC strap with the Pride middleweight belt at UFC 75, but after Jackson lost the title to Forrest Griffin, a UFC light heavyweight champion in the post-Liddell era never made it past one successful title defense before Jon Jones got his hands on the championship several years later.

With the athletes that continue to establish their dominance in other divisions, people forget how Couture’s win over Sylvia attracted a number of heads back to the UFC’s “big-boy class.” Couture stood in a class of elite MMA athletes that many considered the best, because he only won and lost against the toughest of the tough. The fact that he could do it like a man entering his prime despite being well past his prime made it all the more awe-inspiring.

When 2007 ended, Couture looked ahead to 2008 on the heels of a successful UFC 74 win over then-challenger Gonzaga and Rampage ended his year with the win over Henderson. Meanwhile, Anderson Silva sandwiched the win over Marquardt in between a non-title victory over Travis Lutter and a win in his rematch with Rich Franklin. Serra awaited a rematch with then-interim champion St-Pierre, and the UFC stripped Sherk of the lightweight title, leaving the belt in a vacant state.

This mean that 2007 ended with only four UFC champions carrying their division’s torch and running proudly with it. By the end of 2008, that number would increase to five. A former MMA king took his throne back by force, new torchbearers rose to considerable prominence by succeeding the men that sported 12 pounds of gold before them, and the MMA scene once again underwent a series of events that would “change the sport forever.” It was one new face that entered the UFC in 2008, though, that shocked the sport like no other.

Photo: Former UFC welterweight champion Matt Serra (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)