Every fighter in the UFC, whether champion, legend or debutant, has to start somewhere. That somewhere usually isn’t the big show. Occasionally, multiple future stars end up gathered on a single regional card. At the time, this card may not seem significant, but years down the road, we can look back in hindsight and marvel at how stacked that event turned out to be. That’s exactly what we’ll do in this series, called History Lessons.

So, let’s jump in the time machine and travel back. The date was Nov. 13, 2003, and the location was the Colusa Casino in Colusa, Calif. It was time for Gladiator Challenge 20.

When Urijah Faber steps into the Octagon tonight to battle Michael McDonald, he does so as one of the most recognizable faces in the sport, and certainly as the pioneer for bringing the sub-lightweight divisions into the mainstream spotlight. However, in 2003, Faber, who was 24 years old at the time, was nothing more than a rookie to the sport. An NCAA Division I wrestler while attending college at the University of California, Davis, Faber was only six months removed from his graduation and was stepping into the cage for the first time as a professional.

Faber’s fight was buried in the middle of an 18-fight lineup under the banner of Gladiator Challenge, a promotion run under parent company King of the Cage. Faber’s opponent was fellow wrestler Jay Valencia, who was 1-2 at the time and had already lost to another future WEC champion in Cole Escovedo. Faber was taken down early in the fight, but even from those initial moments, he seemed intent on finding a choke. By the 82-second mark, he had it, locking in a guillotine to coax the tapout.

Faber’s rise from that debut was a steady one. Team Alpha Male was born in the weeks following his debut victory. He returned to action in February 2004 to score a TKO win over George Adkins and earn a shot at the Gladiator Challenge bantamweight crown, which he snagged with a win over David Velasquez at Gladiator Challenge 27 in June 2004. From there, he eventually captured the King of the Cage bantamweight crown and, in 2006, he made his WEC debut by capturing the WEC featherweight crown with a TKO victory over Escovedo.

Over the course of five WEC title defenses in 2007 and 2008, Faber became the face of the promotion and the featherweight division. He moved over to the UFC when Zuffa merged the WEC with the UFC, but he had already relinquished his belt by then. Faber is still seeking his first taste of UFC gold, and he’s doing it back in the bantamweight division. Overall, the “California Kid” is 5-2 since entering the Octagon.

Faber wasn’t the only significant name in the lineup on that November night, though. Much higher up the card sat Chael Sonnen. He was still several years away from earning his reputation as one of the best trash-talkers in the sport. Sonnen had started fighting in 1997 at age 19 and was 6-2-1 by the time he stepped into the Gladiator Challenge cage to vie for the light heavyweight championship. Sonnen had started out his career on a six-fight winning streak that included a unanimous decision over Jason “Mayhem” Miller, but he had hit a rough patch of three straight fights without a win prior to his Gladiator Challenge title bid. He had been submitted by Trevor Prangley at XFA 5 in January 2003, fought to a draw with Akihiro Gono under the Pancrase banner in February 2003 and lost via submission to future UFC light heavyweight champion Forrest Griffin in September 2003 at IFC: Global Domination.

Sonnen’s bid for the Gladiator Challenge light heavyweight crown came against Jason Lambert, another future UFC fighter. Lambert was already 14-4 when he clashed with Sonnen. Lambert had competed against heavyweights such as Tim Sylvia and Wesley “Cabbage” Correira in the years prior and was still more than two years away from making his Octagon debut at UFC 58 against Rob McDonald.

Sonnen and Lambert went the distance in their three-round title fight. Sonnen emerged with the unanimous nod and the belt, but he never set foot inside the Gladiator Challenge cage again. Instead, he continued to jump from promotion to promotion before making his UFC debut in 2005 at UFC 55. After a 1-2 stint, he was back on the regional circuit. He eventually made two runs at the WEC middleweight title against Paulo Filho, but he failed in his first try and the second became a non-title fight after Filho missed weight. That led to his return to the UFC at UFC 95 in 2009. Sonnen has gone 6-5 in his current run with the promotion and has challenged for titles in the light heavyweight and middleweight divisions. He has also become a regular in the broadcast booth.

Beyond Faber, Sonnen and Lambert, Gladiator Challenge 20 was packed with several other names that would eventually appear on the rosters of the biggest promotions in the world.

The main event of the evening featured Scott “Hands of Steel” Smith and Jaime Jara. Smith, known best for his stints in the UFC and Strikeforce, was fighting as a heavyweight back then. He fought Jara earlier in 2003 at Gladiator Challenge 16. Jara was an undefeated 4-0 and stood as the champ at the time, but Smith destroyed him in 59 seconds via knockout to capture the heavyweight strap. The two rematched at Gladiator Challenge 20, where Smith scored one of only three career submission victories when he cinched up a rear-naked choke on Jara just past the three-minute mark of the contest.

In his next defense, Smith suffered a knockout loss to James Irvin, another future UFC fighter who was just 3-0 when he challenged for Smith’s heavyweight belt. Coincidentally, Irvin had earned his shot at Smith with a first-round TKO stoppage of Pete Werve at Gladiator Challenge 20 a few fights before Smith defended the belt against Jara.

Smith went on to join the UFC in 2006. He lost his Octagon debut, but then took part in The Ultimate Fighter 4. His most memorable performance in a 1-3 run with the UFC came in a stunning knockout of Pete Sell just after Sell had rocked Smith. Since his last fight with the UFC, Smith has appeared under the EliteXC and Strikeforce banners on numerous occasions. He’s just 2-5 over his last seven outings. Irvin, meanwhile, made his UFC debut at UFC 51 and has gone 4-6 over two stints with the UFC.

The card also contained a young Chris Leben. Leben eventually became a star through The Ultimate Fighter, but he was just 5-0 when he took to the Gladiator Challenge cage against James Fanshier. Fanshier was an unimpressive 3-4 at the time, but he went the distance with Leben. “The Crippler” emerged victorious in the middleweight contest and claimed the Gladiator Challenge middleweight crown for his efforts. Like Sonnen, Leben never defended his belt. He moved on to the WEC and defeated Mike Swick to claim that promotion’s championship. After a few more wins, he entered the TUF house for the inaugural season and became one of the show’s stars. He made his UFC debut with a TKO victory against Jason Thacker and has been a fixture in the Octagon ever since, with a 12-9 UFC record to show for it.

Antonio McKee was already 13-3-1 when he fought at the event. He squared off with future XFC fighter John Mahlow, who was just 3-1 at the time. McKee, who has always been known as a fighter who grinds his way to decision wins, earned a unanimous verdict over Mahlow. Just over three years later, McKee entered the IFL. He eventually found his way to the UFC in 2011, but was released from the promotion following a split decision loss to Jacob Volkmann at UFC 125.

Tyrone Glover was easily the biggest prospect on the card to never realize his full potential. The Colorado native made his sophomore appearance opposite Dereck Keasley at Gladiator Challenge 20. Keasley was 0-1 at the time, and he was soon 0-2 after Glover forced him into submission with an ankle lock in the first round. Glover fought twice more over the next two years, even taking a majority decision over Din Thomas. He then vanished from the MMA scene until a 2010 return. He picked up another two wins over the course of 2010 and 2011 to bring his pro record to 6-0, but he has once again fallen into a long stretch of inactivity.

Veteran journeyman Anthony Ruiz was also on the card. Now standing at 31-18, Ruiz was just 4-1 at the time of his 42-second knockout victory over Josh Rudiger, who hadn’t fought before fighting Ruiz and hasn’t fought since. Ruiz went on to grace the cages of a variety of promotions, including the WEC, Strikeforce and EliteXC.

Gladiator Challenge 20 played host to the debut of a man who would go on to pioneer the cause for the smallest of fighters, and it provided early key victories in the paths to fame that would follow for two of the UFC’s most well-known middleweights. With Faber, Sonnen and Leben gracing the 18-fight lineup, Gladiator Challenge 20 certainly holds a special place in the history of MMA.

Photo: Urijah Faber (James Law/Heavy MMA)