Every time the going gets tough, the tough always get going. Something reinvigorates their spirits and motivates them to keep pressing forward. Usually, in the case of sports organizations, “getting going” after a tough time comes as a result of some changes from within, whether those changes mean new ownership or employing new talent to freshen up the product for fans who have never seen it before.

From 1997 to 2000, the UFC experienced a tough time, operating as a mixed martial arts promotion in the United States and attempting to survive without pay-per-view. The promotion delivered on a fantastic 1997, as well as a stellar 1998, so it seemed natural that the UFC would look to turn in a solid year in 1999. Everything sat in place for the promotion to do it, with Frank Shamrock still the UFC middleweight (205-pound) champion and Pat Miletich as the UFC lightweight (170-pound) champion. However, the UFC needed a missing ingredient.

What did it lack, though? Miletich and Shamrock dominated their respective divisions, a young man named Chuck Liddell had already debuted on the non-televised portion of the UFC 17 card, and even with Randy Couture no longer the UFC heavyweight champion, the promotion already put a plan in motion to crown a new champ. UFC Ultimate Brazil marked the first of four events on what the UFC called “The Road to the Heavyweight Title.”

Ironically, the UFC tagged UFC 18 as “The Road to the Heavyweight Title” as well, and the promotion found the piece that it needed to complete the puzzle. Contrary to expectations of that time period, however, that piece did not come in the form of a debuting Bas Rutten or a hard-fought battle between Pedro Rizzo and former UFC heavyweight champion Mark Coleman. Instead, the UFC found it in the form of a young man named Jacob “Tito” Ortiz, who would go on to claim the nickname “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” over time.

Ortiz actually made his pro MMA debut against Wes Albritton during the UFC 13 tournament in 1997. He defeated Albritton in an alternate bout and landed in the tourney finals, but fell to Guy Mezger. He fought once in 1998. Then Ortiz returned to the UFC at UFC 18 in January of 1999, defeating Jerry Bohlander via TKO due to a cut. Ortiz was back in the Octagon close to two months later at UFC 19 to avenge his loss to Mezger and subsequently set his sights on Shamrock’s title.

“The Legend” vs. Ortiz headlined UFC 22 on Sept. 24, 1999, and like a number of fights in the six years before it, the bout brought the promotion to yet another landmark moment. In fact, it still stands as not only one of the promotion’s greatest fights of all time, but also one of the best representations of mixed martial arts. At the time, Shamrock was attempting a fourth successful title defense, having beaten Igor Zinoviev, Jeremy Horn and John Lober. But against a ferocious wrestler with the merciless ground-and-pound assault of Ortiz, Shamrock discovered a brand new challenge, with an emphasis on challenge.

Despite both men identifying as light heavyweight athletes, Ortiz represented a bigger threat than Zinoviev, Horn or Lober because he held the weight advantage over “The Legend.” Few ever saw a wrestler bring a fight to an opponent the way Ortiz could, but when it came time for him to throw leather against Shamrock, everybody in attendance saw it and never forgot it.

In fact, Shamrock and Ortiz brought it to each other for a good three rounds. Heading into the fourth round, something needed to give. Ortiz wanted to be the man to finish the fight on his terms, but Shamrock overwhelmed Ortiz with elbows, punches and hammer fists to the temple. The offensive assault eventually forced Ortiz to tap from strikes near the end of the round, and Shamrock retained his crown.

The bout held its share of significance for more than just the intense display of mixed martial arts techniques, however, as the aftermath included Shamrock’s short-lived retirement. He would come back as part of World Extreme Cagefighting and win that promotion’s light heavyweight crown before dropping to middleweight, joining Strikeforce, and winning Strikeforce’s middleweight crown. Still, despite some fans clamoring for “The Legend” to return to the UFC, he never set foot inside the Octagon after beating Ortiz and retiring.

Ortiz, who earned an early nickname of “The Lion’s Den Hunter” after beating Bohlander, avenging his loss to Mezger, and later defeating Ken Shamrock, proved far from through. He strove to go out on top from then on. This drive came as no surprise to anyone who either knew Ortiz or trained with him, as he simply wanted to follow in the footsteps of a number of his idols, all of whom motivated him to stay with his MMA career. In fact, Ortiz will always express gratitude for the fact that at around the time he started in the sport, he had a great opportunity to watch one of his idols compete. That idol is known to many simply as “El Guapo.”

Believe it or not, Ortiz idolized Rutten, who fought two of his last three bouts in MMA as part of the UFC. His two fights fly under the radar these days, but although Rutten never got the chance to make the impact he wanted, his contributions remain in public light when discussing the 20-year history of the UFC. After all, Rutten helped to pioneer a new generation of Dutch kickboxers who wanted to engrave their names among the greatest of the greats in the heavyweight ranks.

A Pancrase veteran with a knack for wicked liver shots and a mean jumping split, Rutten debuted against Tsuyoshi Kohsaka at UFC 18, which emanated live from Kenner, La. The two went into the overtime round, and Rutten, sensing an urgency to leave no doubt, knocked “TK” out in as dramatic a fashion as any finish in the history of MMA, let alone the UFC. As vicious as that knockout would be, though, Rutten made his biggest shot count inside of the Boutwell Auditorium in Birmingham, Ala., site of UFC 20 on May 7, 1999.

The event marked the final show of the “Road to the Heavyweight Title,” and Rutten found himself opposing an athletic powerhouse wrestler named Kevin Randleman. Nicknamed “The Monster,” Randleman came into the bout with Rutten on the strength of a UFC 19 win over former UFC heavyweight champion Maurice Smith. Much like Shamrock against Ortiz’s style, Rutten found a new challenge in the form of Randleman’s style of wrestling. But Rutten adjusted.

Despite Randleman scoring takedowns and establishing positional superiority, he did not remain as active with it as Rutten did with his striking, especially after landing his signature strike, the liver kick, on Randleman to change the pace of the match-up. Hence, Rutten won a split decision and claimed the heavyweight title, but he retired soon after winning the belt.

How could that happen? Rutten planned on vacating the title, but he did so with intentions of dropping to light heavyweight (which the UFC still called the middleweight division at the time) and winning the belt that Shamrock vacated due to a lack of competition. Rutten trained as hard as he could to emerge as a threat in the division, but he suffered multiple injuries and retired on his doctors’ orders. With the title vacant once again, Randleman proved to be a top contender, as did Pete Williams, against whom “The Monster” competed at UFC 23, which marked the UFC’s return to Japan.

Williams had scored the biggest win of his career when he unleashed a hellacious head kick on Mark Coleman in 1998. Against Randleman, he prepared to deliver on another upset, but it never came to fruition for “El Duro.” Randleman instead elected to leave no doubt and dominated Williams en route to a unanimous decision. Sadly, while the bout marked a major moment for Randleman, whose win kept the title’s lineage active, the UFC faced a roadblock with the UFC 23 card.

Still working with extremely limited pay-per-view exposure in the United States, receiving minor coverage in both Brazil and Japan, and distributing its pay-per-views via VHS tapes, UFC 23’s card turned in another solid outing, but the company’s mounting financial issues and struggle for sanctioning caused the event to not even see a home-video release. It would mark the first of seven events to lack a home video release, but as plans go awry, plans will often reshape themselves. This meant that while Randleman would successfully claim the title from Williams and go on to defend the belt against Rizzo, nobody saw either moment unless they bought a ticket.

Despite UFC 23 being unable to reach home-video consumers, the promotion created more cracks in its underground environment and started to see even more rays of light than it did after 1998. Even still, the financial woes for Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG) piled on, sending the company down a one-way path to bankruptcy. SEG hoped that the change it made in the year 2000 would not come in the form of folding the promotion. As 1999 closed, the company knew that finding its salvation meant surviving the first year of the new millennium.

Photo: Bas Rutten (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.