Good things come to those who wait, but the greatest of things sometimes happen after taking a substantial amount of time to create demand. Often, people will grow impatient and question if these things will actually happen, but once they finally come to fruition, society gets to talk about them at length in their aftermath. When something turns out good enough to keep people talking, even long after the event happened, the people responsible for that event know that they made a major mark.

In 2004, the UFC put everything in place for such an event to happen. Tempers flared as former champion Tito Ortiz and future champion Chuck Liddell engaged in a bitter rivalry. Liddell came off a 2003 that saw him suffer a UFC interim light heavyweight championship loss to eventual light heavyweight champion Randy Couture and a 1-1 stint as a UFC representative in Pride Fighting Championships, where he defeated Alistair Overeem before losing to Quinton “Rampage” Jackson via third-round TKO. Ortiz, the longtime former champ, surrendered his title in a five-round unanimous decision defeat to Couture in 2003. Prior to the loss to “The Natural,” Liddell planned on multiple occasions to see Ortiz inside the Octagon, but injuries, contract disputes and other issues delayed the match-up.

Couture encountered a familiar foe of his own in Vitor Belfort, who won his only fight of 2003 when he dismantled Marvin Eastman to earn a title shot. Belfort’s fight at UFC 46, live on Jan. 31, 2004, marked the first of three straight events to emanate from the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, and it did more than just provide Belfort an opportunity to make a run at Couture’s belt. The bout, serving as the second half of a UFC 46 doubleheader which also included a Matt Hughes-B.J. Penn welterweight title fight, granted Belfort the opportunity to avenge his first pro loss, which came against Couture in 1997.

Couture vs. Belfort II ended with a bit of controversy just 45 seconds in when Belfort grazed Couture with a strike that lacerated Couture’s eyelid. Some fans still adamantly maintain that the fight-ending laceration did not prove severe enough to warrant the stoppage. Nevertheless, Belfort left with the UFC light heavyweight title because Couture could not continue. However, the two men would cross paths one more time in 2004.

In the wake of the second fight’s disappointing end, the two battled once more inside the MGM Grand Garden Arena at UFC 49, appropriately dubbed “Unfinished Business.” The trilogy bout headlined on top of Liddell’s encounter with Vernon White, and this time, Couture would spell the difference via his ground-and-pound. Belfort fought hard to overcome it, but could not withstand Couture’s attack in the first two frames. The doctors at cageside saw Couture cut Belfort open and deemed Belfort unable to fight on, thus causing the bout to end just after the third round ended. With the win, Couture regained the belt that many thought he never really lost, and all signs pointed to a rematch with Liddell.

Liddell, meanwhile, had been attending to the little matter of Ortiz. After over a year of waiting to sign on for the bout, the grudge match that more or less started it all finally transpired as the marquee bout of UFC 47, the second of 2004’s opening trio of events hosted by the Mandalay Bay Events Center. UFC 47 took place on April 2 of that year. Once the cage door shut, everyone appropriately exclaimed, “It’s on!,” and the crowd in attendance got their money’s worth, even though the fight never made it out of the second round.

Bearing in mind that a win at the time would put them a leap closer to Belfort’s newly won title, Liddell and Ortiz approached the fight with the mindset of putting the other man away in emphatic fashion. Despite their bad blood, though, they also knew better than to commit any fatal tactical errors against each other. So it came as little surprise that a feeling-out process told most of the story of the first round. Liddell threw a few punches, but Ortiz frustrated Liddell after blocking a kick and slapped himself in the head to taunt “The Iceman.” At the end of the round, Ortiz pushed referee John McCarthy into Liddell and ignited an in-fight war of words.

Liddell expressed clear and visible frustration, but kept his cool coming into the second round. He landed a flurry of strikes that overwhelmed Ortiz and knocked him out just 38 seconds into the round. The bout set Ortiz on a two-fight skid, and it put Liddell in an uncontested position to rematch Belfort for the belt. But , just after Liddell made short work of White, Belfort lost his title to Couture. In essence, one potential rematch faded while another one waited in the wings.

Ortiz would not leave 2004 without a win, though. He would go on to co-headline UFC 50: The War of ’04 at Trump Plaza in Atlantic City, N.J., on Oct. 22. Originally, the UFC intended to feature the trilogy between Ortiz and Guy Mezger as part of the card, but the stroke-like symptoms that led to Mezger’s retirement prevented the bout from happening. As a result, Patrick Cote moved from a preliminary bout against Eastman to the co-headliner against Ortiz, though the short-notice replacement did little to deter Ortiz.

Ortiz dominated all three rounds of the bout with Cote, taking a unanimous decision win and setting the stage for the bout with Belfort, which he had wanted since UFC 33. But Ortiz’s presence against Cote did not mark the only instance of a dominant former champion with a wrestling pedigree. Remembering the UFC’s blast into the mainstream means recollecting the era of Matt Hughes, who won and lost during 2004, though his lone defeat came against a man in “The Prodigy” B.J. Penn, who, much like Hughes, went on to emerge as an all-time great in the sport.

How did Hughes vs. Penn wind up on the UFC’s 2004 schedule? On the heels of his win over Frank Trigg, Hughes needed a sixth challenger and found it in Penn. But questions surrounded Penn as he prepared to move from lightweight to welterweight. It also did not help that in five UFC welterweight title defenses, Hughes had demolished the likes of Sean Sherk, Carlos Newton and Hayato “Mach” Sakurai. Penn came in determined to make everything work for him against the defending champion.

Penn’s clear dominance over Hughes in every aspect of the bout shocked the world for a couple of reasons. The way that the natural lightweight picked Hughes apart with his crisp boxing technique, particularly with his jabs and his crosses, took many by surprise. Predominantly above Penn’s execution of his boxing, however, stood his ground game.

How did that shock the world more than Penn’s boxing? It did so because everyone who fought Hughes during his reign knew they needed to force Hughes to defend for an extended amount of time. Doing so helped in taking his energy away from him, thereby making his power shots, wrestling offense and submission arsenal ineffective. Yet, before Penn, nobody came close to doing that, and so it was thought that nobody could do it.

Alas, Penn did it after landing a huge overhand right in Hughes’ own guard. The champion looked to scramble, despite his eyes glazing over after Penn’s overhand right, but Penn’s flexibility segued into a successful rear-naked choke attempt, which forced a tap from Hughes at 4:39 of the first round and ended Hughes’ lengthy reign at the apex of the division. Though many looked to see how Penn would fare in his first title defense, Penn subsequently relinquished the title after signing with K-1.

Hughes saw an opportunity to move a step forward in reclaiming the vacant gold after Penn’s departure. With Ortiz involved in non-title action at UFC 50, Hughes, coming off a victory over Renato Verissimo at UFC 48, made perfect sense as the event’s headliner, but he would stand across the cage against a 7-0 French-Canadian sensation named Georges St-Pierre. Reclaiming the belt meant emphatically finishing GSP, whose UFC record included wins over Karo Parisyan and Jay Hieron at the time. Hughes planned on making the most of the challenge.

With a striking game that forced even his most heavily favored foes into ferocious, competitive bouts, a number of people thought St-Pierre would do the same en route to defeating the former champion. From the onset of the first round, St-Pierre presented a challenge unlike that of any previous foe that Hughes signed on to fight. Despite getting taken down twice and slammed once, St-Pierre stuck a spinning back kick to the former champion’s ribs.

Hughes recovered, though, and scored a last-second armbar to force the tap and regain the belt, with just one second left in the round. Hughes went on to enjoy a second reign, and while it did not last as long as the first, he would claim a second win over Trigg, best Joe Riggs in non-title action, defeat the legendary Royce Gracie and avenge his loss to Penn. Meanwhile, St-Pierre used the loss as motivation, and scored four wins the following year to earn a title eliminator against Penn in 2006. St-Pierre would defeat Penn and set up a rematch for Hughes’ belt, which GSP won.

In the present day, most fans talk about St-Pierre because of his current title reign, which stands at eight consecutive wins, and on the heels of his UFC 158 victory over Nick Diaz, St-Pierre will attempt a ninth successful defense against Johny Hendricks at UFC 167. With Diaz retired for the time being, thoughts of Diaz returning to the welterweight title picture remain all but wishful hopes on the part of his loyal fans. In 2004, though, everyone saw a title shot coming for Diaz because, simply put, few prospects did it better.

Diaz closed 2003 with a successful UFC debut against Jeremy Jackson, but he knew he needed to make a major impact in his new promotional home. At UFC 47, when Diaz stood against a power-puncher named “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler, he found his moment to put the promotion and his fellow competitors on notice. Lawler came in as a heavy favorite, and many expected him to hurt Diaz badly, as Lawler did in prior fights with Steve Berger, Tiki Ghosn and Chris Lytle.

In another 2004 shocker, Diaz forced Lawler to retreat for much of the fight and told the story of the first round with his offense. The second round saw the Diaz that many grew to love, as he taunted Lawler to frustrate him. Lawler took the dare and swung for the fences, but his wild shots missed and Diaz scored the win with a right hook that put Lawler out cold. If Diaz wanted the UFC to take notice of him, he succeeded with his win over Lawler, and it earned him a fight with another rising star in Karo Parisyan. That fight took place at UFC 49 later that same year.

Even today, Diaz’s volume striking often overshadows his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu mastery, but he displayed his ground game against Parisyan in a bout that did not see many punches thrown. Parisyan’s size and strength allowed him to dictate the bout, posing precarious predicaments for Diaz at every turn, but to Diaz’s credit, the future Strikeforce welterweight champion rolled out of those predicaments and nearly submitted Parisyan on a number of occasions.

In fact, one can argue that Diaz beat Parisyan and earned the better end of the split decision, but ultimately, Parisyan’s judo prevailed over Stockton’s finest and he took the split verdict instead. For all the criticisms about ground games and the perceived lack of action that comes from them, Diaz vs. Parisyan dispelled the myth that good fights can’t happen if they go to the ground. The two put on a great display of grappling that inspired many to embrace the more grappling-based martial arts as part of their MMA skill sets, and Diaz’s early UFC career eventually led to his little brother, Nate, making it to the UFC.

All in all, the UFC’s 2004 proved a success, and change again awaited the promotion as 2004 came to a close.Ortiz, Liddell and Couture drew most of the heads to the arenas, and many to this day credit the trio for the success of the promotion. As 2005 dawned, though, not even the UFC and its employees could anticipate what would happen to the UFC moving forward. The promotion proved the validity of the long-storied “less is more” philosophy with its five successful events, and it doubled that number in 2005, but the promotion accomplished a much more important feat when it finally caused the eyes and ears of the mainstream world of sports and entertainment to pay attention.

Photo: Chuck Liddell (L) battles Tito Ortiz (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.