Every sport, at one point or another, declares one athlete as its next big thing. Fans, however, often take that sort of praise with a grain of salt. In their minds, every new flavor of the month looks like the next big thing or a potential all-time great until something happens to prevent them from coming close to fulfilling that promise. Still, every now and then, athletes with the skills of a true premier talent stick around long enough to let the world see what they can do. And even if they do not stay in the sport for very long, they leave their mark.

In 2008, the Ultimate Fighting Championship featured a number of young stars that looked to make such a mark in MMA. Randy Couture, already a legend in the sport, entered the year as UFC heavyweight champion. Matt “The Terror” Serra looked to make the first defense of his UFC welterweight title, Anderson Silva went on to record a number of wins in his unbeaten run as UFC middleweight champion and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson aimed for a second successful UFC light heavyweight title defense. However, they were all veterans with their legacies already mostly written.

2008, much like the years before it, would see a number of landmark fights. Serra’s aforementioned first defense of his welterweight title came against UFC interim welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre at UFC 83 in Montreal’s Bell Centre, where St-Pierre finished Serra in the second round. Also, a then-undefeated Lyoto Machida topped Tito Ortiz in what would mark Tito’s last UFC bout until UFC 106. And Rampage fought Forrest Griffin at UFC 86 in the 2008 “Fight of The Year” that saw Griffin emerge from the closely contested clash as UFC light heavyweight champion via unanimous decision.

For the fight that changed the MMA world forever, though, fans must turn to the night that Couture faced Brock Lesnar. On Nov. 15, 2008, UFC 91 emanated from MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. Couture came off a win over Gabriel Gonzaga. Lesnar, meanwhile, came in on the strength of a win over Heath Herring, but that one win told only part of the story.

Prior to the fight with Couture, Lesnar declared that he only wanted to fight the best in the world. He did not get an easy UFC debut. Only one fight into his career, Lesnar drew Frank Mir. Despite holding his own, Mir submitted Lesnar. This led Lesnar to UFC 87, where he took a unanimous decision win from Herring. With few other contenders left for Couture, Lesnar earned his shot and made the most of it.

The match-up on paper broke down to Couture’s veteran wiles versus Lesnar’s size, athleticism and power. Couture landed shots while escaping clinches and did not allow Lesnar to keep him down, even though Lesnar took him down in the first frame. The veteran experience allowed Couture to adapt to his opponent’s size advantage, but Lesnar landed the more powerful shots in the first round.

Round two saw Lesnar turn the tide of the bout with a short elbow that wobbled Couture but did not put him out. Couture remained in the fight long enough to bring the fight to the fence. As the round progressed, Couture even cut Lesnar open, but one straight right hand marked the proverbial “shot heard ’round the world,” and Lesnar’s hellacious hammer fists forced referee Mario Yamasaki to intervene.

Although Lesnar’s career would only continue until UFC 141 in 2011, the bout with Couture served as the catalyst for the current reign of undisputed UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez. After Mir defeated Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira at UFC 92, Lesnar and Mir faced off at UFC 100, where Lesnar avenged his loss. Lesnar then defeated Shane Carwin at UFC 116, but ran into Velasquez at UFC 121. That’s when MMA would get another life alteration. However, that a story for another time.

2008 is known predominantly for what Lesnar did to Couture, as it should, and, without question, for “Rampage vs. Griffin,” which marked one of the true light heavyweight classics in the sport’s history. Griffin’s reign ended before the year came to a close when he fought “Suga” Rashad Evans at UFC 92. Of course, Evans’ highlight-reel knockout of Chuck Liddell at UFC 88 made all of it possible.

When people recap 2008, they seldom speak of the UFC lightweight title picture, which changed in its own way when B.J. Penn came to throw leather that year.

Penn’s UFC 84 win over Sean Sherk stands out the most in regards to Penn’s lightweight career, but how often does anyone mention the night Penn won the title against Joe Stevenson at UFC 80? After all, the bout originally intended to decide the interim lightweight champion before the UFC stripped Sherk of the belt following a failed post-fight drug test. Once news broke that Sherk had been stripped, Penn vs. Stevenson changed into an undisputed title bout. With 8,412 diehard fight fans in Newcastle, England’s Metro Radio Arena watching history being made, Penn delivered one of the most lopsided performances in UFC history en route to winning the belt.

Penn needed to move his own body parts around to get the win, so it didn’t come easy. The bloodbath came sometime after Penn landed with an uppercut and took Stevenson to the ground. The Ultimate Fighter 2 welterweight winner always received praise for his ability to lock up a mean guillotine choke on the ground, but once Penn landed an elbow near Stevenson’s hairline, survival took priority over finding a finish.

Penn only needed four minutes and two seconds of round two to find a rear-naked choke on Stevenson, who had to tap out or risk going unconscious. The lasting images of the bout showed a crimson mask over Stevenson and a victorious Penn licking the blood of his defeated adversary. The win, however, did not satisfy Penn, so he immediately declared his intentions to face Sherk.

Come UFC 84, Penn had established himself as “the man” by beating the former champion in a striking-heavy bout that saw Penn best Sherk by making effective use of his reach. In round three, after backing up against the cage due to a hook from Penn, Sherk ducked under a punch to go for a takedown, but Penn landed the flying knee of his career and followed with strikes. The round ended with Penn landing a series of unanswered strikes from which Sherk could not recover. This meant that Penn retained the title at the five-minute mark of the third round.

Penn, who now awaits a trilogy with former UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar once their time as coaches of The Ultimate Fighter 19 concludes, went on to defend the belt successfully twice and lose a rematch to Georges St-Pierre. Losing the belt to Edgar, as well as losing the rematch, left Penn to return to welterweight, where he defeated rival Matt Hughes, drew with Jon Fitch and recorded back-to-back losses against Rory MacDonald and Nick Diaz. Meanwhile, Sherk traveled up and down in his career with wins and losses. However, after a somewhat controversial split decision win in a close UFC 119 bout with Evan Dunham, Sherk called it a career in 2010.

2008 ended on the strength of a number of changes to the UFC title landscape. Lesnar held heavyweight gold and Evans ruled the light heavyweight division. Silva ended 2008 on a rather bizarre TKO win over Patrick Cote. Meanwhile, St-Pierre followed up his win over Serra with a “Fight of The Night” bonus winner in a successful UFC 87 defense against Fitch. In short, business looked good for the UFC with 2009 approaching.

Little did anyone know at the time that, but the UFC would begin to grow noticeably in 2009. Lesnar brought newer fans to the sport, and St-Pierre’s clean-cut image allowed fans to enjoy an athletic champion with something that casual observers perceived as a dream for anything relating to public relations. Nothing would prepare them, however, for the heights to which they would help the UFC ascend as the promotion prepared for the first of its three most significant years since the height of the Couture, Liddell, and Ortiz era.

Photo: Brock Lesnar (Rob Tatum/The MMA Corner)

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.