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The UFC - 1996 Through 2000

By Cliff Montgomery,
Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) 9 on May 17, 1996, saw the last of a tournament match between the previous Ultimate Champion and the Ultimate Challenger--the Superfight--which had been quite popular in its time. Dan Severn won over one of the originals, legendary champ Ken Shamrock, in a 2-1 decision.

The Superfight was discarded after the creation of the Heavyweight Title in 1997.

Although the UFC became one of the most sought-after events in cable history, several companies dropped the sport in 1997 after political clamor from such individuals as Senator John McCain (R-AZ) hurt the UFC's reputation.

Fighter safety, the development of the sport, the need to meet pay-per-view time slots and the efforts to involve state athletic commissions eventually brought a number of rules changes.

But despite cries of it being a 'brutality-fest', the Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) found in the UFC, while indeed fierce, is rarely brutal. Unlike boxing or other combative sports the UFC allows fighters to "tap out" by tapping the floor or their opponent, giving a motion to the referee that he does not wish to continue and risk further harm. Also, qualified referees and physicians do not allow any match to proceed if a fighter risks grave injury or can no longer skillfully defend himself.

As the combatants started to learn from one another and created more effective and balanced techniques, weight divisions became unavoidable. The UFC finally utilized weight demarcations in UFC 12 on Feb. 7, 1997, when a middleweight division (less than 200 pounds) and a heavyweight division (more than 200 pounds) were instituted. The lightweight division (less than 170 pounds) was added on March 13, 1998 at UFC 16.

Gloves became compulsory at UFC 14 (July 27, 1997). Only UFC-approved gloves weighing between four and six ounces are allowed. Mouthpieces and groin protectors are now also mandatory.

Rounds were not established until UFC 22 (Sept. 24, 1999). Preliminary matches then consisted of two rounds, 'main card' events were three rounds and championship fights were five; each round was five minutes in duration. The 10-point must scoring system was instituted and is still in effect. Today preliminary bouts are three rounds.

And more combat regulations also were added, banning small joint manipulations (fingers, toes), hair pulling and groin shots.

As MMA matured, it perhaps inevitably began creating icons to match its ambition.

Often mentioned as the most thrilling contestant of the sport, Tito Ortiz is from a tormented background. "The Huntington Beach Bad Boy" has earned every ounce of success he's had in the UFC several times over through pure hard work and determination.

Achievement in wrestling at Huntington Beach High helped to keep the young 'Bad Boy' out of gangs and grief. In Junior College, Ortiz went undefeated for two years, securing two California state titles.

When fellow Huntington Beach dweller and UFC great 'Tank" Abbott needed a big dude to whip him into shape for his own huge fighting successes, Tito became his sparring partner. Since his win as a middleweight alternate in UFC 13 (May 30 1997), the training partner has eclipsed one of the original masters. Tito has gone on to become the finest attraction of the UFC, ultimately winning the heavyweight championship.

Ortiz is an unparalleled fan favorite, though he's quite intimidating when in the ring. Tito's great notoriety with the sport's fans and apparent balance in life mark him as one of those sure to make UFC even more popular in the coming years.

"Believe in your goals. Try to be good to people all around.[...] We all need to live together and really make this a happy world. That's what really matters."

If Tito has become UFC's heart, fellow MMA fighter Randy "The Natural" Couture is deemed by many to be its soul. Perhaps it's his well-trained physique or unassuming style that make people think of Randy as the game's most sincere fighter.

Then again, he did easily take apart two top opponents in a single night to gain the UFC 13 (May 30, 1997) heavyweight title.

On the wrestling mat since he was a 10-year-old in his home state of Washington, Randy's trade mark 'Ground and Pound' Greco/Roman pankration style is, well, natural for him.

"(I want) to show that we're not a bunch of idiots, a bunch of thugs that are trying to beat each other senseless," a characteristic Couture told The Wrestling Mall ( in 2003. "We're highly skilled and highly trained and we've spent most of our lives preparing for an opportunity to compete in this sport. I'm going to continue using that attitude to represent the sport the way I think it should be represented."

"I don't put any limits on myself," adds Randy. "I think I'll stick with that game plan. It seems to be working out pretty well."

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