The stage: Sao Paulo, Brazil.
The event was UFC 17.5, better known to fans as UFC Brazil.
It was the promotion’s first trip to the land that gave birth to the sport of mixed martial arts, and up until this weekend’s UFC 134 Rio event, the only time the UFC had ever been to Brazil.
The card was headlined by two title fights including a middleweight championship bout that was also a rematch between Frank Shamrock and John Lober, while Pat Miletich battled Mikey Burnett in a fight to determine the first ever UFC lightweight champion.
Now, understand during the early days of the UFC, the terms for ‘middleweight’ and lightweight’ were much different than the weight classes today. Middleweight for Shamrock and Lober essentially meant 200 pounds or less, while lightweight was 170 pounds or less.
The card also featured the debut of Brazilian wrecking machine Wanderlei Silva, who took on his countryman and also virtually unstoppable Vitor Belfort.
The heavyweight division also got new life with UFC Brazil after Randy Couture had relinquished the belt following a contract dispute with the promotion that left them without a champion. To start filling the spot for a new champion, the UFC put together two fights on that night’s card to help the rejuvenation process.
Former UFC tournament favorite Marco Ruas introduced fans to his prized student Pedro Rizzo, who took on David “Tank” Abbott, while Tsuyoshi Kohsaka took on Pete Williams in the other heavyweight showdown.
The other featured bout on the show pitted Jeremy Horn against Ebenezer Fontes Braga in a middleweight fight that opened the card.
After a spectacularly close showing in his first fight in the UFC, where Horn pushed middleweight champion Frank Shamrock to the limit, he made a rookie mistake that cost him on that night in Brazil. After some clinch work and a takedown from Braga early, it was Horn who scored a double-leg shoot of his own.
The only problem is when Horn shot in Braga caught him in a guillotine choke that forced the Pat Miletich student to tap out just 3:28 into the first round.
Following this fight, Horn of course has had a long career that spanned more than 100 fights and still competes today. His last fight in the UFC was in 2009 when he lost by unanimous decision to Rousimar Palhares. Braga never appeared in the UFC again, making the Brazil event his only trip to the Octagon. He did go on to fight in several other shows, including Pride, and last competed in 2004 where he was knocked out by current Strikeforce heavyweight Fabricio Werdum.
The first heavyweight elimination fight took place next with Lion’s Den product Pete Williams taking on Japanese fighter Tsuyoshi Kohsaka. Williams was returning to the cage for the first time since planting a head kick on Mark Coleman still used in UFC highlight reels to this day.
Williams knocked Coleman out in what was seen as a huge upset at the time, and he was hoping to capitalize on that when he traveled to Brazil for his fight with Kohsaka.
Kohsaka was making his second appearance in the UFC after defeating Kimo in his debut fight seven months earlier. Later in his career, Kohsaka would become best known as the one fighter who put a loss on Fedor Emelianenko’s record, at least until the Russian legend dropped his last three fights in Strikeforce.
The fight between Williams and Kohsaka was largely uneventful with back and forth strikes before they engaged in some ground work. Kohsaka was looking and looking for a Kimura, but couldn’t quite land it. Williams actually landed the most significant strike of the fight when he duplicated his success with a head kick, but wasn’t able to capitalize and ended up losing a decision.
Kohsaka went on to have four more fights in the UFC, all of them losses, while competing in other promotions like Pride as well. Williams saw his last action in the UFC in 2002 when he was submitted by future heavyweight champion Frank Mir. Williams went on to become a chef after moving on from the fight game.
The lightweight title was up for grabs in the next bout. Pat Miletich took on Mikey Burnett in a fight that, looking back on it now, is largely forgettable. They mostly held and stalled for the better part of 21 minutes.
When it was over, Miletich was declared the winner by split decision, but it was a fight that no one will likely clamor to see again and again.
Since that time, Miletich became not only a legend inside the Octagon, but one of the leaders outside the cage as well. Miletich trained several UFC champions, including Matt Hughes and Tim Sylvia, as well as becoming a lead commentator during Strikeforce broadcasts. Burnett had one more official fight in the UFC at the next event, titled UFC 18, but then faded away after injuries mounted and opportunities suffered.
Burnett did return to the UFC during the fourth season of The Ultimate Fighter, dubbed the comeback season. The cast was comprised of former UFC fighters hoping to earn their way back to the big show. Burnett came up short during his time on the show, losing by submission to Din Thomas in an elimination fight.
During his time on the reality show, Burnett also suffered a broken neck that required surgery and he eventually went on to file a lawsuit against the UFC for medical coverage not provided, but the claim has never gained any traction in court.
The action picked up with the next heavyweight eliminator as Pedro Rizzo took on Tank Abbott. Rizzo was making his debut after being touted as the prodigal student of famed UFC competitor Marco Ruas. Standing in his way was David “Tank” Abbott, one of the most active and famous competitors in the Octagon’s history at that point.
It didn’t take long for Rizzo to show he was the much more disciplined fighter with Abbott rushing in and trying for one of his signature early knockouts. When that didn’t happen, Abbott started to fade and Rizzo took over. The Brazilian used leg kicks to soften Abbott up, something Rizzo would become famous for over the years. The end came when Rizzo connected on a one-two combo that put Abbott down for good. Rizzo was the winner and moved on to try and become the new UFC heavyweight champion.
Unfortunately for Rizzo, through 13 more fights in the UFC, he was never able to claim the heavyweight title. Always the bridesmaid, Rizzo probably came closer to tasting gold than any fighter in UFC history without ever attaining his ultimate goal. He exited the promotion for the last time in 2003 after picking up a unanimous decision win over Ricco Rodriguez.
Rizzo went on to a scattered 5-4 record after leaving the UFC, including a short lived 0-2 stint in Pride Fighting Championships. The Brazilian last competed in 2010 where he defeated UFC Hall of Famer Ken Shamrock by TKO in the first round.
Tank Abbott left the UFC after the event in Brazil, but did return five years later when he tried to resurrect his career.
It didn’t work.
Abbott lost three fights in a row, all in the first round, before making his final UFC exit in late 2003. Abbott would go on to fight in several other promotions, including a brief trip to EliteXC, where he was knocked out by Kimbo Slice in 2008. Abbott’s last fight was in 2009, where he picked up the sixth knockout of his career when he defeated Mike Bourke.
The next fight featured on the UFC Brazil card was a showdown between Brazilians Vitor Belfort and Wanderlei Silva.
Silva was making his UFC debut after a blistering performance where he knocked out Mike Van Arsdale, while Belfort was still rebuilding after a surprising loss to Randy Couture at UFC 15. Belfort had bounced back with a win at UFC Japan, but was still looking to reclaim his throne when he traveled home to Brazil for the fight with Silva.
It didn’t take long for the old Vitor Belfor to emerge.
A slow start and a feeling out process was thrown out the window when Silva stepped forward and got clipped by Belfort as he came in. Belfort pushed forward like a Mack truck, machine gunning punches at Silva as he crashed to the canvas against the cage. Belfort followed up with a flurry of punches before referee “Big” John McCarthy could rush in for the save.
Both Belfort and Silva went on to have long successful careers inside and outside the UFC. Belfort is still competing in the UFC, and while he’s had a few ups and downs in his career, he’s by far the fighter with the most longevity following the inaugural event in Brazil. Belfort most recently defeated Yoshihiro Akiyama at UFC 133, which marked his 14th fight in the promotion.
Wanderlei Silva went on to become one of the pound-for-pound greatest fighters in the history of the sport. His domination in the Pride middleweight division is the stuff of legend. “The Axe Murderer” went on a 15-fight winning streak, and a spot where he was universally recognized as the top 205-pound fighter in the world.
The main event of the UFC’s trip to Brazil featured a middleweight title fight between champion Frank Shamrock and challenger John Lober.
Lober had defeated Shamrock a year earlier, and he was looking to duplicate that success against a fighter that had gone 3-0 in the Octagon, with three dominant victories.
At the time, Shamrock was seen as the UFC’s best. One of the first true mixed martial artists, who showcased his stand-up along with submissions and wrestling, and had a variety of ways to beat an opponent. Shamrock got to show that off when he made easy work of Lober in their rematch.
Shamrock worked Lober over with leg kicks on the feet, and outmatched him with ground work on the canvas. A right hand blasted Lober, dropping him to the mat where Shamrock immediately followed up. Shamrock continued to unload punches and put pressure on Lober, who was forced to tap at 7:40 into the fight.
Following the win, Shamrock would appear in the Octagon only one more time, at UFC 22, where he fought Tito Ortiz for the middleweight title in what is still considered one of the greatest fights in UFC history. Shamrock then briefly retired from active competition before returning in 2003.
Shamrock went 3-3 after his return to the ring, but was never able to recapture the same spirit or ability that defined him as one of the all time greats, like he showed during his time at UFC Brazil. Shamrock walked away from fighting in June 2010, but continues to act as a commentator during Strikeforce broadcasts on Showtime.
John Lober never fought in the UFC again. He did go on to fight seven more times in his career, but only competed sporadically in several different promotions. Lober’s last fight was a loss in 2009 in a fight held in Ireland.
In the end, UFC Brazil produced several mainstays for the organization as well as featuring a few Hall of Fame candidates. The broadcast also featured Mike Goldberg on play-by-play, a role he continues to enjoy and will do so once again at UFC 134 in Rio de Janeiro this weekend. The show also featured a special commentator by the name of Bas Rutten, who went on to win the UFC heavyweight title just a couple of events later, before exiting the promotion and becoming one of the most iconic figures in the sport.
Vitor Belfort and Wanderlei Silva are the only two fighters from the original Brazil card who are still active in the UFC today, but neither of them will compete on this weekend’s UFC 134 show.