September 22, 2005

by Mick Hammond
Before there was Evan Tanner and Rich Franklin, there was Murilo Bustamante. A fighter that for over three years was the last man to hold the UFC Middleweight Championship. After a bitter contract dispute and a change in organizations and three consecutive losses out of his weight class, Bustamante returns to a weight that he is undefeated in as he guns for his second world title.

In his way stands a fighter that has defeated a legend in Hawaii on his way to a Superbrawl title, Masanori Suda. Each man a former champion looking to return to glory, but first they must face each other in the first round of Pride’s Bushido Welterweight Grand Prix this upcoming Sunday, September 25th.

It’s hard to believe that a fighter that is 10-4-1, undefeated in his weight class, and a former World Champion could actually be considered an underdog going into a tournament to decide Pride’s first 183lb champ, but Murilo Bustamante is. Over the past year he’s seen the likes of Ryo Chonan, Phil Baroni, and Denis Kang become the face of the freshly minted division.

It wasn’t always like this for Murilo, having to prove himself to others. This Brazilian Top Team founder and BJJ black belt has been one of the world’s premier MMA fighters and submission specialists almost from the beginning of his career. That same career in fact predates modern MMA when he competed in the legendary Desafio: BJJ versus Luta Livre show in 1991, two years before the UFC and Pancrase.

Over the first 8 professional fights, Bustamante racked up a 7-0-1 record, defeating much larger competition including 300lb monster Tom “Big Cat” Erickson. Upon his second trip to the UFC in 2001, Bustamante lost his first ever bout to Chuck Liddell at 205lbs before deciding to move down to the UFC’s new 185lb division. It was there at middleweight that his true brilliance would be shown.

It took just over two rounds for Murilo to defeat incumbent champion Dave Menne for the title. Then Murilo followed up that victory with a three round submission victory over Olympic Silver Medalist Matt Lindland in a fight that many consider Lindland’s only true loss. Things were looking good for Bustamante, but that success didn’t last long.

After a lengthy hold out due to contract demands, Bustamante found himself subbing for fellow BTT teammate Ricardo Arona in Pride’s first ever 205lb Middleweight GP in 2003. Undersized and a year off from competition, Bustamante fought hard in a close split-decision loss to Quinton Jackson in the first round of the tournament. From there Murilo would go on to lose his next two bouts to Dan Henderson and Kazuhiro Nakamura respectively. Bustamante became a man in desperate need of a change of scenery.

Bustamate’s reprieve came when the growing demand from fans and fighters forced Pride into creating new weight divisions. This year it was announced a new 183lb division would be created and Bustamante wasted no time making himself right at home with a win over Ryuta Sakurai at Bushido 6.

And now as the year comes to a close, the fighter who’s been waiting patiently and watching other fighters reap the glory finally gets a chance to show what he can do in a proper setting. But to be champion once again, Bustamante will have to beat another fellow former champion, submission specialist, and someone who also has something to prove, Masanori Suda.

It’s been a rollercoaster of a career for Masa Suda. Since his debut in 1996 for Shooto, Suda as at times looked like a legitimate top five middleweight and at other times looks decidedly not. For an example you need not look further than the 1996 Lumax Cup of J. In one night Suda defeated three opponents on his way to the finals before falling to Grabaka star Sanae Kikuta. That night he looked like a promising young fighter, but then in his fallow up bout against Shooto doormat Masato Fujiwara he was submitted in just over two minutes, becoming Fujiwara’s first of only 4victories in a 19 fight career.

1997 was a banner year for Suda, again advancing to the finals of not one, but two Lumax Cups, losing the heavyweight edition to rival Kikuta and then finally claiming his own crown in the middleweight edition later in the year. All in all he won five fights in two nights, cementing himself as a true Japanese warrior in the process.

From 1998-2001 things would go back down again for Suda, he would lose 5 of 8 bouts including the last victory Lance Gibson would have before retiring in his below .500 career. But again like always with Masa, the tide would turn again and it would be even more bountiful than before.

In less than one calendar year, Suda would defeat UFC veteran and Hawaiian hero Ron Jhun, current Pride standout Ryo Chonan, and get a major MMA championship victory over Hawaiian legend Egan Inoue at Superbrawl 29. Again Suda was riding high and looking like he could become a serious contender in the 185lb division.

After alternating wins and draws in his next four fights, Suda lost his Superbrawl title to Niko Vitale in early 2005 and become a free agent. Now he has a chance to put himself back on the high track at Bushido’s 183lb tournament and prove once and for all that he truly is one of the top fighters in the world and not just another “what could have been” memory.

Looking a their records it would be easy to surmise that these two fighters will want to take it to the ground. Between them they own 20 victories via submission, but to think that this would be a one-dimensional battle would be a mistake. Over their careers both fighters have shown a willingness to stand and trade. Bustamante, being a member of the BTT, has learned to diversify and works hard on his stand up game, and anyone that doubts just how devastating Suda can be with his hands needs look no further than his 27 second destruction of Inoue. These two fighters can submit anyone, but don’t be surprised if they trade punches the majority of the fight.

To win the tournament someone is going to have to go through three of the top fighters in their weight class, for Bustamante and Suda it’s nothing new. Both have been in against top tier talent and both have been both victorious and vanquished. Either man is capable of making a big run if given the right circumstances and can be underestimated given their lack of exposure lately. Murilo and Masanori have been champions before and they can be so again, but first one must get past the other in what could be the sleeper fight of the night.