By Ryan Frederick for WrestlingObserver.com
The week-long stretch of April 9-16, 2005, was perhaps the most important week in the history of the UFC, setting the stage to where the sport is now a decade later and 257 events later as we head to the 315th event in company history on Saturday night.
April 9 was a pivotal event and one that changed the course of history. It was the finale of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, and the first live fight card to be broadcast on Spike TV. It featured the finals of the season-long tournaments to crown the first two Ultimate Fighter winners who would get guaranteed six-figure contracts to fight in the UFC. Ten of the sixteen competitors from the first season fought again inside the Octagon following that night, with many have lengthy careers with great success.
Alex Karalexis and Sam Hoger fought a few more times with the UFC before fading away. Nate Quarry once fought for the UFC Middleweight Championship and enjoyed a solid career before back injuries forced him into retirement. Chris Leben fought 22 times inside the Octagon and had a career full of ups-and-downs, but was one of the more popular fighters the UFC had until he called in quits last year following four straight losses. Mike Swick has battled a myriad of injuries that have limited him in recent years, but he makes his return to the UFC in July at UFC 189.
Josh Koscheck went on to be one of the most hated fighters the UFC had, fighting for the UFC Welterweight Championship, enjoying a successful career, and while he is still active, his career may be over after suffering four straight losses. Kenny Florian has fought in four weight classes, come up short in three title challenges, and has enjoyed a transition to the broadcast booth. Diego Sanchez was the first winner of the six-figure contract, and he remains active today, and is one of the more exciting fighters the UFC has, though he has a penchant for close fights that somehow go his way.
Then there is Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar. Their fight on April 9 sealed the fate of the UFC. While company history may tell you that their fight saved the UFC and convinced Spike TV to do a second season (though, in reality, the second season had already been announced), if it not were for the fight they had, the current success of the UFC may not be what it is. They had a classic bout, considered as one of the best fights in company history, rightfully so I might add, and in the end, it was Griffin taking the win. However, both men received six-figure contracts, and they remained two of the most popular fighters in UFC history.
Bonnar went on with mixed success and saw his UFC run end with a black mark as he failed a drug test following a loss to Anderson Silva. Griffin went on to tremendous success, winning the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship, headlining some major cards over his career, and capping it off with a win over Tito Ortiz in his final bout. Both Griffin and Bonnar are retired ten years later, and both have been inducted into the UFC Hall Of Fame.
Just as important as that first free card on Spike TV, one week later saw the first pay-per-view event following the conclusion of the debut season of The Ultimate Fighter: UFC 52. It was headlined by the coaches of the first season, then UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Randy Couture defending the title against challenger Chuck Liddell, and it was treated as big event in UFC history. It drew 14,562 fans to the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, with a gate just under $2.6 million, the highest-grossing UFC event ever at the time. It also garnered 280,000 buys on pay-per-view, the highest since UFC 2 in 1994, and a number that wasn't reached again until Couture and Liddell fought for a third time just under ten months later.
When Couture and Liddell stepped into the Octagon that night, there was a buzz for a UFC fight that there hadn't been before. The night had already seen a spectacular fight between Matt Hughes and Frank Trigg, one of the most exciting fights in UFC history and perhaps the best one-round fight in UFC history, with a highlight-reel finish of Hughes surviving a rear-naked choke attempt from Trigg, picking Trigg up and running him across the Octagon and slamming him to the mat, then finishing Trigg with a rear-naked choke of his own. Also on the UFC 52 fight card was Georges St. Pierre, who defeated Jason Miller to start a win streak that would propel him to winning the UFC Welterweight Championship and becoming the most popular superstar the UFC has seen, and one of the biggest draws in company history.
The night belonged to Couture and Liddell, though. Couture had won their first encounter at UFC 43, and Couture was still the champion despite a hiccup where he lost the title to Vitor Belfort on a fluke cut before regaining it, and Liddell still had his knockout finishing power. They always showed each other a lot of respect, and there was no hatred there- just two men who were fighters who wanted to be the best. They were friends, and remain that way this day.
On that April 16, 2005 night, though, Liddell was the better man as he knocked Couture out in the first round to win the championship and begin a two-year title reign that saw him win all of his title defenses by knockout before losing the title to Quinton Jackson in May 2007. Liddell and Couture did match up again at UFC 57 in February 2006, another big atmosphere fight won by Liddell.
Couture and Liddell are both members of the UFC Hall Of Fame. Couture retired following his second loss to Liddell, only to come back a year later to become UFC Heavyweight Champion. His career is now officially over, and he is enjoying life breaking into acting and owning his gym in Las Vegas. Liddell went out in a sad way, having his jaw shown to be done with three straight brutal knockout losses. He is now an executive with the UFC and a fixture at UFC events these days, and an ambassador for the sport.
While Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar gave the sport a great amount of exposure and helped push it to the next level, Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell catapulted it into that next stratosphere, and as we reach ten years since that epic week in April 2005, you can give these four Hall Of Famers a lot of credit for bringing the sport to the success it enjoys today.