On Saturday night in Las Vegas, one of the biggest gambles in sports history will pay off, as the Ultimate Fighting Championship turns 100.
What began in 1993 as an eight-man, no-holds-barred tournament to see which martial art was best has evolved into one of the world's fastest-growing sports. At UFC 100 on Saturday night, when champions Brock Lesnar and Canadian Georges St-Pierre will defend their titles, it's expected more than a million households will shell out to watch the fight, cementing the UFC's status as pay-per-view's top draw.
While the Ultimate Fighter reality TV show gets a lot of the credit for the growing popularity of mixed martial arts, it's not the biggest reason for the sport's rise. That would be the fighters, many of whom spent years toiling in obscurity until the mainstream finally recognized their greatness.
10. Pat Miletich
Although he is now known better as the trainer of such former champions as Tim Sylvia and Matt Hughes, Pat Miletich was once one of the most accomplished fighters in MMA. Employing a combination of wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and freestyle -- which he now coaches under the brand Miletich Fighting Systems -- the Croatian Sensation won the first UFC welterweight championship in 1998 and held it for three years, through four title defences.
9. Frank Shamrock
After honing his skills in Japan with more than 20 fights in three years, American Frank Shamrock made his UFC debut in 1997, submitting Kevin Jackson with an armbar in just 22 seconds to become the organization's first light heavyweight champion. He defended his title four times -- the last of which was a classic pummeling of Tito Ortiz -- before quitting the UFC in 1999. Because of his abrupt departure, as well as his bitter feud with adoptive half-brother Ken Shamrock, his name is almost never utttered on UFC broadcasts these days.
8. Tito Ortiz
Shortly after Shamrock's departure, Ortiz got another shot at the light heavyweight title, squaring off with Wanderlei Silva for the vacant crown. The Huntington Beach Bad Boy (and future Mr. Jenna Jameson) won a unanimous decision, beginning a 21/2-year, six-fight run atop the division, which included his first of three victories over Ken Shamrock. One of the most popular fighters in MMA history, Ortiz was known as much for his obnoxious personality as he was for his wrestling and vicious ground-and-pound skills.
7. B.J. Penn
If Tito Ortiz wasn't God's gift to mixed martial arts, then B.J. (The Prodigy) Penn certainly is -- in his mind at least. After becoming the first non-Brazilian to win the world jiu-jitsu championship, the Hawaiian-born phenom rapidly rose up the ranks, eventually winning the welterweight title in 2004 by submitting Matt Hughes with a rear naked choke. Four years later, after a brief departure from the UFC, Penn became the second man to win titles in two divisions, choking out Joe Stevenson for the lightweight belt. If there was a belt for whining, Penn would probably win that as well, given his incessant complaints in the wake of his second loss to St-Pierre earlier this year.
6. Georges St-Pierre
His four-round demolition of Penn in January was the second welterweight title defence for Montreal's Georges St-Pierre, giving him a gaudy 12-2 record over his UFC career. One of the best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet, GSP has shown an uncanny knack for tactics in his recent fights, employing his all-around wrestling, Muay Thai and jiu-jitsu skills to devastating effect. If he beats Thiago Alves on Saturday in Las Vegas, St-Pierre may well be in line for a shot at middleweight champ Anderson Silva, in what would be one of the biggest fights in UFC history.
5. Matt Hughes
No fighter has more victories in the Octagon than Illinois farm boy Matt Hughes, whose arm has been raised 16 times in 10 years. The former all-American college wrestler first won the welterweight title at UFC 34 in 2001, knocking out Canadian Carlos Newton with one of his signature body slams. Hughes reigned atop the division for four years, losing the title briefly in 2004, and defended his belt seven times. He has fallen on hard times recently, though, losing three of his last five fights, including a pair of demolitions at the hands and feet of St-Pierre.
4. Anderson Silva
Since joining the UFC in 2006, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai specialist Anderson (Spider) Silva has won a record nine consecutive fights, running roughshod over the middleweight division. The lanky Silva used a flurry of knees and punches to dethrone champion Rich Franklin at UFC 64 and hasn't looked back, defending his belt five times. Without any credible middleweight opponents, Silva has moved up for fights in the light heavyweight division -- he faces former champ Forrest Griffin at UFC 101 in August -- and might also face welterweight St-Pierre in a future bout.
3. Chuck Liddell
Probably the most devastating striker in MMA history, Chuck Liddell was the face of the sport during its rise from obscurity in the middle part of this decade. In his two-year, five-fight reign atop the light heavyweight division, the Iceman employed a bulletproof takedown defence and heavy punches from all angles to knock out such luminaries as Jeremy Horn, Tito Ortiz and Randy Couture.
2. Randy Couture
Despite losing two of three fights against Liddell, Randy (The Natural) Couture has had the longest and most storied career in UFC history. Since his first fight in 1997, Couture has won the heavyweight championship on three separate occasions and the light heavyweight belt twice. Since first entering the Octagon as mainly a wrestler, Couture has moulded himself into a solid striker and jiu-jitsu practitioner, creating the template for the modern-day, all-around mixed martial artist.
1. Royce Gracie
On Nov. 12, 1993, Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Royce Gracie won the first UFC tournament, using three different types of submissions to beat three different fighters in one night. Despite being consistently outweighed -- there were no weight classes back then -- Gracie won three of the first four UFC tournaments, with all 11 of his victories coming by submissions.
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