Welcome to another week of “Throwback Thursday.” We’re approaching the halfway point of our 2002 watch. Just a month into this project, we have seen some interesting events. Things have been controversial or wacky, but above all at times an interesting time capsule for the early days of MMA.
This next event is certainly an odd one. Back in 2002, no event that UFC put on was small in their scale. That’s not to say their events were a big deal in the grand market – they weren’t at all. But it’s more to make the point that they only did a dozen or so events a year, so each one was a big deal.
But that wasn’t the case with “UFC 37.5.” The event was small. In front of just under 4,000 people at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, it was just six fights in total. There were no title fights, which was a rarity for a show back then.
The “37.5” title is eye-catching and has a somewhat funny backstory. The event reportedly went into the decimals for its name because UFC 38, which was set for the next month, had previously already been announced. Keep in mind, this pre-dates UFC hosting “Fight Night” cards that didn’t obey the numbered event structure. (Cheers to a great write-up by Sergio Hernandez on this event, providing this info)
Despite this event being quite small in the history of UFC, there was one part of it that was a benchmark moment. As part of a promotion for Fox Sports TV program “The Best Damn Sports Show Period,” the fight between Robbie Lawler and Steve Berger was recorded and aired for the show. This became the first MMA fight to air on U.S. cable TV. This was a big deal for the promotion. UFC President Dana White sent a letter to fans, calling on them to express their excitement for MMA on TV.
So enough background, let’s watch the event. Into the time machine, we go for another blast to the past.
Not A Knockout, But Close
Yves Edwards opened the card with a quick win, defeating Joao Marcos Pierini. Right off the bat, all I could think about was how this really was a smaller show compared to the previous UFCs. It was weird to see the ballroom roof in such detail!
Pierini took a hard fall a minute into the fight, as a head kick from Edwards dropped him. While the head kick was brutal, it seemed to be a shoulder injury on the way down that hurt him most. The fight was paused due to this injury, and the referee eventually put an end to the bout altogether.
So, that’s like sort of a finish win for Edwards, but also not. Records have the finish listed due to injury.
The fight was Edwards’ first UFC win. He had lost in his two previous appearances, including a recent fight against Caol Uno. This was Pierini’s last appearance in MMA.
Frykland Earns Brutal Win In UFC Return
Tony Fryklund had a dominant return to the UFC, finishing Rodrigo Ruas in the second round of a fight.
This was a brutal bout for Ruas. He was dropped in the second minute due to an overhand right. The rest of the fight saw him continue to consume damage on the feet and take hard ground and pound. The fight was finally stopped in the second round due to such a high volume of strikes.
Frykland was making his first appearance for the promotion in numerous years. He appeared at UFC 14 in 1994, where he won and lost a bout. We’ll see him again in the future.
Ruas, however, we will not see again. He fought six more times as a pro before retiring in 2008.
Growing Star Lawler Earns Second UFC Victory
Just one month after his strong UFC debut, Robbie Lawler returned with a stoppage win against Steve Berger.
Those who read last week will remember that Lawler had a strong UFC debut win against Aaron Riley, although it wasn’t seen by many due to being the first bout on the prelims. Lawler’s fight, which came in front of many empty seats, ended up being one of the biggest moments of that entire show.
Lawler floored Berger in the second round of this fight, landing a combination of punches that put him down and ended the contest. We didn’t get to see too much of this fight on the UFC Fight Pass version of this card, unfortunately, as it was edited down.
Lawler now has a strong record of six pro wins. He’s going to appear one more time before the end of 2002.
Berger will continue to fight as a pro until 2012, although no more fights will emerge in our viewings.
Spratt Spoils The Debut of Light
A double UFC debut was up next. Zach Light, who was representing Tito Ortiz’s “Team Punishment,” faced Pete Spratt.
Fight database Tapology says Light only had two pro fights heading into this. Spratt had a record of 10 wins and four losses.
Light scored a takedown early and took full guard. However, Spratt eventually found an opening while on his back and secured an armbar for the win.
The quick loss was Light’s final UFC appearance. We’ll see him in WEC later this year and he will meet Tyron Woodley on a Strikeforce card in 2009, but besides that, we won’t see him again.
Radach Scores First *Actual* UFC Win
Nick Serra, the brother of Matt Serra, made his UFC debut in the co-main event, facing Benji Radach.
Some may remember that Radach won at UFC 37 last month, stopping Steve Berger in just 27 seconds due to strikes. However, the fight resulted in a no-contest due to a cage grab that Radach had during the finishing sequence. Seemed a little too strict, but rules are rules.
Returning on this card, Radach secured his first official UFC win. This victory came from an incredibly close decision. Serra was often frequently trying to get the fight to the ground, although the activity in positions from Radach was what gave him the win.
Radach hurt Serra with strikes in the final round, dropping him with a combo of punches. Besides that, the show was mostly grappling exchanges.
Serra was eager throughout to get this fight to the ground. Referee John McCarthy frequently stood the fighters up due to inactivity. The crowd was even more impatient, as boos scattered throughout the fight.
Serra won’t return to the UFC cage again. Radach we’ll actually only see one more time.
Liddell Makes A Statement Against Belfort, But Did It Amount To Anything?
Finally, it’s the main event time. I have to give this card credit. Sure, this was a small show held in a ballroom, and it was clearly thrown together in the 11th hour. But, Chuck Liddell against Vitor Belfort is quite a good main event for that show.
I’m interested to know how big their names actually were back then. How much do hindsight and our knowledge of the rest of their careers tint our visions on this fight? Anyway, I think it’s a pretty good bout even if we were to factor those things in, but I’m open to being wrong about that.
Overall, this was a stellar performance from Liddell. Belfort presented challenges at times, so I cannot say he was shut out of this fight, but Liddell had a successful game plan throughout.
Liddell had a great start to this fight, gaining a slow but gradual lead over Belfort through two rounds. Liddell was able to be the more active fighter on the feet, connecting with kicks and punches.
The biggest point of the fight was in the final round, where the light heavyweights traded in a flurry of punches. Liddell got the best shot in this exchange, landing a clean right hook that dropped Belfort.
After three rounds it was no surprise that Liddell was given the decision nod.
This fight was marketed heavily as a title eliminator bout. Commentator Mike Goldberg frequently called this show the “Road to Tito,” implying the main event winner would get Tito Ortiz next.
After the fight, UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Tito Ortiz hopped in the cage. He gave props to Liddell, stating that he has earned a title fight. “Looks like me and him are next,” he said. However, Ortiz also recognized that he had another opponent in line first, as he was scheduled to face Ken Shamrock later in the year.
Much was made bout how Liddell earned a title fight through this matchup. However, that chance to become a champion against Ortiz never came. While he will face Ortiz three times in his career, one fight quite later than the first two meetings, it would never be for a title.
It’s odd in retrospect to hear about them hyping a fight that never happened. It feels like every event we watch has some weird moment that is changed greatly by the power of viewing decades later.
This fight didn’t get Liddell a title bout, but it was certainly a strong showing that added to the momentum he was building at the time.
Like I said at the top, this wasn’t a big show. When you look at almost all of it, it’s actually quite insignificant in the history of the year. A lot of people on this card faded away after this fight. And even those who remained successful, none of the appearances on this show were a turning point for them.
However, from a viewer standpoint, this show wasn’t a bad viewing. The co-main event provided a weird stalled-out grappling match but besides that this card delivered on the action that UFC markets itself with.
In Other News, In 2002
Mark Coleman had a scare in June 2002, as he reportedly suffered a neck injury while training with Kevin Randleman. In an interview with Full Contact Fighter, Coleman mentioned he wanted to return soon: “If this was the stock market, I could see a lot of people selling off [my] stock, but I can promise those who hold onto the stock, the value is going to go way back up.” We’ll see him in 2003.
NEXT WEEK: Pride 21: Demolition