Let me start by clarifying the meaning of the title of this article. There are fighters and then there are those whose style ultimately creates its own enemy. Kind of like Vision said in Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War, “Our very strength invites challenge”. These are MMA athletes who were an enigma for opponents until someone came along that took their game plan, workout, and style to the next level. Here are 3 fighters who sparked a revolution in the UFC.
Rich Franklin broke out when he demolished Ken Shamrock at the inaugural The Ultimate Fighter finale main event. He went on to become world champion and was sometimes discussed as the best fighter on the planet at the time. Then Anderson Silva came along and took his belt, but Rich kept his legacy and will be remembered as a company man who took on all challengers.
What he contributed was his work ethic, high level jiu jitsu, and unorthodox striking. Those are all good, but I left out the main ingredient in his success – fitness. Rich was shown in promos, internet videos, and news media almost always working out in some way. It was cross fit, weights, or muscle confusion type routines. He would often win fights simply by aggression because he knew his gas tank would be just as full at the end of the fight as it was at the beginning, or close to it. He was a machine.
After becoming an icon and role model for younger fighters his coach Jorge Gurgel’s gym exploded. I was training there and grappling, sparring, interviewing the man on a regular basis. He was an inspiration and maybe that’s what caused his road back to the title to be so cloudy. So many fighters were now eating right and working out who weren’t before. Less guys showed up to local MMA shows overweight and wearing basketball shorts and this meant his opponents were now aware that his cardio might kill them.
In the end, almost everyone who fought him knew that they would have to get lucky with a big punch or simply outwork him. He will be remembered as a likeable, hard working former champion who woke everyone up to the importance of nutrition and fitness.
Oh, and he retired Chuck Liddell by knocking him out even with a broken arm…
Tito was the ground and pound monster at a time when lay and pray was popular. Sure, Tito had his moments like when he laid on top of Patrick Cote at UFC 50 like he wanted to cuddle and when he got trounced by Randy Couture at UFC 44. There were others though.
Tito would smash people from their guard which was pretty amazing given the fact that jiu jitsu was on the rise and wrestling was becoming even more popular as a way to win fights. Ortiz always tried to finish except maybe when he fought Chuck Liddell and just tried to survive. The terrifying prospect of getting put on your back by him caused many fighters to run for the gym and work on a sprawl to prevent being taken down.
Tito’s ruthless aggression sparked a revolution of sprawl and brawl.
Just ask GSP what it took to beat who many called the GOAT at welterweight. Hughes submitted Georges St. Pierre at UFC 50 and something changed in his game immediately. He was the striking guy who wore Mr. Miyagi level karate apparel to the cage and bloodied his opponents. It wasn’t until the loss to Hughes that GSP evolved. I’ll give you that the Serra fight forced him to stop using his chin as a shield, but it was Matt Hughes that made him change.
Matt was freakishly strong, fearless, and humble in victory and defeat. His country boy image and corn fed abilities gave him that rare mass appeal. You wanted to out wrestle him at the time he was champ? You better be GSP or BJ Penn. You want to out jiu jitsu him when he was champ? Same. He was the guy that would take you down and better his position and he did it against his mirror image. Sean Sherk was Hughes but stronger and meaner. He was called “The Muscle Shark” because he stalked you and took you to the canvas with bad intentions. Matt was having none of it and he proved nay-sayers wrong and big time. He won the fight at UFC 42 by unanimous decision.
Matt Hughes sparked a revolution of wrestling improvement, sprawling, and staying at range to avoid the take down.