In the summer of 1999, two former UFC champions fought in an event billed "Return of the Champions." The title was apt since UFC 21 featured Maurice Smith (Pictures) and Marco Ruas (Pictures), each winners of separate UFC tournaments.
The two offered the possibility of an epic battle between very distinctly different styles: The vaunted kickboxer versus the submission expert.
Neither man has seen action since 2001, but as coaches in the International Fight League they have the opportunity to finish what they started in 1999, when Marco's corner threw in the towel early in the match due to a knee injury.
OK, so both men are in their mid-40s and half of the guys they coach were probably still reading "Of Mice and Men" in high school last time they fought, but none of that will really matter tonight at the Sears Centre in the suburbs of Chicago, Ill.
Couture, Shamrock and Frye are all in their 40s too, and it doesn't matter at the end of the day: a fight's a fight. To put it in real perspective, both men had their professional fighting debuts in the early ‘80s, when most of today's top fighters were wearing OshKosh B'Gosh.
Smith racked up kickboxing titles and almost went undefeated for a decade. Marco was off in Brazil putting scars and knots on people's heads until they both found MMA salvation in the mid-90s. This means that these two men have seen and experienced the entire modern MMA evolution, from before its inception to current day.
Back then, Maurice was like "Cro Cop" is today, a devastating striker who, despite being one-dimensional, was still able to wreak havoc on the budding ground-and-pound community. At that time it looked as though wrestlers were about to take over MMA for good. "Mo" halted that theory by defeating Mark Coleman (Pictures) to win UFC 14.
Sure we have all been taught that you simply must train in every aspect of MMA to be successful, but it's also clear that when you are deadly on your feet, you're always deadly.
Marco Ruas (Pictures) was a walking legend at that time as well -- the term "Vale Tudo" was introduced to the American consciousness upon his arrival. Marco was one of the first well-rounded MMA fighters and after winning UFC 7 by beating three men in one night, he went on to defeat the likes of Gary Goodridge (Pictures) and Patrick Smith. He then showed some ill will towards America when he unleashed his student Pedro Rizzo (Pictures) on our people, with catastrophic results.
Earlier this week Sherdog.com ran an interview with Ruas and he mentioned that he was looking forward to getting revenge on Maurice for their fight in ‘99. I'm sure that fight has weighed on his mind over the years and I wondered if it had done the same to Maurice. I asked Maurice if he was anxious or excited to get back in the ring with Marco after so much time off.
"It's just another fight," he said. "For me it's all about my performance."
So much for thinking that there was going to be some epic battle within his mind to get back in the ring. It's still no secret that Marco will want to get Maurice off his feet for this match, so I asked Mr. Smith if there was anything that he might have picked up in the last five or so years that he thinks he could use on Friday.
"I've been working on my wrestling strongly for the last four months and if I'm in danger I'll work to get out of it," he said, pointing out that IFL rules won't allow for Ruas to smother him and lay-and-pray like their last bout.
"The game has changed," the head coach of the Seattle Tigersharks said. "For me the closed guard is a dumb situation: it keeps the guy there in front of you."
Smith believes that alternative guards like the butterfly or spider will be better suited in MMA's future because it can create openings for the man that's underneath. The game has changed. Here's an elite kick boxer talking favorably about the spider guard.
Next we discussed the fact that Ruas was training for this fight with his old training buddies, which at first glance would suggest that he would be sticking with his original game plan from ‘99. Smith admitted that he was doing the same.
"It's no big secret," he said, "keep it on the feet, that's it. … If my game is strong and I keep this on our feet, no one is going to beat me striking for striking."
And what does Smith expect from his Brazilian opponent?
"He'll probably hold me and try to trip me to the ground. I'll be surprised if he shoots in," he said. Smith expects Marco to try to get in close, hold on and look for a trip or another takedown.
"If you have a good striking game and it doesn't go to the bottom, you're probably going to win that fight. A lot of guys in MMA still lack in striking ability. I mean look in the case of ‘Cro Cop,' he's a decent striker (by the way, only a world class kickboxer gets to call Cro Cop's skills, "decent") and he got out-struck by a wrestler. To me that's embarrassing."
In comparison to his fight with Coleman, Smith said "some things should never happen."
Maurice has said before that this rematch should have happened before. When asked about this, he went further, saying that it wasn't for a lack of want but rather a result of being cast aside by the people that currently run the UFC.
I asked Smith if maybe that is what is adding to the IFL charm, the fact that they have embraced UFC legends by not only having them coach tomorrow's stars but by also showcasing their skills by having them fight each other. He answered by saying that not only did the IFL embrace them but that they also stood by their fighters, offering a story of how one of his fighters got cut but still received his purse, per diem, airfare and flight money despite not fighting.
"That showed me a lot right there about how the IFL looks after their athletes," said Smith "In the UFC you're hot today, gone tomorrow."
"The UFC treated me bad as well as Frank [Shamrock], [Murilo] Bustamante, [Jens] Pulver," he continued. "They got Jens Pulver (Pictures) back finally, but in the end they treated us like crap and that's wrong you know? Guys work their butt off to go in there and help these companies grow and the companies sometimes don't show their appreciation. The IFL has shown their appreciation to me and the other coaches. They made Bas the spokesman; it's a great company. … We don't want to have monopoly, we want to have Strikeforce, WFA -- when they were around -- and Bodog, EliteXC and whoever else."
Ruas mentioned in his interview that Saturday might be the last time he steps into the ring. Will Friday's result determine Smith's fighting future as well, or does he have other plans?
"Actually the way I feel, I'd like to fight one or two this year and one or two next year then retire. … I want to say goodbye to the fans; that's something that I never got the opportunity to do in kickboxing. I didn't get a chance to do it in MMA. If the IFL will allow me and I do well, I'll fight this year and next year then I'm done. I have nothing to prove to anybody. I'm fighting because I love it and when I give to people in terms of excitement win or lose."
Asked whom he'd like to fight in those last few matches, Smith went right to fellow IFL coach Renzo Gracie (Pictures), whom he lost to via quick submission in 1999.
Adding to the pressure for Ruas will be the responsibility of coaching his team, the Southern California Condors, against the Frank Shamrock (Pictures)-led San Jose Razorclaws.
Smith-Ruas will seem like time travel for some, back to a day when mixed martial arts was floundering, a sport lost in the wilderness. The veteran heavyweights could be the best representation of the bridge between present day fighters and the past.
While this fight might not have the significance of GSP versus Matt Hughes (Pictures), it's a reminder of how far the sport has come and that no matter what changes, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
It doesn't matter if it's been three years, five years, or 20 years … Maurice Smith (Pictures) is still going to try and knock Marco Ruas (Pictures)'s head off; Ruas will still try and impose his will on the ground.
While we'd love to think that this game started in 1993, it's really been going on since the day man balled up his fists.