The wild card UFC heavyweight was coming off both a knockout loss to Tim Sylvia (Pictures) and an eight-month sabbatical in 2003 when he agreed to face PRIDE star Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (Pictures) in the promotion's home turf of Saitama, Japan, on just two weeks' notice.
The battle between two former titleholders was the closest fans had seen to an inter-promotional clash with any real substance. At the final bell, most observers -- including ringside commentator Mark Coleman (Pictures) -- believed Rodriguez's positional dominance would earn him the decision.
Instead, Nogueira won. And while the winner's purse is certainly more practical for a mortgage payment than a moral victory, it was Rodriguez who came out with the evidence stateside fans had been longing for.
In a head-on collision between two reputable stars of warring promotions, it was pretty much a dead heat. PRIDE, contrary to the testimony of its fanatical followers, did not decimate the imported competition.
Did not, in fact, even make it bleed much.
That divisive rivalry -- largely manufactured by inflammatory Internet threads but aided and abetted by juvenile sniping from company chairs -- took on another dimension in 2005, when UFC critics declared the promotion's "Ultimate Fighter" campaign to be nothing but a factory for hammy "personalities" who had no business in the ring. When fans weren't busy pitting global corporations against one another, they were eager to see stars they'd been force-fed wind up face down on the canvas.
That kind of audience war-mongering reached its apex in September 2007, when presumed reality TV cartoon character Forrest Griffin (Pictures) dared to face PRIDE's vicious Grand Prix champion, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua.
Observers wrote Griffin's obituary early; PRIDE devotees seemed to take a palpable glee in the inevitable beating he was to receive. This was the ultimate meeting of UFC's hamburger vs. Japan's Kobe beef, and those beholden to PRIDE would take great pleasure in heckling Griffin's lifeless form.
Someone did indeed require a chalk outline that Saturday, but it wasn't Griffin.
Normally a whirlwind of arms, legs and knees, Shogun responded to Griffin's methodical attack by shooting sloppy takedowns. By round two, he was huffing like Thomas the Tank Engine, sucking up air like it was on sale. Come round three, he was defenseless against a Griffin rear-naked choke and meekly tapped the mat.
The man who had emerged unscathed in battles with Ricardo Arona (Pictures), Quinton Jackson (Pictures), and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira (Pictures) was reduced to a submissive position against an athlete who was never even discussed as the best the promotion had to offer.
Humbling? An inkblot on your shirt is humbling. For fans of the PRIDE brand, a foreign bigger brother so often used as leverage to rebuke the UFC's stateside dominance, this was devastating.
Shogun's defeat was preceded by other meltdowns. Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic is 1-2 in the UFC, an ignoble mark for someone once considered the most feared heavyweight in the game. Takanori Gomi (Pictures) was handled by Nick Diaz (Pictures), apparently while Diaz was stoned.
With the year winding down, the mythology of PRIDE has nearly dissolved, a fate that undoubtedly gives pleasure to UFC brass who insisted the competition was just as fierce in North America as anywhere else.
There are the excuses. The cage is too big; they cannot soccer-kick or stomp; the crowds are more vocal; athletes cannot inject vials of testosterone into their asses without fear of detection, withering their aggression and stamina.
All of those explanations are fine in an Oliver Stone, Zapruder flick kind of way. The truth? Forrest Griffin (Pictures) was simply a better fighter than Rua on the night it counted most.
With Shogun barely cutting weight, Griffin was likely a good 20 pounds heavier than Rua at fight time. He pressured Rua and refused to let him get comfortable. He hit him, lots, which tends to siphon one's gas tank.
This does not mean Griffin could beat Arona, or Overeem, or Nogueira. Unlike "Highlander," Griffin cannot absorb the powers of his fallen foes. But his specific skill set, and the way in which he executed it, was the perfect antidote to Rua's attack.
That's it. No more, no less.
PRIDE athletes, bereft of any specially packaged tomato cans to dine on, are likely to continue looking very human in the Octagon. The legacies of Fedor Emelianenko (Pictures), "Cro Cop" and pending addition Wanderlei Silva (Pictures) were built in part on squash matches that made them look unstoppable. That's virtually unheard of in the Ultimate, where even unheralded opponents have the capability of flattening out anyone.
More importantly, the UFC refuses to manipulate athletes to achieve a preferred outcome. Fighters in PRIDE frequently complained of being coerced into competing on short notice, or with injuries, to boost the chances of their adversaries.
Athletes who refused sudden "opportunities" were threatened with burn notices. Tournaments further confused the issue, with fresher fighters tearing into weathered finalists. And it would be perhaps too optimistic to ignore the more restrictive drug policies in the States. "Cycling" on and off steroids, a common behavior used to manipulate the system, takes practice.
PRIDE's legacy as a compelling mixed martial arts institution will continue; Rua represents only himself and his camp. His future victories and defeats will have merit only as a reflection of his own abilities -- they don't prove fans right or wrong about anything.
Except, of course, on how best to argue pointlessly.
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