On June 19, 2004, the Ultimate Fighting Championship pulled into the Mandalay Bay Events Center for UFC 48. It was one of the most quietly loaded cards of the pre-“Ultimate Fighter” Zuffa era; of the eight fights on the card, six featured at least one past or future UFC champion.
UFC 48 received the tag line “Payback” in reference to the main event, which featured proto-era legends Ken Shamrock and Kimo Leopoldo in a rematch of their first meeting eight years before, which Shamrock had won with a slick kneebar in under five minutes. It could also be construed as a nod to the rematches between Evan Tanner and Phil Baroni, and Frank Trigg and Dennis Hallman. Rematches aside, the card was chock-full of fights that pointed way towards the next five years of UFC history. It was future champ Tanner’s first fight at middleweight, future welterweight champ Matt Serra’s last fight at lightweight and future pound-for-pound great Georges St. Pierre’s second Octagon appearance. It was Matt Hughes’ first fight back—poor Renato Verissimo—after his shocking title loss to B.J. Penn.
However, with all due respect to the wealth of rematches on the card—mild spoiler: despite three tries, no payback was had—and to the wealth of other historical Easter eggs, there was only one thing fans were talking about on the forums after the event, or around the office the following Monday. Did you see it? could only refer to one thing. In a main card heavyweight feature bout, former champion Tim Sylvia and red-hot contender Frank Mir met to decide the fate of the vacant UFC heavyweight title, and in less than a minute, authored one of the most memorable finishes in MMA history.
It is not too surprising that, going into the fight, Sylvia was a 2-to-1 favorite. He was undefeated at 16-0, having lost his belt in the testing lab rather than the Octagon, and he was a giant among giants. Despite the love handles that he claimed had spurred him to use performance-enhancing drugs in the first place, the 6-foot-8 “Maine-iac” was a surprisingly spry and coordinated big man, and one who built his game around his massive reach advantage. Meanwhile, Mir was 7-1, with an array of eye-poppingly quick submissions over largely overmatched competition and a TKO loss to Ian Freeman in which Mir had looked out of sorts on his way to getting clobbered. While he was undeniably a unique talent, especially for a heavyweight, he was less of a known quantity than Sylvia by far.
While the dynamic of the fight was plain as day—standup favors Sylvia, ground favors Mir—the announcers barely had time to elucidate that idea before the fight was over. After a couple of tentative exchanges on the feet, Mir hooked Sylvia’s right arm and fell to guard. Whether Sylvia didn’t fully appreciate the threat posed by Mir’s "all offense, all the time" guard play or simply thought he could handle himself, he appeared in no rush to get back to his feet. Seconds later, Mir threw his legs up for an armbar, the fulcrum of his hips already slipping below Sylvia’s elbow, a situation that was only exacerbated when Sylvia tried to stand and slam himself out of the hold. Mir arched his hips, and suddenly referee Herb Dean was pulling the two men apart.
Chaos ensued. Mir seemed to sense that he had won—and won big at that—but Sylvia was initially upset at the stoppage, as was the crowd. However, the crowd’s boos turned in an instant to “oohs” when the big-screen replay showed what Dean and color commentator Joe Rogan had already seen: Sylvia’s forearm bending at a gruesome angle. The combination of Mir's gorilla grip strength and Sylvia's ill-advised escape attempt led to breaks of Sylvia's radius and ulna bones, which ended up requiring surgical repair with pins and plates. After-the-fact replays would clearly pick up the audio of Dean explaining to Sylvia, “Your arm’s f***in’ broken!” The end came officially at 50 seconds of the first round and remains one of the most shocking and viscerally uncomfortable to watch finishes in MMA history.