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With COVID-19 having shut down the sports world, fans are left wondering about the possibilities of the events they might not get to see. MMA gets off a little easier than other sports because it does not have fluid teams that slowly break apart and rearrange themselves with time. Still, it is affected by the passage of time. Great fighters’ primes fade, and opportunities to make individual fights fade away.
That brings to mind the history of the sport, where there are plenty of what ifs over the years, events that might have come to be if things had broken only slightly differently. We never got Randy Couture-Mirko Filipovic, Fedor Emelianenko-Brock Lesnar or Frank Shamrock-Wanderlei Silva. The same applies to fighters, many of whom felt like they could have been so much more, if only circumstances were slightly different. Here are a few fighters about which it’s fun to imagine how their careers could have potentially gone.
Few wrestlers have entered MMA with the Schultz’s credentials. The Olympic gold medalist is perhaps best known from the story of the movie “Foxcatcher,” the tragic tale of the murder of his brother and fellow Olympic gold medalist Dave Schultz. However, Schultz’s long list of accolades cast a long shadow of their own. Today, accomplished wrestlers with an interest in martial arts can make healthy incomes in MMA. Unfortunately for us, Schultz came along earlier.
When Schultz was 25 and coming off his Olympic victory, it would have been the perfect time to venture into MMA. However, it was 1985, and the Ultimate Fighting Championship was nearly a decade away from starting. Schultz did compete once in MMA and looked impressive in a stoppage win on short notice against Gary Goodridge. The timing was as bad could be imagined, as that was the event in Detroit that nearly did not take place and led to the UFC losing significant pay-per-view clearances. Money dried up soon thereafter and Schultz never fought again professionally. There were other fighters who are tantalizing to imagine if they were a decade younger when MMA took off, like Marco Ruas and Rickson Gracie, but we at least got to see a little more of them than our brief glimpse of Schultz.
Unlike Schultz, Rutten had a fully developed MMA career. “El Guapo” retired with a glossy record and went on to be an ambassador for the sport. With Rutten, what is intriguing is less about what he could have been as a fighter and more about what he could have been as a star. Few fighters to ever come along have possessed Rutten’s charisma and style. It is unfair to say Rutten toiled in obscurity, but Pancrase was a level below what Pride Fighting Championships would become, and the UFC was not viewed as much in 1999 as it was in 1993-96 and 2005-present.
If Rutten had come along a decade later, he had the potential to be one of the sport’s biggest mainstream stars. His finish-oriented style would have won over fans, and he would have been a natural for magazine profiles and talk show appearances. Even better, he was perfectly suited for the UFC’s light heavyweight glamour division and fights against Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture, Wanderlei Silva and the like. Rutten would not have needed to do anything differently; he was just a little too early to the show.
While thinking back on Rutten is apt to bring a smile to one’s face, remembering the Kerr’s prime is a more somber point of reflection. When he burst onto the scene, it looked like what was then NHB had found a cheat code. Kerr’s size, strength and wrestling ability made him seem unbeatable. He backed that up with his performances inside a cage and ring, accumulating an undefeated record.
If you did not watch Kerr at the time, it is easy to look back at his record on paper and conclude he was just rolling through soft competition, setting aside his impressive Abu Dhabi resume. What was so impressive, so scary, was the way that he won. He ferociously plowed through opponents like an irresistible force. You do not get nicknamed “The Specimen,” “The Titan” and “The Smashing Machine” without turning heads. Then, everything changed. Substance-abuse problems short circuited his career. He no longer looked like the same person, and he certainly did not fight like the same person. He started his career 12-0 with one no contest and ended it 3-11. It is a shame for Kerr and for fans that we never got to see what he could have done if he had kept his life together.
The early days of Pride were filled with fighters who possessed explosive styles. The promotion sought out those fighters. Amidst that murderer’s row, arguably no one was more explosive than this Dutch troublemaker. Unfortunately, few got as little out of their talents as Yvel. His problem was not that he came along too early or even that he self-destructed, although he certainly made more than his fair share of mistakes. Attacking a referee should have ended his career, but it did not. Instead, what did in Yvel was that he never managed to add the missing component to his game: takedown defense.
Like a slugger who feasts on fastballs but cannot hit a curve or a quarterback who has an accurate and powerful arm but cannot deal with a blitz, Yvel had a fatal flaw when it came to his MMA game. He was a spectacular striker and could have engaged in thrilling wars with the best strikers in the sport, but even the elite strikers knew his ground game was such a liability that they elected to take him down. Anderson Silva early in his career was vulnerable to takedowns and lost to some soft opposition. When he added takedown defense, he became an all-time great. Yvel never added that dimension, but it is fun to imagine what he could have done if he did.
This is one final type of what if. Alexander did not come along too soon or self-destruct, and he did not have one fatal flaw, although his ground game was not great. The problem with Alexander was simply that he was not as good as it appeared briefly that he might be. When Alexander burst onto the UFC scene with a brutal knockout of Keith Jardine at UFC 71, it was as impressive as Octagon debuts get. It was not just that the vicious way he won, but it was the aura of violence that surrounded the man. This was what we want cage fighters to be in our imagination. He had menace like Wanderlei Silva, and he followed up with another explosive win over Alessio Sakara.
By his third UFC fight, Alexander was already in a co-main event. He was being fast-tracked for big things. The problem was he was a good fighter but not a great one. He lost to Thiago Silva and never won again in the UFC. Like Phil Baroni or Pat Barry, he had a superstar persona and a thrilling fighting style, but he just could not string together the wins. It would have been fun to watch if he had proven to be as good as our first impressions suggested he might be.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.
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