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2000s: The Decade in Sports
Posted: Friday December 18, 2009 11:51AM; Updated: Friday December 18, 2009 12:53PM

MMA: Highlights and lowlights

Story Highlights

Our best fighter, Fedor Emelianenko, dominated a decade of explosive growth

Tito Ortiz and Dana White's feud was UFC's biggest and most entertaining

The Kimbo Slice debacle wrecked EliteXC in the decade's big meltdown

By Josh Gross, SI.com

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Fedor Emelianenko beat almost all comers.
Darryl Dennis/Icon SMI
2000s: Boxing/MMA
O'Brien: Boxing highlights and lowlights
Gallery: The boxing bout of the decade is ...
O'Brien: Top 10 pound-for-pound boxers
Gross: MMA highlights and lowlights
Fowlkes: 10 signature moments from MMA
Gross: Top 10 pound-for-pound MMA fighters
 

FIGHTER OF THE DECADE: Fedor Emelianenko
Emelianenko isn't the only fighter to ply his trade exclusively during the first decade of the 2000s, but he is the best. Competing in a wholly unforgiving sport, the 33-year-old Russian boasts -- not that he would -- an unparalleled resume featuring 31 victories in 33 fights. The other two? A dismissed loss in 2000 (that he violently avenged) and a no-contest against the second best heavyweight in MMA history, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, who Emelianenko has beaten twice.

Click here for Josh Gross' top 10 pound-for-pound fighters of the decade

BEST FIGHT: Fedor Emelianenko vs. Mirko Filipovic
The summer of 2005 represented more than just the midway point for a crucial decade in the evolution of mixed martial arts. By August, The Ultimate Fighter's second season was airing on Spike TV and MMA's rapid ascension in the U.S. was underway. One week after TUF 2 debuted, Emelianenko and Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipvoic met in Japan, where the sport was thriving, in the most anticipated heavyweight fight in MMA's young history. Making good on the potential drama of a major championship bout, Emelianenko solidified his status as MMA's best heavyweight with a stirring decision win.

Click here for SI.com's ranking of the top 10 fights of the decade

SIGNATURE MOMENT: UFC press conference in Tokyo announcing purchase of Pride; March 27, 2007
Standing on an elaborate stage that cost six figures to erect, UFC kingpins Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White smiled at the crowd. The sale of Pride by Dreamstage Entertainment to the UFC marked a shift in power for MMA from Japan to the U.S., and heralded a period in which the UFC did tremendous business as it continued to crush lesser-promoted competitors WFA, IFL, and Affliction.

BEST KO: Wanderlei Silva over Quinton Jackson in rematch
Violent knockouts are hallmarks of Silva's career -- and they don't get much more vicious than his second impaling of Jackson. Defending his Pride 205-pound title, Silva went to war with Jackson in one of the best clashes in MMA history. The finishing sequence saw Silva unfurl a heavy right hand to the face that hurt the challenger. Silva pounced and closed the fight with a ground-to-air missile of a knee that clipped Jackson on the chin and rendered him unconscious and hanging precariously between the ropes.

BEST SUB: Ryo Chonan's flying scissor takedown of Anderson Silva
What makes this choice better than the rest? For starters, Chonan should not have defeated Silva. He needed a perfect sequence to have any chance, and that's how it went down. Stunning in its execution -- a flying scissor sweep to a perfect inverted heel hook isn't easy -- and it's effectiveness (Silva tapped within seconds to save his right leg from serious damage), this one tops an impossibly crowded field of choices.

BIGGEST UPSET/CINDERELLA: Matt Serra defeats G.S.P.
Were it not for Serra, current UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre would be among the top three fighters of this decade. But Serra, an undersized, outgunned welterweight who never showed much power in his hands, stunned the MMA world by unloading on G.S.P. for a shocking finish in 2007. St. Pierre gained a measure of revenge a year later, though his easy victory in the rematch only served to solidify how stunning Serra's knockout of him had been.

BIGGEST OVERACHIEVER: Bob Sapp
Part carnival attraction, part physical specimen, part pro wrestling heel, "The Beast" went from NFL washout to boxing William "Refrigerator" Perry in Toughman to the face of combat sports in Asia. Sapp's profile grew to the point where he appeared on the cover of Time Asia, and even gained fame back home in the U.S. with a feature on HBO's REAL Sports and a guest spot on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Sapp had some fight in him -- including a legendary bout against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira -- but he will always be considered an entertainer first.

MOST INSPIRATIONAL STORY: Evan Tanner
In death, Tanner inspired a legion of fans who knew him from fighting, and many people who did not. Though the news of his demise in a California desert on Sept. 5, 2008, reverberated in the MMA community, it also served as a reminder that human beings have the ability to choose their own paths. Tanner, a former UFC middleweight champion, lived life on his terms.

MOST INSPIRATIONAL PERFORMANCE: Javier Vasquez vs. Alberto Crane; Feb. 21, 2003
Vazquez wasn't going to give up his King of the Cage belt without a fight. The problem was, after less than a minute in the cage with Crane, the ACL in his right knee was shredded. Vazquez, who still fights and is currently under contract with the WEC, refused to pack it in. He challenged Crane for 15 minutes, often falling to the mat after trying to punch or kick. His was an amazing display of guts and heart, even for MMA.

UNDER-THE-RADAR-STORY: A wave of fighters will soon retire from MMA. After a decade of explosion and growth, what impact -- physically and financially -- will their departure have on the athletes of the future?

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Georges St. Pierre (left) proved a slick foe for BJ Penn at UFC 94.
Josh Holmberg/ICON SMI

BIGGEST CONTROVERSY: UFC 94 Greasegate scandal; Jan. 31, 2009
Growing media interest in MMA, the drawing power of the fighters, and the intensity of a strong rivalry all led to a storm after BJ Penn alleged that St. Pierre's corner applied Vaseline to their charge's body during the bout. Replays seemed to show as much, but the Nevada State Athletic Commission declined to take action against St. Pierre and his corner after a hearing. The commission and UFC did enact policies designed to avoid situations like this one in the future.

BEST RIVALRY: Ken Shamrock vs. Tito Ortiz
It began in the late 1990s when Ortiz verbally and physically took shots at Shamrock's Lion's Den. But it wasn't until the two were matched at UFC 40 that the true nature of their rivalry took shape. Their promotional weigh-in and genuine contempt made UFC 40 Zuffa's most successful pay-per-view before The Ultimate Fighter debuted in 2005. The rematch at UFC 61 (aptly dubbed "Bitter Rivals") set a then-UFC record of 775,000 pay-per-view units sold. Though Ortiz easily won both bouts, they were matched once more (free on SpikeTV) and drew 5.7 million viewers.

BEST FEUD: Tito Ortiz vs. Dana White
Ortiz and White have had their issues. During Ortiz's rise to UFC champion in the late '90s, White served for a time as his manager. But when White teamed with Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta to purchase the UFC in 2001, the relationship changed. Ortiz vocalized issues over money and his treatment in the UFC, and White pushed back. They verbally battled in the media, and nearly did the same in a boxing ring as part of a stipulation in one of Ortiz's contracts. All's quiet (at the moment) after Ortiz re-signed with the UFC in 2009.

BEST TRASH-TALKER: Nick Diaz
Wind him up and watch him go. It doesn't take much to set Diaz off into rants that, over the years, have become legendary among his diehard supporters. His rambling, expletive-filled verbal assaults have targeted many a foe -- be they powerful promoters, fighters, media, fans, state regulators or just about anyone else who has had the pleasure of crossing paths with the Stockton, Calif., native.

BIGGEST VILLAIN: Bob Reilly
The decade marked a seismic shift in the perception of MMA, particularly among government regulators tasked with overseeing combat sports. Yet, there remain holdouts who continue to rail against it. New York State Assemblyman Reilly, a democrat representing the 109th district, tops the list. If he gets his way, MMA will remain illegal in New York. His efforts in recent years, however, appear to be failing, as the sport is expected to gain legal status in 2010.

WORST MELTDOWN: EliteXC folding
It didn't take long for the dominos to drop after Kevin "Kimbo Slice" Ferguson went down. Despite a television deal that put them on Showtime and CBS, EliteXC, operated by ProElite, crashed in October 2008 amid poor business decisions and allegations of fight fixing (which were investigated and subsequently dismissed). Less than three weeks after Kimbo's debacle, ProElite closed its lavish Los Angeles offices and disbanded EliteXC.

ONE-HIT WONDER: Ryo Chonan
Chonan is a serviceable mixed martial artist. Against most middleweights, he'd put up a good fight. In 2004, however, he pulled off one of the most inspired submissions in MMA history against Silva, who in subsequent years would establish himself as a premiere fighter. Of Chonan's 16 wins (against 10 losses) only one -- his flying scissor to inverted heel hook against Silva -- came by way of submission due to a joint lock.

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Quinton Jackson was always a good show.
Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images

OUTSIZED PERSONALITY: Quinton Jackson
From his chain to his howls before a fight, "Rampage" Jackson is as much a showman as a fighter. Hailing from Memphis, Tenn., he spent much of his career in Japan, where his act went over well. In his first bout, promoters sold him as a homeless man living in a van. And, of course, he played it up. There may be more outlandish characters in MMA, but no one has a bigger personality.

BEST INNOVATION: Unified MMA rules
The Zuffa-run UFC often gets credit for creating rules and implementing weight classes that legitimized MMA, but in fact it had very little to do with that. In April 2000 (some eight months before Zuffa owned the UFC), California broke ground designed to govern the sport. Later that year, New Jersey, under the stewardship of Larry Hazzard Sr., codified the rules and regulated the first official MMA card in the U.S. The rules became the standard adopted by over 40 states that currently regulate MMA, and they are as important to the sport's growth as anything else over the past 10 years.

WORST INNOVATION: IFL's teams
Turning an exclusively individual sport into a team endeavor was a bold choice for the creators of the International Fight League. In the end, it was a costly one, as MMA's first "league" of city-based teams floundered into bankruptcy -- however not before shares of the public company went as high as $17 after it was featured on 60 Minutes in December 2006. The stock eventually settled to the paltry per-prize share of $0.01.

2000s: More from the Decade
ARTICLES GALLERIES
Golf: Highs/lows | Moments | Top players
Tennis: Recap | Top players | Matches
Soccer: Highs/lows | All-Decade team
Olympics: Top moments | Top athletes
Boxing: Recap | Best pound-for-pound
MMA: Recap | Moments | Top 10 fighters
Racing: Highs/lows | NASCAR moments
Cycling: Never a dull moment with Lance
Horse Racing: Top 20 horses and more
High Schools: Decade's big headliners
 

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