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History of the UFC 02.11.08: UFC XXXI – Locked & Loaded

February 11, 2008 | Posted by Matt McEwen

Sorry for the delay between reviews…..a combination of visiting parents, a move and a new puppy (not to mention a lack of internet and phone) conspired to force me into a couple of weeks vacation. We’ll be back to my regular Monday slot from now on though.

So, last time out, we took a look at the first Zuffa produced event, as UFC XXX took place in Atlantic City and delivered a pretty good event. A nice change in marketing strategy away from the blood and guts aspect of MMA and towards presenting the sport and its competitors in a more legitimate light.

So, three months later, we’re back in Atlantic City once again, and having worked out some bugs in their first go around, Zuffa presents UFC XXXI: Locked and Loaded, their first wholly produced event. And, from what I’m seeing here, I’m about to enter into a pretty good shows to watch. Just check out the card here: BJ Penn debuts in the prelims to take on Joey Gilbert, Matt Lindland takes on Ricardo Almeida in an intriguing wrestling vs. jiu jitsu battle, giant Semmy Schilt debuts against a returning Pete Williams, Shonie Carter takes on future welterweight champion Matt Serra in a match with a finish you’ve probably seen a gazillion times and Kevin Randleman moves down to light heavyweight to take on Chuck Liddell. That’s a hell of a card right there, but on top of all that goodness, we get TWO title fights.

In the newly named welterweight division (more on that in a minute), five time defending champion Pat Militech puts his title on the line against a returning Carlos Newton, while in the heavyweight division we get what could be a classic in the making as undefeated champion Randy Couture steps into the cage against his toughest challenge yet in the form of Pedro Rizzo.

This is going to be a fun show.

The show itself opens up with a nice new video montage set to Megadeth’s “Crush”. Shitty song, but a good, slick video opening really shows that Zuffa is pouring some money into the presentation aspect of the events and really making them look a lot classier. That’s always a good thing.

Oh…and once the video is over…..there is PYRO!

One major change to note. The Unified Rules of MMA have been fully adopted now, and that means we get the modern weight class alignment, which are as follows:

Lightweight – 145lbs to 155lbs (formerly bantamweight)
Current champion: Jens Pulver

Welterweight – 156lbs to 170lbs (formerly lightweight)
Current champion: Pat Militech

Middleweight – 171lbs to 185lbs (new division)
Current champion: Vacant

Light Heavyweight – 186lbs to 205lbs
Current champion: Tito Ortiz

Heavyweight – 206lbs to 265lbs
Current champion: Randy Couture

So, not only are into the modern “rules” era here, but we are pretty much fully into the modern era of fighters as well. Couture is still the heavyweight champion (theoretically anyways) today, while Ortiz and Pulver are still active and competitive. Militech is retired, but he was also an elder statesman back in 2001 to begin with. Unless you are a genetic freak like Couture, you don’t stay super competitive into your 40’s. Anyhow, it’s fun to watch the early stages of modern MMA develop here as most of the guys on these cards are still active and competitive.

Light Heavyweight (186lbs to 205lbs)

Ricardo Almeida
(0-0, 6’, 205lbs)
Matt Lindland
(1-0, 6’, 194lbs)

This Almeida’s UFC debut, but also only his second professional MMA bout after having debuted with a win over Akira Shoji at PRIDE 12 6 months prior to this event. He just returned to the UFC after a nearly 6 year absence – and a 3 year retirement to boot – at UFC 81, and looks nearly identical to his 6 years younger self. He’s biting off a pretty tough chew for his debut here though, taking on Olympic silver medalist Lindland.

Lindland has had good MMA success up to this point, and his Team Quest partners of Dan Henderson and Randy Couture have helped turn him into more of an all around competitor. He is giving up nearly 10 pounds here, and is one of the main guys who will benefit from the creation of the 185lb division. We’ll see if that size difference plays a factor here.

Round 1

The first round plays out like the stereotypical wrestler vs. jiu jitsu black belt match up. Lindland takes the fight to the ground, but once he is there, he has to spend so much time avoiding submissions and paying attention to what Almeida is trying that he can’t get much offense of his own in for a while. He eventually manages to gain full top control and lands a few shots, but gets too aggressive and Almeida is able to scamper up. He wants the fight back on the ground though, and pulls guard. Lindland is concerned about diving in, and pulls back and sits up on his knees with Almeida in front of him. Almeida throws a kick which lands on Lindland’s head near the end of the round, which is now illegal. In addition to the new weight divisions, kicks to the head of a downed (one or more knees on the ground) opponent are illegal. Body is ok, but the head is a big no no now. This results in a foul and one point deduction from Almeida.

It would have been a close 10-9 round for Lindland thanks to the takedown and light striking, but the foul makes it 10-8 and puts Almeida behind the eight ball early.

Round 2

Almeida tries to open with a leg kick, but eats a bit overhand left for his trouble. Lindland initiates the clinch and pushes Almeida against the fence before getting the takedown. Good submission defense is accentuated by shoulder shrug strikes. The crowd starts to boo, but if you enjoy the ground game, there really is quite a bit going on here. Almeida is looking for any opening to go for a submission, though he may be relying a bit too much on the kimura, while Lindland knows enough to know what he doesn’t know, if that makes any sense. He is very conscious of where his arms and where Almeida’s arms are at all times, and as a wrestler his balance on top is impeccable. Eventually, Lindland pulls back and sits on his knees in front of a down Almeida and…..deja vu…..gets kicked in the head. Foul # 2 on Almeida. They show a replay of the up kick, and we miss a flying knee by Almeida on the restart, but return in time to see Lindland grab a waist lock, go behind, and suplex Almeida to the ground. On the way down though, and inadvertent elbow by Almeida opens up a decent cut around Lindland’s right eye. Round ends with Lindland on top again.

Another 10-8 round for Lindland thanks to the foul. Lindland is definitely in control, but Almeida is certainly not being dominated. Skill wise, these guys aren’t far off from each other at this point.

Round 3

Lindland scores the takedown in the opening 30 seconds, and controls him for about another 90 seconds with little damage done before letting him up. He quickly clinches on the feet and scores another takedown. Again not much action as Almeida’s defense is quite good, but eventually Lindland pulls back and….you guessed it…..Almeida kicks him in the head again. Foul #3 means immediate disqualification.

Lindland wins by DQ in fight he was well on his way to winning anyways. The key here was that Lindland the wrestler has learned how to defend some submissions on the ground, and more importantly, how to avoid getting caught in the first place. As for Almeida, he showed some definite skill, but just couldn’t deal with the wrestling acumen of Lindland.

Before the next fight, we get some highlights of the earlier prelim fights. First up, in the welterweight division, Tony DeSouza debuted and took a unanimous decision over Stan Berger. Then, in the lightweight division, BJ Penn made both his UFC & MMA debut, defeating Joey Gilbert by TKO with 2 seconds left in the first round. The highlights make BJ look REALLY good, and I wish I had seen the full fight. To debut on such a big stage and to look that good is impressive. Penn was just a year removed from his gold medal at the Mundials, becoming the first non-Brazilian to do so, and only 4 years removed from the beginning of his BJJ training. Prodigy indeed.

Heavyweights (206lbs to 265lbs)

Semmy Schilt
(0-0, 6’10, 258lbs)
Pete Williams
(3-2, 6’3, 234lbs)

Schilt is huge. No other way to put it. And he’s not a Tim Sylvia type either – he has a lot of lean muscle mass and is an elite high level kickboxer (currently three time defending K1 champion). Williams is returning to the Octagon for the first time since he lost his title fight with Kevin Randleman 18 months previously. He won two fights outside of the UFC, and now is ready to return to the big stage.

Round 1

Schilt is (obviously) looking to strike, while Williams (equally obviously) is looking to take the fight to the ground. Williams wins that contest, and the entire first round takes place with Schilt on his back. Surprisingly, Schilt has great ground defense. He uses his length to his advantage, and has death grip wrist control that prevents Williams from doing just about anything at all. He eventually pulls free and gains full mount, but does little damage and Schilt gains ½ guard. Williams passes again and lands a decent shot as the round ends.

10-9 for Williams. It could have been 10-8 as Schilt did very little offensively, but Williams was unable to break down the defense and land anything substantial.

Round 2

Schilt has a very nice and effective front kick. It lands on Williams and it looks like it hurts. His size is really starting to come into play as he is able to avoid a takedown attempt and hit some good knees in the ensuing clinch. They break, and another Schilt front kick to the solar plexus drops Williams. OUCH. He lets Williams back up – but not before giving him time to catch his breath – only to crack him with another big knee. Williams decides he was doing much better on the ground, but eats a big high kick when he shoots again. A big left hand and another brutal front kick finish the fight for Schilt.

Big TKO victory for big Semmy Schilt as he looked destructive on his feet.

In a nice job of hyping up the next event – something inconsistently done by SEG – we have the participants in the next main event in the cage for a big of mic time. Tito Ortiz will defend the light heavyweight title against Elvis Sinosic. That may not live up to the quality title fights we have on tap for tonight, but Sinosic took out Jeremy Horn and, with no other light heavyweight ready for a shot yet, the Aussie gets his shot.

Welterweights (156lbs to 170lbs)

Shonie Carter
(2-0, 5’9, 170lbs)
Matt Serra
(0-0, 5’6, 170lbs)

If you watched the “Comeback” season of The Ultimate Fighter, then you know the story of this fight here. Serra is making his debut here, as well as coming off a 2nd place Abu Dhabi finish that included an upset victory over Jean Jacques Machado.

Carter, of course, is a showman. Dana White has said he was one of the first guys targeted by Zuffa when they purchased the company, and it’s not that hard to see why, as there is a fair bit of substance to go along with the flash. Really unfortunate choice of Speedos though.

Now, for some reason, the copy I have of this event cuts this fight off two minutes into the first round and resumes after the fight is over. Those two minutes are high quality, with good throws, striking and grappling. It goes deep into the third round, with the consensus that Serra was winning an entertaining decision, when Carter landed THE BEST SPINNING BACKFIST EVER to KO Serra. I’m pissed I don’t get to see the whole fight, because it is pretty damned good, but if you haven’t seen that KO on highlight reels, then you just haven’t been watching much MMA.

My copy picks back up with a nice video feature on Pedro Rizzo, running through the different stages of his career, as well as his training regimen in preparation for his big title shot tonight. If the aggressive Rizzo shows up, we’re in for a treat, but if hesitant, scared Rizzo shows up, lord knows what will happen then.

A little discussion about the main event from our three man crew of Goldberg, Blatnick and Frank Shamrock, and it’s funny to not that 7 years ago they were still talking about how Randy Couture’s age is likely to play a big factor.

Light Heavyweights (186lbs to 205lbs)

Chuck Liddell
(3-1, 6’2, 204lbs)
Kevin Randleman
(3-2,5’10, 205lbs)

Liddell is slowly starting to find himself in his MMA career at this point, and is starting to move into the 205lb title picture for the first time.

This will be a bit of a test though, as Randleman is a former heavyweight champion who is moving down to a more natural weight class for him. In his intro video, he says he’s going to start knocking people out, but if that’s his plan against a skilled striker like Liddell, then that is a bad, bad idea.

Round 1

Randleman comes out moving forward and trying to press Liddell. Not smart on his part. He does make it into the clinch, but Liddell is able to fight it off fairly easily. They break off the cage and a big left hand by Liddell turns the lights out on Randleman at 1:18 of the round.

Huge KO victory by Liddell, and Randleman is so out of it, he doesn’t even believe that he just got beat.

Hello Iceman, Goodbye Monster. Well, not entirely goodbye, but you get the point.

Now…on to the title fights…

Welterweight Title (156lbs to 170lbs)

Pat Militech – Champion
(7-0, 5’10, 169lbs)
Carlos Newton
(1-1, 5’9, 169lbs)

So, everyone in the title matches get to pick their own entrance music, so Newton comes out to “Men In Black” by Will Smith. Well, just because you can fight doesn’t mean you have any taste in music. Anyhow, he’s back for the first time since UFC XVII when he lost to Dan Henderson in the finals of a four man tournament. Shamrock mentions that in the meantime, he’s been doing a lot of work on his striking to compliment his jiu jitsu. He’s also been doing a lot of competing in PRIDE and comes into this fight off of a loss to Dave Menne.

For his entrance, Militech gets disco balls, a bad techno remix of White Zombie and girls dancing in cages. I’d like to make some sort of smart ass remark about the entrance not matching the fighter, but I’ve got nothing. Just so weird to see.

Before I get to the fight, I’d like point out that two shows into the Zuffa era, and they are putting on damned good title fights.

Round 1

They start by feeling each other out on their feet. Other than a short clinch, the entire first half of the round is feeling out, with each guy throwing a few shots, but being pretty respectful of the other’s power. Militech is showing a pretty good counter punching game as his counter left is landing nearly at will. With about 20 seconds left in the round, Newton scores the takedown, but doesn’t have time to work to score.

10-9 round for Militech in a feeling out round.

Round 2

Newton didn’t like getting peppered by the counter left, so he goes for the early takedown this time. He scores it, but Militech is able to reverse and take side control. He doesn’t do much from there, but does land a good punch when Newton scrambles to his feet. We’re back to stand up, and Militech is definitely looking the better of the two on their feet. His kicks look particularly crisp here as well, but Newton is able to grab one and score a second takedown. Of course, Militech being Militech, his ground defense is great and he doesn’t let Newton do much of anything from the top as they ride out the round from there.

Tough round to score as Newton had the two takedowns, but got reversed on one and did nothing of note on the second. 10-9 Militech to me based on marginally better striking, aggression and controlling the pace of the fight. You could make a case the other way though.

Round 3

Militech comes out aggressive, using his leg kick beautifully to set up head strikes. He lands a nice knee to Newton’s head, but also pokes Newton in the eye and the fight is paused while the doctor takes a look. Newton says he wants to keep going.

Militech doesn’t let up, and keeps coming with combinations, but Newton is able to score a double leg. Militech doesn’t want to be on the bottom this time and tries to scramble up. Newton gets an arm around his head though and actually chokes him out with a side headlock. I have never seen that before. Damn.

Militech was well ahead on the score card, and controlling most of the fight up to that point, but one mistake gives Newton the submission victory and we have only the second 170lb champion in the UFC’s history.

Main event time…

Heavyweight Championship (206lbs to 265lbs)

Randy Couture – Champion
(5-0, 6’1, 222lbs)
Pedro Rizzo
(6-1, 6’1, 230lbs)

Rizzo comes out to a specially made song seemingly entitled “You Can’t Stop the Rock”. It actually sounds worse than you might expect, though it does let you know how much management thought of him at the time. This marks his second title shot, after coming up short against Kevin Randleman, who incidentally is the man Couture took the belt from.

Couture gets some crappy techno tune for an intro too. What is the deal with the bad techno and techno remixes? There must have been some good techno around at some point?

This should be a pretty good test for Couture, as Rizzo is the first in his prime, legit heavyweight striker that he has faced. Belfort is really a 205lber and Smith was passed his prime when they fought, so this should be a hell of a test.

Round 1

Why is Couture so good? Because when he’s going up against a great kickboxer like Rizzo, and you’d expect him to shoot right away, he comes out and throws a leg kick. Nice. After that, Couture is trying to come in behind his punches to clinch, while Rizzo is being a bit careful about his punching because he wants to avoid the clinch. He can’t do that forever though, and Couture eventually gets in close and his dirty boxing comes into play. Off the break of the clinch, Couture shoots in and drives Rizzo down against the fence and unloads a bit before Rizzo can close up his guard. Even that doesn’t stop Couture from essentially mauling him here, as he lands big elbows/forearms and opens up two cuts on Rizzo’s head. McCarthy is watching closely, and with about 45 seconds left in the round he is on the verge of stopping the fight, but Couture slows a bit, and Rizzo is able to survive. Barely.

10-8 round for Couture, as he dominated all aspects of the round, and if he hadn’t gotten punch tired near the end he would have finished the fight right there.

Round 2

Couture tries to come over the top with a big right hand and shoot in behind it, but Rizzo lands a kick to the ribs that drops the champ. Jeesh. Rizzo pounces, but essentially is just riding Couture with a front headlock in the sprawl position for a bit, letting Couture regain some composure before getting up. Odd. But, once they’re back up, Rizzo starts to unload with big shots to the head and Couture looks super, super tired. Rizzo starts in with some leg kicks, and there is some immediate bruising, and uses those to set up big combinations up top. A partially blocked head kick makes Couture punch himself in the nose, which starts gushing blood pretty quickly. Couture’s next shot is stuffed, and it looks like just a matter of time before Rizzo finishes him. Couture ends up on his knees in front of a standing Rizzo after his next shot is stuffed, and eats punch after punch until time runs out on the round. If there were 10 more – maybe even just 5 more – the fight would have been stopped.

10-8 round for Rizzo as he just beat on Couture here and controlled every aspect of the round over a tiring champion.

Round 3

Couture gets an immediate clinch and lands a big uppercut before they break, but Rizzo recovers quickly enough to sprawl on the ensuing shoot and stuff it yet again. As soon as they are back up, McCarthy wants the doctor to look at Couture’s nose. He says it AOK, and we’re back to the action.

On the restart, Couture gets the takedown, but doesn’t do much as he uses the position to get a bit of a breather. Eventually, he starts to throw a lot of short shots which are enough to avoid getting stood up but no major damage being done as the round runs out.

Close round to score, but I’ll say 10-9 for Couture for the takedown and controlling the second half of the round. That’ll make it 28-27 Couture.

Round 4

Nice exchange to start the round, and Couture is able to get close enough to clinch and dirty box. The champ, who looked dead tired in the second round, now is getting very aggressive and coming forward once they break the clinch. Rizzo is able to stuff the takedown, and sprawls on to p of Couture, only to let him up again. That’s an odd habit. You’d think he’d have some sort of offense planned out of that position if you know you’re going to have to sprawl a lot. He doesn’t avoid the next shot, and Couture gets the takedown into side control with two minutes left in the round. Rizzo is able to get out from under and gain full guard, but eats a few short shots as the round closes out.

Another 10-9 round for Couture. 38-36 for Couture, and Rizzo needs to finish in order to win in my book.

Round 5

Final round here. Depending on how the judge’s see it, this will tell the tale.

Rizzo looks like he wants to finish it rather than let the judges decide, but Couture keeps trying hard for the takedown. Rizzo keeps sprawling, but he is too tired to take full advantage of the advantageous position he keeps gaming. He throws some punches from there, but they get back to their feet with ninety seconds left. They dance around each other for a bit, and Rizzo finishes the last 30 seconds or so pounding away on Couture to win the round, if not the fight.

Easily 10-9 for Rizzo to close out the fight, which makes it 47-46 in my book, which has to be one of the odder scores for a five round fight I’ve ever seen.

They don’t announce the judge’s scores, but Couture wins a unanimous decision. Post fight, Couture says that was the toughest fight he’s ever had, and the score must have been close. Classy as usual.

Rizzo is a bit less classy about it, as he is disappointed about losing when he feels he won the fight in his opinion.

His sour taste doesn’t change the fact that this was an absolutely incredible fight that is quite possibly the best in the history of the UFC up to this point, and undoubtedly still one of the best championship fights in MMA history.

The 411: Wow.....that's a word that sums up this card. Top to bottom good to great to classic fights. Really, I've got no complaints here, and maybe it's just because I've missed writing these so much, but I'm going to make this the benchmark event against which all future ones will be marked...
411 Elite Award
Final Score:  10.0   [ Virtually Perfect ]  legend

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Matt McEwen
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