The earliest signs of rule organization occurred well before UFC 21, when things like fish-hooking were outlawed because Tank Abbott -- bless his heart -- kept slipping his thumb into poor Oleg Taktarov’s mouth like he were a trophy largemouth bass. That was back at UFC 6, the wild Single Digits when woolly mammoths stalked the earth, and time limits were for p---ies, and scoring systems were happily pointless, and the Gracie’s were flying dangerously close to the sun.
But UFC 21 was the first big step towards "sport-like" structure. The 10-point must system was in play, meaning UFC judges would score an infinitely more layered sport the same as boxing judges did in their sphere. To do that, a hierarchy of scoring emphasis was established, which boiled down to damage, effective striking, Octagon control, aggressiveness and submission attempts. Therein was a mile of gray area, but if nothing else this made officials pay closer attention to what it was they were watching (which set up the firestorm of controversies that would survive well into the Twitter era of open complaint).
UFC 21 was also when main card fights became three five-minute round affairs, and championship fights five five-minute rounds. The championship rounds were born in a cornfield near Cedar Rapids.
And that night in July, in his home state of Iowa -- the first to sanction the sport in terms of athletic commissions -- Pat Miletich won the inaugural welterweight belt with a decision over Andre Pederneires. Both men would erect temples in which champions gushed forth later. Miletich with his Miletich Fighting Systems, which was all crew cuts and wrestling (and Tim Sylvia), and Pederneires with Nova Uniao, from whence Jose Aldo and Renan Barao sprang.
"The thing I remember was how good he was on the ground," says Miletich. "His students are slaughtering people in jiu-jitsu now. The only thing I wanted to do was KO or TKO him and get out of there."
But the first big display of actual hybrid technique might have been at UFC 22 a couple of months later, in the then UFC capital of Lake Charles, Louisiana. That’s when the challenger Tito Ortiz, whom Bruce Buffer introduced as "The bad boy from Huntington Beach, California," would fight Frank Shamrock, who was the middleweight champion (199 pounds) at the time.
That fight became a portal to modern MMA.
At the time, Ortiz was a wrestling savant/takedown artist who had no fear of Shamrock’s elastic jiu-jitsu, nor his active pectoral muscles. Shamrock, who had been training with Maurice Smith, was adding components to his arsenal like level changes, angles and kicks. They met in the middle in September of 1999 and, because UFC fans weren’t spoiled by cool-headed technique back then, what took place felt like a high-brow/low-brow form of WTF?, before morphing into something like wow.
The contender Ortiz, who was 3-1 at the time in the UFC, dragged Shamrock to the ground early and often. He planted his shoulder into Shamrock’s chin, and went about trying to pound him through the floorboards. Shamrock, though, was putting on a grappler’s cirque du soleil off his back. He was attempting submissions, striking, squirming, retracting and rolling like a beach ball beneath the elephant’s feet. Mostly, though, he was quicksand. He was taking very little damage. Yet to the naked eye Ortiz was on top and doing the gutting. He fended off the submission attempts as he pummeled.
It wasn’t a game of kinetic chess, it was a game of preemptive neutralization.
In the skirmishes on the feet, there were smirk kicks to lead legs, clean jabs, sound combinations, things we take for granted in 2013 (and sometimes even dread). Ortiz, though, went about the double-legs, and kept that going through the bulk of four rounds. And while this was going on, just like with contemporary audiences, the booze and boos teamed up in the fourth round as Ortiz took Shamrock to the canvas again. Shamrock’s frustration had become spectator contagion; his hell became everyone’s. Ortiz went about trying to drop elbows onto Shamrock’s temple just the same, and Shamrock continued to roil under him in altering states of yoga contortion.
Suddenly, though, towards the end of the fourth round, Shamrock roared back to life and reversed Ortiz and ended up on top. It lasted a brief second, but destiny had hit something like a fork in the road. As they got back to the feet, Shamrock blasted Ortiz with a long-suppressed flurry on the fence, before Ortiz composed his wrestling genes and took Shamrock down. Only, this time he left his neck in the constrictive arms of Shamrock and, exhausted, he felt the ghost being squeezed from his body. As Shamrock let the choke go, he landed a couple of big elbows and hammerfists and "Big" John McCarthy stepped in to call the thing off. Ortiz, left in the middle of the cage in a pose of genuflection on the UFC emblem, was done.
It felt like a Houdini trick, what Shamrock did, like he had bided his time for the right moment to turn the tables. He retained the middleweight belt, and in 1999 Frank Shamrock was the UFC’s king.
And that fight further connected the dots between the disciplines, when "well-roundedness" started to become a real thing. In our current day of discipline homogeny with emphasis on preferred techniques, Shamrock-Ortiz would have fit right in. As it was, though, the fight was ahead of its time. Tito and Frankie (as Maurice Smith called him) were already evolved.
And they showed it on Sept. 24, 1999, fittingly on the last UFC card to use the gladiator-centric Roman Numerals, UFC XXII.