Zuffa’s acquisition of Pride FC was the first big intergalactic consolidation of fight game stars. Well before we were flirting with hypothetical "superfights" in 2012, the UFC was doing something about it in the spring of 2007. All it took for those icons from Japan -- forever separate and living out a beautiful cult dream under the watchful eye of the yakuza -- to descend upon the UFC fighters like the Great Wave off Kanagawa was something like $70 million.
Lorenzo Fertitta said at the time, "we will be able to literally put on the fights that everyone wants to see -- it will allow us to put on some of the biggest fights ever."
At UFC 75 in London, newly crowned light heavyweight champion Quinton Jackson -- a Pride veteran who’d signed with the WFA before the UFC snapped that promotion up too -- welcomed reigning Pride middleweight champion Dan Henderson into the Octagon. Jackson "unified" the belts in front of five million viewers on Spike TV. These were the fights people wanted to see (especially for free, and even on tape delay).
And that fight was less memorable than Forrest Griffin’s rude treatment of Mauricio Rua at UFC 76. When Griffin sunk the rear naked choke late in the third round, he did a hot lap around the cage with his arms thrown up incredulously, as if it’d never dawned on him he could win. The wall was down. The wall was down!
Only a couple of weeks after the purchase of Pride, with all the potential elixirs still in the air, the UFC 69 went down in Houston. The main event was presented to the public as a gift horse to second chances. Matt Serra, who had won the "Comeback" season of the Ultimate Fighter, would get a crack at welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre. People were left to invent intrigue in the fight, because Serra -- bless his heart -- was vastly outclassed. The Long Islander was built like a hydrant, but there was simply no way. There was no way. Big dogs lift their legs to hydrants. St-Pierre was a 10-to-1 favorite.
"It’s going to sound clueshay," Serra said in the promos leading up, "but to win that belt would be a dream come true."
The dream came true. Serra, whom everybody thought would try and do what Matt Hughes couldn’t -- that is, taking GSP down -- ended up clubbing him with a right. Then hurting him with a left. Then swarming him with a barrage of muscle-intensive end shots that left St-Pierre in the reclining arms of history.
To this day, that Serra KO of GSP is not only considered the greatest upset of all time, but a cautionary tale for the ages from GSP’s perspective. It was Matt Serra who invented the puncher’s chance in MMA, which has made the betting public think twice whenever a lopsided fight gets booked. He provided an example to what’s meant in the whole "four ounce gloves" thing.
Standing in Serra’s corner that night alongside their coach/mentor Ray Longo was Pete Sell, Serra’s longtime friend who’d lost on the undercard to Thales Leites. His face was still bulging with trauma from Leites’ elbows. Yet he stood with Serra anyway, just like he had been since he was 17 years old. And in the elation of Serra’s greatest moment, Sell celebrated with him like a buddy who’d lost all his money at the blackjack table yet was at least watching his friend cash in ten tall stacks of chips.
"I was upset that I lost," Sell says. "I think it was right before that fight that I had that Scott Smith fight, and in that fight, I won! I won the fight. Then I ran in like an idiot, and I would have hit him with a big uppercut, the first time the whole night I dropped my hands, and that’s when I got caught."
Turns out 2007 was a year of What Could Have Been for Pete Sell. For Serra, it was the year that was, is, and always will be.
"So against Leites, it was supposed to be my turn," Sell says. "Things didn’t go my way. I was upset. I was kind of down in the dumps after the fight. But I was in Matty’s corner, and the whole Longo Team, we just stick together.
"And my boy Matty frickin’ knocked out the impossible," he says. "Everybody at that time had GSP on a pedestal. He was just so unstoppable. I think Matt Hughes got the armbar that time, but that was the only time he lost. After GSP knocked Hughes out a couple of times, it was this guy’s unbeatable. If you look at the beginning of Matt’s career, when he fought Shonie Carter, people were writing that off. He wasn’t that good. People were saying things like Matt Serra has no chin. People were taking a crap on the guy, so it was nice to just see him have his moment when he knocked out GSP. Because nobody in the world thought that would happen. Nobody gave the guy a shot. I was so happy for him that night, what a great feeling."
In his post-fight interview with Joe Rogan, Serra said his win was "possibly the greatest upset in UFC history, [though] I’m not saying it." It was. Serra would hold the belt until the rematch at UFC 83 in 2008. Sell would fight Nate Quarry in September, and once again lose a fight that he was on the brink of winning. In 2007, with all the madness going on in the UFC, Sell became the master at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
As for Georges St-Pierre, what happened at UFC 69 in 2007 can now be packed neatly into his greatness. Nobody in the fight game treats complacency with such disdain as St-Pierre does today, and it was Serra that made him compulsive in guarding against it.
(Catch up on the previous years in this series: 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008)