2003: When the fight world revolved around Bettendorf

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(As the UFC turns 20, we revisit each year from 2013 to 1993 with 20 articles in 20 days.)

It feels like an old wives’ tale now, but there was a time that the 6-foot-8 Tim Sylvia ruled the heavyweight roost in the UFC. This was of course well before he showed up in Moosin: God of Martial Arts to fight strongman Mariusz Pudzianowski, and eons ahead of his enormously underwatched fourth fight with Andrei Arlovski in Quezon City. It was in 2003, right at that time people began to genuinely question just what was in the water out there in Iowa. Sylvia came out of the Miletich Fighting Systems, stylized by the no-nonsense former welterweight champion Pat Miletich, who had produced the likes of Matt Hughes, Jens Pulver and Jeremy Horn as well.

Miletich had built a fight factory in Bettendorf, which in itself has become memorialized over time like a battle sight of some old war.

Sylvia’s run started at UFC 41, when he fought Ricco Rodriguez for the heavyweight belt. Believe it or not, the chorus of "too soon for a title shot" that guys like Glover Teixeira hear these days stretches back to humanity’s earliest concerns, and that was the case for Sylvia, who had but one UFC victory under his belt from UFC 39. In that fight, Sylvia put a beating on Cabbage Correira at the Mohegan Sun that raised a few eyebrows. With his yeti-like frame, he was either a marketable oddity, or a genuine threat to the throne (and hopefully both).

The scene in Atlantic City that night was one of dissatisfaction, because in the co-main event B.J. Penn and Caol Uno fought to a split draw for the inaugural lightweight belt. Rodriguez, was coming off the biggest victory of his career against Randy Couture at that same UFC 39 card, and was making his first title defense. In his corner was Tito Ortiz, who was omnipresent at UFC events in those days, wearing his own light heavyweight belt backwards around his waist for the fans to get a load of. Nobody hogged spotlight quite like Ortiz when he was at the top of his game.

And in front of Rodriguez was the gangly Sylvia, who was something to the eye. His beard was carefully landscaped, accentuated by the swift lamb chops that stenciled down his cheekbone like a scythe, connecting to the mustache (which itself had plenty of plotlines). His shorts were tight; perhaps too tight. He wore the look of Sturgis, and that look fit into the heavyweight category quintessentially. It was uncanny. Here was a man who fully embodied his nickname of "The Maine-iac." (To this day a bold choice for its hyphen and cleverness). (And to hear Miletich’s stories years later, a more apt nickname might have been "The Ego Maine-iac," because Sylvia had an unflinching "me" streak).

Then the beginning of the Sylvia Era got ushered in, whether we were ready for it or not.

Ricco hit Sylvia with a flying knee early, and Sylvia smiled the smile of the afflicted before proceeding to crawl into Ricco’s guard and dropping some paws. A bit later, Rodriquez tried for an armbar, but Sylvia lifted him up casually and dumped him to the ground, like he was shaking off a playful toddler. Sylvia lumbered forward and threw a couple of heavy sandbags that missed awkwardly.

Finally, though, just past the halfway point of the first round, Sylvia threw a big right hand from orangutan distance that crashed into Rodriguez’s chin, and the Miletich clan knew their creation was alive. That shot put Rodriquez on ice, though Big John McCarthy waited to see the follow-ups. Sylvia went to the ground and missed the motionless easy target two out of four times, punching the wooden canvas instead. But it was over. Sylvia was the champion. The next thing we knew Miletich and Horn were descending on the scene and hoisting his bulk onto their shoulders.

"What’s up now?" Sylvia yelled. "What’s up now?"

What was up was his stock. Sylvia went on to defend the title against Gan McGee at UFC 44 before having his arm snapped by Frank Mir nine months later at UFC 48. Though the image was gruesome, he would rebound and end up winning the title against Andrei Arlovski at UFC 59. He would defend the title twice before losing it improbably to Randy Couture, at that time 43 years old, who once again played spoiler to tyranny.

For Rodriguez, the loss to Sylvia signaled the beginning of the end of his time in the UFC. "Suave" spiraled with losses to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Pedro Rizzo from there, and wouldn’t pop up again until a year later in Juárez.

In 2013, Sylvia’s two title defenses as a heavyweight remain tied for the most in UFC history.

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