UFC's Hall of Fame still dealing with unanswered questions

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

With all the politics that go into Hall of Fame selections, they are still far more positive than negative. MMA has no real Hall of Fame, and the UFC version is the closest thing. But a lot of questions need to be asked about the UFC version going forward.

The subject of sports Hall of Fames lends itself to almost endless debate. But for all the drawbacks and politics inherent in the subject, for any serious sport, it's better to have them than not.

It's a place where legends are put in a position to be remembered for eternity and where history is taught. As a young kid, my family used to travel to Cooperstown, where the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame is located. As an eight year old, it felt like it was in the middle of nowhere, New York. But decades later I've got vivid memories of Rogers Hornsby and Tris Speaker and Christy Mathewson, names from another era that I'd have never been exposed to, and Cy Young became an actual person instead of the name of an award.

Whenever I go to Toronto, the Hockey Hall of Fame is usually on my to-do list. I have fond memories of going to Tokyo and several times going to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame to learn both its similarities and differences historically to the American version of the sport, not to mention learn names that all but the most avid baseball fan would have never heard of.

There are really two types of sports Hall of Fames. One is what I call the family and friends Hall of Fames. They are what they are. Fans can still enjoy them. Serious students of the sport think they're a joke, and most of the time, they are. The other is attempts to do a very legitimate Hall of Fame, which is much harder because real tough decisions have to be made when separating the very good, very loyal and very pleasant, from the true all-time greats.

The sport of MMA could use a Hall of Fame. It would be great if there was a physical location, with the history, the legends and the memorabilia. But the reality is sports Hall of Fames, as much fun as they may be for the eight-year-old who knows little or the adult who wants a place to learn and see key artifacts, are not a booming business. A true physical Hall of Fame and museum for MMA would more than likely be a financial bust in this day and age.

Yet, the history of MMA, or at least things that were the predecessors of the term, whether they were in Japan or Brazil, should be honored in some form. It doesn't exist, nor is there any significant movement for it to exist.

The closest thing is the UFC Hall of Fame, which this past weekend added its twelfth member in Pat Miletich.

The UFC Hall of Fame at this point has not established itself as either a serious Hall of Fame or a not-so-serious family and friends version.

The news of the Miletich induction paled in comparison to honorees in most legitimate sports of similar popularity. Dana White's threats to induct Jason Thacker notwithstanding, the UFC Hall has its obvious omissions, but is not a joke. Certainly this year's inductee is more than worthy, as the first 170 pound champion in UFC history, the head coach of what was the premier fighting team in the sport at one time, and now, as an announcer.

In most cases when someone other than an obvious pick, like Anderson Silva or Georges St-Pierre will be a few years down the line, there will be debates as to worthiness. There was none this year. I'm going to take that to mean the pick of Miletich was beyond reproach and not that people simply don't care.

Miletich joins Stephan Bonnar, Mark Coleman, Randy Couture, Royce Gracie, Forrest Griffin, Matt Hughes, Charles "Mask" Lewis, Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Dan Severn and Ken Shamrock.

Gracie, Severn and Shamrock were the early pioneers who helped build the brand and the sport, and Coleman followed after them.

Liddell became the biggest star when the sport hit television. Ortiz was an attention-getter for years. His fights with Liddell and Shamrock were very important in the saving and eventual growth of the sport. Couture and Hughes were all-time greats, Couture for his longevity and five title reigns, and Hughes, for dominating a division.

Lewis was not a fighter, but that man behind the "Tapout" brand. There is a place for non-fighters in a UFC Hall of Fame. Lewis would probably not be in today if he hadn't died young in a tragic auto accident. That said, he helped the sport greatly at a grassroots level and his induction in no way hurts the credibility of the Hall.

Bonnar is an interesting case. Bonnar was a good fighter, whose fight with Griffin could be argued was the most important fight in the sport's history. The UFC version of history, that if it hadn't been for the 2005 Bonnar vs. Griffin fight, there would be no UFC at this level today, makes for a good story, but I don't buy it. The ratings for the first season of The Ultimate Fighter were great and Spike wasn't about to not renew what appeared to be a new potential franchise. The ratings for the first live fights would have been very good no matter who was on the show. It certainly helped make UFC a cool new thing, but where it is today is where it would be today whether that fight happened or not. 

That said, Griffin and Bonnar was the perfect fight on the perfect night. People who knock it today miss the entire point, because the whole idea was these were hungry fighters battling for a roster spot, not the two most skilled fighters battling in an epic title fight. The expectations of the fan base was different, and for what it was, the fight could not have been better. The lack of pure skill was a positive, not a negative. The entire presentation was magic, right down to the nail-biter of a decision and the proclamation that there was no loser, and both were getting UFC contracts.

Still, Bonnar never even came close to challenging for a title, let alone winning one. He never even headlined a pay-per-view show except as a show-saver in a Rocky story promotion against Anderson Silva. His career UFC record was 8-7, and he got popped twice for steroids.

But there are Bonnars in many legitimate sports Halls of Fame, guys who may not have ever been at the top of the class, but were part of the sport's history. They are also usually looked back on by historians as mistakes.

White over the past weeks has talked about inducting the entire cast of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, yes, including Jason Thacker. Thacker's MMA career record is 0-1, a 95 second loss in his lone UFC fight. He's only remembered because it was his bed that Chris Leben urinated on in the first memorable moment in the history of the The Ultimate Fighter show. So yes, even though that first season of The Ultimate Fighter absolutely saved the sport, far more than the Griffin vs. Bonnar fight, that doesn't mean Thacker, Lodune Sincaid, Sam Hoger or Josh Rafferty won't turn the Hall of Fame into a comical joke when people look back years in the future.

Can you induct Chris Leben, Josh Koscheck, Diego Sanchez and Kenny Florian because of how important that season was? A case can be made. Leben was never a top fighter, but he was popular, had a good style and more than any other fighter, he was responsible for the huge first season ratings that blew up the sport. Koscheck never won a title, but had a nice career, his fight with Leben, a dud in the ring, was still the first time UFC became legitimate water-cooler talk. Sanchez won the first season, challenged for the title and had some of the greatest fights in history. Florian also challenged for the title on three occasions, and as a TV host and announcer, is among the faces of the company.

None are no-brainer candidates, but none are jokes to be considered.

There are omissions, but only one serious one. Yet, the one thing about Hall of Fame omissions is that they can be rectified in time. Bad additions will ruin credibility forever.

A key question UFC needs to ask itself when it comes to the Hall of Fame is that with ownership of tape libraries of a number of brands, most notably Pride, WEC and Strikeforce, how is that handled?

There is no doubt in my mind that Kazushi Sakuraba, Fedor Emelianenko, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Wanderlei Silva and Mirko Cro Cop should be MMA Hall of Famers.

Nogueira captured an interim title in UFC and has been with the organization for years, but clearly was past his prime by the time he arrived. Silva had some great moments and headlined shows, but his UFC record is 5-7 and his career may have ended by fleeing a drug test. There's no way he's a Hall of Famer based on what he did in UFC, nor is there any way he's not an MMA Hall of Famer, unless we play the baseball game of docking anyone with a drug taint, which in this sport is a very different issue. Similarly, Cro Cop was 4-6 in UFC and as big a high-priced disappointment as they may have ever had.

But if you induct Silva, or Nogueira, or Sakuraba, based largely on Pride, then you have no justification for leaving out Emelianenko, who was the best fighter of that era.

For an MMA Hall of Fame, there are other names that need to be in, including Helio and Carlson Gracie, Euclides Periera, Masakatsu Funaki (for being the key person in starting the first MMA promotion that garnered mainstream attention in Japan, Pancrase, years before Pride, and being one of its best fighters), Bas Rutten and maybe Satoru Sayama, who founded the first shoot fighting organization in Japan, long before there was a UFC and Pancrase. I'd argue Gina Carano, not for her fighting ability, but because if it was not for her, women's MMA may have never gained any popularity.

For a UFC Hall of Fame, Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre are a must, but it's a lock they're both going in. Jon Jones will almost surely be as well, but he's likely not near the end of his career like Silva and St-Pierre. Frank Mir, B.J. Penn and Rich Franklin are all fighters who are at the tail end of their careers that make for interesting debates. Urijah Faber put the lighter weights on the map as a television star and had a long run as featherweight champion in WEC, and even longer run as the top contender who always fell short in the big one.

If being an important figure gets you in, than Brock Lesnar has to be in. While not a skilled fighter, he was still a heavyweight champion who brought a level of interest in the sport that almost nobody else could. Every Lesnar fight was a major event, and pay-per-view numbers showed it.

As far as outright omissions for a UFC Hall of Fame, my list right now is short.

Frank Shamrock was the first UFC light heavyweight champion, although the division was called middleweight during his two years as the company's biggest star. He was one of the first truly well-rounded fighters the company ever had. He went 5-0, all finishes, including a 16 second title win and a 22 second title defense. In his last UFC fight, he was giving up somewhere between 25 and 30 pounds to Tito Ortiz in the cage. In what was UFC's greatest fight of the 90s, wore Ortiz out with an active bottom game, and finished him in his final title defense.

For personal reasons between Dana White and Shamrock, Shamrock is probably the least likely name on this list to go into the UFC Hall of Fame. But the problem is, those personal reasons tell anyone who studies UFC history that an induction means nothing when old-time vendettas get in the way of a no-brainer candidate. It's the UFC's Hall only credibility killer. It also can be rectified at any time, and in time, and it may take a long time, it probably will just because it'll reflect so badly on the Hall if it's not.

Campbell McLaren is an interesting one. McLaren was in charge of UFC in its early years when it was owned by Semaphore Entertainment Group.

What people today often don't realize is that there is no logical reason UFC should have ever been successful. No company in history has ever been able to run pay-per-view successfully without a strong television platform to build the product.

The marketing of McLaren built UFC up to where it did nearly 300,000 buys by its fifth show, with no television whatsoever, and made it a hit at video stores around the country. The downside is that same marketing, promising primal levels of violence and proclaiming the sport was banned in 49 states, led to a backlash that nearly took the entire sport down for the count.

Had it not been for McLaren showing that UFC had potential for great success, most likely Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta would have been boxing promoters because there would have never been a UFC.

Two others from that era should be considered.

Maurice Smith was a great kickboxer in his day, and came into MMA at the tail end of his fighting career. His UFC record was only 4-3 and his overall MMA mark stands at 14-14, although the fact he's still competing at 52 years old needs to be noted. But his win over Coleman for the heavyweight title in 1997 was a key event in the evolution of the sport, as he was the first striker to win a UFC championship in a sport dominated by grapplers. It used to be the wrestler or submission guy would control the game and win. Smith's game plan against Coleman led to one of the biggest title upsets in UFC history, and signaled the importance of strategy, defense and patience.   

Don Frye was a colorful character who had a 9-1 record fighting just one year in the organization. His win of the Ultimate Ultimate at the end of the year was one of the most thrilling moments in the sport's young history. In hindsight, it's somewhat marred by controversy regarding the credibility of his second win over Mark Hall, who was managed by the same person Frye was and how hard Hall really tried to win that fight. Frye ended up being a far bigger star in Japan as both a fighter and a pro wrestler, and belongs more in an MMA Hall of Fame, but the UFC Hall of Fame is debatable because of only one year with the organization.

As far as non-fighters go, Art Davie, who was the brainchild of the idea of an almost no rules fight pitting practitioners from different disciplines, who brought the idea to McLaren and Bob Meyrowitz, has to be thought about. The key is that if you take Davie out of the equation, there would never have been a UFC.

Jeff Blatnick, the 1984 Olympic gold medal winning wrestler, lended credibility to something that had none and badly needed some to survive. While he didn't invent the name MMA, he was the person who gave this sport that name, and he, John McCarthy and Joe Silva put together the beginnings of the modern rule book.

Today, people see McCarthy as the veteran take-charge referee. But he, to me, is a no-brainer pick. He defined the role of referee. Unless you were around in the 90s, the importance of both John and his wife, Elaine McCarthy, in different aspects of putting on the show itself and keeping the sport as legitimate as it could be at the time can't be fully understood.

Of course, Dana White, Lorenzo Fertitta, Joe Silva, and really, Bruce Buffer, Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg have all become institutional parts of the UFC either in front of the camera or behind-the-scenes. They are also the friends and family. They deserve the recognition, but I've got no doubt they will get it when the time is right.

The idea at this point is to avoid the kind of inductions that won't make it mean much of anything when they get there.

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