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MMA Pioneers From Last UFC Event in Japan Look Back on Strange Times in a Strange Land

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UFC 144 marks the UFC's return to Japan for the first time in more than ten years, but the last men to fight for the UFC in Japan -- at UFC 29 on Dec. 16, 2000 -- still remember it like it was yesterday.

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

How long has it been since the UFC held an event in Japan? Put it this way: the last time the Octagon was erected in the Land of the Rising Sun, Dana White had hair, Semaphore Entertainment Group [SEG] had ownership of the UFC, and Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz had something resembling a friendship.

So says Ortiz, anyway. The former UFC light heavyweight champ told MMA Fighting this week that, back when he defended his title against Yuki Kondo at UFC 29 in Tokyo in December of 2000, "me and Liddell were teammates and friends...I thought. I mean, usually when you stay at someone’s house and train together for weeks you have a friendship there."

Liddell, who opened the show in the UFC’s last trip to Japan, remembers those days a little differently.

"I knew him, yeah. We knew each other," said Liddell. "But the thing with him is, we didn’t hang out. ...He still makes it sound like we were tight buddies, but he didn’t hang out with me. He didn’t call me to go out. He didn’t call to invite me to barbecues or invite me to a movie. He called when he needed something."

This was a different time for MMA and for the UFC. The organization was owned and operated by SEG, which, according to UFC lightweight Dennis Hallman, meant that the "whole behind-the-scenes stuff was really amateurish."

Take the pre-fight weigh-ins, for example. According to Hallman, who made his UFC debut against Matt Hughes in Tokyo at UFC 29, the irregularities began with the scale.

"We all made weight down in the locker room on a regular scale. When we wanted to check our weight on the official scale we asked this [SEG employee] named Paula, and she said, ‘Okay, it’s up in my room.’ Which was, you know, kind of weird."

When Hallman, Ortiz, and some other fighters followed her up to her hotel room, they were surprised to see her present them with the very unofficial-looking device that would be used for the following day’s official weigh-ins.

"We go up there and it’s a freaking bathroom scale. Not only that, it’s all tweaked. We were all over [weight]. I was weighing about 175 [for a 170-pound bout]. Tito was weighing like 208 or something. It was a pretty big difference."

Instead of heading back downstairs to cut more weight, Hallman and the boys had another idea.

"We went ahead and jumped on it a little bit so it would weigh normal," said Hallman. "After we jumped on it, it kind of had a thing where if you leaned forward you’d weigh really light and if you leaned back you’d weigh really heavy."

This was information that Liddell, who wasn’t present for the impromptu recalibration session, only learned the day of the weigh-ins. Somewhat surprisingly, it was his opponent at UFC 29, Jeff Monson, who clued him in.

"Monson was really cool about it, actually," said Liddell. "He was the one who came and told me about [the scale]. He said someone jumped on it and broke it the night before. You could lean and change your weight about five kilos, which is like ten pounds. It was awfully nice of the guy to tell me and not keep that to himself."

Liddell was 2-1 in two previous UFC bouts, and his tilt with Monson was slated to lead off the eight-fight card in the tiny Differ Ariake Arena that night. Walking out to the cage, Liddell said, he was met with a warm reception from the reported crowd of 1,400 and change.

"But once we started fighting, they were totally quiet," he said.

Liddell and Monson would go the full 15 minutes before the future UFC light heavyweight champ nabbed the unanimous decision.

"I remember I kept kicking him in the leg, trying to get him to bring his hands down so I could kick him in the head, but he wouldn’t bring his hands down," Liddell said. "But I won the fight, even though I didn’t get to knock him out. He told me he went to the hospital like a week later to see if I broke his leg, because his leg was still hurting so bad."

Elsewhere on the card, a 30-year-old UFC newcomer named Matt Lindland stepped in the cage against Japanese pro wrestler Yoji Anjo. Though the crowd was too polite to be outwardly against him, Lindland couldn’t help but get the sense that his opponent had more supporters in the house that night.

"There were a lot of Japanese pro wrestlers there, and a lot of Japanese pro wrestling fans. There were sumo guys there, too. It was definitely a different kind of event."

Lindland got the same advice all the other fighters did about adapting to the time zone and the culinary differences between the U.S. and Japan, but as usual, he had his own way of doing things.

"I slept when I was tired. I ate whatever they had. I just tried to blend into the culture as quick as I could."

It helped to have Hallman around, who was also from the Pacific Northwest and had been doing this MMA stuff much longer than Lindland.

"Dennis had had a bunch of fights at that point," said Lindland. "He was a good veteran to hang out with. I just tried to follow his lead and do what he was doing."

Lindland was fresh off his silver medal performance at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, and wrestling still constituted almost the entirety of his MMA game. That’s why Anjo’s strategy in fight came as such as a surprise, he said.

"I thought this guy was going to try and box me, but the first thing he did was shoot in and try to get a takedown. I guess he fancied himself a wrestler, because he had a wrestling background, but all that required me to do was sprawl on him. Back then you could still knee to the head [of a grounded opponent]. I think that was the last [UFC] show where you could. So I just started kneeing him to the head and he took a really bad shot and tried to pull guard. I got the mount and finished him."

Lindland was still baffled by Anjo’s approach after the fight. And the way he remembers it, he wasn’t the only one.

"I recall right after the fight, [UFC matchmaker] John Perretti just screaming at him, telling Yoji, ‘What were you thinking? You’re going to shoot on a guy whose only skill-set is wrestling?’ And yeah, it was a bad strategy on his part."

Perretti had made himself unpopular with several fighters on the roster for exactly that type of behavior, according to Hallman, who remembers the SEG-era matchmaker as "real arrogant." But without Perretti, Hallman acknowledges, he may not have gotten a chance to notch his second straight victory over a future UFC Hall of Famer.

"[Perretti] was telling [trainer] Matt Hume how Matt Hughes would kick my ass if we fought again, so [Hume] set the fight up," Hallman said. "I think Perretti had a little bit of a crush on Matt Hughes. He really wanted that fight to happen."

Two years earlier, Hallman had submitted Hughes with a guillotine choke in just 17 seconds at an Extreme Challenge event in Wisconsin. Going all the way to Japan to rematch him? Sure, Hallman thought. Why not?

"I was 24 years old. MMA wasn’t that huge yet, and it didn’t seem like that big a deal. I didn’t think about how the time change would affect me or anything like that. I was just going over there to fight. I was just ignorant and excited."

In an interview before the rematch, Hallman said, he made a prediction that turned out to be even more accurate than he expected.

"I said that if this guy picks me up and slams me, which Matt Hughes was really notorious for doing, I’m going to choke him or armbar him. I looked like a genius because he went out and picked me up and I armbarred him."

This victory took just a shade longer, coming at 20 seconds of the first round.

The card also included victories by the likes of then-lightweight champ Pat Miletich, Chris Lytle, and the late Evan Tanner, who stopped Lance Gibson with strikes in the first round. The main event, however, belonged to Ortiz, who had captured his UFC title at UFC 25 -- also in Tokyo -- after a unanimous decision over Wanderlei Silva eight months earlier.


(photo credit: Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Initially, fighting in Japan had seemed like a dietary nightmare to Ortiz, who wasn’t crazy about trying out exotic foods while he as cutting weight or putting it back on.

"What I was going to put in my body after the weigh-ins was a huge question. I wasn’t a big sushi fan at the time, but I figured I’d try it out. I needed carbs and I needed protein. At first I thought, thank God for the rice. But I really enjoyed it and it’s something I do before every one of my fights now. After I make the weight, I go eat sushi."

After winning the title, Ortiz said, "‘I think I slept with my belt for the first three weeks." But when he came back to Japan to defend it, he was surprised to see that the size of the crowd and the venue had shrunk.

"When I won the world title, I think there was probably 3,500 people in the audience. When I defended my world title, I think there was probably more like 2,500 people in the audience. It was very, very small. The UFC was very small, just all around the world. PRIDE was overtaking Japan."

All the same, he’d put in the work to defend the belt against Kondo, who by that point had around 40 pro fights to Ortiz’s seven. He even got some help in training from Liddell, but just how much depends on who you ask.

"I helped him spar one time for Yuki Kondo, I think," said Liddell. "He quit halfway through the sparring session because I was hitting him too much."

Once the fight got underway, Ortiz said, "it was so quiet you could literally hear a pin drop." While some fighters found it disconcerting, Ortiz found it to be a nice change of pace from the blood-thirsty audiences back home.

"A lot of American fans are very aggressive. You hear them shouting, ‘Kick his ass!’ and ‘Eff that guy up!’ Just craziness. Fans in the United States show so much heart for us fighters, but they want to see us hurt each other. In Japan it’s more respect for the art. That’s a big thing for them, and I think that’s the biggest difference. In the United States, they don’t really care. They just want to see us knock each other out. In Japan they want to see the best fighter win and see great technique while they’re watching."

Ortiz proved to be the better man that night. He submitted Kondo with a neck crank at 1:51 of round one, retaining the belt that he would hold for the next three years. Afterwards, as with most of the foreign fighters on the card, he headed to Tokyo’s Roppongi district to enjoy the local nightlife.

"There’s a lot of really fun clubs down there, and they’re open pretty much 24/7," Ortiz said. "They’re really dark so you can get lost in time. It’s a little like Vegas that way."

Liddell was quick to point out that he and Ortiz did not party together after the fight, nor did he spend much time with many of the other Americans on the fight card.

"I’m a little different than Matt Hughes and some of those guys," he chuckled.

Lindland headed out on the town to see what all the fuss was about, he said, but he’d done enough international traveling to know he should keep his celebrating to a minimum in a strange environment.

"I recall being out that night and seeing a lot of fighters in the clubs and the bars in Roppongi. But it can be a dangerous situation. You don’t want to go out there and drink too much. You never know what’s going to happen. Any time you go to a foreign country and you’re boozing too hard, it can be trouble."

Maybe that’s why Hallman’s approach was the smartest. Instead of heading to the clubs, he said, he "went back to the hotel room, which was the size of a bathroom, and watched TV."

"I was a good boy," he said. "Not like some of the other guys."

None of them could have known at the time that it would be the UFC’s last trip to Japan in more than a decade. Nor could they have known that when it did come back, it would do so at the cavernous Saitama Super Arena, with so many loyal fans watching on pay-per-view back home. These days the crowds and the purses are both significantly bigger everywhere the UFC goes, but that doesn’t mean yesterday’s fighters necessarily envy today’s, Liddell said.

"It’d be nice to be coming up right now when the sport is big, but I wouldn’t give up what I came through, my journey, for anything. I had a great career, a great time coming up when I did. Traveling around, fighting and promoting the sport with Dana and them, we had a good time."