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2004: When the west was still wild, and 50 was just a number

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

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In the age of celebrating milestones, UFC 50 crept by without so much as a doff of the hat -- and with 40,000 PPV buys, we all but gave the semi-centennial show the finger on its passing. The event was held in Atlantic City, and featured the 7-0 Georges St-Pierre, a prelim fixture to that point who’d just beaten Jay Hieron, against the dense-necked former champion Matt Hughes, who was already in the UFC record books with five welterweight title defenses.

The bout was for the vacant title, because B.J. Penn -- who'd taken the belt from Hughes -- had defected to K-1, and the UFC wasn’t about to let him walk with the accessory. Such were the times. That night, Hughes became a two-time champion when he caught St-Pierre in an armbar with just one second remaining in the first round. Had GSP held on that extra second for the clacks? Perhaps the Québécois would have named a day after him by now, like Long Island did for Chris Weidman.

The co-headliner at UFC 50 was a sad thing. An unknown fighter named Patrick Cote fought the company legend, Tito Ortiz. Cote was filling in for Guy Mezger on ridiculously short notice (four days) and was making his promotional debut. Ortiz? Though he was on a two-fight skid, he’d already fought in the UFC 13 times, including twice against Mezger, which brought about the rubber match that wasn't happening. Cote getting the fight was an act of desperate cobble-work, but it sure fed some intrigue into his biographical details when he became a cast member on TUF 4. Ortiz, of course, won.

The whole thing was barely noticed. In comparison to UFC 100 -- an immense dual-title card that had Dana White promising to jump off the roof of the Mandalay Bay if the PPV number topped 1.5 million (which it did, even White wisely didn’t) -- UFC 50 felt like the culmination of not much.

"[UFC 50] was not even close to UFC 100," Dana White says. "UFC 100 was huge."

UFC 46 in January, on the other hand, was at least something. What it was exactly is hard to pinpoint, but its operating title -- "Supernatural" -- was certainly on the right track, given the confluence of names and circumstances. Looking back on it now, it’s like clicking through slides of the Old West on a View-Master. At the time, it was just the usual amalgamation of chaos and characters.

Consider the lot.

There were great stories still waiting to unfold, like Matt Serra, who in two years would pull off the upset of the decade, opening against Jeff Curran on the prelims. There was St-Pierre, who in two years would be the Goliath figure that fell to Serra, closing out those prelims. And right in between there was Josh Thomson, who in 2013 -- nine years later -- would find himself fighting for the UFC belt.

For all those, there was Karo Parisyan, who is now a UFC pariah for violations associated with nerves and nerve candy. And Hermes Franca, who lost to Thomson. Franca ended up in jail for sexually abusing an underage student at a Brazilian jiu-jitsu academy. And then there was the granddaddy of fight game folklorists, Lee Murray -- you might remember him rolling out to the cage dressed disarmingly as Dr. Hannibal Lecter -- who ended up authored a $50-million bank heist in the U.K., and is now serving a 25-year sentence in a Moroccan prison. Dana White would say later on, "he is a scary son-of-a-b----, and I don’t mean fighter-wise."

No, the people fighting on UFC 46 weren’t your usual sipping teas.

Heading into UFC 46, the breadth of Murray’s lore was simply that he’d knocked out Tito Ortiz in a bar fight in London in the wee hours after UFC 38. That bit of gossip made its way across the pond well ahead of his fight with Jorge Rivera, who showed up to Vegas so normal as to become conspicuous. It was to the point that Rivera knew he was fighting a myth as much as the man.

"I remember Murray had lots of hype following him," Rivera says. "He had explosive power in both hands, and he had knocked Tito out in that street fight. So there was a lot of hype."

After Murray submitted Rivera, Joe Rogan asked him about Tito Ortiz and Murray went into a chest-thumping alpha rant. Ortiz, sitting the front row, made a casual throat-slashing gesture back towards him that signaled his acceptance to the challenge.

"There was a lot going on, but I remember the upsets that night," Rivera says. "B.J. Penn and Vitor Belfort both won, and with Belfort, it was a weird ending that I didn't see that coming. I believe that was the fight Vitor announced his sister had been kidnapped."

It was. Belfort sister Priscilla had gone missing just a few weeks before his title fight with Randy Couture in the main event, and that tragedy hung over the whole thing. Belfort fought anyway, yet the bout itself was a buzzkill, as just 45 seconds in Belfort glanced a punch off of Couture’s eye that scratched his cornea, thus prompting the cageside doctor to call it off.

Couture lost the light heavyweight belt on a fluky ordeal, and Penn -- who was a cult figure by this time for his elasticity and Hilo warrior spirit -- forfeited the belt he took from Hughes that night when he signed with K-1, setting up the Hughes-GSP fight at UFC 50.

Whatever it was about UFC 46, there something more going on than the usual bouquet of fates.

(Catch up on the previous years in this series: 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005)

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