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2002: Chandeliers and the first historical half

(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 UFC’s pay-per-view numbering system that has now set a course for infinity, strange things are bound to happen in the timeline. UFC 151, of course, went the way of the Anasazi; one day it just up and disappeared. And in 2002, there was the advent of the first (and last) decimal in the pantheon of whole numbers.

That’s when UFC 37.5 took place in Las Vegas, a show that was crammed in front of Zuffa’s visit to Royal Albert Hall in London for UFC 38 because the marketing was already well underway when the half measure was conceptualized. The reason for the six-bout featurette that would go off without the nuisance of prelims? The Best Damn Sports Show Period on Fox Sports Net. It was all about Fox even in those early aughts, just when exposure was at a premium, and Zuffa was shaking the dirt off of all the preconceived notions about cage-fighting.

Though it was the clubfooted cousin of the usual PPVs, cut in half by circumstance and opportunism, the historical value of UFC 37.5 was high.

The premise was that the best fight from the card, which was headlined by Chuck Liddell and Vitor Belfort, would be showcased in its entirety on the show’s "All Star Summer" celebration. That’s how Robbie Lawler and a St. Louis fighter named Steve Berger broke ground as the first in the UFC to ever appear on free cable television. Lawler, doing what he do, knocked Berger out early in the second round -- which meant, the first ever UFC fight to hit the cable airwaves lasted five minutes and 27 seconds all told.

"Who they would show [on TBDSSP] I think was up in the air at the time," says Benji Radach, who fought Nick Serra that night. "I know they were kind of favoring Lawler, because he had a really exciting fight with Aaron Riley the fight before that when I fought Berger. That was a really good three-round fight, and it was exciting, so it was up in the air but it felt like they were leaning his way. He was an up-and-comer, and he had a lot of power."

Both Lawler and Radach carry the distinction of having fought on both UFC 37 and the hook, UFC 37.5. Just like in the days of Bronko Nagurski, fighters in 2002 needed only a drink of water and a slap to the rear quarters to turn around and fight again (so long as the commissions said it was cool). As MMA was still new to Las Vegas and Nevada -- which the first big hurdle in the UFC’s resurrection from the SEG era -- the Bellagio was as good a venue as any to take off the shoes and duke it out.

And what a scene it was.

In 2013 it might seem odd to hold a fight card in a ballroom with cascading chandeliers, where the appetites ranged more towards good sturgeon roe than they do towards heel hooks, but in 2002 the surrounding elegance was…well, it was what it was.

"If I remember right, in that ballroom, there was bleacher seating," says Radach. "[The UFC] wasn’t quite as professional as it is now, with all the extra hype and everything. But it still was the UFC, and it was still the big show on campus. They didn’t have all the extra little thingies. Now you get this bag and little things in your room, it’s kind of a lot of bells and whistles to go along with the program."

Amenities aside, there were other "firsts" in play that night in June on the half card. Joe Rogan, who has been converting casual people into defensive hardcores for years with his descriptive work towards such things as gogoplatas, made his debut as the UFC’s color man on the broadcast. Before then he was the backstage guy, interviewing the fighters.

And though most fights on the card ended in knockout or decision, he did get to call his first armbar when Pete Spratt torqued Zach Light’s arm at the midway point of the first round. After that the Serra-Radach fight was a regular Garden of Eden for jiu-jitsuphiles with a microphone.

"First of all I knew Nick Serra was a really good submission guy like his brother, Matt," Radach says. "I remember him catching me in that triangle right off the bat, and he locked up. And it was right at the beginning of the fight, which is not a good spot to be in, because he’s fresh and he’s got you in a full triangle. Luckily I was able to escape that. I remember that fight I was just trying to stay out of his triangles."

Radach would steer clear of Serra’s geometric pressure enough to get the decision in the end, just like Liddell would take care of Belfort on the scorecards at UFC 37.5. And Lawler, whose left hand might one day be enshrined in the UFC hall of fame even if the rest of his body is not, made the chandeliers sway to the rhythm of his brand of violence.

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