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Hall of Fame honor couldn't come at a better time for fight legend, Don Frye

Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

In going through a painful divorce, in some ways Don Frye's induction into the UFC Hall of Fame couldn't have come at a better time.

"It's the only bright spot in my life," he said about the July 10 ceremony at the Las Vegas Convention Center. "The only thing fun for me is the Hall of Fame. It's definitely the biggest honor I've ever had in my life, right up there with the (Yoshihiro) Takayama and (Mark) Coleman fights."

Frye's 1996 was one of the most amazing years in UFC history, fighting ten times in the promotion with 11 fights overall, winning 10 fights and two tournaments, including the Ultimate Ultimate. It ended up being the only year he competed in the UFC, but even with that being the case, few who were around at the time would put up an argument against his Hall of Fame credentials.

But on a worldwide basis, his most enduring legacy is outside the UFC, the fight which which every great brawl is compared.

On June 23, 2002, at the Saitama Super Arena, Frye squared off with Yoshihiro Takayama, a 6-foot-5, 275 pound Japanese pro wrestler. Takayama was trained in real fighting by the likes of Billy Robinson, the famed Wigan, England submission specialist of the '60s and '70s.

For six minutes the two met in the center of the ring and traded right hands at a pace which has almost never been equaled. The pace exhausted both immediately, and after catching their breath, they went back to the center, and did it again. And again. Even though Takayama was much bigger, Frye punched harder and Takayama's face ended up swollen to a ridiculous degree, and he was eventually finished.

It is one of the most famous fights of any kind in Japan to this day. It was so famous that Frye and Takayama ended up cast in a movie three years later, where they reprised the memorable exchanges from that famous fight. In most cases, the scripting and multiple takes of a movie can make an exciting fight even more brutal and dramatic. But this was a case where even with multiple takes, they could never fully capture what the real fight had. The fight was also reprised in a Japanese anime. The two even met years later in a major pro wrestling match off the legend of the fight. Takayama became Japan's biggest pro wrestling star the next year off the legend of the Frye fight. In the Kevin James movie Here Comes the Boom, in the dramatic final scene, Joe Rogan, as announcer, talked of the movie's climactic fight as being the greatest thing since Frye and Takayama.

Almost every year, at the UFC Fan Expo in Las Vegas, when they air clips of famous matches, people walk around, do their shopping, wait in their lines, and meet fighters. And every year, almost on cue, when that fight is put on the screens, about 30 seconds into it, the place goes almost silent. People are just stunned at what they are seeing. Given that the fight was in Japan and more than a decade ago, few modern-era fans had ever seen it, and many don't even know about it.

The funny thing is the fight itself was never scheduled to happen. Frye was 14-1 in his career at that point, even with a four-year hiatus from MMA to be a star in New Japan Pro Wrestling. His lone loss was a brutal match on six years earlier to Mark Coleman, and he had badly wanted a rematch.

Frye had become the most popular American fighter in Japan, stemming from a fight against Gilbert Yvel, who constantly gouged his eyes. Even though Frye won the bout via disqualification and was barely able to see with his eyes swollen shut, Frye still wanted to continue the fight. That fight took place 13 days after 9/11, and Frye, while in Japan, asked his family to send him an American flag. He got a broomstick while in Japan and came out waving the flag, and the timing of such made him a symbol in Japan of American patriotism after the attack. He was so popular than he and Coleman were in the main event, ahead of Japanese fighters, as well as people like Fedor Emelianenko and Bob Sapp.

"I put so much training into that fight," he said. "I thought it was going to be Coleman in a rematch. I trained so freaking hard. Then Coleman got hurt seriously. I was devastated. I felt so bad for him. I couldn't do anything until I found out he was going to be okay. Then I got on the saddle and got ready to go."

While the often quiet Japanese crowd went crazy, Frye didn't fully understand the impact of the fight at first.

"I didn't really know what it was until somebody told me it beat the World Cup soccer game, Japan vs. Korea, and our fight beat it (in the ratings) in the time slot."

For the next several years, Frye was treated in Japan almost like he was Japanese. Even losing couldn't hurt his aura. In fact, his next fight, on November 24, 2002, at a sold out Tokyo Dome, was a loss that only added to that aura. Frye was to face Hidehiko Yoshida, a national hero in judo who had captured a gold medal in the Olympics a decade earlier. Yoshida, in a heavily publicized MMA debut, got Frye in an armbar, and Frye's elbow snapped, as he had simply refused to tap. The same thing happened in a win over Ken Shamrock, where Shamrock's leg locks tore up Frye's ankles and knees, yet he refused to tap. Not only that, but he came back and won a split decision.

"I was a dumb ass," he said about the Yoshida fight. "My back was jacked up. My back started hurting before the Takayama fight. I took pills for my back. I couldn't move. I couldn't think. What a stupid ass for taking those pills. Pain was a lot easier to deal with than a loss."

Regarding the reputation he garnered during that time, he said, "They didn't pay me to quit — they paid me to fight."

Frye, 50, will be part of a ceremony at the same Fan Expo where, in previous years, that Takayama fight traditionally gets people to stand still in their tracks. The ceremony also includes Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, former UFC owner Bob Meyrowitz, and the Pete Williams vs. Coleman fight from May 15, 1998. The climax of that fight featured a knockout by Williams that was probably replayed as much as any moment in the early history of the UFC.

Frye was a champion high school wrestler in Arizona, who placed fifth at junior nationals in 1985. He went on to Arizona State, where one of his coaches was Dan Severn, and then Oklahoma State, where he lost his starting position at 190 to Randy Couture, who went on to finish second in the nation.

He did some boxing, ran a horseshoe business, and eventually worked as a firefighter for several years before Severn contacted him to be part of his training camp for the 1995 Ultimate Ultimate tournament, which Severn won.

"I took time off from my horseshoe business and firefighting and went to where Dan was training," he said about his first experience with a far more brutal sport than it is today. "He threw me around for five weeks. Dan was a great fighter. I love Dan Severn, I really do.  He changed my life for the better. Sparring partners were showing up and disappearing after a day or two. But Dan beat up on me for five weeks."

Severn got Frye, who turned 30 before he got his sport into this new genre, a spot in a February 16, 1996, tournament, in Bayamon, Puerto Rico. It was billed as David vs. Goliath. The format was there would be four Davids, who were 200 pounds or less, and four much-larger  Goliaths, as their opponents. It sounds silly, but 1996 wasn't far removed from the era where Royce Gracie, at less than 180 pounds, was beating everyone (regardless of weight). The doctrine at the time was size didn't matter in a fight as much as skill. And on this night, it was proven to be true.

But Frye did have an edge, as most fighters in those early days were either purely stand-up fighters, or wrestlers. With a background of wrestling, boxing and judo, Frye was more well-rounded and mentally tougher than his competition.

He became an instant star, beating 400-pound Thomas Ramirez in eight seconds. He needed only 48 seconds to beat 270-pound Sam Adkins, and a little over two minutes to take out 260-pound Gary Goodridge. His tournament win got him featured in People Magazine.

Over the next few months he found himself in two of the most brutal UFC fights on record. It was a very different game, in the sense referees did not stop fights until people were at the point where they could no longer defend themselves and were mentally broken.

The first time, it was Amaury Bitetti, his opponent, who was brutalized and refused to quit after taking scary damage. The next time, the shoe was on the other foot, as it was Frye who refused to quit in a war with Coleman.

"That guy was all man," Frye said about Bitetti, who got pounded to the point he was hospitalized and in rough condition after the fight. In the cage, for the last several minutes, Bitetti's eyes were glazed over, but he simply refused to stay down.

"He stayed there," said Frye. "There was no quit in that man. He was impressive to fight."

His year ended on December 7, 1996, in the second Ultimate Ultimate tournament, which was essentially UFC's version of an eight-man tournament of champions. Facing Goodridge a second time, the Canadian, who was much bigger and stronger, had come a long way as a fighter since the first meeting. The fight was a war, with both men just hanging on well past exhaustion. At that point, it became a battle of who would quit first, and in those days, Frye would always win that battle. The unfortunate part? He still had to fight two more times that same night.

"I cheated," he admitted. "I brought a buddy of mine in and after the first fight with Gary Goodridge, he put two bags of IV fluid in me."

In the finals, he faced off with Tank Abbott in one of the most exciting sub-90-second fights in UFC history.

Frye was knocked down and bloodied up right away.

"We were throwing punches and it got to him, the level of cardio. We kept punching and my guardian angel pushed me from behind, I head-butted him [head-butts were still legal at the time] and jumped on his back. The story was, I got knocked down and got back up. He got knocked down and didn't get back up.

"That was the biggest event, it was like winning the Super Bowl all by yourself."

Frye was scheduled to face Severn for the heavyweight title after winning the tournament, but instead took a lucrative offer to become a pro wrestler with New Japan Pro Wrestling. Even though he had virtually no experience at it, few men in pro wrestling history become headliners as quickly. While not particularly skilled in the usual style of pro wrestling, he made up for it by exuding an aura of realism with eyes and facial expressions that made him come across as dangerous and unpredictable.

He sold out the Tokyo Dome twice as a main eventer, once against Keiji Muto, the other as the opponent of Antonio Inoki in Inoki's retirement match. The latter show drew nearly 60,000 fans and did a $7 million gate, setting the all-time record for pro wrestling. It's still a mark that has still never been topped in Japan, and wasn't topped anywhere in the world until the 2012 Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson vs. John Cena match at WrestleMania.

He probably could have been even bigger in wrestling, because the original plan was for him to beat Inoki, a Japanese star who culturally was a significantly bigger star than Hulk Hogan ever was in the U.S.

"His ego got involved," Frye recalled about the finish being changed. "It was supposed to be the end of a 35-year great career. He was a hero in Japan. We were supposed to go 20 minutes, 30 minutes, and then two minutes into it, I broke his ribs. That's why we went to the finish so fast. He broke his ribs. We did the finish. After the match he had to stand there for 50 to 100 people, stand up, re-bow, grab flowers, bow again. He did that about 100 times. He didn't feel good that night.

"I thought he was going to kill me. My ex-wife and I were sweating bullets the whole way to the airport. Right before we got on the airplane, I was tapped on the shoulder. I thought that was it. Inoki basically stopped the whole airport. But he just sent the message, `Thank you.' I've never been so privileged in my life."

He returned as a fighter against Yvel, when Pride got so big they were offering far more money than pro wrestling, and by using stars from popular Japanese endeavors like sumo and pro wrestling in real fights, created massive interest in their shows.

"I was a heel in pro wrestling," he said. "So I brought a big crowd with me [to Pride]. I was privileged enough to do the Inoki retirement, then 9/11 happened."

But he was almost always a babyface as a fighter, and that had its downside. Because of who he was, he had a a brutal kickboxing loss to Jerome LeBanner before 71,000 fans. It was his first kickboxing match ever, while LeBanner was one of the greatest heavyweights in that sport's history. He also got a submission victory over 6-foot-8, 480-pound Akebono, a sumo legend.

Another drawback of being so popular in Japan was that nobody wanted to see him lose. In an April 8, 2007, which ended up being the last event Pride ever promoted, he faced the U.K's James Thompson, who was 13 years younger and 35 pounds heavier.

Frye was the much bigger star, but he was 41 and had all kinds of injures. Thompson took over in the fight and gave him a terrible beating. Because he was Don Frye, the guy who would never quit, referee Yuji Shimada was almost criminally negligent in standing there waiting for Frye to make a comeback that never happened. To the end, he never mentally broke.

While he fought five more times after that, and even won two of them, it was that haunting beating that you never want to see a top star get at the end of his career — times ten.

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