One of the main activities of International Fight Week, the traditional biggest week of the year for the UFC, is the promotion’s Hall of Fame ceremony.
Unlike most sports’ Halls of Fames, the UFC’s is different. For one, there is no voting process. To be fair, while one can argue about deserving people who haven’t been included — and there are clear examples — there is also nobody undeserving who has been put in.
It’s also category based, as each year there are five people who are enshrined in four different categories. They are the Pioneers Wing, for fighters who started their careers before Nov. 17, 2000, the day the template for the modern unified rules came into existence; the Modern Wing, which is essentially for Zuffa-era fighters; the Contributor category, which is for non-fighters; and a fight itself.
The rules are that fighters inducted either have to be 36 years old or retired for one year. Active fighters are allowed to be put in, but those whose careers are over are generally favored. As for a fight itself, it has to have taken place at least five years prior, so for the 2018 class, any fight before July 2013 is eligible.
The Hall of Fame is, on paper, not just for the UFC, but for the three other major promotions that Zuffa purchased: The Japan-based Pride Fighting Championships, Strikeforce, and World Extreme Cagefighting, better known as the WEC.
The other aspect that isn’t talked about is the politics. We’ll call it the Frank Shamrock rule.
Any historian of the sport and people involved readily admit that Shamrock should be included in the UFC Hall of Fame and should have been among the first group of fighters put in. If you watch back his UFC fights from 1997 through 1999, when he was the company’s biggest star, you see a guy the size of a modern welterweight, or even lightweight, dominating what is now the light heavyweight division. Later, while past his heyday, Shamrock came back and was the most important fighter in Strikeforce establishing itself as really the most viable rival to UFC ever on the U.S. scene.
Shamrock and Dana White haven’t gotten along in years. It isn’t as if Shamrock has never been considered, but there are issues that have always gotten in the way. His case reminds us that there are extenuating circumstances past who deserves the spot that go into who is chosen.
So let’s look at the four categories and some of the leading candidates for the 2018 class.
Art Davie — A somewhat forgotten and controversial historical figure. Essentially, Davie was the person most responsible for the idea of UFC, and it actually coming to life. It was he who came up with a concept of fighters from different disciplines competing against each other with as few rules as possible. Swimming upstream, he brought Rorion Gracie aboard and put together a proposal to create a sport. His proposal was laughed out of every major television station he approached. But he found one interested party, Semaphore Entertainment Group, a pay-per-view distributor, who bit. Without Davie, there is no UFC, and without him hustling the idea even when constantly rebuffed, the idea would have died long before a first show. He was the UFC’s first matchmaker, a position he held for several years. But he also spoke out against the sport years later, after he was no longer with the company, and at a time the sport was struggling to stay alive.
Lorenzo Fertitta — Arguably the single most important person in the popularization of what was a dying company in a pseudo-sport going nowhere. If not for his wealth, belief in its potential, and not throwing in the towel after massive monetary losses from 2001-04, the UFC would probably not exist today. If it did, it would be lower on the sports totem poll in the U.S. than kickboxing, which had the advantage of being at least accepted for television — something the UFC wasn’t until he was largely able to buy a reality show onto the air in 2005, which led to live fights, and everything took off. While Dana White was the face of the company, and Joe Silva handled the talent and matchmaking, both would have needed the backing and negotiating and work ethic of Fertitta to have had the success they did.
John McCarthy — McCarthy started officiating at UFC 2 in 1994 and has since been a referee, a judge, a teacher, a television analyst and someone who was in the trenches trying to get the sport legalized in a number of states. He was involved in rules changes and putting together the UFC’s first rule book. He’s still, in recent years, spearheaded recent rule changes and judging criteria changes. He’s easily the most famous referee in history, but his contributions go far beyond being inside the cage. He is a no-brainer as a Hall of Famer.
Campbell McLaren and David Isaacs — McLaren and Isaacs were in charge of UFC from its inception in late 1993, through the ups and down of the various political battles that SEG went through. McLaren’s marketing was the catalyst of the early pay-per-view success of the sport, without which, it probably would have been one-and-done.
Verdict: Fertitta should be the pick, but the question is if he would accept it. Given that he is no longer involved in the sport, but was its savior, for the credibility of a Hall of Fame that he helped green light, he should accept this year. McCarthy would be my second choice, but give his role as an announcer with Bellator, that becomes a political issue. This probably isn’t the year for him. So if not Fertitta, Davie should be the pick. If the Hall of Fame is to be the catalyst to learn history, Davie is the guy who came up with the idea for the sport and gave it life, and that history of how it started should be acknowledged.
Fedor Emelianenko — Emelianenko never fought in the UFC, even though the company spent years courting him. But he was a huge star with Pride, holding its heavyweight championship from 2003 until the company folded four years later. He had a 28-fight unbeaten streak over 10 years, and for years was regarded as the greatest fighter in the sport.
Dan Henderson — A two-time Olympian in wrestling, “Hollywood” Henderson fought for 20 years. He held Pride championships in two weight classes at the same time, was also Strikeforce light heavyweight champion, and won a 32-man openweight tournament against some of the best heavyweights of the era while only weighing 190 pounds. While he never won a UFC championship, he was one of the most respected fighters on the roster. In his final fight, he came close to winning the middleweight championship at the age of 46.
Frank Shamrock — There’s that name again. Shamrock was the UFC’s first champion of the under-200 pound weight class, winning five title bouts, the first two in a combined time of 38 seconds. He vacated the title because the money was no longer there, but later became Strikeforce biggest drawing card and first middleweight champion.
Verdict: This is the most political of the categories. Emelianenko is the strongest candidate, but even though the Hall of Fame covers Pride and Strikeforce, his never fighting in the UFC or working for the UFC, not to mention currently fighting with Bellator, all makes it tough. When it comes to Shamrock, it would be shocking for him to go in this year for all the reasons he wasn’t an automatic pick years ago. But time heals all wounds and some day he will be in. Really, this is a category that in a few years will run its course, as besides these three, and perhaps people like Wanderlei Silva, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Vitor Belfort, the candidates will be getting thin and it’s not worth watering down the concept to put in those undeserving to fill a quota. Emelianenko should be the pick, but Henderson has the best chance of those listed.
Michael Bisping — While never the best fighter, he is a former middleweight champion and his coming in on short notice as a heavy underdog and knocking out Luke Rockhold in the first round is one of the great title wins of all-time. His career is coming to a close and he is tied with Georges St-Pierre and Donald Cerrone for the most wins in company history.
Ronda Rousey — While just having turned 31, Rousey hasn’t fought in one year and is considered retired now that she’s signed with WWE. She is the biggest mainstream star in the sport’s history, and as the star who put women into the UFC, her historical importance can’t be denied.
Anderson Silva — For years thought of as the best fighter in the sport, Silva’s 16-fight winning streak is the current UFC record. His nearly seven consecutive years as middleweight champion may be UFC’s most difficult record to break. But with him being currently suspended over a steroid test failure, this is simply not his year.
Georges St-Pierre — With Silva and Jon Jones dismissed from the discussion due to multiple drug test failures, GSP and Emelianenko are the two leading candidates as far as the greatest MMA fighter in history. GSP was more skillful, more dominant, and fought a far higher level of competition. He is the single-most worthy fighter eligible.
Verdict: The timing is all wrong for Silva. St-Pierre is still active, so his guaranteed enshrinement can wait. There is something to be said for the Hall of Fame that Rousey should go in her first year of eligibility, so that would be my pick. The question is if she considers herself to be retired.
Cris Cyborg vs. Gina Carano, August 15, 2009, San Jose HP Pavilion — This was an incredibly heated but largely one-sided bout where Cyborg was just too physically strong for Carano, who was MMA’s first true female drawing card. The fight was stopped with one second left in the first round, and Carano never fought again. Cyborg became the Strikeforce women’s featherweight champion, the first women’s championship in a promotion with national television exposure. More importantly, this fight ended the axiom that women couldn’t draw in MMA. The fight outdrew Fedor Emelianenko fighting in the same arena, and set what was at the time Showtime’s record rating for MMA.
Urijah Faber vs. Jens Pulver, June 1, 2008, Sacramento Arco Arena — While a Fight of the Year candidate in 2008, this being listed is more about history than this being one of the greatest fights of all-time. Smaller fighters had never drawn in the U.S. and there was a feeling in many circles that they couldn’t. WEC fights had usually been held in small casino arenas as opposed to an NBA arena. But the two nearly sold the building out, and really it was this fight that established Sacramento as one of the best MMA cities in the country. The matchup also drew one of the highest television ratings for a fight of that era. Pulver was the established star as UFC’s fight 155-pound champion, and this was the fight that made Faber a big star, put the featherweight division on the map, and put the stamp on the WEC as a major promotion.
Don Frye vs. Yoshihiro Takayama, June 23, 2002, Saitama Super Arena — The brawl that every other brawl in history is immediately compared to. This fight is like no other fight in history, with the two men holding and hitting until they were exhausted. And then they went right back to it until Frye finally prevailed at the 6:10 mark.
Dan Henderson vs. Mauricio Shogun Rua, November 19, 2011, San Jose HP Pavilion — Many have called this the greatest fight in UFC history, and it’s almost universally considered top five. Henderson won a unanimous decision on 48-47 scores in a five-round war which saw each man nearly finished on more than one occasion. This was probably the closest MMA equivalent to the famed boxing Thrilla in Manilla with Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier.
Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Royce Gracie, May 1, 2000, Tokyo Dome — This was a fight like none before and none since, because it had no time limit and 15-minute rounds. Gracie had never lost a fight, and Sakuraba was the huge crowd favorite. The fight went 90 minutes before Rorion Gracie threw in the towel for his younger brother. This fight was the key in the explosion of popularity of Pride, and turned Sakuraba into a national hero.
Verdict: Every one of these fights at some point should be honored, but with Takayama now a quadriplegic due to a horrible accident in a pro wrestling ring, while he can’t be there to get the award, it should prioritize his legendary fight being honored.