Mixed martial arts remains a very young sport.
Despite a short history that dates back less than 20 years, MMA has produced some remarkable fights -- bouts like Royce Gracie against Dan Severn, Frank Shamrock versus Tito Ortiz and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira against Fedor Emelianenko.
Every longstanding promoter will admit that for every "superfight" made, another fails to materialize because of injury, a contract dispute or promoters failing to cooperate with one another.
Sherdog.com's Tim Leidecker looks at the top five fights that could have been during the past 15 years.
Nogueira -- the current UFC interim heavyweight champion and arguably the fighter who uses Brazilian jiu-jitsu better than anyone else in an MMA environment -- has also been a big draw in Japan. During his run in the star-studded Pride heavyweight division between 2001 and 2006, he faced the cream of the crop of the world's best heavyweights, losing only to the overwhelming Emelianenko and the well-rounded Josh Barnett.
The lone exceptional opponent he did not fight during his stint in Pride was Japanese Olympic judo gold medalist Yoshida, who was Pride's undisputed native top star in 2005 and 2006. The world-class ground fighter had earned the respect of critics by adapting well to a new environment in which he had to stand, punch and get punched. Yoshida had fought and beaten opponents who outweighed him by more than 50 pounds. The promotion had even started a story line in which Nogueira was matched up against Polish Olympic judo gold medalist Pawel Nastula -- a teammate and good friend of Yoshida's -- whom Nogueira submitted in the first round at Pride "Critical Countdown 2005."
The bankruptcy and subsequent sale of Pride's parent company, Dream Stage Entertainment, to UFC owners Zuffa LLC ended any chances of this classic judo versus jiu-jitsu confrontation taking place. Zuffa has moved Nogueira over to the UFC, while Yoshida is now the centerpiece of the fledgling Sengoku promotion in Japan. While Yoshida might not be able to fight Minotauro there, the chances of him taking on Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Minotauro's twin brother, are significantly better. Rogerio Nogueira recently made his debut for Sengoku and sports his own successful career in Japan.
Anybody who's followed the sport since its inception knows the mythic qualities that surround Gracie. Even at 50, he faces demands from Japanese fans who seek his return. While it's difficult to prove whether or not the Gracie family's most prominent son was actually 500-0 during his fighting career -- or just 499-0 -- it's a fact that he was able to sell tickets in Japan like no one else in the mid to late 1990s.
Probably better known in professional wrestling circles in the United States, Korean-born Maeda garnered a similar cult following in Japan. A tireless worker, he revolutionized Japanese pro wrestling and formed the Rings promotion in 1991. A hodgepodge between legitimate fighting and matches with arranged outcomes, it was an approach that was later copied by Pancrase. Despite nagging knee injuries that slowed down the popular heavyweight, Maeda kept a busy schedule in an effort to entertain his fans.
In 1998, as a farewell present before retiring, Maeda worked incredibly hard to put together a fight between himself and the legendary Brazilian. He even promised Gracie a new show with his own set of rules and handpicked sponsors, but a meeting between the two wasn't meant to be. Pride's new owners, Dream Stage Entertainment, snatched Gracie away and had him rematch Nobuhiko Takada, a man he had already beaten decisively. Maeda was disappointed but eventually settled on another larger-than-life legend -- Russian Aleksandr Karelin, the most dominant Greco-Roman wrestler in history -- for his retirement match.
Shamrock suffers from the bane of early birth. The American submission expert excelled in the sport during a time that can best be described as the "dark ages." During his heyday, from 1997 to 1999, the UFC was dropped from major pay-per-view distributors throughout the country and was even banned in 36 states thanks to a campaign led by Sen. John McCain. As a result, only an elite and hard-core few were able to see Shamrock's legendary fights inside the Octagon against feared wrestler Kevin Jackson or cocky up-and-comer Ortiz.
Those who went to their local video stores to get copies of Shamrock's fights were also in the know about Sakuraba, a fighting sensation out of Japan. The fighter who would later become known as the "Gracie Hunter" and the "IQ Wrestler" amazed crowds with a unique and entertaining fighting style that strongly incorporated influences from pro wrestling. Despite his antics, Sakuraba never forgot to do his business inside the ring, submitting tough opponents like Vernon White, Carlos Newton and Ebenezer Fontes Braga.
Shamrock has gone on record multiple times claiming he has made efforts to make the fight happen for no less than two full years. The showdown between two of the finest submission fighters of the 1990s was almost realized in November 2005, when Shamrock went to Japan to negotiate a fight against Sakuraba on New Year's Eve. In the end, the Californian and Pride parent company DSE could not come to terms.
The bout between Couture and Emelianenko appeared to be the fight with the potential to shatter all previous records when rumors about title unification between the UFC and Pride heavyweight champions first spread in summer 2007. After that, there has been a seemingly endless back and forth from both fighters, their actions resembling the antics that cloud many top boxing matches that never got made.
First, Couture retired from the UFC in an effort to free himself from his contract with Zuffa LLC. Then, after realizing that his remaining years might be tied up in court, the "Natural" retired from his retirement and went back into the arms of the UFC. At the same time, Emelianenko signed a contract with M-1 Global, a promotion that never put on a single event with its original staff. That contract was terminated six months later.
Sandwiched by ill-fated negotiations with Zuffa, which prompted UFC president Dana White to refer to Emelianenko's management team as "crazy Russians," the world's undisputed No. 1 heavyweight attached himself to the upstart Affliction promotion. After carrying their first pay-per-view event -- in which he dispatched former UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia in just 36 seconds -- the Last Emperor signed an exclusive deal with Affliction.
As a result, Couture and Emelianenko might both fight in Las Vegas in the future, but they seem light years away from facing one another anytime soon.
During MMA's early years, the sport served as a vehicle to find the most effective martial art. In the 1990s, many of the most popular bouts were strict style-versus-style matchups. A debate that continues today revolves around whether Brazilian jiu-jitsu or amateur wrestling serves as the most effective base for MMA.
Two fighters who could have ended the debate 10 years ago were Kerr and Gracie. The latter was the star of the Gracie jiu-jitsu infomercials that were the first UFC events and caused BJJ schools to mushroom in the United States. While Gracie, at 6-foot, 175 pounds, did beat a strong wrestler in Dan Severn at UFC 4, he had never faced a physical specimen like Kerr during his first five UFC events. As a result, fight fans demanded that he fight Kerr.
Pride, which was responsible for promoting the most memorable superfights at the time, heard the fans' pleas and tried to make the match happen. To everyone's surprise, the fight almost came to fruition; event posters with Gracie and Kerr on them were even printed. Then on Dec. 24, 1997, a little more than three weeks before the show was supposed to take place, Gracie pulled out with a bulging disc in his back. That deprived fight fans around the world from perhaps the most important fight in the history of the sport, one that could have ended the tiresome wrestling-versus-BJJ debate once and for all.
Tim Leidecker is a contributor to Sherdog.com.