Former NAIA collegiate wrestler Bobby Lashley made his MMA debut the right way this weekend: in near obscurity.
Lashley, a broad-shouldered refugee of the highly intellectual pursuit of professional wrestling, defeated unknown, unheralded Josh Franklin in an untelevised event Saturday in Miami. Despite notoriety from his WWE tumbling days, Lashley did the smart thing and stuck only the proverbial toe in the shark-infested waters of prizefighting -- both he and his opponent sported 0-0 records.
Lashley had -- if you'll pardon the inane use of the expression -- a fighting chance. He won the bout in 41 seconds.
Not all combat athletes have been so lucky. Lured by big paydays and sadistic promoters, debuting fighters have often been used as chum for some of MMA's most experienced punishers.
Even in the highly unethical world of boxing, there appears to be no record of a rookie pugilist taking his first fight against Mike Tyson -- at least, not after Tyson had been established to be responsible for more concussive brain injuries than a construction site.
In many cases, we'll never know if a slower introductory pace would've carved out bigger, better careers. Some unfortunate fighters who opted for the hard road their first time out:
10. Pawel Nastula vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (Pride Critical Countdown, June 26, 2005)
Nogueira is, as Frank Mir recently pointed out, not a terrible lot of fun to fight. He's never been knocked out, never been submitted and appears to have the constitution of a snapping turtle. I anticipate him living for hundreds of years, wearing down opponents with glacial indifference to their attacks until he latches onto a leg or arm.
Or, as Mir said: "He's like a cockroach. But in a good way." Exactly.
Nastula was no slouch, having earned a gold medal in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games in judo -- but Nogueira was already a veteran of 29 fights by the time they met in '05. It took a little while -- Nog is rarely in a rush to do anything -- but he eventually folded Nastula up and tucked him in.
9. Muhammed Lawal vs. Travis Wiuff (Sengoku, Sept. 28, 2008)
While most first-timers tend to crumble under the pressure of an experienced opponent, credit NCAA wrestling champion Lawal with embracing it. Dancing out to face Wiuff -- who's logged more fights than Junie Allen Browning surrounded by a camera crew -- the debuting fighter stopped Wiuff with strikes in under a round.
Perhaps Lawal cemented his own fate: After coming out in a king's crown and robe, losing wasn't much of an option.
8. Karam Ibrahim vs. Kazuyuki Fujita (K-1 Dynamite, Dec. 31, 2004)
Ibrahim's depressing performance against Fujita is so well documented that Ibrahim would be justified in telling me to get over it already. Problem is, I can't.
The Egyptian, who won the Greco-Roman gold medal in the 2004 Olympics, is a heavyweight with the agility of a featherweight. He makes Kevin Randleman look arthritic in comparison. His promise in MMA appeared to be unlimited.
Too bad he fought Fujita, completely ignored his wrestling base, and traded strikes with that giant block of cement until he got caught, never to fight again -- sacrificed at the altar of New Year's Eve ratings in Japan.
7. Dong Sik Yoon vs. Kazushi Sakuraba (Pride Total Elimination, April 23, 2005)
By the spring of '05, fabled "Gracie Killer" Sakuraba was beginning to lose the veneer of technical superiority he had displayed for so long -- but he was still plenty capable of roughing up opponents with little ring experience, a trait he put on display against judoka Yoon in the first round of a Pride tournament.
Sakuraba, who rarely scores standing KOs, put Yoon on the mat and finished him with strikes. The bout had alleged political overtones, with Sakuraba representing Japan against Yoon and Korea; fair play wasn't apparently part of the equation.
An impressive kickboxing career can prepare you for many things, but unless your name is Maurice Smith, it can't prepare you for Mark Coleman.
Satake, a tenacious and successful striker in K-1, made his mixed-style entrance by being tossed into a 16-man open-weight tournament. If that weren't crippling enough, he was seeded against Coleman, who -- despite coming off consecutive losses in the UFC -- was still plenty capable of wrenching Satake's head clean off and tossing it aside.
That's more or less what he did, using a neck crank to mimic on Satake's spine the stress of a head-on vehicle collision. Satake went on to accrue seven more losses before finally taking the hint.
There's no waiting list of athletes looking for a fight with Arona. He's strong, methodical and can make even the most experienced and aggressive of combatants look ineffectual.
The Russian Ignatov looked unconcerned by all this, gamely trotting out for competition. Arona proceeded to use him as an inanimate practice dummy, passing guard and garnering his back or the mount at will.
Possibly as offended by the mismatch as fans were, Arona held a rear-naked choke well past the point of reason. Ignatov never fought again. What exactly any of this was supposed to prove remains a mystery.
4. Cesar Gracie vs. Frank Shamrock (Strikeforce, March 10, 2006)
Long the patriarch in a stable of high-profile, high-value fighters (Nick and Nate Diaz, Jake Shields), Gracie had never had a professional MMA bout until meeting up with a semiretired Shamrock. The difference in striking ability was evident immediately, with Shamrock needing only 21 seconds to end his three-year layoff with a victory.
In the long, distressing list of offenses committed by the California State Athletic Commission with Armando Garcia at the helm, a 0-0 fighter paired with 22-7 opponent is at the top of the pile. Or the bottom. Take your pick.
Ounce for ounce, there might be no better athlete in the sport than the diminutive "Kid," a firecracker of a wrestler so gutsy he actually took on K-1 kickboxing legend Masato in a stand-up match -- and knocked him down in his own game.
The Hungarian Majoros, a Greco-Roman gold medal winner in the 2004 Olympics, continued the ignoble trend of using that chunk of precious metal as admission into a fight far exceeding his current abilities. After a brief feeling-out process, Kid pounded on him like he was a dirty throw rug.
As if the skill disparity weren't enough, Majoros was a 55-kilogram entrant in the Games -- 121 pounds of prime competition weight to Yamamoto's 145.
1. Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir (UFC 81, Feb. 2, 2008)
So it's a bit of a cheat -- Lesnar's first pro MMA bout came against Min Soo Kim in 2007. But I argue that if your opponent doesn't punch you back, it's not much of a fight.
Lesnar's real test came against Mir in his UFC debut, a fight that organizers seemed to concoct with the intention of giving Lesnar the most difficult road possible. Where Lesnar is at his most formidable and comfortable -- providing offense on top -- is where Mir is most dangerous, a fact he proved less than a couple of minutes in with a knee bar.
That Lesnar was able to rebound speaks to his confidence as an athlete, and the fact that he didn't enter the sport for the quick payday. While I generally yawn at rematches, this is one that would likely provide contrast between first-fight jitters and the cage calm that comes with experience.
Jake Rossen is a contributor to Sherdog.com.