It was a different world back in May of 2002. Zuffa, Inc. was making headway in turning around their ailing franchise – a franchise that had been near death not even two years prior – and in the Octagon Tito Ortiz, Murilo Bustamante, Matt Hughes and Jens Pulver all held the belts in their respective weight classes (a failed post-fight drug test for steroids meant Josh Barnett’s brief reign as king was over, so there was no heavyweight champ). Thanks to the UFC’s return to pay-per-view and a sudden influx of capital in a once-dwindling market, it was an era of optimism, and in between editions in the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas, the organization took UFC 37: “High Impact” on the road to the CenturyTel Center in Bossier City, Louisiana. There, BJ Penn gave an uninspired performance, Ricco Rodriguez earned the right to face Randy Couture for the lone vacant title, Bustamante was forced to win twice in one bout, and on the under card, a young man nicknamed “Ruthless” debuted with an inspiring display of power and heart.
A flight into Shreveport Regional Airport and then a short ride in a Zuffa-chartered van and you were hanging out in the lobby of the fighters’ hotel, which, given the sparseness of the area’s social options, was really all there was to do in this Southern city not far from the Texas border (although some, like Hughes, Penn and a baby-faced Benji Radach, did eventually find a local bar to infiltrate). But there were other distractions. Accompanying teammates Andrei Semenov and Amar Suloev was a trash-talking Gilbert Yvel, who spent the days leading up to the May 10th event harassing and threatening Suloev’s opponent, Phil Baroni. For his part, Baroni was unfazed; few expected him to get past his Red Devil foe, and the “New York Bad Ass” was focused on defeating the Russian fighter more than anything else. Meanwhile, Rodriguez was calm and relaxed and every bit the freight train few expected Tsuyoshi Kohsaka would be able to derail, and newcomers Radach, Ivan Salaverry, Paul Creighton, Aaron Riley and Robbie Lawler alternated between wide-eyed, cool and jovial or a combination thereof. One uneventful, and private, weigh-in on a concourse in the venue on May 9th and it was soon fight time.
After destroying opponents in his first three trips to the Octagon, Penn was the lightweight juggernaut who most believed would be untouchable amongst the fairly new 155-pound division. But champ Pulver outworked him at UFC 35, so with limitless talent and zero motivation the Hawaiian stepped into the cage against an overmatched Creighton at UFC 37 and did the bare minimum needed to earn the TKO win. It was a different story altogether for Rodriguez. In the locker room before his bout he was calm, even joking – a stark contrast to the utter destruction he visited upon Kohsaka within the cage – and the amiable heavyweight more than secured his spot as contender. Despite an illegal knee to the chops, Baroni wound up on top of Suloev raining down strikes, leaving Suloev bloody and letting fans know that this American slugger could spell doom for anyone. And in the main event, middleweight champ Bustamante, the epitome of jiu-jitsu master, out-wrestled Olympic Silver Medalist Matt Lindland and snagged the Oregonian’s arm for an armbar that everyone – including referee “Big” John McCarthy – believed Lindland had tapped to. But McCarthy wasn’t completely sure, and in the face of Lindland’s protests he restarted the bout. With a tight guillotine choke, Bustamante made damn sure Lindland tapped the second time around.
Yet for all the history made on the main card, nothing topped what had transpired in the very first preliminary bout of the evening – a match-up between the iron-chinned welterweight Hook’n’Shoot star Riley and the largely unheralded “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler. By 2002, Riley’s wars in the minor leagues against Steve Berger and Yves Edwards were the stuff of legend, and his record was easily three times the length of Lawler’s. Yes, Lawler had a habit of taking his opponents out with punches in less than a round, and yes, he’d allegedly gained entrance into the UFC by impressing Dana White with his decimation of Japanese fighter Shogun Kawakatsu at an event in Hawaii. But Riley had never been knocked down much less knocked out; as sure things went, Riley was it.
For three rounds, Lawler proved everyone wrong. Unafraid to wade in and swing for the fences, the Pat Miletich-trained warrior soon had the crowd cheering and everyone at cageside mouthing expletives in awe. Riley was as tough as expected, but Lawler succeeded in knocking him down, and when fatigue began to weigh heavily in the second and third rounds, Miletich’s and Hughes’ screams of “Gut check, Robbie! Gut check!” saw the young slugger rally and earn the decision. It was far and away the fight of the night (in an era predating “Fight of the Night” bonuses). From then on, Lawler was a star.
After the event was over, the fighters piled back on to the buses that had brought them from the hotel to the venue, and the return trip was full of fighters praising each other and offering up friendly advice. Battered and bruised, Riley leaned over his seat and asked Lawler what he did for cardio. Coach Maurice Smith was in charge of making Riley’s life hell in that regard. “Nothing, really,” replied Lawler, and Riley just shook his head and sighed.