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Ricco Suave and the UFC's Forgotten Years
by Scott Newman (MMA)
Posted on July 9, 2011, 5:01 AM

If you read this article and end up hating it, you should probably blame Tito Ortiz.

See, when I’m at home these days, MMA has basically become my equivalent to “background music”. Honestly, regardless of what I’m actually doing, my trusty DVD player is nearly always showing some sort of mixed martial arts, whether it’s the most recent UFC or Strike Force or something older, or a PRIDE event, or even something a little more obscure like IFC. Well, this week, after his unexpected victory over Ryan Bader, my fandom of Tito was rekindled and I’ve been watching the UFC shows from the early days of Zuffa’s tenure. And that got me thinking.

If the period between UFC 21 (where the current round system was introduced) and the beginning of the Zuffa leadership at UFC 30 is largely recognized as the ‘Dark Ages’ for MMA in North America – probably because this was the period where UFC was not only banned from cable, but SEG couldn’t even secure home video releases for those shows – then the early Zuffa years, from the beginning of 2001 up to the beginning of the TUF boom in early 2005 should probably be seen as the ‘Forgotten Years’, remembered fondly by hardcore fans but ignored by those enticed into the wonders of MMA by the Ultimate Fighter. It’s why the majority of today’s fans would probably name the second fight with BJ Penn or the second fight with Frank Trigg as Matt Hughes’s greatest fight and forget about his initial title win over Carlos Newton. It’s why those same fans freak out when a UFC title is “held up” by the champion and #1 contender coaching a season of TUF, forgetting that there was once a time when the only recognized champ that the UFC had was at 205lbs and he’d only won the belt on a fluke cut stoppage. And it’s why those fans continually disrespect Tito Ortiz, forgetting that at one point, he was the longest-tenured champion the company had ever had. I know some people would debate how great Tito actually was, based on the level of his opposition during his title reign, but honestly that’s neither here nor there, because this article isn’t about Tito Ortiz. It’s about Ricco Rodriguez.

For me no fighter represents the UFC’s ‘Forgotten Years’ better than Ricco Suave. There are other great fighters from the era that seem largely forgotten today – Carlos Newton and Murilo Bustamante come to mind – but for me Ricco has to be one of MMA’s all-time “what if?” subjects. I mean, seriously, this guy was really, REALLY good back then. He was 22 when he debuted in the Octagon at UFC 32 in June 2001, bringing in a record of 9-1. That night he beat future champion Andrei Arlovski by third-round TKO, in a fight that’s probably not been seen by most (I actually had to track it down online a couple of days ago). He followed that up by beating Pete Williams (UFC 34), Jeff Monson (UFC 35), Tsuyoshi Kosaka (UFC 37) and finally culminated this run by defeating Randy Couture at UFC 39 for the then-vacant Heavyweight Title, after Josh Barnett had been stripped of the belt due to a positive drug test and some difficult contract negotiations.

That fight with Randy in my opinion still holds up as an all-time classic. Many fans – UFC announcer Mike Goldberg included – always point to Couture’s earlier title fight with Pedro Rizzo as the title fight with the most drama, twists and turns, but the Rodriguez-Couture clash easily reaches those same heights, as Couture comes out and really pushes the pace in the early rounds, taking it to Ricco with his trademark wrestling and ground-and-pound game. The wildest moment of those first couple of rounds? A takedown from Couture twists Ricco’s knee and causes him to outright wail in pain – one of the only times you’ll see a fighter verbally acknowledge pain inside the cage – and Randy looks to finish the fight, but can’t quite manage it before the round ends. The third round would be more even but the final two would firmly belong to the younger Rodriguez, as with Randy beginning to wear out, Ricco would finally get a couple of takedowns of his own and dish out some of Randy’s own medicine, ending the fight via a verbal tapout late in the fifth. The final blow? An elbow strike that apparently broke Randy’s orbital bone.

At that point it probably looked like Ricco would hold the belt for a long time. He had a great wrestling and ground-and-pound game, was not only a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt, but was also an Abu Dhabi grappling champion, he was training with Tito Ortiz at a time when Tito’s training camps were the thing of legend, and seemed to have an endless gas tank. The big knock on Ricco that I seem to remember my friends who were watching at that stage telling me about (I got into MMA in late 2003, right after Ricco’s title reign...) was that he wasn’t a great striker and didn’t like to be hit, but rewatching all of these old fights of his this week, I don’t think that weakness was really such a major one. I mean sure, he wasn’t a great kickboxer or anything, but he certainly wasn’t overwhelmed on the feet in any of his fights – watch the Jeff Monson fight and you’ll actually see Ricco land some nice flying knees – and as evidenced by the early rounds of the Couture fight, he was a very tough guy even if he “didn’t like to be hit” (shit, who DOES enjoy being hit in the face?!). But of course, in his very first title defense, Ricco was knocked out by Tim Sylvia and lost the belt he’d worked so hard to gain. Two more losses followed and with that Ricco was out of the UFC and hasn’t been back since, instead being condemned to the land of the forgotten fighter.

So what went wrong? Well, the general consensus is that Ricco let his success go to his head, stopped training as hard and started partying much, much harder. While today’s fans may not remember Rodriguez’s great performances in those early Zuffa UFCs, they probably do remember seeing or hearing about his stint on Celebrity Rehab, where he admitted to crashing his car while under the influence, and pulling his girlfriend into the driver’s seat in order to avoid the consequences. They might remember him testing positive for cocaine in 2006, or his ludicrous weight gain in 2005 that saw him weigh upwards of 350lbs. Some might’ve seen him lose to Bigfoot Silva in Elite XC, or Ben Rothwell in the IFL. Despite winning eleven of his last twelve fights, it seems doubtful that Ricco Suave will ever return to the bright lights of the UFC. Yet incredibly, the guy is only 33 today. That’s younger than Rich Franklin, Rodrigo Nogueira, Anderson Silva, and Roy Nelson. And that’s why nobody represents the “what if?” question in MMA better.

Think about it. Even after the loss to Sylvia and a subsequent weight gain (although not as large as the gain in 2005), Ricco was able to take Nogueira to the distance in a fight in PRIDE, and not only that, but many observers actually thought he won that fight. This was of course in 2003, a time in which Nogueira’s only significant loss was to Fedor Emelianenko, and he was widely recognized as the second-best Heavyweight on the planet. What could Ricco have accomplished had he kept his head on straight and continued on the path that he was walking up to the title win? It boggles the mind to think. If his great run had lasted just another two years, then that takes us to the beginning of 2005 and the TUF boom. Don’t forget that not only was he a great fighter, but Rodriguez was also one of the most charismatic guys around at that time. It isn’t inconceivable to think that had he not fallen by the wayside, Ricco could’ve been the face of what turned out to be a bleak Heavyweight division as Zuffa and the UFC began to turn the corner. Rather than Andrei Arlovski knocking out overmatched opposition and a bunch of uninspired Tim Sylvia fights before the division was saved by the return of Randy Couture and the PRIDE buyout, we could’ve had Ricco Suave, charismatic UFC champion, breaking into the consciousness of the fans enticed in by The Ultimate Fighter in the same way that Couture, Liddell, Hughes and Franklin did.

Strangely enough, it still might’ve happened – going into UFC 53, Zuffa brass were struggling to find an opponent for Andrei Arlovski to defend his newly-won Interim Heavyweight Title against. With Paul Buentello having broken his hand (and the UFC wanting to build him a little more) and no other challengers on the horizon, apparently Joe Silva turned to Ricco Rodriguez, or so the story goes. Ricco was all set to sign for the fight and Zuffa created posters and the whole shebang, until the whole deal fell through when Ricco claimed he needed a bigger pay packet to bring in the correct training partners. According to the story Zuffa balked, Rodriguez was out, and instead Arlovski slaughtered a painfully overmatched Justin Eilers.

So two final “what if?” questions surrounding Ricco Suave. Number one – had he gone through with the Arlovski title match in 2005, could he have won and recaptured the title? It isn’t that far a stretch, as he’d beaten Arlovski in 2001 and looking back, Andrei was probably more than a little overrated based on his performances against less-than-stellar opponents. Buuut, Ricco was horribly overweight at the time he would’ve faced Andrei (see his fight with Scott Junk at Rumble on the Rock 7) and if he were willing to give up the opportunity due to issues with finding training partners then I think it’s doubtful that he would’ve performed to his full abilities. I think Arlovski probably would’ve avenged the earlier loss.

The second question is a little more interesting. In 2002 after defeating Kosaka, Rodriguez was pegged as the #1 Contender to the Heavyweight Title, and obviously had it not been for steroids, the champion would’ve been Josh Barnett. So how would a fight between the 2002 versions of Rodriguez and Barnett have gone? Both men were around the same size, fought with a similar style, and were on very impressive runs. And of course, both men can talk like few others in the game. After watching both men run through their opposition on those early Zuffa shows this week, it’s a fight I definitely would’ve liked to have seen. For those around back then, how do you think it might’ve gone down? And had he not fallen off so spectacularly, what might Ricco Rodriguez have gone on to accomplish? “What if?”, indeed.

Scott Newman:

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