It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. For followers of a fringe sport once on the brink of death, it was nearly a year and a half since Zuffa, Inc. had swooped in to revive an ailing organization and infuse fans and fighters alike with optimism. But for UFC honcho Dana White and the Fertitta brothers, who put their time, effort and capital on the line in the belief that mixed martial arts could be the next big thing, it was 15 months of losses with very little to show for it. Forget breaking out or breaking even, at this point Zuffa needed a ray of hope. Thanks to a new-school poster boy vs. old-school poster boy grudge match, plus a card stacked with some of the best and most exciting fighters around, they got it with UFC 40: “Vendetta”.
Before “The Ultimate Fighter” on SpikeTV and the played-out but camera-friendly rivalry between coaches Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock, there was genuine heat in the form of the “Huntington Beach Badboy” defeating the “World’s Most Dangerous Man’s” protégés Guy Mezger and Jerry Bohlander in UFCs 18 and 19, disrespecting them afterwards and getting a Shamrock earful. It was real then, and the storyline was only amplified by whatever mojo and acting chops Shamrock had acquired from his stint as a WWE pro wrestler. As the story went, Ortiz was a disrespectful punk and Shamrock an “old man”, and lines were drawn – and it worked in rustling up hype. So well, in fact, that the attention of the media and the fervor of the fans conspired to create a near-perfect storm, and by show time on November 22nd, 2002, when the first preliminary bout was set to go off, the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas was packed to the gills.
From top to bottom the card was stacked. In the opening bouts, King of the Cage veteran Phillip Miller pounded on and submitted UK striker Mark Weir, Vladimir Matyushenko steamrolled over wrestler Travis Wiuff, and despite Ian Freeman’s training time with Pat Miletich, rising star Andrei Arlovski defeated the British slugger with a storm of punches that left him crumpled against the cage. The crowd – electric throughout – slowly began simmering towards critical mass, as evidenced by the screams and cheers with each successive finish. When the pay-per-view broadcast began, things bordered on mayhem.
Of course, welterweight stud Robbie Lawler didn’t help matters when he beat Tiki Ghosn into oblivion in a minute and a half. Carlos Newton’s smooth submission of Pete Spratt via first-round kimura kept the momentum going, as did Matt Hughes’ complete handling of an overmatched Gil Castillo. And when Chuck Liddell planted his shin against Renato “Babalu” Sobral’s face for a highlight-reel knockout, well, to say the place went nuts would be an understatement.
So it was that when challenger Shamrock and light-heavyweight champ Ortiz made their entrances, each striding down the ramp to the Octagon with swagger and confidence, everyone in attendance rose and remained on their feet – enraptured – until the bout’s end. Back then, Shamrock still retained a competitive edge – enough to worry some within Ortiz’s camp (“Big” John McCarthy had to reassure the champ’s wife, explaining to her that, ultimately, age would be the deciding factor). The worries were unwarranted. Aside from a punch that dropped Ortiz to his knee, the UFC 1 veteran was on the receiving end of a three-round beating, and Shamrock’s corner threw in the towel before the fourth could begin.
Up until UFC 40, the organization had struggled to define itself (to wit, its ever-changing entrance formats and visual layout) – and that struggle continued for quite some time. But the success of Vendetta, both in its record-setting attendance, hype and pay-per-view buy rate, was enough to reaffirm to the world that MMA – and especially the UFC – could be big. It was a much-needed turning point, and though it’s since been overshadowed by mega-events featuring Ortiz battling Liddell or Randy Couture, its importance as an event cannot be understated. UFC 40 was the shape of things to come.