That One Time ESPN Showed an Illegal MMA Fight with a Future UFC Champion

Matt Serra fights on ESPN in 1998?

Yesterday, The UFC and ESPN announced a deal that would bring 150 events to the network over 5 years, starting in October 2019. For the UFC, in as far as image is concerned is a huge win. ESPN has always been a bit of a white whale for the UFC. Before The Ultimate Fighter boom, those in the MMA community wanted nothing more than for ESPN to treat the UFC in the same way they treated other niche sports like Professional Bull Riding. Certainly, Dana White has always wanted ESPN coverage. Even after the UFC signed on with Fox Sports, Dana continued to go on SportsCenter to break news. Of course, SportsCenter wasn’t always willing to cover the UFC. It wasn’t until UFC 71 in 2007 that ESPN gave any substantial coverage to the UFC and MMA as a whole. Their coverage has ebbed and flowed, but they have remained involved in MMA in some way.

But, there was a very brief, and when I say brief I mean less than 5 minutes, where ESPN aired MMA. It may have been cloak-and-dagger subterfuge and surely ESPN didn’t have a clue what was happening but in 1998 as part of an ISKA Kickboxing event, ESPN2 aired Matt Serra’s MMA debut.

We are in Plainview, New York, which in and of itself is a very interesting locale for this fight, given that MMA was banned in New York state in 1997 and only became legal again in 2016. So not only is this the first MMA fight ESPN ever broadcast, but it is one of the few “sanctioned” MMA fights in New York state  prior to UFC 205.

Being of a dubious legality, this contest is not billed as an MMA or NHB fight, but instead in contested under “ISKA Sport Juijitsu” rules, which amount to Pancrase rules with stand ups after 20 seconds on the ground.

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Our broadcast team for this fight is actually quite impressive and is probably better than most of the teams we get today. Lon McEachern, a mainstay of these ISKA broadcasts, who would go on to be the voice of World Series of Poker and even did some work for Pride FC in their late stage entries in the US. His partner is then-UFC Middleweight Champion, and at the time widely regarded as the best fighter in the world, Frank Shamrock.

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Frank gives some background on each fighter: Matt Serra is a purple belt under Renzo Gracie and Khamzat Vitaev is the former captain of the Russian Army Sambo team. most everyone reading this knows that Matt Serra would go onto to complete the biggest upset in MMA history when he defeated Georges St. Pierre at UFC 69: Nice, but at this point he is almost completely unknown. As for Vitaev, this is his only documented pro fight and a cursory google doesn’t provide any more information.

The fight starts and Serra looks to close the distance and clinch. He grabs double underhoooks and looks to push Vitaev into the ropes, but this is a kickboxing ring and the ropes aren’t really meant to handle that kind of weight. To remedy this, the referee has been tasked with acting as a sort of wall between the fighters and the ropes, which is really a sight to see. Also, because this is ISKA he’s wearing a gi, in case he was to break some bricks in front of some Paul Mitchell ads between rounds.

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Vitaev is able to get Serra down to the mat with a fairly textbook whizzer. Vitaev attempts to work on top, but almost instantaneously, Serra throws up a high guard and transitions into an armbar.

It doesn’t seem like Vitaev has a great understanding of how to break out of the hold, but he manages to shake Serra off and end up back in top position, managing to even sorta-kinda slam Serra’s head off the mat. This is 1998, so being able to shake a guy was some fairly high level technique, you gotta remember people had just figures out that you should check leg kicks a few months before this. Vitaev even manages to throw an elbow, which should be illegal, but this whole things is illegal, so who really cares.

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After the elbow, Vitaev is again working to defend an armbar from Serra, except this time Serra uses it to transition from the bottom to Vitaev’s back.

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From here, its only a matter of time. The New York crowd begins to chant Serra’s name as The Terror works for the choke. He sinks it in to elicit the tap at 1:24 of the first round.

GIF9After the fight McEachern asks Shamrock if Serra is going to be one of the leaders of this sport. Frank says he’s a very talented and game fighter, which all things considered is actually an bit of an understatement when it comes to the kind of impact Serra would end up having on MMA, although nobody outside of Matt Serra thought he would ever beat the best fighter in the world.

We got to the ring to get a final announcement, our winner by “chokeout” Matt Serra.

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And thus ends ESPN’s one venture to broadcasting MMA. Oddly enough it features a former UFC champion and the owner of one of the greatest moments in the history of the sport. Obviously, it is just a blip on the radar,  but when the UFC goes live for the first time in October of 2019, it won’t be the first time, but it will be the first time in 21 years.

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