10. Vitor Belfort vs. Guy Mezger Newer fans most likely know Mezger as just “one of the guys” from Ken Shamrock’s Lion’s Den. What they don’t know is that the proud Texan is a one-time UFC lightweight (under 200 pounds) tournament champion and former King of Pancrase in one of Japan’s most prestigious fighting organizations. Newer fans most likely know Belfort as just a fighter with enormous potential -- potential the Brazilian unfortunately only managed to tap little by little during his 12-year career. Towards the end of the 20th century, the “Phenom” was one of the game’s most feared strikers. Belfort -- who destroyed fellow Brazilian Wanderlei Silva at a UFC in Brazil back in 1998 -- was scheduled to face the far-more-experienced Mezger in the UFC 19 main event but pulled out because of a knee injury. Mezger went on to lose a controversial fight against Tito Ortiz, sparking the rivalry between the “Huntington Beach Bad Boy” and the Lion’s Den. 9. Jens Pulver vs. Rumina Sato At the same time Ortiz rose to superstardom and became the face of the UFC, Pulver had been just as hot a ticket for new owners Zuffa. Despite being a natural featherweight, “Little Evil” fought himself into fans’ hearts in the 155-pound division. Packing knockout power unheard of for such a small guy, Pulver was billed as the next big thing. Some 5,500 miles further east, Sato filled highlight reels with never-seen-before submissions and spectacular knockouts. The “Moon Wolf” was one of the true pioneers of MMA, having debuted back in 1994; that was the same year “The Ultimate Fighter” season five winner Nate Diaz started elementary school. With his slick submissions, Sato was seen as the perfect foil for the hard-hitting Pulver. Unfortunately for fight fans, Pulver did not move to Shooto until 2004. By then, Sato had been knocked out by Japanese nemesis Caol Uno -- a fighter Pulver convincingly beat in the UFC -- and suffered a drought unparalleled in his career. He won only two of eight fights between 2000 and 2003, effectively ending any interest in a match with Pulver. 8. Igor Vovchanchyn vs. Pedro Rizzo Ukraine’s Vovchanchyn was without a shadow of a doubt the most devastating striker in all of MMA around the turn of the century. The unimpressively built, stocky kickboxer had posterized opponents with vicious punches and kicks and made a big name for himself by winning no less than six eight-man tournaments in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Brazil. He also put the first crack in the armor of the seemingly invincible Mark Kerr when the two fought in Japan in 1999. Rizzo, a luta livre and vale tudo fighter from Brazil had KO’d his way into the UFC at the same time. Always appearing a little drowsy and uninspired, the star pupil of UFC 7 tournament winner Marco Ruas had devastating punching power at his disposal and employed a textbook way of setting up his cracking knockouts with punishing leg kicks. “The Rock” started his career 9-0, and most fans saw him as a worthy opponent for Vovchanchyn. UFC President Dana White never grows tired of hailing Hughes as “the greatest welterweight of all time.” During his prime, which spanned six years (2001-06), the powerful wrestler, vicious ground-and-pounder and underrated grappler gave a good thrashing to a who’s who in his weight class, including Japanese star Hayato “Mach” Sakurai, a young Georges St. Pierre and the legendary Royce Gracie. Gomi, like Hughes, comes from a wrestling background. He has collected championship belts both in Shooto and Pride. From 2005 to 2007, he was the undisputed top dog in Pride’s 160-pound division, a weight class that was created especially for him. Gomi paid back the faith the promoters showed in him by going on a devastating rampage, finishing six consecutive opponents inside the first round during one stretch. Whether or not the two were actually supposed to meet remains unclear, but they appeared on promotional material for a Pride lightweight tournament that never took place. If the grand prix had not been abandoned in the spring of 2007, Gomi and Hughes may have either fought in the first round or, given their undeniable class, made for an absolute dream final. 6. Volk Han vs. Marco Ruas Before Fedor Emelianenko, there was Oleg Taktarov. And before Oleg Taktarov, there was Han. The sporting pedigree has come full circle, as it was sambo master Han who taught Emelianenko his moves. Han was loved in Japan for his decade-long run in the Rings promotion but mocked by hardcore “no holds barred” purists for his professional wrestling roots. Han proved all critics wrong by taking part in real MMA fights late in his career, even going the distance with the legendary Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, who replaced him as the sport’s most technical submission fighter. Well-rounded luta livre practitioner Ruas would have loved to have made an even more lasting impression on fight fans and experts. However, his main problem was that a lot of renowned opponents turned down fights with him, as he was the only Brazilian fighter at the time that was good on the ground and packed a decent punch. Ironically, the favorite submission of the “King of the Streets” was the heel hook -- a hold Han had perfected in all kinds of variations and a hold with which he had finished countless professional wrestling bouts and MMA fights. It would have been a treat to see these two legends of the ring go at it. Both men are from the same generation, born in 1961, and have flown under the radar as far as MMA history is concerned. Had Ruas joined the Rings promotion instead of Pride when he finally jumped to Japan in 1998, fans would have been in for a leglock fest and an instant classic. 5. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira vs. Hidehiko Yoshida Nogueira -- the current UFC interim heavyweight champion and arguably the fighter who uses Brazilian jiu-jitsu better than anyone else in an MMA environment -- has also been a big draw in Japan. During his run in the star-studded Pride heavyweight division between 2001 and 2006, he faced the cream of the crop of the world’s best heavyweights, losing only to the overwhelming Emelianenko and the well-rounded Josh Barnett. The lone exceptional opponent he did not fight during his stint in Pride was Japanese Olympic Judo gold medalist Yoshida, who was Pride’s undisputed native top star in 2005 and 2006. The world-class ground fighter had earned the respect of critics by adapting well to a new environment in which he had to stand, punch and get punched. Yoshida had fought and beaten opponents that outweighed him by more than 50 pounds. The promotion had even started a storyline in which Nogueira was matched up against Polish Olympic Judo gold medalist Pawel Nastula -- a teammate and good friend of Yoshida’s -- whom Nogueira submitted in the first round at Pride “Critical Countdown 2005.” The bankruptcy of Pride’s parent company, Dream Stage Entertainment, and subsequent sale to UFC owners Zuffa LLC ended any chances of this classic Judo versus jiu-jitsu confrontation taking place. Zuffa has moved Nogueira over to the UFC, while Yoshida is now the centerpiece of the fledgling Sengoku promotion in Japan. While Yoshida may not be able to fight “Minotauro” there, the chances of him taking on Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, his twin brother, are significantly better. “Minotoro” recently made his debut for Sengoku and sports his own successful career in Japan. 4. Rickson Gracie vs. Akira Maeda Anybody who’s followed the sport since its inception knows the mythic qualities that surround Gracie. Even at 50, he faces demands from Japanese fans who seek his return. While it’s difficult to prove whether or not the Gracie family’s most prominent son was actually 500-0 during his fighting career -- or just 499-0 -- it’s a fact that he was able to sell tickets in Japan like no one else in the mid to late 1990s. Probably better known in professional wrestling circles in the United States, Korean-born Akira Maeda garnered a similar cult following in Japan. A tireless worker, he revolutionized Japanese pro wrestling and formed the Rings promotion in 1991. A hodgepodge between legitimate fighting and matches with arranged outcomes, it was an approach that was later copied by Pancrase. Despite nagging knee injuries that slowed down the popular heavyweight, Maeda kept a busy schedule in an effort to entertain his fans. In 1998, as a farewell present before retiring, Maeda worked incredibly hard to put together a fight between himself and the legendary Brazilian. He even promised Gracie a new show with his own set of rules and handpicked sponsors, but a meeting between the two wasn’t meant to be. Pride’s new owners, Dream Stage Entertainment, snatched Gracie away and had him rematch Nobuhiko Takada, a man he had already beaten decisively. Maeda was disappointed but eventually settled on another larger-than-life legend -- Russian Aleksandr Karelin, the most dominant Greco-Roman wrestler in history -- for his retirement match. 3. Frank Shamrock vs. Kazushi Sakuraba Shamrock suffers from the bane of early birth. The American submission expert excelled in the sport during a time that can best be described as the “dark ages.” During his heyday, from 1997 to 1999, the UFC was dropped from major pay-per-view distributors throughout the country and was even banned in 36 states thanks to a campaign led by Sen. John McCain. As a result, only an elite and hardcore few were able to see Shamrock’s legendary fights inside the Octagon against feared wrestler Kevin Jackson or cocky up-and-comer Ortiz. Those who went to their local video stores to get copies of Shamrock’s fights were also in the know about Sakuraba, a fighting sensation out of Japan. The fighter who would later become known as the “Gracie Hunter” and the “IQ Wrestler” amazed crowds with a unique and entertaining fighting style that strongly incorporated influences from pro wrestling. Despite his antics, Sakuraba never forgot to do his business inside the ring, submitting tough opponents like Vernon White, Carlos Newton and Ebenezer Fontes Braga. Shamrock has gone on record multiple times claiming he has made efforts to make the fight happen for no less than two full years. The showdown between two of the finest submission fighters of the 1990s was almost realized in November 2005, when Shamrock went to Japan to negotiate a fight against Sakuraba on New Year’s Eve. In the end, the Californian and Pride parent company DSE could not come to terms. 2. Randy Couture vs. Fedor Emelianenko The bout between Couture and Emelianenko appeared to be the fight with the potential to shatter all previous records when rumors about title unification between the UFC and Pride heavyweight champions first spread in summer 2007. After that, there has been a seemingly endless back and forth from both fighters, their actions resembling the antics that cloud many top boxing matches that never got made. First, Couture retired from the UFC in an effort to free himself from his contract with Zuffa LLC. Then, after realizing that his remaining years might be tied up in court, the “Natural” retired from his retirement and went back into the arms of the UFC. At the same time, Emelianenko signed a contract with M-1 Global, a promotion that never put on a single event with its original staff. That contract was terminated six months later. Sandwiched by ill-fated negotiations with Zuffa, which prompted UFC President Dana White to refer to Emelianenko’s management team as “crazy Russians,” the world’s undisputed number one heavyweight attached himself to the upstart Affliction promotion. After carrying their first pay-per-view event -- in which he dispatched former UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia in just 36 seconds -- the “Last Emperor” signed an exclusive deal with Affliction. As a result, Couture and Emelianenko may both fight in Las Vegas in the future but seem light years away from facing one another anytime soon. 1. Royce Gracie vs. Mark Kerr During MMA’s early years, the sport served as a vehicle to find the most effective martial art. In the 1990s, many of the most popular bouts were strict style-versus-style matchups. A debate that continues today revolves around whether Brazilian jiu-jitsu or amateur wrestling serves as the most effective base for MMA. Two fighters who could have ended the debate 10 years ago were Kerr and Gracie. The latter was the star of the Gracie jiu-jitsu infomercials that were the first UFC events and caused BJJ schools to mushroom in the United States. While Gracie, at 6-foot, 175 pounds, did beat a strong wrestler in Dan Severn at UFC 4, he had never faced a physical specimen like Kerr during his first five UFC events. As a result, fight fans demanded that he fight the “Smashing Machine.” Pride, which was responsible for promoting the most memorable super fights at the time, heard the fans’ pleas and tried to make the match happen. To everyone’s surprise, the fight almost came to fruition; event posters with Gracie and Kerr on them were even printed. Then on Christmas Eve 1997, a little over three weeks before the show was supposed to take place, Gracie pulled out with a bulging disc in his back. That deprived fight fans around the world from perhaps the most important fight in the history of the sport, one that could have ended the tiresome wrestling-versus-BJJ debate once and for all.