MMA History — Fights That Matter: Matt Hume vs. Erik Paulson

When looking back and thinking about fights that stand out as favorites—not only from an entertainment perspective as a longtime fan, but also keeping in mind matches that were influential to the development of MMA for multiple reasons—there may be none better than Matt Hume vs. Erik Paulson in the old-school American fight promotion, Extreme Fighting, at Extreme Fighting 3 on Oct. 8, 1996. Their bout is not just underappreciated; it’s likely entirely unknown to the vast majority of contemporary MMA fans.

While it only existed a few years, Extreme Fighting was ahead of its time when the sport wasn’t even being billed as a sport. Rather, it was considered more of a spectacle known as NHB, or “No Holds Barred,” or cage fighting. Extreme Fighting was responsible for many innovations, including gloves, weight classes and rounds. It also featured the flamboyant and eccentric matchmaker, John Perretti, who coined the phrase “Mixed Martial Arts” in 1996—years prior to the UFC adopting the term.

Much of what made Hume vs. Paulson such a compelling matchup was how evenly their skill sets were, so much so that Hume later described Paulson as a mirror image of himself when talking about the fight. And their similarities weren’t limited to their combative abilities; you can see in the lead-up and as the fight begins that they are both incredibly calm, cerebral, thoughtful technicians. Their level of overall skill and strategy seldom occurred on a relatively mainstream stage up until that point, and it wouldn’t be the norm for quite a while.

Matt Hume, who retired in 2002 on a three-fight win streak, has had a very successful coaching career.

Given the massive evolution and learning curve that has come with this young sport, it’s remarkable, watching this, that it took place more than 20 years ago. It could easily be viewed as impressively technical even by today’s standards. It was a bout completely different from fights of that era, including those happening in the UFC, which consisted of largely of slugfests where either participant had experience in only one discipline (which was often not even especially effective) and/or a gross mismatch in which one of the combatants was entirely outclassed.

This fight distinguished itself in the level of technical skill displayed and the pacing and controlled focus both fighters exhibited until the end, and some of the techniques utilized by Hume and Paulson would go on to be necessary staples of future mixed martial artists’ tool boxes.

From the very start of the match, both fighters traded leg kicks—something that was uncommon in MMA at that point and rare in the U.S., as it was illegal in American kickboxing and traditional karate matches. It was only through cross training in international style kickboxing and Muay Thai that mixed martial artists were learning how effective and devastating tools leg kicks were.

Halfway through the first round, Paulson attempted a kneebar that he may well have finished had he not abandoned it in favor of throwing a kick at Hume. This may have been one of the first leg lock attempts in American MMA. Paulson appeared to be a bit better versed and polished in BJJ, although both came from a Japanese shoot wrestling background, with Paulson being the Shooto light heavyweight No. 1 contender at the time.

Both fighters patiently used BJJ fundamentals to control position and exchanged submissions—something that still isn’t commonplace in MMA even today. It’s as if they were learning on the job what was effective in an MMA fight. And they weren’t only trying to win; they were creating and wanted to try as much as possible. The rest of the first round played out on the mat as they battled and volleyed reversals and submissions, with Paulson maintaining the lion’s share of control, having achieved and held mount at the five-minute round bell.

The Thai clinch is where most of the second round was spent. This, again, was not something that was seen often in 1996 and certainly not with both participants able to utilize and defend it as effectively. This was like watching two carbon copies playing physical chess against one another, both clearly well-versed and able to defend the other’s offense and retaliate immediately with offense of his own. Knees were the most used weapon in this range, but elbows were thrown by both men. At one point, Hume threw a spinning back elbow, trying to time Paulson entering. Also impressive was the use of punching in combinations off the clinch and body punches—both sorely underutilized techniques, even today.

After his bout with Hume, Erik Paulson went on to capture the Shoot light heavyweight title.

The entirety of the second round consisted of trading knees and pummeling for superior position in the clinch, with mostly two- and three-punch combinations interspersed. The round was extremely close and could have gone either way. Unfortunately, this was essentially where the fight ended. Forty seconds into the third round, a grazing blow opened a large gash on Paulson’s forehead that, while entirely superficial, caused the fight to be stopped. It was especially unfortunate for Paulson, since I had him up 2-0 on the cards going into the third, and he was coming forward and not looking fatigued in the slightest.

All throughout this great match, you have the announcer/matchmaker, John Perretti, with his colorful, peculiar and passionate commentary, where he refers to sequences involving front headlocks that he particularly seemed to enjoy as “sexy.” So there you have your comedic contribution, even if it was completely unintentional. Did I not say this fight had everything!?

Another factor to keep in mind that makes this fight enjoyable is what became of these fighters after they stepped outside of the cage. I didn’t see this fight at the time it took place; it wasn’t until a few years later that I got hold of it. By that time, I’d heard of both men, but I would hear a great deal more as the years passed.

Matt Hume—who had trained Muay Thai in Seattle, Washington with old-school trainer Haru Shimanishi and fellow MMA pioneer Maurice Smith—would go on to defeat Pat Miletich, another MMA pioneer and legend, the following year. He’d also eventually be considered one of the greatest trainers the sport has known, cornering multiple Pride and UFC veterans including Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson, who is widely considered perhaps the most technical MMA fighter in the game.

Paulson would go on to become the Shooto organization light heavyweight champion for many years and is regarded as a veritable encyclopedia of technical knowledge, particularly on submissions and ground attacks. He also went on to gain a reputation as a great trainer with none other than elite MMA and submission wrestling champ Josh Barnett being one of his top students.

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Hillard Wiseheart

A longtime fan who had the pleasure to get worked over by some real tough sons of guns. I liked this stuff before the internet.

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A longtime fan who had the pleasure to get worked over by some real tough sons of guns. I liked this stuff before the internet.

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