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Ten MMA Upsets to Remember

By on March 25, 2010

serra gspIf Dan Hardy wants to shock the world (and trust me, he does), he will be looking to emulate some of the fighters on this very list, who have done so in the past.  It could be debated whether any fighter can truly “shock the world” anymore, mostly because at this point, upset after upset has drilled in our heads the fact that anything can happen in a fight.  If Hardy connects with a punch and floors Georges St. Pierre, plenty of mouths will fly open, including mine.

Is there anyone who has not considered the possibility, though?  Doubtful.  That is because of these fights, and many others, which taught us hard lessons about playing favorites too aggressively.  Presented in no particular order, here are ten MMA upsets to remember.  This is a list Hardy would fit very well into, should he manage to do the (almost) unthinkable.

Gabriel Gonzaga vs. Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic

This one is like many upsets in that it doesn’t seem so surprising at all now.  However, it is always important to remember fights in their original context, and this is a shining example of that.  Nowadays, Gonzaga is a borderline top ten heavyweight who hasn’t been able to get back to the upper level of the division, but is a feared striker and grappler.  Meanwhile, Cro Cop is definitely not his old self, and often looks tentative or apprehensive when he competes.

Think about where things stood when this fight happened, though.  Cro Cop had just one fight in the UFC (a dominating win over a very scared Eddie Sanchez), and was still considered by most to be the second-best heavyweight in the world.  Meanwhile, Gonzaga had shown promise, but had only beaten fighters like Kevin Jordan and Fabiano Scherner.  The method of the upset is always a big key to how memorable it is, as well.  For Gonzaga to knock out the most feared striker in the world with his own signature attack- a kick to the head- was unthinkable.

Ray Mercer vs. Tim Sylvia

It pains me to even include this, but I feel like it is pertinent to Saturday’s fight.  While a fighter in his first professional MMA bout beating a former world champion is unquestionably a huge upset, it is less so when considering that the newcomer is a former boxing world champion, and his victim foolishly decided to stand right in front of him.

Sylvia was knocked out in seconds, which he undoubtedly regrets to this day.  In Saturday’s fight, GSP faces a similar (yet much different) situation.  If he chooses to stand up with Hardy and make it a kickboxing match, the odds will level out quite a bit, though I believe that GSP is a better striker than Hardy overall.  The point here is that upsets often happen in MMA when a fighter foolishly neglects to fight toward his or her strengths, and towards an opponent’s weaknesses.

Marcus Aurelio vs. Takanori Gomi

Aurelio wasn’t a complete unknown, having competed twice in Pride’s Bushido series in order to get the opportunity to fight Gomi.  However, even with a 13-2 record at the time, he had never fought anyone near on the level of the man who many considered to be the best lightweight in the world at the time.

Aurelio not only beat Gomi, but he submitted him in the first round of their bout, shocking all of Japan in the process.  To underscore the craziness of that result, Gomi is still considered a high-level lightweight, while Aurelio lost both of his other fights in Pride (one by split decision against Gomi in a rematch), and only went 2-4 in the UFC.

Joe Lauzon vs. Jens Pulver

Yet again, we have another result that does not seem so unpredictable now, but was almost unfathomable at the time.  Pulver was returning to the UFC after a four and a half year absence, having gone 7-2 (only losing to “Mach” Sakurai and Takanori Gomi) in the three years prior to this fight.  Lauzon was a good prospect at 13-3, but was certainly not known for his striking prowess, while Pulver was considered one of the division’s most powerful strikers (and had even boxed professionally on ESPN at one point).

All the pieces were in place, and Lauzon made his name off of a tremendous knockout of Pulver just 48 seconds into the bout.  Lauzon has been successful since, though not able to replicate that level of performance regularly, while Pulver may be retiring after a string of losses at 145 pounds in the WEC.

BJ Penn vs. Matt Hughes

If you are a relatively new fan to the sport, this may not make much sense.  In 2004, though, Penn was a huge underdog to Hughes prior to their first match-up.  Hughes was still the unbeatable welterweight champion, and Penn, while definitely being the top lightweight in the world, was making a big jump to face a guy that would probably weight in at about 185 pounds at fight time.  Back then, it was unheard of for a fighter to jump up in weight class like that, especially a lightweight.

Penn proved everyone wrong by submitting Hughes by rear naked choke just inside of one round, memorably leaving Hughes in disbelief afterward.  To show how difficult this accomplishment was, Penn has been 0-3 in the welterweight division since.

Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou vs. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Ricardo Arona

You can’t have one of these fights without having both of them.  First, in a fight that I’m still surprised was even sanctioned by the NSAC, the 2-1 Sokoudjou brought his imposing build and judo background into the ring to face perennial top 10 light heavyweight Antonio Rogerio Nogueira.  While Nogueira was just two fights removed from a decision loss to Shogun Rua, he was still among the best in the world, and no one predicted a devastating 23-second knockout by the unknown Team Quest product.

Not even two months later, Pride officials seemed to give Sokoudjou an even tougher test in the form of Ricardo Arona, who had only lost to the likes of Fedor Emelianenko, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Wanderlei Silva and Shogun Rua in his career thus far.  Sokoudjou added his name to that prestigious list with another brilliant knockout, this time just inside of two minutes.  Nothing that has happened since in Sokoudjou’s career (he is currently 7-6) has helped us understand those two upsets.

Joe Warren vs. Kid Yamamoto

Yamamoto was the number one featherweight in the world, sporting a 17-1 record with his only loss having been because of a cut sustained against Stephen Palling.  Warren, a former Greco-Roman wrestling standout, had just one career fight, a win by TKO over Chase Beebe.  However, Kid was no slouch as a wrestler himself, having just returned from a year and a half break from the sport where he had hoped to represent Japan in freestyle wrestling at the 2008 Olympics (an injury kept him from doing so).

In a split-decision win, Warren not only out-wrestled Yamamoto, but also showed his striking ability, landing knees from the clinch that helped sway the judges in his favor.  Even with his wrestling background, for Warren to face one of the world’s best pound-for-pound fighters after just one pro fight and win was an amazing feat.

Randy Couture vs. Chuck Liddell

To really understand why this was such an upset, you have to consider not only the odds at the time, but also how Couture managed to beat Liddell.  First of all, Couture was indeed a former heavyweight champion, but at almost 40 years old, many had already given up on the UFC legend.  In fact, he was just a substitute for Tito Ortiz, who was reluctant to defend his light heavyweight title against Liddell, who had been absolutely demolishing the division en route to this fight.  Couture saw an opportunity to cut a bit of weight, fight in a more natural weight class, and extend his career.

What nobody saw coming is Couture outstriking Liddell for the balance of the fight, as he used crisp, straight punches and good boxing fundamentals to stay inside of Liddell’s powerful, looping shots.  After frustrating Liddell and wearing him out for two rounds with solid striking and occasional takedowns (which Liddell quickly stood up from each time), Couture put Liddell on his back and was able to overwhelm him with strikes for the win.  Nowadays, we’re used to Couture overcoming the odds, but at the time, fans of the sport were definitely taken aback by Couture’s performance.

Forrest Griffin vs. Mauricio “Shogun” Rua

Rua came to the UFC with a 16-2 record and a dominating win over the UFC’s light heavyweight champion, Rampage Jackson.  He was widely expected to take the belt within a few fights by those who followed the sport closely, who labeled him as the top fighter in the weight class.  Meanwhile, Griffin had shown a little promise, but had never beaten anyone who was even close being a top ten light heavyweight.

From the get-go, Rua did not look to be quite himself.  At the time, many assumed that he was simply not in great shape (and he probably wasn’t), but what fans didn’t recognize is that Griffin never realized that he was supposed to lose.  Griffin stayed competitive with Rua the whole way, making sure to avoid the mistakes that most had made against the explosive fighter.  Then, fifteen seconds from what was sure to be a unanimous decision victory, Griffin submitted an exhausted Rua to complete the upset.  Since then, Griffin has proven to be a top ten fighter, while Rua has redeemed himself with what many thought should have been a decision win against Lyoto Machida last October.

Matt Serra vs. Georges St. Pierre

This is the granddaddy of them all, at least as far as Dan Hardy is concerned.  Hardy is quite openly trying to emulate this performance tomorrow, which I will discuss a bit more in my preview of the fights later today.  Serra, like Hardy, was a massive underdog to the seemingly unbeatable St. Pierre.  In fact, Serra had not even been a UFC fighter previous to “The Ultimate Fighter 4”, which not only gave Serra the chance to come back, but also to earn a title shot by winning the show.

What many don’t recall is that this fight very nearly never happened, as Serra only defeated Chris Lytle by split decision in the finals of the show, in a fight many believe Lytle should have won.  Fans criticized this bout beforehand, wondering aloud how someone who had barely beaten Lytle would be expected to take out the world’s best welterweight.  Of course, we all know now that St. Pierre had apparently been thinking the same thoughts, as a poor training camp and even poorer game plan led him to foolishly stand in front of the heavy-handed Serra, who rocked St. Pierre with a big right hand.  Even then, Serra had to chase St. Pierre around the cage, peppering him with shot after shot before finally sealing the biggest upset in a title fight in MMA history.

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