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Top 10 MMA Comebacks

By on June 27, 2011

Kudos to Cheick Kongo for pulling off a ridiculous (and instantaneous) comeback against Pat Barry last night and taking our minds off of Nategate for now. Nate Marquardt is supposedly giving us some pertinent info tomorrow, but until then, we’re ripe for a spirited debate over the best MMA comebacks ever. Where does Kongo’s improbable uppercut KO of Barry land on the list? Read on to find out.

Before we get started, a quick note on my criteria: for one, I place emphasis on how close to being defeated the eventual winner was. It’s not much of a comeback without being close to losing, right? Another important thing is how quick and dramatic the swing of momentum is. What we saw last night was a great comeback because in literally just a few seconds, the tables turned. Finally, there’s the all-important aspect of my own impartiality. That’s right, overruling even the first two criteria will be my own vague reasons and personal opinion. That’s the criterion I’ll be pointing you too if you write me an e-mail to disagree, by the way. We MMA writers are nothing if not fully accountable for our opinions, after all!

10. Robbie Lawler vs. Melvin Manhoef (Strikeforce: Miami, Jan. 2010)

The Setup

Everyone expected the proverbial sparks to fly in this matchup between two of the most powerful and aggressive strikers in the sport. However, early on it was Manhoef’s stinging leg kicks that made Lawler uncomfortable as the fight started to look like Lawler’s doomed effort against Pete Spratt at UFC 42.

It Was “Over” When…

Lawler was backed up into the cage with 2:15 remaining by repeated leg kicks that sent his lead leg flying out from under him. As Manhoef started looking for the kill with powerful hooks to the head and body, all Lawler could do was put his guard up and try to block the punches as well as possible. Naysayers may say that Lawler was never that close to being put away in this one, but I beg to differ. He couldn’t have taken many more of those leg kicks (“[Manhoef] tore my legs up,” he said afterward) and it was about as one-sided a round as you’ll see. Right before Lawler changed everything, Manhoef had landed 24 of 38 strikes while Lawler had only even thrown three strikes total.

It was Really Over When…

With 1:31 left, Lawler ate yet another hard kick to the inside of his lead leg while backup up to the cage. Immediately after, he ducked and threw a massive overhand right that connected perfectly and dropped Manhoef. As Manhoef was falling, Lawler followed him to the floor and landed a follow-up left that put Manhoef completely left. Another right landed just after Lawler fell down on top of Manhoef, but it was unnecessary and the fight was being broken up anyway. Lawler landed just three strikes the entire fight- the punch that dropped Manhoef, the left that put him out completely, and the follow-up right on the ground.

9. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira vs. Everyone (Various, 2002-2008)

The Setup

It’s hard to leave any Nogueira fights out, so I have three choices. And yes, that makes this a Top 12 instead of a Top 10, but I’m okay with that and you should be too, dear reader. The three fights would be Nogueira’s wins over Bob Sapp (Pride-Shockwave), Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic (Pride-Final Conflict 2003), and Tim Sylvia (UFC 81). Sapp isn’t the most talented fighter, but had over 100 pounds on Nogueira, while Cro Cop was one of the most dangerous heavyweights in the world and Sylvia was an unpopular but effective former UFC champion.

It Was “Over” When…

Sapp literally dropped Nogueira on his head with a piledriver, Cro Cop finished a dominating ten-minute opening round with a head kick that knocked Nogueira on his backside at the bell, and Sylvia hurt Nogueira multiple times with punches en route to winning the first two rounds of their bout.

It was Really Over When…

Nogueira took advantage of Sapp’s lack of ground skills and cardio by locking in an armbar from side control, finally got Cro Cop to the mat and beat him by armbar, and pulled guard on Sylvia, swept him and guillotined him from side control as the bigger man attempted to get up. In MMA history, no one has turned imminent defeat into victory via submissions like Nogueira has.

8. Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Kestutis Smirnovas (K-1 Hero’s 6, Aug. 2006)

The Setup

Sakuraba was making his K-1 Hero’s [sic] debut against Smirnovas, a Lituanian fighter who had compiled an 18-5 career record but hadn’t done anything of note before their fateful matchup. Sakuraba, of course, was a legend in Pride whose career was only marred by Pride’s repeated decision to put him up against much larger fighters. He then debuted in the grammatically incorrect K-1 Hero’s with high hopes of returning to his former glory.

It Was “Over” When…

Smirnovas dropped Saku with a left hook, then right hook during a wild exchange just forty seconds into the fight. Saku fell to his hands and knees and Smirnovas straddled him, turning him to his back and landing eight stiff right hands in a row right on Saku’s chin as he alternately appeared to be out of it or just plain dazed. There was a quick restart as Saku’s head had gone under the bottom rope and Sakuraba was dragged back into the ring quickly, and an impatient Smirnovas landed another right before the fight was even restarted. When it was resumed just a couple of seconds later, Smirnovas went back to work with left-handed hammerfists and more rights as Saku struggled to get to his hands and knees and escape. He took several shots to the back of the head as well, as this bout wasn’t exactly an example of great refereeing, to put it incredibly lightly.

It was Really Over When…

Saku finally overwhelmed a completely gassed Smirnovas with punches standing up, prompting the Lithuanian to roll to the mat. Sakuraba sloooowwwwly pushed Smirnovas’ legs aside almost casually and settled into side control. From there, it was just a moment before he spun for the armbar and got it, ending a fight that 99.9% of MMA referees would have stopped minutes earlier, and with good cause. Still, though you wouldn’t have blamed the referee for stopping it when Smirnovas was playing the conga drums on poor Saku’s head and face, you also can’t argue with the fact that Sakuraba obviously was able to continue and finish the fight in his own favor. Sadly, Sakuraba was already a shell of his former self and has been even worse since this fight, putting up a mediocre 6-6 record since then.

7. Mike Russow vs. Todd Duffee (UFC 114, May 2010)

The Setup

You couldn’t find a better antithesis to Duffee than Russow. Duffee was the new, marketable prospect in the UFC’s heavyweight division with a chiseled body and intimidating look. Russow was the doughy, hype-less wrestler with a workmanlike attitude that was supposed to provide more material for Duffee’s highlight reel.

It Was “Over” When…

Halfway through the third round, Duffee had dominated Russow, outstriking him 45-10 while thwarting all of his takedown attempts easily. Duffee had used his reach and superior striking technique to frustrate and hurt Russow, though Russow’s sturdy chin had kept him conscious through it all. With a couple of minutes to go, a tiring Duffee was cruising to a unanimous decision victory.

It was Really Over When…

Literally out of nowhere, a Russow right hand landed flush on the temple of Duffee, sending him down to the canvas. A follow-up shot forced Josh Rosenthal to jump in and stop the fight at 2:32 of the third round as fans reacted in disbelief and awe. The punches were just the 14th and 15th strikes that Russow landed in the entire 12 1/2 minute fight, and Russow was 0 for 9 on takedown attempts, to boot. Duffee had injuries and other issues push him out of his scheduled bouts after that before the UFC finally just released him from his contract after a 1-1 record in the UFC.

6. Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen (UFC 117, Aug. 2010)

The Setup

After months of trash talking, Chael Sonnen was finally going to face Anderson Silva for Silva’s UFC Middleweight Championship. Few believed that Sonnen could actually back up the epic levels of verbal vomit he had spewed at anyone who would listen for months before the matchup.

It Was “Over” When…

The fifth and final round began and Silva had barely put up a fight through four full rounds of action. Sonnen had taken Silva down at will and even out-struck him in several exchanges, and even though the majority of the fight had taken place on the mat, Silva had not even attempted a submission other than a short-lived kimura attempt in round two. Sonnen had landed more strikes in every single round and with 2 1/2 minutes to go, he was on top of Silva again and looking at not only a win, but a possible 50-45 or even 50-44 result on the judges’ scorecards.

It was Really Over When…

Sonnen allowed Silva to control his left wrist for about 45 seconds while he simply continued punching away with his right hand, and then Silva suddenly went for the triangle choke, which was obviously trouble for Sonnen from the get-go. Sonnen fought it off as well as he could, but when Silva torqued his arm as well, Sonnen had to tap to the triangle/armbar combination to end the fight in stunning fashion.

5. Scott Smith vs. Cung Le (Strikeforce: Evolution, Dec. 2009)

The Setup

This fight was a striker’s delight on paper between the tough and powerful Smith and the technically proficient and flashy Le, who hadn’t fought in almost two years after his one-sided win over Frank Shamrock, but also hadn’t lost in 6 professional MMA bouts.

It Was “Over” When…

Le had battered Smith for three straight rounds, landing just about any kick he could imagine with apparent ease and hurting Smith multiple times with kicks and punches to the head and body. Smith had dropped both rounds, with the first being a likely 10-8 for Le as Smith was nearly finished in the opening stanza. With just two minutes left, Le was picking his spots while closing out what was surely a one-sided decision victory.

It was Really Over When…

Smith followed up a short left hook that clipped Le with a desperation rally that concluded when a right cross dropped Le to his stomach. Smith finished with right hands on the ground to force intervention from “Big” John McCarthy to complete the stunning and sudden comeback.

4. Brock Lesnar vs. Shane Carwin (UFC 116, July 2010)

The Setup

Billed as a fight that couldn’t possibly go the distance, everyone expected this one to be finished within one round. Carwin, the UFC Interim Heavyweight Champion, had never gone past the first round in his career- a career in which all of his fights had ended in KOs or TKOs in his favor. Meanwhile, Lesnar was possibly the only man in the UFC or elsewhere that could match Carwin in size, power, and wrestling ability, making Lesnar’s title defense a much anticipated one. The fact that Lesnar was returning from a lengthy layoff due to a career-threatening bout with diverticulitis just hyped fans for the fight even more.

It Was “Over” When…

Carwin swarmed on Lesnar after clipping him in the first round, landing 52 strikes on the mat as Lesnar just tried to stay alive however he could. Several times during the one-sided beating it appeared as if referee Josh Rosenthal was about the stop the fight, but he wisely did not even as Carwin continued punishing the champ.

It was Really Over When…

Well, when Lesnar took a fatigued Carwin down in the second round, but it was really over much earlier than that. I would almost say that it was a done deal when Carwin wasn’t able to finish Lesnar in the first and Lesnar popped up and finished the first round with a takedown attempt of his own. Carwin was seriously exhausted and had nothing left in him, as Lesnar easily took him down early in the second and finished him with an arm triangle from starting from the mount, then side control shortly after.

3. Scott Smith vs. Pete Sell (The Ultimate Fighter 4 Finale, Nov. 2006)

The Setup

Neither fighter was in reach of a title shot, nor was either fighter any kind of household name, the fight was just a fun matchup between two pretty good strikers at the conclusion of The Ultimate Fighter 4. If not for the finish, this fight would have simply been another good fight and nothing more.

It Was “Over” When…

As Smith circled away with 1:41 left in the second round, Sell reached out with a left and landed a hook to Smith’s body that immediately hurt him. Smith winced and started to double over in pain and Sell moved in for the kill.

It was Really Over When…

Smith pulled himself together just long enough to launch a perfect straight right that instantly dropped Sell (and another look in slow-mo). Another right followed, but it was unnecessary as Sell had already been beaten and the fight was being stopped. Smith couldn’t even celebrate the victory, as he immediately went back to being doubled over in pain after the fight was stopped. It was one of the most incredible sequences in MMA history.

2. Matt Hughes vs. Frank Trigg II (UFC 52, Apr. 2005)

The Setup

Trigg had previously challenged Hughes for his title at UFC 45, but fell to a rear naked choke in the first round. Humbled, he TKO’d both Dennis Hallman and Renato Verissimo to earn another shot at Hughes at UFC 52. Trigg was determined to make sure that this one didn’t end up like their first fight.

It Was “Over” When…

Referee Mario Yamasaki didn’t see Trigg land a knee right to Hughes’ twig-and-berries early in the first round. Hughes winced in pain and circled away to get some space to recover, but Trigg was all over him. He swarmed Hughes with punches and ended up mounting, then attempting a rear naked choke of his own on Hughes.

It was Really Over When…

Hughes escaped the choke as Trigg had gotten too far off onto Hughes’ left side when he took his back. He turned into Trigg against the cage to escape, and as Trigg went to stand he picked him up and carried him quickly across to the other side of the cage before slamming him down. After gaining the mount, he peppered Trigg with punches and elbows before Trigg was forced to give up his back. From there, Hughes sank in a rear naked choke to get another submission win over his rival. It was possibly the greatest momentum change in MMA history and was even Dana White’s favorite fight of all-time for many years (and possibly still is).

1. Cheick Kongo vs. Pat Barry (UFC Live 4, June 2011)

The Setup

Two heavyweights needing a win to move towards the upper echelon of the division were facing off. Both were accomplished strikers, but many expected Kongo to use his improved wrestling to get an extra edge against the flashy and powerful Barry.

It Was “Over” When…

Barry clipped Kongo with a right hand with 2:47 left in the first round, setting off an unbelievable 26 seconds of MMA. The right hook landed behind Kongo’s ear and wobbled him to the mat, and Barry was all over him. You could make very compelling cases for a referee stoppage with 2:41 and 2:34 remaining, and Miragliotta even made contact with the fighters at one point when he had moved in for a stoppage but decided against it as Kongo suddenly showed signs of life. Kongo was stumbling around and trying to get to his feet however he could, as he was dropped two seperate times.

It was Really Over When…

After getting up for the second time, Kongo stumbled back to the fence with Barry swinging aggressively at him. Suddenly, Kongo landed a right that gave Barry pause for just an instant, and then a perfect right uppercut that knocked Barry out cold as he continued trying to put Kongo away. Barry flopped limply to his back as Kongo gave a couple of extra shots for good measure, prompting Dan Miragliotta to stop the fight officially at 2:39 of the first round.

Honorable Mentions:

Fedor Emelianenko vs. Kazuyuki Fujita (Pride 26, June 2003)
–“The Last Emperor” got nailed early with a right hand that had him wobbling around the ring, but hung with it long enough to land some big shots of his own and finish the powerful Fujita with a rear naked choke.

Roger Huerta vs. Clay Guida (The Ultimate Fighter 6 Finale, Dec. 2007)
–Huerta was down two rounds to none going into the third round and Guida looked as fresh as ever going into the final stanza. An epic staredown before the third round came just a half-minute before the finish as a suddenly-reinvigorated Huerta landed a head kick and submitted Guida with a rear naked choke to complete the sudden comeback.

Scott Smith vs. Benji Radach (Strikeforce: Shamrock vs. Diaz, Apr. 2009)
–Similar to the Cung Le fight in that Radach had dominated the action early on, winning the first two rounds. Radach notched a 10-8 second round in the opinions of many as he cut Smith open and rocked him badly, as well. Then, Smith landed a right hand just after being tossed on his head that changed the fight. Radach tried to rally in return, but another right put him out cold and completed yet another comeback for Smith.

Tim Sylvia vs. Andrei Arlovski (UFC 59, Apr. 2006)
–Think Smith vs. Sell, except that Arlovski hurt Sylvia by going to the head, not to the body, and the whole thing was quite a bit more lumbering and sloppy-looking. Arlovski hurt Sylvia early in their fight with a big right hand, but when he moved in for the kill, Sylvia clipped him with a short right that ended his night suddenly and brutally. This actually gets knocked down a notch simply because the two were so overly respectful in their following fight (the rubber match between the two) that they laid one of the all-time stinkers in the cage at UFC 61 in a five-round snoozefest.

E-Mail Jon Hartley

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