On Saturday night, Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson scored a first-round knockout over former welterweight champion — and still No. 2 ranked fighter — Johny Hendricks at the UFC’s latest event.
It was an eye-opening performance, and those who watched it live or on television can bore witness to a rare occurrence: that moment where, for perhaps only one night, everything clicked for a fighter. Thompson entered the UFC on the strength of a lauded kickboxing and karate background, with minimal MMA experience. After winning his initial fights against relatively soft touches, he hit a wall against the supremely underrated and inhumanly tough Matt Brown, who beat Thompson by decision.
Since then, Thompson has reeled off six straight wins, a streak that culminated in this starching of Hendricks, a former champ with wins over Jon Fitch, Martin Kampmann and current champion Robbie Lawler. His only prior losses were very debatable split decisions to Lawler and all-time great Georges St. Pierre, and he entered the Thompson fight as a substantial favorite.
This was a massive upset, not just in regards to the outcome, but in regards to how it transpired. With that in mind, I thought it appropriate to look back at a few more of the biggest title fight upsets in the sport’s history. In no particular order, because I’m lazy.
- Randy Couture def. Chuck Liddell (UFC 43 — June 6, 2003)
Going into this right, Couture was rightfully the massive underdog. Liddell was thought, correctly, to just be entering his prime, and was in the middle of perfecting what would become his signature sprawl-and-brawl style. A decorated wrestler, Liddell would use those skills to keep the fight on the feet, where he would put his terrifying striking prowess to use. En route to this fight, Liddell had already dominated perennial contender Vitor Belfort and head-kicked Renato Sobral into about six different comas; by all rights, he should have been fighting Tito Ortiz for the title, but a contract dispute between Ortiz and the UFC led to the fight being stalled.
Enter Couture, coming down to the 205-pound division for the first time after two brutal losses at heavyweight to Josh Barnett and Ricco Rodriguez. It was supposed to be a blowout for Liddell: Couture’s major strength was wrestling, and Liddell was a master at shrugging off wrestlers and then beating them to a pulp. The fight was made, with an interim title at light-heavyweight up for grabs.
And it was a blowout, in favor of Couture. Noticing that most of Liddell’s strikes, though powerful, were reliant on wide, looping hooks, Couture closed the distance, negating those strikes and connected repeatedly with short, straight punches of his own. Liddell, unused to his game plan not working, crumbled and was finally put away in the middle of the third round by TKO, making Couture the first UFC fighter to win belts in two different weight classes. The two would fight twice more, with Liddell winning by knockout both times, but nothing can take the shine off of Couture’s first victory.
- BJ Penn def. Matt Hughes (UFC 46 — January 31st, 2004)
BJ Penn has had one of the more entertaining, baffling, and frustrating careers out of any combat sports professional. Preternaturally gifted, he earned his Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt in a stupidly short three years, earned UFC titles in two different weight classes, and has fought across five weight classes. His nickname is “The Prodigy,” and it is perhaps his natural gifts that contribute to his sometimes underwhelming or lackadaisical approach to fighting. For every scintillating KO or submission win against the likes of Takanori Gomi, Caol Uno, Diego Sanchez and Kenny Florian, there are tepid performances against Frankie Edgar, Nick Diaz and Jens Pulver. For this fight, though, The Prodigy showed up.
It’s impossible to state how dominant a champion Matt Hughes was at this point. Going into the fight as a five-time defending champ, Hughes’ powerful wrestling and complementary submission grappling had earned him victories over Carlos Newton (twice), Gil Castillo and Hayato Sakurai, effectively cleaning out the division. With a drought of contenders, the UFC granted Penn’s request to move up 15 pounds from lightweight to take on, at that time, the most dominant champion in the sport’s history.
Penn completely owned Hughes. He busted his face up with sharp boxing and, when Hughes resorted to his wrestling, Penn wrapped him up in a rear-naked choke, coaxing a tap out barely four minutes into the first round. Both men would go on to successful careers, including splitting two more fights, but this is their defining moment.
- Dan Henderson def. Wanderlei Silva (PRIDE 33 — February 4th, 2007)
When these two fought, Wanderlei Silva was in the middle of a ridiculous winning streak, and had defended his 205-pound title approximately 675 times, usually by some form of soccer kick. He was vicious, and rightfully feared, a twitchy ball of veiny musculature and poor impulse control.
Dan Henderson, on the other hand, had spent most of his career in PRIDE fighting one weight class down at 183 pounds and, though the power in his overhand right was no secret, he built his success on the back of a world-class Greco Roman wrestling game, and was a master of the clinch and top-control. After defeating Vitor Belfort by decision at 205 pounds, Henderson, already holding the 183-pound belt, was granted a shot at Silva’s title in the penultimate PRIDE event.
The fight was competitive for a bit, with the two trading shots and withstanding each other’s vaunted power. Then Silva began to tire. He dropped his hands and, at that moment, Henderson decided to try out that combo he saw one time in a Tekken 3 tournament: he walked Silva down, then threw a spinning backfist/left hook sequence that cracked Silva’s jaw and knocked him out cold. With that, Henderson became the only fighter in MMA history to concurrently hold belts in two weight classes.
- TJ Dillashaw def. Renan Barao (UFC 173 — May 4, 2014)
It was tough to come up with this final entry. There were several other famous examples to hold up — Matt Serra’s defeat of Georges St. Pierre, Chris Weidman knocking out Anderson Silva, Frankie Edgar over BJ Penn — but this one is notable for the seeming discrepancy in talent between the two combatants, and for how extended and prolonging Dillashaw’s dominance was.
To many, TJ Dillashaw came out of nowhere. A finalist on a season of The Ultimate Fighter, he was KOd in the finale by John Dodson, who then promptly dropped down to flyweight. Afterward, Dillashaw quietly but efficiently put a stellar record together at bantamweight, with the only blemish on his record coming via split decision against Rafael Assuncao. On the strength of a rebound victory over Mike Easton and UFC 173’s loss of its initial Chris Weidman/Vitor Belfort main event, Dillashaw was tapped to face bantamweight king Renan Barao on short notice.
Barao had been running roughshod over the 135-pound division for years, defeating the likes of Urijah Faber (twice), Eddie Wineland and Brad Pickett, enjoying an unheard-of 31-fight unbeaten streak. He was a terror on the feet, a submission wizard and boasted a fairly charming, if awkward, post-fight celebration dance.
You will, by now, not be shocked to learn that Dillashaw ate Barao for breakfast. He darted in and out with constant, complex head movement and footwork, lighting up Barao with flawless combinations, never once getting into any sort of trouble himself. Finally, Dillashaw landed a high kick and follow-up punches to put a stamp on probably the greatest performance of his career — y’know, until he did the same thing to Barao in their rematch several months later.