Losing isn’t always the end of the world. Sometimes, taking an ass-kicking — or getting screwed out of a well-deserved victory — can be the best thing for a fighter’s career. Don’t believe us? We’ll start with one that should still be fresh in your minds…
What happened: Lil’ Nog was originally supposed to face Forrest Griffin at UFC 114, until Griff was struck down by a shoulder injury three-and-a-half weeks before the event. The UFC had to book a replacement, and fast, so they called up wrestling specialist Jason Brilz. Like a true warrior, Brilz put down his beer, blew off his 10-year wedding anniversary, and stepped up to the plate. On paper, he should have been destroyed by the sharp hands and top-flight experience of Nogueira. Instead, Brilz nearly choked Nog out with a guillotine in the second round, wobbled him with strikes, out-wrestled him, and arguably controlled the majority of the fight. But after the last horn sounded and the scores were added up, only one judge saw it his way.
Victory in defeat: If you didn’t know who Jason Brilz was before last weekend’s show, you do now. Brilz picked up even more classy-points by not bitching about the decision: “I’m not upset. Sure, I’d have liked to win. Everybody likes to win. I think I went out there and I proved to people, but more importantly I proved to myself, that I can compete with the top dogs. That’s sort of what I’ve been aiming for my whole career.” We don’t know exactly what Jason’s future holds, but it’s looking a lot brighter now. The $65,000 bonus check probably doesn’t hurt either.
What happened: After running through Andre Gusmao, Stephan Bonnar, and Jake O’Brien, the much-hyped and rapidly-improving Jon Jones was put up against Matt Hamill, who was coming off of his thunderous head-kick knockout of Mark Munoz at UFC 96. While some wondered if Hamill’s wrestling ability would neutralize Jones’s strengths, Bones answered the doubters by rag-dolling Hamill like a child, then getting on top of him and jackhammering his face with elbows. Just when it looked like Jones had the stoppage in the bag, the fight was paused because some of his elbows were illegal “12-to-6 elbows” — aimed directly downward with the point of the ‘bow. Blinded by blood and deaf to begin with, Hamill didn’t respond when genius referee Steve Mazzagatti asked him if he could continue, so the fight was stopped. It was Jones’s first career defeat, via disqualification.
Victory in defeat: Nobody considered the DQ a legitimate loss — for all intents and purposes, it was the most stunning victory of Jon Jones’s career. Instead of punishing him, the UFC immediately slotted Jones in the headlining spot of the UFC’s first card on Versus against Brandon Vera. Jones smashed Vera’s face apart in the first round — legally this time — and all was right with the world again.
#5: Stephan Bonnar‘s unanimous decision loss to Forrest Griffin
TUF 1 Finale, 4/9/05
What happened: It’s a fight that should need no introduction — Bonnar and Griffin, the last two light-heavyweights standing in the groundbreaking first season of The Ultimate Fighter, facing off and putting on one of the greatest slobberknockers of all time. As legend has it, multitudes of dudes called up their bro-dogs during the fight, urging them to turn on Spike and see what these tough bastards were doing to each other, and a cable TV sensation was born. When the dust settled, all three judges called it 29-28 in favor of Forrest Griffin, new owner of a six-figure UFC contract. Five years later, Bonnar vs. Griffin 1 is still considered the most important single fight in UFC history.
Victory in defeat: The entire premise of TUF was that only the winners would get UFC contracts, but that conceit was quickly put aside once this fight got started. Bonnar was also granted a contract for his crowd-pleasing performance, and Dana White has been loyal to him ever since. Honestly, the American Psycho has made his entire career off of that one night. In the last four years, Bonnar has racked up a 2-5 record — which includes defeats in his last three appearances and a loss to Mark Coleman (!) — and has tested positive for steroids. Any other UFC fighter would have been canned by now. Bonnar is currently the host of The Aftermath on ultimatefighter.com, will reportedly become a permanent commentator for the WEC, and his rematch with K-Sos is scheduled for UFC 116 in July.
#4: Georges St. Pierre‘s TKO loss to Matt Serra
What happened: GSP didn’t become UFC welterweight champion the easy way. To win the belt, he had to defeat Karo Parisyan, Jay Hieron, Jason Miller, Frank Trigg, Sean Sherk, BJ Penn, and then avenge a loss to Matt Hughes, who had submitted St. Pierre during the Canadian’s first (unsuccessful) title grab at UFC 50. After KO’ing Hughes at UFC 65, he had finally reached the top of the mountain. And his first title defense should have been a breeze. His opponent was some little Italian dude who had a journeyman’s record of 4-4 in the UFC, and had been given a title shot after winning the fourth season of The Ultimate Fighter, which was reserved for veterans who never hit the big time. What could possibly go wrong? And yet, bada-bing — all that hard work down the shitter in three minutes, 25 seconds.
Victory in defeat: St. Pierre had the belt back around his waist a year later (crushing Serra in a rematch), and hasn’t lost a fight since. Hell, he’s never even come close to losing a fight. And there’s a reason for that — the loss to Serra was a giant wake-up call, and Rush did not hit the snooze button. Instead, he ditched his entourage, found a new manager, and began honing all aspects of his game with the best trainers he could find. He vowed to never take another opponent lightly, and to never let personal issues affect his focus again. GSP needed that loss in order to locate his motivation. It was the best thing that could have happened to him, and the worst thing that could have happened to his opponents.
What happened: Let’s be honest — the Japanese have a thing for crazy-looking black guys. (See also: Sapp, Horse) So when the sneering, chain-clad Quinton Jackson began to draw attention in King of the Cage and Gladiator Challenge, PRIDE’s matchmakers decided he’d be a perfect opponent for national hero Kazushi Sakuraba — and actually marketed him as a homeless man. (Stay classy, Tokyo.) Unfortunately, Jackson’s first trip to Japan was not a victorious one, as the ever-crafty Saku managed to latch on a rear-naked choke after getting tossed around the ring for a while. But who knows what would have happened if the promoters didn’t poison Rampage’s food before the fight?
Victory in defeat: It was a star-making performance for the not-actually-homeless Quinton Jackson. Between his distinctive look and aggressive style, he became an instant fan favorite in PRIDE. The fight with Sakuraba was an audition; Jackson landed the part, and earned a place on MMA’s biggest and most dramatic stage, where he would do battle with some of the greatest fighters the world had to offer.
#2: Mauricio Rua‘s unanimous decision loss to Lyoto Machida
UFC 104, 10/24/09
What happened: Though Mauricio Rua was thought by many to be the greatest light-heavyweight in the world by the end of his tenure with PRIDE, it took him a while to find his sea legs in the UFC. An upset loss to Forrest Griffin in his UFC debut and a uninspiring follow-up performance against Mark Coleman made fans wonder if “the old Shogun” was gone for good. When he was granted a title shot against Lyoto Machida in 2009, we wrote the following:
[Rua] beat up an elderly, gassed Mark Coleman (barely) and an old, on-his-way-into-retirement Chuck Liddell (convincingly). Look at just about anybody’s rankings and you won’t see him any higher than the number five spot. This is the guy they want to get the first crack at the champ who no one is supposed to have a chance against? …The UFC is essentially fabricating a number one contender here for the sheer sake of convenience…[F]or the sake of TV they’re going to pretend someone has earned a shot when they haven’t, and in the process demean everything Machida had to go through — being undefeated, waiting for several other people to get injured, etc. — just to get his crack at the title. So much for the legitimacy of establishing a number one contender.
Well, Shogun didn’t win — but he should have. Rua used his smart, sharp striking (and a whole lot of leg kicks) to make contact with Machida more times than the notoriously elusive champion had been hit in his entire career. It was a close fight, without a doubt, but it seemed that Rua had done enough to win. I mean, just look at the numbers. And yet, all three judges marked it 48-47 for Lyoto. One of the judges later changed his mind about who deserved to win. Another judge stood by the idiotic proclamation that leg kicks don’t finish fights.
Victory in defeat: Rua went from #1 contender out of convenience to legitimate #1 contender on the strength of his performance, and shot up the light-heavyweight rankings. With the bad-blood match between Quinton Jackson and Rashad Evans postponed due to Rampage’s A-Team committments, the logical thing to do was set up an immediate rematch between Machida and Rua. Seven months later, the two Brazilians met again at UFC 113, and Shogun was ready. While their first match was a closely-pitched 25-minute battle, the rematch was a one-round destruction. Shogun knocked the Dragon out, took his belt, ended the so-called Machida Era, and re-launched his career back at the top.
#1: Chan Sung Jung‘s split-decision loss to Leonard Garcia
What happened: We didn’t know much about Chan Sung Jung when he made his WEC debut earlier this year, other than the fact that he had an amazing nickname (The Korean Zombie!) and was no stranger to terrible judges’ decisions. Meanwhile, Leonard Garcia was well known as a heavy-handed sum’bitch, and wasn’t planning on giving Jung a warm welcome. Their fight took about a minute to get cooking, and once it did, neither fighter let up for one moment. Jung and Garcia took turns swinging haymakers, firing flying knees, launching spinning backfists, and trying their hardest to bash each others’ brains in. The action was so fast and violent it was hard to even keep track of what was happening. Despite the chaos, it soon became apparent that Jung was landing the better shots, and he was landing more often. Garcia managed to keep his wits and grin through the onslaught, but he was getting lit the fuck up. When both fighters made it to the end of the third round, the crowd howled in approval, knowing they had witnessed something historic. But when the scores were announced, the cheers turned into boos as two of the judges gave the fight to the American. And poor Chan cried tears of injustice.
Victory in defeat: Like Stephan Bonnar before him, Jung became a breakout star simply for being part of an epic battle. But the fact that most observers thought Jung should have won the match gave him folk hero status. Commentator Joe Rogan called Jung vs. Garcia the “fight of the decade.” WEC boss Reed Harris called it “probably the best fight I’ve ever seen.” Jung was even commemorated in a best-selling t-shirt. Yes, the guy who lost. You know that bullshit line about how it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game? In this case, it was actually true. The next time Jung enters the cage, it will be as a legend.
- BJ Penn’s TKO loss to Matt Hughes (UFC 63, 9/23/06): A failed attempt at recapturing the welterweight belt forces BJ Penn down to his most effective weight class, where he wins the UFC lightweight title and defends it three times — all in absolutely masterful performances.
- Urijah Faber‘s unanimous decision loss to Mike Brown (WEC 41, 6/7/09): Faber proves that even in defeat, he is one of the toughest bastards alive, going five hard rounds with Brown despite suffering two broken hands. When he can’t punch anymore, he throws standing elbows; the Black Knight scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail comes to mind.
- Brett Rogers‘s TKO loss to Fedor Emelianenko (Strikeforce: Fedor vs. Rogers, 11/9/09): Rogers becomes the first man in three years to make it to the second round against The Last Emperor, and actually dominates a large part of the opening frame. He eventually gets knocked out, but earns a title shot against Alistair Overeem anyway.