#7: MAC DANZIG
(Photo via Paul Thacker.)
A five-time King of the Cage lightweight champion with appearances in PRIDE and the WEC, Mac Danzig was one of the most seasoned mixed martial artists to ever appear on The Ultimate Fighter, and few were surprised when he blazed past guys like Ben Saunders, War Machine, and George Sotiropoulos to make it to the sixth season’s finals. After choking out Tommy Speer to win the contract and doing the same to Mark Bocek in his next outing at UFC 83, it seemed that Mac was on the fast-track to success in the UFC lightweight division.
Then, disaster struck — in the form of Clay “Energizer Blanket” Guida, who laid on top of Danzig en route to a unanimous decision last September. It was a frustrating setback, but we still thought the TUF winner would bounce back against Josh Neer at UFC Fight Night 17 in February. Unfortunately, Mac would fall short again, succumbing to a second-round triangle choke. Now, the once-promising fighter is just another scrapper at the bottom of the UFC’s lightweight ladder, and one more loss could spell the end of his run in the Octagon.
#6: BRANDON VERA
How’s this for a return-on-investment: The UFC paid “The Truth” a total of $76,000 in contracted salary for his first four wins against Fabiano Scherner, Justin Eilers, Assuerio Silva, and Frank Mir — all of them by brutal stoppage, mind you — then paid him $500,000 for his subsequent 1-3 stretch against Tim Sylvia, Fabricio Werdum, Reese Andy, and Keith Jardine. Did the fat paychecks make him soft? Did his long legal dispute with his manager throw off his mental game? It’s hard to know for sure, but by the end of 2008 it was clear that this wasn’t the same Brandon Vera who entered the UFC’s heavyweight division three years before and rocked it like a hurricane.
After Vera’s split-decision loss to Jardine, Dana White lamented the disappearance of Vera’s killer instinct and passionate cockiness. But instead of firing him, the UFC gave Vera a chance to regain his confidence against an outmatched, out-of-shape Mike Patt at UFC 96 — at a drastically reduced pay-rate, of course. Luckily, Vera chopped Patt down and saved his job. The Truth is slated to return in August against Matt Hamill at UFC 102, in a fight that will either re-establish him as a rising star at light-heavyweight, or forever define him as an overpaid can-crusher.
#5: TRAVIS LUTTER
In retrospect, the TUF 4 middleweight winner might as well have been kicked off the show for chasing tail like his No Love teammate Jeremy Jackson — it’s not like we would remember The Serial Killer any less fondly than we do now. After a disappointing 1-2 UFC run in 2005, Lutter was selected to participate in “The Comeback,” where the BJJ specialist knocked off Scott Smith, Pete Sell, and Patrick Cote to win the season’s middleweight bracket. But in an infamous case of pissing away an opportunity, Lutter failed to make weight for the title fight that he earned against Anderson Silva at UFC 67, and the match was changed to a non-title fight. Dana White was furious, and Silva made Lutter pay for the insult by catching him in a triangle choke and elbowing him in the head until he tapped.
Because of a neck injury, Lutter didn’t return to the Octagon for ten months. He was given no favors in his return fight, as he was booked against former champ Rich Franklin, who smoked him in two rounds. Ace made Travis look like what he was — a UFC washout who didn’t deserve the level of competition he was getting in his post-reality show career. The UFC shredded his contract immediately after and he hasn’t fought since.
With his shredded torso, bullet-shaped head, and intense staredowns, Houston “The Assassin” Alexander certainly looked like a killer when he entered the UFC in 2007. And when he brutalized Keith Jardine and Alessio Sakara in less than two minutes of combined fight time, it seemed fairly clear that a new knockout artist had arrived to terrorize the light-heavyweight division. Too bad Houston hasn’t won since then.
Against Thiago Silva at UFC 78, Alexander was mounted and beaten to a TKO loss. Then he became the victim of a record-tying eight-second KO against James Irvin. If Houston’s ground game was called into question during the Silva fight, it became an undeniable problem in his last outing at UFC Fight Night 15, where he succumbed to an arm-triangle choke at the hands of Eric Schafer — his third-consecutive first-round loss. Somewhat surprisingly, Alexander was given another chance to redeem himself at UFC 98 against Andre Gusmao, but a broken hand has put him out of action, meaning his winless streak could extend to two years or more.
#3: RAMEAU THIERRY SOKOUDJOU
What’s not to like about a young, jacked Judo champion who knocks dudes out and looks like the Predator? The buzz was strong with Sokoudjou when he made his Octagon debut in December 2007. After all, this was a guy who starched Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Ricardo Arona in PRIDE after entering the league as a 2-1 rookie. And with just five bouts under his belt, he was now being called one of the ten best fighters in his weight class — a bizarre situation unless your name is Brock Lesnar.
UFC 79’s Sokoudjou/Machida matchup seemed like an attempt to give one of these strange foreigners a breakout victory, as the Cameroonian was still a relatively unknown quantity among casual UFC fans, and the Brazilian’s ghost-karate style hadn’t yet drawn much of a following. Unfortunately, it was Machida’s night, as the Dragon employed his trademark foot-sweep to get the fight to the ground, then tapped the African Assassin with an arm-triangle. (Is there something about nicknaming yourself “The Assassin” that makes you particularly susceptible to that choke?)
Sokoudjou smashed Kazuhiro Nakamura in a follow-up fight, but lost to Luiz Cane via TKO in his third appearance, proving that he also had issues with cardio and striking defense to go along with his sub-par submission defense. The UFC decided that he needed some serious development, and cut him loose. Sokoudjou is currently 5-4 and will soon participate in DREAM’s Elephant Man GP. Talk about crashing back down to Earth…
#2: VITOR BELFORT
“The Phenom” has had more triumphs in the Octagon than anyone else on this list — which is why we don’t have him at the #1 spot. Yet his name always comes up in discussions of the UFC’s greatest disappointments, because of the massive expectations that were placed on him from the beginning of his career. With ferocious power, a black belt from Carlson Gracie, and hands honed by Stankie himself, many thought Vitor Belfort would rule the light-heavyweight division for as long as he wanted to. In reality, he imploded during big fights, and was the very definition of a “paper champ” during his seven-month title reign.
1997-1998: 19-year-old Vitor makes his debut at UFC 12’s four-man heavyweight tournament, stopping Tra Telligman and Scott Ferrozzo in 77 seconds and 43 seconds, respectively. Three months later he beats down Tank Abbott in 0:52. But in his next match he ran afoul of fellow rookie Randy Couture, losing via TKO in a major upset. Belfort rebounded with more quick stoppage victories over Joe Charles and Wanderlei Silva (at UFC Brazil), but left for his first stint in PRIDE before fighting for a UFC title.
2002-2005: After a successful run in Japan, Belfort seemed ready to carry his momentum back to the UFC. Unfortunately, Chuck Liddell dominated him at his return fight at UFC 37.5. Belfort took a year off from fighting, then came back to knock out Marvin Eastman at UFC 43, earning himself an unlikely shot at Randy Couture’s light-heavyweight title.
Tragically, his sister was kidnapped (and killed, as was discovered later) just weeks before his first UFC title fight — a disaster from which Vitor never recovered emotionally. Belfort won the belt from his old nemesis The Natural via cut stoppage just 49 seconds into the fight. But Couture brutally avenged the loss in an immediate rematch, negating the accomplishment of Belfort’s previous win. Vitor took one more fight in the UFC — a demoralizing split-decision loss to Tito Ortiz — then returned to PRIDE, a Phenom in name only.
#1: MIRKO “CRO COP” FILIPOVIC
While Vitor Belfort had the potential to be a great champion when he entered the UFC, Mirko Cro Cop already was one by the time he made his Octagon debut. As we’ve already discussed in a previous list, Filipovic made a strong case for himself as the best fighter in the world after storming through PRIDE’s Open Weight Grand Prix Finals in September 2006. When he jumped ship to the UFC shortly after, we expected him to head-kick his way to a heavyweight title. But in stunning, heartbreaking fashion, Cro Cop flamed out of the organization within a year, becoming the first and most dramatic victim of the PRIDE Curse, as well as the biggest bust in UFC history.
Cro Cop dominated a visibly-skurred Eddie Sanchez in his U.S. premiere at UFC 67, but was shockingly taken out by his own signature technique in his subsequent fight against Gabriel Gonzaga. Then, he dropped a decision against Cheick Kongo in a shambling wreck of a fight that saw Mirko take so many knees to the groin that he nearly retired right there in the cage. And that was pretty much that. Filipovic headed back to Japan to regroup, and American fans were robbed of seeing him tangle with guys like Randy Couture, Tim Sylvia, and Andrei Arlovski. What a kick in the nuts.
Did we leave anybody out? Let us know in the comments section…