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CagePotato Roundtable #21: Which Fighter Had the Most Unexpected Career Comeback of Them All?

(They say a picture is worth a thousand words, yet the only one that comes to mind when looking at this one is ZOMGBARFLOLLERCOPTER. Via Getty Images.) 

Mixed martial arts is a cruel mistress, Potato Nation, and we’re not just talking about Fallon Fox. As the sport’s popularity has increased over the past decade, its participants have been forced to take on the added pressure of not only supporting their families with the oft paltry salaries they take home every few months (if they’re lucky), but winning fights and winning them impressively for the sake of their ever-increasing fanbases, who will turn on them at the drop of the hat should they fail to meet expectations. At the risk of sounding too cliche, MMA is a game that truly offers the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. It’s also a sport that Tim Sylvia once declared 90% half mental.

And to some degree, that semi-retarded Ogre was right; MMA is a sport that, aside from pushing one to their limit and often past it physically, can do ten times as much damage to a person mentally. A string of losses — a single, particularly devastating loss even — can leave a fighter questioning whether they ever truly belonged in the first place, or whether their prime has simply passed them by. And it just happens so damn fast; in the span of roughly a year, Chuck Liddell went from the unstoppable light heavyweight kingpin to a washed up brawler who was getting punch-drunk into an early grave. At least according to the “experts” who regularly peruse the UG and Sherdog forums, CagePotato comments sections, and Wikipedia.

No, it’s not every day that we see a Randy Couture or a Georges St. Pierre who can recover from a brutal loss or string of losses and use them as motivation to refocus or completely resurrect their career. And in light of Wanderlei Silva and Mark Hunt’s recent triumphs, we go to thinking: Who Had the Most Unexpected Career Turnaround of Them All? 

That’s right, Taters. The Roundtable is back.

Josh Hutchinson

For a “great and unexpected comeback,” I personally have to go with Matt Brown. Starting his UFC career in season 7 of The Ultimate Fighter, Brown entered the house with a first round TKO victory over Josh Hall. That really wasn’t anything special, but what followed certainly was. As you recall, Jeremy May established himself early as the season’s token douche bag –which is impressive considering guys like Jesse Taylor and CB Dollaway were also on that season — and proceeded to endlessly fuck with Brown. Coach Forrest Griffin was cool enough to let Brown fight Jeremy when he asked, and then we got the TUF buildup for the fight. Jeremy May used his camera time to further show the world how much of an unnecessary waste of oxygen he was, whereas Brown came off as a determined, likeable guy. I also remember his team talking about how great he was, and that one day they would all be able to tell their children that they knew “The Immortal” Matt Brown. Also, Amir Sodallah predicted Brown would win “…by murder.”

Come fight time, this happened, and it came pretty damn close to Amir’s prediction. The good guy beat the bad guy, the loud mouth got silenced, and I officially drank the Matt Brown Kool Aid. Needless to say, I was a bit disappointed when he lost to Sodallah in his next outing, but still optimistic that this guy could one day become a title contender. Over the next two years, Brown went 4-1, losing the only fight that went to the judges, and I was never more sure of it. Then in 2010, his opponents noticed just how horrible his submission defense was, and Brown proceeded to lose 4 of his next 5 fights. For me, this was like finding out that the Easter bunny wasn’t real, or that the 50 dollar hooker from last week didn’t really love me (SHE DID!!!).

With a 1-4 record in his last 5 fights and a 12-11 overall record, I was sure that Zuffa keeping “The Immortal” around was the result of some Pepe Silvia level conspiracy shit and honestly wrote the guy off completely. Inexplicably, Brown rebounded in a big way. Fighting 4 times in 2012, he managed to hand Stephen Thompson his first loss and KO/TKO everyone else they put in front of him. Do I still think he can be a title contender? Shit no. The welterweight division is far too deep for a knockout artist with almost as many losses as wins to even be mentioned in a conversation about title shots (no offense, Mark). Then again, if he manages to beat Dan Hardy on April 20th, you never know. WAR Brown.

Doug “ReX13″ Richardson 

(Photo via Getty Images.) 

There was a guy, his name escapes me at the moment for some reason. Anyway, this kid was a real prodigy, pro debut at 20, UFC debut at 22, and he’s just making guys look bad on his run up to challenging for the UFC title. But, get this: when he gets his title shot, he loses. He puts on a good performance but the champion catches him with a last-second armbar for the finish.

So this kid is devastated, goes back to the gym, hits slabs of meat at his day job, drinks questionable protein shakes before his morning run, pretty much all the Rocky tropes. Except he’s Canadian. Did I mention he was Canadian? Well, he is. This turns out to be important for the UFC marketing department, and Canadians. So this Canadian guy goes on a five-fight tear, finally gets a second shot at the belt, and this time he wins! Wins the fight by TKO stoppage, so all hail the new king of the division, right? WRONG: New Canadian Handsome Champion (did I mention he was a good-looking guy with a French-Canadian accent? Well, he is. This turns out to be important for UFC marketing department, and women. And gay men.) LOSES HIS FIRST TITLE DEFENSE.

If you get a chance, ask an old-timer about the chaos after Matt Serra won a UFC title. Food and commodities prices skyrocketed. Pigs were seen to slip loose the bonds of Earth. Rivers flowed backward, and the skies were darkened. But Canadian Handsome Guy went to a whole ‘notha level in fighting: Winning Is Everything, and this time he goes on a ten-fight tear, during which he soundly defeats Old Champion, avenges his loss (and regains the title) from The Interloper Matt Serra, and lays the smackdown on perhaps the most impressive collection of talent in any weight class, putting his current successful title defenses at eight.

I don’t remember what the original question was, but if Georges St. Pierre loses this weekend, he’s either going to become The Batman or go Super Saiyan.

George Shunick

It might seem unfathomable right now, but only four years ago, no one knew who Chael Sonnen was. And if they did know who he was, it was only as “that guy who happened to be in the same cage with Paulo Filho when the latter lost his mind in the middle of a fight.” Prior to the Filho rematch, Sonnen’s career was thoroughly mediocre. Realistically competing since 2002 – he had a fight in 1997, then didn’t fight again until he defeated Jason “Mayhem” Miller five years later – the only notable names he had wins over were “Mayhem” and Tim Credeur. During that same time span, he lost to a pre-TUF Forrest Griffin, Renato “Babalu” Sobral and three times to Jeremy Horn. Sonnen’s final loss to Horn got him cut from the UFC for the first time, after which he rattled off five straight victories before facing Filho.

Their first meeting ended in controversy after Sonnen screamed in pain while locked in an armbar – but did not tap – and the referee stopped the fight. The second ended with less controversy, but more confusion, as Filho came in overweight and was more focused on an imaginary dialogue (does that make it a monologue?) than actually engaging in a fight. After the Filho debacle, Sonnen re-entered the UFC and was quickly submitted by Demian Maia in his first fight. Seven years into his career, and nothing appeared any different for Chael Sonnen.

In his next fight, Sonnen scored a decision victory over Dan Miller. No surprise there. But then, he dominated Yushin Okami, a man considered by many to be the number two middleweight in the world at the time. Still, Okami was a wrestler like Sonnen. It was unexpected, but still within the realm of plausibility. But most people favored Nate Marquardt when the two met for a title-shot at UFC 109; Marquardt was well-rounded, for starters, while Sonnen was entirely one-dimensional. Yet Sonnen’s one dimension proved more than enough to stymie Marquardt’s multi-dimensional approach, which unfortunately did not happen to contain an offensive jiu-jitsu game.

His victory led him to his UFC 117 title shot against Anderson Silva, and changed his entire career. Sonnen adopted a pro-wrestling persona, insulted Anderson Silva every opportunity he was afforded and then – to the amazement of everyone – came this close to defeating Silva. He lost, of course, and tested positive for extraordinarily high levels of testosterone afterwards, but Sonnen would never be the same. (This is true from a physiological standpoint as well as a narrative one, thanks to a TRT prescription.) He became – in no particular order – a television personality, a perennial contender, a TUF coach, a pizza parlor owner, a white collar criminal, a cheat, and a best-selling author.

Chael Sonnen was a nobody four years ago, seven years into a career. Now? He’s a brand unto himself and one of the biggest draws in the entire sport. He’s also probably a dead man coming into his fight with Jon Jones, but at this point, wins and losses are almost irrelevant when it comes to Sonnen. He’s established in the last few years of his career what all but a small percentage of fighters fail to achieve, without winning a title. No one could have expected that.

Anthony Gannon

Nothing like a good fallacy to maintain the natural order. It’s just one of those astonishing things that define us as a subservient people. It allows us to accept a widespread belief without any cumbersome thinking, all because it sounds good and true and just. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, where would the world be right now if everyone constantly questioned shit?

Stirling, that’s where. If those troublesome Scots had just accepted their rightful plebeian roles and allowed Longskanks to institute primae noctis on their women, then all those poor farmers wouldn’t have been butchered to death, and excruciatingly annoying people who claim Scottish and/or Irish descent wouldn’t use the term “aye.” Basically, the world would be a prettier place.

One of the best ones, right up there with Jesus being born of Immaculate Conception, is the Little Nog jiu-jitsu fallacy – debunked circa 2010. It held that Nog’s substandard wrestling ability wouldn’t have an adverse effect on his UFC career, that he would simply use his superhuman BJJ powers to submit any wrestler foolish enough to plant him on his ass.

This was largely perpetuated by Pride fanboys (Ed note: You got somethin’ to say, Gannon?), where Little Nog had attained deity status by not only going 8-2 during his renowned tenure, but by being the other half of the Nog zygote his larger sibling made famous by enduring vicious beatings before pulling off spectacular Hail Mary submissions. Never mind that Little Nog hadn’t pulled off a submission against a top opponent since 2005. He was a Nog God dammit, and he’d submit a bitch cause that’s just the way it was.

After Pride was acquired by the UFC in 2007, we all anticipated the arrival of Little Nog. However, it wasn’t until 2009 that he arrived. He commenced to destroy the supremely overrated Luiz Cane, then fought to a surprising split decision victory against Jason Brilz in a fight many thought he should have lost due to Brilz’s wrestling control. Two straight losses to wrestlers Ryan Bader and Phil Davis followed, and it seemed Little Nog’s jiu jitsu was ill-prepared for the wrestle-hump world of the UFC.

Then a funny thing happened: Nog learned how to stuff him some takedowns. Sure, he showed flashes of great takedown defense in his losses, but he would eventually succumb. His comical destruction of the dry-aged Tito was a useless barometer, but his recent win over Rashad Evans at UFC 156 was very telling. Aesthetically, the fight was a torturous affair, but Nog showed that, to go along with his formidable stand-up and excellent/yet totally mortal BJJ, he finally learned the skill that could fill in the blanks.

Next up is Shogun at UFC 161. And even though Shogun’s performances are starting to look as sloppy as his love handles hanging over those tight-ass Praetorian shorts, he’s still a tough opponent with big name value. A win here puts Little Nog into a very good position for a title shot. Hendo is out of the mix. After Jon Jones makes Chael Sonnen bust out the jelly, the only top 205ers left that Jones hasn’t already destroyed are Nog and Gustafsson. Yes, Dana White said Machida was next in line, but it’s not like Daddy Dana hasn’t been known to Indian give this sort of shit.

Nog’s right there, son. All he has to do is beat Shogun – something he couldn’t do back in 2005 — and with Shogun fighting like a guy who looks like he smokes three packs of Camel No-Filters a day after two rounds, Nog has a great shot at the W here. With it, he’ll be a pubic hair away. If none of that works out, museums are always looking for real life actors for their Neanderthal exhibits.

Nathan “The12ozCurls” Smith

(Photo via Sherdog.) 

Cub Swanson was a pedestrian 4-3 during his last seven bouts in the WEC before the organization merged with the UFC, and in his debut under the bright lights of the “big leagues” he tapped out when Ricardo “Don’t Call Me Lorenzo” Lamas slapped on a tight arm-triangle choke. Going .500 in your last eight fights and getting submitted in your first appearance in the Octagon is not exactly the model on how to impress the new bosses, especially when you already have an 8 second brutal KO loss to the champion (Aldo) as well as a UD loss to a perennial top contender/alleged bar brawler (Mendes) at the weight class in which you compete. The win/loss record along with the other variables is the exact reason the “Flow Chart of Doom” was invented by our fearless leader, but the UFC was not overstaffed back in late 2011 and thankfully Swanson was given another chance.

To say that Cub took the proverbial ball and ran with it would be an understatement. Swanson faced off against durable George Roop at the UFC ON FOX 2 undercard in what was a perceived as a must-win for him, and judging by the beating he put on Roop en route to a KO victory, Cub understood the severity of the situation. Swanson then won Knockout of the Night honors when he dropped Ross Pearson like a good wingman does to the fat chick “friend.” Next in line was dangerous submission specialist Charles Oliveira and Swanson took less than three minutes to go “Right Turn Clyde” with a left hook to the bread basket followed up with a one punch KO. Three fights, three wins and three knockouts. That is how you get some fans (according to Cub’s new head trainer) and the favor of the UFC brass.

A huge step-up in competition was in store for Swanson when he was pitted against the well-rounded Louisiana stud Dustin Poirier last month. The late/great Gorilla Monsoon would have said it was the “irresistible force meeting the immovable object” and both men put on a show for 15 minutes during their co-main event bout. Take downs and stand-up exchanges ensued. It was an awesome fight worthy of UFC ON FOX viewers. It was a fight that would have turned the casual viewer into a die hard and once the dust had settled, Cub came out with a unanimous decision victory.

Cub Swanson: his name may sound like a revoked TV dinner flavor but he has resurrected his career in unbelievable fashion. For Pete’s sake, he got guillotined by Jens Pulver five years ago and now he is sitting at the precipice of a number one contender’s bout. Kevin Luke “Cub” Swanson is a perpetual underdog and we all love the underdog especially when that mutt comes into the octagon swinging for – not only the fences – but for his career.

Seth Falvo

(Photo via MMAFighting.) 

Before we go any further, it’s imperative that we give a much deserved shout-out to Bernard Hopkins, who once again became the oldest major champion in the history of boxing six days ago with a victory over undefeated IBF champion Tavoris Cloud. Is part of his longevity due to a weak talent pool in boxing? Of course. Does this take anything away from the absolutely legendary career that Bernard Hopkins has put together? Don’t be a fool, you idiot.

Now then, even if I could pick Hopkins for this roundtable discussion, I wouldn’t, because he never fell nearly as far out of relevance as my choice, Demian Maia.

As a middleweight, Maia followed the “Grappling Ace Anderson Silva Challenger” mold to the letter. He started off his UFC career with a string of submission victories. He eventually managed to convince the UFC brass that he could possibly submit the untouchable Brazilian, and while we more-than-willingly hyped him as a challenger, deep down we all knew that we were simply playing carnival barker while doing so. Much like how “The Incredible Bearded Lady” is less impressive when you call her “Your friend’s Italian Grandmother,” we focused on Maia’s submission prowess because of how little standup he had (the Marquardt fight, anyone?). An embarrassingly lopsided, yet also completely unwatchable fight against Anderson Silva ensued, and our fearless challenger would slowly begin to fade out of relevance (See Also: Leites, T.).

And then a strange thing happened (Ed note: You mean like with Lil’ Nog?): Maia dropped to welterweight, and he was unbeatable again. His welterweight debut saw him crush Dong Hyun Kim in just forty-seven seconds. While skeptics (ie. me) wanted to see more before declaring him “back,” Maia’s next outing saw him neck crank Rick Story so hard that the end result was like watching a Mortal Kombat fatality. You could spend hours watching grappling tournaments and not see such a gruesome, yet completely awesome finish. And then the icing on the cake came at UFC 156, where Demian Maia managed to out-Fitch Jon Fitch while actually being entertaining. Say what you want about Jon Fitch being boring, just don’t act like a victory over him has ever been meaningless.

Perhaps the most impressive part about Maia’s comeback is the fact that he is now a more legitimate contender than he was when he was actually challenging for the title. When he fought Anderson Silva, he was part of a trio of fighters (along with Sonnen and Marquardt) who could have all challenged for the belt, even though none of them really deserved to. Now, Maia just needs a victory over one more top welterweight to gain a shot at the champion. And this time around, I actually believe what I’m typing when I write that Maia has a good chance at submitting whoever that guy may be.

Jared Jones

It’s funny; I came up with this Roundtable topic specifically with Mark Hunt in mind, yet now that the time has come to sing his praises, I find myself surprisingly void of the right words to say. Maybe it’s because — like the family of Zhou Chengliang – I had long since given up the hope that I would ever see “The Super Samoan” fighting in the UFC, let alone knocking on the door of a title shot. Following a six-fight skid that included a handful of amateurish submission losses and a world-shattering KO loss to Melvin Manhoef, it was generally understood by fans and pundits alike that Hunt was on his way out. Personally, I welcomed the thought. In some strange way, I was almost more comfortable believing that when PRIDE faded away in 2007, the Mark Hunt I knew — the iron-jawed, heavy-handed, flabby-around-the-waist, butt-dropping introvert — faded away with it. It was the sole bit of solace I was able to scrape away from the collapse of my beloved PRIDE.

And when it was announced that Hunt would in fact be headed to the UFC, some five years after he had stopped being relevant, for the sole purpose of fulfilling leftover contractual obligations he had with PRIDE, I was heartbroken. Honest-to-God heartbroken. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I had already counted Hunt out. I believed that Hunt’s run in the UFC would accomplish little more than tarnishing his legendary status amongst the sport’s hardcore fans while spoiling his name amongst those new to MMA. Sure, he appeared to be in the best shape of his life heading into the fight, but in the back of my mind I couldn’t shake the feeling that we (“we” being Hunt fans worldwide) were setting ourselves up for disappointment. One minute and an arm-breaking loss to a super-heavyweight future UFC washout later, I had all I could do to hold back tears.

It is at this point in my little story that you’re probably expecting the phrase “but then, a funny thing happened” to appear, followed by a fight-by-fight retelling of Hunt’s completely unexpected four fight win streak that culminated in a stellar knockout of Stefan Struve at UFC in FUEL 8 and a late replacement, number one contender fight with former champion Junior dos Santos at UFC 160. But I’m not going to do that, because if you are not familiar with Hunt’s inspirational turnaround, the #RallyforMarkHunt campaigns, or his beatdown of one of the sport’s dirtiest fighters, then there is nothing I can write to convince you to get on board this warwagon.

Because to me, Hunt’s simultaneously depressing and inspiring story of perseverance is almost transcendent of the material itself. It represents more than just Mark Hunt the person; it represents more than just MMA. It makes the case that dozens of hackneyed, underdog sports films attempt to make each year with varying degrees of success: NEVER COUNT ANYONE OUT. Because if a one-dimensional, long since forgotten slugger like Hunt can mount as historic a comeback as he has, who’s to say that any other athlete, politician, or civilian can’t? Because Mark Hunt, you guys. Because PRIDE. 

Cagepotato Comments

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Willa Ford- March 19, 2013 at 4:10 pm
No Frank Mir? Dude almost died in a bike crash, lost to Brandon Vera, then came back to stop the then unstoppable big nog and win an interim title.
mandible- March 16, 2013 at 2:41 pm
gotta love hunt on this, but some good choices all around.
Thumblaster- March 15, 2013 at 6:51 pm
Sho nuff is right , gsp comeback fighter? Your a fucking retard, if gsp is a career comeback fighter so is couture, liddell, bendo, nick diaz,... Basicly every fucking top fighter to post wins after a big loss. The only great fighter to not have a comeback is fedor he dominated for a decade and then pretty much never won again except a couple wins in the russian hobo circuit. Fuck gsp.
Sho Nuff- March 15, 2013 at 1:29 pm
The inclusion of GSP here is horseshit. A win streak to a title shot, a loss, then some more wins to a redemptive title shot win, a fluke, then a dominant reign is not a comeback story. It's a fairly normal career path for top fighters. Will Carlos Condit have the greatest comeback ever if he beats Hendricks, gets another title shot and wins? No, it will just be his path to UFC greatness. And I second dano on Mir, both of his points.
danomite- March 15, 2013 at 1:12 pm
Frank Mir probably has a better comeback story than most of those guys, but I can understand why nobody picked him (he's a huge douche).
Fried Taco- March 15, 2013 at 11:57 am
Y'all need a Mexican writer so he/she could pick Brown Pride.
swaboo- March 15, 2013 at 11:57 am
YO, dat jaw-breaking punch!
algiersheadkick504- March 15, 2013 at 10:30 am
Yu can't really say Hunt he was throwin in the mma shark tank and fought nothing but high level fighters with only a k-1 backround. He is finally putting it together. Cub is my pick I thought he would never recover from aldos double knee and now he is a contender. Chael made a comeback with his big mouth. His skillset is average with a great takedown...I don't see how he can punch someone so much and not finish him