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Dethroned: The Top 5 Championship Upsets in UFC History

(Oh, this? Just the face of a man who knows he’s about to be chewed out by the Wheaties people. via Getty.)

By Scott Johnson 

UFC 185 was a very interesting anomaly in the world of MMA, in which two incumbent champions were dethroned by the challengers who were considered underdogs going into the fight. Carla Esparza was only considered a slight favorite heading into her fight with Joanna Jedrzejczyk so the surprise there was minimal, but there weren’t many people expecting to see Rafael Dos Anjos topple Pretty Tony Pettis. Hell, most of us were already looking forward to Pettis vs. Nurmagomedov, but the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, and now the UFC Lightweight division has a new champion in its mix.

In the spirit of these events, I’ve compiled what I consider to be the top five upsets in UFC championship history. I have no doubts that there will be a difference in opinion as to which fights belong here or which order they should be in, but in the words of the great Oskar Schindler, “Fuck you, it’s my list and I’ll put who I want on it.”

#5 – Evan Tanner vs. David Terrell — UFC 51

In 2002, the UFC Middleweight championship had been vacated by Murilo Bustamante after he made the jump to PRIDE Fighting Championships. It sat defunct for over two years before the decision was made to reestablish a new champion via a match between Evan Tanner and David Terrell at UFC 51. While Tanner was no slouch and heading into the fight with a three win streak over Phil Baroni (2x) and current Welterweight champion Robbie Lawler, it was the young upstart Terrell (who had recently knocked out Matt Lindland before it was cool) who was considered the favorite.

Terrell looked to solidify that opinion early in the match, securing a tight guillotine choke on Tanner that looked as if it could end things before they ever started. However, the gritty Tanner would not be stopped and escaped the choke, a move which seemed to mentally break Terrell. The young prospect looked almost helpless against Tanner, who dominated the rest of the round by delivering heavy elbows and punches on the ground until the match was stopped just before the first round ended.

Sadly, Tanner would never defend his belt, as Rich Franklin would defeat him via TKO (doctor’s stoppage) in the 4th round of their rematch at UFC 53. Franklin, as we all well know, would go on to become the longest reigning middleweight champion in UFC history, and would semi-retire in 2014 with a perfect professional record in the octagon. What? YOU HAVE YOUR HISTORY AND I HAVE MINE!!!

#4 – Ricco Rodriguez vs. Randy Couture — UFC 39

At the time of this fight, Randy Couture had already made a huge mark in the UFC, having won the UFC Heavyweight championship twice with victories over Maurice Smith and Kevin Randleman. In his last fight, he dropped the title to Josh Barnett, who would have his title relinquished for ridin’ dirty on anabolic steroids. A match for the now vacant Heavyweight title was set between the former champion and Ricco Rodriguez, a young up and comer who had racked up an impressive win streak over fighters like Pete Williams, Jeff Monson and Andrei Arlovski. Yet few expected that Rodriguez would be capable of defeating Captain America.

For the first three rounds of the fight, Couture controlled the action and appeared well on his way to securing his third Heavyweight title. However, the momentum of the fight would change completely in the championship rounds. A tired and sluggish Couture would barely survive the fourth round, and enter the fifth looking like a man already defeated. Rodriguez, having not yet descended into a cocaine and Taco Bell nightmare from which he would never return, took full advantage of his opponent’s inferior gas tank, securing a takedown and delivering a massive elbow that would break Couture’s orbital bone and force him to submit.

#3 – Frankie Edgar vs. BJ Penn — UFC 112

BJ Penn entered this fight as the most dominant Lightweight in UFC history. His last loss in the division was to Jens Pulver back in 2002 and he had held the title for just over two years at this point. After an unsuccessful bid at the welterweight championship, Penn defended his title against Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez in utterly dominant performances before being matched up against Frankie Edgar. Edgar had made a name for himself with his epic fight against Tyson Griffin back at UFC 67 and had managed to rack up a series of wins against top level fighters like Hermes Franca and former champ Sean Sherk. Still, the odds were stacked against Edgar as he was facing arguably the best Lightweight champion in UFC history in a division where he was considered by many to be undersized.

Once the bell rang, however, Edgar began slowly erasing any doubts about his chances. “The Answer” stood toe to toe with Penn for five solid rounds in a grueling back and forth encounter that surprised many of the onlookers who expected to see another domination by Penn. The fight was so closely contested that the audience was on the edge of their seats as they announced the judge’s scores, all three of whom saw the fight in Edgar’s favor. Edgar would defeat Penn in their next two fights proving that while this fight was considered a major upset, it certainly was no fluke.

#2 – Matt Serra vs. Georges St. Pierre — UFC 69 


Being best known for being on the wrong end of a Shonie Carter spinning backfist, Matt Serra had recently seen a resurgence of his career by winning The Ultimate Fighter 4 season and earning himself a UFC Welterweight title shot in the process. No one gave the undersized, pasta-loving Long Islander a reasonable shot of defeating the current champion, Georges St. Pierre, who had amassed a 15-1 career record and barely lost a round in his UFC career. GSP looked nothing short of unstoppable, and the -1100 odds being given by many sports books seemed to back this notion.

The opening minutes of the first round went as expected, with GSP controlling the pace and attempting to land kicks to Serra’s head. Serra would not be intimidated and continued to maintain a sharp focus on the champion while GSP seemed to be simply going through the motions and not taking his opponent as seriously as he should be. This lackadaisical attitude cost him just before the three minute mark, as Serra landed a right hand to the champion’s ear. GSP began to lose his balance and would never be able to get it back as Serra, sensing the champ was in danger, swarmed the champion with a swift combination of punches before landing one final shot that floored the champion. It was considered by far to be the most shocking title upset of all time, until…

#1 – Chris Weidman vs. Anderson Silva — UFC 162

For 6 ½ years, Anderson Silva had maintained a deathgrip on the UFC Middleweight title. Other than a very close call against Chael Sonnen, there hadn’t been anyone who had been able to break the invincible aura that Silva had cultivated. The idea that Chris Weidman, who had been inactive for almost a year and whose biggest win to date was over Mark Munoz, would be the one to topple the Middleweight king seemed like an impossibility to most UFC fans. Many fighters and coaches were touting his skills and claiming that he was a bad match for the champion, but many chalked that up to the typical UFC fight hype.

The fight started out as a typical performance, with Silva setting his usual “wait and see” pace to measure his opponent. Weidman, taking a page from Sonnen’s book, used his wrestling skills and was able to take down Silva and apply some nice ground and pound before the first round ended. As round two started, Silva began his taunting routine that he had displayed many fights before in an attempt to get into Weidman’s head. However, the challenger would not fall into the same trap that other challengers had and maintained his focus. After a brief exchange, Silva dropped his hands to once again taunt his opponent and it would prove to be a career-defining mistake.

Weidman flattened Silva with a perfectly placed left hook, putting the once thought unbeatable champion to sleep and making history by ending Anderson Silva’s more than half decade winning streak and earning the greatest upset victory in UFC history.

Got a gripe with our list? Of course you do! Let us know in the comments section. 

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