(A wise man once said, ‘Success is the best revenge.’ A slightly less-wise man once said, ‘All y’all haters can blow me.’ / Photo courtesy of MMAFighting)
When Tito Ortiz choked out Ryan Bader at UFC 132 — breaking a four-and-a-half year winless streak in an upset that absolutely nobody saw coming — he immediately became MMA’s comeback story of the year. And if Ortiz can defeat old rival Rashad Evans at UFC 133 on August 6th, he’ll have earned a place among the greatest MMA comebacks of all time.
In honor of the Huntington Beach Bad Boy’s return to legit contendership, we decided to look at MMA’s classic career comebacks, and the non-MMA sports comebacks that we most closely associate them with. Check out the list below, and ask yourself one question: If Tito can leave the Octagon with a victory next Saturday, would he deserve the #1 spot?
Rise and fall: The brash submission specialist earned a heavyweight title shot at UFC 48 in June 2004, against 16-0 champion Tim Sylvia. Mir famously snapped Sylvia’s forearm with an armbar and went home with the belt. Three months later, Mir was struck by a car while riding his motorcycle. The accident broke his femur, tore up his knee, and nearly cost him a toe as well. His return to competition a year-and-a-half later was a minor miracle in itself, but the “comeback” saw him get smashed by Marcio Cruz, followed by a lackluster win over Dan Christison, followed by another smashing at the hands of Brandon Vera.
The comeback: When Mir submitted Antoni Hardonk in his next fight, he was starting to look like his old self again. Then, he was set up to be Brock Lesnar‘s UFC welcome opponent. Nobody knew if Mir would be able to handle the sheer size and physicality of Lesnar, but the veteran grappler survived the onslaught and caught Big Bad Brock in a kneebar. The huge victory led to a spot coaching TUF 8 opposite Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, in advance of an interim title fight against the Brazilian legend. Mir’s chances against Lesnar may have been questionable, but there was no debate about what was going to happen in the Big Nog fight — Mir was going to get his ass kicked. Shocking MMA fans yet again, Frank Mir put on the most brilliant striking performance of his life at UFC 92, and became the first fighter to defeat Nogueira by stoppage. Frank Mir was a champion again.
Legendary sports equivalent: On February 2, 1949, after a decade spent winning tournaments and building a reputation as the greatest golfer of his generation, Ben Hogan drove into an oncoming bus on a fog-obscured bridge in Texas. Hogan suffered a double-fracture of his pelvis, a broken collarbone, a broken ankle, a chipped rib, and life-threatening blood clots. Somehow he lived through it, though his doctors didn’t think he’d be able to walk again. He was competing less than a year later, and won the U.S. Open in 1950. Three years later, Hogan had the best season of his career, winning the first three major championships of 1953 — a feat that no golfer has been able to pull off since.
Rise and fall: Diaz entered the UFC in 2003 as a young scrapper with a chip on his shoulder, and caught the attention of fight fans with his gameness and finishing ability. His early highlights included an upset knockout of Robbie Lawler and a first-round TKO of Drew Fickett. But a string of three-straight decision losses in 2005-2006 led to his release from the promotion. He returned to the UFC just four months later as an illness replacement for Thiago Alves, and went on to pick up two more impressive wins against Josh Neer and Gleison Tibau. Was the kid back for good? Not quite.
Diaz made a couple of poor career decisions immediately after, first ditching the UFC in order to compete at a Gracie Fighting Championships event that never even happened due to poor ticket sales, then testing positive for marijuana after his PRIDE 33 win over Takanori Gomi, officially turning that triumph into a no-contest. Diaz joined the roster of EliteXC in 2007, and was quickly put into a title fight at 160 pounds, a weight class that was tailor-made for him. He wound up losing to KJ Noons on cuts.
The comeback: Diaz clenched his teeth, got his eye-bones sawed down, and went on a ten-fight winning streak. A beat-down of Frank Shamrock in April 2009 re-launched him as a star, and he went on to claim Strikeforce’s welterweight belt then defend it three times. His first title-defense was a rematch against Noons, and Diaz outboxed him to a clear-cut unanimous decision. Long considered the greatest welterweight outside of the UFC, Diaz now has the opportunity to become the greatest welterweight in the world when he faces Georges St. Pierre at UFC 137 in October.
Legendary sports equivalent: Tennis star Jennifer Capriati smashes her way into the top ten at the age of 14 [!] and wins six singles titles between 1990-1993, including a gold medal at the ’92 Olympics. After a first-round loss at the 1993 U.S. Open, Capriati spent the next 14 months getting arrested for shoplifting and, yes, possession of marijuana. After a few rebuilding years, Capriati began winning titles again in 1999. Two years later, she reached the semifinals or finals in all four Grand Slam tournaments, won the Australian Open, re-entered the top ten for the first time in nearly eight years, and was briefly ranked #1 in the world.
Rise and fall: At the age of 23, Shogun secured his place in the MMA pantheon by slicing through PRIDE’s 2005 middleweight grand prix, getting the best of Quinton Jackson (TKO R1), Antonio Rogerio Nogueira (unanimous decision), Alistair Overeem (TKO R1), and Ricardo Arona (KO R1). In fact, the only blemish on Rua’s 13-fight PRIDE career was a gnarly broken arm suffered against Mark Coleman in his first post-GP fight.
After the dissolution of PRIDE, MMA fans salivated at the idea of Shogun in the UFC, but a series of knee injuries slowed the phenom’s momentum. His Octagon debut resulted in a humiliating upset against Forrest Griffin, and his subsequent rematch against Mark Coleman was a sad spectacle, contested between two fighters who looked to be well past their prime. Rua was able to outlast Coleman, scoring a TKO with 24 seconds left in the fight, but the performance didn’t exactly inspire confidence.
The comeback: Each of Rua’s following three fights was a tremendous improvement from the one before. First, Shogun faced the struggling Chuck Liddell and knocked him cold in the first round. Though it didn’t seem like he deserved it yet, the UFC decided to give Rua an immediate title shot against the seemingly unbeatable light-heavyweight champ Lyoto Machida. Shogun managed to outstrike Machida handily, taking the decision in eyes of everybody except the shithead judges. The UFC did the right thing and gave Rua an immediate rematch the next year, and this time, he wouldn’t leave anything to chance. Rua blitzed Machida with striking combinations reminiscent of his glory days in PRIDE. When the dust settled, the Dragon had suffered the first defeat of his career, and Shogun had scored yet another first-round knockout and a shiny new belt.
Legendary sports equivalent: Thoroughbred racehorse Seabiscuit piles up a string of high-profile victories, and grabs the title of “Horse of the Year” in 1938. But after suffering a ruptured ligament in his front left leg, it looked like his racing days were over. Seabiscuit recovered through 1939, and was back on the track by early 1940. Inexplicably, ‘Biscuit won both the San Antonio Handicap and the Santa Anita Handicap that year, then retired as horse racing’s all-time leading money winner.
Continue to the next page for the return (and return, and return) of the Natural, and the MMA comeback that made all the other comebacks possible.