Rise and fall: The Natural spent the majority of his UFC career winning belts and then losing them along the way. He vacated his first heavyweight title in order to compete in Japan, came back to reclaim it against Kevin Randleman, and lost it again to Josh Barnett. His career’s second act as a light-heavyweight was even more of a roller-coaster ride, as he spanked the 205-pound title off of Tito Ortiz, lost it to Vitor Belfort, took it back from Belfort, then lost it to Chuck Liddell. After his trilogy match with Chuck ended in a second knockout loss, Randy Couture announced his retirement from the sport.
The comeback: Couture’s retirement lasted about a year. Back at heavyweight, Randy returned to the cage at UFC 68 in March 2007, and thoroughly handled reigning champ Tim Sylvia, who was 7 inches taller and 13 years younger. He proved conventional wisdom wrong once again against Gabriel Gonzaga later that year, TKO’ing the scary young prospect in the third round. Predictably, Couture decided to walk away while he was on top, vacating his belt for the last time.
Legendary sports equivalent: Michael Jordan wins three NBA world championships with the Chicago Bulls, disappears for a year and a half to play baseball, then comes back and wins three more world championships. (And when Randy Couture returned to the UFC after his second retirement to lose to Brock Lesnar and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, then take a few less-meaningful fights at light-heavyweight before getting crane-kicked by Lyoto Machida? Two words: Washington Wizards.)
Rise and fall: At first, it was little more than a pay-per-view informercial for Gracie jiu-jitsu. But as the UFC developed through the 1990s, its participants evolved from single-art stylists to all-in-one ass kickers, and a thrilling new combat sport was born in the United States. Unfortunately, political pressure led to bans in 36 states and the loss of major PPV providers, and original owners SEG were approaching bankruptcy by the end of 2000.
Luckily, a humble kid from Boston by the name of Dana White saw an opportunity to turn the business around. White teamed up with old high school buddies/casino execs Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta to form a new company called Zuffa, and bought out the UFC for $2 million. They spent the next four years losing an additional $40 million in the enterprise.
The comeback: Though the Fertittas considered cutting their losses and walking away, one final experiment put them over the top — a reality show called The Ultimate Fighter, whose early success on Spike became part of the UFC mythology. The UFC was a cable hit, and the burgeoning mainstream stardom of fighters like Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, and Randy Couture helped turn the fight promotion into a pay-per-view powerhouse. Thanks to their ferocious lobbying efforts, the states that banned the sport in the past began sanctioning it again, and the UFC began holding events everywhere from Australia to Germany to Abu Dhabi. After outlasting or buying out all their major competition, they’re the undisputed rulers of the sport.
Legendary sports equivalent: Muhammad Ali, baby. After becoming the youngest boxer to defeat a reigning heavyweight champion (vs. Sonny Liston in 1964 at age 22), Ali held his title through three years and nine defenses — then had his belt and boxing license taken from him for refusing to be drafted in the Army. Three years later, Ali picked up where he left off, and became the world heavyweight champion once again in 1974, knocking out George Foreman in “The Rumble in the Jungle.” He’d go on to defend his title ten more times through 1977.
So who’s the Lance Armstrong of MMA? And who’s the Michael Vick? If you have any more ideas, holler at us in the comments section…