By Thomas Gerbasi
When it comes to upsets, 2008 was a slow year compared to 2007, but there were still enough surprises – some in the biggest fights of the year (and one at the end of the year) - to fill our list here and kick off this year’s unofficial award season.
10 – UFC 83 – April 19 – Jason Day TKO1 Alan Belcher
A veteran of the Canadian circuit who had fought UFC vets Victor Valimaki, Patrick Cote, Jonathan Goulet, Ron Faircloth, and David Loiseau, Jason Day was nonetheless a veritable unknown on the worldwide scene when he got the call to take on up and comer Alan Belcher at UFC 83. But in Montreal that night it was Day who looked like the star on the rise as he impressively dismantled Belcher and halted him at 3:58 of the first round. To many UFC fans who knew nothing of Day coming in, this was a huge upset and a severe dent in the rise of Belcher.
9 – UFC 90 – October 25 – Pete Sell W3 Josh Burkman
Sporting a three fight losing streak, Pete Sell was seemingly on the verge of his last chance in the UFC, and to make the most of it, he dropped from 185 pounds to 170. Burkman, on a two fight losing skid himself, also needed a win at UFC 90, but with one of those losses being a controversial decision loss to Mike Swick, he apparently had a little more margin for error and was a couple of good wins away from being back in the welterweight mix. But Sell, fighting like a desperate man, pulled off the impressive three round win, saving his UFC career in the process.
8 – UFC 91 – November 15 – Brock Lesnar TKO2 Randy Couture
You can’t teach youth, size, or athleticism, yet despite all of these attributes in his favor Brock Lesnar found himself as an underdog when he faced Randy Couture – not as far as oddsmakers were concerned, but among fans and fellow fighters who believed Lesnar’s inexperience was going to be his downfall. It wasn’t, and like Couture, Lesnar won the UFC heavyweight title in his fourth professional bout, and he did it in sudden fashion as he rocked, dropped, and then stopped ‘The Natural’ in the second round.
7 - UFC 82 – March 1 – Heath Herring W3 Cheick Kongo
Perennial contender Heath Herring returns to the list this year; only this time he’s on the positive end of things and not the negative, like when he was upset by Jake O’Brien in January of 2007. This year, Herring was seen as the foil for Cheick Kongo’s coming out party as a true heavyweight threat. Kongo was fresh from a win over Mirko Cro Cop, and a win over Herring probably would have earned him a title shot. But you can’t count a veteran out, and ‘The Texas Crazy Horse’ sent Kongo back to the gym for more seasoning with a hard-fought split decision win punctuated by a huge knockdown in the opening moments of the bout that set the tone for the rest of the fight.
6 – UFC 80 – January 19 – Jorge Rivera TKO1 Kendall Grove
When you’re a month away from your 36th birthday, coming off a 14 second knockout loss, and brought in to face a popular young gun trying to rebound from a KO loss of his own, let’s face it, you’re not expected to win. Unfortunately for Kendall Grove, Jorge Rivera wasn’t about to go away quietly in their UFC 80 bout though, and with the dynamite he packs in his fists, any fight can be a dangerous one. Or in Grove’s case, a losing one, as Rivera hurt Grove early and didn’t let him off the hook, stopping him in just 80 seconds.
5 – UFC 86 – July 5 – Forrest Griffin W5 Quinton Jackson
A tough call to make when it comes to upsets, since this was not on the level of Griffin beating Shogun Rua in September of 2007, and also considering that while most fans and pundits believed Jackson was going to win, few were willing to go out on a limb and totally write Griffin off. And that’s the type of fight we saw on July 5th, a back and forth battle that seemed on the verge of swinging in one man’s favor on numerous occasions, only to see the other roar back and get back in the fight. Could it have gone either way? Absolutely (this writer saw the bout as a draw 47-47, or 3-2 in rounds for Jackson), and that’s why it was a great bout, because both men can make a legitimate claim to winning the bout. Griffin got the nod though, and to those in the odds making business, it was definitely a major upset.
4 – UFC 85 – June 7 – Kevin Burns Wsub2 Roan Carneiro
A lot of guys take fights on short notice in order to get their shot in the UFC. Some even do well. Few do it like Kevin Burns did it though, coming in on less than two weeks notice to not only win, but to win Submission of the Night honors over a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt in the process. Add in the fact that the man Burns beat – Roan Carneiro - had won two of his last three, with the only loss coming to Jon Fitch, and that Burns was working full-time for Wells Fargo, and this feat is even more impressive. Now, everyone knows who Burns is following that win and after splitting two competitive bouts with fellow young gun Anthony Johnson.
3 - UFC 88 – September 6 – Rashad Evans KO2 Chuck Liddell
Considering Evans’ record and skill level, those in the industry weren’t surprised when he pulled off the victory over the legendary ‘Iceman’ at UFC 88. What shocked most observers is the way he pulled it off, by fighting a perfect fight for the first round, frustrating Liddell in the process, and then lowering the boom with a picture-perfect right hand. And while the former light heavyweight boss had been stopped before, he never was taken out like this, and it stunned his legion of followers while propelling Evans to a 205-pound title shot that he made good on by stopping Forrest Griffin three months later.
2 - UFC 90 – October 25 – Junior Dos Santos KO1 Fabricio Werdum
If you didn’t know who Junior Dos Santos was before October 25th, you were not alone. But if you still don’t know who this Brazilian bomber is after his 81 second demolition of Fabricio Werdum at UFC 90, where have you been? In a little over a minute, Dos Santos smashed his way into the rankings with a ferocious KO of the consensus top five Werdum, and suddenly, this young man has plenty of fans around the MMA world waiting to see what he does next.
1 – UFC 92 – December 27 – Frank Mir TKO2 Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
Going into this UFC 92 battle of The Ultimate Fighter 8 coaches, conventional wisdom said that Nogueira, one of the sport’s all-time greatest heavyweights was just too good everywhere for Mir – his jiu-jitsu was better, his boxing was better, and his chin and stamina were legendary. So when Mir started lighting up Nogueira on the feet almost as soon as the bell rang, warning signs started flashing around the MGM Grand Garden Arena. This wasn’t the same Frank Mir who got his head handed to him by Marcio Cruz and Brandon Vera, and who was seemingly on the verge of getting stopped before submitting Brock Lesnar. This was the Frank Mir we had seen before his 2004 motorcycle accident – no, this was a better version. But he still wouldn’t be able to take out ‘Minotauro’, right? Mir would gas out and Nogueira would come back and the world would remain on its axis. But Mir, growing more confident with each knockdown of the Brazilian, did what no fighter had ever done to the 32-year old former PRIDE champ – he finished him in the second round to win the interim UFC heavyweight belt. Stunning? Yes. Upset? Yes. The biggest one of 2008? Absolutely.
Honorable mention: Eric Schafer over Houston Alexander, Fabricio Werdum over Gabriel Gonzaga, Luiz Cane over Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou, Rob Emerson over Manny Gamburyan, Jon Jones over Andre Gusmao.
The Highly Unofficial 2008 UFC Awards - The Upsets
Thomas Gerbasi, UFC - When it comes to upsets, 2008 was a slow year compared to 2007, but there were still enough surprises – some in the biggest fights of the year (and one at the end of the year) - to fill our list here and kick off this year’s unofficial award season.