The notion of first impressions is at times too overwrought, especially when it comes to fighting. There is a 50-50 chance things go the right way for the debuting fighter, and in a sport as notoriously unpredictable as mixed martial arts, it’s even more difficult to make that moment a positive, definitive experience.
That said, it’s nearly impossible to overemphasize the hype a proper debut can do for a fighter’s career. For some, it gives a window into the fighter they’ll become as their career develops. For others, it launches them straight into title contention, which is exactly what UFC 262’s Michael Chandler did at UFC 257 in January. With Chandler fighting for the lightweight title in Houston’s main event, we decided to take a look at 10 of the most memorable UFC debuts in the modern era.
Few, if any, UFC fighters made a debut as iconic as “Spider,” who loudly announced himself as a new force in the Octagon with a 49-second TKO win over Chris Leben. Although it was just a small sample of what was to come, what a sample he gave. Silva showed the speed, power, striking diversity and elusiveness he’d use to dominate opponents for the coming years unlike anything UFC fans had seen in the Octagon to that point.
Rousey’s debut was truly iconic for several reasons, including, but not limited to, opening up the UFC Octagon to women for the first time as she and Liz Carmouche competed in the first women’s UFC bout at UFC 157. Having already shown her Judo-based skill set en route to the Strikeforce bantamweight belt, she handled business as usual in Anaheim that night, racking up another first-round armbar finish to become the inaugural bantamweight champion.
Few stars rose as quickly or saw such heights as Rousey, who would go on to set the MMA world ablaze for the next couple years, achieving true mainstream superstardom in ways few have seen before or since.
It’s hard to make a better debut than winning what Dana White calls “the most important fight” in the promotion’s history, which is exactly what Forrest Griffin did when he outdueled Stephen Bonnar in the inaugural season finale of The Ultimate Fighter.
More or less introducing the mainstream public to mixed martial arts for the first time, Griffin earned the decision win in a three-round war that many still cite as their favorite fight in UFC history and for good reason. The battle had everything: momentum shifts, near-finishes and all-out brawling until the end, making it the most-fitting fight to enter the UFC Hall of Fame.
The recent record of fighters with long championship pedigrees outside of the UFC is a checkered one. So, when Chandler made his Octagon debut at UFC 257, the biggest question mark outside of the high-profile rematch between McGregor and Dustin Poirier was absolutely what Chandler was going to do. Was he the real deal, or just another highly regarded talent who can mix it up in the Top 10? Something more? Something less?
He answered the questions emphatically - flying colors do not properly encapsulate his seizing of the moment. Against the notoriously tough Dan Hooker, Chandler patiently made his way into range over the course of the first round. After absorbing a few leg kicks, Chandler went to the body, came up high, and ended the fight with a thunderous punch, punctuated with a sky-high backflip off the cage. It was enough to earn himself a title shot at UFC 262, where he’ll face Charles Oliveira.
For years, “The Highlight” was perhaps the most exciting fighter to not compete inside the UFC. The longtime World Series of Fighting champion finally amended that when he introduced himself to the Octagon in a fight that could only be described as “extremely-Gaethje.”
Instantly competing in a main event against Michael Johnson at the finale of The Ultimate Fighter: Redemption, Gaethje lived up to the billing and then some, engaging in a back-and-forth thriller with the “Menace.” It turned into a dynamic war of attrition until Johnson finally fell late in the second round, prompting the first Gaethje backflip in the Octagon and introducing a fan-favorite to the masses.
Before “The Notorious” was a multimillionaire, multi-weight class champion and perhaps the sport’s biggest star, he was just a 12-2 Irishman with some buzz after capturing the featherweight and lightweight titles in the Cage Warriors promotion. In Stockholm, Sweden, he showed all the swaggering prowess that’d bring him to fame in the coming years, scoring a TKO win over Marcus Brimage. McGregor looked for uppercuts with his vaunted left hand early, threw a few unorthodox, karate-style kicks and had his moment on the microphone – all the key elements to a vintage McGregor performance.
Rare MMA Twister Finishes
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Rare MMA Twister Finishes
To pull off a “first” in the UFC is getting increasingly rare, and “The Korean Zombie” earned that milestone when he pulled off the first “twister” submission in the Octagon against Leonard Garcia. It remains a stunning performance, and only one other fighter has ever pulled the same submission off in a fight (Bryce Mitchell).
A quick finish isn’t a requirement in making a memorable debut, which “The Answer” personified in his first UFC bout. Facing Tyson Griffin, Edgar showed signs of what would make him a champion and surefire Hall of Fame member. His wrestling was offensively and defensively sound, he showed off his slick boxing and, ultimately, he displayed the kind of grit that endeared him to mixed martial arts fans. With a little less than a minute to go, Griffin caught Edgar in a deep kneebar attempt, and despite Griffin’s torquing of his leg, Edgar refused to tap and he went on to earn the decision win. It embodied Edgar’s resilience and ability to reverse the tide in what looked like a no-win situation, something UFC fans got used to seeing over the years.
Submission ace Joe Lauzon had earned that reputation coming into his UFC debut against former lightweight champion Jens Pulver, and naturally, he introduced himself to the Octagon with a sub-minute knockout win at UFC 63. It was just the third time he earned a stoppage via knockout, proving right away he was the kind of bonus-minded fighter UFC fans adore.
Junior Dos Santos
“Cigano” stepped into the Octagon having earned all six of his professional wins via first-round finish, and the buzz was palpable about this Brazilian powerhouse. Facing his countryman Fabricio Werdum, Dos Santos showed his earth-shattering power at UFC 90, knocking Werdum out in 80 seconds. It would be three more years of big-time wins before Dos Santos got his first crack at Cain Velasquez and flipped the division on its axis, but alas, he made sure his first taste of UFC action was a good one.
Coming into his UFC debut against the always-tough Darren Elkins, “Do Bronx” came into the promotion undefeated at 12-0 with 12 finishes – just the kind of fighter fans hope to see on the card. It only took 41 seconds for the UFC’s submission leader to lock up his first such victory, securing the win via armbar as a fresh-faced 20-year-old.
Oliveira’s journey to UFC gold would be a long and winding one that included moving up a division, but he finally gets his first chance in the main event of UFC 262 against Michael Chandler.
A single jab was all Todd Duffee needed to drop Tim Hague’s in his UFC debut. At just 23 years old, Duffee earned his first knockdown in a blink, following up with vicious ground-and-pound to earn a seven-second knockout win at UFC 102. It remains one of the fastest wins in the promotion’s history.