Unless you have a dog in the race, it’s always fun to root for the underdog. Watching sport events as a neutral is usually way less fun than giving your unconditional emotional support to an athlete or a team, but even neutrals can be jolted to their feet screaming in excitement when the underdog pulls through; it’s a natural response.
In MMA, rooting for the underdog can be a particularly painful affair. Unlike in team sports, where there are many opportunities for the favorite team to make mistakes that can be capitalized on, MMA is a loner’s sport. There are just two people in a cage, staring at each other from across the octagon, and the favorites are favorites for a reason. They usually have a history of destroying the competition.
Because combat sports are intertwined with gambling in a way that most sports aren’t (there’s a reason boxers were originally called prize fighters) the people who design the odds take great care to ensure the numbers they produce are accurate. Contrary to popular belief, the odds aren’t derived exactly from their expected in-ring performance. The bookies who make the odds base them off what they believe the general population will favour. In the case of long-reigning champions or established names, the general audience will almost always side with them over the contender or the name they don’t know. In short, the way the betting works is that each fighter is assigned a positive or negative number (e.g +200 or -300). If the number is positive, the fighter is the underdog. +200 odds on a fighter means that for every 1$ you bet on him/her, you’ll receive 2$. A negative number means that the fighter is expected to win, so in our example it would take a 3$ bet to win 1$
A unique aspect of MMA is that fights and near-decades of dominance can be ended with a single well placed punch (e.g Anderson Silva vs. Chris Weidman I). Anything can happen, and there have been very famous fights where the unexpected has transpired and carved its story into the annals of MMA history. Besides the athlete who gets caught off guard with the loss, everyone loves a good underdog story and a wild upset. It’s part of the allure of the sport, and if history is any indication, they can happen at any time. Here are 5 of the biggest upsets in MMA history.
#5 BJ Penn (-900) vs. Frankie Edgar (+588) I
Frankie Edgar is the rare fighter with more than one archrival. He’s had a storied trilogy with Gray Maynard, and he’ll be adding another trilogy to his resume when he takes on BJ Penn for the 3rd time later this year. The Penn-Edgar rivalry was born at UFC 112 in 2010, when Frankie Edgar shocked the world with a decision victory over longtime UFC lightweight champion Penn. Going into their 1st fight, BJ Penn was the odds-on favorite to defend his title for a record 4th time, which would have been the most consecutive title defenses in the history of the lightweight division. Perennial underdog Frankie Edgar had other plans, and he outperformed Penn over 5 rounds to lay claim to the UFC lightweight championship. The odds on Penn were -900 and were +588 for Edgar, so it’s a sure bet that a lot of people lost money betting on Penn, ‘The Prodigy’, to pull through.
#4 Mirko ‘Cro Cop’ Fillipovic (-500) vs. Gabriel Gonzaga (+400)
In 2007, Mirko ‘Cro Cop’ Fillipovic was considered one of the scariest men on the planet. MMA fans had watched him for years in Japanese MMA organization PRIDE, where he competed in their now-legendary heavyweight division. He was known as a dangerous striker with destructive leg kicks, so much so that an expression developed regarding his kicks; ‘left leg hospital, right leg cemetery’. When the UFC bought out PRIDE, they also purchased the contracts for most of their fighters. ‘Cro Cop’ was making his long-awaited UFC debut at UFC 70 against Gabriel Gonzaga. Gonzaga was regarded as more of a grappler, so it was expected that he would attempt to neutralize Fillipovic’s striking by taking the fight to the ground. What transpired turned the expectations of basically everyone in the MMA community right on its head. In the very first round, Gonzaga landed a beautiful leg kick straight to the head of ‘Cro Cop’, who crumpled to the ground, unconscious. Gonzaga put ‘Cro Cop’ away with his own signature move, and the finish itself is still regarded as one of the wildest and most unexpected ways a fight has ever ended.
#3 Fedor Emelianenko (-490) vs. Fabricio Werdum (+405)
Fedor Emelinaneko, ‘The Last Emperor’, is widely regarded as the undisputed greatest heavyweight fighter of all time, and possibly the greatest MMA fighter in any weight class in history. He rose to fame in PRIDE where he became the heavyweight champion in 2003, a title he retained until the organization’s demise in 2007. Fedor Emelianneko hadn’t lost in a decade, and the single loss on his record came from an illegal elbow strike that left him unable to continue. At the height of his reign, the mystique surrounding the relatively small Russian heavyweight gave him an aura of invincibility – none of which bothered Fabricio Werdum. Emelianenko met Werdum in 2010 at Strikeforce: Fedor vs. Werdum, and was widely expected to continue his reign of dominance with a win over the Brazilian grappling expert. Instead, Werdum shocked MMA fans all over the world by catching Fedor in a triangle choke that forced Fedor to tap out.
If anyone ever tells you they expected the fight to end that way, they’re lying. It was practically unthinkable that Fedor would lose, and the idea that he would tap out was almost sacrilegious. Nonetheless, that’s exactly how it went down. Fedor lost his next 2 fights in Strikeforce before leaving the United States and fighting a few times in Russia and Japan before retiring. Now, 4 years later, Werdum has a title shot lined up against UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez in Mexico. He’ll surely be hoping he can make lightning strike twice and derail another heavyweight king.
#2 GSP (-1300) vs. Matt Serra (+850)
Georges St. Pierre was one of the best fighters of all time, and the undisputed greatest welterweight to ever compete in the weight class. An emotional journey to the championship belt culminated in GSP defeating his idol Matt Hughes to become the newest UFC welterweight champion. It was hyped up as the beginning of a long reign, but no one could have predicted what came next.
Short, stumpy Ultimate Fighter winner Matt Serra was chosen as GSP’s first opponent as the champion, and he was expected to steamroll him. GSP was favored so heavily that, allegedly, even his own coaches and training partners were not too concerned about the fight.When the bell rang for the main event of UFC 69, Matt Serra decided that he was going to make this a memorable night for both GSP and all the fans that had counted him out.
Serra caught GSP with a series of strikes in the first round that stunned the champ, and then wrapped up the fight with a TKO victory just 3:25 into the first round. As Serra celebrated, fans watched slack-jawed in disbelief, as the most unexpected person put the man who was supposed to reign over the welterweight division for years away in the most unexpected fashion. GSP learned his lesson, and never lost another fight in his career. He won the rematch decisively, and then began the championship reign that everyone expected from him. Still, this fight changed him. Never again did GSP take an opponent lightly, and his style became noticeably more conservative as a result. The memory of Serra standing over GSP and peppering him with strikes is permanently ingrained into his mind, and the minds of MMA fans everywhere as an important lesson; in this sport, never count anyone out until it’s over.
#1 Renan Barao (-800) vs. TJ Dillashaw (+565)
Truthfully, this is the fight that inspired this article. Barao and Dillashaw met mere days ago in the main event of UFC 173. Originally, Chris Weidman was booked to defend his middleweight championship against Lyoto Machida at UFC 173, but injuries postponed their bout. Scrambling to find a replacement, the UFC inserted the bantamweight champion, Renan Barao, into the main event to defend his championship against TJ Dillashaw, who was the only viable contender available.
Dillashaw was fairly inexperienced with a 10-2 record, and had lost only 1 fight prior to his championship bout. Every single analyst and media outlet counted him out. It wans’t a matter of who would win, but rather how and when Barao would put Dillashaw away, and this wasn’t entirely unwarranted. Barao had been undefeated for a decade, with a 32-1 record, and was considered in the conversation for the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet. When the bell rang, TJ Dillashaw instantly began his assault on Barao. For the next 22 minutes, MMA fans everywhere watched in disbelief as TJ Dillashaw – a talented but unpolished fighter – absolutely dominated the bantamweight champion. There wasn’t a single moment in the fight where Dillashaw was in any real danger.
In just a few months, TJ Dillashaw had become 10x the fighter he was in his last bout. In the 5th round he landed a head kick that stunned Barao, allowing him to swoop in for the TKO finish. It was an absolutely transcendental performance, and although the betting odds may not have been quite as stacked as GSP vs. Serra I, the manner in which he won makes this fight the greatest upset of all time. Dillashaw didn’t catch Barao with a lucky strike or submission; he imposed his will on the fight and completely outclassed someone who, at the beginning of the fight, was being hyped as possibly the best fighter in the world. MMA fans have good memories, and we’ll be remembering this special fight for a long, long time.