Who doesn’t love a comeback story? It’s the most endearing and heartwarming trope in sports and sports fiction, right up there with the Cinderella story of the kid who shouldn’t have made it but did. Comebacks in single games make for exhilarating moments, but it’s nothing compared to the sheer excitement that a career comeback generates – especially in a sport like MMA.
It’s difficult for an entire team to rise up from the ashes. Structural changes have to be made to its organization, new coaches and training staff brought in, and generally heavy investment in new star players must be made. Elevating a team from a period of failure is comparable to turning around a large corporation; it takes a disciplined group with a strategic approach. In MMA, and all combat sports, it all comes down to the heart and grit of the man (or woman) in question. Paradoxically, this makes it a technically easier feat, but one that’s more emotionally compelling.
Boxing has its own history with career resurgences. Who could forget George Foreman coming out of retirement and winning back the title? After retiring to becoming a minister in 1977, Foreman returned a decade later to compete (allegedly because he was now flat broke). Incredibly, in 1994 he regained the heavyweight championship that he had lost to Muhammad Ali in 1974 by beating 27-year-old Michael Moorer. Foreman was 45 at the time and still holds the record as the oldest heavyweight champion in boxing history.
MMA is a much younger sport, but already it’s had its own share of incredible comeback stories that will be remembered in the collective memories of fans for decades to come. These are fighters who managed to reinvent themselves when everyone had counted them out; these are the 8 greatest career resurgences in MMA history.
8 #8 Dominick Cruz
Dominick Cruz’s place on this list may very well be higher depending on how his next year goes. Many view Cruz – the inaugural UFC bantamweight champion - as the uncrowned king of the bantamweight division. That’s because Cruz never lost his championship, but was stripped of it due to injury. In mid-2012, Cruz tore his ACL prior to a highly anticipated rubber match against his nemesis Urijah Faber. What was supposed to be a 6-8 month recovery turned into a grueling 2 ½ year process that saw one ACL replacement rejected by his body. In January 2014 he was expected to make his return to the octagon, but tore his groin in training a week prior to the fight. After the 3rd injury he was stripped of the title and dropped way down the rankings due to inactivity. Many expected Cruz to either come back a shadow of his former self, if he ever returned at all. At UFC 178 he shocked the world by dismantling #5 ranked Takeya Mizukagi in 1 minute to announce his return to the bantamweight division. In 60 seconds he went from being a joke to an uncrowned champion, and he’s expected to fight current bantamweight champion – and his rival’s protégée - TJ Dillashaw in what is effectively a title unification bout.
7 #7 Alistair Overeem
Perhaps an odd inclusion considering Overeem has struggled as of late, but there was a time when ‘The Reem’ was one of the most feared heavyweights in the world. From 2007 to 2011 he wreaked havoc on elite competition and made a name for himself as a future UFC heavyweight champion. Unfortunately he faltered against Antonio Silva in 2013 and has lost 3 out of his last 4 – but don’t count him out just yet. Overeem’s successes and failures tend to come in waves. Most casual fans don’t realize that prior to his 4-year period of dominance, Overeem had encountered consistent failure. From February 2005 to September 2007, Overeem lost 7/13 of his fights – an unacceptable record for an elite fighter. It just goes to show that ‘The Reem’ has bounced back before, and another career resurgence isn’t entirely out of the question just yet.
6 #6 Vitor Belfort
Vitor Belfort first competed in the UFC back at UFC 17, when many of his contemporaries were still in elementary school. A true veteran of the sport, Belfort has been through his ups and downs. After being cut from the UFC in 2005, Vitor returned in 2009 a renewed fighter. Since coming back he has a record of 6-2, with his only 2 losses coming in title fights against Anderson Silva and Jon Jones, respectively. Since his loss to Jones, Vitor has dropped back down to middleweight and won 3 fights against Michael Bisping, Luke Rockhold and Dan Henderson in dominating fashion. If Belfort can steal a win from UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman when they fight in early 2015, he’ll have solidified himself as one of the great comeback stories in MMA history.
5 #5 Matt Brown
Matt Brown was, as they say, a ‘journeyman’; not good enough to be a top 15 fighter, but not quite bad enough to be cut from the UFC. Most fans didn’t know who he was, nor did they care, and it looked as if he would be resigned to fighting on the undercard until he called it a career and went back to working a regular 9-5, but Brown didn’t want to hear any of that. After losing 4 out of 5 between March 2010 and November 2011, Brown went back to the drawing board and put together an epic 7-fight win streak that brought him all the way into title contention, where he would ultimately lose a close - and exceptionally violent - decision to Robbie Lawler for the next shot at champ Johny Hendricks. Although he came up short, the cat is out of the bag; Matt Brown is a legit championship contender, and the welterweight division is going to be his stomping ground for the foreseeable future.
4 #4 Frank Mir
Frank Mir’s comeback story is particularly painful, since much of it stems from problems encountered outside the ring. In June 2004, Mir won the UFC heavyweight championship for the first time. 3 months later, before he could embark on his reign, his leg was shattered and his ACL shredded in a violent motorcycle accident. It took Mir a year and a half to recover, but at that point he had been stripped of the title due to inactivity. He lost 2 out of his first 3 fights back, and he didn’t look like half the fighter he once was. As time went on Mir began to regain his old form, and found himself back at the top of the heavyweight division. He became interim champion and had a duo of legendary fights against Brock Lesnar, securing his position as one of the best heavyweights in UFC history. Recently he’s lost 4 in a row and looks to be approaching the end of his career – but with Frank Mir, you never really know.
3 #3 Randy Couture
Randy Couture was already considered an MMA legend when he retired for the first time in early 2006. He faced Chuck Liddell for a 3rd and final time and came up short, but he had already achieved everything there was to achieve in his career. He was a former heavyweight & light heavyweight champion, and was already inducted into the UFC hall of fame, but Couture still had the itch. He made his return to the octagon against Tim Sylvia a year later in 2007 and defeated him for his 3rd heavyweight championship, all at the ripe old age of 43. He became the oldest fighter to win a championship in UFC history, and further cemented his legacy as one of the all-time greats.
2 #2 Mark Hunt
Let’s be clear; Mark Hunt shouldn’t be a top 5 heavyweight right now, but he is. When the UFC purchased PRIDE, Hunt’s contract came with the acquisition. He had lost 5 in a row, and the UFC offered him all the money left on his contract to not fight for them – they didn’t want him stinking up the division. Hunt turned down the free money and elected to fight, losing his UFC debut to make it 6 straight losses...but then he won his next fight, in exciting fashion. Then the next one, and the one after that, and the one after that. All of a sudden perennial loser Mark Hunt was riding a 4-fight win streak and was booked to face the former heavyweight champ Junior Dos Santos. Although he came up short in that fight, Hunt pushed Dos Santos to the limit and proved that he was legit contender in the heavyweight division. He then went on to have a legendary bout against Antonio Silva – which some consider the most exciting heavyweight fight in MMA history – followed by a 2nd round knockout of Roy Nelson. Today Mark Hunt is sitting comfortably in the top 5 and is, at most, 1 win away from a title shot. Only in MMA.
1 #1 Robbie Lawler
The career path of ‘Ruthless’ Robbie Lawler could only be described as ‘disappointing’ up until 2 years ago. He had been a much-hyped prospect coming up in the early days of the UFC, but he could never put a convincing series of wins together and at times just seemed uninterested in fighting. He was cut from the UFC in 2004 and spent the better part of a decade going from promotion to promotion, winning and competing for titles in EliteXC, Strikeforce, and PRIDE. No one can be sure what exactly changed, but when he returned to the UFC in 2013 for the beginning of his second stint, he was a new man entirely.
Lawler was finally able to channel the aggressive style that made him so effective and popular without compromising on his defence and leaving himself open to excessive strikes. He quickly established a 3-fight win streak against tough competition that earned him a shot at fighting Johny Hendricks for the vacant UFC welterweight championship at UFC 171. In what will almost certainly end up being the closest title fight of 2014, Lawler and Hendricks took each other to their limits, with Hendricks squeaking out the decision victory by the finest of margins. Lawler wasted no time getting back on the horse, and has won 2 straight fights against Jake Ellenberger and Matt Brown while Hendricks has been rehabbing an injury he sustained in their last fight. At UFC 181, Lawler will get a second crack at UFC welterweight champion Johny Hendricks. If he can put together a title winning performance he’ll have capped off the ultimate tale of a late career renaissance in MMA.