We love a good upset: a champion falling to an also-ran, a rising prospect succumbing to a crafty veteran, a promotional prince bitten by a handpicked opponent. Upsets introduce chaos into the landscape. They force us to challenge our hierarchies with new information.
The Year of our Lord 2007 became known as the Year of the Upset in MMA. The sport couldn’t go more than a couple months without some sport-shifting result. Let’s look back at the carnage.
Pride 33 – February 24, 2007: One of the greatest cards in MMA history, in large part to the number of upsets. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira fought Rameau Theirry Sokoudjou, a relative unknown with a 2-1 pro MMA record. The 20-1 underdog Sokoudjou knocked out Nogueira in 23 seconds. Then lightweight champion Takanori Gomi fell into a Nick Diaz gogoplata in a non-title match. Diaz, making his debut at lightweight (at 160 pounds), had washed out of the UFC’s welterweight division a year prior. In the main event, welterweight champion and +250 underdog Dan Henderson knocked out middleweight champion Wanderlei Silva to become the first fighter to simultaneously hold major belts in two weight classes.
UFC 68 – March 3, 2007: Randy Couture returned from retirement after a year to fight heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia. Sylvia was always the B-champion with the majority of the world’s top heavyweights under Pride contract, but he was 3-0 in title fights and his height and reach figured to give Couture fits. But the fight was over almost as soon as it started, as the 2-1 underdog Couture knocked Sylvia on his ass early. The champion never quite recovered, and Couture left Columbus as the new heavyweight champion.
UFC 69 – April 7, 2007: The fourth season of the Ultimate Fighter featured UFC veterans looking for redemption rather than prospects looking for opportunity. The UFC raised the stakes further, offering a title shot to the winners. That’s how lightweight Matt Serra found himself in a title match against newly crowned welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre as a 13-1 underdog. A punch behind the ear flummoxed St-Pierre’s equilibrium, and the challenger swarmed. Serra became the UFC welterweight champion in a result that you couldn’t replicate if you ran the fight 1000 more times.
Pride 34 – April 8, 2007: Pride went out with a whimper in their final show. The lone bright spot was Sokoudjou. Hours after Serra knocked out St-Pierre, Sokoudjou reminded everyone who was the King of Upsets by finishing Ricardo Arona. Two perennial top ten fighters, two knockouts. The future seemed so bright for the man from Cameroon.
UFC 70 – April 21, 2007: With Pride crumbling, the UFC brought in the 2006 Open Weight Grand Prix champion, Mirko ‘Cro Cop’ Filipovic. After a gimme fight against Eddie Sanchez, Cro Cop was another win away from a title shot, and with the result at UFC 68, a dream match against Randy Couture. In his way stood Gabriel Gonzaga, a 7-1 heavyweight with a dangerous ground game. Gonzaga bashed Cro Cop with elbows on the ground – illegal in Pride – before the referee controversially stood them up with seconds remaining in the first round. With Cro Cop’s vision compromised from the elbows, Gonzaga launched a head kick that crumpled the Croatian.
UFC 71 – May 26, 2007: Despite handling Chuck Liddell in Pride years before, Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson found himself as a +150 underdog heading into their rematch for the UFC light heavyweight title. It took Jackson less than two minutes to land a hook that earned him the title, and sent Liddell into the backslide of his career. Earlier on in the evening, Houston Alexander, a +450 underdog making his UFC debut, finished TUF alum Keith Jardine in 48 seconds.
UFC 73 – July 7, 2007: This was the upset that almost was. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira met made his UFC debut against Heath Herring, who he had already defeated twice before in Pride. Nogueira dominated the fight all the way through, except for the last minute of round one. Herring, a +500 underdog, threw a head kick right at a ducking Nogueira. The kick landed flush, and Nogueira lost his faculties. Herring, cautious of the Brazilian’s submission game, backed off, allowing Nogueira to recover and take a unanimous decision.
UFC 74 – August 25, 2007: With the win over Cro Cop, Gabriel Gonzaga entered his title fight with Randy Couture as a slight favorite at -140. So, it wasn’t the fact that Couture retained his title that was surprising as much as how he did it. Couture, as was his wont, “imposed his will” on Gonzaga, beating up the younger fighter until the latter mentally quit in the third round. The win was even more impressive when it was later found out that Couture broke his arm blocking a Gonzaga head kick.
UFC 75 – September 8, 2007: Needing a bounce back, Mirko Cro Cop found himself against Cheick Kongo, a journeyman kickboxer with a 9-3-1 pro record. Cro Cop never seemed comfortable during the fight, and wound up dropping an uninspired and unanimous 29-28 decision.
UFC 76 – September 22, 2007: In 2007, Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua was considered the number-one light heavyweight in the world despite holding neither the UFC nor Pride title, and the UFC figured Forrest Griffin would be the perfect name to showcase Shogun’s talent. Instead, Shogun exhausted himself in the first five minutes, allowing the giant and tireless Griffin to take control in the last half of the fight. In the main event, Chuck Liddell fought Keith Jardine in what was supposed to be a tuneup before a big-money dream fight against Wanderlei Silva. Liddell dropped a turd in the cage, though, and dropped a split decision.