It has been noted by many debuting UFC fighters that their first fight in the organization is a tough experience. Some fighters can be seen overcome with emotion while making their walk to the cctagon, while others are obviously nervous. A UFC debut is the culmination of a fighter’s hard work and dedication to MMA. It has been proven time and time again that “octagon jitters” are real. For some fighters, however, a debut is made more challenging by even harder circumstances. In no particular order, here are the toughest fights of all time for a fighter making their UFC debut.
Toughest UFC Debut Fights of All Time
Joe Soto vs. TJ Dillashaw
Although he was the inaugural Bellator featherweight champion, Joe Soto was still relatively unknown when he signed with the UFC. Nonetheless, Soto was riding a six-fight win streak after moving to bantamweight. Soto was set to face Anthony Birchak in his UFC debut, a bout scheduled to open the night’s preliminary card. The event was expected to be headlined by TJ Dillashaw and Renan Barao in a bantamweight title rematch of one of the greatest upsets in UFC history. However, right before weigh-ins, Barao lost consciousness cutting weight and was removed from the event. The UFC called on Soto to fill in on about 24 hours’ notice to save the card. While Soto did end up getting stopped in the fifth round, he did hold his own against the champion.
Unfortunately for Soto, that was not indicative for the trajectory of his UFC career. Soto was cut from the organization in 2018 after going 3-5, including a first-round knockout loss to Birchak in his second UFC appearance.
Ilir Latifi vs. Gegard Mousasi
Following Strikeforce’s merger with the UFC, Gegard Mousasi was expected to make his UFC debut against top light heavyweight contender Alexander Gustafsson in Gustafsson’s hometown of Stockholm, Sweden. This fight was supposed to be an opportunity for the former Strikeforce and DREAM champion to insert himself into the UFC title picture right away. Unfortunately, Gustafsson suffered a deep cut during fight week and was declared medically unfit to compete. In a bind, the UFC called upon Gustafsson’s teammate Ilir Latifi to debut in a main event in his native country. “Iliir Latifa”, as Dana White tweeted in the fight announcement, was sporting a 7-2 record and had won four of his past five. “The Sledgehammer” came into the fight without expectations, and he dropped the unanimous decision over three rounds.
Latifi, for his credit, rebounded and has had a decent UFC career. Currently 7-6 in the UFC, Latifi has spent much of his tenure in the light heavyweight rankings before making the move to heavyweight last month.
Patrick Cummins vs. Daniel Cormier
Daniel Cormier was set to make his light heavyweight debut at UFC 170 against Rashad Evans in what likely would have been a title eliminator. When Evans injured his knee a little over a week prior to the event, though, the UFC was sent scrambling to find an opponent. Patrick Cummins had been on the UFC’s radar for a while because of his standout wrestling pedigree. He was 4-0 and was having trouble finding opponents. Cummins’s story was made even more interesting when the UFC discovered a story about an incident between him and Cormier while training for the 2004 Olympics, as recently re-told by Ariel Helwani. Cummins took advantage of the spotlight and stole the show in the pre-fight buildup. The fight, however, did not fare as well for him. Cormier won the fight by TKO in 79 seconds.
Cummins recently retired from the UFC after a 6-7 record with the organization, including a three-fight win streak following the Cormier loss.
Priscila Cachoeira vs. Valentina Shevchenko
Fresh off of a razor-close title decision at bantamweight against Amanda Nunes, “The Bullet” Valentina Shevchenko planned a move to flyweight. Shevchenko was expected to get an immediate title shot in the still-new flyweight division, but her first fight in the division ended up being against unknown Priscila Cachoeira. Most people suspected Cachoeira to be like a lamb being led to slaughter as soon as the fight was announced. Come fight night, that showed to be exactly the case. Shevchenko bludgeoned Cachoeira in one of the biggest beatdowns in UFC history.
Although she was dominated in her first three UFC outings, Cachoeira recently got back in the win column with a knockout over Shana Dobson. Cachoeira has overcome a lot in her lifetime, and should be an encouraging story for all fans.
Darrell Horcher vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov
Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov are now on their fifth attempt to get to fight night. They are currently expected to headline UFC 249, but the event is in jeopardy due to the COVID-19/Coronavirus outbreak. Despite Dana White’s best efforts to keep the event afloat, it is still very much up in the air.
Their second attempt to fight was set to headline UFC on Fox 19 in April 2016. Considering both of their unprecedented win streaks, the winner likely would have earned a title shot. As can be guessed by now, however, Ferguson withdrew from the event a little over a week before the event. Nurmagomedov was given Darrell Horcher, a Bellator and CFFC vet riding a five-fight win streak. The bout took place at a 160-pound catchweight, with Nurmagomedov anxious to get back to action after a long layoff. Khabib dominated the fight in typical Khabib fashion.
Horcher struggled in the rest of his UFC tenure, getting his only UFC win by a razor-close split decision in his next fight. He was cut from the UFC in December.
Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir
Before CM Punk debuted in the UFC without any combat sports experience, another former WWE star made his debut in the UFC after just one professional fight. Brock Lesnar, however, was an athletic specimen and a former NCAA wrestling national champion at the University of Minnesota. He even received an NFL training camp invite from the Minnesota Vikings. His athletic pedigree combined with his popularity earned in the WWE allowed the UFC to feasibly sign Lesnar with a 1-0 record. His debut fight in the UFC, however, was against former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir. Many fans believed this matchup was too much too soon for Lesnar. Mir, a jiu-jitsu ace, conceded a takedown but was easily able to submit the inexperienced Lesnar with a kneebar 90 seconds into the first round.
Lesnar, however, was able to right the ship immediately after, capturing the UFC heavyweight championship just two fights later. He was also able to exact revenge on Mir at UFC 100 by TKO in a heated rematch.
Liz Carmouche vs. Ronda Rousey
Even before her UFC debut, Ronda Rousey was already being christened by Dana White to be a UFC star. Rousey was dominant in her run through Strikeforce, which sold the UFC president on allowing women to fight in the UFC. Her opponent for the first women’s fight was Liz Carmouche, a US Marine veteran on a two-fight win streak. Carmouche was a curious choice to be Rousey’s first UFC opponent, but she would be the first woman to grace the octagon nonetheless. In the fight, Rousey was able to continue her streak of first-round armbar victories in the start of an illustrious UFC career for “Rowdy.”
Carmouche, meanwhile, would have mixed success in her next five fights before moving down to flyweight in 2017. At flyweight, she would gather a 2-1 record before dropping a decision in a title fight with Valentina Shevchenko. She recently signed with Bellator.
Tonya Evinger and Yana Kunitskaya vs. Cris Cyborg
Both Tonya Evinger and Yana Kunitskaya took similar paths to make their UFC debut. Each were former Invicta FC champions at bantamweight at some point, even facing each other twice in championship bouts. The UFC called on both of them to go up a weight class to face the consensus greatest women’s fighter ever at the time, Cris Cyborg, in a title fight on pay-per-view. The size difference was clear when they faced Cyborg, who dominated both fighters en route to easy TKO victories.
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