“That’s the unfortunate thing about hype—when there’s a lot of hype behind you and you don’t live up to it, it goes away really quick.” —Dana White, UFC 149 press conference
It’s probably our fault—overzealous media members—who, in our endless quest for an intriguing story, over-hype an athlete who has yet to prove anything at the next level. Every sport has endless examples of athletes never living up to the expectations that the media and fans place on them (see JaMarcus Russell in the NFL or Kwame Brown in the NBA).
Mixed martial arts has seen its share of fighters who have experienced success in other promotions only to struggle when they make their long-anticipated debut in the UFC. Do they fold under the bright lights and pressure of the big show? There’s no doubt that it’s a whole new level of stress when a fighter making his UFC debut is walking to the famed Octagon in front of 15,000 rabid MMA fans, and suddenly ring announcer Bruce Buffer is screaming “It’s time!” Many industry experts believe that experiencing “Octagon jitters” is natural, but how an athlete deals with the jitters is what marks the difference between success and failure.
“Octagon jitters are real as far as allowing the pressure of the event to affect your performance,” says Greg Jackson, one of MMA’s most successful trainers. “Making sure that your mind is focused on controlling what you can control and letting the rest go is very important.”
MMA legend and former UFC Heavyweight Champion Bas Rutten also believes a successful transition to the UFC can be a psychological challenge.
“When a fighter makes his name in another organization and the UFC starts to take notice, there’s a lot of hype to live up to,” Rutten says. “They’d better be good and have confidence, because some will wonder if the level between the UFC and their old organization is a big difference. Once they start thinking like that and other people tell them that the UFC is a much higher level, doubt starts kicking in. Once doubt gets ahold of them, some fighters can’t deal with it. They need a few fights to overcome this feeling. Others will never have a problem. It’s all in your mind.”
Matt Hume, the founder of AMC Pankration in Kirkland, Washington, has trained some of the biggest names in the sport, including Rich Franklin, Chris Leben, and Demetrious Johnson. Hume believes the fighter’s preparation is the key to Octagon success.
“Teach them everything they need to know as an amateur before becoming a pro,” Hume says. “You need to have patience to reach your technical goals before making the jump. Be honest with them about their true ability to be successful at the highest levels of MMA. If they are truly prepared and capable, it should be treated like any other fight that preceded it.”
Former Strikeforce Middleweight Champion Jake Shields was riding a 14-fight winning streak and was widely considered one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in MMA when he finally signed with the UFC in 2010. The potential of Shields facing the UFC’s top middleweights had MMA fans drooling, but a lackluster and semi-controversial victory over Martin Kampmann in his Octagon debut had critics questioning if he could compete on the biggest stage.
Shields did nothing to silence those critics when he lost back-to-back fights to George St-Pierre (for the UFC Welterweight Title) and Jake Ellenberger. Since the losses, Shields has earned much-needed wins over Yoshihiro Akiyama and Ed Herman, improving his UFC record to 3-2, but many fighters have not experienced the same success.
Here’s a look at five fighters who did not live up to the hype-train when they stepped into the Octagon.
Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipović
Pre-UFC Record: 21-4-2
Notable Achievements: 2006 Pride World Open-Weight Grand Prix Champion/1999/2000 K-1 World Grand Prix Runner-Up
UFC Record: 4-6
After winning the 2006 Pride Grand Prix and earning victories over some of MMA’s best fighters—including Wanderlei Silva, Josh Barnett, and Mark Coleman in PRIDE—Cro Cop entered the UFC in 2007. He defeated Eddie Sanchez at UFC 67, but then he dropped consecutive bouts to Gabe Gonzaga and Cheick Kongo. Cro Cop left the promotion to fight three times in Japan before getting a win over Mostapha al-Turk in his return to the Octagon in 2009. It would be a rollercoaster ride the rest of his UFC career, and after losing three straight fights to Frank Mir, Brendan Schaub, and Roy Nelson, Cro Cop walked away with a disappointing 4-6 record.
Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto
Pre-UFC Record: 18-3-1
Notable Achievements: 2005 K-1 Hero’s Lightweight Tournament Champion
UFC Record: 0-3
Known for his aggressive fighting style and controversial personality, Kid Yamamoto’s move to the UFC in 2011 after a successful fight career in Japan had fight fans excited. However, he’s yet to get a “W” in three UFC fights, dropping bouts to Demetrious Johnson, Darren Uyenoyama, and Vaughan Lee, who supplied Yamamoto his first loss via submission in front of his countrymen in Saitama, Japan, at UFC 144.
Yoshihiro “Sexyama” Akiyama
Pre-UFC Record: 12-1-2
Achievements: 2006 Hero’s Light Heavyweight Grand Prix Champion
UFC Record: 1-4
“Sexyama” won a split-decision victory over Alan Belcher at UFC 100 that earned him Fight of the Night. However, following his impressive debut, Akiyama has yet to get back into the win column, losing four consecutive fights to Chris Leben, Michael Bisping, Vitor Belfort, and Jake Shields. Winning three Fight of the Night bonuses has eased the pain.
Pre-UFC Record: 5-1
Achievements: PRIDE Middleweight Champion/2003 PRIDE Middleweight Grand Prix Tournament Winner
UFC Record: 4-7
In his first UFC fight, Silva was TKO’d by Vitor Belfort at UFC Brazil in 1998. He then beat Tony Petarra at UFC 20, before losing to Tito Ortiz at UFC 25. By the time Silva returned to the promotion in 2007, he held records for the most wins, knockouts, title defenses, and longest winning streak in PRIDE history. He has not, however, experienced that same type of success in the UFC. Following his latest defeat to Rich Franklin, “The Axe Murderer” has dropped to 4-7 inside the Octagon.
Jason “Mayhem” Miller
Pre-UFC Record: 16-3
Achievements: Superbrawl Welterweight Champion/ICON Sport Middleweight Champion
UFC Record: 0-3
Miller made his first appearance at UFC 52 in 2005, where he lost a unanimous decision to Georges St-Pierre. “Mayhem” bailed, and proceeded to earn wins-galore in other promotions, before returning to the big show six years later. He may have wished that he didn’t come back. After two uninspired, lopsided losses to Michael Bisping and CB Dollaway, the UFC brass sent Miller packing.
Kimbo Slice – UFC Record: 1-1
The YouTube sensation was given the opportunity to compete on The Ultimate Fighter 10, where he beat Houston Alexander in the finale. In Slice’s next fight at UFC 113, Matt Mitrione picked him apart, and he was promptly cut from the roster.
Rolles Gracie – UFC Record: 0-1
The son of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu pioneer Rolls Gracie, Rolles was one-and-done after Joey Beltran TKO’d him at UFC 109, prompting Renzo Gracie to call his performance “embarrassing.”
Jorge Santiago – UFC Record: 0-2
Santiago won the Strikeforce Middleweight Grand Prix in 2007 and the Sengoku Middleweight Grand Prix in 2008, but he was taken out by Brian Stann and Demian Maia in his only two UFC fights.
James Toney – UFC Record: 0-1
The former World Champion boxer talked (incoherently most of the time) his way into an MMA fight against Randy Couture at UFC 118 in 2010. Couture shot a low-single, tenderized Toney from mount, and mercifully submitted him with an arm triangle.