In boxing, they used to be called opponents, guys thrown in there to add a quality name to a hot prospect’s record, or to provide a reigning champ with a respectable but supposedly overmatched foe. In other words, they were supposed to lose.
But some of the supposed flunkies thought otherwise. The fighters on this list — the so-called spoilers — have made a habit of walking into the arena as underdogs and then proving the doubters wrong, much to the chagrin of promoters and bookies alike. Some went on to become champions in their own right, others faded away into oblivion after one shining moment. A handful continue to be underestimated come fight night, only to see their hands raised yet again a few minutes later. And one of them has already cemented his legacy as one of the game’s all-time greats. But on a single occasion at least, each of these men shocked the world.
When Urijah Faber stepped into the cage on November 5, 2008, he was at the peak of the MMA mountain. Riding a 13-fight winning streak stretching back three years, he’d overwhelmed his opponents thanks to his phenomenal combination of strength, speed, athleticism, pure fighting instinct, and a level confi dence that would make Floyd Mayweather Jr. blush. He was the poster boy for the WEC, a marketer’s wet dream and was ranked on most poundfor- pound lists. But no one, especially not Faber, was prepared for the force that was Michael Thomas Brown. A big, powerful but unheralded seven-year vet, Brown had recently gotten his ticket to the big show, and he was about to show the MMA world what they’d been missing. When Faber got over confi dent and threw a wild spinning elbow two minutes into the fight, the disciplined Brown saw his opening and put Faber down with a crackling right hand to the jaw. Four months later, Brown proved the win wasn’t a fluke when he destroyed the highly regarded Leonard Garcia in the first round. In less than a year, Brown went from spoiler to unquestioned king of the 145-pound division. Then on June 7th he beat Faber again defending his WEC his title via a hard fought decision win.
It’s hard to believe anyone ever taking the ageless, peerless Randy Couture lightly, but it’s happened more than once. In 1997, Vitor Belfort was being touted as the Mike Tyson of MMA until Couture’s dirty boxing in the clinch put the Brazilian’s lights out at UFC 15. Nine years later, “The Natural” was coming off two losses when he stepped into the Octagon against the white-hot Chuck Liddell for the vacant UFC light heavyweight strap. Couture ground-and-pounded his way to a late stoppage. His last upset win was also his most impressive. Four months after outworking Tim Sylvia for the UFC heavyweight belt, the 44-year-old vet proved that he was still championship material when he obliterated the much larger Gabriel Gonzaga by crushing his nose into pieces, stopping him in the third round. Even better, Couture fought most of the bout with a broken arm. His legacy as one of the sport’s all-time greats is already secure, but chances are the 46-year-old master won’t be the favorite the next time he steps into the cage. Just don’t be surprised if he shocks the world…again.
More than a few fans think the scowling Stockton-based thuggish badass has a few screws loose. And they might be right. This is a guy who, after losing a controversial decision to Joe Riggs at UFC 57, tried to start round four at the hospital before the police broke it up. His salutation of choice is the double bird, he’s obsessed with conspiracy theories and he smokes more weed than Tommy Chong. Another thing: Nick Diaz can flat-out scrap, and he’s got the skills to do it anywhere on the mat. While he may be susceptible to takedowns, the kid who claims he’d fight anyone to the death is just as happy to use his years of boxing training to punish a fighter on the feet, and then apply his BJJ black belt skills to lock in any number of slick submissions. The fi rst hot prospect to be victimized by Diaz was Robbie Lawler at UFC 47, whom Diaz cleverly taunted into a stand-up exchange by talking crazy trash and then knocked out cold with a lead left hook. Three years later, after voluntarily leaving the UFC, Diaz took on Japanese super-striker Takanori Gomi at a Pride event in Vegas. A decided underdog going into the fight, Diaz made Gomi’s vaunted striking game look amateurish before taking the fi ght to the mat and locking in a rare gogoplata submission that would have made Cesar Gracie proud. (The bout was later ruled a no contest thanks to the comically high level of THC in Diaz’s postfi ght urine sample. Last spring, Diaz picked apart, then eventually knocked out the heavily favored—and much bigger—Frank Shamrock. Diaz says that he still hasn’t gotten the respect he feels he deserves, and that does not bode well for his opponents. But Nick Diaz probably doesn’t give a fuck. He’ll fight whoever walks into the Octagon, talk crazy trash about their bitch-ass game, and then probably end the fight quickly. Nobody ever accused Nick Diaz of being good sportsmen.
He walked into the second season of The Ultimate Fighter with a solid college wrestling pedigree, good athletic ability, some streetwise smack-talking skills, and not much else. Not exactly a recipe for success in the age of GSP and Anderson Silva. He was matched up against guys with more experience, better pedigrees and vaster skill sets. It didn’t matter. Under the tutelage of tactical “Yoda” Greg Jackson, he kept getting better, more seasoned. His skills began to catch up to his natural talent, but that didn’t keep the odds makers from counting him out prior to fight night. And he kept making them pay. Stephan Bonnar, Michael Bisping, Tito Ortiz, Forrest Griffi n and Chuck Liddell: They all walked into the cage as heavy favorites, and all walked out disappointed. Moreover, Evans continued to improve every time out, knocking Liddell out cold and pummeling Griffin into unconsciousness. He may have gotten a reality check from the immortal Machida when he was mercilessly outclassed in one and a half rounds, but even that loss won’t undermine the likeable, capable former champ’s place at the top of the UFC 205-pound mix for years to come.
For the first few years of his UFC career, Forrest Griffi n was the Arturo Gatti of mixed martial arts: a rugged brawler with decent skills, a great beard, a TV-friendly style and a crazy crossover appeal. His three-round war with Stephan Bonnar in The Ultimate Fighter 1 finale took the UFC from niche attraction to mainstream phenomenon, and company head Dana White wisely featured him in as may shows as possible. He won more than he lost, but hardly anyone regarded him as a serious threat to guys like Chuck, Randy or the handful of world-class 205-pounders from Pride who had just signed with the UFC. Then Griffin was fed as cannon fodder to Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, the former Pride star whom many regarded as the heir apparent to Chuck Liddell. On that night, Griffi n proved he was much more than a beefed-up version of Alfred E. Neuman when he outworked the highly touted Brazilian in a onesided match before choking out Rua in the third round. The win earned him a title shot against top dog Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. And what do you know? Twenty-fi ve minutes later, the bluecollar kid had a belt around his waist. After losing the belt to a resurgent Rashad Evans, Griffin has agreed to go where few men have dared, and none in the UFC have won: inside the Octagon with middleweight assassin Anderson Silva. The truth will be told on August 8 in Philly.
He looks like an extra in a biker-bar scene from a straight-to-video action flick. His footwork and striking technique will never win any style points, and he’s not exactly a speed demon. But the man who didn’t even make the finals of The Ultimate Fighter 2 (after losing to future stablemate Rashad Evans in the prelims) has made a habit of taking down some of the UFC’s marquee names. The reason: He has some of the best conditioning in all of MMA and an iron will to win. He fi rst turned heads when he kayoed Forrest Griffin at UFC 66. While many wrote the win off as a case of Forrest’s simply “getting caught,” Jardine proved that he had the skill set and endurance of a true world-class fi ghter when he thoroughly outworked former champ Chuck Liddell and rising star Brandon Vera en route to clear-cut decision victories. He may have lost a hotly contested battle to former champ Rampage Jackson last March, but the goofy guy with the bald pate and the devilish goatee has left no doubt that he’s a world-class light heavyweight.
After his first twenty fights, during which he compiled an 18-0-2 record, Japan’s Hayato Sakurai was regarded as one of the best mixed martial artists in the world. But after he dropped half of his next dozen fights, many thought the former Shooto standout’s best days were behind him. Sakurai thought otherwise. In a onemonth span, the former pro wrestler took out three certifi ed monsters in Shinya Aoki, Jens Pulver and Joachim Hansen. Nearly four years later, in the opening round of the Dream Welterweight Grand Prix last April, Sakurai, then 33 years old and apparently past his physical prime, agreed to a rematch with Aoki, who was by then considered one of the top fighters in MMA and perhaps the best submission artist in the world. Sakurai’s response: blitzing Aoki with a barrage of strikes and knocking him cold in just twenty-seven seconds. All of a sudden, the wily old vet made it known that, yet again, he was a force to be reckoned with at 170 pounds.
He is perhaps the most likable guy in the game, an undersized pug from East Meadow, New York. Undersized for the welterweight division, and a little thick around the middle thanks to his unabashed weakness for pasta, Serra makes up for his physical limitations with a high ring IQ, slick Jiu-Jitsu (courtesy of more than a decade of training under Renzo Gracie) and an East Coast swagger that’s equal parts paisan charm and blue-collar humility. The dude has kept it real, and he always came to fight. Until landing a spot on The Ultimate Fighter: The Comeback, Serra enjoyed a respectable, but unexceptional and intermittent, career in the UFC. Then he landed a title shot against rising superstar Georges St. Pierre and proceeded to shock the world. Before the UFC brass and anyone else who could exhale, St. Pierre crumpled on the mat thanks to a barrage of well-executed strikes from the physically inferior New Yorker. Serra was subsequently crushed by the Canadian phenom in a rematch and went on to drop a hard-fought grudge match to arch-enemy Matt Hughes at UFC 98. But on one night, the wisecracking shorty from Long Island utilized a combination of balls, skill and heart to pull off the biggest upset in the history of MMA.
RAMEAU THIERRY SOKOUDJOU
For a minute, there was the second coming of the Predator. Built like an ’80s action figure and sporting a mop of gnarly-ass dreads, The “African Assassin” from Cameroon arrived at Pride 33 with a 1-2 record. Little was known about him besides the fact that he was one of the few MMA pros with a judo base. His opponent, on the other hand, was one of the best-known light heavyweights in the world, Antonio Rogerio “Minotoro” Nogueira, aka “Little Nog,” one of the most experienced and well-rounded fighters in the Pride stable. Sokoudjou didn’t need a slick throw to show Nogueira he meant business. Twenty-three seconds into the fight, after throwing a handful of sledgehammer kicks to Little Nog’s head and shins, Sokoudjou uncorked a vicious counter left hand that had the Brazilian out cold before he hit the mat. Less than two months later, he faced off against an arguably better fighter: the giant-killing BJJ master Ricardo Arona, whose previous victims included some of the game’s most feared knockout artists. Arona managed to make it through all of two minutes before he too took a punch that put him on the mat for good. Sokoudjou’s rise through the 205 pound division came to a crashing halt, however, after he signed with the UFC. First, Lyoto Machida submitted him at UFC 79, and a year later Luis Arthur Cane weathered the Assassin’s opening onslaught before knocking him out in the second round at UFC 89, making it obvious that the African’s conditioning, ground game and wrestling skills left much to be desired. Sokoudjou has since been bounced from the UFC, but at just 25 years old, the Predator certainly has the raw talent to become a force in his division in the years to come.
His dive-bar bouncer physique ain’t pretty to look at, and his fi ghting style doesn’t exactly resemble ballet but Tim Sylvia has always had a few things going for him. He’s ginormous, tough as nails and game as hell. A graduate of Pat Miletich’s Bettendorf boot camp, the 6-8”,265- lb. bruiser is a reliable gut-check for any top heavyweight, thanks to an educated standup game backed up by crunching power. The first hotshot to get his comeuppance was Ricco Rodriguez, the talented but perennially underachieving BJJ specialist who had just taken out Randy Couture for the UFC heavyweight crown. Sylvia took out the out-of-shape Rodriguez with a barrage of strikes in the first round. Three years later, “The Maine-iac,” who had lost his title via arm-snap to Frank Mir, avenged an earlier loss to then-superstar Andrei Arlovski in a huge upset victory to reclaim the heavyweight crown. He defended the belt in a grueling decision win three months later before losing it again to a resurgent Couture, who knocked Sylvia silly in the first round, then cruised to a decision win. Sylvia has since been bounced from the UFC and has lost two in a row since leaving, including and embarrassing effort in Alabama in which saw him knocked cold in just 9 seconds.
New Year’s Eve, 2004 was supposed to be Anderson Silva’s triumphant return to the world stage. Months earlier, following an ugly falling out with Chute Box, Silva had retired. But after former Brazilian Top Team and future BFF rival Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira stepped in to get Silva some more training and another shot in Japan’s PRIDE promotion, the Spider was due for some payback. There were two problems: Silva’s ankle was badly injured and his opponent, the usually unexceptional Chonan, had a few tricks up his sleeve. Silva dominated his Japanese foe until Chonan pulled off the Submission of the Century: a flying scissor heel hook that knocked Silva to the mat and had him tapping within seconds. But after a brief stint in the UFC, Chonan faded into obscurity, while Silva’s career skyrocketed.