Anything can, and often does, happen in the sport of mixed martial arts.
One of the traits that makes MMA the most exciting sport in the world is the utter unpredictability of the action. With almost anything allowed – punches, kicks, elbows, knees, takedowns, slams, ground and pound, and submissions all in play – trying to foresee exactly how a fight will go is often a fool’s errand.
As such, miraculous comebacks are always a possibility, and happen with much more regularity than in other major sports. Victory is often just one well-placed punch, kick, or takedown away. Because a finish negates any scoring that happened prior, athletes in the Octagon are able to mount sudden and stunning turnarounds, even if they had been on the wrong side of a beating.
Still, there are those that stand above the rest. The latest list from LowKick MMA seeks to pick out the best of the best comebacks in UFC history. And by comeback, we mean within the context of a single fight. A comeback like Dominick Cruz returning from years on the shelf to smoke Takeya Mizugaki will not be considered here. Cruz was never losing that bout. What will be taken into account is how badly the fighter was hurt before snatching the victory and the stakes involved in the contest.
Whether eating a devastating strike and overcoming it, or getting consistently outfought and snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, comebacks come in many forms. Continue reading to see our picks for the greatest ones in UFC history. If there are any that we’ve missed, be sure sure to let us know in the comments below!
10. Matt Brown vs. Erick Silva – UFC Fight Night 40
A recent entrant on another of our lists, Brown again makes our top ten, this time for a single gutsy performance.
Brown’s headlining bout opposite welterweight prospect Erick Silva at UFC Fight Night 40 was booked to be an action-packed affair. Little did the fans and matchmakers know that the two offense-minded fighters would put on perhaps the best Round of the Year and a contender for Fight of the Year.
In typical fashion for both men, they came out looking to put it on each other early. In a theme that would persist throughout the fight, Brown pressured and tried to fight Silva in a phonebooth.
After a mad scramble initiated by Silva saw both men return to their feet, Brown absorbed a crushing liver kick from the southpaw Silva. It looked like it would be short night for “The Immortal”, as he doubled over in pain and retreated to his back.
“”The Tiger” followed him to the mat, where he quickly transitioned to the back and sunk in his hooks, fishing for a rear naked choke. Brown would spend the next few minutes fighting off choke and neck crank attempts from the Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt. Silva transitioned back and forth from a body triangle to both hooks in, softening Brown up with punches as he sought the fight-ending submission. While defending the choke, Brown was able to recover from the vicious body blow that had floored him, and he eventually escaped and returned to his feet.
From there he tore into Silva with a vengeance, mauling his Brazilian counterpart with knees, elbows, and punches to the head and body. The remainder of the round saw more of the same, as Brown blasted away on the durable but tiring Silva, eating the occasional return fire with ease.
The second round saw Brown pick up right where he left off, but there would still be more adversity to overcome. As he continued his assault on Silva, “The Immortal” once again ate a hard shot to the right side of his body. This time the blow came from Silva left hand. Brown dropped his hands and temporarily backed off, as the announcers took note of his obvious distress. Silva was unable to follow up with anything substantial, and soon Brown resumed his onslaught.
As Brown furiously battered Silva in an attempt to put him away, the game Brazilian once again found the chink in Brown’s armor, doubling him over once again with a body shot. Grimacing in pain, the American was able to grab a clinch and then hit a trip takedown, allowing him to ward off any more blows. He would spend most of the rest of the round on top, hammering Silva with ground and pound and sapping the rest of his foe’s energy.
Brown put the finishing touches on the miraculous fight in the third round, finally getting the stoppage on the exhausted Silva, who could simply not sustain any more damage. Despite being badly hurt on multiple occasions and nearly getting submitted in the first round, Brown showed that he is never out of a fight. It was an fantastic comeback, and as such, ensured it a spot on this list.
9. Travis Browne vs. Alistair Overeem – UFC Fight Night 26:
In a fight between two heavy hitters in the UFC’s biggest division, the fans and matchmakers got even more than they could have hoped for from Travis Browne and Alistair Overeem.
Browne was all but undefeated, on a march that eventually would take him to a #1 contender matchup with Fabricio Werdum. His only loss was a knockout at the hands of Antonio Silva. He was winning the fight before badly injuring his knee, leaving him essentially defenseless. He had since rebounded by elbowing long-time contender Gabriel Gonzaga into oblivion.
Overeem was himself looking to bounce back from a disappointing loss to “Bigfoot” Silva. The fight was a microcosm of Overeem’s career: he is extremely offensively potent and dangerous, but prone to lapses in focus and chinniness. Despite being the far superior striker, he let Silva hang around too long and eventually paid the price with a third round knockout.
Overeem came out and almost immediately put “Hapa” in the hurt box. The former Strikeforce champion absolutely laid into him against the fence with punches and knees, dropping Browne to the floor. The fight looked like it could have been stopped on multiple occasions, as spectators cringed, perhaps hoping the ref would step in.
Somehow, Browne survived. He looked to return fire and keep the notoriously devastating clinch fighter at bay. Front kicks from the 6’9″ Browne began to find their mark on Overeem’s body and head, and Browne had found his moment.
The Hawaiian hit “The Reem” with another front kick to the chin that seemed to daze him, and a second one a moment later dropped him as he failed to adequately defend the technique. Several brain-scrambling punches followed, and Browne was victorious.
The win showed remarkable heart and toughness from “Hapa”, as he had been on the receiving end of a truly hellacious beating earlier in the round.
8. Brock Lesnar vs. Shane Carwin – UFC 116
Brock Lesnar’s return from a year on the shelf was a memorable one. It would also be his last win as a mixed martial artist (for now?).
Perhaps the biggest star in the history of the sport had been sidelined by a bout of diverticulitis that necessitated a removal of part of his colon. Lesnar was last seen avenging his only career loss by bashing Frank Mir senseless at UFC 100. An interim title was created in his absence, and the undefeated Shane Carwin won it by smashing Mir in a fight eerily reminiscent of Lesnar-Mir 2.
When Lesnar returned to unify the heavyweight championship at UFC 116 on July 3, 2010, he was met by his physical equal for perhaps the first time. Carwin, along with Lesnar, was one of the few fighters who had to cut to the 265 pound heavyweight limit. Also a wrestler like Lesnar, Carwin may have lacked the champion’s amateur pedigree, but he was a potent grappler nonetheless. And he made up the difference with something Lesnar never possessed: concussive power on the feet.
When the bell rung, there was a bit of a feeling out process as the two massive heavyweights respected the other’s power. But Carwin soon found a home for his right hand and sent the WWE star retreating to the canvas. From there, Carwin tore into Lesnar with sledgehammer punches for the remainder of the round. Over and over Carwin smashed his fists into the grounded champion, but Lesnar did just enough to keep the referee from intervening, covering up and blocking most of the punches. When the horn sounded the end of the round, Carwin was a spent force, and it seemed a shift in the tide of the fight was imminent.
While Lesnar was bloodied and battered, he was easily the fresher of the two huge heavyweights at the start of the second. He quickly snatched a takedown on his gassed opponent, and set about passing his guard. Without even having to land many strikes, Lesnar cinched up a head and arm choke, passed to side control, and elicited the tapout from the now-former interim champion.
The battle foreshadowed Lesnar’s most glaring weakness, namely a strong aversion to getting hit. Nonetheless, he showed tremendous heart in withstanding a brutal barrage of punches. In doing so, Lesnar tied the record for consecutive heavyweight title defenses at two.
7. Miesha Tate vs. Holly Holm – UFC 196
Scrappiness is an apt phrase for this fight, as it was Tate’s most defining, and perhaps most important, characteristic.
Tate had given Rousey her toughest tests prior to Holm unceremoniously ripping the belt from her. Nevertheless, she had been on the wrong side of two stoppages against Rousey. Still, she was a savvy and dogged battler, capable of making crucial in-fight adjustments like few others.
As Holm had just perfectly and systematically dismantled a previously dominant champion, she came into her first title defense as a heavy favorite, and perhaps rightly so. Her long frame and championship boxing and kickboxing pedigrees, along with the takedown and submission defense she showed versus Rousey, made her a daunting opponent.
Both fighters’ gameplans were apparent even before the fight. Holm would want to keep the challenger at bay, pick her apart with kicks, and punish her with her hands whenever Tate tried to close the distance. “Cupcake”, on the other hand, would need to find a way inside to put her crafty clinch and grappling chops to use.
In the first round, it was the champion who was able to execute her plan. She was able to tag Tate, who is notorious for getting beat up in the first round, consistently.
The second round saw a complete 180, as Tate showed off her versatility. She was able to quickly get a takedown, and spent the rest of the round pummeling Holm while fishing for submissions. While the stoppage she sought failed to materialize, she banked a dominant round that had to boost her confidence.
However, she would fall behind on the scorecards in rounds three and four, as they followed a similar pattern as the first. Holm was able to make adjustments of her own, and she never let Tate get a hold of her again over those ten minutes.
Entering the fifth and final round, Tate was truly facing a do or die scenario. She found herself at a 3-1 deficit in rounds won. And even if her second round warranted a score of 10-8, there was no way she could rely on the judges to see it that way (ironically, and in a rare bit of competent judging, all three did). But even if they had all given her a 10-8 second, winning the fifth round would only be good enough to earn her a draw, in which case Holm would retain the championship anyway. So in maybe her only chance to win a UFC title against someone other than Ronda Rousey, there was no doubt Tate needed a finish.
She got it. As in the second, Tate was again finally able to secure a takedown, and this time, she was not letting Holm escape. When she transitioned to the back, she was able to cinch the rear naked choke. Showing a championship spirit of her own, Holm refused to tap out, fighting the choke even as she slipped into unconsciousness. As she did, referee “Big” John McCarthy recognized it and pulled Tate off, finally awarding her the UFC bantamweight title that seemed like it would elude her forever.
6. Mike Russow vs. Todd Duffee – UFC 114
Former Chicago policeman Russow had a successful, if undistinguished, career as a mixed martial artist, retiring with a 15-3 mark. His UFC record was a respectable 4-2. What Russow is perhaps best known for is his remarkable comeback against heavyweight dynamo Todd Duffee.
The dichotomy presented by the two fighters was apparent at first glance. Duffee (pictured) was a shredded 240-pound undefeated heavyweight prospect coming off a seven-second knockout in his UFC debut. Russow, by contrast, was a bit paunchy but otherwise physically unremarkable. He, too, had won his UFC debut, but by decision.
For the first two rounds, the fight between the two big men followed the narrative most expected. Duffee used his superior length and athleticism to repeatedly pummel Russow. The ex-cop was undoubtedly tough, but he seemed to be utterly outclassed as he ate a steady barrage of strikes from his younger counterpart. Through two rounds, it seemed Russow was on his way to a gutty but lopsided decision loss.
He flipped the script in the third. Out of nowhere, Russow landed a straight right that sent Duffee reeling backwards. As he fell, Russow landed a second right hand to Duffee’s chin that put him out for good. The hammerfist that followed was a mere formality, as Duffee lay prone and defenseless on the canvas. With that, Russow completed one of the most sudden and unexpected turnarounds in mixed martial arts history.
5. Carlos Condit vs. Rory MacDonald – UFC 115
When Rory MacDonald and Carlos Condit clashed at UFC 115 in June 2010, they were two young prospects on the rise. While they are both now former title challengers and consensus top five welterweights, their bout would decide which up-and-comer would reach the height of the 170-pound division first.
MacDonald was not even 21 years old at the time, but was already drawing comparisons to then-champion and TriStar teammate Georges St. Pierre. Condit, meanwhile, was much more seasoned as a Pancrase and Rumble on the Rock veteran and former WEC champion. Still, he was only 26.
The opening round saw Condit have success with his kickboxing, but MacDonald likely landed the harder shots, and he also was able to counter knees and kicks from Condit and turn them into takedowns. The “Red King” was able to get top position again in the second, and while he did not land as many strikes as Condit, he clearly took the round again.
“The Natural Born Killer” came out of his corner in the third with the sense of urgency of a man needing a finish. As he came out slugging, MacDonald was happy to oblige him, as the two welterweights tore into each other for the first 30 seconds. MacDonald then dropped for a single leg, but Condit countered it with a kimura sweep that put him in top position. For the next few minutes, Condit thudded away with punches and elbows from half guard.
When MacDonald returned to his feet, Condit did not relent with his barrage, so the Canadian again looked to use his wrestling. This time he was too tired to complete it. Condit stuffed the attempt and again went to work from the top. Sensing the time ticking away, the New Mexico native smashed away with still more elbows and punches, badly damaging MacDonald’s right eye. With mere seconds left on the clock, the referee had finally seen enough. He pulled Condit off the dazed TriStar product, giving “The Natural Born Killer” the dramatic come-from-behind win.
4. Matt Hughes vs. Frank Trigg – UFC 52
When Matt Hughes clashed with Frank Trigg for the second time at UFC 52 in April 2005, he was in the midst of one of the most dominant runs in welterweight history. His run as welterweight champion was capped by Hughes rear-naked-choking Trigg in his fifth title defense. He then relinquished the title to BJ Penn at UFC 46, but Penn promptly signed with K-1 and was stripped of the belt. Hughes would reclaim the title by armbarring George St. Pierre at UFC 50 eight months later.
Since losing to Hughes, “Twinkle Toes” garnered two TKO victories that set him up for a championship rematch. An adept trash-talker, Trigg relentlessly needled the champ in the lead up to their bout, so there was no love lost between them.
This fact became readily apparent two minutes into their fight, as Trigg landed a low blow in the clinch. As Hughes retreated and petitioned referee Mario Yamasaki for a respite, Trigg pursued with hard punches. When Yamasaki failed to intervene, Hughes was forced to cover up and go to the floor under the onslaught. Trigg would jump on his back and cinch up the choke, and for a moment it looked as though the referee’s gaffe would cost Hughes his championship.
But he was not out yet. Somehow, he escaped the choke attempt and reversed into top position. Immediately he lifted up the challenger, and, in one of the most iconic scenes in UFC history, carried him across the Octagon and slammed him to the mat at the base of the fence. From there he went to work. He bashed away at Trigg with punches and eventually achieved the mount. More punches and elbows followed, forcing Trigg to give up his back. Hughes locked on his own rear naked choke, and as Trigg rolled to his back to escape, Hughes went right with him. Trigg was forced to tap, and in doing so, handed Hughes one of the most memorable victories ever.
3. Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard – UFC 136
The second fight between Frankie “The Answer” Edgar and Gray “The Bully” Maynard at UFC 125 was one of the most epic clashes in mixed martial arts history.
Maynard was on the brink of stopping Edgar several times in the first stanza, knocking him down and bloodying him in one of the most lopsided rounds ever to not garner a stoppage. Edgar stormed back in the second to score a big round of his own. The rest of the match was a back and forth affair that Edgar might have had a slight advantage in, but would it be enough to overcome his disastrous first round? As it turned out, the fight was called a draw. While it was not a victory for “The Answer”, he retained his title.
The two were matched up for a third time (Maynard had won their initial meeting in a non-title bout years prior) at UFC 136 in October 2011. It was immediately reminiscent of their second fight.
Maynard again badly rocked Edgar in the opening frame, sending him careening around the Octagon attempting to recover his wits. And again, Edgar somehow managed to hang on to hear the horn to end the round. As in their second meeting, Edgar came back stronger in the second round, and from there it was another nip-tuck battle.
This last meeting between the two top lightweights was not destined to see the judges, however. In the fourth, Edgar landed a crushing right hand that sent Maynard retreating to the fence. As he tried to rise and face the champion, Edgar landed a second devastating right that put him down. Unanswered punches followed, putting an emphatic end to their trilogy and capping off one of the most spectacular comebacks in MMA history.
2. Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen – UFC 117
Heading into his UFC 117 showdown with Chael Sonnen in August 2010, Anderson “The Spider” Silva was making his record eighth straight title defense. But he had not yet broken through as a mainstream star in the states. That changed following UFC 117.
The brash Oregonian had called out and trash-talked Silva more than anyone ever had before. He denounced the strength of his opponents, his country, and anything and everything else about the long-time champion. In doing so, Sonnen elevated the fight to heights no Silva fight had previously enjoyed, despite his own thin pedigree as a dangerous opponent.
But the self-proclaimed “Gangster from West Linn” backed up every ounce of trash talk for four rounds. While “The Spider” was maybe the best striker in MMA history and possessed a BJJ black belt to back it up, wrestling was perceived as Silva’s one weak link. Sonnen ruthlessly exploited it, repeatedly grounding Silva and pestering him with constant, if not particularly damaging, ground and pound. Clearly ahead by a wide margin on the scorecards, Sonnen again struck for a takedown in the fifth and final round, looking to make history and dethrone the champion. But that is when Silva finally struck.
As Sonnen became complacent after 20-plus minutes in Silva’s guard, the champion unobtrusively locked down control of one of Sonnen’s arms and threw his legs up into a triangle. As the challenger tried to extricate himself, Silva cranked on his arm too. After a few moments of struggling and readjusting, the triangle-armbar elicited the tapout from Sonnen with 1:50 left in the fight.
Mere moments from losing the title he held for so many years, Silva hit the Hail Mary submission that began to establish “The Spider” as a bonafide MMA legend.
1. Cheick Kongo vs. Pat Barry – UFC Live 4
Plagued by injuries and late dropouts, the UFC Fight Night in Pittsburgh in 2011 featured a makeshift headliner between two heavyweight kickboxers. Cheick Kongo and Pat Barry may not have been knocking on the door of title contention, but they would put on one of the most stunning fights, heavyweight or otherwise, in UFC history.
After a feeling out process in which the two big men pot-shotted at one another with leg kicks, Barry landed an overhand right behind the ear that dropped his French counterpart. Barry dove in for the finish, landing punches as Kongo tried to rise from his knees. It looked as though Kongo was out, but the punches from Barry seemed to wake Kongo up before putting him out again. Surprisingly, referee Dan Miragliotta let the action continue. Kongo tried to get in on Barry’s hips for a takedown that would let him recover, but “HD” was having none of it.
As Kongo finally rose to his feet, he was met with a right hook that floored him again. Clearly dazed, he again searched for a desperation takedown as Barry pummeled at his head, still unable to fully put the hulking Frenchman away. Kongo finally got to his feet and retreated toward the fence as Barry gave chase. Kongo landed a right hook that momentarily staggered Barry, but “HD” remained undeterred. As he looked to unload another volley of strikes, Barry was met with a shovel hook to the chin that knocked him cold. He collapsed to his back, with his leg folded awkwardly beneath him. The hammerfists that followed were gratuitous, as Barry lay prone with his eyes unnervingly wide open, undoubtedly unconscious.
Kongo, who moments earlier could barely stand, walked calmly away from the carnage with his hand raised, the author of the greatest comeback in UFC history.