Counting down the most improbably awesome reversals of fortune EVER in mixed martial arts
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I am a HUGE fan of mixed martial arts. As far as I am concerned, the amount of excitement, human drama and athletic skill that you witness in MMA is absolutely unparalleled in the world of sports. As much as I love hockey, football, soccer and the occasional game of Rock Em Sock Em Robots, I have to say that in terms of sheer thrills, the world of kimuras, rear naked chokes and Mike Goldberg have all of ‘em beat, and it ain’t even close.
One of the things in particular I find so appealing about MMA is the occasional - and incredibly awesome - comeback that, if you’re lucky, you’ll catch on a given UFC, Strikeforce or Bellator show. Yeah, there have been some cool comebacks in other sports - boxing, hockey, and Olympic 4X100 freestyle swimming, to name just a few - but the comebacks you’ll witness in MMA are an altogether different kind of cloth…of awesomeness.
Let’s face it, any QB can get lucky and toss a couple of late touchdown passes, the same way a goalie can all of a sudden decide to start sucking and give up a ton of easy points in the dying moments of a Stanley Cup playoff game. In MMA, however, you’re working with an entirely different set of priorities…namely, the fact that you’re head is bleeding, your arm may or may not be broken, and there’s a good chance your endocrine system will not work by the time morning rolls around. In other sports, you merely make up for vast point differentials at the last moment. In MMA, you overcome vicious maulings that would put the average human being in intensive care for at least a week or two, with the additional burden of maintaining consciousness long enough to cut a promo immediately afterward in which you have to remember the names of the three hundred people that helped you in training camp. A monumental comeback in MMA is like winning a spelling bee five minutes after being thrown out of a window and landing on your head…and oh yeah, you bit your tongue really hard on impact, too.
Today, I would like to celebrate with you what I consider to be the six most amazing, astounding and improbable comebacks in the history of mixed martial arts. These are the bouts in which it looked somewhat certain that someone in the ring was going to die, only to have said victim spring back to life like the titular character in “Weekend at Bernie’s 2” and zombie dance their way to an out of nowhere ass kicking.
In regards to these half dozen fights, disregard LL Cool J’s sagacity and DO call it a comeback, because these stunning reversals of fortune are about as awesome as awesome can possibly get in the world of MMA - and really, anywhere else, for that matter.
Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Kestutis Smirnovas
Hero’s 6 - August 05, 2006
Kazushi Sakuraba is the undisputed king of Japanese MMA, and without question the most beloved fighter EVER in the Land of the Rising Sun. By 2006, however, it was getting pretty darn clear that his glory days were behind him, especially following a number of downright horrendous ass beatings in PRIDE FC throughout the early-to-mid 2000s.
Kestutis Smirnovas, although far from a household name anywhere (even his own household, or so I’ve heard), was an experienced journeyman, who kicked a many an ass in RINGS during the Clinton years. Going into Hero’s 6 (got to love those weird-ass Japanese promotion names, no?), Sakuraba was a heavy favorite against the Lithuanian veteran - a bit of odds making that appeared horrifyingly off-the-mark just minutes into the bout.
It’s not so much that Smirnovas caught Sakuraba with a heavy shot early in the bout, as much as it is Smirnovas rattled off nearly a hundred unanswered punches on the Japanese icon before he even thought about striking back. At one point, Sakuraba damn near pirouetted out of the ring following a particularly nasty punch from Smirnovas - who looked like he was about milliseconds away from securing a knockout victory over his legendary adversary.
Thanks to a bizarre promotional rule, however, Sakuraba was saved from what would have no-doubt been an easy ref stoppage when his 99.999998 percent limp body flipped over the bottom ring rope, which caused the referee to temporarily halt the match so Sakuraba could remember what consciousness smelled like. Although he continued to get murder-death-killed by Smirnovas on the ground, it was becoming increasingly apparent that the Lithuanian had spent so much energy attempting to hammer Sakuraba into the earth’s core that he was nearly half dead himself from beating his opponent half to death. With this in mind, the phoenix-like Sakuraba managed to slowly mount a comeback, catching Smirnovas with a few heavy shots of his own before the exhausted grapplers came a-crashing to the mat. And that’s when the wily Sakuraba positioned himself, ever so slowly, into a most precarious predicament for Smirnovas - seconds later, Sakuraba had a hold of Smirnovas arm, and as Kazushi began yanking on it like a lawnmower ripcord, the Lithuanian had no choice but to tap out.
Over the course of six minutes, Kazushi Sakuraba experienced at least three momentary lapses in consciousness en route to an armbar victory over Smirnovas, who alike many a foe of Homer Simpson during his brief stint as a boxer, just tuckered himself out after unsuccessfully trying to beat Old ‘Saku into powdered milk. Subsequently, Smirnovas called it a career a few years after this bout, while modern scientists have debated whether or not Sakuraba should be listed as a alkaline-earth metal on the periodic table ever since.
Scott Smith vs. Cung Le
Strikeforce: Evolution - December 19, 2009
Scott Smith is the kind of guy that’s dangerous, not so much because of his technical ability, but because it’s pretty clear that he experienced an acute form of brain damage a long, long time ago that most likely makes him impervious to his own mortality. Following his absolutely inconceivable come-from-behind victory over Cung Le in December of 2009, I really don’t think there’s any other viable rationale out there.
For those of you unfamiliar with Cung “Actor” Le, he’s this Vietnamese ass-kicker that was one of Strikeforce’s biggest draws prior to getting bought out by UFC parent company Zuffa in 2011. With his flashy, Jean Claude Van-Damme style kicks, Le was the perfect media image for the company, even if Le’s actual prowess as an all around mixed martial arts has been the subject of debate for almost a decade now (the fact that he got his ass kicked by a washed-up Wanderlei Silva last November seems to really, really validate such a hypothesis, though.)
Smith, a journeyman fighter that spent some time in the UFC before joining SF, was known for his absolute lack of technicality and skill as a fighter. For Smith, things like “precision,” “accuracy,” and “blocking” was the idle chatter of women and the elderly, because his strategy in seemingly every fight he had ever been in was “swing your arms like an orangutan wielding a machete” and hope that he didn’t die in the process.
Needless to say, there was an immediate style clash as the fight began, with Smith swinging for the fences while Le, you know, just kind of moved out of the way. Realizing that Smith’s moves were about as telegraphed as the aggregate “Punch-Out!!” adversary, Le decided that he would just spin-kick the living hell out of Smith for as long as he was willing to absorb the punishment. As it turns out, Smith was more than willing to soak up heels to the spleen for almost FIFTEEN solid minutes before getting his chance to return fire.
For the first ten minutes of the fight, Le absolutely DESTROYED Smith with those spinning kicks, so much so that it seemed as if the dude was just going to coast to a three round decision victory. Halfway through the final round, however, Smith’s reptilian brain told his blood cells to jump out of skin, and he began experiencing what can only be called an out-of-body experience as he began lobbing fat ass punches like Rocky Balboa having a seizure or something. Eventually, Smith managed to not only clip Le, but drop him with a monstrous, possibly-retarded overhand that put Le in involuntary cryostasis just minutes away from what would have been the easiest decision victory of his life. Smith’s state-sponsored social worker must have been pleased as punch, no doubt.
Cheick Kongo vs. Pat Barry
UFC Live: Kongo vs. Barry - June 26, 2011
You know, seeing fighters come back from almost certain defeat really isn’t that uncommon an occurrence in the world of mixed martial arts. Hell, even seeing guys miraculously pull themselves out of predicaments that would lead to instantaneous brain death for the average human being isn’t too rare a sight. But watching a guy experience THREE bouts of temporary paralysis over the course of one minute, only to come back seconds later and win the goddamn fight? Yeah, that’s something that’ll definitely make your ears prick up.
Cheick Kongo is a heavyweight in the UFC known for being one of the dirtiest fighters that has ever lived…so much so that at times, you wonder if he’s an anthropomorphisized “Wacky Races” villain or something. Pat Barry, on the other hand, is a pretty bland fighter, who’s probably best known for basically throwing a fight against his hero, Mirko Cro-Cop, in 2010. Clearly, something atypical was going to go down when these two behemoths squared off, but NOBODY expected the affront to modern medical science that was about to transpire.
The fight began as one would expect, with both fighters attempting to strike the other blind with wrist-flicks that would kill most animals classified as mega-fauna. Moments into the fight, however, Barry shocked the MMA world when not only did he drop the heavily favored Kongo, but basically put him into a coma on live television. The thing is, the referee decided that, even though Kongo was snoring and drooling on the mat, that he could STILL “intelligently” defend himself. And as such, Kongo’s made-for-premium cable lobotomy continued.
Perhaps sucking down a beaker of that green resurrection juice from “Re-Animator” as a pre-fight precautionary measure, Kongo was somehow able to get up from the abuse reaped upon him by Barry, only to get dropped not once, but twice more by his opponent, in a span of time shorter than most sneezes.
It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that Kongo was on the fast track to the nearest embalming table, when he bounced off the canvas, cocked his arm back, and tore a hole in the space-time continuum when he not only unloaded on Barry, but managed to take him out with a flurry of punches. In the time it takes to heat up some leftover pizza, Kongo suffered three blackouts in succession BUT still managed to score an all-time knockout shot on his opponent…a superhuman feat that pretty much makes all of our knowledge of physics and the human body obsolete in the process.
Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira vs. Bob Sapp
Pride Shockwave - August 28, 2002
In the world of professional wrestling, there’s this maneuver called a “power bomb.” The act involves sticking a dude’s head between your legs (if they don’t smell your pubic hair first, apparently, it doesn’t work) before lifting said opponent over your head by the shoulders and dropping them, back first, on the apron below. Even in the make-believe world of pro rasslin, it’s an incredibly dangerous move, which has resulted in devastating, career-ending injuries for countless wrestlers - including several incidents of permanent paralysis.
Now, remember, that’s when the guy dropping “the bomb” ISN’T actually trying to kill his adversary. In the world of MMA - where the object is to hurt-ify your opponent before he does something extremely hurt-y to you - it’s reasonable to assume that, if someone is to use the move on an opponent, he would be doing so with considerable more force than a staged act that STILL causes an incredible amount of physical damage to the person being assaulted. All in all, “power bombing” someone, in real-life, would be tantamount to attempted murder.
Well, just such a scenario transpired seconds into the 2002 heavyweight bout between Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Bob Sapp, when the latter - who at the time of the bout, weighed almost one hundred pounds heavier than his adversary - decided to power bomb the former in a scene that was about two or three centimeters away from being footage on a “Faces of Death” video.
After dropping the hapless Brazilian neck first on the canvas, Bob Sapp proceeded to “ground and pound” Nogueira for almost a full 15 minutes, while “Minotauro” attempted to a.) find a way out of being liquefied by a dude out of a “Street Fighter” game and b.) if possible, remember what his mother looked like.
Nogueira - a frontrunner for baddest mofo that ever lived if there ever was one - managed to not only weather Sapp’s punishment, but eventually jockey himself into position to armbar the dude that outweighed him by a good one-third of his own body mass, after a quarter hour of mauling that puts most prison rapes to shame. The super-unlikely comeback not only solidified Nog as one of the toughest dudes on the planet, but also turned Sapp into a cultural icon in Japan, where the xenophobic fear of a black man is almost on par with the African-American antipathy you would find at your average Koch Brothers-sponsored rally. Additionally, it also most likely explains why Nog hasn’t been able to count beyond “five” for the last decade, as well.
Brock Lesnar vs. Shane Carwin
UFC 116: Lesnar vs. Carwin - July 03, 2010
To a lot of people, Brock Lesnar - a former WWE star turned ex UFC Heavyweight champion - was nothing more than a media creation, a short-lived marketing gimmick that temporarily gave MMA its much-sought poster boy to the masses. Although his brief stint as MMA fighter lasted only four years - encompassing just seven fights - Lesnar still managed to give us one of the most amazing moments in the sport’s relatively brief history when he defended his strap against super-duper striker Shane Carwin back in the summer of 2010.
A year earlier, Lesnar threshed Frank Mir alive for almost ten minutes en route to becoming the recognized, unified UFC Heavyweight champion. Then, he came down with a bizarre intestinal ailment that kept him off the shelf for a good 12 months…while Shane Carwin, a grappler from the foothills of Colorado, waited in the wings.
I’ve actually interviewed Mr. Carwin before, and let me tell you this: the dude has hands the size of uncooked chickens. Seriously, the guy’s mitts are so ridiculously large that you have to wonder if his favorite pastime as a kid was grabbing irradiated water or something. I assure you, from personal experience, that Joe Rogan and Mikey Goldberg ain’t bullshitting when they talk about his fists being only slightly smaller than a set of Sock Em Boppers. So when Shane Carwin began has savage, first round annihilation of Lesnar, the only thing I could think of was driving a convertible through a meat locker - as in, getting pounded with the heaviest sacks of meat you could ever imagine.
The first round of the bout was a beat down only mildly less disturbing than the tunnel scene in “Irreversible.” Carwin struck Lesnar down early, and spent a good four minutes pounding on his adversary’s carcass like Thor in a game of Whack-a-Mole. By the time Carwin had gassed out from trying to make Lesnar’s face fuse with his pituitary gland, Brock’s mug looked like an NCAA regulation football with acne - a bloody, skinned mess of a sight with more fist indentions apparent than a pre-make-up Rihanna.
The thing is, Lesnar - a former NCAA wrestling champion, by the way - managed to weather the storm, primarily by doing the damn best impersonation of a turtle I’ve ever seen. As such, Carwin actually exhausted himself trying to liquefy everything above Brock’s neck, which allowed Lesnar to not only survive one of the most hellacious maulings in Octagon history, but actually mount an immediate offensive as soon as the second round began.
Carwin - now sucking air like he had an invisible cigarette addiction or something - became easy prey for Lesnar, who immediately took his opponent down, and - to the surprise of every living thing on the planet - submit with an arm-triangle just minutes into the second.
Immediately afterward, MMA fans the world over declared Lesnar’s remarkable, improbable and brain-aneurysm-inducing feat the most spectacular, hyper-dramatic comeback in the sport’s history, a monumental display of fortitude and tenacity that wouldn’t be touched by another fight for a long, long time to come.
And as it turns out, to see an amazing comeback that not only rivaled the one we saw here, but absolutely eclipse it and every other MMA fight before it, all we has to do was wait another month…
Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen
UFC 117: Silva vs. Sonnen - August 07, 2010
As hard as it may be to believe now, Anderson Silva was actually considered an underdog when he defeated Rich Franklin for the UFC Middleweight Championship in the fall of 2006. For the next four years - perhaps proving that he should never, ever be listed as an underdog for ANYTHING - he destroyed nine men in succession, in two different weight classes.
The thing is, Silva was so easily kicking his opponent’s asses that, at some indeterminable point in 2010, he just stopped trying in the cage. Silva was being condemned as an “anti-fighter,” a guy that just toyed around with his opponents without really trying to finish them, when everyone and their mother knew he could have turned Thales Leites and Patrick Cote into puddles of liquefied organs whenever he wanted. The zenith of Silva’s in-cage ennui came at UFC 112, when in front of a pissed off United Arab Emirates crowd, he clowned on mismatched Brazilian jiu-jitsu challenger Demain Maia for 25 minutes. UFC president Dana White was so outraged by Silva’s brass balled antics that he allegedly threatened to cut him from the promotion if he ever acted like such an 1980s movie bully again, with an immediate title defense scheduled for that August in Oakland as “punishment.”
Enter…CHAEL FREAKING SONNEN, country music listening, Republican voting, trash-talking, Olympic wrestling ass beater extraordinaire.
Now, Sonnen wasn’t really what you would have called a world class middleweight at the time the bout was announced (in fact, Sonnen had a recent submission loss to Maia, the guy that get Punk’d by Silva in his last title defense.) However, Sonnen was a solid wrestler - something that Silva really hadn’t faced during his Octagon tenure yet - and dear lord, was this Chael chap ever the world class shit talker.
For half a year, Sonnen basically did a cross-country smack talk tour, mocking Silva for speaking Portuguese and having a black belt inBrazilian jiu-jitsu under the Nogueira brothers, which he likened to receiving “afree toy in your Happy Meal.” He also said some things that some people may construe as just a little bit racist, but…I’ll let you be the judge on thatone.
So, after all of the hype, Sonnen and Silva finally met at UFC 117. Sonnen through a clumsy kick at Silva early in the bout, and had to barrel roll his way out of a face pounding within the first few moments of the fight. Apparently, this was going to be yet another one-sided ass stomping for “The Spider.”
And then, Sonnen did something that nobody anticipated - not only did he connect with a solid punch on Silva’s chin, he actually managed to drop the defending Middleweight champion. Smelling blood in the water, Sonnen pounced on Silva, taking him down over and over again. It looked like someone had finally found a way to negate Silva’s dangerous striking strategy…and now, Sonnen was on the fast track to ending the champ’s almost four year title reign.
Not only did Sonnen win the first round, he absolutely dominated it. The second round was essentially a repeat of the first, with Silva unable to land anything on Sonnen early, thus allowing the challenger to secure an easy takedown, which led to much, much ground and pound as a result. Sonnen’s strategy was extremely successful, and heading into the fifth round, the challenger was up 40-36 on just about everybody’s scorecard. Basically, all Sonnen had to do was land one more takedown, and the championship belt was his.
The fifth round begins. Silva’s looking for an absolutely essential knockout blow, and like he was a paper doll, Sonnen just drives him to the canvas. At that point, it was a one hundred percent guarantee - Chael Sonnen was just minutes away from being inaugurated as the promotion’s new Middleweight champ.
With about two minutes to go, a tired Sonnen kept dropping shots on Silva, to keep the referee from standing them up. At about the minute and a half mark, however, Silva popped Sonnen with a vicious knuckle sandwich that allowed the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt to snake his legs over Sonnen’s head and lock in an out of nowhere triangle choke, which Sonnen tapped out to with just seconds remaining in the match-up.
For 24 minutes solid, Chael Sonnen absolutely dominated Anderson Silva, beating him like a dirty rug en route to a surefire title change. But, at the last minute - and I do mean, quite literally, the absolute last minute - the crafty champ pulled one last trick out of his bag, and managed to mount not just the most amazing comeback in MMA history, but one of the most amazing feats in the history of sports. Forget about the Buffalo Bills overcoming a bajillion point deficit to beat the Houston Oilers en route to getting their asses kicked in the Super Bowl yet again - THIS is the most miraculous, improbable and unforgettable example of an athlete snatching victory out of the clutches of defeat I have ever witnessed.
An immediate rematch was supposed to go down, but Sonnen was quickly whacked with the Double Whammy of testing positive for performance enhancers AND getting indicted for mortgage fraud within a matter of weeks. With Sonnen out for a year, Silva easily vivisected challengers Yushin Okami and Vitor Belfort (two guys still considered among the greatest middleweight fighters on the planet, mind you), as he anxiously awaited his next opponent…
…who, following a mini-comeback of his own against Michael Bisping earlier this year, just so happens to be, of course, Chael friggin’ Sonnen, who roared back from his suspension talking an infinity more shit about Silva, Brazil and Portuguese speaking people than modern scientists thought was physically possible.
So, how do you follow up the most amazing championship fight in UFC history? Well, how about a championship rematch pitting the same two competitors against one another, now with a good two years of animosity behind them…and oh yeah, by putting the fight in SAO PAULO, where there is an extreme likelihood that a riot will ensue if Sonnen actually makes good on his promises to dethrone Silva?
It’s a recipe for mayhem and carnage if I’ve ever heard one…and if we’re lucky, the summer’s REAL most anticipated sequel might just end up replacing fight numero uno on a future redux of this very list.