Most unlikely UFC title challengers

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“Lucky” Lauren Murphy lived up to her nickname at UFC 266. The card featured three fights in her weight class, and I would rank Murphy fifth among those six female flyweights. Still, it was Murphy who challenged the great Valentina Shevchenko for the 125-pound crown in the main co-event. Part of this was due to the brutal dominance of Shevchenko, who had crushed the card’s second-best flyweight, Jessica Andrade, on her last outing. While I see them as superior fighters to Murphy, it makes perfect sense why neither Cynthia Calvillo nor Taila Santos received belt cracks. However, I can’t think of a single title challenger in Ultimate Fighting Championship history that was overshadowed by so many competitors at the same event. How did Murphy get this singular opportunity?

After being dominated by “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 26 rival Sijara Eubanks – she won all three rounds – in 2018, Murphy embarked on a five-game winning streak. While it looks impressive on paper, a closer inspection reveals several great qualifiers. For starters, Murphy’s “win” over Andrea Lee in front of a Houston crowd at UFC 247 was one of the worst heists I’ve seen in 26 years watching MMA. Not only

100% of MMA journalists and 93% of fans
Having it for Lee, but the most common scorecard, the one I share, was a 30-27 sweep. Regular UFC judge Chris Lee scored it for Lee, but rarely used local judges Patrick Patlan and Danny Dealejandro – he hit a putrid scorecard 30-27 for Murphy – gave it to the local fighter. It was also the infamous match in which commentator Dominick Cruz noted that a judge was looking at his phone for much of the third round.

While not so blatant, Murphy’s most recent victory over Joanne Calderwood has been a very close battle that has
a slight majority of MMA journalists and 75% of fans
scored for Calderwood. In other words, Murphy’s five-game winning streak could very easily have seen her go 3-2. Among Murphy’s three uncontroversial triumphs, she clinched a solid and respectable victory over tough veteran Roxanne Modafferi. She also won a knockout victory over Mara Romero Borella which was good at the time but has since lost some of its shine. While a capable wrestler, Borella has one of the worst chins in UFC history and a terrible submission defense. Including Murphy’s loss, Borella has now given up four fights in a row – three of them saves and the other a 15-minute one-sided beating administered by Montana De La Rosa – and finds himself out of the UFC. Murphy also earned a submission victory over Liliya Shakirova, a late substitute and limited fighter who was also overshadowed by Murphy. A whopping 125 pounds who fought most of his career at 135 pounds, Murphy looked two bigger weight classes than Shakirova, who could have even fought at 115 pounds.

So Murphy, a tough and resilient veteran who still wouldn’t rank among the top 10 female flyweights in the world, especially if you include the Bellator MMA division, had a title opportunity against a dominant grand champion in Shevchenko.

It also got me thinking: what are some other examples of unlikely UFC title challengers, MMA equivalents of Chuck wepner, the inspiration behind Rocky Balboa?

An immediate example that comes to mind is Elvis Sinosic. While he was an MMA pioneer in Australia and a cool guy in every way, the reality is that Sinosic was not an elite fighter. He ended his career with a 7-12-2 record and featured a very poor, barely existing, striking and mediocre fight; and while he relied on his Brazilian jiu-jitsu, he could be beaten and subdued by the best in the discipline. Yet at UFC 32, with a .500 4-4-1 record, he challenged one of the sport’s best pound-for-pound fighters, Tito Ortiz, for the light heavyweight championship in the main event. Ortiz made short work of his opponent, decimating him to ground-and-pound and causing a stoppage midway through the first round. How did Sinosic seize this opportunity? In his previous UFC appearance, he submitted Jeremy Horn in the first round in what was by far the biggest win of his career. In fact, it’s his one and only UFC win, as he would lose five more times in the organization after Ortiz’s fight, leaving his promotional record at an unenviable 1-6. Interestingly, there was another light heavyweight fight at UFC 32 between Vladimir Matyushenko (he would challenge and lose to Ortiz one event later) and Yuki Kondo (he had previously challenged and lost to Ortiz), who were both unquestionably superior to Sinosic.

There was a lot of justified criticism of Chael Sonnen challenging Jon Jones in the main event of UFC 159 in 2013. Sonnen was always a notable contender in the middleweight, as his last four outings there have seen his wins over Brian Stan Michael Bisping sandwiched between memorable losses to longtime champion Anderson Silva. Even so, why was he skipping the line for a 205-pound throne shot? The last time Sonnen had even fought as a light heavyweight in the UFC was in 2005, when he faced Renato Sobral at UFC 55; and it was in a wasted effort. Aside from a toe injury, Jones easily knocked out Sonnen in the first round. Plus, there were two more lightweight fights at UFC 159, and Phil Davis and Ovince St. Preux were without a doubt better than Sonnen. While St. Preux would later receive a title shot, Davis never did.

Interestingly, I wouldn’t include Matt Serra’s welterweight title at Georges St. Pierre on this list. Serra was widely regarded as a highly skilled Top 10 lightweight who was forced to fight in the heaviest division since the UFC shut down 155 pounds. Even with that caveat, he had won five of his previous six outings – these included his run in Season 4 of “The Ultimate Fighter” – and had done so mostly against good, tough opponents. The only flaw was a loss of decision to Karo Parisyan, a feared Top 5 welterweight at the time. There were six other welterweights on the card besides Serra and St. Pierre, and the undersized challenger was way better than at least four of them: Josh Haynes, protege Luke Cummo, Pete Spratt (a man Serra knocked out in the first round (“The Ultimate Fighter”) and Marcus Davis. At the very least, Serra would have delivered tough and competitive fights to the two other 170 books on the bill: the young versions of Josh Koscheck and Diego Sanchez.

And you, dear readers? What examples of highly unlikely UFC title challengers come to mind? Advertising


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