As a fan of MMA, there’s nothing better than seeing a fighter make a miraculous comeback in the cage. Whether it’s roaring back from a couple of rounds in the hole, or somehow pulling themselves off the mat after a devastating knockdown, there’s something visceral about a stunning comeback that just resonates with the fan like little else.
Over the 25 years that the UFC has been in existence we’ve seen tons of great comebacks – right from the early events with the classic Royce Gracie vs. Kimo Leopoldo battle, though to more recent ones like Robbie Lawler’s wild victory over Rory MacDonald or Brock Lesnar’s second-round resurgence against Shane Carwin.
None of those three have made this list, though – showing how many great comebacks have taken place inside the Octagon. In my mind here are the greatest 10 comebacks in UFC history.
#10 Donald Cerrone vs. Melvin Guillard, UFC 150
Despite his reputation as one of the most exciting fighters in the UFC, Donald Cerrone’s never been known as a quick starter in fights and often that tendency has seen him give early rounds away to his opponent. When he fought the explosive Melvin Guillard at UFC 150 in 2012, that tendency nearly lead him to give the entire fight away.
Guillard – a former training partner and friend of Cerrone – clearly had no intention of letting the fight go long, and so he came roaring out of the gates and cracked ‘Cowboy’ with a huge left hook that appeared to have Cerrone on the ropes. Not allowing him to recover, Guillard flurried on his opponent with some huge strikes and another left seemed to be enough to put Cerrone away, but somehow Cowboy bit down on his mouthpiece and survived.
Seconds later, the fight was over – but not in the favour of Guillard. Cowboy caught him out of nowhere with a left head kick that froze him in his tracks, and then followed up with a huge right hand that sent Guillard down and out. No follow-up strikes were needed, as Cerrone had completed one of the all-time great UFC comebacks – from the verge of defeat right into a wild victory.
#9 Tim Boetsch vs. Yushin Okami, UFC 144
UFC 144 was the first UFC show to hit Japan in years, and Japanese Middleweight Yushin Okami was looking likely to pick up a victory in front of his countrymen. Faced with journeyman Tim Boetsch, longtime title contender Okami had comfortably won the first two rounds of the fight, firstly by using his superior boxing to outstrike Boetsch and then in the second round, easily out grappling him too.
It looked like Boetsch simply had no path to victory, but evidently, he listened to his corner’s advice, which was simply to throw caution to the wind in the third round and risk being finished in an effort to take out Okami first, as a loss was the likely outcome anyway. And so rather than stand at the end of Okami’s jab, Boetsch simply waded through the offense to land some clubbing blows.
Okami was clearly rattled and Boetsch sensed the comeback, landing punches inside before securing a clinch to deliver a series of thudding uppercuts. Suddenly the tide turned, Okami went down and was unable to get back up, and on commentary, Joe Rogan practically had a heart attack over one of the craziest comebacks he’d ever seen – and so Boetsch punched his ticket into the top ten of the division.
#8 Travis Browne vs. Alistair Overeem, UFC Fight Night 26
After an upset loss to Antonio Silva, Alistair Overeem was looking to bounce back at UFC Fight Night 26 by taking out rising contender Travis Browne. And early on, it looked like he’d make good on that plan. Giving up some height to Browne, Overeem managed to close the distance and attacked Browne with a series of knees to the body that had the Hawaiian doubled over in agony.
Overeem followed with a barrage of punches and more knees, and it looked for a second like the fight was about to be stopped. Perhaps it should’ve been, in fact. But the referee let it continue and somehow, Browne crawled out of danger and got back to his feet. And suddenly, Overeem was the one on the defensive, sucking wind as he’d seemingly unloaded everything he had already.
And so despite still being rattled, Browne went on the offensive. He fired a front kick to the body of Overeem, and a second one glanced off the Dutchman’s jaw. A third kick landed flush and suddenly Overeem was down. And where Browne was able to recover, the Reem simply wasn’t – and the Hawaiian had completed an improbable comeback from the verge of being stopped.
#7 Darren Elkins vs. Mirsad Bektic, UFC 209
One of the very best at taking a beating and somehow carrying on, at UFC 209 Darren Elkins made a comeback that seemed impossible even by his standards by roaring back from two rounds in the hole to defeat uber-prospect Mirsad Bektic by third-round TKO. He was battered and bloody, but somehow never beaten.
The first round in particular went terribly for Elkins – he was being lit up on the feet before Bektic took him down and simply punished him from the top position, busting him wide open and having him close to being finished on a couple of occasions. The second round wasn’t much better but by the third, having been unable to take Elkins out, Bektic began to tire.
And so Elkins began to come back slowly, gaining some positional advantages, before he threw caution to the wind. Grabbing a rear waistlock out of a scramble, Elkins landed a pair of big right hands before following with a head kick that sent Bektic crashing down. His primal roar post-fight said it all – this was a man who would never give up no matter how bad things got, meaning a comeback was always possible.
#6 Mike Russow vs. Todd Duffee, UFC 114
In terms of visuals alone, the fight between Mike Russow and Todd Duffee was a mismatch. Both men weighed the same – 253lbs – but Duffee was 253lbs of solid muscle, looking like he’d been carved from granite, while Russow was a flabby guy who looked like he may have trained twice a week. And in the first two rounds, the visual mismatch looked like a reality.
Duffee simply threw everything he had at Russow and beat him from pillar to post. How Russow was still standing after such an onslaught was anyone’s guess – but it only looked like a matter of time before Duffee finished him off, and even if he couldn’t, he would surely take a lopsided decision given Russow had barely done a thing.
By the third round though, Duffee began to slow down – there’s only so many times you can hit a guy I guess – and somehow Russow caught him cleanly with a right hand, sending him to the ground, and a strange soft hammer fist sealed the deal. It was the UFC’s equivalent of Homer Simpson’s famous boxing matches – a truly classic and hilarious comeback, unfortunately for Duffee.
#5 Scott Smith vs. Pete Sell, The Ultimate Fighter IV Finale
Teammates on the 4th season of The Ultimate Fighter, Scott Smith and Pete Sell were booked against each other on the undercard of the finale show and were already looking to have an instant classic fight. Both men threw caution to the wind and decided to go toe-to-toe, with Sell being knocked down by a Smith left hand in the opening round.
By the second round it was clear that someone was being knocked out, and for a moment, it looked like Smith. Sell began to get the better of the exchanges, and then caught Smith with a nasty left hook to the body. Smith doubled over in pain and stumbled backwards, but as Sell smelt blood and charged in for the finish, ‘Hands of Steel’ uncorked the one punch he had left – a huge right hand.
The punch caught the onrushing Sell cleanly and knocked him down, and Smith collapsed onto him to add one more right hand to seal the deal – before rolling around in agony due to the prior body shot. It was one of the greatest comebacks in UFC history and it taught everyone a valuable lesson – don’t leave yourself open to a shot, even if it looks like your opponent is done.
#4 Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard, UFC 136
In their second meeting at UFC 125, Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard went to war over the Lightweight title, and if that fight had gone to Edgar rather than it being a draw, it might’ve ended up on this list in its own right as Edgar came back from a horrendous beating in the first round to take enough points on the scorecards to prevent Maynard from winning his title.
A rematch was scheduled for UFC 136 a few months later and early on, things looked just as bad for Edgar as they had in the prior fight. Maynard dropped him with a huge uppercut in the first round and then went to town, landing more punches and a flying knee, dropping Edgar numerous times and busting his nose up. How Edgar survived the round was a mystery, but survive he did, and somehow he began to come back in the second and third rounds.
By the fourth, it was clear that Maynard had probably emptied his tank in pursuit of the finish in the first round. Edgar was bloodied and battered, but not beaten, and managed to land a huge uppercut of his own that hurt the challenger before dropping him with a pair of right hooks. Maynard was done and Edgar had retained his title in the most dramatic fashion possible – with a wild comeback straight out of a Rocky movie.
#3 Cheick Kongo vs. Pat Barry, UFC on Versus 4
Despite a bunch of fights that largely involved him doing little more than clinching and landing knees to his opponent’s body – and groin – Cheick Kongo somehow garnered a reputation as an exciting fighter in the UFC. Most of it was probably down to this classic comeback that saw him rise up from the dead to knock out fellow striker Pat Barry in the main event of UFC on Versus 4.
The fight was moved to the main event after the loss of Nate Marquardt vs. Rick Story because it promised action, and boy did it deliver. Within a minute or so Barry had Kongo on the verge of being stopped, as he countered a low kick with a right hand that dropped the Frenchman. When Kongo got to his feet, Barry knocked him down a second time and surely the fight was over, but not so. Kongo somehow willed himself up, sliding around like a drunkard on ice.
Barry decided to go for the kill, but as he closed in he forgot the most important thing about MMA – always defend yourself – and walked directly into a pair of right hands that turned out his lights and sent him down, stiff as a corpse. Kongo was still so wobbly that he practically collapsed onto Barry to land a follow-up shot. It was perhaps the wildest one-round fight in UFC history – and definitely one of the best comebacks.
#2 Matt Hughes vs. Frank Trigg, UFC 52
This was the fight that put Matt Hughes over as a true UFC superstar, and it’s also UFC President Dana White’s favorite of all time. Welterweight champion Hughes and challenger Trigg had engaged in a war of words prior to this fight, but when it came down to it, it looked like it would be Trigg who would come out on top.
He landed a low blow to Hughes early in the fight that went unnoticed by referee Mario Yamasaki, and then dropped the champion with a follow-up combination. With Hughes on Dream Street, Trigg dropped into full mount and pounded away before taking Hughes’s back. A rear naked choke followed and Hughes’s face began to turn purple, but somehow the champion fought out of the hold and found himself on top.
From there he scooped Trigg up into the air and delivered a running bodyslam, before mounting the challenger to return the favour. And when Trigg turned his back, Hughes succeeded where his opponent had failed, locking up a fight-ending rear naked choke and forcing Trigg to submit. It was an incredible comeback from one of the greatest champions in UFC history, and remains on the UFC’s opening highlight reel to this day.
#1 Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen, UFC 117
By the time UFC 117 came around, Anderson Silva was already widely recognized as the top pound-for-pound fighter in the UFC and he’d already made six successful defenses of his Middleweight title. When challenger Chael Sonnen promised to “swing the hammer” in a “one-sided pounding” it seemed like a load of hot air. But when it came to fighting time, it turned out that Sonnen was deadly serious.
He landed huge punches standing that had the Brazilian champion in a ton of trouble, and also took Silva down at will, where he simply beat the hell out of him for four straight rounds. Silva used some elbows to open a cut on the challenger but going into the final round, it had been a one-sided fight and nobody was under any illusion as to who was winning. Silva had simply never been dominated in this fashion before.
With about two minutes remaining it looked like Silva’s title was slipping away – but somehow, he managed to throw up his legs and lock up a triangle choke from the bottom. Sonnen fought but it was too late, and he had to tap out – snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in a truly jaw-dropping moment. Due to the punishment he’d taken and the incredibly high stakes, Silva’s comeback remains the greatest in UFC history.