Renan Barao is a monster. Or so we’d been told. Going into UFC 173, the former UFC Bantamweight Champion had not lost since his professional debut fight back in 2005, 35 fights prior. And in his most recent performance, he had stopped Team Alpha Male captain Urijah Faber. The most Alpha Male them of all was TKO’d in the first round. Then comes TJ Dillashaw, promoted from Sacramento’s JV team to be the next contender and written off as a seven-to-one underdog.
But someone forgot to tell Dillashaw that he was supposed to lose. From the opening bell he dominated the fight, hurting Barao early, winning rounds, and eventually getting the TKO finish late in the final frame. It was the biggest upset in UFC title fight history, surpassing the likes of underdog champions like Matt Serra and Frankie Edgar. And this weekend we’ll get to see the two square off again – this time with Dillashaw as a slight favorite.
So in honor of TJ Dillashaw’s record breaking performance, here’s the full list of the biggest upsets in UFC title fight history. Which ones surprise you the most?
Upsets happen at a predictable rate in MMA. For more on the nuances and accuracy of historical betting odds, get the book “Fightnomics” at Amazon. Historical odds provided by 5Dimes, except for older fights when best source odds available are used.
It’s worth noting that 10 of the top 16 biggest championship upsets were finishes, something that is also true for regular (non-title) MMA fights. When a big upset happens, more often than not it’s a TKO, or submission set up by a knockdown. This is the proverbial puncher’s chance that continuously haunts the Octagon and the gamblers of the world. However, TJ Dillashaw tops the list and yet he was also clearly winning rounds before the eventual finish, making the record he now holds all the more impressive.
In the number two spot is Frankie Edgar for his (first) upset of BJ Penn at UFC 112. The betting public was so shocked by his victory that they made him a big underdog again in their rematch at UFC 118 four months later. Some guys just don’t get the respect they deserve!
Third on the list is the man most people think of when considering title fight upsets: Matt “the Terror” Serra. His TKO upset of Georges St-Pierre was at the time unprecedented, capping off an unlikely run through a veteran-based season four of the Ultimate Fighter that offered the show’s tournament winners a title shot (which remains a fantastic idea by the way whenever a champ has a long injury layoff). GSP 2.0 would return to claim his belt in the rematch, and would then go a ridiculous (and still active) 12-fight win streak. But that one night in Houston reminded everyone that no champion is invincible.
Six of the biggest title fight upsets came from a rotating cast of heavyweights involving Frank Mir, Tim Sylvia, Randy Couture, and other famous names from the UFC glory years. It seems back then that no one could hold onto a belt for very long, especially at 265 pounds.
In more recent years, Chris Weidman and Demetrious Johnson have both captured UFC belts as big underdogs. But Weidman not only upset Anderson Silva once, he did again (like Frankie Edgar) in a rematch as an underdog once more, albeit a smaller one not worthy of being on this list.
And let’s not forget Forrest Griffin, the blue collar yeoman of Ultimate Fighter Season 1 fame. His unlikely title shot came against PRIDE crossover Rampage Jackson, and took five full rounds to complete. Griffin may never have been nearly as flashy as Rampage, but the UFC Hall of Fame has rewarded Griffin’s contributions to the sport.
If we count seasons of the Ultimate Fighter as being at least an accolade of sorts, there’s been a solid share of upsets there as well. Six TUF winners overcame a betting line of +240 or more on their way to being the winner of the coveted “six figure contract.”
Apparently watching a TUF tournament isn’t a great method of research for the finals, as many of this upsets occurred in three-round decisions, though these guys certainly helped deliver surprise endings to the show. Unfortunately, history hasn’t been kind to the top winners on this list, as the top three are no longer with the UFC (although Efrain Escudero was recently brought back for the second time). Remember, in MMA, every underdog is a live one. And this time around, that means Renan Barao shouldn’t be written off too early against Dillashaw.