Last week at Madison Square Garden something happened for the first time in UFC history. No, not Conor McGregor capturing his second UFC title. Well, that did happen, but everyone already knew that storyline. For the first time in UFC history, two champions were betting underdogs while defending their belts on the same card. Eddie Alvarez closed as a +140 underdog (+145 on the reduced lines at Several Bookmakers) to Conor McGregor in his unsuccessful main event title defense at UFC 205.
The reigning featherweight champion had the measure of Alvarez from the opening bell, landing several hard left hands that floored the “larger” champion in the opening round. Things got even worse for Alvarez in the second round, and a third knockdown for McGregor spelled the end, crowning him champion in his second division. It was very nearly the second time McGregor was the favored fighter while challenging an incumbent champion for their belt. Back at UFC 194, he closed a very slight underdog to Jose Aldo after sitting as the betting favorite during the majority of the pre-fight build. In the co-main event, welterweight champion Tyron Woodley was also looking to make the first defense of his title. While he didn’t get the victory over Stephen Thompson, he still managed to retain his title after their five round majority draw. Most seemed to think the unorthodox striking of Thompson would be able to put Woodley away, and that’s the biggest reason Woodley closed as a +160 underdog (+167 reduced). It was actually Woodley landing the bigger shots and having the more emphatic moments during the bout, even if Thompson seemed to control a bit more of the action.
This anomaly raised the question in my mind of how often UFC champions enter title defenses as underdogs. There were a few instances that I could instantly point to where the title challenger was favored heading into the bout (Jon Jones against ‘Shogun’ Rua at UFC 128 was the first that came to mind), but digging a bit deeper I was only able to muster 12 instances where a champion has been an underdog while defending their belt in the past ten years.* Only two fighters have been an underdog more than once as a champion, and it should come as no surprise that both are viewed as perennial underdogs. Randy Couture was the dog to both Gabriel Gonzaga at UFC 74 in a successful defense, and Brock Lesnar at UFC 91 where he dropped the belt. Frankie Edgar holds the same distinction as Couture, having been an underdog to BJ Penn in their UFC 118 rematch and against Gray Maynard in his next outing at UFC 125. The difference between the two is that Edgar is the only fighter in history to retain his belt in more than one instance as a champion dog. Interestingly, underdog champions have managed to retain their belt in seven of these twelve occurrences.
The choice of words there is intentional as well, since there have actually been two draws resulting in retention’s amongst those twelve fights (Edgar/Maynard at UFC 125 and Woodley/Thompson at UFC 205). Removing those from the equation, the champions and challengers have split the remaining ten bouts five a piece. From a betting perspective, if you put one unit on each champion underdog dating back to Couture at UFC 74, you would have profited +2.93 units. That’s a 24.42% return on investment (albeit on a minuscule sample size).
It also seems that it’s more common for a champion to end up an underdog in a rematch. Four of the twelve cases of this phenomenon occurring have been in rematches (Edgar/Penn, Edgar/Maynard, Benson Henderson vs. Anthony Pettis at UFC 164, and Chris Weidman vs. Anderson Silva at UFC 168). This almost always seems to come back to the perception of the first fight. Very few people thought Edgar actually defeated Penn in their original meeting at UFC 112, while he did actually lose to Maynard earlier in his career. Henderson lost to Pettis in their legendary WEC 53 encounter, and Weidman’s first victory over Silva was panned by many as a fluke result against an unfocused champion. The underdog champion has retained in three of those bouts, with Henderson as the slightest underdog (+100) being the only one to drop his belt. In the coming months, there is one fight that will almost certainly be added to this list. Women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes is currently at +145 dog to Ronda Rousey (-165). Unless a rash of money comes in on the champion, this fight will be added to the list following UFC 207 on December 30th.
There are also some hypothetical examples that could add to this list. Should Jon Jones return to face Daniel Cormier or Anthony Johnson, he will almost certainly be favored. That would make him the only fighter to find himself as a chalk challenger twice (and could add another rematch to the list if Cormier retains the belt). When Woodley and Thompson run back their UFC 205 affair the line will likely be closer, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see Woodley added to this list for a second time (in another rematch). The heavyweight division could also be added to the list for the third time if Cain Velasquez defeats Fabricio Werdum at UFC 207 and goes on to face Stipe Miocic. Finally, Yoel Romero seems next in line to get a middleweight title shot against champion Michael Bisping. Should that come to fruition, not only will Bisping be the underdog, but he will likely set the record as the largest champion underdog in history. Currently, that record is held by Frankie Edgar, who was a +248 dog to BJ Penn at their UFC 118 rematch. Bisping could close in excess of +400 against Romero. There’s no real trend to speak of when it comes to champions being betting underdogs, but it certainly is an interesting storyline in the rare instances it happens. It was also another way that UFC 205 was a history-making event.
The full list of champion underdogs can be seen below (if I’ve missed one, by all means let me know), and all lines are courtesy of Several Bookmakers: