Last week, we explored the unlikelihood of Brandon Moreno’s rise to the top of the UFC flyweight division. At the end of our voyage, we were left with one burning question: Just where does Brandon Moreno rank on the list of most unlikely UFC champions of all time?
To answer that question, a set of criteria was established to hold each fighter on this list to the same standard. The criteria are as follows:
25% Initial Ceiling: During the early days of the fighter’s UFC run, how unlikely were the fighter’s chances to become champion according to public perception, fight odds, etc.?
50% Adjusted Ceiling: No longer considered a newcomer, what was the likelihood of the fighter becoming champion after the public became more familiarized with them?
25% Championship Fight Expectations: What chances was the fighter given heading into their championship fight?
Given the number of champions there has been in the UFC across each of its many divisions, it was difficult to narrow it down to five. In the process of doing so, there were some notable candidates excluded from the list. Before we begin the countdown, here are two particularly noteworthy “honorable mentions” who didn’t make the cut.
Brock Lesnar is a very unique case, where to some, it would be silly to include him on the list while others might have him at #1.
For those who think he doesn’t belong anywhere near this list, they’ll no doubt point to his achievements as a wrestler…no, not as a WWE superstar known for taking foes to Suplex City, but as an NCAA Division I champion out of the University of Minnesota. Wrestling is widely considered to be the most dominant discipline of MMA, so when you consider Lesnar’s decorated wrestling background combined with his freak athleticism and sheer size, what’s unlikely about that?
While it’s easy to forget in hindsight, there were many question marks about whether or not Lesnar could be successful in the UFC, not because he lacked any athletic gifts but because he entered the company with a grand sum of one professional fight. And in his UFC debut, while impressive, Lesnar still found himself on the losing end of the fight, with Frank Mir defeating him by submission.
If I were to tell you that a fighter who was 1-1 as a professional and 0-1 in the UFC would then win the world title two fights later, you would question how in the world that is possible. And we’re not talking about the UFC tournament days, where anybody off the street could compete for the grand prize. The UFC was a state (albeit still growing) to where Lesnar’s achievement, on paper, is the most unlikely of them all based on MMA experience.
In the end, because of his physical attributes, wrestling background, the heavyweight division being narrow at the time, and most importantly, him being favored in his championship fight against Randy Couture, Brock Lesnar was kept out of the top 5.
If I presented you with a fighter lineup of 10 UFC light heavyweight champions and asked, “Who didn’t do it?” As long as Forrest Griffin is in that lineup, he’d likely be pointed to every time.
But never mind the fact that Griffin’s look is more befitting a guy to share drinks with than one expected to win a bar fight, he is someone who overachieved according to many people’s expectations. Griffin was able to win the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, but winning a reality show is one thing; winning the UFC world championship is quite another.
If you compare Griffin’s skill set with today’s UFC athletes, he may not strike most people as championship material. The same can be said for several fighters of his era, but it perhaps holds even more true for Griffin, who relied more on grit than raw talent.
It was Griffin’s toughness, brawling ability, and heart that won him the light heavyweight title more so than sheer skill. And in his fight against Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Griffin was a meaty +245 underdog, so the expectation was that Jackson would build on his six-fight winning streak and undefeated UFC record. Griffin would then prove those expectations wrong.
But upon closer inspection, Forrest Griffin didn’t make the top 5 of most unlikely champions for two reasons:
1) He got off to a strong start in the promotion, thus having a very respectable initial ceiling, and it was unclear how far he could take his career. Griffin began his UFC run by winning The Ultimate Fighter and finishing his next two opponents, making him 3-0 to kick off his UFC career.
2) Our #5 entry has a unique distinction that sets him apart from Griffin in what is a very close comparison.
#5: Brandon Moreno
The details of what makes Brandon Moreno an unlikely champion can be found in last week’s piece, so the question today is what separates him from honorable mentions like Brock Lesnar, Forrest Griffin, and others?
What sets Moreno apart is the fact that his initial ceiling was among the lowest of all past champions. Not only was Moreno picked last on The Ultimate Fighter (While Griffin won it), he also was eliminated from the tournament in his first fight. What’s more, Moreno was then cut from the UFC after only four fights.
Moreno and Griffin were roughly the same closing underdog in their first championship fight (Moreno +250, Griffin +240), but Moreno was an underdog more times on his way up than Griffin and had a lower initial ceiling, so that’s what landed him at #5 over Griffin, who was the closest honorable mention to not make the list.
#4: Jan Blachowicz
If there’s one recent champion who could give Brandon Moreno a run for his money in terms of “low initial ceiling,” it’s Jan Blachowicz. Blachowicz may not have been cut like Moreno, but he started his UFC career at 1-2 while Moreno began at 3-0. And unlike Moreno, Blachowicz would go on to lose his biggest fights in the “adjusted-ceiling period” to Alexander Gustafsson, Patrick Cummins, and a TKO loss to Thiago Santos in what was Blachowicz’s first main event. Due to these losses, Blachowicz came to be known as a gatekeeper who might not even earn a title shot after he had come up short multiple times in the past.
Meanwhile, after Brandon Moreno returned from being cut and his “initial ceiling period” elapsed, he didn’t lose a single fight. As for the championship fight expectations, the gap between Blachowicz and Moreno was small (Blachowicz +200, Moreno +250 in his first title fight against Deiveson Figueiredo, +150 in the rematch). So altogether, it was Blachowicz’s much weaker “adjusted-ceiling period” that made him a more unlikely champion than Moreno.
Jan Blachowicz’s win over Israel Adesanya cemented that he is here to stay and that there is nothing “unlikely” about his reign as champion, even if the ascent to the throne was widely unexpected. But as you’ll rediscover with our #3 entry, this list isn’t about what was done after winning the belt, only the perceived unlikelihood of the fighter claiming the championship to begin with.
#3: T.J. Dillashaw
As stated in the Jan Blachowicz entry, this list is not considering the totality of a fighter’s career. If hindsight were considered, T.J. Dillashaw obviously wouldn’t make the cut. This list is strictly about the unlikelihood of becoming champion from the moment they debuted in the UFC to the moment they won the title.
In his initial-ceiling period, Dillashaw came up short in The Ultimate Fighter 14, making him one of only two contestants who did not win the show but went on to become champion (Rose Namajunas being the other). This implanted a “not good enough” stigma for Dillashaw from the onset.
Then, after he won four fights in a row, he would lose to his toughest opponent up to that point, Raphael Assuncao, further driving home the notion that this kid from Colorado didn’t have what it takes to climb the biggest mountains.
There was only other win for Dillashaw between the Assuncao loss and his title win, so his “adjusted-ceiling period” was never really strong, as evident in the odds of his first title fight. And those odds are the main reason why Dillashaw comes in at #3 on this list.
In 2015, Renan Barão was on an insane 32-fight unbeaten streak that spanned nearly a decade and was 7-0 in the UFC with the majority of his wins being finishes. In fact, UFC President Dana White hailed Barão as the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world during a time in which a man by the name of “Jon Jones” was dominating the light heavyweight division in his prime. With all this in mind, Dillashaw was listed as an ultra-high +675 underdog, with Barão a monstrous -1000 favorite.
Considering the early shortcomings during his initial ceiling period, the small sample size of his adjusted-ceiling period, and the massive odds against him in his championship fight, Dillashaw just barely missed out on the #2 spot and fell at #3 instead.
#2: Michael Bisping
Michael Bisping definitely is not the most unlikely UFC champion of all time because he has too many wins to be. At the time of winning the middleweight title, Bisping already had racked up 19 wins, which today would have him tied for 7th all time.
This doesn’t make you exempt from being an unlikely champion, though. After all, other names near the top of the most wins list like Diego Sanchez, Jim Miller, and even Donald Cerrone would also be unlikely champions. However, this fat stack of wins is more than the #1 entry can say for himself but not enough to make Bisping less unlikely than all other champions in UFC history.
Michael Bisping’s initial ceiling was solid yet speculative. It was always clear that he could beat up-and-comers, average fighters, and any competitor not on the championship level. But most of his initial ceiling revolved around a wait-and-see approach. He wasn’t written off yet he wasn’t hailed as a future champion in the making, as his odds history reflects.
So what makes Bisping the second most unlikely champion of all time are his adjusted-ceiling period and the expectations placed upon him heading into his championship fight.
During his adjusted-ceiling period, Bisping consistently came up short in his biggest fights and against his toughest opponents: Rashad Evans, Dan Henderson, Wanderlei Silva, Chael Sonnen, Vitor Belfort, Tim Kennedy, and Luke Rockhold. To that point, each of those men were considered Bisping’s toughest opponents, and he lost to every one of them.
Prior to his title shot, Bisping did win three straight, including the post-leg-injury version of Anderson Silva, so he came into his title fight with momentum. But despite that moment, Bisping was listed as a huge +500 underdog at UFC 199, with Luke Rockhold a +800 favorite. Then, Bisping shocked the world by knocking out Rockhold in the very first round.
There are four reasons why Bisping is placed over Dillashaw on this list:
- Bisping’s age/wear and tear
- Bisping overwhelming sample size of losing in big fights
- The fact that he had already lost to Luke Rockhold
- The fact that the championship fight was on less than two weeks’ notice, with Bisping not being the naturally selected title challenger
Bisping’s status as an unlikely UFC champion is unquestionable and as solid as it gets. And there’s only one man whose championship win was more improabable at the time of claiming the title.
#1: Matt Serra
For historians and long-time fans of the UFC, this entry was pretty predictable. Matt Serra checks all the boxes of the criteria provided.
His initial ceiling is that of a mediocre fighter who began his UFC career with a 2-3 record. His adjusted ceiling is that of a confirmed journeyman who had a dead average record of 4-4 heading into the fourth season of The Ultimate Fighter. This season was literally devoted to underdogs, fighters who were experienced in the UFC but had yet to sniff championship gold. And his championship-fight expectations remain, to this day, to have been as low as it gets.
At UFC 69, a fighter who was 5-4 in the UFC took on a man who was considered arguably the best fighter in the world and today regarded by many to be the greatest of all time. The odds certainly reflected what Serra was up against, with St-Pierre coming in as a ginormous -1300 favorite. This makes Serra a larger underdog than any other fighter on this list. Serra pulled off the shocking upset, which is still considered by many, if not most, to be the biggest upset in the history of the UFC.
Based on the criteria provided, it’s hard to argue Serra’s placement at #1. Even if there were a fighter who had less overall talent than Serra, they may have lacked the same low sample size in the adjusted-ceiling period or comparable gigantic underdog odds in their championship fight. So while predictable, in keeping things honest, Matt Serra is a no-brainer as the most unlikely UFC champion of all time.
What do you think of this list? Is it accurate? If not, what changes would you make?