By now, every MMA fan is familiar with the curse surrounding Khabib Nurmagomedov VS Tony Ferguson. And at UFC 249, Justin Gaethje seems to have finally put the elusive fight to bed. Turning up on just five weeks’ notice, the Human Highlight dismantled Tony Ferguson, serving up a brutal beat-down that lasted almost a full five rounds. In doing so, Gaethje announced himself not only as a legitimate contender for Khabib’s title but as a legitimate world-class fighter.
Short notice fights of this sort are always high-risk, high-reward. And if Gaethje had lost this fight, he would likely be staring down the barrel of another long slug to the top of the division. In celebration of such high-stakes fights and the gangster attitude it takes to accept them, we’ve collated a list of the top five short notice performances in UFC history.
#5 – TJ Dillashaw VS Renan Barão UFC 173
Between 2011 and 2014, Dominick Cruz was forced out of competition due to a series of frustrating injuries. And during this time, Renan Barão rose to prominence as the UFC Bantamweight champion. After defeating Uriah Faber for a second time, Barão was set to defend his belt against rising challenger Raphael Assunção. But when Assunção was forced out due to a knee injury, the UFC pulled then prospect TJ Dillashaw out of his scheduled fight against Takeya Mizugaki to compete for the bantamweight title.
Heading into the fight on just 8 weeks’ notice, Dillashaw was a massive underdog. He was only 3 years into his UFC career, and Barão had amassed an intimidating 32-fight win streak that had him recognized as the 2nd best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet. But after dominating Barão for four rounds, TJ shocked the world when he finished the champion in the fifth, claiming UFC gold for the first time. This fight announced TJ as a real force in the world of MMA and set up the bantamweight division for an entertaining few years. It’s just a shame what happened next for TJ…
#4 – Georges St. Pierre v Matt Hughes III
After GSP lost his belt to Matt Serra at UFC 69, the new champion was set for his first championship defense against UFC Hall-of-Famer, Matt Hughes. Unfortunately, Serra suffered a herniated disc in the lead-up to the fight and was forced to pull out. This left Hughes without an opponent. But with an interim title on the line, GSP stepped forward to fight Hughes on just five weeks’ notice.
The pair had already fought twice before. Hughes had handed GSP his first loss when he armbar’d the Canadian back at UFC 50. And although GSP got his revenge at UFC 65, the trilogy had to be completed. With a win each, this high stakes rubber match was set for UFC 79. Thankfully for GSP, the gamble paid off. After some back and forth, he was able to secure an armbar in the second round, and submit one of the UFC’s greatest competitors. This fight not only saw GSP get back in the win column. It also signaled the start of his second championship reign, which eventually became the second-longest title run in UFC history.
#3 – Jon Jones VS Mauricio “Shogun” Rua UFC 128
After knocking out Lyoto Machida at UFC 113, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua was to defend his light heavyweight title against Rashad Evans at UFC 128. But less than two months before the fight, Evans announced that he would not be able to compete. Having sustained an injury to his knee, Rashad left Shogun searching for an opponent. At the same time, however, Jon Jones had just defeated the previously undefeated Ryan Bader at UFC 126. And after the fight, Jones immediately put his name forward to fight for the belt.
Jones stepped into the octagon just six weeks later, and as a serious underdog. At this point, Jones was only three years into his MMA career. And as a result, most pundits thought the challenge had simply come too soon for the young challenger. But again, the gamble paid off. To the surprise of many, Jones dominated the entirety of the fight. And in the third round, he was able to stop Shogun with a brutal body shot that saw Shogun fall and tap out. This was a special moment. It not only signaled the birth of the Jones we know today. It also saw made Jones the youngest champion in UFC history – a record that still stands today.
#2 – Nate Diaz VS Conor McGregor UFC 196
After his stunning knockout of the legendary Jose Aldo, McGregor was again looking to capture double-champ status. For his lightweight debut, the Irishman was set to challenge Rafael Dos Anjos for the championship. Unfortunately, Dos Anjos was forced to pull out just weeks before the fight with a broken foot. After a much-hyped media tour, the UFRC scrambled to find McGregor an opponent. And after his infamous call out just a few weeks earlier, the UFC drafted Nate Diaz into the competition on just 11 days’ notice.
At the time, McGregor was surrounded by an almost mythical aura. He had been riding a seemingly endless tide of momentum since his debut, and few if any gave Diaz a chance. UFC commentator Jon Anik even promised to get a 309 tattoo if the Irishman lost. But after weathering the 1st round storm, a bloodied Diaz came back strong. After rocking an exhausted McGregor, Diaz choked the Irishman out in dramatic fashion. One of the most iconic moments in recent MMA history, this shot Diaz to another level of stardom.
Nate exceeded everyone’s expectations in front of an audience that almost broke the UFC’s PPV record. Combine this with the best post-fight line in history, and Diaz has certainly earned the #2 spot on this list.
#1 – Michael Bisping VS Luke Rockhold II UFC 199
There could only be one.
After taking the Middleweight championship from Chris Weidman in brutal fashion at UFC 194, Luke Rockhold was set to defend his new belt against the former champion at UFC 199. But when Weidman pulled out of fight less than 3 weeks prior, Rockhold found himself without an opponent. Meanwhile, Michael Bisping was on set in Toronto, filming for an upcoming movie. Nevertheless, The Count jumped at the opportunity and accepted the fight on just 17 days’ notice.
Stepping into the Octagon without any kind of training camp, Bisping was a massive underdog. At the time, Rockhold was considered one of the best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet. Moreover, he had already defeated Bisping less than 2 years ago in Australia. Bisping, on the other hand, was entering the later stages of his career. And to many, it seemed like he might never get his hands on UFC gold. He had always floated around the top of the division. But having lost some important contender fights, Bisping seemed set to retire as a legend of British MMA, but not a UFC champion.
This only made the result more shocking. After a tense first-round, Bisping clipped Rockhold’s chin with a perfect left hook. The champion went down, and Bisping followed up relentlessly. When Big John McCarthy stepped in, the emotion on Bisping’s face was enough to touch even the coldest spectators. Perhaps I’m biased, being a Brit. But this KO really is one of the greatest upsets in UFC history, and one that helped earn Bisping a deserved place in the hall of fame.
Honourable Mention – Seth Petruzelli Vs Kimbo Slice
Although this fight happened outside of the UFC, I simply couldn’t bring myself to leave it off this list.
After Kimbo Slice had shot to fame with his viral street fights, Elite XC set up a fight between him and UFC legend Ken Shamrock. On the day of the fight, however, Shamrock pulled out because of a facial laceration (although shadier motivations have been suggested), and Elite XC pulled the unknown Petruzelli up from the prelims to be sacrificed live on TV in front of over 4 million people.
Everyone knew Kimbo Slice from his famous backyard scraps, but few had ever heard of Seth Petruzelli. In fact, Seth’s most significant achievement to this point was a rather lackluster appearance on the Ultimate Fighter. But when they stepped inside the cage, it took Petruzelli just 14 seconds to put Kimbo to sleep, in what is one of the most shocking results in MMA history.
Not only this, Petruzelli later revealed that Elite XC has had offered to bribe him to keep the fight standing. This, combined with a series of corruption scandals, helped drive Elite XC into bankruptcy. Petruzelli not only KO’d Kimbo Slice but destroyed an entire sporting organization on a day’s notice. Iconic.
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