4. Mauricio “Shogun” Rua
Heading into his fight with Forrest Griffin at UFC 76, Rua was 16-2 and considered the best light heavyweight in the world. That night, “The Original Ultimate Fighter” scored an upset win over “Shogun,” forcing him to tap in the final round to a rear-naked choke.
Rua would be out of action for the next 16 months, recovering from various injuries, including surgery on his knee. Though he won his return bout against Mark Coleman at UFC 93, it was a tepid affair where both men were exhausted by the time the end finally came in the third round.
Rua followed up his victory over Coleman with a knockout win over Chuck Liddell at UFC 97. Then came the unexpected.
Ten months after looking like he needed a ventilator against Coleman, Rua faced light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida, and looked to have brought “The Machida Era” to a close just five months after it started. The former Pride standout appeared to get the better of the champion over five close rounds, but Machida was awarded the decision and retained his title.
An immediate rematch was put together, and Rua made sure to seal the deal this time. He blitzed Machida midway through the opening round, dropping the champion and claiming the title as his own.
Almost three years after the UFC first told their fans he was the top 205 pound fighter in the world, Rua fought his way into that position.
3. Tito Ortiz
What can you say about Ortiz’s surprise submission win over Bader last weekend at UFC 132? There are so many elements that make it even more unexpected when you really get into it.
The last time Ortiz had submitted anyone was December 2000 when he forced Yuki Kondo to tap to a neck crank. Read that last sentence again and you’ll understand why Saturday’s Submission of the Night was so out of the blue.
Then there are the facts everyone heard ad nauseum in the build-up to the bout itself: 0-4-1 in his last five fights, no wins since 2006, his last two victories coming over Ken Shamrock.
Even if your sentimental heart was pulling for Ortiz, few thought “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” was actually going to walk out of the MGM Grand Garden Arena with a place on the UFC roster. Not only did he remain employed and become the feel good story of the event, but Ortiz also earned himself a place in the pantheon of great career comebacks inside the cage.
2. Frank Mir
The former UFC heavyweight champion is already viewed as one of the top heavyweights in UFC history. Who knows how far up that list he would be if not for the motorcycle accident?
Three months after breaking Tim Sylvia’s arm to claim the heavyweight title, Mir was involved in a horrific accident. His leg was broken, his knee was shredded and his career was in jeopardy. After a lengthy recovery period, Mir returned to the cage, going 1-2 through his first three fights and looking nothing like the man who competed prior to the accident.
While he proclaimed his return following his win over Antoni Hardonk at UFC 74, it was Mir’s victory over the debuting Lesnar that really marked his return. He caught the hulking heavyweight with a kneebar, propelling himself into a coaching position on The Ultimate Fighter, and eventually defeated fellow coach Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira to claim the interim heavyweight title in December 2008.
Though he eventually lost a rematch with Lesnar, Mir remains one of the top heavyweights in the UFC and a perennial title contender.
1. Randy Couture
Who else would top this list?
On February 4, 2006, Couture announced his retirement from the sport after losing to long-time rival Chuck Liddell. A year later, not only did the 44-year-old Couture return, but he came back to face heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia… and demolished him.
Eight seconds into the bout, you knew you were watching something special. Couture’s first punch sent the mammoth heavyweight champion crashing to the canvas, en route to a unanimous decision win.
Though his final record doesn’t look all that impressive when you look at only the wins (19) and losses (11), Couture’s place in this sport and standing as one of the all-time greats transcends those numbers. It lives in upset of Liddell at UFC 43, his literal spanking of Ortiz three months later, and in this performance against Sylvia.