Michael “The Count” Bisping’s stirring victory at UFC 199 over nemesis (well, one of many) Luke Rockhold was the perfect way to open a new chapter in the long, storied rollercoaster of a UFC career enjoyed and endured by the British middleweight.
Bisping had fallen at the last hurdle on multiple occasions, losing in a series of bouts for number one contendership status with the carrot of title shot promises dangled in front of him—Vitor Belfort, Chael Sonnen and Dan Henderson being the main names to have stood in the Clitheroe, Lancashire, native’s way.
There’s a laundry list of reasons why Bisping’s middleweight title is novel and unexpected, but on the eve of his first championship defense, one particular statistic sticks out to us here at Fightland: Michael Bisping is the fifth winner of The Ultimate Fighter to have held UFC gold (He won season 3 back in 2006). And none of the four previous winners—Matt Serra, Forrest Griffin, Rashad Evans or Carla Esparza—have ever successfully defended their belt.
On Saturday, Bisping gets his chance to buck that trend as well as the opportunity to exact revenge on perhaps his biggest foe of all in a rematch against Dan Henderson at UFC 204 in Manchester, England. Here’s how his fellow TUF alum fell short after winning their UFC titles.
New York’s own Matt “The Terror” Serra’s UFC story is arguably even more fascinating and tumultuous than Bisping’s—and that takes some doing.
A gifted, high-level Brazilian jiu-jitsu blackbelt under Renzo Gracie, Serra fought the majority of his career as an undersized welterweight standing in at 5’6”. But, what he lacked in stature he more than made up for in heart and classic Long Island toughness.
Serra’s UFC debut was one to remember for all the wrong reasons, having been caught and subsequently knocked out by the spinning back fist of the madcap Shonie Carter. He then traded wins and losses to top names of the time such as BJ Penn, Karo Parisyan, Yves Edwards and Din Thomas.
Following the Parisyan loss, Serra was offered the chance to appear as a participant on the fourth season of The Ultimate Fighter—which pitted current and former UFC fighters against each other with the promise of a title shot to be rewarded to the show’s welterweight and middleweight winners.
On the show, Serra defeated seasoned pro Pete Spratt and avenged his defeat to Shonie Carter on his course to the final—a contest against the durable Chris Lytle. On November 11th, 2006, Serra won a highly-contested split decision over Lytle, earning himself a bumper contract, a sponsorship deal with Xyience and, more importantly, a crack at the UFC welterweight king Georges St-Pierre.
At UFC 69, Serra took his opportunity to shock the world and dethroned St-Pierre of his UFC welterweight title by TKO inside the first round. Considered one of the biggest upsets in MMA history, Serra landed a right hand early to stagger the French-Canadian, before hunting his foe down to land a series of further punches and finishing a grounded St-Pierre off with a final flurry to live his own Rocky story.
Serra wanted to make the first defence of his belt against former welterweight champion and long-time enemy Matt Hughes. They both coached opposing teams on The Ultimate Fighter season 6 with a view to face off for Serra’s newly-minted title at the conclusion of the series at UFC 79. However, Serra was forced to withdraw from his dream fight thanks to a herniated disc in his back. As a result, St-Pierre stepped in to face Hughes for the interim UFC welterweight title and won, meaning Serra would then have to defend his belt against St-Pierre instead of Hughes.
The lead-up to the rematch between Serra and St-Pierre was a tad fiery, with Serra branding his opponent as “Frenchy” in a hurried riposte to some flak being sent his way from St-Pierre’s adoring fans from Quebec, Canada. This drew a lot of unwanted heat and, unfortunately for Serra, UFC 83 was to be the first ever UFC show to take place in Canada—in St-Pierre’s home city of Montreal, to be exact.
The Bell Centre was a cacophony of noise that night, as the passionate Montreal crowd willed their boy on to win against that day’s enemy in Serra. St-Pierre didn’t leave anything to chance that night, opting to press the action and take Serra down to not allow him to mount any significant offense of his own. A dull yet dominant first round saw St-Pierre control the fight to his liking and the second stanza wasn’t much different. Eventually, Serra crumbled under St-Pierre’s pressure and he found himself forced into the turtle position. St-Pierre saw this as an opportunity to throw a number of vicious knees to the body of the defenceless Serra and referee Yves Lavigne was forced to call off the fight.
Serra had his fairytale moment come to fruition back at UFC 69. But, he lost his title back to St-Pierre in one of the most disappointing and frustrating ways possible.
Forrest Griffin made his name in the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter and helped build the UFC’s brand in the process thanks to his early exploits in the Octagon.
Griffin had to be persuaded to join the show by UFC president Dana White after accepting a role with his local sheriff’s department in Georgia. It proved to be a good decision—Griffin eased his way into the season finale by defeating Alex Schoenauer by submission to strikes just 80 seconds into the fight, before beating Sam Hoger by TKO 65 seconds into the second round to etch his name in the light heavyweight final.
The final saw Griffin pitted against Stephan Bonnar and it was a fight which certainly drew plenty of attention to both men. Since credited as “the most important fight in UFC history” by Dana White, the TUF finale helped the flagging MMA promotion attract viewers from all corners of the USA and instantly boosted the UFC’s health. It’s no wonder why: Griffin vs. Bonnar I was a hugely entertaining, yet considerably sloppy, bar brawl in the middle of a cage. It was a close fight, but Griffin won a unanimous decision and plenty of fans in doing so.
With a UFC contract locked in, Griffin fought and beat names such as Elvis Sinosic, Bill Mahood, Hector Ramirez and old adversary Bonnar for a second time with another unanimous decision win, as well as losing to a giant name in Tito Ortiz by split decision before being TKO’d by the unorthodox Keith Jardine.
However, Griffin’s spot as a popular mid-card fighter was soon about to change. After his win over Ramirez at UFC 72, Griffin was positioned to fight against new Pride FC signing Mauricio “Shogun” Rua for his first ever UFC bout at UFC 76. At the time, Shogun was rated as the world’s number one light heavyweight fighter by most MMA publications, having won the Pride Middleweight Grand Prix two years previous. A massive underdog, Griffin hung in there with Shogun while both men traded blows on the feet and shared plenty of scrambles on the mat. But, to the surprise of most, Griffin had Shogun in all sorts of bother before singing in a rear naked choke with just 15 seconds of the fight remaining—a victory which was later named the 2007 Upset of the Year by the UFC.
Griffin’s surprise win was rewarded with a title shot against Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and, you guessed it, a coaching spot on season seven of The Ultimate Fighter. Unlike the previous season that of Serra vs Hughes, both men managed to stay healthy and competed in their slated title fight at UFC 86 on July 5th, 2008.
Once again, Griffin found himself coming into a fight as the underdog. This underdog status appeared accurate as Rampage floored Griffin in the opening minutes with a slick uppercut. But, Griffin’s heart saw him regain composure and eventually instil his will and pace on the fight—a pace Rampage simply couldn’t handle. Griffin’s output was impressive and he troubled Rampage with a series of unchecked leg kicks in the second round, a tactic he employed from there on in as Rampage was left hobbling. The remaining three rounds were close. But, in a closely contested back-and-forth contest, one deemed Fight of the Night by the UFC, Griffin was ultimately given the nod and was awarded a unanimous decision victory and thus the UFC light heavyweight championship.
Then came the title defense against the undefeated Rashad Evans, just fresh from inflicting one of the UFC’s most devastating knockouts ever on former light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell. In the fight’s first two rounds, Griffin took a leaf from his own book and employed a similar, smart strategy to what he had used against Rampage Jackson in his previous bout—plenty of output with pawing jabs, swift leg kicks and movement.
Controlling the first ten minutes with relative ease, you would be forgiven for thinking the result of the fight looked to be in Griffin’s hands just two rounds in. However, a labored kick thrown by Griffin was caught by Evans and the latter landed a short right straight to send Griffin crashing down to the canvas. Staying inside the guard of Griffin, Evans landed a string of vicious ground and pound strikes and the fight was soon called off. Evans earned a TKO win almost three minutes into the third frame and the TUF championship curse was continued.
You may have deduced by now that Evans was a winner of The Ultimate Fighter himself as mentioned earlier on in this piece—and latterly the conqueror of Griffin. I won’t drone on about how he won the belt again.
Fighting as an undersized heavyweight on season two of The Ultimate Fighter, Evans defeated the giant Brad Imes to take home the crown as the series’ winner after beating Tom Murphy, Mike Whitehead and Keith Jardine while staying in the house in Las Vegas, Nevada. After TUF and before his aforementioned fight against Griffin, Evans drew to Tito Ortiz but took out the likes of Michael Bisping, Stephan Bonnar and both Chuck Liddell and Sean Salmon with two devastating knockouts.
Named as Sherdog’s Fighter of the Year in 2008, Evans was hoping to have a similarly successful year in 2009—a year which would see his first title defence to the streaking Lyoto Machida. The karate stylings of Brazilian martial artist Machida had bamboozled a string of fighters while on course to earning his UFC title shot and, unfortunately for him, Evans was no different.
Following a cagey opening round, Machida landed a straight left before unloading one of his typical flurries that had Evans in a whole lot of bother roughly three minutes into the second round. Evans had somewhat recovered, gathering his bearings to get back up to his feet. However, Machida was relentless and landed another left straight in amongst his usual frenzy—a shot which totally folded Evans to hand him the first loss of his MMA career which, ultimately, cost him his title.
At the beginning of 2013, Esparza beat Aussie scrapper “Rowdy” Bec Rawlings to become Invicta FC’s first ever strawweight champion. She never got to defend that belt as a string of injuries to Esparza and her opponents put title defences on hold against the likes of Claudia Gadelha and Japanese fighter Ayaka Hamasaki.
Then the UFC decided to introduce its own 115lbs strawweight division with the inaugural champion crowned through The Ultimate Fighter. The UFC signed Esparza to the show along with 10 others from the Invicta stable and, as the existing champion from the latter promotion, Esparza was ranked as the top seed in this season’s tournament bracket.
On her route to the final, Esparza submitted Angela Hill and won decisions over Tecia Torres and Jessica Penne. Esparza’s role as the season’s top seed seemed justified as she dominated the impressive Rose Namajunas in the TUF season finale to win the inaugural UFC strawweight championship. Esparza controlled every aspect of the fight, taking Namajunas down at will and landing plenty of ground strikes to comfortably take the first two rounds. In the third round, Esparza managed to secure a rear naked choke and forced Namajunas to tap in the opening minutes of the third round. Respected fight journalist Kevin Iole noted at the time: "Namajunas tapped at 1:26 of the third round, but the fight was over long before that. Esparza was too strong, too smart and simply too good for the far less experienced Namajunas. Esparza dominated her three fights on the reality show and was no less dominant on Saturday. There is clearly a gap between Esparza and the next level of challengers".
The common consensus of the time was Esparza would remain champion for the foreseeable future as it was thought that Esparza had easily dispatched of all the strawweight division’s best within season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter. In Esparza’s first title defence, she took on Polish striker Joanna Jedrzejczyk, who had just come off an unimpressive and controversial split decision win over Claudia Gadelha.
Jedrzejczyk, however, looked like a totally different woman from her previous fight and simply blew right through Esparza to win the UFC strawweight title. Esparza, who is perhaps overly dependent on her wrestling proficiency, failed to take Jedrzejczyk down and paid for it. Jedrzejczyk, a former world champion in both kickboxing and Muay Thai, had her way with Esparza and beat her to a pulp for the majority of the first round in between comfortably stuffing her opponent’s takedowns.
The second round was a carbon copy of the first. Bereft of ideas, Esparza continually attempted to take Jedrzejczyk down, but it wasn’t happening. Jedrzejczyk continued her striking onslaught with a string of neat combinations and eventually had Esparza against the cage. A final salvo of flurried punches saw Jedrzejczyk earn a TKO win and the 115lbs title and continue the streak of TUF winners failing to defend their world titles.
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