Five Greatest Career Turnarounds in MMA

Jul 7, 2008
Nothing gets boring faster than perfection, except for perhaps mediocrity. In the realm of fight sport, the sight of an athlete slipping from one into the other is often the fuel for the theater of the unexpected that MMA has become.

While seeing our favorites cast aside after one beating too many is all too common an occurrence, we do occasionally get to see the most moribund of fighters get in touch with their inner "Cinderella Man."

With both James Braddock and a certain "TUF" product in mind, we cast our sights on chronicling the five greatest career turnarounds this young sport has ever seen. So load up for a trip down memory lane and don't forget the Kleenex -- this place is gonna be Niagara Falls in a bit.

5. Akitoshi Tamura (Pictures), "Iron Ages Well"

Gatekeepers aren't supposed to rise to the top of their division, and if anyone wasn't supposed to defy the odds, it was Akitoshi "Ironman" Tamura. Not after more than a half decade spent as the Shooto lightweight division's gold standard of mediocrity -- a perception that was reinforced when then Shooto phenom Tenkei Fujimiya (Pictures) removed Tamura from the land of the mentally capable in their first go-round.

My best guess is that Tamura went on a mystical journey of self-discovery whilst knocked out and came out on the other side blessed by the Gods. How else to explain a streak in 2006-07 that saw Tamura not only get even with Fujimiya but also derail super blue-chipper Akiyo Nishiura (Pictures)?

That alone was enough to elicit a quick check of the space-time continuum. But when the "Ironman" became the Shooto lightweight champion with a shocking win over then franchise fighter "Lion" Takeshi Inoue (Pictures) in May 2007, well, more than a few of us learned to stay quiet come prediction time.

While Tamura did lose the title in a plodding match with Hideki Kadowaki (Pictures), he has rebounded with a submission win over Rumina Sato (Pictures) and remains a top contender in his division.

If any of you saw that coming, I'd tell you to quit watching MMA and head down to the racetrack pronto.

4. Matt Hughes (Pictures), "Baling Hay, MMA … Same Thing"

Guys with career 42-7 records in MMA normally aren't good candidates for a list like this, but Matt Hughes (Pictures) is not your ordinary fighter.

Just as content to spend his days working on the family farm as training in the gym, Hughes was always a successful competitor but never seemed to have the skill to crack the upper echelon of the sport. That belief gained plenty of traction when Dennis Hallman (Pictures) effortlessly tapped out Hughes for a second time in December 2000, and the final MMA literati stamp of dismissal came in February 2001 when Jose "Pele" Landi-Jons gave our favorite farm boy a custom skull inversion.

I'd like to say that Hughes dug himself out of the trenches and reworked his game to become a new fighter, but the fact is that he got by on quite a bit of luck early on.

Too many of us forget that Hughes was brought in as a last-second replacement to face freshly minted UFC welterweight champion Carlos Newton (Pictures) in November 2001 after Anderson Silva had reneged on an agreement to take the bout.

That bit of luck would have meant nothing, however, had Hughes done nothing with it. The fortuitous turn of events marked the beginning of an epic reign that saw Hughes spend most of the next five years atop MMA's toughest division.

I don't know about you, but with a story like that, I feel like I should be out baling hay instead of banging away at a keyboard.

3. Anderson Silva, "If Only Every Ballet Was Like This"

He is the sport's premier pound-for-pound fighter, a dominant force that has spent the last two years dismantling the middleweight division while stating his case for enshrinement amongst the all-time greats.

Mind you, this is the same guy who lost to Ryo Chonan (Pictures) in December 2004 via the Volk Han special. Anyone with some semblance of a long-term memory remembers the sight of Anderson "The Spider" Silva in his days under the Pride banner and the embarrassing performances that remain on his resume.

Looking more like a newborn giraffe than a spider, Silva never developed into anything more than a talented but one-dimensional striker in Pride, and the news of his UFC signing wasn't exactly front-page material.

Then came his UFC debut in June 2006, which saw him reduce Chris Leben (Pictures) to a sloppy pile of hair dye and broken dreams. That led to a hastily made middleweight title match in October 2006 with middleweight monarch Rich "Ace" Franklin.

The end result was Franklin got a rather lovely bit of rhinoplasty free of charge. An inevitable rematch in October 2007 ended with Silva yet again turning Franklin into his own personal Mr. Potato Head.

Dan Henderson (Pictures)? Same deal. Nathan Marquardt (Pictures)? Join the club. Travis Lutter (Pictures)? Try making weight next time.

If this all sounds a bit mundane to you, imagine what it must be like for Silva, who is making the bold move up to the light heavyweight division with an eye on holding titles in two divisions.

Not bad for a guy who once lost to Daiju Takase (Pictures).

2. Forrest Griffin (Pictures), "Good Losing (Is) For Dummies"

There he was, the UFC's multimillion-dollar investment and supposed future of the sport, half-knocked out and crying hysterically after taking the toughest loss of his career, a December 2006 defeat at the hands of Keith Jardine (Pictures).

That was the precise moment when many a MMA fan wrote off the star of "The Ultimate Fighter" season one, Forrest Griffin (Pictures). Hard to blame them, too, considering that made for two losses in his two most difficult UFC bouts.

While many questioned Griffin's mental resolve following that postfight breakdown, MMA's No. 1 Chuck Palahniuk aficionado put it best: "I never want to be a good loser. A good loser gets good at losing."

The only way to keep yourself from becoming a good loser is to start winning, and Griffin not only started winning, he went from reality TV poster boy to UFC champion in record time.

Not that the UFC was particularly helpful in that turnaround, considering the promotion threw its supposed golden goose to the wolves by matching him up against pound-for-pound prodigy Mauricio "Shogun" Rua in September 2007 and UFC light heavyweight champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson last Saturday night.

It wasn't until Griffin was placed in the crucible of competition that we came to realize just how lucky the UFC was to have him on board.

Of course, many will say that "Shogun" was injured when he lost to Griffin and that "Rampage" deserved to win the decision Saturday, but I feel that I deserve to be dating Scarlett Johansson.

All we know for certain is that Griffin is sitting at home right now with the UFC belt around his waist and a stack of Palahniuk books just waiting to be reread for the umpteenth time.

After going through a modern-day murderer's row, I think we can all give him a chance to catch his breath before he continues what is already a Lazarus-level resurrection.

1. Randy Couture (Pictures), "That Guy Is My Hero"

With those five words, UFC commentator Joe Rogan summed up the feelings of everyone lucky enough to be watching UFC 44 live in September 2003.

There simply is no rational response to the sight of a 40-plus-year-old man dominating a fighter in his prime, especially not in a sport where age cuts down fighters indiscriminately and without warning.

Yet, there was Couture having just pitched a shutout against UFC light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz (Pictures) and there was Joe Rogan giddy as a schoolgirl after watching one of the sport's original icons continue an improbable journey back up the proverbial mountain.

The best part is that the story just refuses to stop.

After losing both a rematch and a rubber match against Chuck Liddell (Pictures), Couture put to rest any questions about his future when he declared, "This is the last time you will see these gloves and these shorts in this Octagon."

Perhaps the Octagon in which Couture made that retirement speech was quickly thrown into an industrial wood chipper, because just barely a year later he was back in the Octagon taking on impossible odds and doing it as a heavyweight no less.

A magical run became legendary when Couture took the heavyweight title from the ever-ginormous Tim Sylvia (Pictures) in September 2007 and successfully defended it five months later against Gabriel Gonzaga (Pictures).

The only tragedy is that Couture's run has seemingly come to an end thanks to a contract dispute with the UFC. Then again, after seeing a 40-something fighter take out an entire rogue's gallery of whippersnappers, you had to figure no one was going to stop him inside the cage.

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