Sherdog’s 2019 Upset of the Year

By: Brian Knapp
Jan 3, 2020

One side brought style to the table, the other substance. Those were the key ingredients in the 2019 “Upset of the Year.”

Former CageSport MMA champion Tristan Connelly crashed the proverbial party in his Ultimate Fighting Championship debut, as he laid claim to a unanimous decision over the heavily favored Michel Pereira in a three-round welterweight showcase at UFC Fight Night 158 on Sept. 14 in Vancouver, British Columbia. A short-notice substitution for Sergey Khadozhko, Connelly swept the scorecards with 29-28, 29-27 and 29-27 marks from the judges. Pereira closed as a -575 favorite.

Pereira, who missed weight for the fight, dazzled the crowd with his acrobatic antics—he attempted a rolling axe kick, performed two backflips and tried a Showtime Superman punch in the first round—but they were a drain on his gas tank. “I was like, ‘Go for it, buddy. You want to waste some energy? You had a hard weight cut. I didn’t,’” Connelly said. “I know how tough I am. As soon as he hit me once, I said, ‘He’s screwed.’ I knew I just had to walk [him] down, tire him out and win the fight.” By the time they reached the middle stanza, the Brazilian’s pace had slowed to a crawl and his breathing had become labored. To his credit, Pereira secured a takedown, maintained top position and neutralized his opponent, affording him what amounted to a five-minute respite. Still, the arrow remained on empty. Connelly did his best work in the third round, where he nearly finished it with a guillotine choke, forced a frenetic scramble that further depleted “Demolidor” and stuffed a subsequent takedown. He then moved into top position, settled in half guard and battered Pereira with steady ground-and-pound.

Connelly—who bested Henry Cejudo (T.J. Dillashaw), Ismail Naurdiev (Michel Prazeres), Anthony Pettis (Stephen Thompson) and Uriah Hall (Antonio Carlos Jr.) for “Upset of the Year” honors—did not view the Scorpion Fighting System rep’s showmanship as a slight. Pereira had a reputation to uphold.

“He’s here in the UFC because this is what’s gotten him here,” said Connelly, who has compiled an 11-2 record since losing four of his first seven professional bouts. “It’s a fight. However you want to fight, if it can win you the fight, then that’s not disrespectful. That’s doing your job. He did his job, I did mine and I came out on top.

“You’re always a little surprised,” he added. “I mean, it’s a fight, but I felt as confident as I could. As soon as he hit me with one or two punches, I was like, ‘Oh, OK, he’s not going to hurt me. I’m just going to come forward and do what I do.’ I went to work, and here we are.”

Connelly pocketed a $100,000 bonus for “Fight of the Night.” While the two participants would have normally split the award, “Boondock” received the entire bonus due to Pereira’s failure to make weight—a development that was not lost on Connelly prior to their 15-minute encounter.

“To me, you make weight,” he said, “and if you don’t, it shows weakness and that’s what I saw.”

Connelly was the more active and effective competitor—he nearly tripled the Brazilian’s output in the total strikes landed department—and though he whiffed on all six of his attempted takedowns, it was all part of the plan. Experience provided him with a way forward.

“You can’t stop against him, and you can’t back up against him,” Connelly said. “I’ve been training with capoeira guys for a long time, and they’re all like, ‘What he’s trying to do is get you to freeze so he can hit you.’ I just knew I had to be in his face.”

While he made his Octagon debut as a welterweight under less-than-ideal circumstances, the 5-foot-11 Connelly plans to return to his natural weight class at 155 pounds for his next assignment. At 34, he sounds like a man who understands his limitations.

“I’m definitely going back to lightweight,” said Connelly, who now finds himself on a five-fight winning streak. “I don’t want anything to do with the rest of the welterweights in the division.”
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