Opinion: The UFC’s Unlikeliest Modern Champion, and One of its Best People

By Lev Pisarsky Nov 2, 2021


Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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In past articles, I’ve described how underwhelming I found UFC 267’s main event between Glover Teixeira and Jan Blachowicz. Bellator 268’s co-main between Corey Anderson and Ryan Bader was more intriguing, as was UFC 267’s own co-main between Petr Yan and Cory Sandhagen, a much higher-caliber matchup between two men very much in their physical primes, which also ended up being one of the best fights of 2021. And yet, while I believe that as much as ever, UFC 267's headliner produced an all-time feel-good moment that the other two fights didn't. Watching Glover Teixeira become a world champion for the first time at the age of 42 was downright heart-warming. Not only is he one of the very best people in mixed martial arts, in every regard, but he completed the most unlikely, magical run to a crown in modern times.

Note the qualifier “modern.” I’ve previously written that the biggest upset in MMA history took place when Maurice Smith defeated Mark Coleman at UFC 14, but in modern MMA, it will be awfully difficult to top Teixeira. He came to the UFC in 2012 at the age of 32, and quickly established himself as one of the best in the world by winning his first five contests, four by stoppage, including former UFC light heavyweight champion Quinton Jackson and future Bellator two-division champ Bader. This set up a showdown in 2014 with Jon Jones, who was then in his absolute prime. In that fight, Teixeira fought smart and did relatively well. He frequently got into the pocket and repeatedly sucked Jones into a fight at close range, perfect for Teixeira's devastating hooks. Unfortunately for him, Jones was so good that even fighting in less favorable conditions, he still out-landed and outpointed the challenger. The Brazilian actually landed many hard, solid connects to Jones' head, but they had little effect, which should perhaps come as no surprise given that Jones recently head-butted a police car and looked no the worse for wear.

After that defeat, Teixeira's results became uneven. He dropped a decision to another future Bellator champion in Phil Davis, was crushed in 13 seconds by Anthony Johnson, and was then knocked out in the fifth round by Alexander Gustafsson. It all came to a head in 2018 when Teixeira fought Anderson. While Teixeira was a small favorite, he was utterly dominated by Anderson, who had his way with the aging contender both striking and grappling, repeatedly beating Teixeira to the punch, running circles around him, and then taking him down time and again.

Teixiera was a few months shy of turning 39 for that fight, and that seemed to spell the end for him as a serious contender. For his next fight, against Karl Roberson, a talented kickboxer with a notable grappling weakness, Teixeira was even money. Early in the fight, he seemed like a disastrous bet. Teixeira shot in early, but was very nearly knocked out by elbows in the clinch, going limp on a few occasions. Just a little more impact on one of those elbows, and Teixeira’s entire recent run would have ended right then and there. But Teixeira has incredible heart, toughness and sheer will, to a degree that even many of the greatest champions can’t conceive of. He simply continued pushing through, utterly undaunted, and a few minutes later, it was him forcing Roberson to submit.

Teixeira's next bout was one I was sure he would lose, against Ion Cutelaba. Unlike Roberson, Cutelaba was a powerful, skilled wrestler, and his vicious punches and ground-and-pound should have taken advantage of Teixeira's increasingly vulnerable chin. For over a round, my prediction appeared correct, as Cutelaba beat Teixeira from pillar to post, both standing and from top position, mauling the hapless older man. But yet again, Teixeira showed his legendary fighting spirit, After Cutelaba gassed in Round 2, it was his turn to start beating up his arrogant younger foe, and by the end of the round, he had another improbable submission victory.

After that, Teixeira was again even money against Nikita Krylov, a tremendously skilled, well-rounded but often inconsistent fighter who had neither the obvious weakness of Roberson’s grappling or Cutelaba’s suspect cardio. It was the type of sneaky-difficult bout that many men would lose — as Johnny Walker would learn a short while later — but Teixeira prevailed over three hard-fought rounds, winning a split decision.

Teixeira was barely skating by, but his next foe was Anthony Smith, who entered their fight as a considerable favorite. The 40-year-old Brazilian's run appeared to be at an end. Smith's striking and grappling were just too good, and he was incredibly tough and durable himself, having weathered a sustained beating by Jones and survived to hear the final horn. And yet, Teixeira stopped “Lionheart” where Jones had not, systematically breaking down and brutalizing Smith to the point his teeth were falling out, finally forcing a merciful stoppage in Round 5.

Teixeira's last fight prior to the title was against Thiago Santos, a man I and most fans thought had deserved the decision nod over Jon Jones in his last outing. Santos was a heavy favorite. Admittedly, he had injured his left knee severely against Jones and needed surgeries to fix it, a fact which was evident against Teixeira, as he struggled to bend down to stuff takedowns and was unable to get up from the bottom. However, early in Round 3, Santos clobbered Teixeira with punches and had him severely hurt. As Santos pounded away on a downed Teixeira, Herb Dean was mere seconds from stopping it. Luckily, he didn't, as, similar to the Roberson fight, Teixeira miraculously stayed conscious, attained top position, punished his countryman with heavy ground-and-pound, and finally tapped him out with a rear-naked choke.

Again, let’s appreciate how unlikely his mere run to a second title shot was. In three different fights, Teixeira had been a hair away from being knocked out. In one other fight, he prevailed in a split decision. He was never a favorite in any of the five fights. If the oddsmakers were correct in their handicapping, then doing a bit of math, Teixeira's chances of winning all five contests were roughly 1/80, or slightly over 1%. That's about eight times less likely than Matt Serra defeating Georges St. Pierre in their first meeting.

Against Blachowicz, the now 42-year-old Teixeira again appeared to have little to offer. Blachowicz’s punches were faster and more explosive. He had a tougher chin and more power. His defensive reactions looked less faded. He was also a powerful, skilled wrestler who appeared ready to neutralize Teixeira’s grappling, if not take him down himself.

Yet again, Teixeira made fools of us all. He is outstanding at timing his takedowns, and in Round 1, he ducked under a Blachowicz left hand to get a high-crotch double-leg lift and slam. From the top, he showed his mastery in terms of preparation and intelligence by using a tactic not seen in his recent fights. Namely, he used the can opener against Blachowicz. Against younger, smaller, more agile, and flexible opponents like Roberson, Krylov, or Smith, this would have made little sense, but against a big, stiff 38-year-old in Blachowicz, who was always relatively weak off his back, the old-school move was devastating, clearly bothering and hurting the Polish champion.

In Round 2, Teixeira’s early takedown attempts weren’t working anymore, as Blachowicz was ready and defending them. This forced the Brazilian to go toe-to-toe, an area in which I expected him to struggle, but while his punches and defensive movements were indeed slower, he made up for it with technique. His hooks were crisp and tight, and his stance and reactions were textbook, if slightly delayed. That allowed Teixeira to badly hurt a wilder, looser Blachowicz with a left hook behind the ear. A short while later, with the champion now more worried by punches, Glover went back to the wrestling and got Blachowicz down. A lot of fans were surprised and even floated conspiracy theories about how quickly Blachowicz tapped to a Teixeira rear-naked choke from there, but that's nonsense. Teixeira is an absolute master at getting that submission from the top in a smooth, quick manner, including against very skilled grapplers, and as noted, Blachowicz’s defensive grappling is relatively weak. The Brazilian had just completed another improbable, spectacular triumph.

Teixeira's Cinderella run to the crown couldn't have happened to a better guy. Not only is he a genuinely nice, gracious man outside of the cage, smiling and laughing and praising his opponents, but he embodies the very highest ideals of both a martial artist and fighter. As a martial artist, he is always training and striving to improve his skills. Even as he grew older and his raw physical ability deteriorated, his technique, range of skills, and above all, his mind only grew greater. I remember once hearing that a lot of old-school karate masters would only hit their peak in their 40s, well past their physical primes. While that may have been embellishment, especially given that they didn't have access to some of the same recovery resources modern fighters do, Glover is proof that there might be some truth to that claim. And as a pure fighter, Glover Teixeira is one of the toughest warriors, with some of the most awe-inspiring heart I've ever seen. It is one thing to take a beating and keep going to a decision, despite having mentally checked out and given up long ago. That requires a certain level of toughness, but it's an entirely different thing to never even be remotely fazed no matter how viciously and how long your opponent has been pounding on you, and ultimately find a way to win.

Among its other highlights, I will remember UFC 267 chiefly for one of the happiest moments in MMA history, capping off a magical run to the title that no one, except maybe Teixeira, saw coming.
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