The Bottom Line: Shock Value

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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That’s why we love this sport.

In no other sport does the tide turn so quickly, so conclusively, so violently, so often. The announcers were not just writing off Leon Edwards’ chances of winning the bout. They were writing off his will to compete. The oddsmakers had Kamaru Usman as a -5,000 to -10,000 favorite going into the fifth round. Usman was on his way to tying Anderson Silva’s record for most consecutive Ultimate Fighting Championship wins—albeit with an asterisk for Jon Jones. A split second later, Usman is staring blankly at the ceiling unconscious, and Edwards is celebrating a career-defining accomplishment. He won one of the most prestigious championships in the sport, and he did it over an all-time great champion.

Usman will come calling again for the championship he held so proudly. There’s a real good chance he’ll succeed in regaining it. However, they can never take away from “Rocky” Edwards what he accomplished at UFC 278 on Saturday in Salt Lake City in one of MMA’s most shocking results. In fact, there’s a good argument to be made it was the single-most shocking fight in MMA history.

Given the turbulent nature of the sport, there is no shortage of candidates for the most shocking result. The Edwards-Usman 2 knockout had many attributes that made it so extraordinary. To begin with, there were the stakes. Incredible turnarounds in MMA aren’t all that uncommon, but they usually don’t take place at the top level. Pat Barry-Cheick Kongo and Scott Smith-Pete Sell had unbelievable closing sequences, but they weren’t world championship bouts with everything on the line.

It’s also hard to imagine the meaning of beating Usman in that manner diminishing with time. Usman has accomplished so much at welterweight that even if he never regains the welterweight title he will be remembered as an all-time great. Other surprising upsets fade a little with time when hindsight makes them seem far less improbable. At the time, few saw T.J. Dillashaw’s win over Renan Barao coming. With hindsight, it was the logical result. We’ve seen over the course of nearly eight rounds that the Edwards-Usman dynamic is far different from Dillashaw-Barao.

Edwards-Usman 2 also had little in the way of past precedent to point to. Usman had never been knocked out in his professional career and had never lost in the UFC, while Edwards had two knockout wins in 14 UFC fights. Usman had also struck plenty with Edwards over the course of their bout and seemed comfortable doing so. There was little we’d seen of either man to suggest what was about to come.

Historically, many of the biggest MMA shocks start to make more sense when you look at the history. Randy Couture was a massive underdog against Tim Sylvia, but when he dominated Sylvia for nearly the entire 25 minutes to regain the heavyweight title, many kicked themselves for having counted out “The Natural” again after he made a career of silencing his doubters. Amanda Nunes-Julianna Pena 1 was a huge surprise, but the way Nunes faded in the second round after a strong opening stanza brought back memories of some of her earlier career defeats.

Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira’s submission wins over Mirko Filipovic and Bob Sapp were two of the most incredible MMA comebacks, but Nogueira’s career was defined by locking in submissions on dangerous foes looking to punch and kick him in the face. Likewise, Fedor Emelianenko had won so many fights in a row that it was almost surreal to see him tap out, but that’s what you have to do when a jiu-jitsu artist as mastered as Fabricio Werdum locks in a triangle armbar.

So which fights stand out as the top challengers to Edwards-Usman 2 as the most shocking fight in MMA history? It’s highly subjective and everyone is going to have a slightly different list, but six others stand out to me in particular.

First, there was Holly Holm’s brutal knockout of Ronda Rousey. It had all the elements of a real stunner. You had an undefeated champion with an aura of invincibility who had rarely ever even been challenged. The odds were extremely long. Not only did Holm defeat Rousey, but she picked her apart, including a spectacular head kick that’s easy to picture even now. The big difference there compared to Edwards-Usman is that Holm put it on Rousey from the beginning as opposed to pulling it out at the end.

Kevin Randleman’s knockout of Filipovic wasn’t as long of an upset as many, but like Edwards-Usman, the nature of the finish made it stand out so much. “Cro Cop” had left a pile of bodies in his wake, and here he was explosively knocked out himself for the first time in MMA competition. A big part of the memory was also the broadcast, as Mauro Ranallo’s stunned, screaming call is arguably the most memorable MMA soundbite ever.

Anderson Silva produced moments like few other fighters, but he had two fights with particularly shocking finishes. The first was his initial bout with Chael Sonnen. The polarizing Sonnen had talked so much trash, and for four and a half rounds, he delivered the one-sided pounding he promised. Then Silva grabbed a triangle, added an armbar and Sonnen’s title hopes went up in smoke. In some ways, it was even more dramatic than Edwards-Usman, and it’s more a case of which story is more personally compelling.

Silva was on the opposite end of it in his first fight with Chris Weidman. All streaks of course end, but Silva had cultivated a feeling of invincibility around his striking that few have ever had. We watched him bob his head and nimbly duck away from punches and kicks like a magician for years. So when he didn’t get his face out of the way of a Weidman punch and went down and out, it felt like time stopped. Weidman beating Silva felt more likely than Edwards beating Usman, but the manner of the finish was what made that fight stand out so much.

Unlike all of these other shockers, Mark Coleman-Maurice Smith did not end in a sudden submission or knockout. What made Coleman-Smith so noteworthy and surprising was the way it functioned as a paradigm shift within the sport itself. In the early years of MMA, the premise held by most within the sport was that no-holds-barred fighting was going to be dominated by ground fighters. First, the jiu-jitsu masters won with their submissions. Next, the wrestlers came along, and their ability to control opponents physically combined with their increasing knowledge of submission defense was thought to be an eventually unstoppable combination.

Coleman, with his power, grappling prowess and meanness, seemed damn near unstoppable. His fight with Smith had a hook in that Smith was champion of the defunct Extreme Fighting promotion, but it felt inconceivable that a kickboxer could beat Coleman. Instead, Smith used his cardio, ground defense and cross training to take over the fight as it progressed. When Smith won, it shattered not just the myth of an individual fighter but of an entire worldview about where fighting was headed.

Finally, of course, there is Georges St. Pierre-Matt Serra. While Serra may not have been nicknamed “Rocky” like Edwards, it was the quintessential “Rocky” story. It was difficult to find anyone that thought Serra would make the fight competitive, let alone win. Instead, we got an all-time shocker, and St. Pierre would never lose again. The final strikes weren’t as dramatic as the end of Edwards-Usman because Serra was giving St. Pierre trouble for most of the brief fight, but in total, it remains as stunning a sequence as any MMA has produced.

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