Who You Gonna Call? The top 7 short-notice UFC performances

We knew Michael Bisping didn’t give a f**k a long time ago. He told us he didn’t give a f**k, over and over again. He told opponents. He told the media. He told anyone who’d listen. He then demonstrated how little he gives a f**k by agreeing to fight Kelvin Gastelum this Saturday (November 25) in Shanghai, China, just three weeks after losing his UFC middleweight title to Georges St-Pierre.

Had it been anyone else behaving in such a way, we may have questioned their sanity, doubted their intentions. But this is Michael Bisping we’re talking about, a man of 28 UFC bouts, a man whose run in the world’s premier mixed martial arts organization stands at 11 years. This is what he does. He takes fights like this, on short notice, because he has sussed the game. Take a risk, get paid, see how it plays out. Rinse, repeat.

In general, though, reasons for accepting the role of late-notice replacement are varied. It could be financial – a quick, unexpected payday – or it could be because the fighter is keen to help out their promoter. A fighter might fancy the style match-up on offer, believing they could spring a surprise, or maybe they just love the idea of having a fight and will agree to do so, to fight, to throw-down, whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Most of the time it won’t work out for the eleventh hour hero. They get paid, a win or sorts, but a lack of preparation, mental and physical, tends to lead to their downfall. They lose. They get beaten up. Their only victory is moral. But now and again this trend gets bucked and a man or woman drafted in on short notice, seemingly destined to lose, will somehow flip the script and surprise not only their opponent, he or she with the preparation time, but everyone watching, everyone predicting their inevitable demise.


7) Joe Soto vs. T.J. Dillashaw

August 30, 2014, UFC 177

It’s not always about the winning. Most of the time it is, but sometimes, just sometimes, a lot can be gained in defeat. In some cases, so much is gained in defeat that defeat never really feels like defeat at all.

For Joe Soto, there was no doubt he’d been second best in a fight with UFC bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw in 2014. He’d lost every round, been hit more than most fighters want to get hit, and was eventually stopped in the fifth and final round. Yet, by virtue of the fact he made it that far – the final round – and was ambitious and relatively competitive throughout, Soto came away from the fight with his reputation enhanced and other opportunities soon pushed his way.

This wasn’t just any old plucky trier, either. Soto, unlike other unsuccessful title challengers, had been drafted into the main event slot at a day’s notice, following Renan Barao’s withdrawal 90 minutes before the Friday weigh-in. He’d been training for three-round fights – his level – and was now asked to go five for the first time in his young career. Oh, and it was also his UFC debut.

All things considered, Soto was, many felt, on a hiding to nothing; a sacrificial lamb about to get torn limb from limb.

“I trained for three rounds, so going five rounds was a little tiring, but I always prepare for the worst-case scenario,” he said. “This experience is going to make me a better fighter. I had never fought in the UFC before and this was a great experience.

“I have always been confident in myself and that’s why I took the challenge. I was having fun in there. When you get in the Octagon, that fighting warrior spirit comes out. I was enjoying it. I thought I made it competitive. But it was kind of hard with it being on short notice.”

Testament to Soto’s professionalism, he made it look easy – the taking a fight on short notice, that is. Nobody said winning a UFC championship would be easy.


6) Benson Henderson vs. Brandon Thatch

February 14, 2015, UFC Fight Night 60

Benson Henderson had it all against him when he decided to replace Stephen Thompson and take a fight with Brandon Thatch at UFC Fight Night 60. Not only was he accepting the fight on two weeks’ notice, he was doing so in a weight division that was, at this stage, still very much new to him.

“Joe Silva (UFC matchmaker) texted me during the fights on Saturday, asking if I’d be willing to go to 170 to help the UFC out,” Henderson said during fight week. “They needed a main event at 170 because they lost their guy. So I was like, ‘Sure, I’ll help you guys out.’

“It was a pretty good opportunity. I have been open to the idea of going to 170, but it had to be the right match-up at the right time. We thought this one was a good match-up, good timing. I’m still in shape. I’m in-shape all the time, but being so close to the last fight, I’m feeling pretty good with my cardio, so we thought let’s do it, let’s go for it.”

A former UFC lightweight champion, Henderson, in agreeing to fight Thatch, would be stepping up 15 pounds to welterweight. And Thatch, all six-foot-two of him, was no ordinary welterweight. In addition to his height and wingspan, Thatch had won 11 of 12 pro fights and destroyed both Paulo Thiago and Justin Edwards inside a round. Which is why many believed Henderson, coming off defeats to Donald Cerrone and Rafael dos Anjos, would go the same way.

Benson, though, had other ideas. Not content with simply teaching Thatch a lesson, out-striking him and out-wrestling him, he then applied the pièce de résistance in round four with a rear-naked choke.


5) Charlie Brenneman vs. Rick Story

June 26, 2011, UFC on Versus 4

On the Monday of fight week, Charlie Brenneman was told he’d no longer be fighting at UFC on Versus 4. By the Saturday, however, he was informed he’d be fighting Rick Story in the co-main event.

Here’s how: Firstly, Nate Marquardt was supposed to make his welterweight debut against Anthony Johnson, only for Johnson to get injured and Rick Story to fill the void. Then Marquardt failed his medical and Story was all of a sudden left without an opponent. Somewhere else on the card, meanwhile, TJ Grant was set to face Matthew Riddle, only for Riddle to succumb to injury and get replaced by Brenneman. As if cursed, Grant himself then fell ill and was removed from the card altogether. Still following? So what happened next was Story was paired with Brenneman and Brenneman was, for all intents and purposes, supposed to be beaten up and overwhelmed by an impressive young contender with six straight wins to his name.

Yet it never happened. Instead, Brenneman, a former high-school Spanish teacher, dominated Story throughout, made it look easy, and bagged the unlikeliest of unanimous decision wins.


4) Chris Leben vs. Yoshihiro Akiyama

July 3, 2010, UFC 116

Chris Leben’s win against Yoshihiro Akiyama is special for reasons greater than the fact it was a fight Leben took on a week’s notice. It’s great because it ended with a Chris Leben triangle choke, almost as rare as a dull Chris Leben fight, and it’s great, most of all, because it arrived just two weeks after Leben had knocked out Aaron Simpson at The Ultimate Fighter 11 finale. (Yes, that made it two wins, two stoppage wins, in as many weeks for ‘The Crippler’, arguably the finest run of his topsy-turvy career.)

“When (UFC matchmaker) Joe Silva called me up, it was Monday morning,” Leben said. “Sunday I had a large pizza, watched a movie, passed out, woke up with a couple of bumps and bruises, and I was already getting called to fight. My girlfriend told me, and I was like, ‘You’re joking. You’re pulling my leg.’”

She wasn’t. With Wanderlei Silva out, on account of broken ribs, Leben got the call and duly answered. He answered it the only way he knew how: find gloves, put them on, insert mouthpiece, step into the Octagon, throw hands. Then, with 20 seconds left to run in the fight with Akiyama, he showed wonderful invention and surprising subtlety to tap the Japanese judoka and render the judges’ scorecards pointless.


3) Jamie Varner vs. Edson Barboza

May 26, 2012, UFC 146

“I’m back!” yelled Jamie Varner following his first round drubbing of undefeated Brazilian Edson Barboza at UFC 146. And he was right. Jamie Varner was back in the UFC, his first appearance since UFC 68, and, in upsetting the highly-fancied Barboza, a 5-to-1 favourite, now associated with arguably the finest reintroduction in the organization’s history. “Once you hit rock bottom you appreciate the places you’ve been,” he said, “so I just want to thank the UFC for another chance.”

Since the WEC merged with the UFC, Varner, a former WEC lightweight champion, had been making ends meet in promotions such as XFO, XFC and Titan FC. Having not won any of his final four WEC fights, he’d won a couple on the bounce in XFC and then, on just seven days’ notice, was asked to return to the UFC and fight Barboza, arguably one of Brazil’s most gifted MMA exports. Barboza was 10-0. His kicks were deadly. But Varner felt in the mood to take a chance, so that’s exactly what he did.

And how.

Not only did Varner give a fine account of himself, against all the odds, he beat Barboza up on his feet and stopped him inside the very first round, a result so shocking it landed the American a well-deserved ‘Upset of the Year’ accolade.


2) Nate Diaz vs. Conor McGregor

March 5, 2016, UFC 196

Rafael dos Anjos was supposed to be the litmus test. He was the man some believed would end the Conor McGregor hype train, see to its derailment, and send the Irishman scurrying back down to featherweight. But a broken foot curtailed dos Anjos’ plan and in stepped Nate Diaz, an unpredictable brawler who still can’t make his mind up whether he’s a lightweight, a welterweight or, indeed, someone who just loves to fight anyone, any time, any weight, anywhere.

Put McGregor and Diaz together, irrespective of any weight difference, and a good, old-fashioned slugfest was to be expected; stylistically, one that would catch fire early and result in some vicious exchanges between two men whose preference is to stand and bang. What nobody saw coming, however, was the way Diaz, competing on ten days’ notice, was able to weather an early storm, rock McGregor with strikes and then eventually submit him in round two, effectively causing one of the greatest upsets in UFC history.

Talk about opportunism. Diaz took the opportunities in the fight – to zero in on his southpaw opponent’s exposed chin, to lock in the submission – and then, in victory, made the most out of the opportunity to create a long-lasting rivalry with McGregor, one that means the two remain inextricably linked. And rich.

“I’m not surprised, motherf**kers.”


1) Michael Bisping vs. Luke Rockhold

June 4, 2016, UFC 199

Michael Bisping waited the best part of a decade for his shot at a UFC title and then he got one, out of the blue, on just 17 days’ notice. In the twilight of his career, admittedly, Bisping was nevertheless on a good run of form at the time – buoyed by wins against Anderson Silva, Thales Leites and CB Dolloway – and aware he was as good as he was ever going to get. If this was his chance, his one moment, so be it.

The problem for Bisping was that the champion at the time, Luke Rockhold, was someone he’d faced eighteen months previous, someone who had submitted him, with little difficulty, inside two rounds. In fact, so one-sided was that particular fight, nobody believed Bisping and Rockhold would ever meet again. There was no need for it. Certainly no demand for it.

But then Chris Weidman pulled out of a rematch with Rockhold, set for UFC 199, and Bisping was offered the chance to not only renew acquaintances with a man who had beaten him more convincingly than anyone else, but to also finally get his hands on that elusive UFC middleweight title. He didn’t need to be asked twice.

“I’ve been doing this for ten years and I get my shot on two weeks’ notice,” Bisping said. “It’s far from the perfect scenario but we don’t live in a perfect world. You’ve got to take these opportunities and make the most out of them.

“I believe the time will help me because I’ve got less time to stress. I just need to make weight and go out there and do my thing.

“I’m not turning up for a payday. I’m going there to win the fight and bring the title back to the UK. I would have liked a full training camp but, fortunately for me, I do get in shape very quickly.

“I don’t need eight weeks like most guys. I have been training and looking after myself, I’ve been running most days, I’ve been hitting pads; I have been keeping my hand in.

“But of course I’m going to have to step it up big time.”

Come fight night, their approaches couldn’t have been any different. Bisping, aware this was his first and possibly last chance to make it happen, appeared focused, intense, full of nerves (the good kind), while Rockhold, still high on a tremendous slaying of Chris Weidman to win the belt, carried the look of a man who believed victory required him simply turning up. Cocksure and relaxed in mindset and stance, Rockhold wore a smirk on his face at all times. He taunted Bisping and, to use a British parlance, “Took the piss.” But then Bisping had the last laugh, as he capitalised on one of Rockhold’s many lapses in concentration and ended his title reign with a well-picked counter left hook in the very first round.

One of the great UFC upsets, Bisping’s triumph over Rockhold was made all the more special because it occurred in a rematch nobody wanted to see and was arranged at barely a couple of weeks’ notice. For Bisping, it was almost like it was meant to be.


 

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