After a recent Chris Hall post about the impending retirement of Forrest Griffin, I was yet again reminded of his former status as UFC Light Heavyweight Champion. This reminder made me ponder about other former UFC champions you'd never expect to have become a world champion. This led me to put together a list of fighters who either overcame odds or simiply lucked their way into a UFC championship. (DISCLAIMER: I'm focusing on post 2004 UFC)
5.) Vitor Belfort-LHW Champion
I have always said that Vitor Belfort has had the tools to be one of the greatest fighters of all time. He had the hand speed and power as well as striking and grappling abilities that were far greater then many of the fighters he lost to over his long career. Belfort's issues in the ring and cage have always been mental. Whether it was due to his upbrining, the kidnapping and murder of his sister, steroid abuse, or lack of mental strength, he failed to capitalize on his natural athletisism and God given abilities. At UFC 47, Vitor beat Randy Couture by way of cut only to be defeated by Randy in his next fight. Vitor's career was reborn after a drop to MW in 2008, however as long as Anderson Silva is holding the belt, he will never be better then 2nd place.
4.) Forrest Griffin-LHW Champion
Not much needs to be said about Forrest. He was an underdog his entire career and made himself into a UFC star by pouring his heart and soul into every fight. In his career, he defeated much more skilled fighters such as Shogun, Rampage, and Rich Franklin through pure perseverance. In 2008, he leg kicked his way into a UFC LHW Championship in a major upset. Unfortunately, this was the last fight in which Forrest looked interested, and his lack of skill became extremely apparent in his next 6 fights in which he was KO'd 3 times and struggled defeating a completely shot Tito Ortiz.
3.) Evan Tanner-MW Champion
The late Evan Tanner built a spectacular MMA career by possessing a solid wrestling background and learning Brazilian Ju-Jitsu from youtube videos. Tanner won his title in 2005 after beating David Terrell, who has surprisingly only fought once since, and then lost his title in his next fight against Rich Franklin. However, despite being a huge underdog, he propelled his success not only into a title shot, but the right to be called world champion.Tanner's reign as UFC champion was slightly due to the weak talent pool that resided in the UFC MW division until the recent surplus of talent at MW and he would be a mid-tier MW today, however this does not discount his success as a MMA fighter.
2.) Matt Serra-WW Champion
Matt Serra was a mid-tier LW that never seemed to be all that interested in fighting. Serra has incredible BJJ credentials and coaching seems to be his true calling. After going 4-4 in his UFC career, Serra entered the first and only "comeback" season of TUF in which the finalist would receive a title shot. Serra eeked by with a split decision against Chris Lytle to
get smashed by receive a shot at GSP's belt. Entering the fight a 6-1 underdog, no one really gave Serra a shot, but he shocked the world when he rocked George's in the first round and finished the fight. Serra became the most unlikest of champions all while defeating a fighter who will go down as one of the greatest ever. He was defeated by GSP in the instant rematch and Serra then finished his career losing 3 of his last 4. However, his comeback from near obscurity to propel himself to world champion status cannot be discounted. He has since returned to coaching, bringing up recent standout MW contender Chris Weidman and TUF finalist Al Iaquinta.
1.) Brock Lesnar-HW Champion
In my honest opinion, Brock might go down as the least skilled fighter to ever make two title defenses in the UFC. The former WWE wrestler and NFL hopeful started his MMA career at the ripe age of 30, and won the UFC HW championship just over a year later. His entire fight game was built around his outstanding wrestling background, freaky size, speed, and athletisism, and giant lunchbox fists. After being caught in a kneebar by former champion Frank Mir in just his second MMA fight, he bounced back to win 4 straight fights in the UFC including the HW championship. Brock showed an incredible chin against Shane Carwin and Cain Velasquez but showed his nearly non-existent striking game wouldn't allow him to compete against good strikers in the HW division. His distate for being punched in face didn't help his cause either and he retired from the sport after 2 consecutive losses to Cain and Overeem. Love or hate the man, he dominated a former HW Champion who has an encyclopedia's worth of MMA knowledge with pure strength, size, and wrestling ability.
Dave Menne - Middleweight Champion
2.) Dave holds the honor of being the first ever UFC Middleweight Champion. Dave started his career at lightweight and was slightly undersized even as a welterweight. He won his title by defeating Gil Castillo (?) and then losing it in his first title defence to Murilo Bustamante. He holds notable wins over Carlos Newton, Chris Lytle, and Eddie Sanchez while being blitzed by any notable fighter. This was a case of the dark days of the UFC with majority of the MW talent residing over in Pride. Menne was an extremely poor fighter and it's mindblowing that he could call himself a former UFC champion.
1.) Nearly the entire HW Champion list pre- Randy Couture
Fighters like Kevin Randleman, Maurice Smith, Ricco Rodriguez, and Tim Sylvia held the UFC HW Championship in its early days. I didn't include Arlovski on this list because I always believed the man had great talent and skill but couldn't capitalize it to its fullest potential because of his abysmal chin. His fight against Rothwell remains one of my favorite beatdowns in MMA.