The rise and fall of Brian Bowles' MMA career is one of the more unfortunate stories, if only because it occurred because of injuries and not because of a lack of skill. This past weekend at UFC 160, Bowles made his return to the octagon for the first time in close to two years. He put on a solid performance but ultimately lost to George Roop by TKO in the second round.
But his story really begins six years ago at WEC 26. When he made his debut in the blue cage, Bowles was a 3-0 prospect fighting out of Rory Singer's gym in Athens, Georgia. A 26 year old fighter with a predilection for knockouts and a nasty guillotine choke to boot, he was everything that Zuffa could ask for in a bantamweight fighter.
He was matched up with Charlie Valencia, a grappler with an 8-2 record. Valencia was part of Zuffa's initial blitz to celebrate and inform media members about the lighter weight classes. To say he was expected to win would be an understatement. He had the experience against quality competition and an underrated submission game. It took Bowles seven and a half minutes to put Valencia away with a rear naked choke.
He didn't stop there. He knocked current Bellator contender Marcos Galvao out in the second and then finished Damacio Page and Will Ribeiro with his signature guillotine. I should note that the Page submission occurred at 3:30 in the first round. That's going to be important later.
The victory over Ribeiro earned him a title shot against Miguel Torres. At that time, Torres was considered by many to be, pound for pound, one of the best fighters in the world. Of his 38 career fights, only seven went to decision, one of which resulted in his sole defeat. Torres was the blood and guts champion the WEC needed to elevate the bantamweight division and was marketed as such.
It took less than four minutes for it to all come crashing down as Bowles dropped Torres before putting him away with punches on the ground. That victory sent Torres' career in a tailspin and set Bowles up for bigger and and better things.
Or at least that was the expectation.
In what would become a theme for his career, Bowles suffered a devastating injury in his first and only title defense. He was matched up with current bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz at WEC 47 and was frustrated early on by Cruz' footwork and constant movement.
That style never let Bowles sit down on his punches or settle into his game plan. Bloody Elbow had Cruz up two rounds going into the third. But Bowles was unable to answer the bell. The ringside doctor stopped the bout due to injury and Bowles stated in his post-fight interview that he'd broken his hand with his first punch.
After rehabbing his hand for eight months, he was expected to fight Wagnney Fabiano on at WEC 52, but again the injury bug kept him off the card. This time it was a foot injury sustained in training a month out that put him on the sidelines. It would be another six months before he'd be able to make his long-awaited return at UFC on Versus 3 against Damacio Page.
In what is perhaps one of the most amazing and strange results you'll find on a fighter's wiki page, Bowles finished Page again by guillotine choke at 3:30 in the first round. Yes, he finished him with the same exact technique at the exact same time.
A hard fought decision win at UFC 132 against Takeya Mizugaki earned him a fight against Urijah Faber to be the number one contender for the bantamweight belt. Faber locked in a guillotine and Bowles was forced to tap in the second round.
That would be the last time fans heard from Bowles for 18 months.
In the lead up to his UFC 160 bout, Bowles appeared on The MMA Hour with Ariel Helwani. In that interview, Bowles was very candid when explaining what kept him away from the Octagon for so long. A mix of apathy in training and a string of injuries that include two bulging discs and two degenerative discs in his back put his return in question.
But when he finally made his return this past weekend, it looked vintage Brian Bowles. He dropped Roop in the first and locked in the guillotine choke. But Roop wouldn't tap and survived the round. Bowles looked tired entering the second and was subsequently finished with punches.
Looking back, it's clear that we never got to see Brian Bowles live up to his true potential. When he was healthy, he was clearly one of the top fighters at bantamweight. But those constant injuries never allowed him to improve between fights. Where his peers would develop new techniques, Bowles was spending his time rehabbing his body.
This shouldn't serve as a career retrospective as much as a sobering reminder how a fighter's career is one injury away from coming to a close. If he really has become apathetic in training and Saturday is the last time he enters the cage, Brian Bowles will be remembered as one of the best examples of "could have been" athletes in MMA. He has all the abilities but injuries cheated fans from seeing what he truly could have accomplished.