There’s a hard rule in sports fandom: if your favorite isn’t playing/fighting, you cheer for the underdog. The best underdogs are the ones who, statistically, shouldn’t have a chance. The ones expected to put on a good show and leave on their shield, a notch on the champ’s belt. The ones who then shock the world, tearfully accepting their coronation in the hearts of fans.
So, why on earth is Holly Holm vs. Ronda Rousey considered the UFC’s greatest upset?
Significance vs. Quality
Love her or hate her, Rousey’s crossover stardom was the impetus for deep investment in WMMA by the UFC.
Regardless of her attitude or over-promotion, Rousey meant a great deal to female athletes. Fighting is about as hyper-masculine as it gets, and to watch a strong woman dominate pay-per-view numbers was empowering. She accomplished this without diminishing her femininity, posing in Sports Illustrated while hitting back at critics who considered her chubby. One only needs to see the clip of a little girl rushing to hug Rousey during a martial arts demonstration to understand what she meant to many fans.
She wasn’t the magic bullet by any means; WMMA fighters are judged disproportionately by their sex appeal and their divisions lag in terms of skill and depth compared to their male counterparts. But Rousey is directly responsible for women headlining PPV cards and getting spots in UFC commercials.
The question is whether that automatically means Rousey was a high caliber champion. And the answer to that is a resounding no.
Ronda Rousey was a questionable queen
Think that WMMA divisions are shallow today? Well, they were laughable a half-decade ago.
Fighters carried skill-sets reminiscent of early 2000’s UFC, being competent in one discipline and marginal in all others. The strikes were often pushed rather than snapped and a lot of the wrestling amounted to a bull-headed, clumsy takedown. There were few serious weight-cutters and no contenders that matched Rousey’s height. The best fighter Rousey beat was Miesha Tate, who would later go on to win the title. But Tate matched up horrendously against Rousey, as her telegraphed double-leg takedowns were perfect judo fodder.
Most of her challengers went on to become middle to bottom-middle fighters who won and lost in equal measure.
Against this level of competition, the UFC marketed her as a savant and casual fans lapped it up. These same fans guffawed when her critics pointed out that Holly Holm was a dangerous opponent.
A true challenger approaches
At first glance, Holm was tall and undefeated, and that’s about it. Her performances against Raquel Pennington and Marion Reneau were comfortable if uninspired. Certainly nothing that indicated she could upset the UFC’s golden girl. But anyone who bothered to look closer realized she was light years ahead of Rousey’s other challengers.
She wasn’t just tall, but cut a lot of weight without sacrificing cardio. Whereas most of her division plodded and shuffled, she bounced in and out. Her left cross and head kick carried true fight-ending power, and she knew how to set them up. She was deceptively strong in the clinch, valuable against a judo fighter. No one predicted that Holm would wax Rousey inside two rounds, but her victory was considered plausible by knowledgeable fans.
There’s a reason that Amanda Nunes destroyed Rousey in one round, and that Valentina Shevchenko would likely do the same in two or three.
The UFC began marketing Rousey’s title reign just as the UFC experienced an explosion in mainstream interest. It seems that most of the fans got swept up in the hype and, without historical context or analysis, believe they witnessed the greatest giant-slaying in the company’s history.
So who owns the real greatest upset in UFC history?
The underdog of underdogs
Before UFC 69, Georges St-Pierre sat majestically atop the welterweight division. He was riding a five-fight win streak that culminated in a title-winning knockout over Matt Hughes, avenging his only career loss. He looked every inch the unstoppable welterweight juggernaut he’d be remembered as.
He’d defend his belt against the stocky fireplug, Matt Serra.
Standing only 5′ 6″ with a 68″ reach, Serra sported a 9-4 record overall and went 3-3 in his last six. He’d spent five straight fights at lightweight before returning to welterweight for his most recent two, which he split. Despite being a talented BJJ practitioner, Serra won the majority of his UFC fights by decision. Had Dana White not promised a title shot to The Ultimate Fighter 4 winner, Serra wouldn’t have even sniffed the belt. He gave up height, reach, skill and strength, and everyone expected that the Canadian wonder would roll him.
And for the few couple minutes, St-Pierre looked to do just that. His long strides and natural athleticism let him dart in and out with ease. He exploited his reach advantage and fired off the same high kicks that had crumpled Matt Hughes. But Serra held fast and deployed his own, sneaky strategy, targeting St-Pierre’s ribs with swinging right hands. They weren’t fight-ending shots but carried enough sting that the champion couldn’t ignore them. So when Serra stepped deep and wound up his right hand three minutes in, St-Pierre lowered his hands.
Except Serra was swinging his right hand over the top.
The blow caught St-Pierre behind the ear and he stumbled. Serra swarmed the champion, using his compact reach to fire right hand after right hand to the temple, repeatedly dropping GSP. 30 seconds later, Serra landed cleanly to the chin and pounded St-Pierre out.
The greatest upset in UFC history had been completed.
One of a kind upset
The magnitude of his upset can never be duplicated. Most other “underdogs” went on to have great careers, showing they were undervalued rather than under-skilled. The feedback loop between casual fans and UFC promotion created the Holm vs. Rousey “upset” when the challenger actually stood a good chance. TJ Dillashaw and Rose Namajunas beat the champions they upset in a rematch, revealing they weren’t underdogs at all.
Conversely, Serra lost his belt in a rematch with St. Pierre and finished his career on a 1-3 skid. He pulled off a devious plan to win the belt and could never duplicate the magic.
St-Pierre, meanwhile, changed his entire fighting philosophy after the loss. Serra changed him from a striking-centered fighter to the wrestling machine we love to hate. He frequently cites this fight as his biggest learning experience and would never lose another fight, finishing his career with a jaw-dropping 26-2 record.
So next time a “fan” mouths off about how Holly Holm vs. Ronda Rousey was the greatest upset in UFC history, educate them. Remind them of the difference between an upset in the mind of the uneducated and an upset in the truest sense of the word. Insist they do their research instead of taking the UFC promotional material as gospel.
And then tell them of Matt Serra. Tell them of the portly, aging American who bet it all on a right hand he had no business landing. The man who changed the entire style of the man who may be the greatest fighter in UFC history.
Remind them that a decade ago, you saw a man catch lightning in a bottle.