This past weekend at UFC 275, Brazilian contender Taila Santos came close to one of the biggest upsets in MMA history when she fell slightly short in her bout with reigning flyweight champ Valentina Shevchenko.
Over the years, we’ve seen a number of largely unheralded title challengers in the UFC who were able to come close to an upset victory, only to fall at the final hurdle.
Sometimes, these fighters were able to go onto capture gold in the octagon later down the line. For others, their initial title challenge proved to be their highest point.
With that in mind, here are five unheralded UFC title challengers who came close to pulling off an upset win.
#5. Taila Santos vs. Valentina Shevchenko – UFC 275
The most recent example of an unheralded title challenger who almost pulled off a massive upset came this past weekend at UFC 275. Taila Santos came into her flyweight title bout with Valentina Shevchenko on the back of a four-fight win streak. But unsurprisingly, nobody was giving her a chance.
Not only had Shevchenko seemingly defeated better fighters before – the likes of Jessica Andrade and Katlyn Chookagian, for instance – but she also appeared to have absolutely no weaknesses that Santos could exploit.
Incredibly, though, that didn’t quite turn out to be the case. The fans in attendance in Singapore were stunned when the Brazilian challenger took ‘Bullet’ down in the opening round and came close to a rear-naked choke victory, but that wasn’t her only high point in the fight.
Santos actually continued to take the fight to Shevchenko throughout the early going, taking her down and arguably winning both the second and third rounds before the champion came back in the fourth and fifth, edging things with her striking.
In the end, two of the three judges sided with Shevchenko, surprising many viewers who’d scored the fight in favour of the challenger. Regardless, though, Santos came close to pulling off a result that nobody could’ve anticipated coming into the fight.
What happens from here? It’s highly likely that a rematch will be booked. Although Santos will probably be confident, Shevchenko has claimed that a foot injury she suffered prior to the bout hampered her, meaning the Brazilian may well have missed her best opportunity of becoming a champion.
#4. Tim Elliott vs. Demetrious Johnson – The Ultimate Fighter 24 Finale
By late 2016, Demetrious Johnson was widely seen as one of the most dominant champions in UFC history. The holder of the promotion’s flyweight title since its inauguration in late 2012, ‘Mighty Mouse’ had reeled off eight straight title defenses and had beaten basically all of his viable opponents.
The UFC seemed to recognize this. In order to push Johnson as a bigger star, they built an entire season of The Ultimate Fighter around finding a fresh opponent for him. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite go to plan.
Rather than a new fighter like Alexandre Pantoja or Kai Kara-France coming out on top of the tournament, veteran Tim Elliott, who’d been in the promotion for a while and held losses to former Johnson victims Joseph Benavidez and Ali Bagautinov, ended up winning the title shot.
Nobody was giving Elliott any kind of chance in his clash with ‘Mighty Mouse’, but to the shock of everyone, he nearly achieved the unthinkable in the very first round. Latching onto a brabo choke, Elliott appeared to have Johnson in an inescapable position, and it seemed academic that the champion would submit.
Incredibly, though, Johnson was able to free his head somehow and eventually began to dominate the fight en route to a decision win. Regardless, though, Elliott had come closer than anyone could’ve expected to dethroning the champ – even if it turned out to be his high point in the octagon.
#3. Thiago Santos vs. Jon Jones – UFC 239
By the time Jon Jones began his second reign as UFC light heavyweight champion in late 2018, it’s probably arguable that he wasn’t quite the same awesome fighter he’d been a handful of years before. However, by that stage, he’d also beaten almost every decent challenger possible.
When the UFC matched him with former middleweight Thiago Santos in the summer of 2019, then, nobody was really giving ‘Marreta’ a chance. Sure, he’d been on a good run, knocking out the likes of Jimi Manuwa and Jan Blachowicz, but he was still the same fighter who’d lost to opponents like Gegard Mousasi and David Branch.
Incredibly, though, when it came to fight time, it looked like Santos’ kick-heavy striking attack might actually prove to be Jones’ kryptonite.
The Brazilian took the fight to ‘Bones’ in the early going, clearly landing the better shots, particularly to the body and legs. Jones did come back, but the fight remained back-and-forth throughout the five rounds, and in the end, little could separate the two fighters.
The judges ended up handing Jones a split decision win, with one dissenter scoring the bout 48-47 for Santos. When it was revealed that ‘Marreta’ had suffered a major knee injury in the second round, UFC fans across the world were even more stunned.
For all intents and purposes, had he not suffered the injury, Santos could well have dethroned Jones, shocking everyone in the process. As it happened, he only came close, but that was a bigger achievement than most had thought possible.
#2. Karolina Kowalkiewicz vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk – UFC 205
When Joanna Jedrzejczyk put her UFC strawweight title on the line against Karolina Kowalkiewicz in November 2016, the majority of fans and observers were expecting another whitewash in favor of ‘Joanna Champion’.
At that point, Jedrzejczyk had held her title for just over a year, but she’d also dominated three challengers and generally looked head and shoulders above the rest of her competition. More to the point, while Kowalkiewicz had won three bouts in the octagon, she hadn’t stopped any of her foes.
Sure enough, the first three rounds were business as usual for the champion. The fight took place almost entirely on the feet and Jedrzejczyk looked comfortable, picking her fellow Polish fighter apart.
All of that changed in the fourth. In a brief exchange, Kowalkiewicz landed a crushing right hand, knocking the champion to the ground, and it looked like she was on the verge of going out. The crowd in attendance were stunned as Kowalkiewicz closed in for a finish.
Somehow, Jedrzejczyk willed her way back into the fight and ended up winning the final round to take a decision.
Regardless, though, Kowalkiewicz had come closer than any other challenger to dethroning one of the most dominant champions in the UFC at the time. Essentially, she’d also found a chink in Jedrzejczyk’s armor, one that Rose Namajunas would use to finally end her reign a year later.
#1. Vitor Belfort vs. Jon Jones – UFC 152
By 2012, it was safe to say that Jon Jones was probably the most dominant champion that the UFC’s light heavyweight division had ever seen. After capturing the title from Mauricio Rua in early 2011, ‘Bones’ had destroyed everyone put in front of him, easily cutting through top contenders like Rashad Evans and Lyoto Machida.
The summer of 2012 was supposed to see him face former PRIDE champion Dan Henderson. When Henderson went down with an injury, after a lot of controversy, Jones was matched with former champion Vitor Belfort.
Prior to taking the fight, though, ‘The Phenom’ had largely been fighting at 185 pounds and, despite his considerable skills, literally nobody was giving him a chance of defeating Jones, especially as he’d taken the bout with him on highly late notice.
However, when Jones took the Brazilian down in the early part of the first round, Belfort shocked him by quickly latching onto a tight armbar.
The hold looked remarkably deep and at one stage, it looked like ‘Bones’ would have to tap out in order to save his arm from being snapped entirely. Incredibly, though, he gutted it out, eventually freed his arm, and went onto dominate Belfort en route to a fourth round win.
After the fight, though, it was revealed quite how close the largely unfancied challenger had come to pulling off a miracle win. Jones admitted that his arm had been popping while he was caught in the holdand was actually numb after he’d freed himself.
Had his arm broken entirely, something that Jones said he’d expected to happen, the fight would have been called off and Belfort would’ve been crowned the new champion. In the end, it turned out to be the closest ‘The Phenom’ would get to ever holding UFC gold again.