Carla Esparza vs. Rose Namajunas 2 wasn’t the first UFC title fight with a compelling build that failed to deliver on paper. But depending who you ask, it might be the worst.
Saturday’s UFC 274 co-main event drew instant ire from the MMA community, who slammed both fighters for a lack of action and the judges for not having the gumption to break out a few 10-10 scores. Although Esparza once again walked out of the matchup as champion, few seemed satisfied with what played out over the course of a 25-minute contest that felt at least twice as long.
It would be easy to pile on this most recent of championship bout clunkers, but the truth is that there is a long list of title fights that have disappointed, befuddled, and outright enraged fans who plunked down their hard-earned money in the hopes of witnessing an epic moment.
So is there any UFC championship bout that can surpass Saturday’s awfulness? MMA Fighting’s Shaun Al-Shatti, Alexander K. Lee, Steven Marrocco, and Jed Meshew dive back into the darkest depths and risk our own sanity to revisit some truly heinous headliners.
Carla Esparza vs. Rose Namajunas 2 – UFC 274 – May 7, 2022
Shaun Al-Shatti: When I touched on this topic Sunday in my UFC 274 post-fight column, wherein I declared Esparza vs. Namajunas 2 to unequivocally be the worst title fight of the UFC’s modern era, I felt fairly secure in the take. But here’s the thing: Anytime those post-PPV pieces get filed, I’m usually running on zero sleep at like 5 a.m. after a long night. Your brain can get a little loopy in times like that, especially when the probability of being a prisoner of the moment is at its absolute apex. So now that it’s been a few days, I’ve had some shuteye and regained my sanity levels a bit, you know what?
I REGRET NOTHING.
I totally stand by the take. In fact, I’m doubling down — I was correct, and I feel even more strongly about it. At the risk of repeating myself, you simply can’t present me with a UFC title bout where less happened for longer. You’re probably about to read several other examples below me, all of which will eloquently present cases for why certain title fights were worse. But they’re wrong. Whatever those examples are, I promise you that something happened.
At the very least, the illusion of something happened, even if that means things just got a little weird, which can sometimes be its own fun. I’ll take an old-school Sean Sherk lay-and-pray fest or Yoel Romero making funny faces at Israel Adesanya 100 times over before you make me relive the 25-minute staring contest Esparza and Namajunas just delivered. I have yet to hear a single redeeming takeaway from UFC 274’s co-main event other than the fact that it’s over and we can forget it ever happened.
Now, I don’t mean this as a way to diminish what is clearly a historic accomplishment for Esparza. I really don’t. She at least acted as if she was in the midst of a fist fight. But when the post-fight reveries from one side are mostly salt about how the judges gave her zero credit for all this great defense — which, you know, is the act of actively avoiding a fight — and the other side is borderline despondent after earning what is legitimately a career-changing win, that’s when you know we just lived through a tough watch.
I will add, though: “Modern era” is an important distinction to make here, because there were plenty of all-time snoozers when the sport was still in its awkward stage of figuring itself out. But in terms of the last decade or so, it hasn’t gotten worse than what we saw on Saturday night.
Dan Severn vs. Ken Shamrock 2 – UFC 9 – May 17, 1996
Alexander K. Lee: You can put an asterisk next to this one if you like, but for posterity’s sake, no discussion of the worst UFC title fights ever would be complete without a mention of the (thankfully) one-of-a-kind Superfight Championship rematch between Ken Shamrock and Dan Severn.
Recapping the action (for dire lack of a better phrase) is a fool’s errand – almost nothing happened for the duration of this 30-minute (!) contest. More fascinating is the legal drama surrounding this fight, which took place at UFC 9 in Detroit on May 17, 1996, in the thick of the promotion’s prehistoric days.
Semaphore Entertainment Group, then the owner of the UFC, had been pushing the envelope for a while to that point, drawing calls for censorship and political action, which were famously answered by Senator John McCain who coined the derisive descriptor “human cockfighting.” Of more immediate concern, then-UFC owner Bob Meyrowitz was butting heads with Michigan courts as he worked to get Severn a headlining bout in his home state. Eventually, Meyrowitz was able to get UFC 9 sanctioned and book Cobo Arena, but the legislation was anything but smooth.
It was eventually ruled by Judge Arthur Lombard that the event could take place but there would be no closed-fist punches, no kicking, no headbutts, and no biting, according to a VICE retrospective. You read that right: No punches. How strictly these rules would be enforced was another story entirely as Lombard left that responsibility in the hands of Meyrowitz and his team.
Saying they were enforced loosely is generous, because every fight up to the main event was finished via strikes. In a February 2013 interview, Meyrowitz told Bloody Elbow that “[the fighters] were fined, but I don’t remember if they paid the fine.” So make of that what you will.
Michigan lawmakers must have been thrilled with the Severn-Shamrock rematch, though, because neither man seemed inclined to punch or kick or do much of anything in their fight. Severn clearly threw a few closed fists, while Shamrock seemed content to stick to palm strikes. Allegedly, Shamrock told “Big” John McCarthy that he would abide by the rules in the interest of fair play.
What unfolded was a truly strange contest that saw Severn circle and circle and circle and circle as Shamrock rotated along with him, eyeing him like a hawk (and not a particularly dangerous one). There were flashes of damage as they grappled later in the fight, with Shamrock holding mount and palm striking away, while Severn was eventually able to sweep and land some actually impactful (and supposedly illegal!) blows from inside Shamrock’s guard. But this is a truly generous recollection of the fight, one that requires you to ignore everything else that happened – or to be more accurate, didn’t happen.
“Boring” chants. “Let’s go Red Wings” chants. Garbage thrown into the ring. McCarthy pausing the action and warning both fighters to engage to no avail. This was truly dreadful and frankly, if this fight had been shown to folks unfamiliar with this new and barbaric sport, they’d probably wonder what all the fuss was about.
So the next time you find yourself lamenting a disappointing championship clash, just remember that one time that it was borderline illegal for the participants to even fight each other. What we ended up getting was even worse than anyone could have predicted.
Valentina Shevchenko vs. Liz Carmouche – UFC Uruguay – Aug. 10, 2019
Steven Marrocco: I started this terrible journey by first selecting Tim Sylvia vs. Andrei Arlovski 3, the trilogy Sylvia expedited at the request of no one and embedded in my memory as an all-time stinker. But then I went back and watched it — OK, most of it — and, you know, it wasn’t all that bad, or at least not as bad as I remembered it. For the first two rounds, they were actually, you know, fighting, aided in part by a free-of-gray-hair John McCarthy, who waited all of one minute to tell them to get going when the action stalled. That the fight ground to a halt by the championship rounds, with both mostly throwing jabs and leg kicks, was unfortunate. It still disqualified it from all-time consideration in my eyes, because they started with the right idea. They just got stuck.
The thing about Valentina Shevchenko vs. Liz Carmouche is that they never got un-stuck. This was also a rematch no one, other than perhaps the champ, requested. It was put together mainly due to the lack of logical contenders, a problem that would only get worse. Carmouche had beaten Shevchenko on the local circuit when she’d opened a bad cut with an upkick, and a doctor had taken one look and called it off. Nine years later, Carmouche’s resume didn’t exactly scream “mandatory title challenger.” But when you need a contender, revenge is the most convenient excuse.
Maybe it was the memory of that cut and the generous scar it left over her left eye, but Shevchenko wasn’t as aggressive as in earlier fights. Of course, those had been against opponents who had engaged her regularly and often. After getting stung early by a few combos, Carmouche simply froze. She came forward like she was going to attack, ducked like she was going to shoot, feinted like she was setting up and just….didn’t follow through. After her corner praised her ability to avoid Shevchenko’s standup attack between the first and second, commentator Michael Bisping piped up to point out “that’s true. But the idea isn’t to be defensive in there. You’re trying to win the fight.” (Sound familiar?)
Bisping later wondered why Carmouche wasn’t seizing the initiative more, seeing as the fight would “probably the last time she’ll ever fight for a title.” In Round 3, she landed zero significant strikes.
There was one official exhortation for more action, from what I could hear. That came in Round 4, when Carmouche whiffed a takedown and wound up on her back. “Keep working,” grunted Keith Peterson as Carmouche employed mission control, the Eddie Bravo invention that more commonly results in grappling stalemates than submissions.
After this past weekend, I’m thinking Keith Peterson really needs to take a cue from McCarthy, or at the very least Dan Miragliotta, who to my great delight grabbed Israel Adesanya and Yoel Romero and told them to snap out of it at UFC 248.
But the real cause of the monumental dud at UFC Uruguay was Carmouche, who didn’t show up to fight. To be as fair as possible, she had an extremely difficult task, if not the most. It couldn’t have helped that, after getting an early taste of Shevchenko’s development over nine years into the most fearsome talent known to flyweight, her mind simply decided, “Yeah, not going to march myself into that again.” According to stats, she landed 18 significant strikes over five rounds. That was a generous accounting, given that virtually all of those were kicks; most of her punches were to air. She managed to pull the trigger years later in the Bellator cage, and she’s now the flyweight champ, whatever you may think about that stoppage. That night in 2019 was just one she could never live down and was undoubtedly the reason she wound up in the Bellator cage in the first place.
Jon Jones vs. Thiago Santos – UFC 239 – July 7, 2019
Jed Meshew: First of all, let me say that of the many things we’ve discussed in these hallowed pages, none have been as masochistic as us all willing re-watching the worst fights in the history of the sport to then rate them against each other. The lack of respect we have for ourselves is truly astonishing.
Second, some of the fights that don’t make it on this list of ours are going to enrage the readers to no end. Specifically, the lack of Israel Adesanya vs. Yoel Romero is likely going to have the comments section blazing, but I remain one of the few people on Earth who finds that fight fascinating. And really, it’s the same core issue as the Esparza-Namajunas fight, so no need to beat that same horse. Instead, let’s argue something different.
Yes, Severn-Shamrock 2 is an affront to the very idea of combat, and yes, Esparza-Namajunas 2 is its spiritual successor (I would never disrespect the GOAT, Arlovski, but putting him in this list, shame on you, Steven), but you know what really sucks? When arguably the greatest fighter who has ever lived refuses to fight someone who physically cannot fight back.
At UFC 239, Jon Jones defended his light heavyweight title against Thiago Santos. It was a fight that was supposed to deliver pure violence. Jones, one of the greatest fighters of all time, and Santos, an enormous puncher riding a three-fight KO streak. Either Santos was going to author one of the biggest upsets of all time by knocking out the unquestioned divisional GOAT, or Jones would take Santos down and elbow his face through the back of his skull, reasserting his dominance over the division. Instead, we got one of the worst, most frustrating fights I’ve ever witnessed.
After a tepid first round where Jones ate a few punches and numerous leg kicks, “Bones” made the tactical decision to never go near Santos again. He threw a grand total of 90 strikes over the course of 25 minutes (that’s about four per minute) with almost half of those being leg kicks (Jon Jones loves the oblique kick). On its face, this isn’t the worst thing ever, but what makes it such a travesty is that Thiago Santos did not have any functioning knees!
Fifteen seconds into the second round, Santos blew out his left knee with a low kick attempt, tearing his ACL, PCL, MCL, and meniscus. That alone is massively compromising and should have been the window for Jones to take over the fight. But then things got even worse when, in the fourth round, Santos injured his right knee as well. For the remainder of the fight, Santos was clearly hobbled and could barely stand up (because again, he didn’t have any knees!), and yet Jones refused to attack him or even attempt a takedown on a man who could have been toppled by a stiff breeze. In fact, it was Santos who kept trying to make something happen, doing his best despite his inability to beat Santa Claus in a foot race. Even in the fifth round, when Jones was legitimately at risk of losing his belt, the champion never left first gear, and he damn near paid the price for his timidity, only eking out a split decision.
Because of the drama involved, the fact that Jones might somehow lose his belt, and the brief moments of violence from Santos, Jones-Santos is not the least entertaining fight to watch. But watching arguably the greatest fighter who has ever lived refuse to beat up an overmatched opponent who had the structural integrity of a termite-ridden shanty is easily the most frustrating title fight to watch, and as such, I think it qualifies as the worst.
- Israel Adesanya vs. Yoel Romero – UFC 248
- Tyron Woodley vs. Demian Maia – UFC 214
- Anderson Silva vs. Thales Leites – UFC 97
- Anderson Silva vs. Demian Maia – UFC 112
- Georges St-Pierre vs. Jake Shields – UFC 129
- Sean Sherk vs. Hermes Franca – UFC 73
- Tim Sylvia vs. Andrei Arlovski 3 – UFC 61
- Randy Couture vs. Vitor Belfort 1 – UFC 15