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With Conor McGregor returning to action, all eyes were on this past Saturday’s UFC 257 pay-per-view, and that meant the platform was perfect for a debuting fighter from a little-known organization called Bellator to potentially steal the show. Michael Chandler was given the UFC’s blessing and an unheard of promotional push for a fighter initially booked as a replacement for the UFC 254 main event. In a co-main event spot against Dan Hooker, one of the toughest outs at 155, all he had to do was deliver.
Sure enough, Chandler needed just half a round to land a power punch that Hooker wouldn’t recover from. Chandler nailed the win, the celebration, and the post-fight promo, and he left UFC President Dana White struggling to remember a better octagon debut.
But we know better, don’t we? There have been plenty of future champions who burst onto the scene in unforgettable fashion. And who knows, perhaps we’ll still be saying the same about Chandler in the future. For now, allow MMA Fighting’s Jed Meshew and Alexander K. Lee to help jog White’s memory with their picks for the most impactful debuts in UFC history.
Meshew: Let me start by saying that Michael Chandler’s UFC debut was nothing short of brilliant. Trust me, I’m a well known Chandler hater – for a lot of great reasons, might I add – and even I have to admit that he’s in the conversation for best UFC debuts. But being in the conversation and being at the top are two different animals entirely.
When Anderson Silva made his UFC debut in 2006, he was far from “The Spider” the world of MMA went on to fear. Was he impressive? Absolutely. He was the Cage Rage middleweight champion and coming off of the Tony Fryklund reverse-elbow knockout. Was he expected to win? Sure. Silva was a -200 betting favorite. But was he expected to do THAT? Hell no he wasn’t!
What’s been forgotten since Silva’s debut 15 years ago is that Chris Leben was no joke as a fighter. Coming into the fight, Leben was 15-1 in MMA, a former WEC middleweight champion and 5-0 in the UFC. If the UFC had rankings at the time, Leben likely would have been nestled safely in the top-10. Perhaps more importantly though, Leben was tough. Far from a technical savant, Leben was still a handful as he packed big power in his hands and had proven to have one of the best chins in the sport. Benji Radach—a very solid fighter at the time—did everything short of hit Leben with a baseball bat and couldn’t get him out of there. No one could. Leben’s chin was uncrackable. Until Anderson.
Anderson Silva eviscerated Chris Leben. There’s really no other word for it. He took a man renowned for his chin and nuked him in less time than it takes to make a sandwich. In 49 seconds, he folded Leben up like a lawn chair, landing 17 of 20 strikes and taking only one in return. Stop and think about that for a second. In his UFC debut, Anderson Silva came in against a very tough dude and was basically untouchable while landing 85 percent of his strikes. That’s impossible. I’m looking at the numbers right now and I still kind of don’t believe it. The only reason I do is because of all that Anderson went on to accomplish. In every sense of the word, it was a perfect debut for Silva.
Perhaps the thing that makes Anderson’s debut so impressive is just how dismissive it was. In most MMA fights, either guy has the potential to win. Sure, in many matchups one guy will win more often than the other. But usually, there still exists the possibility for a puncher’s chance for even the most impotent of foes. Pick any of the other choices for “best UFC debut.” If you remade those fights 100 times, you’d get a different outcome at least occasionally.
Not so with this one. If you ran Silva-Leben back 100 times, the only thing different that would happen is after four of them someone would call the police for what you were doing to poor Leben.
Another thing to consider when talking about any UFC debut is the fighter’s next move. Ben Askren (sorta kinda) submitted Robbie Lawler in his UFC debut, and yet no one is rushing to put him on this list because he then got knocked out in five seconds in his very next fight. With debuts like Chandler, it’s too early to rate it properly. If he goes on to win the lightweight belt, coax Khabib Nurmagomedov out of retirement, and then upset the GOAT, Chandler’s debut rockets up the list. If he ends up being the next Will Brooks, it fades into obscurity. Whereas with Silva, we know what happened next. He did the same thing to Rich Franklin and went on to become the GOAT (at least for a time).
Entering into the UFC, Silva was far from a known commodity. Back in 2006, MMA had only just broken into the mainstream consciousness on the back of The Ultimate Fighter. The bulk of the fan base, at least in North America, lived in a UFC bubble. Yes, there were hardcore fans who knew who Anderson was (and that he had nearly fought Matt Hughes for the UFC welterweight strap in 2002). But it was Leben, a focal point of TUF, who was the star. After this fight, that was no longer the case. In 49 seconds, Anderson validated all the hype surrounding him and then some.
Lee: When it comes to fighters making the leap from a well-known North American promotion to the premier fight promotion in the world, nobody did it better than Ronda Rousey.
To be fair, Rousey was plenty famous before signing with the UFC. She would turn out to be the most important piece of the Strikeforce acquisition, which included stars and future stars Alistair Overeem, Dan Henderson, Nick Diaz, Gilbert Melendez, Daniel Cormier, Fabricio Werdum, Gegard Mousasi, Ronaldo Souza, Yoel Romero, and Luke Rockhold, among others. Take a look at those names again and realize that by the time Rousey’s fighting career was done, she’d leave a more significant impact on MMA than all of them.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. If all Rousey and opponent Liz Carmouche did was participate in both the first-ever women’s fight and first-ever women’s main event in the UFC, they would still have their names etched in history. UFC President Dana White had been quoted as saying that women would never compete in his promotion. He changed the rules for Rousey, and in doing so, changed the entire business.
By the time UFC 157 rolled around on Feb. 23, MMA was well into its boom period. UFC or not, a personality like Rousey wasn’t going to stay a secret for long. Her Strikeforce days saw her become a known commodity even among the casual crowd. She made the media rounds, received profiles from major publications, and even landed on the cover of the 2012 edition of ESPN’s Body Issue.
Still, fame and success were not guaranteed. While Gina Carano and Cris Cyborg had paved the way for women’s MMA to break into the mainstream, Carano chose to continue growing her profile by going Hollywood, and Cyborg had to take a detour through Zuffa-affiliate Invicta FC before joining the UFC due to it not having a featherweight division. It fell on Rousey and Carmouche to get this thing going.
Putting extra pressure on Rousey was the fact that upon becoming a member of the UFC roster, she was immediately upgraded from Strikeforce bantamweight champion to inaugural UFC women’s bantamweight champion. Featherweight champion Jose Aldo and men’s bantamweight champion had received similar promotions when they came over from the WEC, and they had both lived up to their reputations, so Rousey couldn’t afford to lay an egg unless she wanted the honor of being the UFC’s first female champion to always have an asterisk next to it.
The fight turned out to be a thriller, with Carmouche briefly threatening to upset Rousey with a rear-naked choke. But Rousey was able to turn the tables and use her signature armbar to secure a history-making win with a little over 10 seconds left in the opening round. It was more than a proof of concept that women’s MMA had a place at the UFC table. It showed they could sit at the head of it.
Rogan, ever the company man, further hyped the moment: “Ronda, congratulations, you are not just the first UFC women’s champion, you are a real representative of women’s athletics, you are a true champion. Congratulations, it’s an honor to call your first fight.”
It was billed as a momentous occasion, and it couldn’t have gone better for the UFC. Rousey was going to be a major star even if she’d lost, but her dramatic performance guaranteed her name would soon be ubiquitous in the MMA scene and for years to come. The PPV reportedly sold 450,000 buys, perhaps bolstered by names like Lyoto Machida, Dan Henderson and Urijah Faber being on the card. But the lion’s share of the credit has to go to Rousey. She went on to headline or co-headline four UFC PPVs that would crack the 900,000 buy mark.
There may have been debuts more impressive from a visual standpoint (Michel Pereira, anyone?), more dominant, and even more exciting (hi Justin Gaethje). But none were more important for the UFC than Rousey staking her claim to fame in Anaheim, Calif., on that fateful February night.
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