Rose Namajunas was given one of the most difficult tasks of 2017: Dethroning undefeated UFC strawweight queen Joanna Jedrzejczyk at the biggest MMA event of the year, UFC 217.
The 25-year-old Namajunas was a big underdog, and rightfully so.
Jedrzejczyk’s name was synonymous with violence. The 115-pound fighter had become one of the most dominant and feared champions in the company, dismantling opposition with her aggressive, accurate, and overwhelming striking. The Polish technician, who was 14-0 in her professional MMA career, had almost cleared out the entire strawweight division, scoring wins over the top three contenders. That left Namajunas — ranked fourth at the time — as the No. 1 choice to challenge for the belt.
Jedrzejczyk had defended her title a total of five times, and in the process of capturing and retaining the belt, the American Top Team fighter proved she was extremely difficult to beat. Time after time, Jedrzejczyk faced various challenges, from stocky, high-level grapplers to technical strikers and powerful brawlers. Jedrzejczyk beat them all.
Everyone acknowledged Namajunas as a respected fighter, but few gave her a chance against Jedrzejczyk. After all, the two fighters that were able to give Namajunas losses in the UFC — Karolina Kowalkiewicz and Carla Esparza — had both been victims of Jedrzejczyk’s dominance.
Stylistically speaking, the common thought was that Jedrzejczyk was far superior than Namajunas on the feet. Many pundits also thought “Thug Rose” didn’t have the wrestling chops needed to get the champ to the ground, where she stood the best chance of winning.
As Nov. 4 drew near, much of the media coverage and talk surrounding the fight reflected Namajunas’ unlikely chances of winning UFC gold. In many eyes, Jedrzejczyk was destined to tie Ronda Rousey’s record for the most consecutive title defenses in women’s UFC history. And there was plenty of talk about what Jedrzejczyk would do next, as the champ was very vocal about wanting to move up to the newly created women’s flyweight division and become a two-weight world champion following her inevitable win over Namajunas.
When the cage closed in the middle of Madison Square Garden, Namajunas was a +400 underdog, according to the Las Vegas odds. However, the actual fight painted a much different picture than what the odds had in mind.
The stoic Namajunas immediately established her presence with hard leg kicks. Jedrzejczyk looked confident, but that wasn’t going to help her for what was to come.
Two minutes into the fight, the crowd at MSG roared in surprise. Namajunas had dropped Jedrzejczyk with a right hand and had gained top position. It was then that the idea of Namajunas possibly walking away with a win became real. Jedrzejczyk was now in Namajunas’ realm, and UFC light heavyweight champion and commentator Daniel Cormier made sure to point that out in the broadcast, declaring, “This is where Rose has the advantage.”
But just like that, Jedrzejczyk’s impressive ability to get back to her feet kicked in and the crowd began settle down. Namajunas had seemingly lost her best chance of winning the fight, and Cormier, again, was able to express what many watching that night were feeling: Disbelief that Namajunas could beat Jedrzejczyk in her own game.
“It looked like Jedrzejczyk threw a kick as Rose attacked her,” Cormier said. “The shot grazed her a little bit and it knocked her backwards. I think it was a balance thing.”
But it was no fluke.
Namajunas had done her homework.
Just seconds after the first knockdown, Namajunas dropped the unbeaten champion once again, but this time with a left hook.
Over the following 10 seconds, Namajunas pounded her way into MMA Fighting’s 2017 Upset of the Year, but most importantly, into a UFC world championship.
2. Darren Elkins knocks out Mirsad Bektic
If there was an award for Comeback of the Year, Darren Elkins would’ve likely taken it.
Entering his fight against undefeated prospect Mirsad Bektic at UFC 209, Elkins was a +450 underdog. Elkins was a seasoned veteran who had built up some momentum training under Team Alpha Male, but despite being a proven warrior and sitting just one slot behind Bektic in the UFC featherweight rankings, few gave Elkins a shot against a fighter who many considered to be “the next big thing” in the division.
When the bout started, it wasn’t a Namajunas-Jedrzejczyk type of affair. Bektic proved why the odds were so lopsided, outclassing Elkins of the feet and in the grappling department, and opening him up with some ugly cuts that could’ve put the fight in jeopardy.
Bektic was dominant for 13 minutes of the fight, but “The Damage” never looked discouraged, always working as if the fight were close on the scorecard. In the final two minutes of the fight, Elkins was able to press Bektic against the cage. With little time left on the clock, Elkins landed a couple of left hands followed by a head kick that unexpectedly sent the undefeated prospect crashing head-first to the canvas.
Elkins’ primal reaction to his unlikely comeback — covered in blood, fist in the air, shouting to the heavens — was one of the most memorable moments of 2017.
3. Zach Freeman spoils MMA debut of blue-chip prospect Aaron Pico
It’s hard to recall a debuting fighter who carried as much hype Aaron Pico did for his Bellator NYC fight with Zach Freeman.
Pico had never competed in MMA, but the then 20-year-old entered his first professional fight with a prestigious background. Pico was a national junior Golden Gloves champion, a multiple-time Pankration champion, and a very decorated freestyle wrestler who had represented the U.S. in many international events.
In the eyes of virtually everyone, Pico was Bellator’s future and Freeman was just a body upon which Pico could launch his fighting career. Some betting sites had Freeman as low as a +600 underdog.
But when it came down to business, the fight didn’t last long — just 24 seconds to be exact. Freeman wobbled Pico with an uppercut then immediately locked in a guillotine choke to secure the stunning upset win.
4. Brent Primus defeats Michael Chandler to become Bellator lightweight champion
Plenty of unexpected things went down at Bellator NYC, including Brent Primus becoming the promotion’s lightweight champion.
Primus, an undefeated fighter, had proven to be a skilled competitor with a good ground game and decent striking throughout his run to the title. However, Chandler was one of the main faces of Bellator and many within the sport considered him to be among the best 155-pound fighters on the planet.
Unlike our previous picks for Upsets of the Year, this one ended with controversy.
During the feeling out process of the fight, Primus threw a left leg kick. To avoid the attack, Chandler took a step back but didn’t plant his foot correctly, placing his entire weight on his toes and injuring his ankle. It was a grotesque scene. It appeared that Chandler’s left foot was disconnected from the rest of his leg. Every time Chandler attempted to plant on his left leg, his foot would flop and give out.
The fight would end midway through the first round. The doctor overseeing the action refused to allow Chandler to continue fighting on his unstable foot, awarding Primus the upset victory. Primus was a +500 underdog, according to Bovada.
5. Nicco Montano wins TUF 26, becomes UFC women’s flyweight champion.
This upset didn’t go down in a single night, but it was a collection of fights and moments that put Nicco Montano in fifth place for MMA Fighting’s 2017 Upset of the Year.
Montano was a participant of The Ultimate Fighter 26 — the UFC’s reality TV show that was created to crown a champion for the inaugural women’s 125-pound division. Montano entered the show with an unimpressive professional MMA record of 3-2. She was a virtual unknown in the world of women’s MMA and was designated the 14th seed out of the 16 contestants of the show.
Yet, despite not having the experience or the fame that her fellow TUF 26 cast members carried, Montano managed to beat a UFC fighter in Lauren Murphy, a respected grappler in Montana De La Rosa, a former Invicta FC champ in Barb Honchak, and a seasoned veteran with over 30 pro MMA bouts in Roxanne Modafferi.
And just like that, Montano reminded fans that you can never count out anyone in MMA. Montano, a fighter with only two years of professional MMA experience, was able to become a UFC champion.
Here is how the voting for MMA Fighting’s 2017 Upset of the Year played out.
- Josh Emmett vs. Ricardo Lamas
- Volkan Oezdemir vs. Misha Cirkunov
- Darren Till vs. Donald Cerrone
- Robert Whittaker vs. Ronaldo Souza
- Kristina Williams vs. Heather Hardy
- Ryan Janes vs. Andrew Sanchez
- Nik Lentz vs. Will Brooks
- Georges St-Pierre vs. Michael Bisping
- John Moraga vs. Magomed Bibulatov
- Marcel Fortuna and Anthony Hamilton