The 10 Most Clutch Finishes in MMA History
Clutch performance—performing well under extreme pressure. It often refers to high levels of production in a critical game, such as Game 7 of a best-of-seven series, or the final minute(s) in a close match. Being "clutch" is often seen by sportswriters and fans as an innate skill which some players have while others do not.
In mixed-martial arts, there are always high-pressure situations, and a lot of guys who blow it in the final moments. The ability to perform to the best of your abilities at the most pivotal of moments is an enviable quality that attributes to major success inside the Octagon.
As long as the final horn has yet to sound, both fighters are still in the fight. No matter how badly a fighter is getting dominated, there is always the opportunity for them to reach down deep and deliver with a stoppage.
This list is a celebration of the elite fighters who were able deliver where many would have faltered.
I’d like to thank MMA lead writer Jonathan Snowden for his contributions for some of these selections.
Scott Smith vs. Pete Sell
Although the original idea for The Ultimate Fighter was for one fighter to secure a UFC contract, longtime fans of the show know that multiple contracts are always up for grabs. At The Ultimate Fighter 4 Finale, Scott Smith was fighting for his UFC livelihood when he squared off against fellow semi-finalist Pete “Drago” Sell.
Their encounter was a fan friendly affair in which both men took great pleasure in the amount of punishment that they were able to both dole out and receive. Clearly aware of the entertaining bout that they had engaged in, the pugilists stopped mid-round to high five and share a laugh.
The conclusion of the fight saw Sell rock Smith was a hefty body shot. Clearly crumpled up in agony, Smith looked to be completely out of the fight. If he wanted another fight in the UFC to be guaranteed, he could not afford to leave without the win. As “Drago” charged in for the kill, Smith threw one perfectly placed haymaker that landed clean on the button.
Sell hit the canvas completely unconscious, and Smith fell shortly after, now the proud owner of a highlight reel finish and one of the greatest come-from-behind victories in history.
Martin Kampmann vs. Thiago Alves
Although Kampmann has put on admirable performances against Carlos Condit, Diego Sanchez, Jake Shields and Rick Story, he has never quite been able to get over the hump that would solidify him as a legitimate title challenger.
Kampmann’s first flirtation with a shot came in the form of a No. 1 contenders bout against Mike Swick. Unfortunately, Swick was hurt during training and Kampmann found himself TKO’d by late replacement Paul Daley.
When a major opportunity presented itself in 2010, Kampmann jumped for it. Strikeforce middleweight champion Jake Shields needed a fight in the Octagon before Dana White was willing to give him a crack at Georges St. Pierre. Although he was expected to be just a speed bump on Shields’ path to GSP, many feel that Martin was the deserving winner of their closely contested bout, despite losing via split decision.
For the third time in his MMA career, Martin Kampmann nearly dropped out of title contention within the welterweight division when he took on former contender Thiago Alves back in March. In a fight where Kampmann was out-struck for nearly three complete rounds, Alves briefly opened a window.
With one minute left on the clock, Thiago shot in for a takedown. Kampmann rolled through the attempt with diamond-like precision, and secured a guillotine choke and the win within the blink of an eye.
Royce Gracie vs. Dan Severn
In the finals of the UFC 4 tournament, the poster boy for Gracie Jiu-Jitsu was in serious trouble. Meeting a debuting Dan Severn must have been a daunting task considering that Dan’s style had not been seen. As a matter of fact, Severn needed less than three minutes combined to dispose of his first two opponents via rear-naked choke.
With a heavy top game that both stifled and frustrated the winner of the first two UFC events, Severn kept Gracie down for the majority of the first 15 minutes of the contest. It appeared that the American wrestler would be the first man to defeat Gracie and debunk the notion that jiu-jitsu was the most dominant martial art in the world.
The fate of his family legacy was in Royce’s hands and he did not disappoint. Pulling out all the stops, Royce finished Severn with a move that had yet to been seen inside the UFC: the triangle choke.
Tito Ortiz vs. Ryan Bader
Last July, Tito Ortiz was fighting for much more than a paycheck. Tito was fighting for more than his job. When it came down to what was really on the line, Tito Ortiz knew that his UFC 132 bout with Ryan Bader would change the course of his legacy forever.
Competing against elite competition, Tito ran into a wall back in 2006. After an entertaining stint as a coach on The Ultimate Fighter and a pair of wins over faded legend Ken Shamrock, Tito faced the cream of the UFC light-heavyweight division: Chuck Liddell, Rashad Evans, Lyoto Machida and Forrest Griffin. Realizing that the sport may have passed him by, The Huntington Beach Bad Boy took a big step down in competition against Matt Hamill, and came up short once again.
Although he was never dominated by anyone, Tito was winless in his last five UFC appearances and the Grim Reaper undoubtedly had his sights set on Tito’s career. A contest with Ryan Bader on July 4th weekend in 2011 seemed like a death sentence to many. After all, the only loss Bader had tasted in his career was to reigning champion Jon Jones.
Tito shocked the world when he dropped Bader in the first minute of the fight and immediately followed it up with a guillotine choke that forced The Ultimate Fighter champion to tap.
Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen
Leading up to his championship opportunity at UFC 117, middleweight challenger Chael Sonnen promised the world that he would take Anderson Silva to the mat at will, and that there was nothing “The Spider” could do about it. In their contest, he certainly lived up to his word, taking down the champion in each of the five rounds and doling out over 300 strikes in the process.
Additionally, Silva couldn’t seem to predict the intentions of Sonnen while the fight remained standing. On multiple occasions, Sonnen landed heavy strikes while they were on their feet. Now that he was being dominated in all locations of the fight, things did not look good for Black House’s most famous student.
There is no doubt that Anderson’s legacy would be forever tarnished if his first loss in the Octagon came in a fight that could have been scored 50-42. Instead, Anderson summoned the proper mentality and found an opening. With the final minutes of the bout rapidly ticking away, Silva forced a tapout via triangle/armbar and rightfully reinstated himself at the top of the P4P rankings.
Big Nog vs. Brendan Schaub
When the UFC finally made their long awaited return to Brazil, there was one fight on the card that may have had hometown fans a little worried.
Heavyweight runner up on The Ultimate Fighter season 10 Brendan Schaub had gone on a recent tear of major knockouts, including Big Nog’s PRIDE brethren Mirko Cro Cop. With Nogueira seemingly losing form in recent bouts, fans certainly must have been afraid of seeing their hero knocked into retirement by a young lion ready to take his place on pride rock.
After stoppage losses to Frank Mir and Cain Velasquez, the formerly inhuman ability of Big Nog to absorb copious amounts of punishment had disappeared. For the first time in his career, he appeared to be a mere mortal. This fight meant a lot more than the rankings would imply, because the legacy of an all-time great was on the line.
With no signs of the bout heading to the canvas and early clinch uppercuts knocking back the head of Minotauro, it appeared as if the end was near. One quick left hook/right straight combo later and a limp Schaub was falling belly first to the canvas, leaving Big Nog to celebrate with his countrymen.
Matt Hughes vs. Carlos Newton
Matt Hughes nearly came up short in his initial bid for the UFC welterweight championship. Champion Carlos Newton had only tasted defeat once inside the UFC prior to this bout, and it came via split decision against Dan Henderson in the UFC 17 tournament final.
After dethroning Hughes’ teammate and longtime champion Pat Militech at UFC 31, Newton was a heavy favorite going into this fight. Near the end of the bout, Newton was able to lock up a tight triangle choke that had the challenger desperately looking for a way out.
He found one.
Moments away from fading, Hughes lifted Newton high into the air, and created highlight reel gold by power-bombing the champion into a deep state of slumber. Woozy and disoriented from being choked out, Hughes had to be told by his corner that he had won the fight.
Frank Shamrock vs. Tito Ortiz
Entering UFC 22, rising star Tito Ortiz held a professional record of 4-1 and had already avenged his sole career loss. The UFC had high hopes for the young Ortiz, but there were concerns that he may have been pushed too far too fast when he was tossed into the cage with defending champion Frank Shamrock.
Shamrock was the initial UFC light-heavyweight champion and was looking for his fourth consecutive defense of the belt. To the surprise of many, after three completed rounds, Tito found his way ahead on the scorecards and appeared to be en route to defeating the MMA pioneer.
Shamrock would find a way to overcome the adversity, as he stopped Ortiz with strikes with only seconds left in the fourth round. Tito put up a good fight, but it wasn’t enough to stop Shamrock from leaving the UFC and abandoning his championship—citing “lack of competition” as his reason for departure.
Chris Leben vs. Yoshihiro Akiyama
UFC 116 will always go down in my book as one of the most entertaining events in MMA history. Aside from a fantastic main event, we saw the incredible back and forth battle between Stephan Bonnar and Kryzysztof Soszynski, a submission of the year candidate from Chris Lytle against Matt Brown and stellar performances from George Sotiropoulos, Brendan Schaub, Ricardo Romero and Gerald Harris. The most entertaining fight on the card, however, was the short notice fight between Chris Leben and Japanese/Korean superstar Yoshihiro Akiyama.
Successful in his debut contest against Alan Belcher, Akiyama was originally scheduled to face PRIDE legend Wanderlei Silva. Silva had been on Akiyama’s radar for a long time, and he mixed no words when requesting the bout. When Silva was injured leading up to the contest, Akiyama was disheartened to say the least.
When the red-headed Ultimate Fighter alum was named as Wandy’s replacement, it became very clear that Sexyama was not happy, as he threatened to pull out of the card, citing that Leben is not a worthy opponent. At that point, there is no way that Chris could allow himself to lose this fight.
In an epic battle that was nominated for fight of the year in which both men landed and received insane amounts of damage, the two exhausted fighters slugged it out like zombies. Akiyama appeared to be getting the better attacks in and was likely going to win a decision if the scorecards were reached.
As the clock neared its expiration, Leben started to lock in a triangle choke that fans saw coming from a mile away. The crowd roared in anticipation once the move was secured and Las Vegas exploded when Akiyama was forced to tap.
Leben not only earned the respect of his opponent that evening, but he showed the world that Chris Leben wasn’t a name that would fade quietly into the night.
Randy Couture vs. James Toney
While you may laugh at this upon first seeing it, this is one of the most clutch wins in the history of the sport. When Randy Couture stepped into the Octagon at UFC 118, the fate of mixed martial arts rested squarely in his hands.
In hindsight, fans don’t want to admit that we gave James Toney a puncher's chance in his first and only UFC appearance. But we did, and we should have. After all, nobody has a better puncher's chance than a world champion boxer.
Randy needed this win because MMA couldn't survive the ramifications of a loss. But he didn’t need this win for himself. He needed it for Dana. For me. For you. For anyone who wanted to see mixed martial arts elevated into the mainstream. For every fan who got tired of seeing boxing purists on their soapbox and telling us how MMA fighters and unskilled and that a boxer would destroy them. For those people, this was a fight that we couldn’t afford to lose, and Captain America did not let us down.