As fans of the fight game, we are always ready—at least in the back of our minds—for a moment in the fight that could make time stand still or make our jaws drop in shock, awe or revulsion (or perhaps all three).
When two men (or women) enter into a physical contest, often times the predictable is shockingly unpredictable; we fully accept that a limb could be snapped by a submission, but we don’t know what it is going to look like when it happens until it happens.
Sure, some of us are screaming “Break it!” at the top of our lungs, but most are arrested by the moment unfolding before our eyes. We are witnesses to the harsh taskmaster those fighters serve, wondering just how deep their commitment to the fight and personal honor really is.
These are highly trained men and women, and still there are times when a situation or circumstance—perhaps unseen until that very moment—brings a horrible possibility to our attention.
And during those times, we cringe.
So, in that spirit, here are 20 of some of (but not all) the most cringe worthy moments in MMA history, and a tip of the hat to those who shrugged it off and went back into training as soon as they could.
God bless each and every one of them.
When: Jan. 26, 1995
Where: Pancrase: Eyes of Beast 1 (Nagoya, Japan)
This is truly one of the nastiest leg submissions I’ve ever seen, and for me it has a high cringe factor for obvious reasons.
The heel hook is a wicked LBS (lower body submission) to begin with, but when it becomes a cross-body heel hook and the opponent doesn’t know what to do, and turns the wrong way for a split second, it goes from wicked to awful in a heartbeat.
The ankle of Leon Dijk is rotated nearly all the way around, and he ended up spending nearly nine full months rehabilitating his leg.
Looking back on those early days, it’s clear that Dijk had no idea what he was doing, allowing Ken Shamrock to get to mount almost as if it was staged.
Dijk learned from all of the mistakes he made in that bout and continued on in his career, but this moment no doubt still follows his name to this day.
When: June 6, 2003
Where: UFC 43 (Las Vegas, Nevada)
At the time this happened on PPV, I thought it was just about the worst cut I have seen in combative sport, bar none.
Nearly 10 years later, the song still stays the same. It makes me cringe every time, and I don’t know what is worse; the fact that it is so large, or the fact that it isn’t bleeding really, at all.
Whatever the case, it is still one of the most cringe worthy cuts I’ve ever seen.
When: July 11, 2009
Where: UFC 100 (Paradise, Nevada)
This is one of those moments that will live in infamy, and I’m not talking about the first right hand that sent Michael Bisping’s consciousness sailing into the 10th row.
What made me cringe is watching Henderson leaping into the air, fist cocked back to deliver a coup de grace that was more akin to the Germans carpet-bombing London in WWII.
“Air-Hendo” is now a term forever associated with both men, mainly because of that singular moment, frozen in time, that saw Henderson flying through the air, fist traveling like a falling star toward the fallen Bisping with his jaw slack, out cold.
You knew when the blow landed that it was gonna be bad, and it was.
When: April 21, 2007
Where: UFC 70 (Manchester, England)
I’ll be upfront and honest about one thing: the main reason why this fight is on this list really isn’t for the head kick that Gonzaga landed, even though it was a very good kick.
What bothers me is the way Cro-Cop fell, and the angle of his foot as it twisted and then remained twisted under him while he was out cold.
To this day, I cannot watch that knock out, for that very simple reason.
When: Nov. 2, 2001
Where: UFC 34 (Paradise, Nev.)
There is something almost primal and horrible about how the first fight between BJ Penn and Caro Uno ended; something that looks like a street fight masquerading as professional competition.
To see Uno lying against the fence, one leg bent behind him as if he is sliding in to home plate, while Penn stands above him, driving one right hand after another into his face…it seemed more like a horrendous assault that a prize fight.
It’s not that Penn did anything wrong—because he didn’t—it’s the fact that when seeing something as cold-blooded as that, it leads some to imagine just how far and how bad it could have gotten for Uno had no one been there to stop it.
When: March 22, 2002
Where: UFC 36 (Paradise, Nev.)
It doesn’t seem like all that long ago that Frank Mir was stepping into the UFC as a virtual unknown, amazing all of us with his submission skills.
That was certainly the case when he squared off against Pete Williams, the man who made his big splash on the big stage by knocking out Mark Coleman via head kick all the way back at UFC 17.
The fight didn’t last long, as Mir snagged this variation of a Kimura/shoulder lock—hell, I don’t even know what to call it, honestly—from the bottom like he had just fallen down and pulled the winning lottery ticket from his back pocket.
Whatever the technical name for this submission from the bottom, Williams was not liking it one bit, and seeing his arm twisted like that, so quickly, makes me cringe every damn time.
When: April 24, 2010
Where: WEC 48 (Sacramento, Calif.)
Few fights fall into a painfully predictable rhythm that one fighter cannot seem to stop, but that’s exactly what happened to Uriah Faber when he fought Jose Aldo in the WEC in 2010.
The rhythm in question was a brutal, seemingly unending barrage of blisteringly fast, meat-cutting kicks to the legs of Faber, who seemed utterly unable to stop it.
How Faber kept on coming out, round after round, I have no idea; for any normal person, desperation would have set in midway through Round 2 and they would have called it a day before the start of the third frame.
But not Faber, who marched forward and continued to get his legs blasted black and blue for the rest of the fight.
When: June 20, 2008
Where: Banner Promotions: Night of Combat (Las Vegas, Nev.)
I’ve said it before, countless times, and I’ll say it again: women take pain better than men do, and you need look no further than the case of Kim Couture, who had her jaw snapped cleanly in two, from the middle of her chin all the way up.
It was a horrifying sight—no question—that goes well beyond “cringe worthy” and into disbelief.
To say that she didn’t prove her courage and determination on that day is utterly insane at best and purposefully ignorant at worst.
When: Dec. 31, 2009
Where: Dynamite!! 2009 (Saitama, Japan)
Okay, anytime anyone see’s one person with their arm forcefully wrenched up high behind their back, they’re gonna cringe: but this is far worse.
Shinya Aoki, acting every inch the arrogant, self-righteous bully instead of the honorable professional his Japanese countrymen deserved, not only got the arm of Hirota in that awful position, but pushed until it broke.
Yes, Hirota should have tapped sooner, however, Aoki had the submission deep, and Hirota wasn’t getting out of it. The sheer happiness Aoki took in breaking that arm was evident afterwards as he stood over Hirota and flipped him off.
As great a submission grappler that Aoki is (and he is great, no doubt), one still begins to ponder the wisdom in giving such dangerous skills to a man who twists slights so small and confabulated into excuses to justify his desire to do harm.
One also begins to wonder if he would expect to be granted quarter if the situations were reversed? After all, usually the person who is great at being the hammer is terrible at being the nail.
When: Aug. 25, 2007
Where: UFC 74 (Las Vegas, Nev.)
Yes, this is the fight that saw Renato “Babalu” Sobral handed his walking papers from the UFC after he refused to let go of the choke he had on David Heath.
But in truth, the choke seemed a relief to all the blood spilling out of Heath, all over the Octagon canvas. This wasn’t just a little bloodletting, it was significant.
At some points of the contest, Heath’s blood had saturated the canvas so deeply that no more could be absorbed and thus the continuing deluge was like standing water on a kitchen counter.
After watching Babalu ragdoll Heath all over the mat, using his head as a paint brush, when the choke finally came, it was a mercy, even if it was held on far too long.
When: UFC 96
Where: March 7, 2009 (Columbus, Ohio)
We’ve all seen some serious one-sided beatings in our attendance of the world's greatest sport, but I’ve rarely seen a fight where it looks like one fighter simply cannot miss with his punches.
When Matt Brown battered the durable Pete Sell from pillar to post, he landed just about every blow he threw, and he was throwing some monster shots. Sell ate each and every one of them full and square, making the beating Dave Menne took at the hands of Phil Baroni seem tame.
Most lesser men would have fallen much sooner, but Sell kept on trying to find any way he could to recover and mount a comeback, and for his efforts Brown paid him the ultimate compliment in the fight game: he took him and the potential threat he posed with total seriousness and kept on punching until even Dana White was pounding on the ring apron, screaming for the referee to stop the bout.
The 92 seconds that fight lasted seemed like an eternity.
When: Feb. 24, 2002
Where: Pride 19: Bad Blood (Saitama, Japan)
Few fights live up to their billing, but the bout between Ken Shamrock and Don Frye owned up to all the hype and sales pitches thrown at it, and more.
It was a grueling bout that ended like it had to: with both men on the mat, trying to destroy each other's legs with heel hooks. Those final moments were a testimony to how committed each man was to finishing the fight; neither man was going to quit, no matter how damaged they got.
And there was damage, to be sure. Frye won the fight via split decision, but it seemed as if Shamrock won the war, leaving Frye with fractures and torn ligaments to the legs.
Even Bas Rutten, the commentator (and no stranger to how nasty a fight could get), was screaming in astonishment and disbelief.
When: June 19, 2004
Where: UFC 48 (Las Vegas, Nev.)
When this fight was announced, it seemed, at the time, that all Sylvia need do is keep the fight standing and Mir would be in trouble.
Sadly for Sylvia, he blindly followed Mir to the mat, and from there the end came quickly, via an armbar that ended up breaking Sylvia’s forearm.
When we saw it “pop” like that, there was no mistaking it for what it was: a bad break that we were thankful Herb Dean recognized when he saw it.
Thanks to several instant replays of the break, we got to see it time and again, proving that there are consequences to denying the virtue in the tapout.
When: Dec. 10, 2011
Where: UFC 140 (Toronto, Ontario, Canada)
Continuing with the parade of broken arms…
By the time Frank Mir and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira were squaring off in their rematch, we knew we could expect Mir to go for broke if he had a submission locked up.
That may be the main reason why we watched when he began cranking that Kimura once he had Big Nog pinned beneath him. We knew Nogueira wasn’t going to tap, and Mir wasn’t going to stop applying force, and so we waited for the inevitable.
Seeing the arm break like it did was bad, to be sure, but in this circumstance, for me, the cringing was found in the waiting.
When: Dec. 10, 2008
Where: UFC: Fight for the Troops (Fayetteville, N.C.)
This was bad from top to bottom.
Corey Hill, tall and lanky, threw a kick that saw his shin snap on contact, flopping around grotesquely like a rubber hose.
This is one of those moments were a picture is worth a thousand words, and “cringe” doesn’t do it justice.
When: Dec. 31, 2010
Where: Dynamite!! 2010 (Saitama, Japan)
Kazushi Sakuraba was, once upon a time, the marquee fighter for Pride FC. Humorous, daring, humble, courageous and highly skilled, he went on a win streak at the expense of many a Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner, including Royler, Royce and Renzo Gracie.
But then, as with all great fighters, time caught up with him, and the fact that the promotions he worked for were more than happy to throw him in against, bigger, stronger opponents, he began to take some beatings.
The proof of this became crystalline when he fought against Marius Zaromskis, and his ear came halfway off.
Really, what more needs to be said? The time for words seems to have passed, and now we are left to pray that Sakuraba doesn’t actually die in the ring.
When: June 26, 2005
Where: Pride Critical Countdown 2005 (Saitama, Japan)
Sometimes we don’t really know how much damage a fighter has taken until after the bout is stopped and some perspective is available. Such is the case of Kazushi Sakuraba in his losing affair to Ricardo Arona.
Sakuraba took many hard shots to the head, and once the bout was stopped his face was swollen like a pumpkin and bloody all over.
Perhaps the most disturbing fact of all for us who were watching at the time was the knowledge that he would soon be back in the ring again, suffering for his art with all his heart.
Now, every time I hear that Sakuraba is fighting, I cringe.
When: March 3, 2011
Where: UFC Live: Sanchez vs. Kampmann (Louisville, Ky.)
Speaking of swollen and bloody…
When Diego Sanchez went toe-to-toe with Martin Kampmann, he may have come away with the victory, but the real prize was in the fact that he also got a purple heart.
Sanchez looked simply awful; even worse than when he took a serious beating at the hands of BJ Penn in Tennessee.
We’ve come to know Sanchez for his many wars and his time on the first season of TUF, so to see him as busted up as Kampmann left him provided the contrast needed to recognize just how much damage the man had taken.
Sometimes the price of victory is indeed a steep one, no matter how broadly you smile.
When: July 1, 2006
Where: Pride Critical Countdown Absolute (Saitama, Japan)
By the time everyone saw Wanderlei Silva put Kazuyuki Fujita on the ropes, we knew what was coming next: the tornado.
We’d seen him do it time and again, and as Fujita began stepping into post-holes, Silva was all over him.
One of the great things about Pride FC was also one of the most horrifying: knees and kicks and stomps to the head of a downed opponent was perfectly legal.
And Silva made good use of those rules, dealing out a serious one-sided ass-whooping that ended up putting “Iron Head” out of commission.
So, while we love to see a tornado building, we often cringe because we know what it can do.
When: June 20, 2004
Where: Pride Critical Countdown 2004 (Saitama, Japan)
I remember the first time I saw this, and as soon as Quinton Jackson pulled Ricardo Arona from the mat—triangle leg choke still locked in around Jackson’s head and arm—I knew, as did everyone else, that Arona had two choices, and he had to make them fast.
Either let go of the choke, or hold on and get slammed through the mat.
Arona chose the later, and Jackson slammed him down so hard that the resulting momentum of the slam saw him bang heads with the unconscious Arona.
When looking back at the sport many years from now, fans will come to know that this was the slam of the sport: none have been so epic or destructive.
And when they watch, they will no doubt be holding their breath as Jackson holds Arona well above his head, knowing what is about to come.
Sometimes the anticipation of a thing is greater than the thing itself: this was equal on both sides.