As fans of the combative sports, it’s a very hard thing to see a fighter we like and have rooted for many times to begin a downhill slide; we know it will happen eventually, and sometimes it happens sooner than we expected, but that doesn’t make it any easier.
While MMA fans are dedicated on one hand, they are quick to mock and condemn on the other. Before you know it, this fighter or that champion was never really all that good anyway, and you know it’s true because if it wasn’t they wouldn’t be losing.
It’s the kind of attitude that’s to be expected in the fight game; fans are only human, after all, and it’s far easier to be pessimistic than optimistic.
Still, secretly, many a fan has a special place in their heart for at least one fighter who is struggling, hoping they can find a way to turn the tide and prove all the naysayers wrong. Fans also love to root for the underdog, even if they only do it through gritted teeth.
Perhaps the notion of fighters making comebacks is unconventional from a fan perspective, but it does happen. When a fighter is honest and decides that he still wants to fight more than anything else, it is then that positive change is most likely to occur.
One example of this is Arturo Gatti, who looked like he was simply finished as a boxer—too many wars and too much punishment coupled with a face-first style that simply didn’t have to be so—and thought by many to be too old to change his style.
But change he did, and the comeback was achieved, and we got one of the greatest boxing wars the sport has seen in some years: Arturo Gatti vs. Micky Ward.
When you consider that boxers take far more punishment in their careers than MMA fighters, the tale of Gatti is inspiring.
So taking that inspiration to heart, here is a list of five fighters who could make a comeback, should they find their dedication equal to their desire.
Once upon a time, Mirko "Cro-Cop" Filipovic had just about the perfect formula for success, much like Chuck Liddell; stuff those takedowns and blast them out on their feet.
Then, after suffering a brutal knockout in his fight with Gabriel Gonzaga via head kick, Filipovic seemed to fall into hard times, never regaining the consistency he once enjoyed.
In subsequent fights, he looked lackluster, unsure of how to attack; almost as if he had forgotten the means that had seen him achieve such great ends in the days of Pride.
But all is not lost for Filipovic as long as he is willing to make some changes…
Conditioning: Although this seems like a given that is normally overstated, Filipovic would honestly need to commit to building up his level of conditioning so he could throw over 100 strikes per round, and he’d need to do that while stuffing many takedowns.
Yes, far easier to talk about than achieve, but if the dedication and the desire are there, then it can be done.
Filipovic is still probably the best striker in the history of the sport among the heavyweights, at least in terms of skill, and if he could get his cardio up to the point where he could unleash those skills several times per round, a lot more people are going to go to sleep.
Training Camp(s) & game plans: Change is good for everyone, and Filipovic could see his game skyrocket if he changes things up and gets with a good camp that can strengthen his weak areas: takedown defense, wrestling and submissions.
It would be plausible for Filipovic to start training with a camp like Tristar; there is a wealth of talent he could draw upon, and they could certainly help him polish his ground game while rediscovering his greatest tool: striking.
And if that didn’t work for him, he could always head on over to Xtreme Couture, where he would learn the importance of developing sound game plans in addition to working tirelessly on improving his wrestling chops and conditioning.
Defense: To be blunt, Filipovic has been hit far too many times by men who aren’t even close to being in his league, and that would have to be addressed if he’s going to have any hope of making a comeback.
He needs to learn what positions are dangerous for him, and how to get out of them—fast. He lingers too long in dangerous territory, and that is when he normally gets caught.
Filipovic used to be the expert at dictating how and when the fight was going to be fought, forcing his opponents to fight him on his terms, not theirs. Now, in recent years, it is the exact opposite, and that needs to change.
He needs to tighten up his defense, become more elusive, utilize a whole lot of head movement and work like a madman to get off the cage once he is pressed there.
Boxing: Whoever fights Filipovic, they are going to be wary of one danger alone, really: those kicks.
Filipovic needs to show the world that he’s not just a one-dimensional striker, and that means giving his boxing game some serious attention, because he’s got good fundamentals when it comes to scoring with his hands.
And he needs to embrace that fully and honestly. In order to properly defend himself, he needs to be giving the other guy many things to worry about, and a multifaceted striking attack is a must in the sport today.
If he went to Tristar, Georges St-Pierre would probably be happy to introduce him to Freddy Roach, and I shudder to think just how good Filipovic could become under that kind of tutelage.
It’s hard to believe that a fighter as skilled and capable as Mac Danzig is having such an up-and-down career, losing one bout, winning the next, then losing the next, always seeming to be an inch away from a pink slip.
But that is what is happening with Danzig, and among all those on this list, he seems ideally suited to play the role of dark horse for the division by mounting an epic comeback.
At 33 years of age, he’s still got some time in him, but not a lot. Thankfully, he’s already got an impressive skill set and some natural tools that could make mounting a comeback much easier than it would be.
Aggression: When it comes to Danzig's career, he’s lost seven out of ten bouts by decision, and when you consider his ability, it seems like he’s simply being outworked and out-hustled in many areas.
Danzig has the perfect temperament to become MMA’s Manny Pacquiao, and that means turning up the aggression as if the dial reaches 11.
He’s got KO power and a fair amount of speed, but all of that is useless unless it’s unleashed on a consistent basis, in the direction of the opponent; like they say, in the fight game it is far better to give than receive.
And if the other guy doesn’t fall down, being the more aggressive fighter still helps win decisions.
Striking: We know Danzig is capable of knocking out opponents with his fists, but he’s the kind of fighter who has all the ability to attack like Jose Aldo—he just hasn’t had those skill levels brought up like they could be.
Danzig could be a terror if he were to seriously establish a fast-paced striking game based around leg kicks, a serious jab (not the meaningless range-finders so many other fighters employ), a heavy overhand right and a counter left hook.
He would also be well served by taking such a high-octane pace with his striking and keeping it going when he circles around opponents, constantly giving them angles and making them adjust as he throws feints and darts in and out.
Conditioning: Danzig has always been in pretty good shape, but if he’s going to press the action at all times, it only makes sense that he’d need to really take his training regimen and kick it in the pants.
A man like Danzig should be able to exert enough energy to stuff takedown attempts like his life depends on it, time after time after time, and still keep circling and throwing over 150 meaningful strikes per round.
Training Camp(s) & game plans: If there is one camp out there that seems perfectly suited to give Danzig the overhaul he needs, it’s Tristar.
Given a game plan based around the idea that offense is the best defense, Danzig would be ideally placed to learn from Freddy Roach, not to mention all the other trainers and fighters available at Tristar, including GSP. Who could help improve Danzig’s wrestling and takedown game—both attacking with and defending against—better than GSP?
And when you also consider how much dedication and preparation they have for conditioning and game plans, Tristar would be the kind of gym that could help Danzig reinvent himself into the kind of fighter most expected him to become after winning Season 6 of The Ultimate Fighter.
By now, if you haven’t seen BJ Penn throwing himself at the welterweight wall, don’t bother, because it’s a sad, ugly sight.
For some time now, Penn has seemed blindly determined to conquer the welterweight division a second time, and his past two attempts have seen him battered needlessly and in such a way as to make it hard to believe he is still one of the most talented fighters in the game today.
After his last loss to Rory MacDonald, Penn seemed unsure of what he was going to do next, and these days, Dana White has the same look on his face when he looks at BJ Penn that he did when he was watching Chuck Liddell get knocked out, over and over.
If Penn really wants to change things, then he also needs a change of scenery, and that means leaving the welterweight division in his rear-view mirror, for good.
If he could make that decision, then he could focus on returning to the land of the lightweights, and aside from losing two decisions to Frankie Edgar (who was a bad stylistic matchup for Penn), he has always been his best at lightweight.
But a decision to go back to 155 is just the beginning, as there is a great deal of work he would have to do.
When considering the unique situation of BJ Penn, it is clear there are many areas of opportunity, mainly because he’s never really done anything other than fight off sheer talent and athleticism.
Striking: Penn already has great hands, but he doesn’t really use anything else except for the exceptional flying knee, so right away there are new weapons to be discovered and polished.
The idea of Penn throwing biting leg kicks and rib-bending knees in the clinch is so new it’s almost sad.
Penn has proven KO power; he just needs to learn new systems of delivery, and that would give potential opponents much more to worry about.
Conditioning: Penn needs a serious commitment to conditioning, to the fullest extent possible. I could go on and on, but really, he needs a total overhaul in the way he prepares for a fight, and that means letting someone else call the shots…
Training Camp(s) & game plans: Okay, I will put this out there and get it out of the way: I think Penn could become a true monster if he were to take up the offer given to him by Tristar head trainer, Firas Zahabi, to train with them.
But I don’t think he would. For Penn, that would seem like another defeat unto itself, and there are only so many fresh hells one man can endure before they really do hang up the gloves for good.
So, the next choice is Xtreme Couture.
Couture could help him in two main areas: conditioning and game plan.
Anyone who knows about Couture knows his dedication to training, and he instills that in everyone he works with, so it’s obvious that Penn would be put through the paces as part of a team, not the star of the show.
Then, Penn would be introduced to something somewhat foreign to him: the almighty game plan. And few are better at that than Couture.
Penn has worked with Randy Couture before, and has a good relationship with him. He also seems to respect Couture enough to let him be in charge, and at this stage in his life, Penn needs to rediscover the hunger of a student, because everything Couture has said about Penn speaks to the notion that “The Prodigy” is an apt pupil.
By now, nearly everyone has had more than a few good laughs at the expense of former two-time UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia, and to be honest, he hasn’t done much since the fall of Affliction, aside from indulging in a level of hubris equal to his appetite come dinner time.
But the man still wants to fight, and given his size and KO power, should he be willing to make some hard choices and maintain the high level of discipline needed to make everyone eat their words, then he could make one of the epic comebacks of all time.
Eating Right: No one is going to be shocked by this, but Sylvia is so out of shape that it seems like he’s trying to impersonate Roy Nelson. Seriously, if he wanted to stage a comeback, he’d have to overhaul his whole life, and that is really the best place to start this kind of comeback—in the kitchen at home.
Conditioning: Sylvia comes from the Miletich camp, so he knows how to get into shape, but I don’t think he can do it alone. He needs to be running every day, swimming every day and generally working his tail off, and he needs to be doing it more than the other guy. So the best person to partner him with would be Forrest Griffin at Xtreme Couture, because outworking Griffin would be close to impossible, but even if you fail, you’re in excellent shape.
Submissions: Odds are that yes, Sylvia is going to find himself on the ground again, and when he does, he’s going to need to be ready; not only to defend himself against submissions, but to attack with them as well. This could go hand-in-hand with all of his conditioning and grappling work.
Training camp(s) & game plans: Sylvia honestly needs to be a part of a program that is incredibly demanding and deep, so deep he loses himself in it. Only hard training can get him back out.
Sylvia could become a much better striker with far greater mobility if he really works at it, but he could stand to improve in a lot of things; the main point here is working with a group of men who can build a game plan for each of his fights, and who can help him fortify his weak areas, while playing to strengths he probably didn’t know he had.
In short, he needs to be training at Xtreme Couture or with Greg Jackson; ideally he’d spend equal time at both camps. It would keep the grind of training from getting overwhelming and it would also achieve a kind of balance that has been missing from his career for some time.
Sylvia has the potential to develop some serious weapons, and much of that is based upon his length of frame. Training alongside Jon Jones would be an eye opener for Sylvia, re: the applications of leverage for throws and grappling.
Make no mistake, there is a method to the madness Jones employs in his grappling, and I think that should it infect Sylvia, he could shock a lot of people.
If Kazushi Sakuraba is going to keep fighting, then something’s got to change, because I don’t know if I can handle seeing the man’s ear come halfway off his damn head another time.
Sakuraba doesn’t seem to be making the most of the latter years of his combative career so much as he seems to be simply enduring them. It’s almost as if he is using the same hammer and wrench now that he did back in the early days of Pride, and that is simply not going to work anymore.
And another thing that isn’t going to work is fighting men much larger than him. He needs to pick an organization with strict adherence to weight divisions and really dedicate himself to competing within that division—and no other.
Movement: Sakuraba is fairly fleet of foot, but it is as if no one has ever really given him any kind of direction of where to move, what direction to circle in, when to do it and when to stop to fight—which makes a difference.
A man who has taken as much damage as Sakuraba needs to make sure he is the one deciding where and when the fight is fought, and that means he needs a high degree of mobility, both via superior speed and by utilizing some of the basic advantages that come with superior footwork. He can’t just move backwards or forwards, waiting to catch a limb as it is swung at him; he needs to be circling and stalking like a jungle cat.
Striking: If there has been any area to Sakuraba’s game that has always been drastically inferior, it’s his striking.
The good news is that in never committing enough of himself to learn good striking, he never based his style around any significant bad habits; to be honest, he still doesn’t know how to strike, so starting over would not be as hard as many imagine.
The perfect place for him to really start over is going to be the place that gives him the very best foundation, and that could be found in three gyms: Tristar, Greg Jackson’s or Black House.
All three of these camps have a specific style, but their fundamentals are incredibly sound, and of the three camps, I once again like Tristar best, especially for their connection to Freddy Roach.
Training Camp(s) & game plans: Moving to a different training camp would be a huge plus, as it would fully immerse Sakuraba in the job at hand: re-imagining and rebuilding.
A place like Tristar is isolated enough that he would soon run out of jokes and have to start getting serious, and at this stage of his career, after all the damage his body has taken, he needs to be as serious as he can get.
He needs to be involved with a serious group of people, and Tristar seems like the gym that has the most to offer Sakuraba when it comes to his strengths and weaknesses.
Sakuraba just can’t go walking into the ring or cage, fighting on the fly, so to speak; he just can’t take that kind of chance with his body and health anymore. He needs some serious game plans.
I honestly don’t think I have ever seen Sakuraba implement a stylized game plan for a specific fighter. He fought them all like they were the same, and that's because he had limited resources.
That must change if he is going to keep on fighting, because sooner or later he is going to finally be forced to retire; his countrymen will find a new hero, and all he’s going to be left with are some great memories and even greater pain.
It is odd to think that a fighter should learn the finer points of combat just to protect themselves from the man in the mirror, but that is very much the case for Sakuraba, who is always going to fight when Japanese pride is leveraged into the equation.
Time to give him the tools to do it as best he can.