Not every prospect pans out. You see some guys and are sure they’re going to hold a championship, and maybe hold it for a very long time.
UFC 102 in August 2009 was a night where one of those guys was seemingly born. It’s a night remembered now for its headlining tilt between legends Randy Couture and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, but on the undercard of the event was a young heavyweight by the name of Todd Duffee.
And on that undercard that young heavyweight scored a vicious stoppage of Tim Hague in only seven seconds, leaving the world sure that he would be a force to be reckoned with for a long time.
How could he not be? He was 24 years old, undefeated, built like Hercules and coming off one of the most memorable UFC debuts in history. He was a lock to impress for years to come.
Only he lost his next bout to Mike Russow, who was known more for fighting crime than fighting in the UFC. Duffee was jettisoned from the promotion soon after for being anti-UFC—the greatest crime in the Zuffa handbook.
From there he was cannon fodder for Alistair Overeem in DREAM and left the sport for a year-and-a-half. When he came back, he won a single fight before the UFC came calling again for a warm body in its shallow heavyweight division.
After another win, another year off and another win, he lined up a fight with former champion Frank Mir at UFC Fight Night 71 on Wednesday.
This was the one. This was the fight where he’d realize his potential and show the world what he’s capable of.
Only he didn’t.
After years of ups and downs and falling short right when he needed to clear a hurdle, his greatest fall came in trying to clear his biggest hurdle.
On paper, beating Mir meant something. This was an all-time heavyweight great, a man possessing some of the best jiu-jitsu in the sport and who looked obviously rejuvenated in his last bout only months ago. To beat him would draw major attention to the Duffee that was finally arriving in the way so many had predicted.
In practice though, this was a diminished Mir. This was a man who showed up doughy at the weigh-ins for the first time in his career, wearing every scar, pound and inch that 14 years as a heavyweight in this game will provide. This was the same man who’d lost four straight before beating Antonio Silva in February to save his UFC life.
This was a man waiting to be beaten. And Duffee couldn’t do it.
In a short burst of highly entertaining violence, he looked wild and technically outclassed by Mir. For every swinging barn door of a shot that Duffee threw, it seemed like his opponent was landing two or three more swift shots and hurting him. Accumulation of such damage at heavyweight is usually a precursor to an early night, and when Duffee crumpled to the canvas, he proved to be no different.
That frustrating outcome against a veteran tailor-made to be the premier scalp on his wall is the exact slip-up that defines Duffee as an unfortunate never-was for the UFC to this point. It was a win that was easier to obtain than people would admit going in and would retroactively look better on a resume than it really was, and Duffee simply couldn’t reach out and grab it.
It was all opportunity, and he lost it before he ever got particularly close to seizing it.
There may be hope for him down the line. He’s still under 30, he still has frightening power in his punches and his frame, and he still looks like a star. But this contest against Mir felt like the one to link it all together.
But Wednesday night in San Diego, Duffee killed off whatever momentum he had. Without starting anew and getting over the hump, that never-was tag is in danger of sticking for good.