This Saturday, the UFC returns to Salt Lake City with a loaded card. The elevation of SLC sits at 4,265 feet above sea level, roughly 1,700 feet more than the average elevation in the United States. This increase in altitude can and has affected fighters’ cardiovascular abilities in the past. Let’s take a look at five fighters who struggled with altitude.
UFC 135 took place in 2011 in Denver, Colorado. Like Salt Lake City, Denver is at a considerably higher elevation than the average city at 5,276 feet. Unsurprisingly, this took its toll on some fighters, notably Heavyweight Ben Rothwell. Taking on the always-game Mark Hunt, Rothwell was in for a tough scrap regardless of the location. After a wrestling-heavy first round, Rothwell appeared to be up on the scorecards despite having a cut open above his right eye in the closing moments.
At the start of the second round, he knew something was wrong, stating, “I felt immediately different going into the second round. Just completely different. I can’t overstate it. I felt good in the first round, dominated that round, got cut, then stood up (to start the second), and it felt like all my oxygen had been taken from me.” He was visibly off for the remainder of the fight and received a bad beating from the "Super Samoan." In the final two rounds, Rothwell was outstruck 108 to 9, being taken down twice and controlled for over 6 minutes by the former K1 Champion.
One of the sport's most accomplished and beloved fighters, Charles Oliveira, went through early career struggles to reach where he is today. In 2016, The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America 3 Finale was held in Mexico City, another highly elevated location. With an altitude of 7,349 feet above sea level, it’s not surprising many fighters have had gas tank problems in CDMX. One of these fighters was “Do Bronx,” who, when scheduled to fight Ricardo Lamas, would end up missing weight by an entire weight class, weighing in at 155 for a Featherweight bout.
His team would blame the elevation and previous injuries, claiming, “Our athlete Charles ‘Do Bronx’ was invited to fight only three weeks ago. Even with the short period of recovery, the fighter proudly accepted another challenge to represent Brazil and the UFC. Unfortunately, he was hampered by his recent bout against Anthony Pettis, in August, and the high altitude of Mexico City, and didn’t make the weight.” After a competitive first round, Oliveira looked depleted at the start of the second. In an uncharacteristic performance, he would get controlled and submitted on the ground in the second round.
A necessary double entry, this bout occurred the last time the UFC came to Salt Lake City in 2022. Paulo Costa entered this bout following his weight-miss fiasco before losing to Marvin Vettori, while Rockhold was returning from a three-year layoff. With Rockhold announcing he would retire after the fight and Costa’s struggle to make 185, neither fighter’s cardio was expected to be phenomenal. This would prove more accurate than anyone could imagine, with the fight quickly devolving into a sloppy brawl. After a wild and close first round, both looked exhausted at the start of the second.
Surprisingly, more punches were landed in the second than in the first, but both didn’t have much left in the tank by the third round. Both fighters’ output dropped, with only 25 punches being landed compared to the 53 in the previous round. Although neither had anything left to give, they left it all in the cage to make for an excellent scrap. When it was over, Costa was awarded the unanimous decision victory, and surely both fighters returned home for a fantastic night's sleep.
In another bout from the UFC’s previous visit to Salt Lake City, UFC Welterweight champion Leon Edwards struggled with the altitude against Kamaru Usman. Already in for a war, given he was fighting the #1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world, Edwards didn’t need any external factors to make this bout difficult. The elevation was of no concern for his opponent, who regularly trains at high altitudes in Denver. From the start, the difference in preparation was evident, and Usman would go on to outstrike Edwards in all five rounds.
Visibly losing energy each round and undeniably losing the fight, Edwards knew he had to give it everything he had in round 5. With the world and even the commentators (other than Jon Anik) counting him out altogether, he’d manage one of the biggest upsets and most shocking moments in the history of MMA, knocking out Usman with a devastating head kick at 4:04 in the fifth round. Overcoming the odds and the elevation, Edwards proved why he’s a true champion that night.
Easily the most famous instance of a fighter affected by elevation, this was an obvious #1. One of the greatest champions in the history of our sport, Cain Velasquez, was a dominant wrestler best known for one thing; his cardio, earning him the nickname “Cardio Cain.” No matter who he faced, it was known he was going to put the hurt on his opponent from bell to bell. Whether through his powerful wrestling or sharp boxing, Velasquez was going to beat up and outlast his opponent, and he managed to become a two-time Heavyweight champion doing so. The UFC scheduled him to defend his strap in Mexico City against former UFC reject Fabricio Werdum.
Werdum had only recently returned after his iconic defeat of Fedor Emelianenko and had mounted a five-fight win streak on his path to the title. Aware of the issues presented by the elevation, Werdum flew out six weeks early to acclimate. On the other hand, Velasquez wasn’t as concerned, showing up just two weeks before their showdown. This decision would prove his downfall; Velasquez was uncharacteristically tired in a close, back-and-forth affair. Eventually, he’d shoot a desperate takedown and fall right into the loving arms of Fabricio Werdum, who immediately locked in a guillotine. The champ was forced to tap, and the legend of “Sea Level Cain” was born.