When Bruce Buffer is introducing a combatant and yells: “AND FORMER, LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION,” it’s quite the ambiguous term. It’s a little vague because the fans don’t know if the fighter was a multi-time belt holder or if they simply won it once and failed to defend it. There are many excellent fighters, even future Hall of Famers that won a Championship but did not successfully defend it. The Light Heavyweight division is a useful example because there was a time period between 2008 and 2011 where the belt was only successfully defended once, by Lyoto Machida at UFC 104. Even that victory was surrounded by controversy as the fans and media almost unanimously felt Mauricio Shogun Rua had won the fight.
Matt Hughes has gone on record saying that he doesn’t believe that a fighter is worthy of being called a champion unless they defend the belt at least once. That’s easy for Hughes to say, he’s a nine-time champion! Hughes’ point is somewhat valid, in the sense that he shouldn’t be in the same category as just any former champion, but he might take it a bit too far. By saying that someone can’t be considered a champion unless they defend it, is kind of implying that they simply “had a good night” or “got lucky.” As we’re about to see on this list, it’s obvious that a lot of these champions who failed to defend their belts did not simply get lucky, as their title wins were hard fought and oftentimes spectacular. Here are the top 10 UFC champions, that could not successfully defend their strap!
10. Evan Tanner
When people think of the Middleweight Championship, they automatically think of Rich Franklin and Anderson Silva. Tanner was somewhat of a forgotten champion. Even though he failed to successfully defend the Middleweight belt, he left quite the path of destruction along the way. He finished his opponents in 29 of his 32 victories (yes 29!). Fans are enthralled with fighter’s that finish their fights, rather than those we leave it to the judges decision, and Tanner doesn’t get the credit he deserves. You’d be hard pressed to find another fighter that has a 91% finishing rate over a span of 30+ fights.
9. Bas “El Guapo” Rutten
Many know Bas Rutten as the hilarious bald guy from Inside MMA, or for co-starring in “Here Comes the Boom” and arguably being funnier than Kevin James (just kidding, there’s no arguing there). Some moderate fans only know him for his hilarious self defence videos. But the truth of the matter is, Bas Rutten was a force to be reckoned with in his prime. He was a 5th degree black belt in Kyokushin Karate and a 2nd degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. He also perfected the liver shot (before it was cool), whether it be with a knee or a punch.
Rutten won the Heavyweight Championship against Kevin Randleman in one of the most controversial decisions of all-time. Regardless of the outcome, “El Guapo” knew that he got out-muscled in many of the exchanges and that it would be in his best interests to drop a weight class, so he ultimately vacated the title. He fought once more, and was forced to retire due to injuries.
8. Carlos Newton
Carlos Newton finished his career with a 16-15 record, which is far from impeccable. But it’s important to bare in mind that Newton faced top notch competition throughout his career. Take into account that some of his losses came at the hands of Dan Henderson, Matt Hughes, Matt Lindland, Kazushi Sakuraba (in his prime) and some guy named Anderson Silva.
He submitted the first ever Welterweight Champion, Pat Miletich, in the third round via bulldog choke. This brand of choke is so rarely seen in MMA, that if you Google it, the image of Newton choking out Miletich is one of the first images that pops up. Newton would then go on to defend the belt against Miletich’s protégé, none other than Matt Hughes. Hughes was manhandling Newton in the early going, but eventually got caught in a triangle choke. Hughes lifted Newton up and realized that the hold was really tight and his only option was to slam him. The slam left Newton completely out cold. As mentioned above, Hughes would go on to be a nine-time champion, so it’s not as if Newton lost to a stiff.
7. Matt “The Terror” Serra
Matt Serra scored one of the biggest upsets of all-time when he knocked out Georges St-Pierre at UFC 69. Serra started off as a +700 underdog which was the biggest margin for a title fight in UFC history. The spread only grew on fight day as pundits were dropping huge amounts of cash on St-Pierre to win. Serra hit GSP with an overhand right which buckled his knees, then followed up with a onslaught of punches as St-Pierre had lost his equilibrium and could not recover. This was a true underdog story, but it would be very cheap to refer to it as lucky. There were many hurdles Serra had to jump in order to get the title shot in the first place. It wasn’t as if he was just magically placed there.
Serra had to win The Ultimate Fighter 4 in order to obtain this title shot, which was no picnic. TUF 4 was billed as “The Comeback” because everyone on the show already had UFC experience. He was also at a significant disadvantage right off the hop because he was an undersized Welterweight, and had competed most of his career as a Lightweight. He managed to avenge a TKO loss to Shonie Carter and win the finale against an extremely game and durable Chris Lytle. It’s hard to knock a guy who will go down as the only man to ever KO Georges St. Pierre.
6. Vitor “The Phenom” Belfort
Ok, we can concede this one to Hughes. In this particular case, one could make the argument that Belfort was never a legitimate champion. He won the belt off of the legendary Randy Couture at UFC 46. The legitimacy of this win is contested because 49 seconds into the bout, Belfort connected with a punch but the seam of his glove cut Couture. “The Natural” started to bleed profusely and the doctors deemed that he could not continue. Belfort was therefore awarded the belt and a TKO victory. Couture promptly avenged the controversial loss at UFC 49 with a TKO of his own.
Regardless of whether he deserves to be considered an official champion or not, Belfort still clocks in at #6 because he’s had a fantastic career. He’s beaten the likes of Gilbert Yvel, Wanderlei Silva, Rich Franklin, Michael Bisping and most recently scored devastating head kick victories against Luke Rockhold and Dan Henderson. It will be interesting to see if he can keep up this torrid pace without the use of testosterone replacement therapy (doubtful).
5. Forrest Griffin
Forrest Griffin won everyone’s heart on The Ultimate Fighter 1, with his whit, charm and sheer lunacy. What really won him over with the fans, was the fact that “the common man” could relate to him. Griffin did not have an incredible pedigree coming onto The Ultimate Fighter and did not display any skills that particularly stood out. He was just an average Joe that worked really hard and would not take no for an answer. There were times when he was training at Extreme Couture, where they would turn out the lights and lock the doors and he would still refuse to leave.
His hard work and dedication finally paid off when he earned a hard fought decision victory over Rampage Jackson for the Light Heavyweight title by decision. This was not a lucky win by any means and much like Serra’s win, it’s essential to consider what he accomplished/who he beat before he got to title fight. When Griffin was booked to fight Shogun Rua at UFC 76, he was looked at as a sacrificial lamb. Despite taking some punishment in the early going, Griffin rallied for a third round submission victory. He earned himself the Submission of the Night, and Upset of the Year honors. As well as the coveted title shot. He would then lost his title at UFC 92 to Rashad Evans, who’s no slouch, by TKO.
4. Mark “The Hammer” Coleman
“The Hammer” does not get enough credit for his accomplishments in the UFC. Partly because when he was competing, the sport was considered taboo and they were lucky to get over 2.000 fans to come watch an event.
These days, it’s not uncommon to see a fighter compete less than three times a year. Coleman fought three times in one night at UFC 10! It’s not like he was fighting slouches either. After he earned a ground and pound victory over Moti Horenstein, he had to deal with two savages in Gary Goodridge and Don Frye. It was like a WWE gauntlet match, but in MMA. Coleman finished all of his opponents, winning the UFC 10 tournament.
He eventually locked horns with Dan Severn at UFC 12 and successfully unified the UFC Heavyweight Championship and UFC Superfight Championship. Then, Coleman and Maurice Smith had an absolute slugfest at UFC 1 and Smith earned the decision victory, along with the titles. The fight was voted as the Fight of the Year for 1997. Based on the path of destruction Coleman inflicted in such a short period of time, it’s unjustifiable to not consider him a true champion.
3. Frank Mir
It’s a shame Frank Mir was forced to take nearly two years off rehabbing his knee after his motorcycle accident. At the time of his accident, he was in his prime and tearing apart the Heavyweight division. The UFC had never seen a Heavyweight with such great Jiu-Jitsu and overall versatility. The accident unfortunately tore all the ligaments in his knee and broke his leg in two places. He was stripped of his Heavyweight Championship because he was obviously not able to defend it.
When Mir finally came back from his injury, he performed terribly, dropping fights to Marcio Cruz and Brandon Vera. Despite the setbacks, Mir persevered and finally got his mojo back. He rattled off wins against Antoni Hardonk, Brock Lesnar, Antonio Nogueira (twice), Cheick Kongo, Mirko “Cro Cop” and Roy Nelson. There were however some brutal losses sandwiched between these wins, and he must wonder how many title defenses he could have made if not for the accident.
2. Mauricio “Shogun” Rua
Shogun avenged his controversial decision loss to Lyoto Machida at UFC 113 in Montreal, winning the Light Heavyweight Championship. He was scheduled to make his first title defense against Rashad Evans, but Evans was forced to pull out of the fight due to a knee injury suffered during training. This was subsequently bad news to Shogun because he was then forced to defend the belt against Jon Jones. He ended up getting absolutely demolished and how could you blame him? In time, Jones may very well go down as one of the best fighters of all-time and already has the record for most Light Heavyweight title defenses.
1. Rashad “Suga” Evans
There may be a collective “eye roll” when seeing Evans at #1 on the list and that’s okay (that’s what the comment board is for). What people don’t realize is that Rashad Evans is one of the most underrated fighters in the UFC. He has compiled a MMA record of 21 wins and 3 losses. It’s also not like he was eased into the UFC, as all his fights have been against top competition. He’s scored wins over the likes of Michael Bisping, Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell, Forrest Griffin, Thiago Silva, Rampage Jackson and Dan Henderson. He won the Light Heavyweight Championship off of Forrest Griffin at UFC 92, but lost it to Lyoto Machida via KO at UFC 98. But how can he not be considered a true champion? He basically faced murderers row and come out on top in all but one of the fights and is a no doubt future Hall of Famer.