Winning a UFC title can not only be a ticket to fame and fortune, but also a chance to become immortalized in the history of the sport.
However, in this article we’ll look back at 10 UFC stars that didn’t get a chance to reap those rewards after coming agonizingly close to getting their hands on the belt, only to then see it slip from their grasp.
Having essentially trash-talked himself into a middleweight title shot against Anderson Silva in 2010, few people gave the quick-witted Chael Sonnen much of a chance of actually beating one of the greatest fighters of all-time.
However, Sonnen surprised everyone by not only giving Silva a torrid time on the mat with his wrestling skills, but also actually had some real moments of success on the feet too.
By the final round Sonnen was comfortably cruising to one of the biggest upsets in MMA history as he yet again took Silva down and smothered him on the mat.
However, mid-way through the round Silva seized on the slightest of opportunities to lock in a triangle choke and then threw in an armbar for good measure to force Sonnen to tap-out.
It was a bitter pill to swallow, particularly as it left him regretful about being unable to fulfill a promise to his dying father to win a major championship belt.
“At this point, I almost regret it and wish I would’ve kept it as a personal motivation for myself,” Sonnen told MMA Junkie towards the end of his career. “It is a lot of pressure. … I will either win the championship, or I will be a failure.
At UFC 221 in 2018, Yoel Romero was unexpectededly handed a chance to fight for the interim middleweight title against Luke Rockhold after Robert Whittaker pulled out injured.
It was a golden opportunity for ‘The Soldier Of God’ to finally get a UFC belt around his waist, and indeed he would go on to win the fight in highlight-reel fashion as he floored Rockhold with an overhand right and then landed another blow on the canvas to render him unconscious.
It should have been a moment of triumph for the Cuban star, but there was a catch – he already knew that he wouldn’t be taking home the title that night despite his victory as he’d been declared ineligible to win it a day earlier after he came in 2.7lbs overweight for the 185lb fight.
Remarkably, Romero would not only get another title shot straight away, but would again miss weight and lose out on the chance to win the belt, though this time Whittaker won by unanimous decision anyway.
Jon Jones was a heavy favorite to beat Dominick Reyes at UFC 247, but after he’d uncharacteristically struggled against Thiago Santos in his previous outing, there was a school of thought that the unbeaten ‘Devastator’ could pull off a historic upset.
Reyes was certainly confident pre-fight that he could get the job done and he immediately took the fight to him in the opening round and found success with strikes that at one point knocked Jones off-balance to the mat and at other times saw him hastily retreating to avoid a continual barrage of blows.
By the third round Jones long title reign appeared to be in a precarious position as he struggled to switch up a gear, but in the championship rounds he did start to gain momentum offensively, while Reyes own output began to wane, which would ultimately lead to the result being left in the hands of the judges.
There was a palpable feeling that a new 205lb champion could be crowned, but instead the judges ruled unanimously in Jones favor, with one scorecard of 49-46 in particular receiving heavy criticism afterwards.
Opinions have varied about who actually won the fight, with more media outlets having scored it in Reyes favor, while Dana White also believed he’d won, but others dids see it in Jones favor.
Alexander Gustafsson came into his title fight with Jon Jones at UFC 165 as a heavy underdog, with ‘Bones’ being a seemingly indestructable force at the time who had yet to be fully tested in the Octagon, despite already having fought many of the biggest stars in the division.
However, ‘The Mauler’ would prove to be a worthy adversary and was soon finding a home for his punches in a way that had never been seen before against Jones, even opening up a cut near his eye in the opening round and also taking him down too.
The rounds that followed saw the two men fighting blow-for-blow as the bout veered towards instant-classic status and set up a thrilling finale for the championship rounds as fans dared to believe that Gustafsson could deliver an all-time great upset.
It was a true test of Jones’ championship mettle and one he would pass as he began to step up a gear and hurt Gustafsson late in the fourth round, and though Gustafsson continued to stay competitive until the final bell, ‘Bones’ had the bigger moments and that would help lead him to a unanimous decision victory.
The result of the fight has been heavily debated since, but most media outlets did score it in Jones favor and the Fightmetric stats agreed. Nonetheless, there was disappointment that an immediate rematch didn’t come to fruition, though they would clash again five years later in a bout Jones would win by TKO.
Pedro Rizzo was a prominent heavyweight in the late 90’s and early 2000’s and actually fought for the title on three occasions.
The closest he came to actually winning the belt undoubtedly came during a five round battle with Randy Couture at UFC 31 in 2001, although it was a fight that started out badly for the Brazilian as ‘The Natural’ was able to take Rizzo down and maul him with ground and pound in the opening five minutes.
However, Rizzo would recover from that and from the second round on began landing his renowned hard leg kicks, and infamously would leave a permanent dent in Couture’s leg from his uncommonly heavy blows.
The third round was very close, the fourth saw Couture edging ahead and then fittingly for what would prove to be 2001’s ‘Fight Of The Year’, the ebb and flow of the bout continued in the final round with Rizzo appearing to get the upper-hand.
So, the result would rest in the hands of judges who declared Couture the winner by unanimous decision.
The fight had been close enough that an immediate rematch was called for, but this time ‘The Natural’ found a definitive finish via a third round TKO stoppage in what would prove to be Rizzo’s last title opportunity.
Fans weren’t particularly enthused about Gray Maynard getting a title shot against lightweight champion Frankie Edgar in 2011 due to the fact he was known to grind out decision victories, but no one could complain about his undefeated 12-fight career record that included a previous win over ‘The Answer’ three years earlier.
However, their title fight turned out to be a classic and Maynard came extremely close to ending Edgar’s own lengthy win streak in the opening round of the fight as he dropped him with a left hand and then repeatedly sunk him to the canvas again as the champion tried to rise back up.
The battered and bloody Edgar showed the heart of a lion though to not only keep fighting through that extreme adversity, but also find his groove and make the rounds that followed highly competitive to the extent that the fight would end in a split draw decision.
An immediate rematch was called for and again Maynard put a beating on Edgar in the early stages of the fight, but again he couldn’t quite find a finish and this time Edgar would make him pay later in the bout with a TKO stoppage.
Stephen Thompson’s run to the welterweight title was certainly impressive, seeing him compile a seven-fight unbeaten stretch that included KO and TKO victories over the likes of Robert Whittaker, Jake Ellenberger and Johny Hendricks, then a decision win over Rory MacDonald.
Next up he would face the champion Tyron Woodley, but unfortunately it didn’t prove to be as exciting as his previous bouts.
Instead this was an extremely tense, tactical battle in which they both appeared to be very wary of the other man’s deadly striking, with the fight only bursting to life momentarily in the fourth round when Woodley had Thompson in real trouble for a spell.
The fight would go to the judges and there was so little to choose between the two men that the fight was declared a majority draw, meaning that Woodley retained his title, with two judges scoring three rounds to two in Thompson’s favor, but also giving the champion a 10-8 round.
The two would then fight for a second time a few months later in 2017 and it would prove to be an even more uneventful encounter and in fact one of the worst title bouts in recent memory, with Woodley eventually managing to edge out Thompson by the narrowest of margins via a majority decision verdict.
After winning the UFC’s interim heavyweight title in 2010, one of the most thunderous knockout artists in the history of the promotion, Shane Carwin headed into a blockbuster title showdown with Brock Lesnar at UFC 116.
It was quite the spectacle to watch these two man mountains clash in the cage and Carwin quickly gained the upperhand as he floored Lesnar with the heavy hands that he’d stopped all five of his previous UFC opponents with inside the first round.
It looked as if Lesnar was all set to be his next victim as he began raining down blow after blow on the still dazed champion and another referee might have ended the onslaught to spare him from further punishment.
However, though Herb Dean did look like he was about to do just that, he let the action continue and somehow the battered, bloody and bruised Lesnar made it out of the round.
Suddenly the momentum shifted heading into the second round with Carwin having emptied his gastank trying to force a stoppage, while Lesnar still had something left in his locker and would go on to submit his exhausted opponent a few minutes later to retain his title.
There had always been some level of intrigue about what would happen if highly regarded champions from other prominent organizations were to fight each other, and one such bout came to fruition in 2013 when Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez signed for the UFC and immediately headed into a title encounter with former WEC and current UFC lightweight champion Ben Henderson.
Unfortunately it didn’t prove to be a thriller, with Henderson in particular setting out with a cautious approach that largely consisted of just scoring points with leg kicks, while Melendez tried to make a fight of it, but found it difficult against such an elusive target.
Nevertheless, when it came down to the judges scorecards, many fans believed that Melendez had done enough to edge out a victory, including the FOX commentators that night, Brian Stann and Chael Sonnen, but the judges ultimately handed Henderson a split decision victory (48-47 x2, 47-48).
“Sometimes it actually makes it a little bit harder knowing that everyone thinks I did win,” Melendez said after the dust had settled on the show.
Carlos Condit does have an interim welterweight title in his trophy cabinet, but he fell just short of being crowned an undisputed champion.
Condit’s first title opportunity came against Georges St-Pierre at UFC 154 in 2012 and he did rock the champion with a head kick during that fight, but ultimately lost out by unanimous decision.
Over three years later Condit had another opportunity to claim the belt, this time fighting against Robbie Lawler at UFC 195.
It proved to be an all-out war between the two, with Condit offering up a dazzling display of high-output striking, while Lawler’s deadly led to knocking down ‘The Natural Born Killer’ in the second round and launching into a ferocious onslaught in the final five minutes.
That led to a nailbiting wait for the verdict from the judges, but ultimately Condit’s heart was broken as he lost out by split decision.
Condit certainly had a right to feel hard-done-by as Fightmetric stats showed he’d landed more significant strikes than Lawler in every round, while the vast majority of media outlets had scored the fight in his favor.