5 UFC superstars who wasted their prime years
The window for a fighter to achieve major success in the UFC is often a short one, and while there have been some outliers like Randy Couture and Yoel Romero, most fighters hit their athletic peak in their 20’s and early 30’s.
While some fighters have definitely maximized their athletic prime by fighting at the top of the UFC, it’s unfortunate that other great fighters appear to have somewhat wasted their prime.
Issues with the UFC - usually revolving fighter pay - often cause this. On some occasions, however, the fighters involved may have been better off swallowing their pride to make an impact on MMA.
With this considered, here are five UFC stars who unfortunately wasted their prime years.
#5. Nate Diaz – UFC welterweight contender
Nate Diaz is undoubtedly one of the most popular UFC fighters on the current roster. He's also one of the promotion's premier drawing cards, with a fight involving him ensuring interest in any UFC card.
However, Diaz's overall UFC record (15-11) leaves a lot to be desired. And at the age of 36, it's unlikely that the native of Stockton, California, is about to hit a career resurgence any time soon. In fact, it's likely that he's now at the back end of his athletic prime.
Diaz is a fantastic talent, so why isn't his record stronger? Well, part of it is because he has never taken an easy fight in his career. As admirable as that is, it's fair to say that he's wasted a lot of time on the shelf.
In his early years with the UFC, Diaz averaged three fights per year. But after challenging unsuccessfully for the UFC lightweight title in 2012, 'The Stockton Slugger' decided that the UFC simply wasn't paying him what he was worth.
As a result, he would regularly sit out of competition for long stretches, fighting just three times between late 2013 and late 2015.
And even when he reached the apex of his popularity with his two fights against Conor McGregor in 2016, Diaz then chose to sit out following those clashes in an attempt to squeeze more money out of the UFC.
While this attempt worked to an extent – he was reportedly paid a flat fee of $500k for his fight with Jorge Masvidal at UFC 244 – it almost certainly means that Nate Diaz has spent his prime years on the shelf.
He probably has few complaints about this; his bank account has been filled. Diaz is also lucky not to have taken as much damage as some of his peers. However, from a sporting perspective, it's disappointing to see his potential left unrealized.
#4. Roger Huerta – Former UFC lightweight contender
Lightweight prospect Roger Huerta was arguably the hottest fighter on the UFC roster in 2007. 'El Matador' debuted in the octagon in late 2006 and quickly rose to fame with a series of high-octane, exciting victories.
Huerta faced some criticism over the fact that, in the eyes of some fans, the UFC was padding his record to push him as a star. However, there was no denying that the approach was working. When he defeated longtime contender Clay Guida to end the year, 'El Matador' looked like a genuine title contender.
Soon after that, though, things went south. Huerta apparently realized his worth as a potential star for the UFC and reportedly demanded a bigger contract from the promotion. Unsurprisingly, the UFC balked.
That meant that Huerta – who’d seemingly been fighting every other month since his UFC debut, making five octagon appearances in 2007 – sat out for eight months following the Guida fight. He then lost in a tricky bout with Kenny Florian.
If the UFC were hoping that the loss would bring Huerta down to earth, they were mistaken. ‘El Matador’ then sat out for the remainder of 2008 before announcing that he was taking an indefinite hiatus from MMA to pursue a career in acting.
Huerta eventually returned to the UFC in September 2009 but lost to Gray Maynard in the final fight on his deal. He simply didn’t look like the same fighter he once was – and a subsequent run in Bellator also saw him flame out quickly.
Essentially, had Huerta continued to compete in the UFC while he had momentum behind him, he could well have reached the top. Unfortunately, his decisions meant that he failed to live up to his lofty potential.
#3. Henry Cejudo – Former UFC flyweight & bantamweight champion
One of just a handful of fighters to simultaneously hold two UFC titles in different weight classes, it’s fair to say that Henry Cejudo should be recognized as an all-time great in the promotion.
However, could the 2008 Olympic gold medalist have achieved even more? Absolutely – meaning that it’s hard not to feel like he’s wasted his prime years.
Cejudo put together a UFC record of 6-2 before upsetting Demetrious Johnson to win the UFC flyweight title in 2018. After destroying reigning UFC bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw in his first defense, he then defeated Marlon Moraes for the title that Dillashaw vacated just five months later.
‘Triple C’ impressively defended that title at UFC 249, knocking out former UFC bantamweight kingpin Dominick Cruz, but afterward, he stunned everyone by declaring his retirement from MMA.
The announcement came from nowhere, particularly as Cejudo had already talked up potential future bouts with the likes of Jose Aldo and Alexander Volkanovski. He was also 33 years old and in his athletic prime.
Most fans felt that his “retirement” was simply a ploy to force the UFC to pay him more – but over a year later, he still hasn’t returned to action. And even if he does now, there’s no guarantee he’ll be the same fighter.
Essentially, it’s probably safe to suggest that if Cejudo wanted more money from the UFC, he’d have been better off continuing to smash opponents inside the octagon to force their hand, cementing himself further as an all-time great.
As it is, it feels like he’ll go down as one of the UFC’s ultimate “what if?” questions, as his prime is likely to be wasted.
#2. Nick Diaz – UFC welterweight contender
If there’s an argument to suggest that Nate Diaz wasted his prime with his long absences from the UFC, then his older brother Nick must also be considered in the same boat.
In Nick’s case, it’s probably safe to say that his best years came away from the UFC, with promotions like StrikeForce and Elite XC.
While this five-year period between 2006 and 2011 meant that he didn’t face top competition, it did mean that his overall stock rose dramatically – meaning that by the time he returned to the octagon, he was a major star.
When Diaz returned to the UFC at the age of 28 and battered BJ Penn, it looked like he’d go on to have the fruitful career with the promotion that always felt like his destiny. But unfortunately, that hasn’t quite happened.
Diaz lost to Carlos Condit in a razor-close fight to begin 2012 but was still able to secure a shot at UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre a year later, despite not fighting in the interim. But after losing to GSP, he chose to sit out for almost two years.
Since returning to fight Anderson Silva in a huge bout in January 2015, he has not stepped into the octagon. Like his brother, Diaz has been kept away from action largely because of financial issues with the UFC. But it’s probably fair to suggest that he’d have made more money had he simply fought a couple of times.
Diaz is now set to return to action at UFC 266 next month. However, at the age of 38, it’s unlikely that he has a lot left to give, which is definitely a disappointment.
#1. Conor McGregor – Former UFC featherweight & lightweight champion
Conor McGregor is not only the highest-drawing UFC fighter of all time; he’s arguably the most popular, too. No athlete in MMA history, let alone the UFC, has transcended the sport quite like ‘The Notorious.’
Unfortunately, despite his successes – he became the first fighter to simultaneously hold two UFC titles in different weight classes in 2016 – there’s also a fair argument that, from a sporting perspective, McGregor wasted his prime years.
The Irish superstar undoubtedly reached his peak in the octagon at UFC 205 in November 2016, when he knocked out Eddie Alvarez to win the UFC lightweight title.
With red-hot contenders like Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov desperate for a shot at him, it looked like there’d be no shortage of possible fights for ‘The Notorious.’
However, rather than continue to compete in the UFC, McGregor chose to pursue a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather instead, forcing a lengthy hiatus from MMA.
From a financial standpoint, this was almost certainly the right decision, as McGregor reportedly earned somewhere in the region of $130m for what was basically an exhibition fight.
However, from a sporting perspective, it ruled ‘The Notorious’ out of MMA competition for two years. And since he returned to the UFC in October 2018, he’s fought just four times and has only won one bout – a victory over a past-his-prime Donald Cerrone.
More to the point, it appears that his focus on boxing has affected his overall MMA game, as he looked too focused on his punching in both losses to Dustin Poirier.
Had the Irishman stayed in the UFC rather than pursue the Mayweather fight, who knows what he could’ve achieved? Conor McGregor could perhaps have gone onto be recognized as one of the UFC’s true all-time greats.
As it is, he’ll definitely be remembered as the promotion’s biggest-ever star, but also as a fighter who wasted his prime years.