Jon Jones’ recent UFC Light-Heavyweight title defense against Dominick Reyes at UFC 247 ended in controversy, as many fans and observers believed that the challenger deserved to take the title, feeling that ‘The Devastator’ had done enough to take the first, second and third rounds of the fight.
The judges, however, saw the fight going in the opposite direction – with one somehow awarding ‘Bones’ 4 of the 5 rounds, including a second-round that definitely appeared to belong to Reyes. Was the decision amongst the worst in the history of UFC title fights? Perhaps, but then again, there have been some massively questionable ones in the past, too.
Here are 5 UFC title fights that saw controversial judges’ decisions.
#1 Bas Rutten vs. Kevin Randleman – UFC Heavyweight title, UFC 20
The UFC was a very different promotion to the one we know and love today back in 1999, and while the UFC Heavyweight title had been in existence for a few years, a lot of the rules and regulations of modern-day MMA had yet to be introduced.
There were no five-minute rounds, for instance, and UFC title fights took place with a single fifteen-minute round, with two three-minute overtime rounds if required. And there was no ten-point must system, either; instead, three judges simply selected the fighter they thought had won the bout.
That system caused a ton of controversy at UFC 20, as Kevin Randleman and Bas Rutten did battle for the vacant UFC Heavyweight crown. On paper, the fight appeared to be a classic clash of styles; the flashy kickboxer Rutten against the hard-nosed wrestler Randleman, and sure enough, that was exactly how things played out inside the Octagon.
‘The Monster’ hit a takedown on Rutten almost immediately and began to work the Dutchman over from the top with hammer fists and punches. After a few minutes, ‘El Guapo’ was badly busted up by Randleman’s assault, and midway through the fifteen-minute round, referee John McCarthy called a time out to check Rutten’s cuts.
Rutten refused to quit despite suffering a broken nose but soon ended up being taken down again. Randleman was beginning to slow down at this point, but the only offense that Rutten was able to put together were some hard elbows from the bottom, shots that opened up a cut on the head of ‘The Monster’.
Neither man was able to finish the fight and so after the two mandatory overtime periods – which again saw Randleman secure takedowns and control his Dutch opponent on the ground – the judges were required. And somehow, despite Randleman completely controlling the fight practically from start to finish, all three – Skip Hall, Tim Catalfo and Dan Miragliotta – scored the fight in favor of Rutten, making him the new champion.
Even now – over 20 years later – this decision remains baffling to anyone who watches this fight. It’s true that Rutten did some damage from the bottom, but essentially, he was controlled and beaten up for a total of 21 minutes. Quite how the judges – all of whom were respected in the world of MMA – came to the conclusion that ‘El Guapo’ had won is anyone’s guess.
#2 Lyoto Machida vs. Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua – UFC Light-Heavyweight title, UFC 104
Even before UFC 247, the UFC Light-Heavyweight title had been no stranger to controversial decisions; some would point out Jon Jones’ win over Alexander Gustafsson as being one of the more questionable, but far more egregious was Lyoto Machida’s 2009 defense against top contender Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua.
Coming into the fight, few were giving Shogun a chance; the former PRIDE superstar had looked like a shadow of his former self in UFC action and had earned his shot by beating Mark Coleman and Chuck Liddell, two fighters miles past their primes. Machida meanwhile was unbeaten in 15 fights and when he’d dethroned Rashad Evans to claim the title, announcer Joe Rogan was swift to christen the victory as “the beginning of the Machida era”.
The key to the success of ‘The Dragon’ had been his speed and movement; essentially, nobody had been able to actually hit him cleanly with punches. Shogun, though, had other ideas. Rather than aim punches at the champion’s head, he instead attacked him with a series of low kicks and body kicks, breaking him down from the bottom up.
Machida did answer back with some clean strikes of his own, landing a hard body kick in the second round and a nice flurry to end the third, but for the most part, ‘The Dragon’ was firmly on the defensive for the majority of the five rounds. When the fight ended, it seemed inconceivable that he could hold onto his title.
And yet all three judges somehow called the fight in Machida’s favor, unanimously scoring the fight 48-47 for the champion. To say the crowd – who were pro-Machida prior to the fight beginning – were stunned would be an understatement.
This was a robbery of the highest order – and worse still, one of the judges, the experienced Cecil Peoples, actually attempted to defend his call in a later interview, stating that “leg kicks don’t finish fights” – despite that move being used to finish a fight at UFC 92 less than a year prior.
#3 BJ Penn vs. Frankie Edgar – UFC Lightweight title, UFC 112
It’s often been said that the problem with Frankie Edgar’s fighting style – which largely focuses on a mix of boxing and wrestling and has been criticized for a lack of excitement and labeled ‘point-fighting’ – is that in a close fight involving him, it’s hard to pick a winner. That was certainly the case at UFC 112 when he shocked everyone by dethroning longtime UFC Lightweight champ BJ Penn after a hugely controversial judges’ call.
Nobody was really giving Edgar a chance against ‘The Prodigy’, but after a close first round, it looked like the underdog was at least in with a chance. ‘The Answer’ used his footwork and movement to stay largely out of danger early on, but despite that, it appeared that he wasn’t really landing any meaningful blows on the champion – while Penn landed fewer shots, but ones that were almost certainly more telling.
As the fight went on, though, it appeared that Penn was losing steam – while ‘The Answer’ didn’t slow down, still circling and dancing around and still landing a lot of shots – albeit not truly damaging ones – on the champion. Return strikes from ‘The Prodigy’ were now few and far between, but by the time the fifth round ended, it appeared to most that the champion had probably done enough in the early rounds to warrant the victory.
The judges saw it the other way though, awarding Edgar the fight and the title – with one somehow managing to score it 50-45 for him, meaning Penn’s strong work in the opening two rounds – and arguably the third as well – had gone thoroughly ignored.
The controversial call triggered the UFC to book an immediate rematch between the two – but while Edgar proved that he had Penn’s number by definitively beating him, it wouldn’t be the last time his fights were mired in controversy, as later title fights with Gray Maynard, Benson Henderson and Jose Aldo saw equally questionable calls, both for and against the New Jersey native.
#4 Georges St. Pierre vs. Johny Hendricks – UFC Welterweight title, UFC 167
By November 2013, Georges St. Pierre had been dominating the UFC’s Welterweight division for 7 years, and since winning the title for the second time in April 2008, he’d turned away 8 successive challengers, beating all of them in convincing fashion – even after serious knee surgery in 2012.
At UFC 167 then, many fans were counting challenger Johny Hendricks out, despite ‘Bigg Rigg’ being on a tremendous run of form, knocking out tough contenders like Jon Fitch and Martin Kampmann with his ridiculous punching power and using his wrestling skill to defeat Josh Koscheck and Carlos Condit.
But Hendricks had other ideas, and after narrowly escaping an early guillotine choke, it appeared that some hard uppercuts and elbows to the head – as well as a takedown – had sealed the first round for him. The second round went even better for the challenger; this time he had St. Pierre wobbled with some big combinations, hurting the champion like few had been able to do before. Going into the third round, it was clear that ‘GSP’ was in trouble.
The Canadian champion came back strongly to win the third round with his striking combinations – despite giving up a takedown late on – but a slip on exiting a clinch in the fourth saw him end up on his back, where Hendricks then worked him over with a series of hard punches and elbows, beating him bloody before the round came to an end.
‘Bigg Rigg’ looked ultra-confident coming into the fifth and final round – even singing to himself in his corner – and that turned out to be a big mistake, as GSP showed the heart of a lion to out-fight him in all areas and win the round. But essentially, it looked to be too little, too late.
Despite everyone assuming Hendricks had done the impossible though, only one judge scored the fight for him – the other calling it 48-47 for St. Pierre, giving him a split decision win. Quite how they’d come to that conclusion was a mystery given Hendricks surely took the first, second and fourth round.
The UFC did their best to attempt to book an immediate rematch, but St. Pierre – potentially seeing the writing on the wall – stepped away from the sport instead, vacating the title in the process. 7 years on, while GSP is widely recognized as the greatest MMA fighter of all time, this remains a controversial decision.
#5 Demetrious Johnson vs. Henry Cejudo – UFC Flyweight title, UFC 227
When Olympic wrestling gold medallist Henry Cejudo first faced longtime UFC Flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson for his title at UFC 197 in 2016, he was beaten convincingly – TKO’d by a series of knees inside the first round. By 2018, though, ‘The Messenger’ had improved dramatically and had placed himself in a position for another shot at ‘Mighty Mouse’.
Despite that, few were giving him a chance of actually winning, largely because Johnson had looked phenomenal since winning the title in 2012, barely ever finding himself in trouble in his 11 title defenses. And the first round looked like it’d be no different; ‘Mighty Mouse’ had Cejudo hurt almost immediately with a low kick, rolling his ankle and leaving him barely able to stand. The Olympian did recover but found himself firmly beaten to the punch for the remainder of the round.
The subsequent rounds all followed the same pattern; Cejudo would have some brief success with his well-developed striking skills but was largely being beaten by Johnson, who was also able to stuff the majority of Cejudo’s takedowns – or reverse almost immediately out when he was taken down.
Realistically, the only round that should’ve been scored for ‘The Messenger’ was the fourth – as he was finally able to wrestle ‘Mighty Mouse’ to the ground relatively early on, and was also able to keep him there for the remainder of the round. That alone – winning a single round definitively – was impressive enough.
Somehow though, two of the judges scored the fight 48-47 for Cejudo, handing him his first UFC title and ending one of the most legendary reigns in promotional history in the process. It wasn’t like Cejudo had fought badly, but this was a true head-scratcher as it just didn’t seem like he’d even come close to doing enough to dethrone ‘Mighty Mouse’, who scored more strikes than him over the 25 minutes and largely fended off his takedowns.
The call was so controversial that an immediate rematch was the initial plan – but eventually, the UFC decided against it, and instead Johnson was “traded” to One FC with Ben Askren moving the other way. To say this was a disappointing way for him to end his title reign was an understatement.