The UFC is undoubtedly the world’s biggest MMA promotion. So, it stands to reason that finding success there isn’t always that easy for even the best fighters.
Over the years we’ve seen a number of excellent fighters who failed to make it to the top of the UFC, but were able to become legends in rival promotions instead.
Some of these fighters made a return to the octagon, and while others may do the same in the future, whether they’ll find success on the big stage a second time around is always up for debate.
Here are five fighters who didn’t win gold in the octagon but became legends elsewhere.
#5. Ryan Bader – former UFC light heavyweight contender, double champion in Bellator MMA
When he won the light heavyweight bracket on the eighth season of The Ultimate Fighter, it looked like Ryan Bader was absolutely destined for stardom in the promotion. A standout collegiate wrestler who also possessed explosive knockout power, ‘Darth’ seemed to have all the tools to get to the top of the promotion.
However, while he did pick up some huge wins during his eight-year stint in the octagon, Bader could never quite get over the hump to become a true contender for the light heavyweight title. ‘Darth’ lost a total of five fights with the promotion, but only his 2011 defeat at the hands of the aging Tito Ortiz could be considered disappointing.
Outside of that, he suffered setbacks against Jon Jones, Lyoto Machida, Glover Teixeira, and Anthony Johnson. Interestingly, three of those four fighters fought for the light heavyweight title in their next bout, showing how close Bader was to the top.
In 2016, though, ‘Darth’ decided to make a career-altering decision. After picking up two final wins in the octagon, he decided to leave for pastures new, in this case, Bellator MMA.
The results were immediate, as Bader won the Bellator light heavyweight title from Phil Davis in his promotional debut. He then went onto capture their heavyweight title, too, knocking out the legendary Fedor Emelianenko for the vacant title in early 2019.
Since then, while Bader has lost the light heavyweight title, he remains Bellator’s heavyweight kingpin and is still the only fighter in Bellator history to hold two titles simultaneously. Essentially, while he’s a footnote in UFC history, he’s become a legend in their rival promotion.
#4. Mike Brown – former UFC lightweight contender, featherweight champion in WEC
When powerful featherweight Mike Brown signed with the WEC, the sister promotion of the UFC, in mid-2008, few fans, even hardcore ones, remembered his career as a lightweight in the octagon.
That was hardly surprising. Brown had only fought on the big stage once, albeit under the large spotlight of UFC 47, one of the promotion’s biggest pre-TUF pay-per-views. However, the fact that he was submitted by Genki Sudo in the first round of that fight, and did not return to the promotion, meant that he was immediately forgotten.
Following the loss to Sudo, Brown put together an impressive run of 9-2, defeating former octagon star Yves Edwards along the way. That was enough to earn him a shot in the WEC, where he beat former featherweight title challenger Jeff Curran in his debut.
Nobody foresaw what would happen next, though. Promoted as a ‘challenger of the month’ type against longtime WEC featherweight champion and poster-boy Urijah Faber, Brown stunned everyone by knocking out ‘The California Kid’ in the first round, cementing himself as the world’s best 145lber.
Brown went onto defend his title against Leonard Garcia and against Faber in a rematch, before losing it to Jose Aldo in late 2009. By that point, his legacy as one of the Zuffa-era WEC’s legends was already complete.
2011 saw Brown move back to MMA's premier promotion, along with the rest of the WEC roster. However, he was less successful there, putting together a record of 2-3 before hanging up his gloves in 2013. He now acts as one of American Top Team’s main coaches, but is still fondly remembered for his run in the WEC.
#3. Wanderlei Silva – former UFC light heavyweight contender, middleweight champion in PRIDE
Japan’s PRIDE promotion produced a number of legends, but it’s arguable that none were bigger than Wanderlei Silva, who ran roughshod over their middleweight (205 pounds) division from 2001 through to 2007.
‘The Axe Murderer’ made his debut there in 1999, defeating pro-wrestler Carl Malenko. But it was his victories over PRIDE’s biggest star, Kazushi Sakuraba, that turned him into the most feared fighter in Japan. From there, Silva victimized everyone he fought, from Yuki Kondo to Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson, usually knocking them out with his trademark stomps or soccer kicks.
However, longtime UFC fans tended to argue that the fighters competing in that promotion’s light heavyweight division were still superior to the Brazilian, despite his fearsome nature. The explanation was a simple one, Silva had failed to make an impact in the MMA leader prior to his move to PRIDE.
He’d debuted in the octagon with a famous 44-second loss to Vitor Belfort. While he did rebound with a knockout of the unheralded Tony Petarra, he was then thoroughly beaten by Tito Ortiz in a bout for the vacant UFC light heavyweight title.
Given that Ortiz, and then Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell, held that title at the same time as ‘The Axe Murderer’ was on his great run in Japan, the derisive attitude of UFC fans towards him did make sense.
Eventually, Silva did return to the UFC, but to be fair, by that stage he was past his prime. He did put on a few epic bouts, most notably with Liddell, Keith Jardine and Brian Stann, but never came close to recapturing his PRIDE form.
However, it’s safe to say that despite his failure in the octagon, he remains a legend of MMA due to his success in Japan, and is still renowned today.
#2. Jorge Santiago – former UFC middleweight contender, middleweight champion in Sengoku
When the UFC suddenly exploded in popularity during the initial TUF boom of 2005 and 2006, the promotion quickly needed to sign a lot of fighters to bulk their roster out for the extra events they found themselves putting on. One such fighter was Brazil’s Jorge Santiago.
A longtime veteran of smaller promotions like King of the Cage, Santiago held an impressive record of 11-5 when he was inked by MMA's premier promotion in 2006. When he knocked out Justin Levens in vicious fashion in his octagon debut, it looked like he had the potential to make some real noise.
However, Santiago’s fragile chin quickly betrayed him. A pair of knockout losses to Chris Leben and Alan Belcher sent him tumbling out of the promotion as 2007 began.
Rather than stop fighting, though, the Brazilian regrouped in remarkable fashion. First, he won a much-hyped four man, one-night tournament in Strikeforce, and then moved to Japan with the up-and-coming Sengoku promotion.
Suddenly, it seemed like Santiago simply couldn’t stop winning. He reeled off five wins in a row in Sengoku, all via finishes, ending in a win over PRIDE veteran Kazuo Misaki to claim the Sengoku middleweight championship.
A loss to Mamed Khalidov followed, but Santiago quickly avenged the defeat to reclaim his title. He made one more defense in a rematch with Misaki before the promotion largely crashed.
It was no surprise when the UFC then brought him back. While he had no more success there than in his previous run, dropping two fights in a row, his run in Japan had made him a much bigger deal than he’d ever been before, making him a prime example of a fighter who thrived outside the UFC.
#1. Nick Diaz – UFC welterweight contender, welterweight champion in Strikeforce
Nick Diaz is undoubtedly one of the biggest stars that the UFC has seen, but it’s probably fair to say that his run inside the octagon hasn’t quite been as successful as his drawing power might suggest. In fact, the Stockton-based fighter actually holds a losing record of 7-8 in the promotion.
So how exactly did Diaz become one of MMA’s biggest stars without producing massive success in the UFC? It’s safe to say that his drawing power was largely developed during his run in Strikeforce from 2009 to 2011.
Diaz’s initial run in the UFC wasn’t bad by any means, but it wasn’t enough to turn him into a genuine star. His clashes with Diego Sanchez, Karo Parisyan and Joe Riggs, as well as his unusual charisma, made him a cult favourite of sorts, but he never really came close to title contention.
When he left the promotion in 2006, though, that all changed. Diaz’s first post-UFC bout saw him shock the world by submitting PRIDE poster-boy Takanori Gomi, but it was his move to Strikeforce in 2009 that really cemented him as a star.
The promotion, the second-biggest in the world behind the UFC at the time, immediately pushed him as a big deal. When he defeated Frank Shamrock, he quickly positioned himself as the organisation’s poster-boy.
When he went onto defeat the likes of Scott Smith, Marius Zaromskis and Paul Daley in thrillers, it was hard not to be impressed. Suddenly, he was seen as the best 170lber not in the UFC and the biggest threat on the planet to the dominance of UFC welterweight king Georges St-Pierre.
Unsurprisingly, then, when Strikeforce’s roster was slowly absorbed into the UFC following the promotion’s buyout in 2011, it was Diaz who all of the fans wanted to see back in the octagon. That hasn’t really changed in the decade that has followed.
Would Diaz have achieved the same success had he stayed in the octagon from the start? It’s honestly doubtful, and it shows that in some instances, leaving the world’s biggest promotion can be a good thing.