5 former UFC champions who returned from retirement in rival promotions

Chuck Liddell (left), Tito Ortiz (centre), Luke Rockhold (right)
Chuck Liddell (left), Tito Ortiz (centre), Luke Rockhold (right)

This week has seen news emerge that former UFC middleweight champion Luke Rockhold is planning a comeback despite retiring in 2022. However, his comeback will not be in the octagon.

Like a number of former UFC champions before him, Luke Rockhold intends to come out of retirement and compete in a rival promotion.

Historically, though, usually due to age or wear and tear, former champions who’ve done this have struggled.

Will Rockhold join them? Only time will tell. Either way, here are five former UFC champions who returned from retirement in other promotions.

#5. Chuck Liddell – former UFC light heavyweight champion

Chuck Liddell made an ill-advised return from retirement in 2018
Chuck Liddell made an ill-advised return from retirement in 2018

Were it not for the buyout of the UFC at the hands of investment giants Endeavor in 2016, Chuck Liddell likely would never have come out of retirement at all.

The former light heavyweight champion hung up his gloves in mid-2010 after suffering a trio of violent knockouts to Rashad Evans, Shogun Rua and Rich Franklin. It was a fitting ending for ‘The Iceman’, who had dished out his fair share of knockouts during his legendary career.

Given that Liddell was close friends with UFC president Dana White and had been one of the promotion’s poster-boys during his peak years, it came as no surprise to see him offered a job behind the scenes.

In early 2011, it was announced that ‘The Iceman’ was the promotion’s new Vice-President of Business Development, and barring the odd guest appearance, it was the last fans expected to see of him.

Unfortunately, though, when Endeavor’s buyout took place, there was suddenly no room – or money – for token jobs like Liddell’s. He was quickly released from his position.

Therefore, just under two years later, clearly needing money, ‘The Iceman’ announced a return to action at the age of 48.

November 2018 saw him face off with old rival Tito Ortiz under the Golden Boy Promotions banner. Despite holding two wins over ‘The Huntington Beach Bad Boy’ in the octagon, he suffered a quick knockout defeat.

Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz #LiddellOrtiz3

Liddell has thankfully headed back into retirement since, and one can only hope that, for the good of his own health, we’ve finally seen the last of him.

#4. Frank Shamrock – former UFC light heavyweight champion

Frank Shamrock left the octagon at the peak of his powers, but when he returned, it was elsewhere
Frank Shamrock left the octagon at the peak of his powers, but when he returned, it was elsewhere

Only a handful of champions in UFC history have chosen to retire at the peak of their powers, and the first of them was Frank Shamrock.

Shamrock became the inaugural 205-pound champion, claiming gold by submitting Kevin Jackson in 1997. He went on to defend his title on four occasions, becoming a legend in the process.

After stopping Tito Ortiz in 1999, though, Shamrock decided that he’d proven enough, and decided to hang up his gloves. It was an odd call to make, but after being hailed as the greatest champion in the promotion’s history, he settled into a role as a commentator.

It didn’t take Shamrock long to return, and in fact, he made three comebacks over the following years – but none of them were with the UFC. He famously butted heads with new head honcho Dana White in 2001, and has been essentially blacklisted since.

His most famous return, of course, came in 2006 with Strikeforce, where Shamrock fought the likes of Renzo Gracie, Phil Baroni and Nick Diaz. Although he only went 2-3 before retiring for good, his presence definitely helped Scott Coker’s promotion establish itself as a major rival to the UFC for a while.

Apr11.200910 years ago today,25 year old Nick Diaz made his Strikeforce debut & finished Frank Shamrock.

#3. Pat Miletich – former UFC welterweight champion

Inaugural welterweight kingpin Pat Miletich (right) returned from retirement in the IFL promotion
Inaugural welterweight kingpin Pat Miletich (right) returned from retirement in the IFL promotion

The UFC’s inaugural welterweight champion Pat Miletich put together a legendary reign with the title, defending it successfully on four occasions during the promotion’s so-called Dark Ages.

By the time that the Fertitta brothers bought out the promotion in 2001, though, ‘The Croatian Sensation’ was beginning to age somewhat. After losing his title to Carlos Newton, he fought just twice more in the octagon before hanging up his gloves in early 2002.

From there, Miletich became almost more renowned as a coach than he was as a fighter, leading the likes of Matt Hughes, Tim Sylvia and Rich Franklin to gold in the octagon.

In 2006, though, a fall-out with Dana White and company saw the former champion join up with the IFL, an upstart rival promotion who had eyes on the UFC’s dominance in the MMA market.

Miletich was signed by the IFL largely in a coaching role, but 2006 saw him make an odd return from retirement at the age of 40 to face off against fellow legend Renzo Gracie.

The fight did not go well for ‘The Croatian Sensation’, who submitted to a guillotine choke at the hands of his larger foe in just over three minutes.

Pat Miletich vs. Renzo Gracie (Sept 2006)

Two years later, Miletich returned again, this time under the Adrenaline MMA banner, stopping journeyman Thomas Denny with strikes. Unsurprisingly, he has not fought since and is now in the UFC’s good books again, being inducted into the promotion’s Hall of Fame in 2014.

#2. Bas Rutten – former UFC heavyweight champion

Bas Rutten (centre) made a surprising return from retirement in 2006
Bas Rutten (centre) made a surprising return from retirement in 2006

One of the few UFC champions to never even attempt to defend his title, Bas Rutten famously claimed heavyweight gold in 1999 by edging out Kevin Randleman in a controversial decision.

‘El Guapo’ vacated his title instantly and intended to drop to 205 pounds for his next trip to the octagon, his goal being to become the promotion’s first ever double champion.

However, a litany of injuries, including a torn biceps and a serious neck injury, instead forced him to retire on doctor’s orders in early 2000.

Rutten was 35 at the time and had been competing since 1993, so it seemed like a comeback was never going to happen, particularly when he joined PRIDE as their fan-favorite colour commentator.

Remarkably, though, in 2006, the Dutchman announced a surprise return to competition. He signed with the WFA promotion to fight on their first pay-per-view, with his intended opponent being fellow octagon legend Kimo Leopoldo.

When Kimo tested positive for anabolic steroids in a pre-fight screening, though, he withdrew, and instead, Rutten used his famed leg kicks to chop down journeyman Ruben Villarreal. Considering he was 41 years old at the time, ‘El Guapo’ looked remarkably good.

Jul22.2006Bas Rutten comes out of a 7 year retirement to compete one last time,& finishes Ruben "Warpath" Villareal by TKO

Unfortunately, he also tested positive for banned substances after the fight – namely a long list of painkillers, hardly a surprise considering his history with injuries.

Rutten went back into retirement after the fight, has not fought since, and was inducted into the UFC’s Hall of Fame in 2015.

#1. Tito Ortiz – former UFC light heavyweight champion

Tito Ortiz's return from retirement saw him head to Bellator MMA for a brief run
Tito Ortiz's return from retirement saw him head to Bellator MMA for a brief run

Few fighters enjoyed such an up-and-down relationship with the UFC as former light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz.

‘The Huntington Beach Bad Boy’ acted as the promotion’s poster-boy for a while, both during the end of the ‘Dark Ages’ period and also during the early years of the Fertitta brothers’ ownership.

However, after losing his title to Randy Couture in 2003, Ortiz’s on-off feud with Dana White became more noteworthy than his actual accomplishments inside the octagon.

By 2012, the former champion was back in White’s good books. However, he was also clearly past his prime, having suffered multiple injuries, in particular to his neck and spine.

After suffering a defeat to old foe Forrest Griffin – a loss that meant he’d won just one of his last seven bouts – he announced his official retirement, and was inducted into the promotion’s Hall of Fame.

Shockingly, though, a year later Ortiz returned from retirement, but to the surprise of everyone, he signed with the UFC’s main competitor, Bellator MMA.

Even more surprisingly, ‘The Huntington Beach Bad Boy’ actually did well for himself in Bellator’s cage, winning three of his four bouts there before again retiring in 2017.

The rivalry between @ChaelSonnen and @TitoOrtiz was 𝒃𝒓𝒖𝒕𝒂𝒍! 👀Relive the bad blood in the latest edition of Bellator Rivals.

He would return a further two times, winning both of his fights, meaning that he actually ended his career on a high note with three straight wins – something that would’ve been unthinkable had he remained with the UFC.

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Edited by Harvey Leonard
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