The UFC has been home to the world’s best fighters for the best part of two decades now. And naturally, it usually takes fighters plenty of time and experience to get there.
Sometimes, though, the UFC takes a risk and recruits fighters with little to no experience in MMA. The promotion has given a handful of fighters their MMA debut in the Octagon.
The results these inexperienced fighters have seen in the UFC have been mixed, and it remains rare for the promotion to bring in MMA debutants. Will it happen again in the future, though? Quite possibly.
Here are five inexperienced fighters who made their MMA debuts in the UFC.
Note: for the purposes of this article, only the modern-day UFC (post-2001) has been considered. After all, most of the fighters in the early UFC events were making their MMA debuts.
#1 BJ Penn (UFC record: 12-13-2)
Although his UFC career ended with a horrible slump of seven straight losses, most observers still consider BJ Penn one of the greatest fighters of all time.
The Hawaiian won both the UFC Lightweight and UFC Welterweight titles during his time with the promotion and beat greats such as Matt Hughes, Sean Sherk and Jens Pulver.
Perhaps the most incredible thing about Penn’s run, though, was the fact that he actually made his MMA debut in the UFC.
The Prodigy was given his shot due to his accomplishments in the world of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Penn earned his black belt faster than any other practitioner and quickly went onto become the first non-Brazilian to win the black belt division in the World Jiu-Jitsu Championships.
Upon debuting in the UFC, he made his mark in no time at all. A TKO of Joey Gilbert started him off on the right foot, and he followed that with KO wins of Din Thomas and Caol Uno to earn a UFC Lightweight title shot in just his fourth UFC fight.
Penn lost that fight to champion Jens Pulver but quickly got back onto the winning track, and the rest is basically history.
On this occasion, at least, the UFC taking a risk on an MMA debutant paid off big time.
#2 Marcio Cruz (UFC record: 2-2)
Like BJ Penn, Marcio Cruz was signed by the UFC with no MMA experience due to his legendary status in the world of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Better known as Pe De Pano, Cruz’s list of achievements in the world of grappling were phenomenal. He was a multi-time BJJ world champion and a gold medallist at the prestigious ADCC grappling tournament in 2003.
However, when the Brazilian debuted in the UFC in 2005, it was clear that Pe De Pano was no Penn.
Sure, he choked out opponent Keigo Kunihara in his first Octagon appearance, but his striking looked amateurish at best, and he struggled to get Kunihara to the ground.
But at the time, the UFC’s Heavyweight division was so thin that the victory catapulted Cruz into a big fight with former UFC Heavyweight champ Frank Mir, who was returning following a broken leg suffered in a motorcycle accident.
In one of 2006’s biggest upsets, Cruz defeated Mir by TKO after punishing him on the ground, but it turned out to be his final win in the UFC.
A contentious split decision loss to Jeff Monson knocked Pe De Pano out of title contention, and a second loss to Andrei Arlovski saw his UFC career come to a sudden end.
Pe De Pano stuck around in MMA after his UFC release, winning a further six bouts with just one loss to future UFC contender Glover Teixeira.
However, he never looked like a natural in MMA and stopped competing in 2012.
#3 James Toney (UFC record: 0-1)
The UFC essentially signed former world champion boxer James Toney in 2010 to make a point.
Lights Out had been trying to claim that a top-level boxer could easily rise to the top of the UFC due to their superior stand-up skills – something that had always been disputed by MMA fighters and fans alike.
And so sensing an opportunity, UFC president Dana White offered Toney a chance to put his money where his mouth was and signed him to a multi-fight deal.
Toney was miles past his prime when he arrived in the UFC. He was already 42 years old, was wildly out of shape, and had tested positive for PEDs on more than one occasion. He also hadn’t won a meaningful boxing match in some time.
However, had he entered the Octagon in his prime, it’s unlikely he would’ve had better results.
Lights Out simply paid no respect to the sport of MMA prior to his UFC debut, clearly believing he’d need nothing more than his boxing.
That idea was proven wrong seconds into his fight with UFC legend Randy Couture. Couture used a simple ankle pick to take Toney down, and from there, he advanced into full mount and locked in an arm-triangle choke.
Toney was so clueless about MMA that he couldn’t even figure out how to tap out properly.
Unsurprisingly, the loss was the first and last time we would see Lights Out in the UFC. And unfortunately, no further top-level boxers have followed him into the Octagon since.
#4 CM Punk (UFC record: 0-2)
The UFC had seen some crossovers from WWE in the past, most notably Ken Shamrock and Brock Lesnar.
But Shamrock had started life as an MMA fighter before moving to WWE, while Lesnar had a background as an NCAA Division I wrestling champion to fall back on.
On the other hand, Punk had no background in any legitimate martial arts, wasn’t the best natural athlete, and was largely banged up from years of pro-wrestling.
But to give him his due, Punk was taking the opportunity seriously.
He joined Duke Roufus’ famed MMA camp to begin his training and stayed out of the spotlight for nearly two years before his UFC debut was finally scheduled at UFC 203.
Punk’s opponent was Mickey Gall – a fighter who, at 2-0, had nearly as little experience as the former WWE star.
But it was quickly clear who was the more skilled fighter.
Gall ducked a crude punch, tackled Punk to the ground and proceeded to beat him senseless before finishing him with a choke after just two minutes.
Punk deserved some respect for trying, but the fight stood as a clear reminder of exactly what it took to compete in MMA, let alone in the UFC.
The Straight-Edge Superstar had one more fight with the UFC, but it ended just as disastrously. He was easily defeated by part-time fighter Michael Jackson and hasn’t been seen in an MMA fight since.
#5 Greg Hardy (UFC record: 4-3-1)
Technically speaking, Greg Hardy didn’t make his debut in the UFC proper – it actually came on Dana White’s Contender Series.
But given that the series is practically a UFC opportunity in itself, it’s fair to count The Prince of War here.
Hardy’s signing was controversial from the off, as the former NFL defensive end had ended his football career in disgrace following charges of serious domestic violence.
But figuring that everyone deserved a second chance, UFC president Dana White was more than happy to bring him into the UFC.
A high-level athlete with some serious power, Hardy looked like a prospect to watch in his early days.
He quickly dispatched off his first three foes to be given a chance in the UFC proper. But his Octagon debut against Allen Crowder ended in disaster as he was disqualified for an illegal knee.
Given that it was clear the UFC fans didn’t want him around, it was a surprise to see the promotion continue to push the former NFL man as a potential star.
But since his debut, Hardy has put together a respectable Octagon record of 4-3-1, picking up wins over the likes of Juan Adams and Maurice Greene.
Whether it’s too late for him to ever move into title contention is a fair question, but The Prince of War has developed into a solid UFC Heavyweight, something few people expected upon his debut.