UFC fighters like to stay active for several reasons. The first is that most MMA fighters make a living through fighting. So the more fights they accept, the more they increase their earning potential. Another reason, however, is that fighters are eager to avoid the dreaded cage rust.
After an absence from the octagon exceeds a certain amount of time, it's common for fighters to struggle upon their return to the cage. If the absence is long enough, some fighters will return to a sport that's different from what they left behind due to the evolution of martial arts.
A recent example of this is Conor McGregor's inability to counter calf kicks due to his inactivity during the technique's rise to prominence in MMA circles. But not every fighter struggles with cage rust. Some fighters return after long absences and perform as if they were never gone in the first place. This list is about them.
#5. Urijah Faber, UFC Fight Night 155
Pioneers are important in every sport. They play a critical role in heightening their sport's profile and spearheading a new era that was previously beyond thought. For the longest time, the lower divisions in MMA were regarded as afterthoughts. This is why the UFC once used its heaviest divisions as headline acts.
One of the fighters who helped break this mold was Urijah Faber. While 'The California Kid' never captured UFC gold, he still challenged for the title numerous times. The former WEC featherweight champion is a four-time UFC title challenger, with one of those bouts being for the promotion's interim bantamweight strap.
After a storied career, he retired in 2016 before returning three years later against Ricky Simón. Despite the long layoff, 'The California Kid' showed no signs of cage rust as he flattened his foe with his patented overhand-right before TKO'ing him with follow-up punches on the mat.
#4. Chan Sung Jung, UFC Fight Night 104
Military service is mandatory in South Korea. So in 2014, Chan Sung Jung—better known as 'The Korean Zombie'—announced his intention to honor his compulsory military duties to his country. He spent the next two years doing so before eventually returning to MMA in 2017 after a three-year absence from the octagon.
Any talk of potential cage rust quickly vanished as 'The Korean Zombie' recorded a first-round knockout against Dennis Bermudez to capture the event's Performance of the Night award. It was an effortless return to form for a fighter who hadn't faced active competition in four years.
#3. Nate Diaz, UFC 241
Nate Diaz and the UFC have never had the easiest relationship. Stockton's finest was never the most agreeable fighter on the roster, and the promotion is notorious for its tough negotiating tactics. Thus, the two rarely saw eye to eye when it came to issues surrounding money and matchups.
His dissatisfaction regarding the matchups he was being offered reached a boiling point in 2016 after his rematch with Conor McGregor. He spent the next three years away from the octagon while campaigning for a grudge match against Dustin Poirier. Despite the UFC's initial interest in it, 'The Diamond' withdrew due to injury.
Stockton's finest eventually returned against Anthony Pettis at UFC 241. Despite his long layoff, the 'BMF' claimant looked exceptional as he soundly defeated the former lightweight champion via unanimous decision. He outstruck and out-grappled him with supreme ease before challenging Jorge Masvidal.
#2. Dominick Cruz, UFC 178
Dominick Cruz has an unfortunate history of injuries. The bantamweight GOAT tore his ACL back in 2011. Despite undergoing surgery on his injured knee, his body rejected the ACL replacement from a cadaver. This extended his recovery time to nearly an entire year as he underwent another surgery.
Another injury, this one being a torn groin, forced him to vacate his title. After three years away from the cage, 'The Dominator' returned in epic fashion against Takeya Mizugaki. It was a fast and furious performance from the bantamweight GOAT. He secured a quick takedown before bludgeoning his foe with blows en route to a KO.
Cruz was sharp and his timing was as good as it had ever been at the time as he secured an easy win against a ranked opponent after a three-year hiatus.
#1. Khabib Nurmagomedov, UFC on Fox 19
Between 2014 and 2016, undefeated lightweight legend Khabib Nurmagomedov was plagued by injuries. After dominating Rafael dos Anjos, he was sidelined by a knee injury that reoccurred despite the UFC's attempts to book him a bout against Donald 'Cowboy' Cerrone.
Finally, in April 2016, his return was announced. The future lightweight kingpin was scheduled to face his longtime rival, Tony Ferguson. But the bout never materialized after 'El Cucuy' suffered an injury that forced him to withdraw from their matchup. Instead, 'The Eagle' faced Darrell Horcher.
He showed no ill effects from his two years away from the octagon and punctuated his return with a typically dominant performance before TKO'ing his foe in the second round to put the lightweight division on notice.