Fighting in the UFC might sound like a cool career to pursue, but naturally, it’s not without its pitfalls. UFC stars like Luke Rockhold, Elias Theodorou and Felice Herrig might’ve retained their photogenic looks, but many other fighters bear the scars of years of battles, both in the Octagon and in training.
One of the more common forms of battle-scar of sported by UFC fighters is a set of cauliflower ears. Common to athletes involved in most close-contact sports, cauliflower ears occur when the external portion of the ear is hit or regularly has pressure put onto it.
This pressure and friction then leads to blood clots or fluid build-ups, resulting in the formation of fibrous tissue in the overlying skin. This tissue causes the outer ear to become swollen and deformed – resembling the cauliflower that gives the condition its name.
Over the years we’ve seen fighters sporting some pretty gnarly cauliflower ears in the UFC – but these five stand above the rest as the worst cases.
#1 Randy Couture
The gold standard for cauliflower ears in the UFC has to be Randy Couture. The UFC Hall of Famer and all-time great won the UFC Heavyweight title on three occasions and the UFC Light-Heavyweight title twice, and his fights with Chuck Liddell, Tim Sylvia and Tito Ortiz are part of UFC legend.
However, ‘The Natural’ also sported some of the worst cauliflower ears ever seen in MMA, let alone in the UFC. Of course, there was a good reason for this.
Couture – who was 48 years old by the time he retired in 2011 – debuted in the UFC way back in 1997 at UFC 13. However, prior to his arrival in the promotion, Couture had been an amateur wrestler of some renown.
Not only had he competed in his school days, but he’d also gotten into Greco-Roman wrestling during his time with the US Army. This eventually led him to a career as an NCAA Division I All-American with Oklahoma State University, as well as a three-time Olympic team alternate.
Essentially then, by the time he arrived in the UFC, Couture already had almost 20 years worth of wrestling experience – more than enough to give him a nasty pair of cauliflower ears even before he set foot into the Octagon.
And as you can now see from the way they look today, Couture’s ears got even worse throughout his career with the UFC. Now resembling twisted lumps of flesh more than actual ears, it’s a wonder that ‘The Natural’ is even able to hear through them.
#2 Ramiz Brahimaj
New York’s Ramiz Brahimaj debuted in the UFC in November, and upon his arrival in the promotion, his cauliflower ears were not really noticeable. Sure, Brahimaj came from a grappling background – all eight of his career wins had been achieved by submission – but in terms of cauliflower ears, he was no Randy Couture.
However, after his debut fight with Max Griffin, Brahimaj’s ears were the talk of the entire internet. Why? Because somehow, the swollen nature of them meant that they became a primary target for Griffin to attack.
In the third round of the fight – which was primarily fought standing, with both men landing plenty of big strikes – Griffin was able to land an elbow to the side of Brahimaj’s head. As the two men separated from the clinch, it was clear that the debutant had suffered a major injury.
Namely, the cauliflower ear on the right side of his head had essentially become detached entirely. Horrified, referee Mark Smith immediately stepped in to call a halt to proceedings – handing Griffin a win via TKO.
The scene was one of the most disgusting in UFC history, and even fans who were used to seeing horrible cuts and broken bones were revolted. Hopefully, we never have to see something like it in the UFC again – although with the proliferation of cauliflower ears in the Octagon, that’s unfortunately unlikely to be the case.
#3 Leslie Smith
Leslie Smith is perhaps best known today for her attempts to unionise UFC fighters through a movement labelled Project Spearhead. But prior to that, ‘The Peacemaker’ was able to put together a decent UFC record of 4-3 – and even welcomed Cris Cyborg to the Octagon in 2016.
A gritty fighter who was always willing to duke it out with her opponents, it was hardly a surprise to see Smith sporting a set of pretty horrendous cauliflower ears that even rivalled veterans like Randy Couture and BJ Penn.
However, those cauliflower ears got her into serious trouble during a 2014 bout with Jessica Eye at UFC 180. Smith was more than happy to exchange punches from the off with Eye, but it quickly became clear that she was outgunned on the feet, and by the end of the first round, ‘The Peacemaker’ was badly busted up.
Things were about to get a whole lot worse, though. Midway through the second round, Eye landed another vicious combination – and this time, Smith’s cauliflower ear basically exploded on impact. Referee Herb Dean quickly called a stop to the fight as soon as it became clear what’d happened, summoning the cageside doctor in to take a look.
Naturally, the fight was waved off – despite Smith frantically attempting to convince the doctor that she could continue – and we were given one of the most horrifying visuals in UFC history.
Incredibly, Smith spoke about the incident in an interview following the event and stated that she’d actually been attempting to avoid such a thing happening by draining her cauliflower ears every month – getting three full syringes of fluid out each time!
She also stated that cauliflower ears have a “coolness factor” – something that probably wasn’t clear to fans that saw her suffer such a horrendous injury.
#4 Khabib Nurmagomedov
UFC Lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov recently announced his retirement from MMA, after putting together an unbeaten record of 29-0 over twelve years of action. However, despite being thoroughly dominant inside the UFC even against killers like Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje, ‘The Eagle’ still sports a pretty nasty pair of cauliflower ears.
Those cauliflower ears were likely not caused so much inside the UFC as they were outside. It’s a well-known fact that Khabib grew up wrestling from practically the moment that he could walk.
His late father Abdulmanap was a renowned grappling coach, and the young Khabib was even filmed wrestling against a bear cub in a clip that’s since gone viral in the MMA world.
So given that cauliflower ears are usually caused by years of training in wrestling and grappling, is it any surprise to see that the Dagestani has some seriously gnarly ones? Of course not.
Khabib could, of course, have chosen to have his cauliflower ears drained. We saw Michael Bisping undergoing this kind of therapy during TUF 3 before he’d made it to the UFC, and while he’s suffered plenty of scars in the years that have followed, his cauliflower ears are now nowhere near as bad as Khabib’s.
However, it seems that for many fighters with a wrestling background, cauliflower ears are a source of pride more than anything else – and so it should hardly come as a surprise to see Khabib, the supreme MMA wrestler, sporting some of the worst in UFC history.
#5 BJ Penn
While his UFC career didn’t end in the way that he might’ve imagined – he was released from the promotion after suffering seven straight losses – BJ Penn is still a UFC legend. A UFC Hall of Famer, ‘The Prodigy’ won UFC titles in both the Lightweight and Welterweight classes, and defeated fellow greats like Matt Hughes and Jens Pulver along the way.
In his prime, Penn was renowned for being almost impossible to hurt or damage – but that didn’t stop him from sporting one of the most horrendous pair of cauliflower ears in UFC history. Like other UFC stars who suffered from cauliflower ears, it should hardly come as a surprise that Penn’s were scars earned from years of grappling in the gym.
One of the most naturally talented grapplers in MMA history, Penn earned his black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in just three years, and quickly began to dominate grappling tournaments across the world. It was this grappling skill that convinced the UFC to sign him before he’d made his MMA debut – and also gave him his ‘Prodigy’ nickname.
However, on the other hand, it also gave him a pair of cauliflower ears that now appear to be horribly deformed past the point of no return. From the wrong angle, the Hawaiian almost appears to have stuffed used bubblegum into his ears, giving them a bulbous look unmatched by the majority of other UFC veterans.