5 MMA fighters who could have become UFC champions if they didn't retire early

UFC 223: Nurmagomedov v Iaquinta
UFC 223: Nurmagomedov v Iaquinta

Most fighters who sign with the UFC never become world champions. The majority of the promotion's fighters spend their careers in unranked territory. Some, though, break into the rankings of their weight classes, surging as high as they can before encountering a skill wall separating the division's elite from the best of the rest.

Alas, even those who possess the right combination of skill, dedication, and natural talent do not always fulfill their destiny. MMA has seen many fighters come and go.

Whether it is caused by health concerns, a string of injuries that cannot be overcome, a waning passion for the sport, old age, or no discernible reason, fighters inevitably retire from MMA. Many of those who do, do not leave any questions about their legacy unanswered. There are, however, the elite few who retire early, dashing their potential to become world champions.

This list examines fighters who could have become UFC world champions had they not bowed out of the sport before their time.

#5. Cole Konrad (9-0)

The two-time NCAA Division I wrestling champion and Bellator's first-ever heavyweight champion was a phenomal wrestler.

Highly credentialed, Konrad has an impressive collegiate and international wrestling record. His effectiveness as a wrestler was aided by his massive nature, strength, and membership in Brock Lesnar's now-defunct MMA team DeathClutch.

Today's UFC heavyweights dwarf their counterparts from the early 2010s, seeming more like superheavyweights as the majority hover around 6 feet 4 inches tall.

Konrad, however, would not even be out of place among today's UFC heavyweights. Standing at 6 feet 5 inches tall, he'd be dwarfed only by Alexander Volkov, who stands at 6 feet 7 inches. Thus, between 2010 and 2012, which was the duration of Konrad's MMA career, he'd have been a giant among men in the UFC heavyweight division.

His combination of high-level wrestling and sheer size would have troubled many foes. As Konrad transitioned from wrestling to MMA, fans and MMA media members alike awaited his career with high expectations.

After watching him claim the Bellator heavyweight championship, the sky was the limit. Instead, after successfully defending the title once, Konrad vacated it, retiring from the sport before ever signing with the UFC, leaving behind a legacy as Bellator's first-ever heavyweight champion, a 9-0 record, and disappointment in place of excitement.

#4. Phillip Miller (16-0)

Phillip Miller left the sport of MMA undefeated. His 16-0 record features 10 knockouts, 2 submissions, and 4 decision wins. He is one of the undefeated phenoms from MMA's early days, with his competitive history spanning from 2000 to 2003.

In those 3 years, he picked up a win over future Strikeforce middleweight champion Jake Shields in only his 2nd fight.

With a 13-0 record by the time he signed with the UFC, Miller went on to claim 2 easy wins in his first 2 bouts with the promotion.

A matchup with Phil Baroni was in the works, but it never came to fruition. Allegedly, Miller demanded higher pay to face Baroni, who at the time was a 5-1 professional. In response, the UFC allegedly cut him from the promotion.

While Miller fought elsewhere, he promptly retired from the sport afterward, capturing his 16th career win without ever facing the promotion's then-middleweight champion Murilo Bustamante, with whom he was two bouts from clashing.

#3. Jimmy Flick (16-5)

Jimmy 'The Brick' Flick was a one-time UFC fighter who glided across flyweight, bantamweight, and featherweight prior to signing with the promotion.

At first glance, his 16-5 record doesn't seem to indicate high potential. However, 4 of those 5 losses came at bantamweight, where Flick did not possess the massive size advantage he did at flyweight. With a height of 5 feet and 7 inches, Flick was an average-sized bantamweight, an undersized featherweight and a towering flyweight.

With only 1 loss at flyweight, his size was a powerful tool for his grappling-heavy approach. Typically, a size advantage denotes future champions and title contenders as the champions in most divisions possess a size advantage over the majority of their competition.

Cory Sandhagen, Dominick Cruz, Max Holloway, Dustin Poirier, Charles Oliveira, Kamaru Usman, Khamzat Chimaev, Israel Adesanya, Alexander Rakic, Jiri Procházka, Ciryl Gane, and Francis Ngannou are all on the larger side of their respective divisions.

So when Flick made his UFC debut with an exciting flying triangle submission win in the 1st round, the hype surrounding his potential in the division was palpable. Unfortunately, the former LFA champion promptly retired from MMA after this win, citing concerns about MMA's absent safety net in terms of benefits.

#2. Former UFC light heavyweight Anthony 'Rumble' Johnson (23-6)

Very few fighters in UFC history commanded the kind of fear that Anthony 'Rumble' Johnson had. He began his career at welterweight, cutting a dangerous amount of weight to the point of diminishing returns. This caused Johnson to ply his trade in other weight classes like middleweight, light heavyweight, and even heavyweight.

While his success varied depending on the weight class, the one constant in every division he fought in was his knockout power. Johnson was and remains a frighteningly powerful puncher.

After being cut from the UFC for missing weight multiple times, he was given a second chance and made his home in the light heavyweight division. Johnson was a terrifying force, demolishing former Bellator light heavyweight champion Phil Davis, two-time UFC title challenger Alexander Gustafsson, current Bellator heavyweight champion Ryan Bader, and former UFC light heavyweight champion Glover Teixeira.

His only losses in the division came against Daniel Cormier, an all-time great MMA fighter. Following his second loss to Cormier, Johnson abruptly retired from the sport.

He spent his time bodybuilding and pursuing other ventures. While he eventually returned to MMA, signing with Bellator, had he remained in the UFC, he'd have been a prime candidate to win the UFC title in the wake of Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier's departures from the light heavyweight division.

#1. Zabit Magomedsharipov (18-1)

For the majority of his career, Zabit was regarded as a future UFC champion at best, and a title challenger at worst.

At featherweight, he stood at an enormous 6 feet and 1 inch in height, dwarfing every fighter in the division. His stature is so towering that he stands an inch taller than one-time middleweight division title challenger Paulo Costa. Not only was Zabit spectacularly large for featherweight, he was highly skilled.

His kickboxing was sublime and dynamic, employing techniques from various martial arts such as Taekwondo, Muay Thai, western boxing, Tetsushin-ryū Kenpō, and more.

He kept his rear hand close to his chin, which he often tucked. He moved his head off the center-line when throwing punches, was a varied kicker, possessed slick footwork and lateral movement, and the kind of creativity and athleticism that enabled him to fight like no one else. His grappling was equally impressive. With a Sambo base, he made consistent use of outside trips and bodylock takedowns.

On the ground, he was just as skilled, having 7 submission wins on his record. His only drawbacks seemed to be his cardio issues and lack of heavy punching power. Still, from his skill-set alone, Zabit seemed to possess everything required to be a world champion.

Although he's now retired, Zabit will forever be remembered as a fighter who likely would have been a world champion had he stuck around beyond his final win over divisional elite Calvin Kattar.

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Edited by John Cunningham
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