The UFC was founded in 1993, making it less than 25 years old. In sporting terms, that’s relatively young. And the action you see on your television these days is drastically different than those early days, where there were no weight classes and little rules or government regulation. That all changed when Zuffa bought the failing company in 2001 and transformed it into a legit combat sports empire.
Soon, the UFC roster was separated into five weight classes, each given their own championship. Later, the UFC would add three more weight classes (featherweight, bantamweight, and flyweight) and a women’s division. Over the years, many different fighters have been able to call themselves champion. But the one thing that is guaranteed in prize fighting is that no one stays on top forever. Eventually every champion becomes a former champion, but in some cases it happens without even suffering a loss.
There have been numerous cases where the UFC has had to take a championship away from a fighter, for a number of different reasons. Here’s a list of every single time it’s happened.
Before we get into the titles that were taken away from fighters, let’s take a moment to run through all the times where a championship was simply vacated by the owner. It doesn’t happen often, but UFC champs have voluntarily relinquished their belts on four separate occasions in UFC history.
Legendary dutch striker Bas Rutten vacated the heavyweight title in June 1999 to drop down a weightclass into light heavyweight. Unfortunately, injuries would be forced him to retire shortly after. Later that same year, Frank Shamrock vacated the light heavyweight title when he retired from the UFC, citing a lack of competition (like most fighters, his “retirement” didn’t stick).
In more recent memory, Canadian welterweight kingpin Georges St-Pierre vacated the welterweight title after his ninth straight title defense (a fight that many people feel he actually lost). He cited concern for a lack of stricter drug testing, plus some personal and professional burnout. He returned in 2017 to win the Middleweight title from Michael Bisping, but once against vacated the championship a month later when it was discovered that he was suffering from ulcerative colitis, putting the future of his career in question (again).
Lastly, Dominick Cruz was forced to vacate the bantamweight championship in early 2014 when he suffered yet another training injury. He hadn’t defended the belt since October 2011 after tearing his ACL, having to have that surgery re-done after his body rejected the replacement ACL, and then tearing his groin. He would eventually return, win his championship back by beating T.J. Dillashaw, before losing it to Cody Garbrandt in December 2016. It was Cruz’s first lost in almost 10 years.
Now on to champions who had their belts yanked away, for one reason or another, in chronological order.
10. Randy Couture – Heavyweight Title
In January 1998, Randy Couture was the brand new heavyweight champion, having just defeated Maurice Smith at UFC Japan. UFC matchmakers wanted him to face off against Bas Rutten, but Couture decided to exit MMA altogether and signed with Vale Tudo Japan. The UFC stripped him of the title, putting it up for grabs in a fight between Rutten and Kevin Randleman (which Rutten would win). Couture would later return to the UFC, win back the heavyweight title, drop down to light heavyweight and win that title (twice), and then move back up to heavyweight and win that title for a record-breaking third time, at the age of 43-years old!
9. Josh Barnett – Heavyweight Title
The man who originally took the heavyweight title from Couture was Josh Barnett, who had just a single loss on his record at the time. In a bit of obvious foreshadowing, Barnett had tested positive for a banned substance in his previous UFC fight (a submission win against Bobby Hoffman). After beating Couture by TKO in the second round for his first (and only) UFC championship, Barnett again failed a drug test, this time for anabolic steroids. After already receiving a warning for his first failed test (a sign of how relaxed early drug policies were), the UFC stripped him of the title after the second one. Barnett would spend most his next six years competing in Japan, notorious for almost non-existent drug testing.
8. Murilo Bustamante – Middleweight Title
Here’s a name that even hardcore MMA fans will struggle to remember. Bustamante only ever competed at four UFC events (25, 33, 35, and 37), but he made the most of brief stay. He beat Dave Menne for the middleweight title in January 2002, and even successfully defended the belt a few months later in May. Then Pride made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, and he bolted to Japan. The middleweight title would sit empty for two and a half years before Evan Tanner emerged to claim the belt in February 2005.
7. Jens Pulver – Lightweight Title
Jens “Lil’ Evil” Pulver is often credited as being the pioneer of the UFC lightweight division, which is appropriate since he was the first lightweight champion in the organization’s history. A colorful personality who put on wildly entertaining fights, Pulver was a sure fire fan favorite in the early days of UFC. He would defend the lightweight title against Dennis Hallman and B.J. Penn before butting heads with management over his contract. Unable to agree on terms, Pulver left the company and the UFC had no choice but to strip him of the title. Pulver would bounce around the MMA world for the rest of career, including a return to UFC, but would never win another title.
6. Tim Sylvia – Heavyweight Title
Tim Sylvia doesn’t look like a professional cage fighter. Sure, he’s huge, coming in at 6’8″ and 265-pounds (the maximum for heavyweight), but most people wouldn’t exactly call him “in shape,” even in the prime of his career. But he was mean and tough and had more power in his right hand than most people do in their entire bodies. He won the heavyweight title at UFC 41, knocking out Ricco Rodriguez and would follow that up with a successful title defense against Gan McGee at UFC 44, a bout left tarnished when Sylvia failed the post-fight drug test. With the Barnett incident only a year old at the time, the UFC would again make the decision to strip their heavyweight champion. His career would rebound, though, as would reclaim the heavyweight belt almost three years later by knocking out Andrei Arlovski at UFC 59.
5. B.J. Penn – Welterweight Title
B.J. Penn is one of only three fighters to hold UFC championships in more than one weight class, which already makes him a legend of the sport. Penn has faced off against some of the biggest legends in MMA, including Matt Hughes, Georges St-Pierre, Jens Pulver, and Takanori Gomi. After choking out Hughes for the welterweight title at UFC 46, Penn signed an exclusive deal with K-1 in Japan, citing a lack of challenging fights in the UFC. He was stripped of the belt, as the UFC claimed he breached his contract by refusing to defend the title. Penn actually filed a lawsuit against the UFC, trying to prevent them from awarding a new welterweight champion, but it failed. Penn and the UFC would eventually mend fences, and he would go on to become one of the most dominant lightweight champions in the company’s history.
4. Frank Mir – Heavyweight Title
This is one of only two fighters on this list who had their title stripped for something other than a contract dispute or self-induced stupidity (takings PEDs or committing crimes). Frank Mir, one of the most technically talented submission artists the heavyweight division has ever seen, was on top of the world after winning the UFC championship by literally breaking Tim Sylvia’s arm at UFC 48 (spoiler alert: it’s gross, don’t watch it).
Three months later, it all came crashing down when Mir was struck by another car while riding his motorcycle. He suffered a badly broken leg and his knee was basically torn to shreds. The UFC created an interim title while Mir went through surgery and rehab, but eventually it was revealed that Mir would take a lot longer to get back into the octagon than previously thought. They made the hard decision to strip Mir of the title, promoting Arlovski to undisputed champ. Mir would eventually recover and return to title contention, winning the interim belt at UFC 92 before losing to Brock Lesnar at UFC 100 for the unified title.
3. Sean Sherk – Lightweight Title
Sean “The Muscle Shark” Sherk actually had a shot at Matt Hughes’ welterweight title in 2003 (which he lost), before leaving the UFC in favor of Pride. It didn’t last long though, and he returned to the UFC in 2005 and eventually found himself in the mix for the vacant lightweight title. Sherk would beat Kenny Florian via unanimous decision at UFC 64 and then defend at belt against Hermes Franca at UFC 73.
After the Franca fight, the California State Athletic Commission announced that Sherk had tested positive for Nandrolone, a banned steroid. Sherk vehemently denied taking PEDs, arguing that there was a mistake in the testing procedure. The Commission held firm though, and the UFC stripped Sherk of the title. Once his suspension was over, he got another crack at the belt, but lost to B.J. Penn at UFC 84.
2. Jon Jones – Light Heavyweight Title
Jon Jones has the dubious honor of being the only fighter on this list to be stripped of a UFC belt on two separate occasions. He was a young phenom who rose quickly up the ranks, becoming the youngest UFC champion ever when he beat Mauricio “Shogun” Rua at UFC 128. A massive eight successful title defenses later (against some of the toughest names in MMA), and there was no question that Jones was the pound-for-pound greatest fighter on the planet, possibly of all-time.
Then, in April 2015, Jones did something really stupid. He got into a car accident with a rental car, and bolted from the scene. He turned himself in the next morning, but the damage was already done. The UFC stripped him of the title, saying he had violated the recently introduced Athlete Code of Conduct.
One year later, his legal issues behind him, Jones returned to the octagon to win the interim light heavyweight title in a fight against Ovince Saint Preux. A highly anticipated unification bout with Daniel Cormier at UFC 200 was planned, but Jones was pulled from the fight just days before it was scheduled, a result of failing an out-of-competition USADA drug test. The UFC stripped him of the interim title and he’s eligible to return to action in July 2017, after serving a one-year suspension.
1. Conor McGregor – Featherweight Title
The most recent, and perhaps most controversial, incident of a UFC champion having their belt taken away belongs to none other than Conor McGregor, the fast-talking, butt-kicking sensation from Ireland. McGregor talked the talk, telling the world that he would be the first fighter in UFC history to be the champion of two different weight classes at the same time. Then he walked the walk by beating lightweight champ Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205, having already beaten Jose Aldo for the featherweight title 11 months earlier.
It was a history making moment, but it left the UFC with a problem. McGregor would be putting both weight classes on hold if they allowed him to carry on with two titles. Then McGregor announced he was taking time off because his girlfriend was pregnant. Then the main event of UFC 206 fell apart, and the UFC desperately needed to spice up the card. That lead to them stripping McGregor of the featherweight title, giving it back to Jose Aldo (who had won the interim title while McGregor was off on his adventures with Nate Diaz), and letting Anthony Pettis and Max Halloway fight for the new interim featherweight title at UFC 206. Did you follow all that? Good.
McGregor hasn’t said much about the decision publicly, but we can’t imagine he’s happy about it.