While champions will go down in history, many times there are fighters who were more than capable of becoming champion but failed to do so for a multitude of reasons. They may have been just as skilled and just as dedicated, but ultimately the chips did not fall in their favor. This article will attempt to look analyze and declare the five greatest fighters in UFC history who never became champion.
Top 5 Fighters Who Failed to Claim UFC Gold
For the sake of argument, fighters who became interim champion will not be included on this list. While to many the interim title is nothing more than a glorified status as number one contender, the UFC themselves recognizes it as a championship and they will be recorded as one officially. You have been warned, Tony Ferguson will not be making an appearance in this list.
Also this list is mainly going to be focused on the modern era of MMA where the UFC is the premier organization. Many fighters such as Mirko Cro Cop and Antonio Nogueira were unable to win gold in the UFC; however, were extremely successful fighting in other organizations in a similar stature to the UFC and did not spend their primes competing for the American promotion.
With those disclaimers laid out, let’s get into the list.
Number 5 – Kenny Florian
While many newer fans many only know Florian for his commentary and punditry at one stage “Ken Flo” was among the most dominant Lightweights in the sport. After an appearance on S1 of The Ultimate Fighter Florian would win his next 3 fights in the organisation all by stoppage before coming up against Sean Sherk in a failed effort to gain the UFC Lightweight championship where he would be defeated by Unanimous Decision. Not to be deterred Florian would go on an astonishing 6-fight winning streak where he would finish 5 of these wins. Picking up victories over the biggest names in the division at the time Florian would finish the likes of Joe Stevensen, Din Thomas, and Joe Lauzon before once again being offered a title shot against BJ Penn at UFC 101.
Unfortunately, Florian would find himself on the wrong end of his signature submission, the rear naked choke as BJ Penn tapped him out. Florian’s title aspirations were still not over however, his next two fights saw him pick up finishes over Clay Guida and Takanori Gomi and earned him a title eliminator fight with Gray Maynard that he would ultimately come up short in being defeated by Unanimous Decision. Deciding that his time at Lightweight was over Florian dropped down to 145 lbs where he defeated Diego Nunes via decision. The fight earned him a shot at Featherweight king Jose Aldo in what would ultimately end up as the last fight of his career. Florian again being beaten by Unanimous Decision will go down as one of the greatest to never win the belt and is one of the most cerebral finishers in UFC history with 10 of his 12 wins coming by way of stoppage.
Number 4 – Chael Sonnen
Despite his claims and protests “The Bad Guy” never actually held gold during his UFC tenure despite being agonizingly close on several occasions. Sonnen made his UFC debut in 2009 in a losing effort against Damian Maia. Following that loss, he would embark on a three-fight win streak which saw him beat stalwarts of the Middleweight division such as Nate Marquardt and Yushin Okami. This win streak culminated in the infamous title shot against Anderson Silva where Sonnen would batter the seemingly invincible champion in a manner that no one had even assumed was possible to do to Silva. Sonnen was only minutes away from what seemed like a guaranteed decision win and championship gold when Silva managed to catch him in a triangle forcing the American to tap.
Despite his claims, Sonnen was not granted an immediate rematch and was instead tasked with wiping out two of the toughest contenders in the division, Brian Stann and Michael Bisping. He did so successfully and was again rematched with Anderson Silva where this time “The Spider” defeated “The Bad Guy” via stoppage in the second round. Sonnen would receive one more chance at a title in his next fight when he stepped in on short notice to face Jon Jones before being defeated. While not possessing as impressive of a record as other names on this list at 31-17, the way that Sonnen shattered the aura of invincibility held by Silva was at the time groundbreaking. Indeed for a three to four-year period, Sonnen was seen as quite possibly the greatest middleweight on the planet losing only to Anderson Silva and somehow losing in a way that still made him look dominant.
Number 3 – Yoel Romero
Yoel Romero will forever go down as possibly one of the biggest “what if” stories in MMA history, with the question being, what if Yoel Romero had started MMA at 22 instead of 32? After establishing himself as one of the greatest wrestlers in the world, Romero transitioned to MMA in 2009 and would not make his UFC debut until 2013. Romero established himself as one of the greatest physical specimens that the sport had ever seen. With unparalleled strength and athleticism, Romero was capable of things that nobody his size should have been able to pull off. With flying knee knockouts and devastating elbows on his highlight reel, Romero fought for the UFC well into his forties.
While he picked up plenty of losses in the organization, they were always competitive and often against fighters 10-15 years younger than himself. Romero is also known for his incredible toughness as described by Robert Whittaker who stated that every injury he suffered from fighting Romero came from hitting the Cuban.
Fighting for the UFC Middleweight Championship 3 times, Romero was never able to pick up gold.
Number 2 – Alistair Overeem
With one of the longest careers in combat sports history, Overeem made his debut in 1999 and would fight primarily at Light Heavyweight and Middleweight for the first half of his career before making the jump to Heavyweight in 2006. After entering the Strikeforce promotion, Overeem became its Heavyweight champion and went on a truly impressive 12-fight unbeaten streak before making his UFC debut against Brock Lesnar where he would finish the former champion viciously.
After a somewhat tumultuous start to life in the UFC, Overeem would soon find his rhythm and would manage to build an impressive 4-fight win streak that would see him face off against Stipe Miocic for the heavyweight crown at UFC 203 in 2016. Overeem would come up short against Miocic and would continue to flutter around the top of the division for the next several years before being knocked out by Francis Ngannou in a title eliminator which effectively saw his time at the top of the division come to an end.
Number 1 – Alexander Gustafsson
The Swedish Light Heavyweight was very unfortunate to be active during the era of three of the division’s best-ever fighters. Between 2011 and 2018, Gustafsson beat every single person at light-heavyweight whose name was not Jon Jones, Daniel Cormier, or Anthony Johnson. His first title shot came in 2013 after wins against Shogun Rua and Thiago Silva as well as Matt Hamill, Gustafsson went toe to toe with the seemingly unbeatable champion Jon Jones in a fight that many consider still today the best in the division’s history. While the decision was awarded to Jon Jones many felt that Gustafsson had done more than enough to secure the victory and he was viewed as one of the top-2 fighters in the division afterward. After immediately bouncing back with a win over Jimi Manuwa, Gustafsson would be knocked out by possibly the hardest hitter in MMA history, Anthony Johnson.
Of course, unforeseen events occurred and Jon Jones was stripped of the title and eventually, it was Daniel Cormier who ended up with the belt. Gustafsson was immediately granted a shot at the title for the second time, despite losing the title eliminator. An excellent performance against Cormier saw him just narrowly miss out on a split decision and he again was defeated.
He would bounce back with wins over Jan Blachowicz and Glover Teixeira before getting another crack at the title which was now owned again by Jon Jones. Gustafsson would ultimately not be able to secure the title this time either as he was defeated dominantly by Jones. Overall, it is a shame looking at his career, as if he had not been active during the era of the two GOATS of the division he likely would have been the champion. With wins over 3 champions of the weight class in Rua, Blachowicz, and Teixeira, it is unfortunate that the timing never aligned for Gustafsson to pick up the belt for himself and he will forever go down as possibly the greatest fighter to never win the belt.