They Took Our Titles- 17 Times UFC Champions Lost Their Titles Outside the Octagon

Randy Couture, January 1998

A pay dispute with the promotion forced an early end to the first of Hall of Famer Couture’s six UFC championship reigns. The following extracts are from Couture’s autobiography (written with Loretta Hunt) Becoming the Natural.

I should have known something was wrong when Rico got a phone call shortly after from John Perretti, who’d recently taken over the UFC matchmaking duties from Art Davie.

Perretti told Rico that they wanted me to fight Rutten, but that they couldn’t pay me what my contract promised. Instead of my negotiated $80,000 purse, the UFC was willing to pay me $25,000.

I had gotten $60,000 to fight Mo [Maurice Smith], then it was supposed to rise to $80,000, and then finally to $100,000 for my final fight under that contract. SEG was also paying me a training stipend of $4,500 a month, which was pretty good money for the time.

“I think they can pay,” Rico said, and I couldn’t help but agree. An executed contract was on the table that both parties had agreed to. I didn’t buy all the “we don’t have any money” crap anyway. I knew they were still making money off the pay-per-views and live gates, especially the meaty ones in Japan.

We decided to hold out and only fight if they honored the contract. A few days later, SEG came back with their reply. They said that I’d chosen not to defend my title, so they would strip me of it.

I wasn’t sad about SEG’s reaction. I was pissed off. I felt like these jerks had wasted my time and if that was the way it was going to be, then screw them. I had other things I could do.

I walked away. I wasn’t going to try and take them to court because it wasn’t worth it. They still owed me $9,000 for my November and December stipends. I had enough money in the bank then, so I thought I’d just turn back to training for the 2000 Olympics.

Jens Pulver, March 2002

Like Couture, the UFC’s first-ever lightweight champion saw his championship stripped after contract negotiations broke down.

Pulver says that ZUFFA, who had only recently purchased the UFC at the time, offered him a three-fight contract of $20,000 to show (and another $20,000 to win), then $25,000 to show/win, then $30,000 to show/win. After two successful title defenses, Pulver had expected to be paid similarly to fellow champions like Couture and Tito Ortiz, who were earning well over six-figures at the time.

The failed contract negotiations and subsequent legal fall-out damaged Pulver’s relationship with the ZUFFA brass for years, though he returned to the promotion in 2006, going 0-2 in his brief return to the UFC.

Josh Barnett, July 2002

Barnett holds the unwanted distinction of being the first UFC champion to lose their title after failing a drugs test.

After defeating Randy Couture to win the UFC heavyweight title, Barnett failed a drugs test and would not return to the promotion for over a decade. It’s one of several times Barnett has had issues with anti-doping violations throughout his career.

In his last fight prior to winning the title (against Bobby Hoffman) Barnett had also tested positive for a banned substance, but only received a warning from the Nevada State Athletic Commission.

Murilo Bustamante, October 2002

Bustamante left the UFC to join PRIDE in 2002, leaving the UFC middleweight championship behind where it remained vacant for over three years.

It was reported that Bustamante received a large financial offer to compete in Japan, though his exploits inside-the-cage with PRIDE were less fruitful, going 4-5 during a 3-year spell with the Japanese promotion.

Tim Sylvia, October 2003

Like Barnett before him, Sylvia was stripped of the heavyweight title after failing a drugs test. Here are some excerpts from a 2003 interview Sylvia conducted with Mike Sloan of Sherdog.

Dana White called me and wanted to know what was going on and wanted me to be honest with him. He asked me if I had ever used the steroids. I then told him that after I fought Ricco [Rodriguez], I was in for a long layoff. I decided to try some things and maybe change my physique a little bit and get in better shape. But whatever I used, it came back positive. I don’t know how that happened. I did it so long ago and I was way off it before I fought McGee. I think they found it in my fat cells. I guess it stays in there for a while, huh? I really don’t want to elaborate on it too much, but it was needles. Yeah… I just don’t want to elaborate on it right now, though.

It was right after Ricco and I thought I would have plenty of time (to get it out of my system). I heard what Josh [Barnett] had used, so I used something different and I was only using it to trim my physique. I thought that what I was using, it was going to be out by the time I fought McGee. I fought Gan and apparently it wasn’t out.

What I used pretty much burns your fat at a high rate and allows you to get more ripped and gets rid of the body fat.

B.J. Penn, May 2004

Penn was stripped of the UFC welterweight title when he signed for Rumble in the Rock (a K1 promotion), citing a lack of competition in the UFC. Penn had fought for Rumble in the Rock in his fight prior to defeating Matt Hughes for the 170 lbs. title at UFC 46.

After unsuccessfully suing to stop the UFC from crowning a new champion, Penn returned to the promotion two years later, going on to add the UFC lightweight belt to his collection.

Frank Mir, August 2005

Mir was stripped of the heavyweight title as a result of his inactivity following a motorcycle accident. After being hit by a car, Mir broke his femur in two places, had his wedding postponed and would not compete in MMA again for almost two years.

It took Mir several years to return to UFC title contention after the crash, going 1-1 in interim heavyweight title fights and 0-2 in undisputed heavyweight title fights between 2008 and 2012.

Sean Sherk, December 2007

In 2007, Sherk became the third fighter to be stripped of a UFC championship after failing a drugs test. Sherk maintained his innocence, claiming his sample had been contaminated and did see his suspension halved from a year to 6 months on appeal.

Sherk wasn’t punished too severely, with the UFC granting Sherk a title shot on his first fight back from his suspension, as they had with Tim Sylvia before.

Jon Jones, April 2015

The first of three appearances on this list, the longest title reign in UFC light-heavyweight history came to an end following Jones’ involvement in a felony hit-and-run.

As well as losing the title, Jones was handed an indefinite suspension from the UFC.

This was the first time a UFC champion had been stripped of a title in over seven years.

Jon Jones, November 2016

Jones had returned from his suspension to face Ovince Saint Preux for the interim UFC light-heavyweight championship, coming out victorious in a five-round decision.

A positive drugs for Jones test scuppered plans for a unification bout against Daniel Cormier at UFC 200 and also saw him join Barnett, Sylvia, and Sherk in the list of UFC fighters to lose a title due to a failed drugs test.

This made Jones the first fighter in UFC history to be stripped of a title twice.

Conor McGregor, November 2016

After holding the UFC featherweight title for 350 days without attempting a defense, McGregor was stripped of the 145 lbs. title he’d won so memorably against José Aldo. Although he hadn’t attempted a title defense, McGregor had remained active, fighting against Nate Diaz (twice) and Eddie Alvarez at welterweight and lightweight respectively.

McGregor had won the UFC lightweight title just fourteen days before being stripped of the featherweight strap.

Germaine de Randamie, June 2017

The inaugural UFC women’s featherweight champion was stripped of the belt after just 128 days as champion after refusing to defend the title against Cris Cyborg.

De Randamie cited Cyborg’s December 2016 USADA case (a suspension that was lifted after Cyborg was granted a retroactive Therapeutic Use Exemption in February 2017) as her primary reason for declining the fight and opting to return to bantamweight.

Jon Jones, September 2017

Shortly after returning from a one-year suspension due to his 2016 drugs test failure, Jones returned to action in a rematch against long-time rival Daniel Cormier.

Jones initially won the fight via third-round head kick KO, before another failed drugs test saw Jones stripped of the championship, the fight ruled a no-contest and Cormier reinstated as champion.

Conor McGregor, April 2018

After holding the UFC lightweight title for 511 days without attempting a title defense (a promotional record), McGregor was stripped of his second UFC championship on the day that Khabib Nurmagomedov fought Al Iaquinta for his vacated title.

Unlike his featherweight title reign, McGregor was not active in MMA at all during his lightweight reign, competing only in boxing (against Floyd Mayweather Jr.) during his time as lightweight champion.

Tony Ferguson, April 2018

Despite holding the interim title for just 183 days (and only withdrawing from one scheduled fight), Ferguson saw his interim title stripped on the same day as McGregor (the day of the Khabib-Iaquinta fight).

This was the first time in UFC history that an interim champion who hadn’t failed a drugs test did not receive a shot at a title unification or at least get to defend the interim title.

At the time, Dana White argued it was natural that Ferguson would lose the interim title as Khabib and Iaquinta were fighting for the undisputed championship. However, in 2017, Robert Whittaker remained interim champion despite Georges St-Pierre and Michael Bisping fighting for the undisputed title, as did interim champion Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira when Brock Lesnar fought Randy Couture for the undisputed title in 2008.

Nicco Montaño, September 2018

Montaño, the inaugural UFC women’s flyweight champion, saw her title stripped after being forced to withdraw from her first scheduled title defense against Valentina Shevchenko, who had predicted in the lead-up to the fight that the bout wouldn’t materialize.

A difficult weight cut meant that Montaño (4-2 MMA) had to be taken to hospital on the day of the weigh-ins and she has not fought since.

Colby Covington, September 2018

Like Ferguson, Covington saw his interim champion status fade away on the same day that Tyron Woodley defended the undisputed title against Darren Till. Covington had been unable to fight Woodley on that date after undergoing nasal surgery.

With Woodley set to face Kamaru Usman in March, it looks like Covington will have to wait even longer for his chance at undisputed UFC gold.

Nick Dwyer
About the Author:

Nick Dwyer. Nick is a 27-year-old MMA writer who has been part of #TeamEverlast for 2 years now, contributing weekly 'Dwyer Score' columns as well as statistical analyses and fighter interviews. Follow Nick on Twitter at @NickDwyerMMA.