The UFC has always enjoyed a discontinuous relationship with its fighters. They know that a bad run of form could see them unceremoniously released from the promotion at any time, but they also know that if they can string together a few impressive wins on the regional circuit, the door is open for a potential return.
Rarely are bridges burned entirely, which means every so often the opportunity presents itself for a fighter who may have been previously written off to prove us all wrong.
Here’s my list of the top five UFC returns in history:
#5: Patrick Côté
Between 2004 and 2005, whilst in his early-twenties, Côté posted a UFC record of 0-3 and found himself released by the promotion. After participating in The Ultimate Fighter 4: The Comeback in 2006, Côté returned to the UFC for an 8-fight spell, eventually being cut from the promotion for a second time after a 3-fight losing skid that took his overall UFC record to 4-7.
It was third time the charm for Côté. After winning 4 consecutive fights on the regional circuit (Côté has never lost a fight outside of UFC competition), he returned to the UFC once more and won 6 of his next 8 bouts, moving into the UFC’s top-15 welterweight rankings after TKO victories over Josh Burkman and Ben Saunders.
#4: Vitor Belfort
Belfort actually had 3 spells in the UFC, going 5-1 between 1997 and 1998, leaving for PRIDE FC, then returning and going 2-3 with the UFC between 2002 and 2004. The end of Belfort’s second UFC stint was part of a run of 5 defeats in 7 fights, including a decision loss to Dan Henderson that saw Belfort on the wrong end of a rarely seen 30-24 scorecard.
Belfort returned to the UFC in 2009 and won 7 of his next 10 fights, earning 3 UFC title shots (2 at middleweight and 1 at light-heavyweight) and claiming 6 fight-night bonuses from 7 stoppages in those 7 wins. During this 6-year spell, Vitor only lost to Anderson Silva, Jon Jones and Chris Weidman.
#3: Andrei Arlovski
The former UFC champion held an impressive 10-4 record between 2000 and 2008 and was actually on a 3-fight winning streak when he decided to leave the promotion. Shortly after his move, however, Arlovski went on a high-profile 4-fight losing streak that included 3 emphatic KO defeats.
He went on to face a slightly lower level of competition after this skid, putting together a decent run of results until, 13 years after his UFC debut, and almost a decade after he won the UFC heavyweight title, a 35-year-old Andrei Arlovski re-signed with the UFC. This was a man whom many felt was ‘done’ in 2010, let alone 2014.
Arlovski went 4-0 in his first 4 fights back, including stoppage wins over Travis Browne, who was ranked 4th in the world at the time, and Antonio ‘Bigfoot’ Silva, who was one of the men to defeat Arlovski in his 4-fight losing skid, and was coming off an incredible performance against Mark Hunt in a Fight of the Year contender.
If you’d backed Arlovski to win each of these 4 fights, you could have turned $10 into $540.88.
#2: Fabrício Werdum
Werdum was cut from the UFC following a spectacular KO defeat to the debuting Junior dos Santos in 2008, bringing a 4-fight UFC stint to an end.
After leaving the promotion with a record of 2-2, Werdum joined Strikeforce where he went 3-1 and famously became the first man to defeat Fedor Emelianenko in 9 years (or 29 fights). The UFC bought Strikeforce, and Werdum took the most of his second chance, going 6-0 en route to claiming the UFC heavyweight title, scoring stoppage victories over Antônio ‘Minotauro’ Nogueira, Mark Hunt and Cain Velasquez.
#1: Robbie Lawler
A 7-fight UFC spell that began when Lawler was just 20 years old came to an end after back-to-back stoppage defeats to Nick Diaz and Evan Tanner. Lawler left the promotion having lost 3 of his last 4 bouts, though he still held a respectable UFC record of 4-3.
Like Werdum, Lawler was not specifically offered a UFC return. He was brought back into the fray as a by-product of the Strikeforce buyout when the UFC merged Strikeforce’s roster with their own. Having won just 2 of his last 6 bouts with Scott Coker’s promotion, not a lot was expected from Lawler almost 10 years after his last UFC appearance.
His return shocked everyone. Lawler went 8-1 in his first 9 fights back, winning the UFC welterweight title and successfully defending it twice. Lawler’s fights were nominated for 3 consecutive World MMA Fight of the Year awards, and he won 4 Fight of the Night bonuses in a 22-month stretch during this spell.
Lawler recorded wins over Josh Koscheck, Bobby Voelker, Rory MacDonald (twice), Jake Ellenberger, Matt Brown, Johny Hendricks and Carlos Condit. His only loss in this 8-1 streak came to Hendricks in 2014, a loss he would avenge just 9 months later.
Matt Serra- Serra entered The Ultimate Fighter 4: The Comeback after suffering 3 losses in 5 fights. He won the series to secure a title shot at reigning welterweight champion Georges-St-Pierre and pulled off one of the greatest upsets in UFC history by dethroning the Canadian in 2007. The only reason Serra isn’t on this list is that he went straight from competing in the UFC to competing in The Ultimate Fighter 4, so it wasn’t a ‘return’ per se, as he never really left.
Thales Leites- Leites was cut in 2009 with a UFC record of 5-3 after uneventful back-to-back defeats, despite one of those losses coming against Anderson Silva in a fight for the UFC middleweight title. Leites returned to the UFC in 2013 and went 5-0 in his first 5 fights, including a KO win over Francis Carmont and a submission victory over Tim Boetsch.
Nick Diaz- Strictly record-wise, it’s not the strongest return of the bunch. Diaz was 6-4 in UFC competition between 2003 and 2006, yet won just 1 of 4 UFC bouts between 2011 and 2015. Those fights, however, all came against elite opposition. There was a win over former lightweight and welterweight champion B.J. Penn, a loss to Carlos Condit for the interim welterweight title, a loss to Georges St-Pierre for the undisputed welterweight title and a bout with the man many consider the greatest of all time; Anderson Silva. Anyone who comes back to compete in fights of this magnitude against that level of competition has to be worth an honorable mention.
Dominick Cruz- Cruz’s comeback from multiple injuries (limiting him to just 1 fight in nearly 5 years) to reclaim the UFC bantamweight title is one of the greatest revival stories in MMA history. Similar to Matt Serra, I didn’t consider Cruz’s story a ‘UFC Return’ in the same way as the others, as he never left the promotion.
Anyone I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments below!