The UFC is the pinnacle for any mixed martial artist. Prospective fighters do not begin their careers dreaming of the day they sign a contract with Bellator or World Series of Fighting, they dream of being in the UFC. Not every elite fighter in the world is in the UFC, but most are.
As such, many fighters simply abandon their careers altogether after leaving the UFC, figuring their fighting days are done. Some slip into depression, aren't sure what to do with the rest of their lives, or simply deteriorate mentally and physically without being driven by an upcoming bout. Some fighters truly hit rock bottom once they are no longer living out their UFC dream.
On the other hand, many fighters have thrived since leaving MMA's top promotion. These fighters are the ones who took their departure from the UFC as a challenge, and excelled beyond what many felt they would do. Some fighters were so successful outside the UFC that they ended up returning to the company with better contracts than they'd had in their first stints with the brand. Other fighters enjoyed so much success outside the UFC that they never felt the need to go back.
Here are 8 fighters who thrived after leaving the UFC, and 8 who hit rock bottom.
16 Thrived: Mirko Filipovic
42 year old Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic has experienced something of a career resurgence since leaving the UFC.
In November of 2015 Cro Cop pulled out of a bout at Ultimate Fight Night 79. He announced his retirement, and notified USADA that he had taken human growth hormone. Filipovic used growth hormone on his injured shoulder, but testing failed to find any of the substance in his system. Since Cro Cop admitted to using the substance, he was suspended for two years by USADA.
In 2016, Cro Cop asked for and was granted his UFC release. Filipovic then signed with Rizin, as his USADA suspension doesn't matter in Japan. He subsequently rattled off 4 straight wins to become the Rizin Openweight Grand Prix champion. He defeated King Mo in the second round of the tournament and then defeated Baruto Kaito and Amir Allakbari on New Years Eve to win the championship.
From a career-ending suspension to a champion in just the span of a year. Cro Cop has thrived since leaving the UFC.
15 Hit Rock Bottom: Terry Etim
English fighter Terry Etim was awarded 5 fight bonuses during his time in the UFC. The Liverpool-based lightweight earned Submission of the Night honors on 4 occasions and once was awarded Fight of the Night.
It was his fight of the night which may have started his downfall, however. Edson Barboza hit him with a spectacularly placed spin kick and Etim's body fell lifeless to the mat. It is considered one of the most spectacular knockouts of all time. He lost his next fight as well and was released from the UFC. He signed with Bellator and won his next fight. An ACL injury has kept him out of action since 2013, though.
Etim cropped up in the news in February 2016, as he was taken to hospital after running through traffic and throwing himself into cars. Witnesses say Etim had been travelling in a car with friends when he existed his vehicle and began purposely throwing himself onto windshields. In March, authorities announced Etim was at home recovering and police would not be taking further action.
14 Thrived: Paul Daley
Paul Daley is best known for sucker-punching Josh Koscheck at UFC 113. In Daley's defence, Josh Koscheck was the king of "lay and pray" back in the day, which was frustrating to opponents and fans alike.
After the incident, Dana White told media that Daley would never be back in the UFC, and he never has. Then again, Daley did fight in Strikeforce while it was owned by Zuffa.
After leaving UFC Daley won four straight, including a knockout of Scott Smith in Strikeforce and a decision victory over Jorge Masvidal for Shark Fights. He fought Nick Diaz for the Strikeforce welterweight championship, but was KO'd just before the end of round 1. He subsequently dropped a decision to Tyron Woodley in his next bout.
All told, Daley is 16-5 since leaving the UFC, and he's currently a top welterweight in Bellator.
13 Hit Rock Bottom: Tim Sylvia
Tim Syvia is a two-time UFC heavyweight champion, and nobody can ever take that away from him. But once he left the UFC, things went south fast for the 6'8" fighter from Maine.
After losing the heavyweight title the second time at UFC 68 to Randy Couture, Sylvia defeated Brandon Vera before being submitted by Antonio Nogueira at UFC 81. He asked for his release from the UFC after that, as he wanted to fight the consensus #1 heavyweight in the world, Fedor Emelianenko. Sylvia got his wish at the Affliction: Banned show; Fedor submitted him in 36 seconds.
Sylvia's next fight was the biggest embarrassment of his career. He was knocked out by boxing great Ray Mercer in just 9 seconds. The bout was contested under MMA rules.
He would spend years on smaller shows, winning more than losing. He wound up in the One Fighting Championships in 2012, where he once again fought Andrei Arlovski. The fourth bout between the two ended in a no-contest after Sylvia was hit with illegal kicks.
Doctors finally told Sylvia in 2015 he should retire.
12 Thrived: Josh Barnett
Barnett tested positive for banned substances after his UFC 34 victory over Bobby Hoffman. That didn't stop the promotion from giving him a heavyweight title shot at UFC 36. Barnett promptly knocked out Randy Couture to win the championship. He was stripped of the title afterwards for failing his second straight drug test. After his second failed test, Barnett figured he better start fighting in Japan where testing wasn't as strict.
He won the Pancrase Openweight championship in his second fight since leaving the UFC. In 2006 he would make it all the way to the finals of the Pride Heavyweight Grand Prix, only losing in the finals to Cro Cop. In 2012 he made it all the way to the finals of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix. Barnett would drop the final to Daniel Cormier, however.
Barnett would sign with the UFC again in 2013, more than 10 years after having left the promotion. UFC still lists him as a former heavyweight champion despite his drug test failure from UFC 36.
11 Hit Rock Bottom: Royce Gracie
The first four UFC events were essentially just infomercials for Gracie jiu-jitsu. The goal was to be able to show the public that when martial arts were pitted against each other, jiu-jitsu wins. Royce was the Gracie picked to compete in the events in part because he looked the least intimidating.Had Royce Gracie not been able to do what he did those first four events, there is no telling where the sport of MMA or jiu-jitsu would be.
After those initial UFCs, more fighters began studying jiu-jitsu, and all of a sudden Royce couldn't get by from simply knowing more than his opponents.
When Royce left the UFC his record was 11-0-1. He would only win 2 of his next 6 bouts outside of the company (although 2 were draws). His first official loss was against Kazushi Sakuraba in Pride. He would avenge that loss later in his career, but would test positive for steroids after the fight.
10 Thrived: Tito Ortiz
You have to give the guy credit, he did manage to get his career back to respectable status before he finally retired for good earlier this year. Ortiz had been getting slaughtered in the UFC before finally leaving the promotion in 2012.
After his second and third victories over Ken Shamrock in 2006, Ortiz's record in his final 9 UFC fights was 1-7-1. That he continued fighting at all after a run like that is somewhat remarkable.
Thanks to Bellator, Tito Ortiz recovered a lot of what he lost in his final run in the UFC. Ortiz won 3 of 4 in Bellator, with wins over Chael Sonnen, Stephan Bonnar and Alexander Shlemenko. His only loss in the promotion was in a light heavyweight title fight against champion Liam McGeary.
9 Hit Rock Bottom: Josh Grispi
Featherweight Josh Grispi had become a force to be reckoned with in the WEC when UFC absorbed the division. Grispi had gone 4-0 in WEC including wins over Mark Hominick and Jens Pulver. He was expected to be a top contender in UFC's 145-pound weight class, but things didn't turn out as expected.
Grispi dropped 4 straight and was promptly cut from the organization in 2013. He hasn't fought since.
Instead Josh Grispi has been in prison since the summer of 2014. He is being held without bail on gruesome domestic violence charges. His wife alleges that Grispi was abusive towards her for a period of two years, and he is also accused of training a dog to attack her. One of his arresting officers told media it was the worst case of domestic abuse he'd ever seen.
8 Thrived: Cheick Kongo
Nobody told Cheick Kongo that when he was released from his UFC contract just before his 38th birthday that his career was supposed to be over. Kongo stated to media afterwards that fighting was his life, and he hoped to sign with UFC again some day.
Instead he signed with Bellator, where he has gone 8-2. He won the Bellator Season 9 heavyweight tournament, but dropped a unanimous decision to Vitaly Minakov in 2014. His only other loss in Bellator was to King Mo via split-decision at Bellator 134.
Kongo is currently on a 4-fight win streak, and looking to challenge for the now-vacant Bellator heavyweight championship. Based on his recent record, it's possible the UFC offers Kongo a contract to return.
7 Hit Rock Bottom: Ken Shamrock
Ken Shamrock is a pioneer of mixed martial arts. He was featured on the first-ever UFC event, losing to Royce Gracie in the semi-finals of the tournament. He would later become the inaugural "UFC Super-Fight" champion.
He would leave the sport for a period of three years to focus on pro wrestling, and when he returned, MMA had developed so much without him that he could no longer compete at the level he once had. Shamrock's record before he left the UFC was 22-5-2. His record since returning to MMA following his three-year sabbatical is 5-12.
Shamrock returned to the UFC for 5 fights in the early 2000s, with 3 of those bouts being against Tito Ortiz. He lost all 3 to Tito and another one to Rich Franklin to drop 4 of the 5 bouts. His only win during that period was over Kimo Leopoldo at UFC 48.
6 Thrived: Phil Davis
"Mr. Wonderful" Phil Davis has done fairly well for himself since leaving the UFC. He opted not to resign with the promotion in 2015. Rather, he decided to become a member of Scott Coker's Bellator promotion.
Davis started his UFC career strong, winning his first five bouts for the promotion. He suffered his first career defeat in early-2012 in a bout against Rashad Evans, however.
At the time he left UFC Davis had lost 2 of his last 3, with losses to Anthony Johnson and Ryan Bader. But since landing in Bellator, Davis has gone 4-0 and looked as good as he ever has.
Davis won the promotion's light heavyweight Grand Prix on September 19th 2015, then defeated King Mo in his next bout. He then defeated light heavyweight champ Liam McGeary to win the title.
5 Hit Rock Bottom: Kimbo Slice
Kimbo Slice was an internet street fighting sensation. His clips of bareknuckled brawls earned him enough fame that he was signed by EliteXC in 2007, where he went 3-1.
He signed with the UFC in 2009 and debuted on The Ultimate Fighter. He won his first official UFC contest (he lost his first fight on TUF) on December 5th 2009 against Houston Alexander. He was released from the UFC after losing his next bout to Matt Mitrione.
After the UFC, Slice tried boxing for awhile before signing on with Bellator in 2015. His first Bellator fight was a lacklustre victory over a 50-year-old Ken Shamrock. His next fight is largely considered to be the worst MMA fight of all time, when he "defeated" Dada5000. Both fighters were gassed early, and Dada5000 had to be taken to hospital where he went into cardiac arrest, but survived.
A few months later Kimbo would be dead of heart failure.
4 Thrived: Nick Diaz
Nick Diaz was 6-4 in the UFC when he left the promotion in 2007. Diaz elected to sign with Gracie Fighting Championships, but the organization failed to get off the ground. He then signed a deal with Pride FC. Diaz defeated Takanori Gomi at Pride 33, but the results were overturned because he failed a drug test for marijuana.
Diaz thrived outside of the UFC, and at one point was on a 10-fight winning streak that included wins in DREAM, Strikeforce and EliteXC. He won the Strikeforce welterweight championship in early 2010, and defended it against KJ Noons, Evangelista Santos and Paul Daley.
After proving his ability outside the UFC, Nick Diaz became a big star inside of it. He was immediately placed into title contention in UFC's welterweight division when he re-signed with the company in 2011. He defeated BJ Penn before unsuccessfully challenging Georges St-Pierre at UFC 158.
3 Hit Rock Bottom: Rousimar Palhares
Rousimar Palhares has this thing where if he has a submission locked in and the guy taps, he still doesn't let go. It has gotten him in quite a bit of trouble over the years. In fact, it contributed to him being fired from the UFC, and was the sole reason for his recent 2-year suspension from the Nevada State Athletic Commission.
Palhares was suspended for 90 days in 2010 for failing to release a submission at UFC 111 after the ref stepped in. He was also suspended again in 2012 for failing a drug test due to elevated testosterone levels. Then in 2013, when Palhares again failed to release a submission, the UFC cut him.
Things have not gone well for Palhares outside the UFC. He was suspended again for failing to release a submission after defeating Jake Shields at a WSOF event in 2015. Palhares was fired from the promotion and suspended 2 years by the commission. He's defied his suspension by fighting in Europe, however, where he has dropped two straight fights.
2 Thrived: Anthony Johnson
As this article is being written, Anthony Johnson is preparing for a UFC light heavyweight title shot against champion Daniel Cormier. Five years ago, Anthony Johnson might have thought his career was over. After all, he had just been cut by the UFC.
Johnson was fighting at welterweight during his first UFC stint, and making weight was an issue. After failing to make weight twice, Johnson moved up to middleweight. He wasn't able to make weight for his first fight in the higher weight class either, and he was released by the UFC after that.
Outside the UFC, Johnson learned he was better when he didn't have such tough weight cuts, and he moved up to light heavyweight. He won 6 in a row outside the UFC, including 3 straight in WSOF.
Since returning to the UFC at light heavyweight he is 6-1, with his only loss coming in a title fight with Cormier.
1 Hit Rock Bottom: War Machine
War Machine (born Jonathan Koppenhaver) competed in Season 6 of The Ultimate Fighter. While he didn't make it to the TUF finals that season, he did win his bout on the season finale show. He knocked out Jared Rollins in the third round of an absolute slugfest.
He lost his next bout and then was cut from the promotion for being a bit too picky with his next bout offers. War Machine found himself in prison for various assault charges from 2010 to 2012. Once released he signed with Bellator, where he went 2-1.
In 2017, War Machine was found guilty on 29 charges related to the assault and attempted rape of his onetime girlfriend Christie Mack. As of this writing, War Machine has yet to receive his sentence. For the charge of sexual assault with a weapon, he is looking at a possible life sentence.