UFC 151: Dan Henderson and the 25 Best Fighters to Never Hold a UFC Belt
At UFC 6, all the way back in 1995, Ken Shamrock beat Dan Severn to become the UFC's first superfight champion. Since that first historic belt was awarded, 47 men have claimed the title "UFC champion."
That leaves dozens of great fighters on the outside looking in. Some of them got their shot and fell just short. Others never had the chance to fight for UFC gold.
Included here are only fighters who have competed in the UFC. If you never stepped foot in the Octagon, you can't qualify for this list. Call it the "Fedor Emelianenko rule" if you'd like, though it also applies to greats like Rickson Gracie and Masakatsu Funaki.
What follows are the 25 best fighters never to wear a UFC belt around their waists. Some are still in their primes—there remains a strong chance that they will win their way right off this list. For others, their day is done. They've either retired or no longer compete at a high level. For them, the dream is dead.
The Best of the Rest (25-11)
UFC Record: 0-1
Top Wins: Caol Uno, Frank Trigg, Dave Menne, Shinya Aoki (X2), Jens Pulver, Joachim Hansen
Sakurai's single UFC fight was a welterweight title bout with Matt Hughes. Although he never competed for the promotion again, I think he would have been a perennial contender in the more appropriate 155-pound class.
UFC Record: 4-0
Top Wins: Paul Varelans, Hugo Duarte, Daniel Bobish, Enson Inoue
Kerr was primed to avenge his training partner Mark Coleman and reclaim the UFC heavyweight title from kickboxer Maurice Smith. Instead, he left the UFC entirely during a contract dispute and his career fell apart in a cloud of drug abuse and disarray (see the HBO documentary The Smashing Machine).
UFC Record: 1-0-1
Top Wins: Royler Gracie, Royce Gracie, Renzo Gracie, Quinton Jackson
An all-time MMA great, Sakuraba spent his best years in the Pride promotion, competing in a division featuring fighters at least 20 pounds heavier than he was. At 170 or 185 pounds, the catch wrestler might have become the most accomplished fighter ever. But we'll never know.
UFC Record: 15-6
Top Wins: Matt Hughes, Paul Daley, Diego Sanchez, Chris Lytle
Koshcek lost his one title bout by unanimous decision, unable to solve the riddle of Georges St-Pierre. Other potential title shots evaporate with untimely, and often unexpected, losses.
UFC Record: 3-5-2
Top Wins: Rumina Sato, Mitsuhiro Ishida, Din Thomas (X2), Yves Edwards
Uno had his shot at UFC gold, going to a draw with B.J. Penn at UFC 41 with the belt on the line. With no champion to crown, the UFC shelved the division all together.
UFC Record: 7-5
Top Wins: B.J. Penn, Paul Daley, Frank Shamrock, Robbie Lawler
One of the sport's most polarizing figures, Diaz fell short when he finally got a chance to compete for UFC gold. A long-time Strikeforce champion, Diaz hopes to finally get a shot at champion Georges St-Pierre in 2013.
UFC Record: 10-4
Top Wins: Ivan Salaverry, Shonie Carter, Jeremy Horn, Demian Maia
Marquardt, a former King of Pancrase in Japan, fell short against Anderson Silva in 2007. Since, he's twice lost title eliminators, once to Chael Sonnen and once to Yushin Okami. Currently biding his time in Strikeforce, Marquardt is counting on a move to welterweight reviving his title dreams.
UFC Record: 9-3
Top Wins: Ricardo Almeida, Phil Baroni (X2), Travis Lutter, Jeremy Horn
The former Olympic silver medalist lost twice in his lone UFC title shot. Referee John McCarthy missed his initial tap, so Murilo Bustamante had to finish Lindland a second time. A contentious relationship with UFC brass helped prevent the wrestler from ever securing another title bout.
UFC Record: 6-7
Top Wins: Chuck Liddell, Forrest Griffin, Chael Sonnen
Jeremy Horn's first UFC fight was a title shot, and he took Frank Shamrock to the limit. Horn was likely on his way to a decision win when Shamrock pulled off a last second knee bar submission. Horn would get another shot late in his career, falling to Chuck Liddell. During his best years, the globe-trotting Horn never stuck around in the UFC long enough to claim gold.
UFC Record: 2-2
Top Wins: Dominick Cruz, Jens Pulver (X2), Brian Bowles
Two of Faber's four UFC fights have been for the strap. He fell short both times. But the charismatic star seems destined to get another chance at securing his legacy as one of the most important lighter weight fighters ever.
UFC Record: 2-2
Top Wins: Dan Henderson, Robbie Lawler, Yushin Okami, Carlos Condit
While he reigned in Strikeforce for years, many considered Jake Shields the best fighter in the world outside the UFC. He got a chance to prove it in the Octagon, but fell short against Georges St-Pierre. Only time will tell if he can regain the form that once made him one of the most feared submission artists in the game.
Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto
UFC Record: 0-3
Top Wins: Royler Gracie, Caol Uno, Genki Sudo
Yamamoto was a shell of his former self by the time he stepped into the UFC Octagon. In his prime, he dominated the Japanese scene, often giving up 20 or 30 pounds to fight in the lightweight division, despite being a natural 135-pounder.
UFC Record: 2-3
Top Wins: Hayato Sakurai, Jens Pulver, Ralph Gracie, Rumina Sato
The top star of Japan's Pride Bushido offshoot, the lightweight star wasn't able to recapture the magic he made in the ring when it was time to make the move into the cage. Approaching his 34th birthday, Gomi seems likely to end his career without ever wearing the UFC belt.
Mirko "Cro Cop" Filopovic
UFC Record: 4-6
Top Wins: Kazushi Sakuraba, Josh Barnett (X3), Mark Coleman, Wanderlei Silva
One of the best heavyweights ever, Cro Cop was no longer a top competitor once Pride collapsed and he made his way to the UFC. In his Pride prime, however, his deadly striking made him one of the most feared fighters on the planet.
Antonio Rogerio Nogueira
UFC Record: 3-2
Top Wins: Tito Ortiz, Dan Henderson, Guy Mezger, Kazushi Sakuraba
The twin brother of former interim heavyweight champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Rogerio has spent his entire career as a light heavyweight. He combines a solid boxing game with his superlative jiu jitsu. At 36, it may be too late to make his title run.
10. Chael Sonnen
UFC Record: 6-5
Top Wins: Nate Marquardt, Yushin Okami, Brian Stann, Michael Bisping
Sonnen came as close as you can possibly come at UFC 117, pushing the great Anderson Silva to the limit before falling to a last second submission. Sonnen took another round from the champion at their UFC 148 rematch, but succumbed to strikes in the second round.
At 35, there may not be enough time for Sonnen to get back into contention before his body betrays him. His best chance is for Silva to retire, once again making Sonnen a viable option for a title shot.
9. Diego Sanchez
UFC Record: 11-5
Top Wins: Nick Diaz, Kenny Florian, Clay Guida
Sanchez is the UFC's most exciting fighter, a buzzsaw who combines solid grappling with absolutely fearless striking. Sanchez's name on a card almost guarantees excitement. He comes to fight and leaves it all in the cage every time.
Sanchez announced recently that he intends to return to lightweight, the division that saw him earn his first and only title shot. He lost that fight badly to B.J. Penn, but Sanchez fans hold out hope that he could do better against a more mortal opponent.
8. Guy Mezger
UFC Record: 4-1
Top Wins: Tito Ortiz, Semmy Schilt, Masakatsu Funaki
The former King of Pancrase split a pair of fights with Tito Ortiz early in the Huntington Beach Bad Boy's career. A third match was planned when Mezger was plagued by stroke-like symptoms and forced to retire.
At his best, Mezger was challenge even for Chuck Liddell and Wanderlei Silva. On the right night, the Lion's Den product could have beaten any man in the world.
7. Kenny Florian
UFC Record: 12-5
Top Wins: Din Thomas, Clay Guida, Takanori Gomi
A favorite from the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, Florian had a distinguished MMA career. Starting as a middleweight, he eventually dropped all the way down to 145 pounds in pursuit of a UFC championship.
It wasn't to be. Florian was a very good fighter. But in his three title fights, some of the all-time greats stood in his way: Sean Sherk, B.J. Penn and Jose Aldo.
6. Gray Maynard
UFC Record: 9-1-1 (1 NC)
Top Wins: Frankie Edgar, Jim Miller, Kenny Florian
Maynard fought Frankie Edgar to a draw in his first and most heart breaking title shot. He knocked Edgar down and had the fight well in hand before the champion came storming back to earn a draw. In a rematch, Edgar again survived early trouble to knock Maynard out in the fourth round.
Maynard is still a top contender for the belt. Unlike some of the others on this list, his story hasn't been told to completion. I suspect it ends happily, with a belt strapped on his waist by UFC President Dana White.
5. Pedro Rizzo
UFC Record: 9-5
Top Wins: Josh Barnett, Mark Coleman, Tsuyoshi Kohsaka, Andrei Arlovski, Ricco Rodriguez
Rizzo has beaten five UFC champions in his career, but fell short twice when it mattered most. He lost a close decision to Randy Couture at UFC 31—a fight many, including Rizzo, were sure he'd won.
He was granted an immediate rematch, but this time Couture allowed no doubts. "The Natural" finished Rizzo in the third and the Brazilian kickboxer never got another chance to compete for the belt. No longer able to withstand a strong punch, Rizzo was last seen as the designated fall guy for Fedor Emelianenko in Russia.
4. Wanderlei Silva
UFC Record: 4-8
Top Wins: Kazushi Sakuraba (X3), Dan Henderson, Quinton Jackson (X2)
The "Axe Murderer" and Tito Ortiz were the best light heavyweights standing when Frank Shamrock retired with the strap after UFC 22. Ortiz claimed possession of the belt with a plodding win over Silva in Japan. Tito went back to the States as champion. Silva stayed to become one of Japan's most beloved MMA icons.
At his best, Silva was untouchable. He beat everyone they put in front of him, combining unparallelled aggression with fearless punching power. No one could stop his path of destruction.
At the same time, Chuck Liddell was claiming his throne as North America's top light heavyweight. Matching the two became an obsession with UFC promoter Dana White. It didn't happen until both had lost a step—but White turned out to be absolutely right. Silva versus Liddell was magic.
3. Jon Fitch
UFC Record: 13-2-1
Top Wins: Thiago Alves (X2), Diego Sanchez, Mike Pierce
Jon Fitch had awful timing. He may have been the second best welterweight of all time. Unfortunately for him, he was competing at the same time as the best that ever lived, Georges St-Pierre.
For more than six years, Fitch was unbeaten in the Octagon—except for a 2008 loss to St-Pierre. It was the only title shot he earned during that time period though. Partially because of a cautious style that led to ten decisions in a row, Fitch was never given another chance to take the title belt.
2. Dan Henderson
UFC Record: 6-2
Top Wins: Wanderlei Silva, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Fedor Emelianenko, Murilo Bustamante
There's an argument to be made that Dan Henderson is the greatest fighter in MMA history. He's achieved remarkable success across three weight classes, beating some of the world's best as a middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight.
Only one thing is missing from Henderson's resume—a UFC championship. When he came over from Pride in 2007, he got shots at both middleweight and light heavyweight. He fell short against Quinton Jackson and Anderson Silva.
Later this year he'll get a third try. Will it be the charm? If so, Henderson will write his name in the history books alongside the best ever. If not, the question will always linger: if Henderson was really so good, why couldn't he win UFC gold?
1. Royce Gracie
UFC Record: 11-1-1
Top Wins: Ken Shamrock, Dan Severn, Kazushi Sakuraba
Royce Gracie is the most important fighter in MMA history. More than that, he's one of the most important martial artists in the last century. His family's art, Gracie Jiu Jitsu, reinvented the martial arts, changing the way the world thought about fighting and what it was supposed to look like.
Gracie dominated the early UFCs, winning three tournaments and every bout by submission. But he never took home gold. In his sole shot at a UFC title, he fought Ken Shamrock to a draw at UFC 5.