The ultimate goal for any fighter in mixed martial arts is simple: Earn a world title.
More specifically, a UFC title.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship is the premier organization in this sport, and the vast majority of competitors want their name on the promotion's roster. Once that is accomplished, next comes the more long-term goal of earning a UFC title.
Some fighters will spend the entirety of their UFC career in mediocrity, never coming close to a title shot; Sam Stout is a perfect example of this. Others will take a long path to becoming contenders, and then remain contenders for a good portion of their careers. Rashad Evans is one of those fighters, having come up through The Ultimate Fighter house and won seven UFC fights before fighting for a title.
Then there is a unique bunch of fighters that rise to contention in a matter of a couple of fights, or without defeating any top competition. These are the fighters that peak too early—fighters that the UFC brought along too quickly. And we have the top five right here.
What better way to begin this list than with a fighter nicknamed "The Fluke"? If ever someone lived up to his or her nickname, it's Josh Grispi.
He was once a top contender in the featherweight division after an incredible start to his WEC career, winning his first four fights all by way of stoppage. I thought he could more than challenge for a major title; I believed he was talented enough to win a UFC strap at some point.
The UFC seemed to agree, matching Grispi up against 145-pound champion Jose Aldo at UFC 125, though that fight eventually fell through. And the former contender was never able to leap back into that top contender's slot.
In four UFC fights, the 24-year-old former top prospect went a perfectly disastrous 0-4 and now finds himself on the outside of the promotion looking in. He's talented, and I'd say it would be too soon to pull the curtain down on his career—again, he's just 24. But a return to prominence, especially in the competitive 145-pound division, seems less than likely at this point.
Patrick Cote may have entered his UFC 90 main event title fight against middleweight champion Anderson Silva with plenty of experience in MMA. He just didn't have the experience against elite, 185-pound fighters.
Cote went 0-4 to begin his UFC career, losing to Tito Ortiz, Travis Lutter, Chris Leben and Joe Doerksen, which should have been warning enough against rushing Cote into a title fight.
But the Canadian placed himself in contention with wins in his next four UFC contests, earning victories against Scott Smith, Jason Day, Kendall Grove and Ricardo Almeida.
Now, fighters have certainly done less to earn title shots—Chael Sonnen got a shot at light heavyweight champ Jon Jones coming off a loss, after all. But the poor competition Cote faced in his wins—none of those fighters remain in the UFC—did little to prepare him for a fight against arguably the greatest fighter in the sport's history.
It showed, as Silva toyed with Cote all the way up until the bout was stopped due to an injury sustained by the challenger.
Following the loss, Cote dropped his next two fights and was subsequently released by the UFC. Now he's back and 2-1 since his return (though his DQ win over Alessio Sakara was highly controversial). But we've seen nothing to hint at a return to contention.
Quite simply, Cote was rushed into a title fight, and Silva proved the Canadian had no business in such a high-profile contest. Whether or not Cote will ever be a top-10 middleweight, much less a contender, again remains to be seen.
Like Cote, Dan Hardy didn't exactly enter into a title fight without his fair share of experience (in terms of total professional fights), but the only UFC Brit to rival Michael Bisping's appeal in the United Kingdom was way out of his league against welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre at UFC 111, and he's never really been able to regain his pre-GSP form.
"The Outlaw" earned that title shot after going four-for-four to begin his UFC career, including wins over Marcus Davis and Mike Swick. Unfortunately, those two welterweights were the best 170-pound fighters Hardy had ever faced, making the leap up to St. Pierre-level competition far too great.
And two of his four UFC wins came by way of split-decision—one by unanimous decision, and one by knockout.
Needless to say, there was no Matt Serra-like upset in the cards for Hardy at UFC 111. St. Pierre ran circles around him, even if he couldn't earn a stoppage.
Following the loss, Hardy dropped three straight fights, including a brutal knockout loss to Carlos Condit, a submission loss to Chris Lytle and a decision loss to Anthony Johnson. He's since earned consecutive victories, but his days of contention are over. In fact, a heart condition may mean his fighting days are over entirely.
If that is the case, it was a good run for "The Outlaw," even if Hardy stormed into, and then out of, contention too quickly, never really able to regain his peak form.
If Brandon Vera is honest with himself, as his nickname would suggest, then he'd be the first to admit he is the definition of a fighter who peaked too soon.
Vera stormed into the UFC as the next big thing, and after he won his first three fights, quickly the talk turned to his potential to become a champion at both light heavyweight and heavyweight.
The hype only became greater when Vera upset Frank Mir at UFC 65, earning the unlikely first-round technical knockout.
Since then? Well, Vera has been anything but "The Next Big Thing."
He followed up the win over Mir with back-to-back losses to Tim Sylvia and Fabricio Werdum, and he compiled a record of 3-4 in his next seven, leading to his release. Fortunately, his loss to Thiago Silva at UFC 125 was overturned to a No Contest, making Vera 3-3 with 1NC in his previous seven, and the UFC saw fit to bring him back.
He took advantage with a win over Eliot Marshall in his return, while following it up with an exciting fight against Mauricio "Shogun" Rua at UFC on Fox 4, though he did lose the fight.
Vera is now 8-6 with 1NC in his UFC career, but is 4-6 with 1NC since his victory over Mir with little hope of ever becoming a contender, whether it be at light heavyweight or heavyweight.
Like I said, if ever a fighter peaked too soon...
Joe Stevenson entered his lightweight title fight against BJ Penn at UFC 80 with 35 career fights, but that doesn't mean the title shot didn't come too soon.
In fact, considering he was just 25 years of age, it absolutely did.
Stevenson debuted in the UFC with a win, and that victory earned him the title of The Ultimate Fighter for the reality series' second season. He would then go on to win four of his next five fights, setting him up for a title shot against Penn.
What took place at UFC 80 was nothing short of brutal, as Stevenson was on the receiving end of one of the most lopsided beatdowns in UFC lightweight title fight history. With blood pouring from his battered face, Stevenson submitted to the champion, the agony of defeat painted on his face.
Though he was outmatched against Penn, It was still too early to phone it in on Stevenson, who had displayed promise since joining the UFC roster. Now, however, it's apparent that "Daddy" has not, and probably never will, recover from that devastating loss to Penn.
Following UFC 80, Stevenson went 3-6 in the UFC before being released on the heels of a four-fight losing streak. And he submitted in his first fight outside the promotion, meaning he has not won since 2009.
Before any questions roll in about why Brock Lesnar didn't make the list, I'll just address it upfront.
Lesnar's UFC career was something of a supernova. It was bright and brilliant before fizzling out into a blackened void. But the former WWE superstar did not make this list, regardless of how short and bittersweet his career was.
Lesnar was hurried along in his UFC career, debuting against Frank Mir in a loss at UFC 81. Then, in just his fourth professional fight, he met Randy Couture for the heavyweight title, a matchup he absolutely dominated.
He would go on to defend his title twice, topping Mir in a rematch at UFC 100 and earning an improbable comeback win over Shane Carwin at UFC 116.
Things took a turn for the worst after that, as Lesnar never looked the same again, dropping back-to-back technical knockout losses against Alistair Overeem and Cain Velasquez.
Following the loss to Overeem, he elected to retire with a UFC record of 4-3. So why did he not make the list of fighters that peaked too soon?
Frankly, it's because Lesnar didn't have the collapse that the other fighters on this list did. It's easy to look at his record and retirement and come to the conclusion that he did peak too quickly. But if Lesnar returned to the UFC tomorrow, he'd still be a top-10 heavyweight, no question.
No other fighter on this list can say they are top 10 in their respective divisions.
Lesnar realized that he wasn't the best heavyweight anymore, and probably wasn't a top-five heavyweight anymore. Instead of taking beatings against the elite, or earning meaningless wins against lesser athletes, he opted for a return to professional wrestling.
And his medical struggles following UFC 100 certainly didn't help convince him to stick around in a brutal heavyweight division.
Superstar Lesnar's career was quick, featuring brutal wins and devastating losses, but he didn't peak too soon. Lesnar never saw his ability diminish, like Joe Stevenson did. Instead, fighters such as Velasquez simply surpassed him in terms of ability.
If Lesnar returned to the UFC, he would face top-10 talent and he would remain a contender. Grispi, Vera and the others cannot say the same thing.