The 10 Best Fighters Outside the UFC
It's been a few weeks since the last UFC card, and it will be a few more before the next one hits our screens.
While some fans have been frustrated by the promotion's hiatus, others have used it as an opportunity to get acquainted with the fighting talent that exists outside the Octagon, in the rings and cages of the world's other top MMA promotions.
Anyone who has taken that opportunity will have hopefully learned that, while the UFC is the best known MMA promotion on the planet, it's certainly not the only home for world-class fighting talent. In promotions all over the world, there are remarkable fighters doing remarkable things.
Without further ado, let's take a look at the best of those fighters, several of whom have actually turned down UFC contracts.
Note: Slides are in no particular order.
This was a difficult list to assemble, so please don't egg my house.
There are dozens of fighters that arguably deserve a spot in the slides to come, but with only 10 spots available, many didn’t make the cut.
That being said, we still tip our hats to these world-class talents, any of whom could easily wind up on the next iteration of this list.
Here are the fighters who were under consideration but didn't quite make it.
Honorable mentions: Christian Lee, Jiri Prochazka, Vitaly Minakov, Tofiq Musayev, Aung La N Sang, Martin Nguyen, Julia Budd, Angela Lee, Rafael Lovato, Gegard Mousasi, Eddie Alvarez, Timofey Nastyukhin, Saygid Guseyn Arslanaliev, Ray Cooper III, Rory MacDonald, Vadim Nemkov, Seo Hee Ham, John Lineker, Manel Kape, Kai Asakura, Albert Tumenov, Ilima-Lei MacFarlane, Ayaka Hamasaki, Adriano Moraes, Kiamrian Abbasov, Darrion Caldwell, Juan Archuleta, Natan Schulte, Scott Askham, Arjan Bhullar, Emanuel Sanchez, Xiong Jingnan, Kayla Harrison.
Demetrious Johnson (30-3-1): ONE Championship
This one is a no-brainer.
Demetrious "Mighty Mouse" Johnson is not only the best fighter outside the UFC but quite possibly the best fighter ever.
Johnson won the UFC flyweight title in mid-2012 and defended it a record-breaking 11 times before surrendering it to Henry Cejudo via split decision in mid-2018. After losing his title to Cejudo—who he previously knocked out in the first round—Johnson was traded to ONE Championship in exchange for Ben Askren. Hence his appearance on this list.
Since joining the ONE Championship roster, Johnson has triumphed three more times, defeating Yuya Wakamatsu, Tatsumitsu Wada and Danny Kingad to win the ONE Flyweight World Grand Prix—another impressive accomplishment to squeeze on to his jam-packed resume. His next challenge will likely come against ONE flyweight champ Adriano Moraes.
The applause for Johnson has seemingly quieted since he lost to Cejudo, but that's unwarranted. It was a razor-close, controversial loss to a man he obliterated a few years earlier, and he's rebounded with an incredible run on Asian soil.
There's no two ways about it: Johnson is still a staple of MMA's pound-for-pound pantheon.
Patricio Freire (30-4-0): Bellator
Patricio "Pitbull" Freire is essentially a Bellator franchise player at this point. Despite the fact that he's never competed in the UFC, he's managed to establish himself as one of the best fighters in the world.
Freire first won Bellator gold in 2014, defeating Pat Curran by decision to capture the featherweight belt. After losing that title to Daniel Straus in 2015, he then reclaimed it from Straus in 2017 and has ferociously defended it ever since.
As if his accolades as a two-time, defending featherweight champion weren't impressive enough, Freire recently marched up to the lightweight division to challenge Michael Chandler for his title. In a shocking blowout, he captured the lightweight title with a 61-second TKO win to become one of just two concurrent two-division champs in Bellator history.
Freire is currently focused on defending his featherweight title in the Bellator Featherweight World Grand Prix, but he will likely be called upon to defend the lightweight belt shortly thereafter.
Bibiano Fernandes (24-4-0): ONE Championship
Bibiano Fernandes might be the most underrated fighter on this list.
The former DREAM champ, who happens to be one of Demetrious Johnson's key training partners, has spent the last seven years of his career with ONE Championship, where he's become the most dominant fighter in the promotion's history.
Fernandes first touched ONE Championship gold in his second fight with the promotion, defeating Koetsu Okazaki to win the interim bantamweight title.
He was then promoted to undisputed champion with a win over Soo Chul Kim, and he defended the belt seven times. While Fernandes was defeated by Kevin Belingon in a 2018 Fight of the Year contender, he quickly reclaimed the belt when he defeated Belingon by controversial DQ in an immediate rematch. He then put a decisive end to their rivalry in late 2019, submitting Belingon in Round 2 to defend the belt.
Suffice it to say that Fernandes has looked nearly unstoppable in ONE Championship. Given that he was already known as a top talent before he even joined the promotion, it should come as no surprise that he's on this list.
Oh, and did I mention he actually turned down a UFC deal to compete in ONE?
Kyoji Horiguchi (28-3-0): Rizin Fighting Federation
Since parting ways with the UFC, Kyoji Horiguchi has become one of the poster boys for Japan's absurdly entertaining Rizin Fighting Federation and cemented himself as one of the best in the world.
Yes, I know Horiguchi was knocked out by Kai Asakura last year, but until we see a rematch between the two, there's no reason to assume that Horiguchi is any less amazing than we previously thought. Besides, Asakura just got thumped by Manel Kape, who Horiguchi previously defeated. MMA math at its finest.
Anyway, let's take a look at what Horiguchi has accomplished since leaving the UFC.
After seven-straight Rizin wins, including victories over notables like Kape, Ian McCall and Hiromasa Ogikubo, he captured the Rizin bantamweight strap with a win over Bellator bantamweight champion Darrion Caldwell. He then battled Caldwell for his Bellator title, which wasn't on the line in their first fight, and won that, too.
While Horiguchi has since vacated both of his titles because of injury and could be healing on the sidelines for some time, he'll likely be rushed right back into a championship challenge when he's fighting fit.
AJ McKee (16-0-0): Bellator
AJ McKee has not collected belts the way fighters like Johnson, Freire, Fernandes and Horiguchi have, but it seems like a matter of time.
At just 24, the Team Bodyshop representative is already a sparkling 16-0—and his wins haven't come against scrubs, either.
In the short time he's been fighting, McKee has picked up wins over foes like Justin Lawrence, Pat Curran, Georgi Karakhanyan, and most recently, Derek Campos. In the process, he's flaunted a complete and deadly MMA arsenal, winning fights by submission and knockout alike.
Like Freire, McKee is in the midst of the Bellator Featherweight World Grand Prix. Like Freire, he's been pegged by many fans as a favorite to win it.
Keep an eye on this kid.
Cris Cyborg (21-2-0): Bellator
Cris Cyborg has collected belts in Strikeforce, Invicta, and most recently, the UFC. Now, she's gunning for Bellator gold.
After a shocking championship loss to Amanda Nunes, a thrilling win over Felicia Spencer, and a public falling out with UFC President Dana White, Cyborg parted ways with the UFC and was promptly scooped up by Bellator.
She's now scheduled to battle Julia Budd for the Bellator featherweight belt, and with a win, she will further cement herself as one of the best female fighters ever and the best outside the UFC. Sure, her loss to Nunes deflated a bit of her mystique, but that loss was preceded by well over a decade of dominance, highlighted by wins over fighters like Holly Holm, Lina Lansberg, Tonya Evinger, Marloes Coenen, and Gina Carano.
If she swipes Budd's Bellator belt, collecting a fourth major title, her status as one of the best ever will be even harder to deny.
Lance Palmer (22-3-0): PFL
Lance Palmer has found his niche, and it's outside the UFC's Octagon.
Palmer, who is the former World Series of Fighting featherweight champ, has spent the last two years competing for the rebranded Professional Fighters League, a season-based MMA promotion that awards the champions of each weight class $1M at the end of each year.
Palmer has won the featherweight belt—and a million-dollar check—two years running.
His fights are admittedly not the most exciting, and the PFL format often forces him to fight the same opponents repeatedly (he fought Alex Gilpin three times in 2019), but he wins a lot and with apparent ease.
Time will tell how Palmer holds up as the PFL continues to bolster its featherweight roster with high-level talent, but for the moment, he absolutely looks like one of the best featherweights in the world. He's certainly one of the richest.
Douglas Lima (32-7-0): Bellator
You knew he'd be on this list.
You'd be hard-pressed to find anybody who doesn't consider Bellator welterweight king Douglas Lima the best welterweight outside the UFC.
Lima has been with Bellator for what seems like forever. While he's endured a few notable hiccups during his time with the promotion, most notably losses to Ben Askren, Andrey Koreshkov and Rory MacDonald, he's counterbalanced those losses with big wins and two championship reigns.
During his Bellator run, he's used his ferocious striking and underrated grappling to defeat foes like MacDonald, Michael "Venom" Page (did you see that knockout?), Koreshkov, Lorenz Larkin, Paul Daley and Ben Saunders.
He's already proved himself as one of the best in the world. Given that he's talked about moving up to middleweight in search of a second title, per MMA Junkie, it seems like he's far from finished.
Ryan Bader (27-5-0): Bellator
I confess that I almost didn't put Ryan Bader on this list. We saw him lose a few important fights during his time in the UFC, which deflates the argument that he's one of the best fighters in the world and tempted me to give this spot to somebody else. Yet Bader's run in Bellator has been so flawless that I didn't dare relegate him to the Honorable Mentions section.
Like Horiguchi, he left the UFC on a win-streak, electing to pursue greener pastures outside the Octagon rather than settle for what the UFC was offering. He was promptly picked up by Bellator, and the move has paid off.
Bader won the Bellator light heavyweight strap in his first fight with the promotion, beating Phil Davis, then defended it against Linton Vassell before hiking up to heavyweight on the hunt for a second title. After bashing his way through the Bellator Heavyweight World Grand Prix, he captured the vacant title with a 35-second knockout of MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko.
While Bader's most recent fight, a heavyweight title defense against Cheick Kongo, ended with a disappointing no contest due to an eye-poke, he clearly stands among the best light heavyweights and heavyweights in the world.
Bader's next fight is expected to be a light heavyweight title defense, most likely against Honorable Mention recipients Jiri Prochazka or Vadim Nemkov. We'll see if he can defend his place on this list against those two marauders.
Michael Chandler (20-5-0): Bellator
Michael Chandler might be the best fighter in Bellator history. The only other man with a claim to that title is the last man he lost to, the aforementioned Patricio Freire.
While Chandler has experienced a few tough losses—most notably his loss to Freire and pair of setbacks against the less-than-stellar Will Brooks that are extremely difficult to comprehend in the year 2020—he's been otherwise incredible in Bellator.
He's picked up wins over high-level fighters like Patricky Freire (Patricio's big bro), Marcin Held, Eddie Alvarez, Akihiro Gono, Derek Campos, Benson Henderson, Brent Primus and many others. Some of those wins have come by submission, others by way of one-punch knockout, others still in frenetic wars of attrition.
Although his losses almost led to me to give his spot to one of the many killers on our Honorable Mentions list, the list just wouldn't feel right without him on it. The man can do it all, and he would be right at home in the cage with the UFC's best.