There have been a good amount of mixed martial arts fighters that we once thought were done; we thought their careers were over with, but they somehow found resurgence. Once a fighter loses their prime, or wastes their prime, their best days are almost always behind them, but not for these five listed talents.
They did very well early on, then hit some extremely rough patches, before coming back better than ever. In this list, we’ll be going over these five names and give you a hint of what their respective careers looked like, before, during, and after their epic career comebacks.
5. ‘The Huntington Beach Bad Boy’ Tito Ortiz
This one should come as no surprise; even Tito Ortiz has gotten the last laugh a few times. Ortiz was a force as soon as he came to the UFC, making his debut in 1997. He initially went 3-1 inside the octagon, avenging that lone defeat, leading into his light-heavyweight title fight against Frank Shamrock.
After dominating Shamrock for three rounds, Ortiz was exhausted, and finished via TKO toward the end of round four considering. Shamrock then elected himself out of the promotion, giving Ortiz the opportunity to dominate in his absence.
Ortiz won the title in his next fight against Wanderlei Silva, defeating him via unanimous decision, before defending it a total of five times. Ortiz lost his belt to Randy Couture (unanimous decision) a little over three years later, and then lost to Chuck Liddell (KO), bringing his record to 10-4.
Ortiz then won his next five straight over the likes of Patrick Cote (unanimous decision), Vitor Belfort (split decision), Forrest Griffin (split decision), and Ken Shamrock twice, both via TKO.
This awarded Ortiz another title shot, but he had to face the one man he never wanted that first fight with, Chuck Liddell, who TKO’d him in round three this time around.
Ortiz then battled Rashad Evans to a draw, before losing his next three to Lyoto Machida (unanimous decision), Forrest Griffin (split decision) in their rematch, and Matt Hamill (majority decision), bringing his record from 15-4 to 15-8-1.
You see, that last name, Matt Hamill, Ortiz coached him on The Ultimate Fighter 3. If you’re losing to students of yours, past or present, it may be time to hang ’em up.
Ortiz was then scheduled to face surging talent Ryan Bader, who he was surely going to lose to. He didn’t though, he won the unwinnable fight by dropping Bader, then submitting (guillotine choke) him in round one.
This was incredible to see, though not many care much for ‘The Huntington Beach Bad Boy’, it was a beautiful moment in mixed martial arts history. The triumph of this task was seemingly an easy feat, to our surprise.
He lost his next three fights however, to Rashad Evans (TKO) in their rematch, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira (TKO), and Forrest Griffin (unanimous decision) in their trilogy.
He had that guillotine locked in tight in his rematch with Evans as well, but was unable to finish the fight with it, and ultimately got finished himself in the end.
Ortiz retired after his trilogy with Griffin, but only for a short while. He came back just under two years later in the Bellator cage to face Bellator Middleweight Champion Alexander Shlemenko. This was another huge, huge upset, as Ortiz took Shlemenko down and submitted (arm-triangle choke) midway through round one.
It was so crazy witnessing this, literally no one saw Ortiz winning this fight, or even coming close.
Shlemenko is a middleweight, and he’s not a very big middleweight either, but we all still expected him to handily beat an over the hill Ortiz. We expected him to knock Ortiz out if anything.
Ortiz next fought Stephan Bonnar seven months later, and while it was a lackluster fight, Ortiz won the split decision victory. He was then scheduled against another Bellator champion, this time at 205 lbs, where he was challenging Liam McGeary for the belt.
McGeary submitted (inverted triangle choke) Ortiz toward the end of round one, something we all expected. The UFC title remains the only belt Ortiz has a claim to. However, he’s won his last three fights, first defeating Chael Sonnen via submission (rear naked choke), another surprising one.
His last two bouts showed him victorious over a barely mobile Chuck Liddell (KO) in their regrettable trilogy, and Alberto Del Rio (rear naked choke).
Obviously, he was supposed to run right through those last two; one’s been over the hill for more than ten years and went out on his back multiple times before retiring, and the other’s a professional wrestler that had an MMA record of 9-5.
From his Bader fight, to his Shlemenko fight, to his three-fight win streak he ended his career on, Tito Ortiz certainly belongs on this list. He still hasn’t announced his retirement this time around, but it’s unknown whether he’ll fight again or not. Regardless, at 44, now 45-years-old, he improved his record to 21-12-1 with his most recent victory.
4. Jesse Taylor
We first got notice of Jesse Taylor on The Ultimate Fighter 7, where he stood atop his class of middleweight castmates. He came onto the show with a record of 6-2, and came from a successful amateur wrestling background.
Taylor went 4-0 on the show with two rear naked chokes and two unanimous decision victories, making it to the finals, where he was going to face Amir Sadollah for The Ultimate Fighter 7 Championship. The last night they were in The Ultimate Fighter house, the cast went out on the town to celebrate their season.
Taylor evidently had far too much to drink, and acted out it such a terrible manner, Dana White kicked him off the finale. White did allow him to compete two events after the finale though, where he was submitted (Peruvian Necktie) by fellow castmate CB Dollaway, who faced Sadollah for the second time one month earlier in the finals.
The UFC cut Taylor, and he was stuck fighting in smaller promotions for the next eight-plus years. While he did rack up a considerable amount of wins in this time, he also got submitted, a lot. He racked up a record of 24-12 after being released, 11 of those defeats coming via submission, before returning to The Ultimate Fighter 25.
The thing is, Taylor is such a powerful wrestler, all of his fights end up on the mat with him on top.
He just gets careless sometimes when he’s in control, kind of like Chael Sonnen used to do. How many times have we seen Sonnen dominating someone, then he gets submitted? Every single loss he had up until the second Anderson Silva fight.
Taylor went 3-0 on The Ultimate Fighter 25 this time around with two submission victories and one unanimous decision, making it to the finals against Dhiego Lima. Taylor absolutely mauled Lima, and ended up submitting (rear naked choke) him 43 seconds into round two.
He’d now gone 7-0 inside The Ultimate Fighter house, submitting 1st-degree BJJ black belt James Krause with a guillotine choke in round three of his final match up before facing Lima in the finals.
Taylor finally got crowned as The Ultimate Fighter, something he probably should’ve won years and years prior. USADA flagged Taylor for an out of competition test not long after this, and he never competed in the UFC again. He has fought once since, where he was again submitted.
It was great to see him win that crown he may have won eight years earlier though. It was one of the beautiful moments this sport has given us, and it was a very deserved accomplishment. Jesse Taylor is certainly one of the best in-house Ultimate Fighters ever.
3. Anthony ‘Rumble’ Johnson
Anthony Johnson was for a few years considered the scariest welterweight in the sport, and for a good reason. His wrestling background, along with his ruthless power, it’s no wonder he got so many quick knockouts down at 170 lbs.
Though he missed the 171 lb limit twice in this time, he made weight eight different times. He was a scary dude, and had gone through everyone really, aside from Rich Clementi and Josh Koscheck.
The Clementi fight came when Johnson was just 4-0, while Clementi had over 40 fights, and Koscheck would still be a top welterweight today if he were still at his peak, there’s no shame in losing to him.
They both submitted Johnson with rear naked chokes. Following his defeat to Koscheck, Johnson dominated Dan Hardy to a unanimous decision victory, before TKO’ing Charlie Brenneman with a head kick.
After that two-fight win streak, improving his record to 10-3, Johnson decided to move up to 185 lbs for his next bout, and he’d be facing Vitor Belfort in his divisional debut.
‘Rumble’ missed weight badly for this contest, weighing in 11 lbs over the middleweight limit at 197 lbs, and he was submitted (rear naked choke) toward the end of round one.
Johnson was cut following this, and fought for a few different promotions after being released. His next bout was also scheduled at 185 lbs, but he and David Branch both missed weight and it proceeded at a 195 lb catchweight bout.
After defeating Branch, ‘Rumble’ finally found his home at 205 lbs. He eventually made it to 6-0 outside the UFC, picking up four knockout victories, and defeating Andrei Arlovski in a heavyweight bout.
Upon returning to the UFC, ‘Rumble’ was matched up with the surging top five contender Phil Davis. Johnson battered Davis for three rounds en route to a dominant unanimous decision victory. This was an incredibly impressive performance, Davis was a huge favorite coming into that fight.
Johnson followed this up with knockout victories over Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Alexander Gustafsson, and was then scheduled to face Jon Jones for the UFC Light-Heavyweight Championship.
However, Jones was suspended for steroid abuse, stripped of his title, and replaced by Daniel Cormier. He and Johnson faced off for the vacant UFC Light-Heavyweight Championship. After nearly knocking Cormier out in round one, Johnson was ultimately submitted (rear naked choke) in round three.
This didn’t deter him from starching everyone not named Daniel Cormier though, as he went 3-0 in his next three fights, winning all three via KO against Jimi Manuwa, Ryan Bader, and Glover Teixeira, with the Bader and Teixeira wins coming in a combined 99 seconds.
This led ‘Rumble’ to another title shot, where he was again submitted (rear naked choke) by Cormier. It’s too bad we never got to see that Jon Jones fight, but that’s the sport sadly. Sometimes we don’t always get what we want, or even what’s due for that matter, just ask Tony Ferguson.
Johnson has since retired, has been out nearly four years, and is making a 2021 return to Bellator’s light-heavyweight division.
From going to missing weight constantly, to being released from the promotion, to coming back to be the second-best light-heavyweight in the sport, in a weight class we never knew we’d see him in, that grants ‘Rumble’ the No. 3 spot on this list.
2. ‘Ruthless’ Robbie Lawler
Robbie Lawler has been one of the scariest men in the sport ever since he was 20-years-old. He came to the UFC with a record of 4-0, and quickly improved that to 7-0, two of those victories coming via knockout, before suffering his first defeat.
That first defeat came via hip injury, so really, it is what it is. Lawler returned to batter former professional boxer Chris Lytle to a unanimous decision victory, before losing to Nick Diaz (KO) and Evan Tanner (triangle choke).
The UFC then released Lawler, and he initially did well outside the UFC. He won his next three fights, two via KO, the other via submission (armbar), the only submission victory of his entire career, before being submitted (arm-triangle choke) by Jason ‘Mayhem’ Miller.
Lawler then went 5-0 (1 NC) in his next six bouts, all five wins via knockout, before being submitted (guillotine choke) by Jake Shields. Since leaving the UFC, he’d won the ICON Sport Middleweight Championship, lost it to Miller, then regained it by KO’ing Frank Trigg.
He was also the EliteXC Middleweight Champion, and had a single title defense coming into his bout with Shields, who was the EliteXC Welterweight Champion coming in.
Following Lawler’s bout with Shields, his career got very dicey there for a few years. Including that bout, he’d gone 3-5 in his next eight.
This showed him defeat the likes of Melvin Manhoef (KO), who was absolutely dominating him, that was a great fight. If you haven’t seen it, go back and give it a watch! He also defeated Matt Lindland (KO) and Adlan Amagov (TKO) in this time.
Lawler lost to the likes of Shields of course, Renato Sobral (unanimous decision), ‘Jacare’ Souza (rear naked choke), Tim Kennedy (unanimous decision), and Lorenz Larkin (unanimous decision).
Lawler had gone from 16-4 (1 NC) to 19-9 (1 NC) in just three years, it appeared his best days were certainly behind him, and right around the time he should’ve been coming into his prime. Unfortunately, that’s how a good amount of fighters’ careers go.
Not for Lawler though, he wasn’t accepting that as his fate. When the UFC bought out Strikeforce, the Strikeforce talents merged into the UFC, much like when the UFC bought the WEC.
‘Ruthless’ was one of those talents, and he really looked incredible upon return. First up was a bout against Josh Koscheck, who he KO’d in round one, before KO’ing Bobby Voelker with a nasty head kick early in round two of his next bout.
Lawler’s third return bout was against surging prodigy Rory MacDonald, who he defeated via split decision after nearly knocking him out in round three, making him the No. 1 contender for the UFC Welterweight Championship, which would be vacated later that night.
His opponent was none other than the man Georges St-Pierre fought later that night, Johny Hendricks. Lawler lost this fight via unanimous decision, though it was a very close fight. It was clearly two rounds to two going into the fifth, and Hendricks was able to take Lawler down and hold him throughout the fifth.
Lawler returned two months later to face Jake Ellenberger, who he TKO’d in round three, before defeating Matt Brown via unanimous decision in their five round war.
This led him to another title shot, where he defeated Johny Hendricks via split decision, and he was now the UFC Welterweight Champion, just as his former superiors Pat Miletich and Matt Hughes were at many points.
Next came another rematch, this one against Rory MacDonald. Though he was down three rounds going into round five, he finished MacDonald via TKO one minute into the fifth, before next defending his title against former WEC and interim UFC Welterweight Champion Carlos Condit via split decision.
Lawler lost his title after this, but he certainly deserves a top mention in this career comeback list. No one expected him to make it to the top after what we saw of him in Strikeforce, and he did, he became the best welterweight on the planet for about three years.
1. Dominick ‘The Dominator’ Cruz
This one should come as no surprise. Dominick Cruz is perhaps the unluckiest fighter this sport has even known. Cain Velasquez is the only man that compares with the long string of injuries Cruz has been forced to endure.
Khabib Nurmagomedov was in the same boat for a while, as was Anthony Pettis, Chris Weidman, but they eventually figured out how to stay healthy enough to keep their scheduled fights intact, for the most part.
Unfortunately, Cruz hasn’t been able to do that consistently. ‘The Dominator’ came to the WEC back in 2007 with a record of 9-0, and was submitted (guillotine choke) by Urijah Faber when he challenged for the WEC Featherweight Championship.
Cruz then went back to the local circuit, securing a first-round KO victory, before returning to the WEC in the bantamweight division. He went 4-0 upon returning, including handing Joseph Benavidez his first defeat, before challenging Brian Bowles for the WEC Bantamweight Championship.
Bowles had just KO’d the 37-1 four-time WEC Bantamweight Champion Miguel Torres, who’d avenged his only defeat coming into their bout. We all expected him to hold that title for some time, but he lost it to Cruz via TKO in his very next bout.
Cruz defended his WEC title twice, against Benavidez (split decision) in their rematch, and against Scott Jorgensen in the second-to-last WEC fight ever hosted, before being promoted to UFC Bantamweight Champion.
His UFC debut came against none other than the only man to ever defeat him in a cagefight, Urijah Faber, who he defeated via unanimous decision this time around.
Cruz followed this up with a unanimous decision victory over future 12-time UFC Flyweight Champion Demetrious Johnson, making his fourth consecutive title defense.
Cruz then coached The Ultimate Fighter 15 opposite his rival, Urijah Faber, and was expected to face him in their trilogy bout that following year. However, Cruz withdrew from the bout two months prior with a torn ACL.
‘The Dominator’ was sidelined longer than he should’ve been though, as his body rejected the artificial implant they put in his knee. Faber fought Renan Barao for the interim title in the meantime, who he lost to via unanimous decision.
This made for a title-unification bout with Cruz and Barao, but Cruz tore his groin leading up to their fight, and was again sidelined.
Cruz was then stripped of his title for inactivity, Barao was promoted to the undisputed bantamweight champion, and many of us were wondering if we’d ever get to see him come back.
Just four days shy of three years later, we’d finally get to see ‘The Dominator’ back inside the octagon. He was facing fellow top five bantamweight Takeya Mizugaki, who was on a five-fight win streak. Cruz stormed right through Mizugaki en route to a KO victory just 61 seconds into round one.
We finally had Dominick Cruz back, and he was coming off the single handed best performance of his career.
However, three months after this, Cruz tore his other ACL, and was again out of competition for over a year.
Luckily for us, though he came into the fight injured, he was able to face UFC Bantamweight Champion TJ Dillashaw 16 months later, and defeated him via split decision to reclaim his throne.
This was a very close, competitive fight, but this was truly one of the most beautiful moments in our beloved sports history.
Cruz finally had his trilogy with Urijah Faber in his next bout, defeating him via unanimous decision again. Their first fight, he was looking good up until he got caught. Their second fight was very competitive, but the decision went to the correct man, and he completely shut Faber out this time around.
Cruz also came into his next fight with injuries, but decided to push on anyway, and lost his belt via unanimous decision to Cody Garbrandt. Following this, he was scheduled for bouts against Jimmie Rivera and John Lineker.
He broke his arm leading up to the Rivera fight, and tore his shoulder leading up to the Lineker fight. He finally came back last year in 2020 after three-and-a-half years away to challenge Henry Cejudo for the UFC Bantamweight Championship, where he was TKO’d right at the end of round two.
Honestly, that was a straight up pitiful stoppage. Nonetheless, Cruz still had the most beautiful comeback in all of mixed martial arts.
To being one of the sports most dominant champions, to having it just taken away from him, to coming back three years later in a non-title fight, to coming back 16 months after that to recapture the title he never lost in a fight, Dominick Cruz will forever be known as the unluckiest fighter in MMA history, and will for some time to come be known as the greatest bantamweight to ever do it.
Jamie Varner had an incredible comeback when he returned to the UFC in 2012:
After becoming a three-time WEC Lightweight Champion, Varner went 3-4-1 after his last title defense against Donald Cerrone, and things weren’t looking so great for him.
However, he filled in for Evan Dunham to face the undefeated Edson Barboza on short notice and TKO’d him in round one.
This was absolutely huge because everyone was afraid of Barboza. The Brazilian was 10-0 as a professional, as well as 25-3 as a professional kickboxer, and Varner walked right through him. No one, and we do mean no one expected him to win this fight.
Varner has always been great at covering distance with his boxing, and it gave him the victory over an incredibly touted Edson Barboza. Even he couldn’t believe it, his post-fight speech was priceless.
Andrei Arlovski also had a pretty great career comeback:
After taking extraordinary amounts of damage throughout his career, falling from 15-5 to 15-9, having been knocked out seven times in his career, as a heavyweight mind you, he returned to the UFC to go on a four-fight win streak within the promotion, defeating the likes of Brendan Schaub, Antonio Silva, Travis Browne, and Frank Mir.
Though the Schaub fight was lackluster and controversial, Arlovski made it past him to avenge his defeat to Antonio Silva. His fight with Browne is one of the greatest one-round fights any of us will ever see, and he finally got that Frank Mir fight.
Back in his earlier days, Arlovski won the interim UFC Heavyweight Championship. The interim title was created because then undisputed champion Frank Mir was involved in a terrible motorcycle accident, leaving Arlovski to claim the title in his absence.
Arlovski defended the interim title once, before being promoted to undisputed UFC Heavyweight Champion, a title he also defended once. Though that fight too was lackluster, but it was good to finally see it go down a decade later.
Glover Teixeira’s been looking pretty great lately as well:
After initially going 5-0 inside the octagon with four finishes, improving his record to 22-2, he’d lose his next two bouts to Jon Jones in his title shot, and then Phil Davis immediately following.
Teixeira won his next three bouts, before going 3-3 in his next six, being KO’d in two of those defeats.
Teixeira’s since gone on a five-fight win streak with four finishes however, and he’s again ranked as the UFC’s No. 1 light-heavyweight contender. At 41-years-old, this is a pretty remarkable resurgence.
Rafael dos Anjos is another name that deserves mention:
Dos Anjos came to the UFC with a record of 11-2, and fell to 11-4 in his first two promotional bouts, being viciously KO’d by Jeremy Stephens in his debut. Dos Anjos went 4-2 in his next six, having his jaw broken in one of those defeats, before going on a five-fight win streak.
One of those victories came over Evan Dunham via unanimous decision, which was incredibly controversial, but that’s neither here nor there. After winning those last five, he was then mauled for three rounds by Khabib Nurmagomedov, bringing his record to 20-7.
However, dos Anjos went on to win his next three over Jason High (TKO), Benson Henderson (KO), and Nate Diaz (unanimous decision), before challenging Anthony Pettis for the UFC Lightweight Championship.
Dos Anjos absolutely dominated Pettis for the entire five rounds, awarding him the unanimous decision victory, along with the UFC Lightweight Championship. Dos Anjos had a single title defense, where he TKO’d 28-0-1 professional kickboxer Donald Cerrone just 66 seconds into round one.
Lastly is Charles ‘Do Bronx’ Oliveira, where to start with this kid, where to start….
Well, we’ll start by saying we knew we had a prodigy on our hands since first seeing him fight back in 2010. He came to the UFC with a record of 12-0, and quickly moved that to 14-0 with two beautiful submission victories.
Charles Oliveira would go 0-2 (1 NC) in his next three bouts, before picking up another set of back-to-back submission victories once moving down to 145 lbs. He was then KO’d by Cub Swanson and out-classed by Frankie Edgar, before winning his next four-straight.
Following his four-fight win streak, which included three submissions, he’d go 1-3 in his next four bouts, being TKO’d by Max Holloway and submitted by Anthony Pettis and Ricardo Lamas, both via guillotine choke.
‘Do Bronx’ then moved back up to 155 lbs, where he submitted (rear naked choke) four-time Bellator Lightweight Champion Will Brooks, before being TKO’d by Paul Felder. Man, what a beating he took in that Felder fight.
Since this however, he’s gone on an eight-fight win streak, featuring seven finishes, including his first, and second promotional knockout victories. Oliveira has really come into his own lately, and it’s great to see.
It’s so rare you see someone take as much damage as he has, or dos Anjos for that matter, to be knocked out that many times, and still come back and become an elite contender, in the sports most stacked division at that. It’s truly extraordinary.
Oliveira now sits at No. 3 in the UFC’s lightweight rankings, and we’re all waiting to see what’s next for him.
Nick Diaz has also teased a return for this year of 2021, will we see it?
I became a fan of combat sports when I was 12 years old. I was scrolling through the channels and landed upon versus, where WEC was televised. Urijah Faber fought Jens Pulver for the second time that night. That’s the first fight I saw, and the fight that got me hooked on the sport. Since then, the sport has grown so rapidly, and my goal is to enlighten everyone on what’s going on in the sport today.