Controversy has always been a part of sports, and many believe
it’s actually good for the bottom line. The thinking goes
that if people are debating passionately about something,
they’re invested in it, financially and otherwise.
The UFC is of course no stranger to controversy. In fact, the
dynamic is in the company’s DNA, loved by some, loathed by
others from the very beginning. In MMA we love, but along the way,
there have been plenty of cases where fans, media and other
observers took sides and stayed divided.
#20: Couture minus Couture
No sooner had Randy Couture signed a television deal with Viacom
than UFC president Dana White laid out the edict: No more
“Natural” in the UFC. What exactly did this mean? Well,
for Ryan Couture, son of the legend, it meant being without one
Hall of Fame cornerman.
White did personally call Ryan Couture to tell him of his
decision, and that he was happy to have him in the UFC, saying that
his enmity for Randy would not spill over to his UFC career. Ryan
chose to fight on in the UFC, but many observers protested, saying
White had put him in the most awkward position imaginable. Ryan
fought twice without his dad, losing to Ross Pearson by TKO and Al
Iaquinta via unanimous decision. Soon after the second loss, he was
#19: AKA gets dumped
There have been several controversial cuts over the years, but
perhaps the most surprising one of all was when the UFC cut
everyone with ties to the powerful American Kickboxing Academy.
The incident came in November 2008, when fighters were allegedly
approached about signing a licensing agreement to appear in a
videogame. While nearly every fighter reportedly signed, the group
of fighters who called AKA home refused to do so, saying the
agreement was too broad and sweeping. Jon Fitch was at the
forefront, with the former No. 1 welterweight contender being
singled out by UFC president Dana White. But even Cain Velasquez,
who was at the time a hot prospect, was also a target, with White
saying, “he can get the f— out” if he didn’t
like the deal.
The whole situation immediately exploded, with both sides
dealing more with the media than each other, but just as suddenly
as they fell apart, they were put back together. Less than 24 hours
after AKA was banned, they were back in the fold after Lorenzo
Fertitta stepped in to handle the situation.
#18: Score one for the champ
By the time UFC 165 came around, Jon Jones had been such a
dominant champion that no one could see him losing. So on the night
of Sept. 21, 2013, he went off as a prohibitive favorite over the
lanky Swede Alexander Gustafsson.
How was Gustafsson going to keep himself off the mat, people
asked? There seemed to be no good answer, or any answer at all. But
on fight night, an immediate surprise. It was Gustafsson who scored
the bout’s first takedown in the first round, and from there,
it was on, one of the most competitive and ferociously contested
championship fights in mixed martial arts history. A champion at
his height being challenged by an opponent having the night of his
The ensuing five rounds were brilliant and close, and by the
time it finished, both sides could very well make a convincing
argument for victory. As it turned out, Jones was given the
unanimous decision victory. That alone was controversial, but
debate deepened further when preliminary FightMetric stats that
showed Gustafsson as landing more signficant strikes were changed
greatly in the final tally. Where Gustafsson was given a 191-120
edge in the live stats feed, shortly after the decision was read,
the final count was 137-114 in Jones’ favor, a huge swing.
The company later explained that it frequently makes such changes,
but the explanation hardly placated Gustafsson’s backers.
#17: Superman’s Speedo
Up until UFC 133, no UFC employee was specifically tasked with
checking the shorts of the competing fighters. That all changed one
night in August 2011, when Dennis Hallman walked to the cage,
removed his warm-up gear and stood there, ready to compete in what
was essentially a Speedo.
Needless to say, this wasn’t the smartest sartorial
selection, and it was later learned that Hallman was forced to wear
it after losing a bet. Dana White was “horrified” by
the whole scene, which was only made worse when Hallman had what we
call a “wardrobe malfunction” in a post-Janet Jackson
world. During the brief fight, a portion of the Philadelphia crowd
could be heard chanting, “Put some clothes on!”
Mercifully for observers, Hallman’s opponent Brian
Ebersole quickly defeated him with a first-round TKO, which earned
him a special bonus from White, who promised that no one would ever
again be seen in an Octagon wearing similar gear.
#16: Condit-Diaz scoring
When Carlos Condit and Nick Diaz met at UFC 143, it was supposed
to be a can’t-miss thriller. After all, the duo were two of
the more action-oriented fighters in all of combat sports, as well
as known finishers. At the time, Condit had closed out 26 of his 27
career wins while Diaz had finished nine of his last 11.
The reality was far different from the expectation. Condit
employed a far more methodical game than normal, choosing to
emphasize footwork and angles ahead of straight-up warfare. The
departure from his normal style brought head-scratches aplenty, but
that was nothing compared to the scoring of the fight.
While Diaz continued to walk forward in his usual way, he was
mostly hitting air. Meanwhile, Condit’s attack was mainly
focused on the legs. Some people believed Diaz’s aggression
should be rewarded while others believed Condit’s
effectiveness without question ruled the day. According to
FightMetric, Condit outlanded Diaz 159-117.
The judges unanimously scored it for Condit, but to this day,
debates still rage over the proper scoring of the fight.
#15: Palhares goes heel
Let’s be honest: Rousimar Palhares was always a little bit
of a space cadet. There was the time he held a heel hook too long
on to Tomasz Drwal, the time he celebrated prematurely against Dan
Miller, and the time he protested Nate Marquardt being slippery in
the middle of a fight, turning his attention and basically offering
himself up for a knockout. But his coup de grace came at UFC Fight
Night: Maia vs. Shields in October.
On that night, Palhares was making his welterweight debut, and
facing the gritty and durable Mike Pierce. In a six-year, 22-fight
career, the American had never been submitted, but the Brazilian
heel hook specialist was on his game. After missing his first try,
Palhares stayed with it and trapped Pierce, who insta-tapped.
Referee Keith Peterson dove in to save Pierce’s leg, but
before letting go, Palhares gave it one last torque. That incensed
the UFC brass, which cut Palhares within 24 hours. Palhares’
supporters immediately protested, saying others had been guilty of
the infraction and hadn’t received nearly the same penalty,
but the decision was final.
Georges St-Pierre has been accused of a lot of things. From
steroids, to alien abduction, to yes, Grease-gate, a mini-scandal
caused when the long-reigning champion defeated BJ Penn at UFC
During the fight, however, Penn had complained about St-Pierre
being slippery, and afterward, Penn filed an official complaint
with the Nevada state athletic commission to investigate the
matter, requesting possibly disciplinary actions or sanctions
against St-Pierre and/or his cornermen Greg Jackson and Phil
While St-Pierre maintained that any Vaseline reaching his body
was unintentional, Dana White accidentally added fuel to the story,
saying that “absolutely, 100 percent,”
St-Pierre’s cornerman illegally applied grease to him.
In the end, the commission declined to take any disciplinary
action against St-Pierre or any members of his team.
In May 2010, Paul Daley was a one-shot knockout artist who was
beginning to carve out a place for himself in the UFC welterweight
pecking order. In back-to-back fights, he’d already knocked
out Martin Kampmann and Dustin Hazelett, a good sign of potential,
but at UFC 113, he was matched with Josh Koscheck.
It was an important fight for Daley, who needed to prove to his
detractors that he was capable of stopping the takedowns of
high-level wrestlers. With the division stocked with such
opponents, this was a statement fight.
Daley laid a dud. Koscheck took him down at will, four times in
all, keeping the dangerous striker grounded. As the fight went on,
you could practically see Daley’s frustration grow, and
apparently, it eventually boiled over.
As the final bell neared, Koscheck could be seen saying
something to Daley — what it was, only they knew — and when Daley
got up, hell broke loose. He took one step away, then redirected
himself in Koscheck’s path and threw his famous left hook.
Koscheck seemed to anticipate the blow and managed to partially
block the punch as referee Dan Miragliotta horse-collared
By the end of the night, Daley had been cut, banned from the UFC
for life. Was the transgression really that serious, many of
Daley’s fans wondered? According to White, it was. In his
eyes, the after-the-bell cheapshot was a cardinal sin. Up until
recently, White was still asked if Daley would ever get a reprieve.
No, White has continually said.
#12: Bisping’s Brit spit
After a career generally spent as a gatekeeper, Jorge Rivera
goaded Michael Bisping into a fight with him at UFC 127. It was the
biggest opportunity of the American’s career, and he made
every effort to take the opportunity and run with it. During the
process, he and his fight team made several videos intended to drum
up interest in the bout while taking aim at Bisping.
That fired up the already fiery Brit, who promised revenge.
When they finally met, the fight had fireworks. In the
second, after handily winning the first, Bisping struck the downed
Rivera with an illegal knee that nearly ended the fight. Rivera
chose to continue, only to be finished minutes later in a Bisping
Beef over, right? Wrong. In the midst of the heated victory,
Bisping walked over towards Rivera’s corner and, according to
Rivera’s team, spit at them. Bisping, of course, denied that,
saying he’d simply gone on a tirade in their general
Either way, the fight was definitely not a how-to on ending a
rivalry with grace.
#11: Machida-Rua I
Nothing brings the controversy like a close title fight
decision. The UFC 104 matchup between Lyoto Machida and Mauricio
“Shogun” Rua was an all-timer in that regard.
At the time, the “Machida Era” had just begun.
He’d never lost a fight, never lost a round in the UFC, and
many observers of the sport considered his unique style to be close
to unbeatable. Yet in his first defense, Machida found his hands
full with Rua.
From the get-go, “Shogun” punished Machida’s
legs and body, and was able to do something that had been
heretofore impossible, he closed the distance. While Machida was
able to do his own damage, his counterattacking style looked more
defense than offense.
By the time the fight was over, Rua had out-landed Machida 82-39
total, and in every round, yet the judges all picked Machida as a
48-47 winner. The eruption of complaints about the scoring — even
the Staples Center crowd booed the decision — led to an immediate
rematch. This time, Rua took his fate out of the judges’
hands, solving the Machida puzzle with a first-round knockout
#10: Anderson Silva’s Abu Dance
Tasked with fighting Demian Maia in an April 2010, Anderson
Silva accepted the assignment, but without a whole lot of gusto.
From the outset, it seemed that he was more interested in preening
and posturing than actually fighting. He spent the night bobbing,
weaving and dancing, making him such a difficult target that Maia
had trouble hitting him all night. In total, Maia only connected 11
times in five rounds. Of course, during the few instances where
Silva decided to turn it on, he landed at will, making it all the
more confusing as to what he was actually doing.
Silva carried Maia, taking the fight in a unanimous decision,
but UFC president Dana White was so disgusted that he refused to
engage in the custom of putting the belt around the waist of the
defending middleweight champion. White was so incensed that later,
he claimed that he would cut Silva if he pulled the same act again,
even if he was still the champion.
#9: Sen. John McCain’s offensive
The early days of the UFC were filled with ups and downs, but it
was always true that the more attention they attracted, the more
opponents came out of the woodwork to denigrate the nascent
Its opponents claimed that if nothing was done, a death in the
cage was inevitable. And in fact, early UFC advertising almost
bragged about the possibility, which was in retrospect a daring
immediate marketing ploy but a lousy long-term growth vision.
The beginning of the end for the early UFC ownership group SEG
came in December 1995, when Arizona senator John McCain uttered the
now infamous “human cockfighting” phrase on national
The respected senator soon put pressure on cable providers
to ban the sport, leading to all sorts of trouble getting
television clearance. That, of course, led to much debate over
whether viewers should have the right to determine whether or not
they wanted to view the extreme combat sport. McCain would take the
early lead, but that eventually forced the sport to increase
regulation, which led to its continued existence, and later,
#8: Babalu chokes out his own career
Renato “Babalu” Sobral was an was old-school type of
fighter, so when he felt his UFC 74 opponent David Heath
disrespected him, he took matters into his own hands. It
wasn’t enough for Sobral that he made Heath a bloody mess
during the match, he took things one step further when he locked in
an anaconda choke during the second round. Heath tapped repeatedly,
and even as referee Steve Mazzagatti stepped in to stop it, Sobral
gave an extra squeeze or two.
In the immediate afterward, Sobral was hardly apologetic, saying
Heath had now learned his lesson. That was not acceptable to the
UFC brass, who axed Sobral from the roster for refusing to yield to
the referee’s direction. He never fought in the organization
#7: Ranked, but fired
Since he debuted in the UFC in 2005, Jon Fitch was a perennial
contender, a tough-as-nails former wrestler capable of grinding out
anyone who didn’t come to the cage with his conditioning on
point. Fitch had beaten top-flight competition including Thiago
Alves and Diego Sanchez, often leaving them shaking their heads in
the process. He was hardly the most athletic or powerful specimen,
but he always managed to get the best out of his talent. He’d
advanced as far as a welterweight championship match against
Georges St-Pierre, but lost. He’d never make it back again.
Despite a 14-3-1 run in the UFC, Fitch was cut after a 1-2-1
stretch. The end came after a unanimous decision loss to Demian
Maia, and just like that he was gone.
Fans were quickly up in arms about the cut, as Fitch was ranked
in the top 10 at the time he was let go, but to UFC president Dana
White, he was a man on the downside of his career. Fitch was
subsequently choked out in his first post-UFC fight.
#6: The Running Man
What is he doing? That was the question going through the heads
of the observers watching Kalib Starnes on the night of UFC 83.
Starnes had signed a contract to fight Nate Quarry, but he was
doing anything but. He was evading, dodging, weaving, even running,
but fighting he was not. The longer the fight went on, the more
surreal it got. And oh, it went on, because Quarry couldn’t
possibly catch him to end things.
By the end, Quarry was so frustrated that he took to chasing
Starnes while making faces in hopes of entertaining the Montreal
crowd. At one point, Quarry covered his eyes with his left hand and
threw half-hearted backfists with his right in hopes of getting
Starnes to engage. Nothing worked. It got so bad that one judge
gave Quarry an unheard-of 30-24 win despite the fact that he never
once dropped Starnes, an unprecedented action. Despite being the
home country Canadian on an immensely patriotic show, Starnes was
booed out of the building and promptly cut from the promotion.
#5: “The Double-Tap”
These days, a fake tap in jiu-jitsu is known as a
“Brazilian tap,” an effort to put enough hesitation
into your opponent’s hold to allow you to escape, but not
enough to convince the referee you’re truly done. But one of
the first times the tactic was effectively used in high-level MMA
came at UFC 37, perpetrated by an American.
Matt Lindland, a former Olympic wrestler, was attempting to
wrest the belt away from middleweight champion Murilo Bustamante
when the two were locked in a fierce ground battle during the first
round. During the action, Bustamante trapped Lindland in an armbar.
Lindland tapped, Bustamante let it go, and referee John McCarthy
broke up the action. It seemed Bustamante had won, but a moment
later, controversy set in. Lindland claimed he’d never
submitted, and incredibly, he managed to persuade McCarthy. Fearing
he’d made the wrong decision, McCarthy made the unusual
decision to restart the action.
Bustamante’s camp immediately objected to the ruling, but
the fight was restarted. No matter. Bustamante went on to submit
Lindland again, this time with a guillotine choke in the third
#4: Randy Couture quits
In October 2007, after winning the UFC heavyweight championship
for a record third time and defending the belt against Gabriel
Gonzaga, Randy Couture felt he had nothing left to prove in the
UFC. He wanted Fedor Emelianenko, the Russian great who was at the
time, plying his trade for the short-lived Affliction
Couture wanted the fight, but the UFC simply could not make it.
Frustrated by that as well as his contract situation — Couture
claimed that Chuck Liddell was making more money despite a losing
streak — Couture announced he was quitting.
The announcement was of course a bombshell, but Dana White
quietly insisted the company still held his promotional rights and
would not relinquish them. A few weeks later, Couture held a press
conference where he voiced his objections with his pay and declared
that he would soon be a free agent.
Days later, the UFC countered with a press conference of their
own, taking the unprecedented step of releasing Couture’s
total pay include pay-per-view cut. The UFc estimated that during
2007, Couture had made just under $3 million.
The dispute dragged for months, eventually landing in court, and
after the UFC won a key ruling in August 2008, Couture chose to end
the fight, coming to terms on a new contract. He finally returned
on Nov. 15, 2008, losing to Brock Lesnar in a TKO. It would be the
last time the legend would ever hold UFC gold.
#3: UFC 151 canceled
The UFC 151 rumors started slowly and quietly: UFC
light-heavyweight No. 1 contender Dan Henderson was injured. But no
one was talking until the afternoon of Aug. 23, 2012, when UFC
president Dana White announced that not only was Henderson injured,
but also, divisional champion Jon Jones had turned down a fight
with replacement Chael Sonnen, and as a result of no headliner, the
show was canceled.
“UFC 151 will be remembered as the event Jon Jones and Greg
Jackson murdered,” White said that day.
With that, the backlash began, swift and fierce. In the eyes of
millions, it was suddenly Jones’ fault that the show had not gone
on. It wasn’t Henderson’s, even though it was disclosed that he’d
been injured weeks earlier and hadn’t said anything in hopes that
he’d still be able to compete. And it wasn’t the UFC’s fault, even
though they were the ones who decided the rest of the card wasn’t
strong enough to warrant saving. Nope, it was the fault of the
champ, who simply decided that if he were to risk his title, he
wanted more than eight days to prepare.
Jones, who already suffered from an image problem in the eyes of
many, was subject to harassment and criticism, even though soon
afterward, he accepted another short-notice match, this one with
the far more dangerous Vitor Belfort.
Even after Jones went on to beat Belfort by submission at UFC
152, the debate raged on about what exactly the champion’s
responsibility to an event is in such extreme situations.
#2: UFC 12 gets the boot
Back in 1997, the UFC was under fire, struggling just to find a
place that would let the organization host an event. For UFC 12,
the original plan was to stage the show in Niagara Falls, New York.
On the day before the event, the fighters were ready to go and the
cage was in place, but suddenly, they had nowhere to work. The
state of New York, which had been the first to sanction the sport,
suddenly instituted a series of rules, including protective
headgear and a larger ring — that made hosting the show there an
impossibility as far as management was concerned.
Then-UFC boss Bob Meyrowitz sued in an effort to overturn the
rules, but a federal court ruled against him. Meyrowitz felt he had
no choice but to take his show elsewhere, so the UFC chartered a
plane, managing to escape town just before the airport closed. The
traveling circus moved on to Dothan, Alabama, and because they had
no prep time, made the event a free admission show. Just like that,
the fractured UFC/New York dynamic that still exists today was
#1: 209 gets 86’d
What a roller-coaster Nick Diaz has taken us on since coming to
the UFC. After arriving as the Strikeforce champion in 2011, the
Californian immediately took aim at welterweight champion Georges
St-Pierre, and was immediately granted the opportunity to fight
To the thrill of fight enthusiasts, the matchup was made, set
for UFC 137 in Oct. 2011. That was supposed to be the easy part,
but when it came time to show up for his press obligations, Diaz
went AWOL. He skipped two press conferences and multiple flights
that reportedly cost the company over $15,000 in just two days.
After being snubbed on back-to-back days, UFC president Dana White
couldn’t take it anymore. Saying Diaz was too unreliable, he
pulled Diaz from the match, sending 209 Nation into hysterics.
They wanted to see him fight, not talk, but the UFC was ready to
plunk down major cash on the promotion, and they couldn’t
risk Diaz no-showing on fight night.
Despite his own ability to sink himself, Diaz eventually got his
chance. As it turned out, he antagonized St-Pierre so long that the
champ demanded a chance to shut Diaz up once and for all. It
didn’t even matter that Diaz lost an interim title match; GSP
wanted Diaz, and the bout was finally put together at UFC 158.
St-Pierre won by unanimous decision, and Diaz hasn’t been
seen in the Octagon since.