Top 20 controversies in UFC history
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 cut.
#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 life.
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 94.
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 Nurse.
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 Daley.
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 TKO.
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 direction.
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 win.
#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 sport.
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, thriving growth.
#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 again.
#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 round.
#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 promotion.
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 born.
#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 him.
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.