The UFC has been the undisputed premier MMA promotion since Pride FC folded in 2007, but professional MMA is not as big of a one-league pony as the other professional sports. There are a number of promotions separate from the UFC that hold high-quality events with elite fighters. It is not uncommon for high-level fighters to come from Bellator or ONE Championship to the UFC or vice versa and compete at the pinnacle of their division right away. This list is a look at the best MMA fighters of all time who never competed in the UFC. Some are currently fighting. Others retired years ago. Each would have been a fine addition to the Ultimate Fighting Championship. For whatever reason, it didn’t work out.
Fedor Emelianenko is a Russian MMA fighter with a background in combat sambo. He’s considered by many to be the greatest heavyweight of all time. Although he’s had some losses recently in his advanced age, Fedor was unbeatable for a long time in Pride FC in Asia before the UFC emerged as the premier MMA promotion. He amassed a 28-fight unbeaten streak in Pride, Affliction Entertainment and Strikeforce before finally losing to eventual UFC Champion Fabricio Werdum.
During that streak he beat Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Mirko Cro Cop, Mark Hunt, Kevin Randleman, and UFC champions Mark Coleman, Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski. Fedor was one of the first really well-rounded MMA fighters. He was a powerful striker. Fedor had good BJJ on top and off his back, and had good defensive wrestling and solid judo. “The Last Emperor,” as he is called, is hailed as a national hero in Russia for his astounding career.
Bibiano Fernandes is a bantamweight contracted with ONE Championship, a large promotion in Asia. Fernandes, a Brazilian, got his start in martial arts through BJJ. Before transitioning to MMA, he won several elite BJJ championships as well as an IBJJF world championship at black belt. Once he transitioned to MMA, Fernandes made a dominant run by winning the Dream championship before transferring to ONE Championship in 2012 where he quickly claimed the bantamweight title there. He made a record eight title defenses, lost his title in a close contest and then regained it. Recently his contract expired and the other major promotions, including the UFC and Bellator, offered to sign him, but ONE offered superior payment, so Fernandes stayed on as their bantamweight champ. His record is an impressive 24-4, and at the age of 40, it seems unlikely we’ll ever see him in the UFC.
The only fighter on our list who may still end up in the UFC, Douglas Lima is the current Bellator welterweight champion and in the conversation for best welterweight in the world. With wins over Rory MacDonald, Lorenz Larkin, Andrey Koreshkov, Paul Daley and Michael Page, Lima has earned his spot as the number-three ranked welterweight in the world according to USA Today.
Lima, a Brazilian, has developed both great BJJ and Muay Thai skills. He’s a thunderous kicker, earning 14 of his 32 wins by knockout, and a skillful grappler as well, earning 12 more by submission. Lima is a good example of a fighter who could cross over to the UFC and compete with the division’s elite immediately. Well-rounded, experienced, athletic and exciting, if you’ve been looking for reasons to check out non-UFC MMA promotions like Bellator, the next Douglas Lima fight would be a good one to watch
Whereas most fighters on our list never reached the UFC because of other opportunities or bad timing, Filho is a story of wasted potential. Filho was the WEC middleweight champion and competed in a large number of MMA promotions, including Pride, Dream, WSOF and others. With a record of 23-6 Filho, was a force to be reckoned with. Filho, a Brazilian, trained by the Gracie family and became an elite BJJ practitioner. He had eight wins in Pride FC. He never lost but had to pull out of the Middleweight Grand Prix due to injury.
Following his stint in Pride, he had the opportunity to sign with the UFC but stated he didn’t want to compete against his friend and teammate, UFC champion Anderson Silva, so he signed with the WEC instead where he went on to claim gold. It was then that his substance abuse issues reared their head. Filho went to rehab for addiction in 2008 and never fully regained his prowess. Filho had wins against Ryo Chonan, Kazuo Misaki and Murilo “Ninja” Rua among many others, and was, at one point, legitimately one of the most feared middleweights in the fight game. It’s a shame that fans never got to see Filho at his best in the UFC competing against the world’s best.
This Ukrainian badass amassed a record of 56-10 over his ten-year MMA career from 1995-2005. Although only 5’ 8,” Vovchanchyn was a vicious striker, claiming 41 of his 56 wins by knockout. Originally a kickboxer, Vovchanchyn made his transition to MMA during the bare-knuckle days of the sport in late 1995. He began his career by winning multiple tournament-style MMA events where competitors would fight multiple times in a single night. After coming to dominate the European/Russian MMA scene, Vovchanchyn signed with Pride FC, which was then the premier MMA promotion.
There, he fought the best heavyweights of the day, gaining wins over Mark Kerr, Yuki Kondo, Gilbert Yvel, Kazushi Sakuraba, Valentijn Overeem, Enson Inoue and Gary Goodridge. Eventually, he lost to wrestler and UFC champion Mark Coleman in the finals of the Pride Openweight Grand Prix in 2000. At his best, Vovchanchyn had an unbeaten streak of 37 MMA fights. His willingness to compete incredibly often against the world’s best—most of the time with a size disadvantage—made him a true legend of the sport. Vovchanchyn was, at one point early on, offered a fight in the UFC, but timing and his success in Europe and Asia kept him from the promotion. Igor was forced to retire at only 32 years old due to a number of injuries.
Believe it or not, this only just scratches the surface of the best MMA fighters of all time. When you include the guys who have fought in the UFC and then signed elsewhere or the guys who had great careers elsewhere before signing to the UFC, it becomes clear that there are great fighters in a large number of promotions all over the world. If you’re a big UFC fan, consider paying some attention to the other big MMA promotions like ONE, Bellator, and the PFL since they put on exciting fights with elite fighters as well