Four UFC Champions Who Overcame Devastating Injuries
Becoming a UFC champion is the culmination of a lifetime of hard work and dedication. Not every fighter’s path is a direct shot to superstardom, as many roadblocks can face a fighter on their journey through the sport. One such roadblock is injuries. Injuries stall the progress of a fighter both in training and competition as focus is solely put on recovery. Some injuries seem to have a nearly impossible outlook, as fighters are advised against returning to competition or risk not returning to the same level of success due to an injury’s severity. There are, however, several fighters who have overcome the odds to not only recover fully from devastating injuries but also capture UFC gold afterward.
Four UFC Champions Who Overcame Devastating Injuries
Perhaps the most famous story of a UFC champion overcoming injuries is Dominick Cruz. Cruz came into the UFC as the inaugural bantamweight champion following his second WEC title defense against Scott Jorgensen. In his first year in the UFC (2011), Cruz would defend his UFC title twice, once against Urijah Faber to avenge his only previous loss and once against Demetrious Johnson. “The Dominator” was on a path to stardom and was set to complete a trilogy with Faber after coaching against the fellow Californian on TUF 15, the only live TUF season. This, however, is where things began to derail.
Two months before their scheduled matchup at UFC 148, Cruz suffered a torn ACL in training. As debilitating as that injury is on its own, it was made doubly so when he had to have a second ACL surgery after his body rejected the replacement he received from a cadaver in the first surgery. After finally recovering, he was booked to unify the championship with interim champion Renan Barao in February 2014. However, less than a month before the fight, Cruz suffered another major injury when he tore his groin. This injury forced Cruz to vacate the title, while Barao was promoted in his place. He would finally return to the cage later that year in impressive fashion, scoring a first-round stoppage victory over Takeya Mizugaki to earn a shot to regain his belt against champion TJ Dillashaw. However, before he could get to that fight, Cruz tore his ACL in his other knee, sidelining him for another year and a half.
Cruz returned at UFC Fight Night 81 in January 2016 to fight Dillashaw and at long last fight for the belt he had never lost four and a half years prior. In a back-and-forth affair, Cruz was able to reclaim the belt by split decision, culminating an incredible Cinderella story of recovery.
At one point in his storied career, Michael Bisping was on the path to being considered one of the greatest UFC athletes to never receive a title shot. He was matched against rival and fellow TUF 9 coach Dan Henderson in a middleweight title eliminator at UFC 100, but was on the receiving end of one of the most famous knockouts in UFC history. He eventually rebounded and rode a four-fight winning streak into another title eliminator against Chael Sonnen three years later, but dropped a decision. Two fights later, he was on the receiving end of another highlight-reel knockout, this time against a TRT-filled Vitor Belfort. The head kick that led to the finish detached “The Count”‘s retina, an injury that would change his life forever.
Shockingly, Bisping fought just three months later, winning a technical unanimous decision over Alan Belcher. This did not mean that the injury had healed, however. In fact, it had gotten worse because he avoided seeing a doctor about it out of fear that it would end his career. After the UFC 159 win, though, he finally decided to go to the doctor and received surgery to repair his eye. The eye surgery put him out of action for just over a year, and left him with strabismus, meaning his eyes do not properly align when looking at an object. His post-surgery return did not start on the right foot, as he dropped a unanimous decision over Tim Kennedy at the TUF Nations Finale. He would fight twice more that year, scoring a dominant victory over Cung Le in August but then suffering a guillotine submission loss to rival Luke Rockhold in November. As he was advancing in age, most thought that was his last shot to catapult the Englishman into title contention.
2015 would prove to be a pivotal year for Bisping’s career, as he rebounded with two decision wins over CB Dolloway and Thales Leites to set up a fight against the man he had so long been seeking to fight – former middleweight champion Anderson Silva. In front of his home country crowd, Bisping then picked up another decision victory in what was the crowning moment of his career to that point – all after having to learn how to account for his new vision and being basically blind in one eye. Meanwhile, former foe Rockhold had captured the belt from Chris Weidman at the end of 2015, and the two were set to rematch in the summer of 2016 at UFC 199. However, two weeks before the bout, a Weidman injury and Bisping’s willingness to step in on short notice led Bisping to receive the long-evasive title shot. Not much was expected of Bisping, given he was on the downside of his career and had already been dominated by Rockhold. Nonetheless, he scored one of the biggest upsets in UFC history by knocking Rockhold out in the first round and completing a storybook ending to the title.
Sean Strickland came into the UFC as a highly-regarded prospect in 2014 with an impressive 13-0 record. Two wins in the UFC would see him then drop to welterweight to make a run toward rankings and title contention. This plan was quickly halted by Santiago Ponzinibbio as he dropped a unanimous decision. Three wins following would then pit him against Kamaru Usman, where he would again fall by unanimous decision. After another win, he would then lose for the first time by finish to Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos courtesy of a spinning wheel kick. It seemed like every time Strickland stepped up in competition, he could not rise to the occasion.
In late 2018, Strickland left training on his motorcycle and was hit by an oncoming speeding vehicle. After the accident, Strickland recalled being unconscious for several hours and waking up in a neck brace at the hospital as he was being rushed into surgery to repair a badly-injured leg. The doctors were able to repair a torn patella tendon, but almost every doctor advised Strickland to never fight again. But when he approached the doctors at the UFC Performance Institute, they gave him a path forward and a new sense of hope. He began recovery while still suffering from a torn quadricep muscle from the accident. He would find his way back to the Octagon just over two years since his previous fight, returning to middleweight and putting on one of the signature performances of his career against Jack Marshman. That win was the start of a five-fight post-injury winning streak, where Strickland looked like a fighter reborn, and those around him saying he had seemingly become an entirely different person from before his injury. This set him up for a title eliminator match with Alex Pereira, but was on the receiving end of the legendary power of “Poatan” as he lost by knockout in the first round. A decision loss to Jared Cannonier in his next fight would bring up the same questions about whether he had it in himself to be a true title contender.
2023 would prove to be his best year yet, though, as he started off the year with a short-notice win over Nassourdine Imavov. He would follow that up with a TKO victory of Abus Magomedov in July. These two wins earned a title shot for Strickland at UFC 293, although most saw him as simply another foe for champion Israel Adesanya to vanquish in front of a home crowd after “The Last Stylebender” knocked out Pereira in his previous fight. Strickland proved all of the doubters wrong and put on the best performance of his career, however, to capture middleweight gold in one of the unlikeliest champion stories in UFC history.
Although Sean Strickland and Frank Mir have very similar injury stories, their journeys before and afterward are vastly different. Mir was a Pan-American Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu champion and captured the UFC heavyweight title at UFC 48, where he broke Tim Sylvia’s arm with an armbar. Similar to Strickland, Mir was also involved in a devastating motorcycle accident just three months later when he was knocked off his vehicle by a car. The accident broke his femur in two places and tore all ligaments in that knee. Doctors advised against him ever fighting again, and unlike Strickland, the UFC Performance Institute did not exist at the time. Mir would be stripped of the title, promoting interim champion Andrei Arlovski to undisputed champion.
Mir would eventually make a full recovery, accredited to his fighting spirit and desire to return to fighting. He got off to a rocky return to fighting, however, losing two of his first three bouts in 2006. Two impressive submission victories, including a kneebar finish of superstar Brock Lesnar, catapulted Mir back into title contention. With the heavyweight title picture in limbo, Mir and interim heavyweight champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira would coach TUF 8 and then fight for the interim title. Mir would put on one of the best performances of his career, showing crisp striking and once again completing a bone-breaking submission over one of the most accomplished Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioners in heavyweight MMA history to claim gold once again. Although he would lose the unification bout and two more title opportunities after that, Mir proved doctors wrong by not only returning to fighting but reaching its pinnacle and becoming one of the most recognizable fighters in heavyweight MMA history.