Just because you become a UFC champion doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to get love and attention.
Time and again, it’s been proved that there is a certain blend of results, charisma and good old-fashioned elbow grease required to turn a mixed martial artist into a bona fide star, and holding a world title may not even enter into the equation.
There have, in fact, been many instances where UFC champions broke through after winning a title or even after holding on to it for a while.
They’ll be unknown or underappreciated and then bam!—a stunning KO or fight of the year, and everyone knows who they are.
Here are five such times a UFC champ enjoyed a breakthrough performance.
5. Daniel Cormier Stops Volkan Oezdemir, UFC 220
It remains to be seen just how big of a breakthrough Daniel Cormier’s performance at UFC 220 will be, but there’s no question that it looks massive in the immediate aftermath of the event.
It was the first time the light heavyweight champion seemed to get his due with fans, an unusual and refreshing occasion on which questions about Jon Jones weren’t always the first ones he had to answer on fight week.
In the bout itself, Cormier demolished Oezdemir, throwing strikes with incredible ruthlessness and conviction before identifying the skill discrepancy between them on the ground and taking the fight there to finish it. It was a borderline flawless performance, buoyed in its entirety by the fans in the stadium screaming for him the entire time.
And in the aftermath? Cormier was offered a fight with heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic, to which he quickly agreed. The two will meet at UFC 226 in July.
It was the culmination of a career built on hard work, and if UFC 220 is taken as evidence, it’s a culmination that came out of the breakthrough that happened there.
4. Demetrious Johnson Taps Ray Borg with Ridiculous Armbar, UFC 216
The build of Demetrious Johnson has been slow and often painful. While the UFC gave him opportunities on network television and at the top of pay-per-views, fans simply were not interested in watching one of the best ever ply his trade.
He was frustrated, bickering with UFC President Dana White and offering befuddlement at the situation more broadly, but it remained somewhat of a hopeless endeavor to get him noticed.
Until it wasn’t.
Somewhere over the months of hopelessness, indifference was slowly replaced with appreciation. Silence turned to cheers when Johnson would show up at live events, people began to acknowledge his excellence in lording over the flyweight class and even his Twitch stream became a topic of discussion.
Riding that wave of momentum, Johnson headed to UFC 216 to defend his title against Ray Borg. Borg, for all his gameness, was no match for the champion, and by the fifth round, it was obvious a win was in the bag for Mighty Mouse.
Instead of riding the remaining time to a decision, though, Johnson, standing with back control, gut-wrenched Borg into the air, caught him in an armbar position while he was there and finished the submission when he hit the ground.
It was about as outrageous a finish as you’ll ever see in MMA, and it was also the type of shareable, GIF-able, unavoidable act that turns a man into a star overnight.
Johnson looks like he’ll now parlay that into a champion versus champion bout against 135-pound kingpin TJ Dillashaw this summer, a showcase that will only raise his newfound profile further.
3. Chuck Liddell Knocks Out Randy Couture, UFC 57
For modern UFC fans, it’s a given that Chuck Liddell is a UFC icon. He had the haircut, the modernized Fu Manchu mustache, the tattoos and the results to warrant such a status.
But there was a time when his legend was not so apparent, when his place in the sport was not so guaranteed.
Despite his friendship with UFC ownership and a good run in the promotion throughout the early 2000s, it wasn’t until he threw down with Randy Couture that he really became a big name. His drawn-out feud with Tito Ortiz, and the subsequent beating he laid in the fight, got the attention of hardcore fans, but it was Couture that launched him to stardom.
Couture stopped Liddell in their first meeting in 2003, winning the interim light heavyweight title in the process. Liddell returned the favor in 2005, winning by knockout. UFC 57 was their trilogy bout, one that sold 400,000 pay-per-views and cleared $3 million at the gate, per Wrestling Observer Newsletter‘s Dave Meltzer and MMAPayout.com, massive numbers for the promotion at the time.
Liddell won by knockout again, and from there he was on his way to superstardom. His next fight sold 500,000 units on pay-per-view, and the one after that, a rematch with Ortiz, was the first fight in UFC history to clear one million buys.
It was the third Couture bout that served as the springboard to it all.
2. Anderson Silva Front-Kicks Vitor Belfort, UFC 126
It’s hard to imagine there was a time when Anderson Silva wasn’t a superstar. Even now, with some pretty curious performance-enhancing-drug occurrences floating around his name these days, there’s no denying his place in the record books or the incredible things he’s done in the sport.
He even says, going on 43-years-old and facing down a potential suspension, that he’s not done fighting.
But not that long ago, he was having a hard time getting anyone to pay attention to what he was saying. Despite his explosive, jaw-dropping record of domination, people were simply not that engaged with the enigmatic Brazilian.
Then came Super Bowl weekend in 2011, where he headlined UFC 126 against Brazilian icon Vitor Belfort. At that time it was Belfort who was the hero in his country, and he went hard at Silva in the leadup to their meeting in the cage.
It led to the type of tension that had largely been absent in Silva’s career, save for his memorable first bout with Chael Sonnen, which had happened months earlier. Silva won that fight with a Hail Mary submission in the fifth round, and against Belfort, he turned up the drama again—albeit differently, more swiftly.
After three intense minutes of feeling out interspersed with short explosions of offense, Silva and Belfort came to the center of the cage. A slight shoulder feint to get into range and then, almost totally out of nowhere and for the first time in UFC history, Silva landed a front kick flush on the chin of his opponent.
Belfort crumbled and Silva followed up with a couple of shots on the ground, but it was academic at that point.
It was the kick heard ’round the world, and it catapulted Silva into global recognition.
1. Conor McGregor Uses Boxing to Become a Global Force, Mayweather vs. McGregor
There’s a real case to be made that the biggest example of a UFC champion having a breakthrough performance didn’t even come in the UFC. It didn’t even come in MMA. In fact, as of today, the sitting champion who broke through might not even be an active mixed martial artist.
For better or worse, who other than Conor McGregor could create such a situation?
McGregor’s path is lore at this point: Blazed his way to the UFC featherweight title, never defended it and was eventually stripped; won the lightweight title in his UFC debut at the weight, never defended it and may or may not have been stripped.
The biggest sticking point in his lightweight run was a boxing match against all-time great Floyd Mayweather Jr. Without a pro boxing match on his resume, McGregor agreed to box the then-retired Mayweather in the summer of 2017, a bout Mayweather won to move to 50-0 in his career.
However, even in defeat, McGregor’s name became bigger than ever. He went from the biggest star in MMA to one of the biggest stars in professional sports, and he went from a professional athlete to a full-on brand.
Sure, there have been some snaps of him back in the gym more recently, but much of his time since Mayweather has been spent living the high life with celebrities and designers, hawking whiskey, riding in private jets and doing anything but fighting.
And people are paying attention.
He has over 20 million followers on Instagram, apparently cleared $100 million for his work against Mayweather, had a movie made about him and might very well never take a UFC fight again.
It’s amazing to think, but the biggest breakthrough by a UFC champion that the sport has seen might have broken him so far through that the sport will never see him again.
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