There are few things in sports as heartbreaking as watching an athlete come so close to realizing their life-long dream only to have it snatched away in the final moments. That anguish is felt tenfold in the UFC world, where fighters spend their entire lives working, training, and fighting for that one chance at a world title. But unfortunately for them, it doesn't always pan out as they dreamt it.
Alexander Volkanovski – UFC 245
Okay, admittedly this wasn't Alexander Volkanovski's maiden world title fight, but it was his first shot at the gold in the lightweight division. Heading into his bout with Dagestani wrestling supremo Islam Makhachev at UFC 245, the Aussie was already the Featherweight king and pound-for-pound number one. He set his sights on becoming a two-weight champion on home turf in Perth however, the UFC betting odds didn't give him a chance, making him a +400 underdog. That is a stark contrast to his upcoming title defense against Ilia Topuria, where those same bookies have made him a -145 favorite.
Despite the Russian landing plenty of takedowns in the pair's first clash, he didn't do much with the advantageous positions he found himself in. Volkanovski, meanwhile, landed the much heavier shots and ended the fight with his opponent on the ground and being beaten on. Despite that, Makhachev got the unanimous decision victory and walked out as champion. He would prove that he was the superior fighter in the pairs rematch however, knocking out Volk in the very first round.
Chael Sonnen – UFC 117
Chael Sonnen put on an amazing display of ground-and-pound against then-middleweight champion Anderson Silva in August 2010. Heading into the contest, the American wrestler wasn't given hope in hell of defeating the longtime champion. However, he turned what was meant to be a mundane title defense for The Spider into a must-see contest courtesy of a brand of trash talk in the build-up to the fight that had never been seen before in the UFC.
Despite that, on fight night, many expected the Brazilian to comfortably retain his title, but Sonnen ensured that they would still pay the pay-per-view price and tune in. What fans were treated to however was something else entirely.
The American Gangster dominated Silva for over four rounds, knocking the champion down twice and taking him down at will. He won every single round on the scorecards and was on course for a shocking upset victory. However, with the final bell in sight, Silva miraculously locked in a triangle choke in the final minute of the 25-minute affair. Sonnen was forced to tap out and The Spider had successfully retained his title… just.
Alexander Gustafsson – UFC 165
Back in 2013, Jon Jones was without question the greatest fighter on the planet. At just 26 years of age, he had defeated a murderer's row of opponents to solidify his stranglehold on the light heavyweight division, beating illustrious names such as Mauricio ‘Shogun' Rua, Lyoto Machida, Quinton ‘Rampage' Jackson and Rashad Evans. He had beaten those with apparent ease, and he was expected to do the same to Swedish contender Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 165.
Many expected the Mauler to become the mauled however, he pushed the champion to his limit for five full rounds. Gustafsson stunned Jones early, bloodying his face and appearing to win the first two rounds of the contest. Jonny Bones began to fight back throughout the final three, however, all three rounds were tight and could have gone either way. Gustafsson needed the judges to award him just one of them to become champion. However, they gave Jones all three and thus he retained his title via unanimous decision.
The fans in attendance at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto were clearly dismayed by the decision, roundly booing the champion while letting the challenger know they felt he had done enough to secure the victory.
Johny Hendricks – UFC 167
In November 2013, Johny Hendricks came up against UFC legend Georges St-Pierre for the welterweight championship. In a fight that resulted in a controversial split decision for the reigning champion, the American challenger displayed an impressive performance for five rounds, outstriking, and outwrestling the feared Rush. However, the judges’ scorecards did not reflect what everyone saw and favored an aging GSP in a controversial decision win.
Disappointed after the bout, Big Rig would eventually climb to the top of the division, with victory over Robbie Lawler at UFC 171. But his reign wouldn’t last long. He would drop the strap to the Ruthless one in an immediate rematch and he would never be the feared fighter that he was before the GSP defeat ever again.
Rory MacDonald – UFC 189
Speaking of Ruthless Robbie Lawler, Rory MacDonald took on the Coconut Creek-born star for the welterweight title in the co-main event of UFC 189, playing second fiddle to Conor McGregor who headlined a UFC pay-per-view for the first time. The Canadian challenger combined technical prowess with powerful combinations that saw him control the first two rounds. But Lawler wasn't to be denied and staged a furious comeback in the fourth and fifth rounds, turning the bout into a dogfight rather than a chess match and battering MacDonald with huge punches before dropping and stopping his opponent in the final round.
Although MacDonald failed to secure the belt, he gained respect and an audience for his unwavering grit and determination after playing his part in one of the most brutal fights ever held inside the Octagon.