The obstacles facing any fighter hoping to achieve fame and fortune in the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) are truly daunting.
Compiling a consistent winning record and steering clear of serious injuries while waiting for a shot at the big leagues that may never come is hard enough, but with there being almost no money in the sport at the regional level, just keeping a roof over their heads can be a constant struggle for any up-and-coming fighter.
With that in mind it’s little wonder that many prospects have given up long before they ever got close to fulfilling their dreams.
Even some of MMA’s biggest stars have found themselves at that same crossroad in their career, and as you’ll read in the pages that follow, in many cases they came alarmingly close to throwing in the towel for good, unaware that success was waiting just around the corner.
Forrest Griffin is a perfect example of a fighter who didn’t realize he was on the verge of what would prove to a life-changing moment in his fighting career in 2004 as he teetered on the brink of giving up on his dreams and settling for a ‘real job’ instead.
By that stage Griffin had amassed a solid 9-2 record, but he’d already tried and failed to make a living out of the sport in the past, and was now working as a police officer, while contemplating giving up fighting altogether.
Then Griffin read about a brand-new UFC reality show called ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ and on a whim he decided to apply, and sure enough he was accepted.
Griffin quit his job, but at the airport on his way to Las Vegas to begin filming he suddenly began to have serious doubts about his decision and didn’t get on the flight, instead calling his Lieutenant to ask if it was too late to tear up his resignation letter.
However, Griffin then spoke with Dana White who convinced the fighter to make the trip after all, telling him that, “It’s better to regret the choices you make than the choices you don’t make.”
It proved to be the best advice he’d ever get as Griffin would go on to win the first season of TUF and later became the UFC’s light-heavyweight champion before retiring years later as a hall-of-famer with enough money to never have to work again.
Chuck Liddell was one of the UFC’s first major superstars, but his legendary hall-of-fame career may never have happened if he’d listened to his grandma.
Despite graduating with a degree in Accounting from Cal Poly, Liddell attempted to pursue a career in kickboxing instead.
He soon discovered there was no money in the sport, however, and his concerned grandma started pressuring him to put his degree to good use instead, while he was coming to the conclusion that it was getting time to “go and get a real job.”
According to a Fan Q&A session in 2014, Liddell, “almost hung them up” before he got an unexpected call asking if he’d be interested in competing in an MMA fight.
He accepted, and the rest is history, with Liddell then being set on the path to become the UFC’s Light-heavyweight champion and one of the most famous fighters the sport has ever seen.
Matt Hughes has a well-earned position in the UFC’s hall-of-fame, but the former long-time welterweight champion revealed after his retirement that he was on the verge of quitting prior to making it big.
Hughes was used to being a winner, having already amassed an impressive 22-1 record, including two wins in the UFC, by late 2000, but his career suddenly hit an unexpected bump in the road.
Hughes suffered a 20 second submission loss to Dennis Hallman at UFC 29 and was then knocked out by Brazilian star Jose ‘Pele’ Landi-Jons in a smaller promotion.
The 27 year-old Hughes took those losses hard and towards the end of the year when he was booked to fight at UFC 34 against Carlos Newton for the welterweight title he decided that if he didn’t win he was going to call time on his career.
Hughes came within seconds of doing just that on the night when Newton caught the wrestler in a triangle-choke submission.
Close to blacking out, Hughes made one last desperate attempt to escape the hold, picking Newton up and slamming him back down to the mat, knocking his opponent out in the process to win the belt and save his career.
Hughes would go on to defend the title a total of seven times over two separate reigns as the UFC’s 170lb champion.
Conor McGregor’s struggles in the early stages of his career provides a classic example of a success story that could so easily have been binned after just a few chapters.
’The Notorious’ had come close to quitting in the past, but he should have been on a high heading into 2013. After all, he’d just become a two-division champion in the respected UK promotion Cage Warriors, but the truth is he was not in a good place.
There was no real money fighting at this level and so McGregor was still living at his parent’s house with his girlfriend and collecting welfare checks.
To make matters worse a teammate was told that he couldn’t compete anymore due to damage he’d sustained from fighting, and McGregor took it hard, fearing that he would one day meet a similar fate without ever having had the opportunity to fight in the UFC.
McGregor went off the grid for the best part of a month after that as thoughts of giving up on the sport loomed large in his mind, but then he received a call that the UFC wanted him to debut for them in nine weeks time.
It was the moment McGregor had been waiting for all his life and he would become an almost overnight sensation in the UFC, racking up a long winning streak on his way to becoming a two-division world champion and the biggest star the sport has ever seen.
Rafael dos Anjos
Former UFC lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos may never have even made it to the UFC if it hadn’t been for his wife.
Dos Anjos fought for four years in the regional Brazilian MMA circuit prior to getting his big break in the Octagon, and his payouts were so low that the possibility of just pursuing a ‘normal’ job instead was never far from his mind.
”I thought of quitting many times,” RDA told Sportv. “When I was still fighting in Brasil, I would make 1,500 or 3,000 reais (roughly 500 and 1,000 dollars), it was complicated.”
However, his wife Cris refused to let him give up on his dream, even although it meant relying on her wage to keep a roof over their heads for an indefinite amount of time.
Dos Anjos finally got the call to fight in the UFC in 2008 and now has over 20 Octagon fights, including winning the 155lb title in 2015.
Arguably the greatest fighter ever to compete in the sport, Anderson Silva will be forever grateful to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, who talked him out of giving up on the sport for a far more humble career during a tough period in his life.
A falling out with the famous Chute Boxe team in 2003, together with a slump in form in the PRIDE organization that would lead to him being cut, had left Silva feeling increasingly disillusioned with the sport.
Having worked at McDonald’s in the past, he considered becoming a manager there, before exploring the possibility of getting a loan to start a car-washing business instead, but when Nogueira heard of his plan he immediately intervened.
“I called my cousin and told him that we wouldn’t permit that Anderson changed his dream for a car-wash,” ‘Big Nog’ told Fighters Only. “I invited him to train with me in Rio de Janeiro and the rest of the history we already know, the guy turned out a legend.”
A few fights later Silva arrived in the UFC and quickly seized the 185lb title, then defended the belt no less than 10 times during an unprecedented 16-fight winning streak to become a living legend.
Coming from extreme poverty in Brazil, Rousimar Palhares had always dreamed of making a living from fighting, but one day he came to the conclusion that it just wasn’t going to happen.
”After today I won’t be fighting anymore,” he recalled telling his teammates at his local gym.
At that stage he’d already fought in small-time shows, but he was struggling to get to the next level and couldn’t afford to leave his local town to find better tuition and opportunities elsewhere.
That could have been the end of the story if it hadn’t been for his brother, who gave him his entire savings (the equivalent of about $170) and told him to travel to Rio De Janeiro to follow his dreams.
Palhares made his way to the renowned Brazilian Top Team gym and they quickly saw how talented he was and brought him under their wing, which would prove to be the catalyst for him to finally make it in the sport.
Palhares’ 12-year career has been marred by controversy over the years, but nonetheless he’s managed to rack up a five-year stint in the UFC and also won WSOF’s welterweight title.
Despite the fact that he’s never fought in the UFC, Japanese star Shinya Aoki claims that the organization was the reason he abandoned his plans to quit his career prior to becoming a star.
On the surface Aoki’s early MMA career appeared to be going well, compiling a 7-2 record and becoming a champion in the respected Shooto! organization.
It turned out Aoki wasn’t earning enough money to put food on the table though, and so he reluctantly decided to become a police officer instead.
While attending police college in 2006, Aoki received a call from the UFC offering him a fight with BJ Penn, and the money offered convinced him that perhaps fighting for a living was a viable career path after all.
The UFC deal fell through, but Aoki left the police force and pursued MMA full-time anyway, which led to him signing for PRIDE soon afterwards.
In the years since Aoki has established himself as one of Japan’s leading MMA stars and an elite grappler, winning titles in the DREAM and ONE FC promotions during a career that so far spans close to 50 fights.
Unable to provide for his young family and struggling to overcome a persistent injury, Chris Weidman was on the verge of throwing in the towel before he made it to the UFC.
Weidman’s career had got off to a promising start with two wins in a row, but then he suffered a serious hand injury that stubbornly refused to go away.
With his wife pregnant with their first child at the time, yet also working full-time and studying for a degree while living in his parents basement, Weidman was coming under increasing pressure to either start making money from fighting or quit and get a normal job.
Almost 18 months after his last fight, Weidman’s hand still hadn’t healed, but he had run out of time, so he made one last-ditch attempt to save his career by accepting a fight with another future UFC competitor Uriah Hall at ROC 31.
Despite his injury, Weidman would win by first round TKO, and with his hand now finally on the mend he’d win another fight in the promotion a few months later, before landing a short-notice fight in the UFC.
Weidman’s persistence ended up paying off big-time as that would mark the start of a nine-fight winning streak in the UFC that included him defeating Anderson Silva to win the 185lb title, before successfully defending it a further three times.
Ok, so he’s not a fighter, but we’ll make an exception to tell the story of how longtime UFC octagon commentator Joe Rogan came close to passing up on his iconic broadcasting role.
Rogan landed his first gig in the promotion as a backstage and in-cage interviewer at UFC 12 in 1997, but after a couple of years he wasn’t even getting paid enough to cover the cost of his travel to the events and so he decided to quit.
However, when the UFC was bought over by Zuffa in 2001 he became friends with Dana White, who offered him the chance to be their new color-commentator.
Initially, Rogan, who was the host of ‘Fear Factor’ at the time as well as being a stand-up comedian, turned him down, but in 2002 he finally convinced him to take the role in exchange for free tickets to big UFC events for himself and his friends, then after 15 events he finally began to get a wage.
Rogan was already successful in life by that stage, but he’s since described his commentary role as “the best job ever” and due to his loyalty to the company in those early days, White has made sure that these days he’s handsomely rewarded, once exclaiming to reporters that, “Joe Rogan gets PAID!”