Whenever a UFC fighter changes their style inside the octagon, it’s always a risk. For every legend who becomes a master of all trades like Georges St-Pierre, there are others who end up forgetting what got them to the top in the first place.
Over the years we’ve seen numerous examples of UFC fighters who changed their styles up during their tenure with the promotion, only for it to end up costing them dearly and sending them downhill.
Sometimes, even high-level champions end up suffering this kind of fate, with more than one of them being unable to regain exactly what made them great.
Here are five UFC stars who changed their fighting style and suffered because of it.
#5. Dong Hyun Kim – former UFC welterweight contender
Dong Hyun Kim was the first fighter from South Korea to really become a hit in the UFC. However, for the majority of his early career, ‘Stun Gun’ flew under the radar somewhat with casual fans.
The reason for this was pretty clear. While he was able to beat some fantastic opponents, including Nate Diaz and Matt Brown, Kim just wasn’t all that exciting to watch.
The odd judo throw was often the only highlight when he stepped into the octagon. After scoring a TKO over Jason Tan in his promotional debut, his next seven wins all went the distance.
By 2013, it seemed clear that ‘Stun Gun’ would never climb into title contention unless he changed his style. So, he decided to do just that.
His bout with Erick Silva late that year saw him eschew his usual grappling style to wildly brawl with the Brazilian. Surprisingly, the approach paid off as he stunned his foe with a second-round KO, picking up his first ever bonus award in the process.
When he then knocked out John Hathaway with a spinning elbow in his next bout, it was hard not to get excited about his potential as a title contender – but literally five months later, he ran into Tyron Woodley.
Kim might’ve stood a chance had he fought more methodically against ‘The Chosen One’. Instead, he took a huge risk and attempted another spinning elbow with no real setup. Woodley countered with a big right hand, and knocked him senseless.
While ‘Stun Gun’ won his next three bouts, the loss to Woodley put him firmly out of title contention and knocked him down the ladder. Had he played things safe as he’d done earlier in his career, though, he may not have received as many plaudits, but he could well have found more success in the long run.
#4. Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson – former UFC light heavyweight champion
When Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson first became a star in Japan’s PRIDE promotion, his trademark was his ability to slam his opponents down with serious force, just like a pro-wrestler. Sure, his techniques weren’t always flawless in other areas, but when it came to bodyslams and powerbombs in MMA, there was nobody better.
By the time he made his way to the UFC in 2007, though, Rampage was a firmly well-rounded fighter with great skills in all areas.
He showed off his clinch work in his debut against Marvin Eastman, used his boxing to knock out Chuck Liddell to claim the light heavyweight title, and then largely outwrestled former Olympian Dan Henderson in his first defense.
However, after losing the gold to Forrest Griffin and taking some time away from MMA to film The A-Team, Rampage returned to the UFC in 2010 as a very different fighter altogether.
Essentially, the former champion appeared to have focused on nothing but his boxing skills since losing his title. The approach led directly to a disappointing loss to his bitter rival Rashad Evans.
Following that, while he did claim a couple more wins in the octagon, Rampage simply couldn’t cope when an opponent either looked to grapple him or use leg kicks against him. He appeared to have become a one-dimensional fighter overnight. It was no surprise when a losing streak saw him wash out of the UFC in 2013.
In the years that have followed, Rampage has picked up some wins in Bellator’s cage, but he remains a shadow of the great fighter he once was, largely due to his decision to eschew his other skills in favor of becoming almost a pure boxer.
#3. Diego Sanchez – former UFC lightweight contender
When Diego Sanchez claimed victory on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, he did so by primarily using his ground game. ‘The Nightmare’ had a surprisingly quick takedown, brutal ground-and-pound, and never seemed to get tired even when scrambling wildly.
Those same skills gave Sanchez wins over the likes of Nick Diaz, Karo Parisyan and Joe Riggs inside the UFC proper, turning him into a title contender in the process.
However, when he suffered a couple of losses to Josh Koscheck and Jon Fitch, opponents he couldn’t take down, his style became exposed somewhat. Essentially, it was clear that he needed to improve his striking in order to reach the very top.
While ‘The Nightmare’ did go about doing that, though, he also left behind the stellar grappling game that got him close to the summit in the first place.
By 2009, as his striking skills improved, his wrestling game seemed to deteriorate, meaning that even though he could still scramble brilliantly, his fights didn’t hit the ground nearly as much as they once had.
The focus on standup also meant that ‘The Nightmare’ was absorbing more punishment than he’d ever done before, and slowly but surely, it began to catch up with him.
By the end of his UFC tenure – which came arguably far too late, in 2020 – Sanchez’s fights tended to consist of wild brawling that’d often see him come out on the worse end of things. Sure, his bouts were still exciting, but he was basically a shadow of the great prospect he’d been in 2005.
In hindsight, he’d have been better off focusing on improving his wrestling rather than his striking.
#2. Ronda Rousey – former UFC bantamweight champion
In most instances, it’d be insulting to label any UFC fighter as one-dimensional. In the case of Ronda Rousey, she was so good at that one dimension – grappling – that it simply made no sense for her to change her game up.
An Olympic bronze medallist in judo, ‘Rowdy’ debuted in the octagon in 2013 after a dominant run in Strikeforce that saw her finish four opponents via armbar en route to capturing the promotion’s bantamweight title.
She quickly continued that run in the UFC, dispatching Liz Carmouche and old rival Miesha Tate with her trademark hold before defeating Sara McMann, Alexis Davis, Cat Zingano and Bethe Correia.
However, while her win over Zingano came via armbar again, the other three wins all came via strikes. The Correia win, in particular, turned out to be a red flag.
By the time of that fight in the summer of 2015, Rousey had been working with striking trainer Edmond Tarverdyan for some time. She had evidently decided that her hands could be as effective as her takedowns and submissions.
Sure, she knocked out Correia with a flurry of punches, but the fight itself was wildly sloppy, and it was only Rousey’s superior athleticism and aggression that allowed her to come out on top.
She wasn’t anywhere near as fortunate in her next bout against Holly Holm, as she made the error of largely looking to strike against a far superior kickboxer. With that, she found herself on the wrong end of a truly brutal knockout that shattered her aura of invincibility.
When she returned after a year on the shelf, she suffered another nasty knockout, this time at the hands of Amanda Nunes. Soon after, she chose to retire from MMA.
While many fans now believe the game simply caught up with ‘Rowdy’, the truth is that had she stuck to her guns and focused purely on her grappling, there’s every chance she would’ve beaten Holm. That makes her decision to switch to a striking-based game one of the biggest mistakes in octagon history.
#1. Conor McGregor – former UFC lightweight champion
Few fighters enjoyed a rise up the ladder as meteoric as Conor McGregor. He literally went from being an unknown debutant to the biggest star in the UFC in less than two years.
While it obviously helped that ‘The Notorious’ possessed unrivaled charisma, excellent skills on the microphone and had the entire nation of Ireland behind him, what really sent him flying up the mountain was his skillset inside the octagon.
Sure, McGregor always relied on the insane power in his punches, particularly his left hand, but he certainly wasn’t a one-dimensional boxer in his early days.
Fighting out of a karate-style stance, McGregor used movement and footwork more than any fighter before him to find the right angles to catch his opponents with counter strikes. He would often use kicks to his advantage, too, whipping spinning strikes towards his foes and even using leg kicks to break down Nate Diaz in their second bout.
However, after claiming the lightweight title from Eddie Alvarez in a truly masterful performance, McGregor stepped away from the octagon to pursue a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather, and it’s safe to say that things have gone downhill for him since.
Sure, there was no shame in his loss to the great Khabib Nurmagomedov and he did look good in his 2020 win over Donald Cerrone.
However, his two TKO defeats to Dustin Poirier in 2021 showed a fighter who was almost purely focused on his boxing as opposed to the slick counter-striking game he’d once deployed.
Heavy on his feet and throwing little else but haymakers, ‘The Notorious’ fell victim to Poirier’s better-rounded approach, which made use of nasty leg kicks to set up his bigger punches.
Whether McGregor can get back to his old approach when – and if – he returns to the UFC remains a question mark, but it’s definitely fair to say that his switch in styles hasn’t paid off at all thus far.