The 25 Biggest Rivalries in MMA History
In advertising, sex sells. In MMA, rivalries sell.
Looking back at some of the greatest fights in MMA history, one will notice that the majority of them involve some legitimate dislike between the fighters. Even if it is just pre-fight hype, the belief that two fighters hate each other is a successful formula for gaining fan interest.
There are often two kinds of rivalries that emerge in the ultra-competitive sport of MMA; those that come about from mutual hatred and the competitive kind. The rivalries that evolve as a result of two guys not liking each other is pretty self explanatory.
The "competitive rivalry" is one that forms due to two guys being on a virtual collision course as a result of their performances inside the cage (or ring). These bouts don't need bad blood for us to tune in as the competitive nature of two elite athletes tends to be more than enough to gain our interests.
No matter what drew you into these rivalries, there's no denying that when the fighters finally got to settle their differences, we all tuned in.
Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard
The rivalry didn't save the lightweight division but it definitely made it interesting. Effectively ending the "BJ Penn" era, Frankie Edgar defeated the UFC legend on two occasions which set up a rematch against the only man to beat him, Gray Maynard.
Their second fight was widely considered in the running for "Fight of the Year" and saw Edgar survive a barrage of punishment that made him seem superhuman. A draw set the stage for their third and climatic bout.
Edgar again survived an early onslaught from Maynard but this time gave a definitive ending as he knocked out his longtime rival.
The pre-fight talk was relatively clean between both men but you could see each man was growing tired of the other by their third fight. The loss set Edgar up to be the future of the 155 pound division and left Maynard attempting to find the missing ingredient in his game.
Frank Mir and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
When Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Frank Mir first met, it was for the interim UFC heavyweight championship. But there was also much more on the line besides the UFC belt.
Nogueira and Mir were both jiu-jitsu specialists and former champions. The majority of fans considered Nogueira to be among the heavyweight elite while Mir never seemed to recover from his horrific accident. Even Mir said he didn't think he would win in his post-fight interview with Joe Rogan.
Not only did Mir win, but he also became the first man to stop Big Nog.
Three years later, Mir added another first to his resume as he became the only man to defeat the BJJ black belt via submission.
Both wins helped vault Mir into title contention after going through a rather lackluster part of his career. This rivalry was one of the biggest (and best) of the heavyweight division in recent years due to the nature of how the fights played out and the ramifications that resulted from them.
Georges St-Pierre and Matt Hughes
The trilogy of bouts between Matt Hughes and Georges St-Pierre may not have been as action-packed as some of the other rivalries on this list, but there's no denying the importance it.
When St-Pierre was defeated by Hughes in their first encounter, GSP admitted to being in awe of fighting his idol.
The second and third encounters showcased what St-Pierre was capable of by dismantling the former champion. The competitive rivalry between the two didn't create interest due to the close nature of their fights, but rather due to the symbolism involved.
By defeating Hughes, St-Pierre effectively received the torch from the "old guard" and would go on to be the future of the welterweight division.
Frank Mir and Brock Lesnar
Their first encounter proved Brock Lesnar wasn't ready for the upper echelon of UFC heavyweights, but did show he had a lot of potential. The second meeting between Lesnar and Frank Mir was one of the most hyped fights in years.
Other than being the main event at UFC 100, the bout was highly anticipated due to the absolute hatred of each other by both men. The actual bout failed to live up to expectations as Lesnar simply dominated Mir from start to finish.
By unifying the titles, Lesnar ushered in the era of "super heavyweights" and caused a lot of fighters (Mir included) to begin intensifying their weight-lifting regimen.
Although their rivalry was relatively short and undecided as both have a win against the other, it created an excitement about the heavyweight division that hadn't been seen in years.
Randy Couture and Retirement
Randy Couture will go down as one of the legends of MMA, but he may also be the Brett Favre of MMA as well.
After losing his rubber match with Chuck Liddell, Couture announced his intentions to retire. Couture's retirement wouldn't last a year as he re-signed with the UFC and defeated heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia in his first fight back.
Couture defended his belt against Gabriel Gonzaga at UFC 74, but then stepped away from the sport once again due to a contract dispute with the UFC. Once again Couture returned in under a year as he faced off against Brock Lesnar at UFC 91.
"The Natural" would string together three-straight wins after dropping his first two since returning from retirement. A front kick from Lyoto Machida officially ended Couture's career as he announced after the fight that he was finally stepping away for good.
Will Couture's retirement last this time? At 48, Couture is in amazing shape and could give a number of 205-pound fighters a run for their money but it seems he is content with an acting career and keeping himself busy outside the Octagon.
Nick Diaz and KJ Noons
As Nick Diaz became the official poster boy of the Strikeforce promotion, the company chose to focus on Diaz's rivalry with KJ Noons.
The two first met in 2007 under the EliteXC banner with Noons scoring the victory via doctor stoppage. The loss did little to hinder the confidence of Diaz, and he immediately worked his way to a rematch. Their second meeting never came to fruition as the Noons camp didn't believe Diaz to be the No. 1 contender.
One post-fight brawl and three years later, the two finally met again for the Strikeforce welterweight title. Diaz edged out a decision win in what would become the "Fight of The Year" for Strikeforce.
Fans are more likely to point to Diaz's rivalry with Frank Shamrock and "Mayhem" Miller, but I feel his battles with Noons are more important for two reasons.
The first is Diaz lost to Noons. The other being Diaz didn't fight against Miller and won a rather one-sided bout against Shamrock.
Matt Hughes and BJ Penn
With BJ Penn's lightweight career put on hold, the Hawaiian fighter moved up a weight class to seek new challenges. At UFC 46, the underdog Penn submitted the heavily favored defending champion Matt Hughes.
At UFC 63 the two met again with Penn's cardio failing him again as Hughes put the former champion away in the final frame. The bout marked the first time Penn had been stopped in his career.
Penn won the rubber match decisively, but that shouldn't diminish the rivalry as a whole. Penn's victory over Hughes showed that size wasn't everything as the much smaller fighter was able to become the UFC welterweight champion.
Quinton Jackson and Chuck Liddell
Quinton Jackson and Chuck Liddell crossed paths in a Pride ring during the Middleweight Grand Prix semifinal in 2003. Liddell was sent over from the UFC as a way of proving the company's superiority over the Japanese-based promotion.
Instead of proving their dominance, Dana White and the UFC were forced to watch their warrior take a vicious beating at the hands of "Rampage."
Four years later Jackson would again best Liddell, this time inside the UFC's Octagon at UFC 71. The event marked one of the first times a UFC event was covered by ESPN and mainstream media. The win catapulted Jackson into superstardom while Liddell was never quite the same fighter ever again.
BJ Penn and Georges St-Pierre
The first meeting between Penn and St-Pierre was made to settle who would be the top contender to the UFC welterweight title. Penn utilized his boxing to bloody St-Pierre's face, but ultimately GSP controlled the action using his wrestling ability.
A controversial split decision was enough of a reason for Penn and GSP to rematch. When you add the pre-fight talking and the "champion vs. champion" moniker and the UFC has a surefire formula for success.
Penn talked a big game, but failed to impress at UFC 94 as GSP controlled the Hawaiian fighter in every aspect of MMA. It wasn't enough for Penn to simply lose however, and he attempted to tell anyone who'd listen (including the NSAC) that GSP was the biggest cheater in MMA.
GSP won both bouts in the rivalry, but you'd never guess it from how vocal Penn is about St-Pierre. This rivalry represented something boxing has failed to deliver to its fans for years; a matchup of the two of the best fighters in their prime.
Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock
Royce Gracie turned not only a lot of fans' heads but also quite a number of fighters' head when he ran through the competition at UFC 1. Among the list of Gracie's victims was Ken Shamrock.
The two men would square off again in 1995 in the UFC's first "Super Fight." In their rematch, Shamrock managed to survive Gracie's submission game and showed Gracie jiu-jitsu can be stopped.
Although the super fight failed to live up to the hype, it still set the tone for how matches should be made in the future of MMA; fan interest.
Quinton Jackson and Rashad Evans
The rivalry between Rashad Evans and Quinton Jackson may have been short lived, but it definitely wasn't short on drama.
The two originally went into each other's faces following Jackson's victory at UFC 96, but a bout would not occur until UFC 114. The war of words was second to none, but the bout was largely uneventful as Evans used a cage-control based strategy.
Perhaps the lasting impact from this short rivalry was the focus of the African-American demographic. Just as Cain Velasquez was built into a "Mexican superstar," this rivalry was billed (unofficially) as the way to get African Americans into the sport of MMA.
Urijah Faber and Dominick Cruz
As the bantam and featherweight fighters were being introduced into the UFC's fold, the focus of the 135-pound division focused on Dominick Cruz and Urijah Faber.
Faber had previously defeated Cruz earlier in their careers, but in their second bout it was Cruz who was now the defending champion. The two fought an exciting five-round war that saw Cruz retain his title.
Now the two will coach on the upcoming season of The Ultimate Fighter and will finally have a chance to settle the score.
This rivalry has become the main focus of the bantamweight division and has virtually put the division on the UFC map. Most fans believe the bantamweights have already faced the toughest part of joining the UFC, but the real challenge will be where the division goes after this great rivalry is over.
BJ Penn and Jens Pulver
When Penn fought Jens Pulver for the first time, most MMA fans expected Penn to use his talents to walk through Pulver. "Little Evil" didn't get the memo and used his superior conditioning to win a five-round battle.
Penn returned to the UFC's lightweight division and once again fought Pulver, this time beating his rival in emphatic fashion.
The rivalry became the vehicle which guided fans into checking out the new 155-pound division.
Fedor Emelianenko and 'The Field'
Perhaps no other fighter will be able to duplicate the career of Fedor Emelianenko. The Russian went undefeated in MMA for an astounding 10 years.
Names like "Cro Cop," Nogueira, Sylvia, Andrei Arlovski, Semmy Schilt and Mark Coleman among others all fell victim to "The Last Emperor."
Emelianenko routinely faced trouble to where we thought the reign was over, but somehow always managed to come out on top. His sharp decline will be fresh in the minds of most MMA fans, but we shouldn't forget his Pride career.
Dana White the President and Dana White the Fan
Dana White isn't afraid to voice his opinion. Not only is he the most influential man in the history of MMA, he's also one of the sport's biggest fans.
Sometimes his roles as a president and fan are intertwined which can create an unprofessional work environment. A perfect example of this is when White explained that Kenny Florian chokes in big fights.
White always attempts to balance the line between fan and businessman and for the most part, does a fairly decent job of it. There are times, however, where Dana White the fan comes before Dana White the president.
His open-mouth policy is what makes him popular among the MMA crowd, but if you take a look at other league commissioners and their fanbase, it's clear that mainstream fans don't want a hands-on commissioner.
M-1 Global and the UFC
The UFC buyout of Pride promised to bring a number of high-profile talent under the Zuffa banner. One of those high-profile names was Fedor Emelianenko.
Of course Emelianenko has yet to fight inside the UFC's Octagon. The negotiations between Emelianenko's management company, M-1 Global, and the UFC have gotten public and ugly at times.
Emelianenko has made a wonderful career, but history is written by those in power. Right now the UFC is in control of the majority of how MMA history is written, and Emelianenko will likely be excluded from that history.
"The Last Emperor" doesn't need to fight under the Zuffa banner, but it is a shame that arguably the best heavyweight fighter in the world hasn't graced the Octagon.
UFC and Pride
As the UFC and Pride were the top fight promotions in the world, competition was inevitable. For years fans argued over which stable of fighters were the best.
The arguments were particularly heated when discussing the heavyweight and light-heavyweight divisions. Stars like Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, Tim Sylvia and Tito Ortiz led the way for the UFC while fighters like Wanderlei Silva, Mauricio Rua, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Fedor Emelianenko carried the banner for Pride.
Very few fighters competed in both leagues, and eventually the financial failures of Pride led to a UFC buyout and allowed us to finally see the dream fights we had been waiting for.
Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock
The rivalry between Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock centered around one word; respect. Shamrock believed Ortiz didn't have any while Ortiz felt Shamrock didn't deserve it.
The old vs. young matchup would've been an easy sell even without all the trash talk that occurred beforehand. In the first meeting, Ortiz beat Shamrock to a "living death." (Hey, it's possible right?!) Ortiz repeated the feat in the following matches.
Ortiz and Shamrock created one of the first mega-fights that were both intriguing and financially successful. It also helped move the UFC from its bare-knuckle days into a legitimate sport.
Kazushi Sakuraba and the Gracie Family
The legend of Kazushi Sakuraba as "The Gracie Hunter" began following his bout with Royler Gracie. Near the end of the fight, Sakuraba had Royler in a kimura which forced the referee to intervene. The Gracie family, believing they had been cheated by PRIDE, sent Royce Gracie to take out the Japanese superstar.
Royce and Sakuraba's epic 90-minute showdown was an amazing feat of athletic skill for both men, but Sakuraba would eventually outlast his opponent. Controversy erupted following video evidence that reportedly showed Sakuraba tapping to a guillotine attempt by Royce.
Regardless of the drama that surrounded Sakuraba's bouts with the Gracies, the end result sent shock waves through the MMA community. Until this point, the Gracie family seemed unstoppable, but now had lost their aura of invincibility.
Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz
The stories surrounding the Chuck Liddell-Tito Ortiz rivalry are in enough quantity to fill an entire season of a soap opera. From the arguments over whether a teammate pact to never fight had been made, to Ortiz claiming a Liddell thumb to the eye caused him to lose their first encounter, this bout had everything.
And that's not even including the two fights.
Despite the two fights going the way of Liddell, the UFC felt this long-time rivalry warranted a rubber match with Ortiz claiming he wanted to prove he could beat "The Iceman." Of course that never happened, and we were left with what occurred in 2004 and 2006.
Both men were perfect in their roles during this rivalry as Oritz played the villain, and Liddell assumed the role of popular fan favorite. Their meetings became one of the first "mega-rivalries" in UFC history.
Chael Sonnen and 'Team Brazil'
To some, Chael Sonnen is an annoying fly that just won't go away while others consider him to be the saviour of the 185-pound division.
Originally, Sonnen set his sights on Anderson Silva, and the two have enjoyed a heated rivalry since their UFC 117 encounter. Not content with just hating on Silva, "Mr. America" himself turned his attention to the entire country of Brazil.
Sonnen has not only made inflammatory comments about Silva, but also of other Brazilian fighters like the Nogueira brothers, Wanderlei Silva and just about everyone living in the country of Brazil at the moment.
If Silva-Sonnen II does happen in Brazil, look for the UFC to spend almost a quarterly budget on security for the event.
Chute Boxe Academy and Brazilian Top Team
No two gyms engaged such a heated rivalry as the Chute Boxe Academy and Brazilian Top Team. As the two best gyms in Brazil, the gyms competed against each other like rival sports teams.
Fighters from both gyms had fought each other on the regional circuit, but competing in Pride allowed for the rivalry to be magnified. The premier example of the inter-gym rivalry was when Mauricio Rua and Ricardo Arona squared off in 2005.
Another wrinkle in the rivalry was the departure of Anderson Silva from Chute Boxe to BTT. Silva may have been the most high-profile departure, but with the fall of Pride, many of the fighters all went their separate ways.
The rivalry still lives today but is no longer in the forefront of the minds of the fighters or fans. Still, this rivalry between the two gyms was legendary and helped build the Pride brand.
Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture
Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar may have been the big winners from The Ultimate Fighter Season 1, but Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture would go on to benefit the most.
Their first bout was a shock to everyone as Couture got the better of the striking exchanges and took down Liddell with a big slam. As they coached on TUF, fans knew they were in for a good fight when the two rematched at UFC 52.
Liddell finished Couture that night and would go on to knock Couture out again in their rubber match.
Besides making two megastars out of both men, the trilogy was a huge financial success. What also separated this rivalry from many of the others on this list was the fact there was never really any bad blood between the two.
The rivalry didn't need any trash talk as both men were fan favorites and were ultra-competitive which made fans tune in regardless of the "nice guy" routine.
Quinton Jackson and Wanderlei Silva
These two Pride legends engaged in a war of words as "Rampage" Jackson taunted Wanderlei Silva numerous times. The insults ranged from personal attacks to insults to Silva's gym, Chute Boxe Academy.
In the first bout, Silva landed nearly 20 knee strikes to Jackson which forced the referee to step in. The second bout saw Jackson's unconscious body collapse between the ropes as blood poured from his forehead.
"Rampage" would finally find some measure of redemption as he landed a vicious punch that provided one of MMA's most violent KO's.
Although the two respect each other professionally, their matches have been among the most brutal in MMA's history and represent raw aggression at its best.
MMA and 'Cave Man Thinking'
When the sport of MMA first became a hit, it was called everything from gladiatorial combat to human cockfighting. The original matches were bloody, brutal and for the most part, with very little rules.
The sport grew as the premier organization. The UFC also grew in popularity. When the Fertitta brothers and Dana White bought the company, it was on the verge of folding. The addition of unified rules also made the sport a much safer form of competition.
Unfortunately, the sport continues to have its detractors today. People who grew up on the sport of boxing refuse to even acknowledge MMA as a viable sport, and the ones who don't attack the legitimacy of the sport instead attack the nature of it.
Insults ranging from glorified bar brawling to homo-erotic comments about the ground game are popular attacks on the sport. Football continues to be one of the most dangerous sports a person can play, yet it is widely regarded as the top sport in America.
The UFC is on the right step with a network deal with Fox that will help introduce and integrate the sport to a mainstream audience.
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