With the UFC’s continuously skyrocketing popularity and upcoming super fight between B.J. Penn and Georges St-Pierre—which is being billed as the biggest rematch in the company’s history—it’s a good time to review two factors that have been critical to their surging success.
The reality show The Ultimate Fighter has been an enormous factor and from a business perspective, it’s been the most important. The Ultimate Fighter was launched at a time when the UFC was struggling financially and had a small but loyal fan base.
The show introduced millions of new fans to the UFC and helped remove the “human cockfighting” label applied by Senator John McCain. With successful fight-based reality shows like The Contender and the WWE’s Tough Enough passing America’s litmus test, the UFC jumped into the reality TV world and found a promotional gold mine.
That same production machine became a quasi minor-league system and has churned out recent title holders Matt Serra, Forrest Griffin, and newly crowned light-heavyweight champion Rashad Evans.
A more critical factor from the perspective of UFC purists has been the masterful matchmaking by Joe Silva and Dana White which has produced some historic fights by a core group of Hall of Famers and some destined for the UFC Hall. Those fights have produced some highly anticipated and memorable rematches and the top 10 are the subject of this piece.
All of the fights examined here had a title on the line except Tito Ortiz v. Ken Shamrock II. This fights inclusion might be a head scratcher but it makes it for a few reasons that will be detailed later.
Two upcoming fights also make the list: the aforementioned B.J. Penn/Georges St-Pierre title fight and the Frank Mir/Brock Lesnar title unification fight.
Ranking these fights from 1-10 was not easy. Certain factors besides the fights themselves have to be accounted for: How good was the first fight? Were fighters and fans alike begging for a rematch?
Was there a clear winner in the first meeting or will a rematch settle an old score? Has one fighter improved considerably since the last meeting? And lastly, was the rematch a success?
Some readers might have a fight or two in mind that didn’t make the list which is the beauty of following Mixed Martial Arts: great fights and feuds are often held in the eye of the beholder.
1. Chuck Liddell v. Randy Couture II, UFC 52: One is in the Hall of Fame, the other is a lock. Liddell avenged his loss to Couture at UFC 43 via knockout to become light-heavyweight champion.
The Ice Man’s title shot and subsequent title reign were long over-due since Tito Ortiz dodged Liddell repeatedly and wouldn’t fight him, citing a ‘friendship’ with Chuck that only Tito was aware of.
The outcome of Liddell/Couture II had more historical significance than the third installment since a Liddell loss would drop him to 0-2 versus Couture and would have prevented the final piece to the trilogy.
2. Matt Hughes v. Georges St-Pierre II, UFC 65: Hughes dominated their first fight and GSP was admittedly in awe. Their second encounter saw a more complete GSP on the verge of dominance (minus the eventual clock-cleaning he received from Matt Serra).
The Darth Vader/Obi Wan fight scene comes to mind when summing up the rematch: in the fatal fight scene, Vader proclaims “when we last met, I was but the apprentice…now I am the master.”
St-Pierre went from aspiring champion to the standard bearer and epitomized the evolution of MMA fighters from being proficient largely in one fighting discipline like wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or boxing to being elite in all fighting disciplines.
Their third fight was good but GSP dominated again, causing Hughes to verbally tap from an armbar. Hearing screams of “stop stop stop” come from Hughes—the greatest welterweight champion of his time—signaled the end of his mastery of the division.
3. B.J. Penn v. Georges St-Pierre II, coming this Saturday at UFC 94: The fight hasn’t happened but I have a feeling it will warrant being ranked here. Penn has been begging for this fight and after cleaning out the lightweight division, the UFC brass granted it.
Both men are champions of their respective divisions, and St-Pierre’s welterweight title is on the line. The first fight at UFC 58 went GSP’s way via split decision, which made B.J. and his backers livid.
Penn hammered GSP in the first round but St-Pierre responded with dominant wrestling in the second and third round, swaying two of the three judges to score it his way. With both men sporting championship belts, it adds to the level of intensity in a big way—like Brock Lesnar big…silly big.
4. Chuck Liddell v. Randy Couture III, UFC 57: This was the long awaited rubber match with Liddell defending the light heavyweight title that he took from Couture in their second fight.
While the second fight was more important historically, the third fight was more sensational in that each man would now have defended the title against the other.
Liddell won by second-round knockout and Couture retired that night (he obviously un-retired and returned as a heavyweight) followed quickly by his induction into the UFC Hall of Fame. Both men are pillars of the sport and their coaching roles on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter portrayed them as humble sportsmen.
Their ambassadorship of the sport will benefit fighters immensely.
5. Chuck Liddell v. Quinton Jackson II, UFC 71: This fight was huge in so many ways. Their first encounter was in Japan at the PRIDE Middleweight Grand Prix semifinal at PRIDE Final Conflict 2003.
Liddell was on a mission to fight Wanderlei Silva in that tournament but was stopped short of his goal by Rampage Jackson. Upon Jackson’s arrival in the UFC, the rumors began flying about a rematch.
This time, Liddell was top dog and the light heavyweight title was on the line. Ironically, The Iceman was knocked out in the first round—his signature move—and hasn’t been the same since.
6. Rich Franklin v. Anderson Silva II, UFC 77: Every now and then, true MMA fans have to turn their head away from the butchery in the Octagon. Watching Matt Lindland tweak like 25,000 volts were running through him after being knocked out by Vitor Belfort is one example.
Another example is Gabriel Gonzaga’s near decapitation of Mirko Cro-Cop via Cro-Cop’s own move—the head kick—and Cro Cop’s awkward inside-out-bent-knee-and-ankle crash landing.
But watching the classy and previously dominant Rich Franklin get destroyed in the clinch by Anderson Silva during their first fight made me want to fast the entire next day.
Actually, it was his nose being plastered across his right cheek that did it. I had high hopes for Franklin during their rematch, but those hopes were quickly dashed when Silva busted out the whoopin’ stick.
Seriously—it’s like Silva was armed with a police baton while cloaked in a suit of armor. Franklin could do nothing except eat a barrage of viscous punches, kicks, and knees and was practically a carbon copy of the first fight.
Hey, at least he made it out of the first round in the rematch.
7. Matt Hughes v. BJ Penn II, UFC 63: Penn won the first fight via submission, securing the welterweight title which was subsequently stripped after B.J. agreed to a fight outside the UFC.
Penn would eventually return and face St-Pierre for their first battle. St-Pierre’s victory granted him a shot at Hughes for the title, but after injuring himself while training, Penn was given the shot at Hughes.
Penn lost via third round TKO after nearly finishing Hughes at the end of the second round via submission. For some reason, this fight lacked the hype it deserved. Since Penn was a replacement fighter for St-Pierre and fans were dying to see GSP v. Hughes, this battle was a little deflated but it delivered in the end.
8. Chuck Liddell v. Tito Ortiz II, UFC 66: This fight was initially left off this top 10 list. I also left off Randy Couture’s rematches with Pedro Rizzo and Vitor Belfort which warranted consideration as well as some other rematches like BJ Penn v. Jens Pulver and Forrest Griffin v. Stephan Bonnar. A reader pointed out this omission and after thinking it over, I realized what a mistake it was leaving this fight off the list.
There was – and probably still is – legit hatred between these two. Leading up to the fight, Tito was claiming Chuck poked him in the eye in the first fight which made it impossible for Tito to accomplish what he thought was the inevitable – victory. The build-up for the rematch was huge and the UFC televised a lot of Tito’s hard core training up in Big Bear. There was no shortage of trash talk or guarantees of a new title reign from the Huntington Beach Big Mouth.
Liddell followed up his previous knockout of Ortiz with a third round TKO. To add to Liddell’s legend, it was later revealed that he fought with a torn MCL and that he damaged a finger tendon during the fight. Liddell also had intriguing rematches with Babalu Sobral and Jeremy Horn and a rumored rematch with Keith Jardine has been floated.
9. Ken Shamrock v. Tito Ortiz II, UFC 61: This is when the “you don’t know squat” comments come flying in. The fight was terrible unless you’re a diehard Tito Ortiz fan and you like 78 second one-sided slaughters.
Their first fight came about after Ortiz offered a double middle-finger salute to Guy Mezger’s corner during UFC 19, enraging Ken Shamrock. During Ortiz/Shamrock I, Tito brutally punished The World’s Most Dangerous Man, but Shamrock offered some resistance and was fighting with a knee injury, setting up the rematch.
What made the rematch great was the UFC’s use of Season Three of The Ultimate Fighter to create previously unforeseen hype for the fight. I was fortunate enough to see this fight live, which is probably why I’m partial to the feud. The feelings of disdain were palpable in the air and everyone expected a war.
The third fight isn’t worth mentioning and ended like the second: Shamrock was thrown down like a rag doll and finished with heavy ground and pound.
A quick fun-fact about this trip to Vegas: Jeff Monson was behind me checking in at Mandalay Bay. First reaction: “this guy is a killer.” Second reaction after hearing him come out to “Imagine” by John Lennon: “Are you bleeping kidding me?”
Now I know why he uses “Imagine” as his entrance music – Monson supports a classless system and is very politically and economically motivated. He became a personal favorite of mine after that; not because I align with his cause, but because he looks like a movie villain with aspirations that include all of us “living life in peace…”
10A. Frank Mir v. Brock Lesnar II, coming in 2009: The upcoming title unification fight between interim champ Frank Mir and heavyweight champ Brock Lesnar is another future fight to make the list. Lesnar is on a meteoric rise and epitomizes the arrival of the super heavyweight.
Mir just beat a living legend in Antonio Nogueira (who was coming off an ACL injury and staph infection) and looks like he’s back to his pre-motorcycle-injury form. Mir took some brief but nearly devastating punishment from Lesnar in their first fight only to win via submission.
Lesnar looked dominant in his victories against Heath Herring and Randy Couture and looks better prepared to tango with Mir this time. Prediction: Lesnar, but I hope Mir wins.
10B. Tim Sylvia v. Andrei Arlovski III, UFC 61: This fight was on the same card as Ortiz/Shamrock II and I was in attendance.
Sylvia was defending the title—which he adored so much that he’d wear it to the super market—and Arlovski had a previous title reign highlighted with some aggressive brutal victories. The third fight was highly anticipated but didn’t deliver.
Arlovski suffered an injury to his knee early on and was forced to keep it standing. Sylvia kept him away with long jabs and controlled the fight for practically all 5 rounds.
While I’m not a Sylvia fan, I did win some money at the Mandalay Bay sports book by betting on him. I also shook Tank Abbott’s hand as he walked by my seat, and I think Tank was a little tanked...Why else would he shake my hand, stop, turn to the crowd, and take his shirt off?
Arlovski/Sylvia II doesn’t make the list since it was stopped way too early by a paranoid ref. It’s kind of like Rocky V – if you forget about it, it’s like it never happened.
Sylvia and Arlovski would both leave the UFC only to resurface in Affliction. They haven’t shared the ring again—yet—but they’ve both shared the experience of a Fedor Emelianenko beating.
Matt Hughes, Georges St-Pierre, BJ Penn, Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture figure prominently in the history of the UFC and have been heavily involved in many blockbuster fights and rematches.
While Hughes, Liddell and Couture are in the twilight of their careers, Penn and GSP figure to be fixtures in their respective divisions for the next few years. New feuds with fighters like John Fitch, Thiago Alves, Kenny Florian, and other young UFC talent will add to the list of great fights and rematches over time.
St-Pierre/Penn III could be in the cards, providing B.J. wins Act II this Saturday (which I predict he will). Penn is nasty in the stand-up game and deadly on the ground.
While GSP is a machine with a tireless work ethic, Penn is a natural brawler and has said “we’re in it to the death Georges.” I believe him.