There's something special about a UFC title fight. It's the best against the best, two athletes who have earned a chance to compete for the most prestigious championship in their sport.
An arena crackles with energy when there is a belt on the line. There's a feeling in the air unlike like anything else in sports. It's an expectation, not just of excellence, but of beautiful and extreme violence.
In the last 17 years, since Ken Shamrock first fought Royce Gracie for the UFC Superfight title, there have been a grand total of 134 UFC title fights. Although each was special in its own way, here are the 25 best of all-time in chronological order.
The pre-fight buildup to this bout got intense when Shamrock felt Severn was disrespecting him during a press conference.
"Before I was going to beat him," Shamrock told Dan's manager, Phyllis Lee. "Now I'm going to hurt him."
Result: Shamrock defeated Severn via submission (guillotine choke)
Smith versus Coleman was a "champion versus champion bout," perhaps the first fight of its kind in MMA history. Coleman, of course, was the reigning UFC kingpin. Smith was the Extreme Fighting champ, surprising the whole sport by beating Marcus "Conan" Silveira in a tournament for the belt.
It was not Smith's last big surprise. Before the fight, he had the gumption to tease Coleman, who had looked like an unstoppable monster in previous bout, suggesting the wrestler punched like a girl. Coleman, the heavy favorite, was enraged, but Smith lived up to his big talk:
Maurice Smith didn't know how to feel fear. That was all the difference. Working with Frank Shamrock and Tsuyoshi Kohsaka, Smith developed a strategy to beat the wrestling great. Using hand control and a devastating elbow-heavy counter attack off his back, Smith stymied Coleman, wore him out, then abused him standing.
Result: Smith defeated Coleman via unanimous decision after a 15-minute regulation period and two three-minute overtimes
It was one of the most controversial decisions in UFC history, a decision so bizarre that conspiracy theories sprung up almost immediately. Were the judges in the can for Rutten because of his close relationship with then-UFC matchmaker John Peretti?
The most obvious answer, complete incompetence, is the most likely reason Rutten was gifted a decision. But when the official result conflicts so egregiously with what fans see with there own eyeballs, they find whatever explanation works to explain the conflict in perceptions.
Despite the joking at the end, there is some truth to the tension in the video above. Both men can still get fired up talking about this fight, even today, more than a decade later.
"Listen, there were judges," Rutten told Randleman. "Two judges were for me, one for you. Ta Da! You do the math. Who was the winner there? It was very close, I'll give you that, but I was the winner."
Result: Rutten defeated Randleman via split decision at 21:00
For Frank Shamrock, it was his final moment in the UFC Octagon. Stepping in against the monstrous Ortiz, Shamrock was outmatched in many ways. Too small, too banged-up, too distracted by the sport dying around him.
And yet great champions win. They don't let obstacles stop them. They get in the cage and accomplish goals, no matter how impossible they seem. Frank Shamrock was a great champion—and this fight proved it.
Result: Shamrock wins by submission (strikes) at 4:42 of the fourth round.
New Jersey State Athletic Control Board boss Larry Hazzard needed to be wowed. He had the future of mixed martial arts in his hands. Would he approve the sport in New Jersey? Or would he decide it was a contest of bar-brawlers, little more than a street fight?
To impress the important regulator, the UFC brought together its two most impressive athletes, wrestling stars Randy Couture and Kevin Randleman. Their battle for the heavyweight belt couldn't be mistaken for anything but what it was—an athletic competition between world-class competitors.
Result: Couture wins by technical knockout due to punches at 4:13 of Round 3
When we chose the best UFC fights of all-time for USA Today last year, this forgotten bout surprised many when it made the cut. But if you watch the courage and heart on display by both men, you'll see why it's one of the most compelling bouts ever:
Couture's first title fight against Brazilian Muay Thai ace Rizzo is arguably the most important heavyweight fight in the sport's history. It headlined the first UFC card under current owners Zuffa. For 25 minutes, the two heavyweights threw everything at each other.
In the first frame, Rizzo was nearly finished when Couture bludgeoned the Brazilian with savage ground and pound from top position. Yet Couture found himself on the verge of a fight stoppage when Rizzo returned the favor in the second round. For the duration of the bout, Rizzo battered Couture with thundering leg and middle kicks. Couture gutted through to land takedowns and find a home for his boxing from within the clinch. Couture was eventually declared the winner, and he kept his UFC heavyweight strap. While the decision was controversial, Couture bested Rizzo again, this time with ease, in a rematch at UFC 34.
Result: Couture wins by unanimous decision at 25:00.
Success in the Octagon comes and goes. Lots of guys, even the best of the best, are successful at the highest levels—but few are successful for long. Eventually, their bodies wear out, opponents discover their weaknesses or they get lulled by the sweet song of fame and excess.
Pat Miletich was one of a handful of exceptions. He had been UFC champion for almost three years, an unheard of reign, when Carlos Newton, a young Canadian grappler, came to rain on his parade.
In retrospect, the fight signalled a changing of the guard. Miletich was ultimately replaced, not by Newton, but by his own protege, Matt Hughes, who told me he didn't care for the way Newton handled his win.
"It was very important to me to go out and avenge that loss."
Result: Newton wins by submission (bulldog choke) at 2:50 of the third round.
It was the most incredible finish in MMA history. Newton had Hughes locked in a triangle choke, but the challenger had an answer—picking the Canadian star up over his head and powerbombing him to the mat.
Newton was knocked cold, but Hughes too was dazed. Teammate Jeremy Horn had to tell him he had won the bout before he thought to celebrate. It was MMA's first photo finish. But as Newton told me, he still isn't sure Hughes was the real winner:
I won that fight. I know I did. Because Matt told me, pretty much, ‘Yeah, I was out.’ He made it pretty clear to me that he thought it was a lucky break. That fight was a great fight and it’s shows why this sport is so appealing. It’s so unpredictable. You have to consider so many variables. At the end of the day, when a guy really does dominate in this sport, he isn’t just the better man. He’s the guy that has the wind to his back, making it happen.
Result: Hughes defeats Newton via KO (slam) at 1:23 of the second round
B.J Penn was the UFC's first wunderkind, a fighter some were calling the best in the world before he ever stepped into the cage. He was favored over UFC champion Jens Pulver, but the champion had the heart of, well, a champion.
He was willing to do whatever it took to secure a win. At the time, Penn still had human limits. That was the difference. Pulver trained everyday like he was in a fight. Nothing Penn could do to him, Pulver told me, would be worse than what happened in the gym with Pat Miletich, Matt Hughes and a gang of hungry young fighters in Iowa:
We weren't well rounded fighters but we had toughness. We just wailed on each other. We were tough. We were in great shape. And we were tough. That's all there is to it. We beat the mess out of each other. We had to learn how to punch. Most of us came from wrestling backgrounds and we knew a little bit about submissions. But mostly we could go 25 minutes, we were buzzsaws and we dictated where the fight went.
Result: Pulver retains the Lightweight Championship belt by majority decision at 25:00
Yes, this fight convinced UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta that there was a future for this sport. Yes, it propelled Tito Ortiz to new levels of fame and fortune. And yes, it was an exciting spectacle that had the whole MMA world buzzing.
But to me, it will always be the event that saw Ken Shamrock drop the most hilarious trash talk the sport had ever seen.
"Tito Ortiz is going to find out what Ken Shamrock is all about. I guarantee you that," Shamrock said at the pre-fight press conference. "So if I was you, I hope to God you come ready. 'Cause if you don't, I'm going to beat you into a living death."
Result: Ortiz wins via TKO (corner stoppage) at 5:00 of round 3
In 2003, B.J. Penn failed to win the world title at lightweight for a second time, going to a draw with Caol Uno. The Japanese submission ace was a good fighter, but a fighter Penn had beaten easily earlier in his career.
At 24, Penn was already in a rut. Despondent, the young Hawaiian, instead of quitting, decided to embark on an even bigger challenge.
Penn wanted Matt Hughes.
Hughes wasn't just any fighter. He was considered by many to be the best in the world. Not only was he a bruising wrestler, he was a bruising wrestler with a significant size advantage over Penn.
It was a seemingly impossible task. But nothing can stop a superlative athlete who is focused on nothing but winning. The MMA world learned an important lesson at UFC 46—no matter the odds, never count out B.J. Penn.
Result: Penn wins by submission (rear naked choke) at 4:37 of round one.
Everyone knew that The Ultimate Fighter could draw fans to free television. It was the rallying cry that kept the UFC alive. If it could get in front of a large audience, success seemed all but guaranteed. But could this reality TV showcase also drive traffic to pay-per-view?
That, of course, was the hope going in. The show had the dual purpose of both building new stars and hyping present day main events. One eye was on the future, while the other was focused squarely in the present.
The first attempt was a rematch between Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell. The two coaches didn't have much bad to say about each other, but that didn't stop fans from tuning in. More than 280,000 bought the fight on PPV, making it the most successful show since Royce Gracie's heyday in the sport's early years.
The UFC was on a rocket ship to the top of the combat sports universe, and The Ultimate Fighter was the fuel.
Result: Liddell wins by knockout (punches) at 2:06 of round one
Dana White calls this the best fight he's ever seen. And who am I to disagree?
It's not just the incredible finish, with Hughes picking Trigg up and literally running across the cage before slamming his rival to the mat. It's what he had to overcome in the moments before he shook the arena with the iconic slam. He was seconds from defeat before turning everything around:
Things weren't going well for Matt Hughes in his rematch with Frank Trigg at UFC 52. Hughes had been hit in either the cup or the bladder by a Trigg knee (where the blow landed depends on which man is telling the story). A followup left hand put him on the canvas. Even Hughes admits he was briefly unconscious. He awoke with Trigg in the mount, asking referee Mario Yamasaki to stop the fight.
Result: Hughes wins by submission (rear naked choke) at 4:05 of Round 1
No one was sure what would happen when Silva hit the cage with Franklin. This was before Silva was considered the best fighter in the sport. He was clearly a guy with tons of potential, but he fought with just mixed success in Pride. Could he overcome a solid professional in Franklin?
The answer, it turned out, was yes. God, yes:
Rich Franklin is probably the second-best middleweight in the history of MMA. But that's easy to forget—mostly because of how easily he had his face smashed in by Anderson Silva at UFC 64.
Silva's deft use of the Thai clinch, a move he utilized to brutalize Franklin's body and face, was something fans hadn't seen before. With his skinny arms and lithe frame, it was a little surprising to see Silva manhandling the more muscular Franklin.
Result: Silva wins by TKO (knees) at 2:59 of Round 1
If Georges St-Pierre could have 15 seconds of his life back, he might choose to take back the moments immediately after Matt Hughes beat B.J. Penn at UFC 63. St-Pierre sauntered into the cage and delivered a challenge that would become a meme.
"I'm not impressed with your performance," he told the champion.
It doesn't seem like much, but it resonated with MMA fans. Maybe it was the heavily accented English? Perhaps it was the different side of St-Pierre, a steadfast good guy up until that moment. It could have been the incredulous look on Matt's face.
Whatever it was, it stuck.
St-Pierre, of course, recovered from this temporary PR setback. His dominant win over Hughes went a long way in healing those wounds. Fans began to realize that, just maybe, St-Pierre's extreme confidence was justified.
Result: St-Pierre wins by TKO (head kick and punches) at 1:25 of Round 2
What a feel-good story. Randy Couture, just a month and change before his 44th birthday, shocked the world with his dominant decision win over UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia.
A former champion himself, Couture hadn't fought in over a year after losing a rubber match with rival Chuck Liddell. He was officially retired. But when the UFC called, he answered, playing David to Sylvia's enormous Goliath.
Result: Couture defeated Sylvia via unanimous decision (50-45, 50-45, 50-45)
Dan Henderson walked into the UFC Octagon in a pretty unique position. The UFC had just purchased its greatest promotional rival, Japan's Pride FC, and wanted to do unification matches in the middleweight and light heavyweight divisions.
Negotiating those bouts was easier than expected for the UFC brass—after all, one man had both title belts on his mantle. Henderson.
The first fight, to unify the Pride and UFC titles at 205 pounds, was an amazing bout. Henderson controlled the fight early, but Jackson rallied to take a unanimous decision.
Broadcast as a free television special on Spike TV, it was the most watched fight in UFC history for years, drawing almost six million viewers at its peak.
Result: Jackson defeated Henderson via unanimous decision (48–47, 49–46, 49–46)
It was a battle of opposites:
There couldn't be two fighters more different than Anderson Silva and Dan Henderson. Silva is all style and grace, an athlete who seems to dance through the cage and through life without a care. He is as elegant as he is dangerous.
Dan Henderson can yank out his teeth and show you the gap where his chompers used to be. He's an American wrestler, grit personified, an athletic version of a Ford truck commercial. He started the sport as a member of the RAW team—Real American Wrestlers. The next elegant thing he does will be the first.
There was, however, one thing the two men had in common. Both could fight like the dickens. In the end, though, Silva was just a little bit better:
In the second round Henderson landed the punch that made him famous, a powerful right hand that had ended the night for many great fighters. Silva shrugged it off, landed one of his own, and followed with a knee and head kick that had Henderson reeling. And when Silva has you hurt, there is no escape. Few fighters smell a finish quite like he does—and when he pounces it's exceptionally rare for his prey to survive.
And so it went for Henderson. A last ditch takedown attempt failed. Silva landed on top of the wrestler and flipped the script with his own ground and pound. A choke soon followed and Henderson, again, made the walk of shame back to the locker room. In both unification bouts the UFC ended up on top.
Result: Silva defeated Henderson via submission (rear naked choke) at 4:52 of Round 2
B.J. Penn finally took the world lightweight title he pursued for so long, beating Sean Sherk after a brutal running knee left the wrestler laying. The bout between the two grapplers was contested mostly on the feet, with Sherk showing off a diverse boxing game before falling victim to Penn's power.
"We're fighting in the main event," Sherk said after the bout, explaining his decision to stand and bang with Penn. "People want to see a fight and that's what I wanted to give them. I wanted to give them a fight."
Result: Penn defeated Sherk via TKO (flying knee and punches) at 5:00 of Round 3
Forrest Griffin came to fame in MMA by letting it all hang out, standing toe-to-toe with Stephan Bonnar in the finale of the first The Ultimate Fighter and eschewing any form of defense. It's a style that wins fans, but doesn't win championships.
For that, Griffin employed a more conservative style, avoiding Quinton Jackson's prodigous power and using hard leg kicks to win the light heavyweight title. Jackson recapped the fight in succinct fashion—"He jacked my leg up!"
With the win, Griffin became the first The Ultimate Fighter winner (with the exception of veteran Matt Serra in a special comeback season) to take home UFC gold.
Result: Griffin defeated Jackson via unanimous decision (48–46, 48–46, 49–46)
Lesnar got his revenge on Mir in what remains the best-selling UFC pay-per-view of all-time. More special than his performance during the fight was his rant post-fight that ended with an apology, not to a shell-shocked Mir, but to UFC sponsor Bud Light:
"I'm drinking a cooler full of Coors Light, Coors Light because Bud Light won't pay me," said Lesnar as he pointed his enormous 4XL gloves at the Bud Light logo in the middle of the octagon. "I'm going to sit down with my friends and family and hell, I might even get on top of my wife tonight."
Result: Lesnar defeated Mir via TKO (punches) at 1:48 of round 2
I love Lyoto Machida. In a sea of sameness, the karate-inspired fighter stands out, an Octagon intellectual in a sport of meatheads and jocks. How did he pull off the impossible, relying on traditional martial arts to win fights in the cage? I broke it down in The MMA Encyclopedia:
Karate, in short, wasn’t supposed to work. Not in 2009. The failure of traditional karate stylists in the early days of the UFC was seen by many in the martial arts community as the end of the art as a relevant fighting system. The karate club might still be a good place to drop the kids off after school, let them burn off some energy and improve their fitness in an environment that emphasized focus, discipline, and self-control. For most practitioners, those have always been the real benefits of the martial arts anyway, and a good karate dojo still holds to those values. But traditional karate was thought to be incapable of turning out fighters that could compete in the full-contact free-for-all of modern mixed martial arts.
Enter "The Dragon." Machida was by no means the first prominent mixed martial artist to hold rank in a traditional karate discipline, but he was the first to look like a karate fighter in the cage, to move like one. Leaping in and out of striking range with his head back in an uncommonly upright posture, throwing kicks from unpredictable angles, and disguising foot sweeps behind straight punches, Machida is a Sonny Chiba movie brought to life.
Machida seemed like an unsolveable puzzle—at least until Mauricio Rua broke him down with constant pressure and skilled striking at UFC 104. Somehow, beyond any attempt at reasonable explanation, Machida won a decision almost everyone was sure he had lost.
Never fear, though. The universe righted itself in a rematch that saw Rua walk away champion.
Result: Machida defeated Rua via unanimous decision (48–47, 48–47, 48–47)
Tired of talking about Anderson Silva and Chael Sonnen yet? That feeling will pass. The truth is, the two had one of the most memorable feuds in mixed martial arts history. We talk about them, and their two amazing fights, not just because of the trash talk, but also because they were incredible athletic contests:
For four-and-a-half rounds, Chael Sonnen proved the primacy of wrestling. Matched against the sport's top striker, Sonnen was dominating, taking the champion, Anderson Silva, down at will and controlling the action with his relentless ground-and-pound.
Remarkably, in the final minutes of a 25-minute fight, Silva pulled off a miracle. Wrapping his legs around Sonnen's neck, he choked him until the former All-American had to quit.
Result: Silva defeated Sonnen via submission (triangle armbar) at 3:10 of round 5
In the first round, Gray Maynard looked like he might beat Frankie Edgar to death. Hyperbole? Check the fight out and see what you think.
Edgar, miraculously, not only survived, but came back stronger than ever as the fight progressed. The fight was ruled a draw, a decision I felt was fitting for such an evenly contested bout:
This was what mixed martial arts is all about. This was art- a brutal artistry for certain, but art nonetheless. In the end, I didn't mind that the fight was scored a draw. I had it a draw on my own score card giving Maynard the first and third rounds (10-8 Round one) and Edgar rounds two, four, and five. It was as evenly fought as any bout I've seen. No one deserved to lose.
Result: Edgar and Maynard fought to a split draw (46–48, 48–46, 47–47).
For one round at least, it looked like deja vu. Chael Sonnen took down Anderson Silva down and mauled him for five minutes. But when he fell down after attempting an ill-fated backfist, it was all but over:
It was obvious then, even to the most diehard Sonnen fan, that the end was nigh. Chael must have felt it, too. Instead of going back to his strength—an undeniably potent wrestling game—Sonnen plunged forward with an awkward spinning backfist. Hitting nothing but air, he went flying into the cage and onto his backside.
It was academic from there.
After months of bad blood, heated words and angry exchanges, MMA's top feud came to an explosive end. It was Silva who made the first move toward reconciliation, draping his arm around his fallen foe and encouraging the rabid Brazilian fans to applaud the man they were moments earlier verbally lynching.
Sonnen took his loss like a real man. He didn't make excuses, although he certainly could have, instead choosing to acknowledge Silva's greatness.
"It's very important when you lose a fight that you don't say things like, 'My opponent was better tonight,'" Sonnen told the assembled media at the post-fight press conference. "The better guy wins every time. The better guy won tonight."
Result: Silva defeated Sonnen via TKO at 1:55 of Round 2