Being a UFC champion is about as high an honor as a martial artist can earn. It shows that, for men your size on this planet, you are the best there is at kicking behind and taking names.
And along that path, there are plenty of memorable fights. From the stepping stones to the all out wars, the road to a championship is paved with the overmatched and the evenly matched alike.
Here is a look at the best fight each present UFC champion has found themselves in.
The flyweight kingpin’s best fight was almost certainly the bout in which he claimed gold over Joseph Benavidez, despite a couple of rousing showings along the way to the title against Ian McCall.
Demetrious Johnson gave Benavidez fits the entire night at UFC 152, beating him by decision in a fight that was entertaining but unfortunately not very well received by fans both in attendance and watching on television.
He will look to win over some fans in his first defense, a fight that will probably replace this at the top of his list against the flashy John Dodson at UFC on FOX later this month.
The best the true bantamweight champion has offered in his career to this point is undeniably his revenge win over Urijah Faber at UFC 132. In perhaps the only bankable fight the promotion could do at 135lbs., Dominick Cruz avenged a 2007 loss to ‘The California Kid’ in a rough-and-tumble decision that was heralded as a fight of the year candidate at the time.
The trilogy bout is still out there when he gets back from injury, but Cruz-Faber II definitely stands as the pinnacle of in-cage achievement for Cruz at this point in time.
Renan Barão is the placeholder for Cruz at the top of the 135-pound class for as long as the proper champion’s knee keeps him out, and his best fight came at UFC 138 against Brad Pickett.
It was the fight that showed the world just how nasty Barão truly is, as he battered the durable Pickett on the feet before finishing him in some serious haste with a rear naked choke as soon as he saw the chance.
He was interim champion within a year.
The first ever ladies champion has not yet made her UFC debut, but her best fight undeniably came in the arm-popping, title-clinching success that was her bout with Miesha Tate.
Ronda Rousey talked her way into the shot, but backed it up by (wo)manhandling Tate with throws and submission attempts before finally latching onto an arm and cranking it until it looked like a pool noodle.
One of the more gruesome finishes of the past decade, and definitely the best Rousey has done in the cage to this point.
It was quick, it was nasty, it was something to behold.
Jose Aldo, not yet the champion that everyone knew he would be, walked out of his corner and absolutely leveled Cub Swanson with one of the most astounding flying knees the sport has ever seen. The follow-up punches were simply academic. Aldo had officially arrived.
There’s lots to be said about his bout with Mark Hominick at UFC 129 as well, but for sheer jaw-dropping violence, this was Aldo’s masterwork.
Benson Henderson is not exactly known for putting on boring fights when he’s in the cage, even if the rest of his package has not found a way to resonate with fans yet. Still, he’s got about a half-dozen incredible titles to choose from, which is why it’s so odd that perhaps his best came in a loss.
For 25 minutes Henderson and Anthony Pettis hotly contested the WEC lightweight title in the final event the promotion ever held. In a neck-and-neck battle that saw both men come close to victory a number of times, it was Pettis whole stole the final round with an innovative leaping kick off the cage, something never seen before or since.
Henderson ate it and actually survived, but the damage was done and he lost the fight as a result. Still one of the best fights ever to happen, and one Henderson should be proud to have been a part of.
St-Pierre has not had many people test him in the cage in recent years, however on his rise to the top he was always a lock to put on a good show. Early fights with BJ Penn and Matt Hughes were legendary, and his second fight with Matt Serra showed a warrior that most people did not know was residing within the meek French Canadian.
Still, for pure accomplishment the best fight that St-Pierre has put on had to come against Hughes, whom he battled three times. The second saw GSP win with a head kick and some ground and pound, earning his first welterweight title. The third saw him defeat Hughes with an armbar to win the interim strap, the very finish that Hughes secured in their first meeting years prior.
That third fight was the passing of the torch in every way imaginable, and it was St-Pierre’s best.
For 23 minutes the world watched as the best fighter to ever step in a cage was beaten mercilessly by a man that was a virtual unknown only months earlier. Chael Sonnen has talked trash and he was backing it up, wailing on Anderson Silva like a schoolyard bully in search of some lunch money.
Then, out of nowhere, a battered Silva slapped on a triangle choke and finished Sonnen just shy of a guaranteed win for the Oregon native.
It was the fight that showed what Silva is made of, that he has the heart of a champion to match having the skill of one.
Jon Jones has never really been tested in the octagon. In fact his only loss came because he beat a guy so badly that he ran out of things he could do and started trying a new type of strike that he later found out to be illegal and worthy of a DQ.
That said, the closest anyone has come to providing any resistance to Jones and his unorthodox onslaught was at UFC 152, when short notice injury replacement Vitor Belfort slapped on an early armlock and popped the champion’s elbow.
Jones didn’t tap and went on to batter the fading Belfort for the rest of the fight before finishing him with a submission of his own, an Americana.
The fight showed that Jones could overcome adversity and that being champion meant more to him than people probably realized, and it added another former UFC champion to the list of foes he’s vanquished too.
Until UFC 155 there was little doubt that the best in the Cain Velasquez catalogue came against a comically overmatched and overhyped Brock Lesnar. Velasquez basically tarred and feathered then-champ Lesnar, beating him from pillar to post as the former WWE star and near-NFL commodity bounced around the cage just looking for a place to hide.
After UFC 155 though? Well you have to think that Velasquez securing his second title reign in a seismic thrashing of Junior dos Santos – a much more stern test who also holds a win over Velasquez—is the new top of the heap.
Velasquez outstruck, outgrappled and generally outfought dos Santos for 25 minutes, laying down one of the worst challenger-on-champion beatings the UFC has ever seen. Only the durability of the Brazilian kept it from being over in the first few minutes, as Velasquez trounced him as few men in the sport have ever trounced anyone.
Not only the best Velasquez has offered, but considering the context and the calibre of opponent, among the best anyone has ever offered.