MMA: The 15 Most Artistic Performances in the Sport's History
JUNE 25, 2005—Atlantic City, New Jersey.
In what was perhaps one of the defining moments in his career, Floyd Mayweather Jr. battered Arturo Gatti in one of the most one-sided fights the sport of boxing had seen in the past 20 years.
Before the bout, Mayweather promised to annihilate Gatti; nay, he promised more than that: He promised an erasure.
And for six brutal, breathtaking, jaw-dropping rounds, he did just that; it wasn’t just a domination; it was an expression of greatness.
It was as artistic as boxing could ever be; a ballet of violence that embodied the spirit of boxing: hitting while not getting hit.
Mayweather hit Gatti at will, landing four-, five-, six- and even seven-punch combinations with near 100 percent accuracy, attacking both the head and body with such fluidity that Gatti was reduced to the role of punching bag.
Years later, it still stands the test of time—perhaps the truest measure of art or anything considered “artistic.”
Fights such as Mayweather vs. Gatti are not the standard for boxing, and how could they be? The exception to the rule is always that which we remember the most, simply by virtue of contrast.
When examining the sport of MMA, you don’t have to think too long or too hard to come up with examples of fights that could be considered artistic—although perhaps not to the same degree.
Still, all art is relative, and relatively speaking, here are 15 of the most artistic performances in MMA.
Matt Hughes vs. Royce Gracie
When Matt Hughes had his way with Royce Gracie at UFC 60, some felt it was anticlimactic because really, there was never any doubt who was going to win the bout.
As soon as both men locked up and the fight hit the floor, Hughes was three steps ahead; a shocking sight, yet somehow profound.
Gracie was coming back after a very long time, and Hughes fought in a way that illustrated the difference between the current state of the game and the way "things used to be."
It was the pure realization that comes when the student surpasses the teacher, and at UFC 60, Hughes didn’t just surpass Gracie, he took him to the theater.
Demian Maia vs. Chael Sonnen
It’s a rare thing when Chael Sonnen gets out-grappled for any period of time, but that’s exactly what happened when Demian Maia finally got Sonnen to the floor.
After a rocky start, where Sonnen avoided any prolonged periods of entangled limbs, Maia managed to transition from an overhand left into a clinch that saw him secure double underhooks.
Then, Maia out-Sonnen’d Sonnen, tossing him to the floor via a belly-to-belly suplex.
From there, Maia secured a triangle choke and tapped Sonnen out in less than three minutes.
It was short, but poetic.
Rumina Sato vs. Charles Diaz
A flying armbar.
Seriously, what more needs to be said than that?
Truly, if there is anything in MMA that could be called “poetry in motion,” this is it.
Anderson Silva vs. Chris Leben
As it stands right now, Anderson Silva’s destruction of Chris Leben may be one of the most violent, one-sided annihilations in MMA history.
It was much like Mayweather destroying Gatti (yet perhaps more brutal); as every second passed, and Silva continued to land every punch with breathtaking ease, it was clear that Leben was hopelessly outmatched.
It was like watching a ship sink in less than two minutes, and by the time Leben finally fell and the bout was called, you were grateful.
And you wished you could see it again and again.
Randy Couture vs. Tito Ortiz
It may have been one of the biggest upsets in UFC history at the time, but from the first moment that Randy Couture locked up with Tito Ortiz, “The Natural” went about showing the world the difference between junior college and the big leagues.
For five rounds, Couture was masterful, outmaneuvering Ortiz on every front while wiping the floor with him on the mat.
Ortiz looked clumsy and clueless at many times during the fight, while Couture looked fluid and amused as nearly every effort he made was a startling success.
Matt Hughes vs. Georges St-Pierre I
Sometimes a moment of true artistry in the fight game is a co-authored event, and when Matt Hughes squared off against Georges St-Pierre for the first time, the ebb and flow was fluid and natural.
A spinning back-kick from GSP started it off, and from there takedowns were landed and reversed, all leading up to perhaps one of the most beautiful kimura counters in all of MMA.
Near the end of the first frame with the seconds counting down, GSP tried to work a kimura on Hughes.
Hughes, for his part, circumnavigated GSP and ended up stepping through the kimura and into an armbar that forced GSP to tap out right before the buzzer.
Nick Diaz vs. Takanori Gomi
Few have ever mistaken Nick Diaz for a man who would ever pass up a chance to let his fists do the talking, and when he fought the heavy-handed Takanori Gomi, his was an epic saga.
After getting blasted off his feet by Gomi, Diaz did what he always does—he got back to his feet and let his hands go.
It’s nothing new to see Diaz grow more and more accurate as a fight goes on; he’s done it before.
But against Gomi, in a boxing ring, Diaz was simply fantastic.
He landed avalanche after avalanche of punches, came from all angles, and by the time the first frame ended, the crowd was on its feet, knowing it had seen something very special.
Cain Velasquez vs. Junior dos Santos II
When it comes to blending aggressive striking with relentless takedowns and top control, Cain Velasquez did it all to near perfecting when he retook the crown from Junior dos Santos.
Few expected such domination, but Velasquez brought it all together so well that as the rounds went on it was no longer a question if dos Santos could win, but if he would last all five rounds.
Through 25 minutes, Velasquez mixed takedowns with aggressive striking, battering dos Santos throughout in a one-sided affair that left the latter a bruised mess, and the former the new UFC heavyweight champion.
When it comes to implementing a game plan to near perfection against a fighter as dangerous as dos Santos, Velazquez did it so well it was damn near pretty.
Georges St-Pierre vs. Matt Hughes III
Watching the third chapter between Georges St-Pierre and Matt Hughes, most knew that Hughes was about to get the short end of the stick.
What GSP did in that fight wasn’t just dominating, it was a declaration of utter superiority in every area: striking, traditional takedowns, hip throws, top position, transitions and submissions.
GSP did whatever he wanted, acting as if he was simply experimenting in a sparring session, and Hughes was helpless to stop it.
Benson Henderson vs. Nate Diaz
When Benson Henderson defended his title against Nate Diaz, he didn’t just retain his belt, he made a statement.
For five rounds, the champion tossed Diaz to the ground almost at will, did real damage on the ground, and when the fight was contested on the feet, he was elusive on one hand while doing damage with his own.
It was the true definition of what a mixed martial arts fight is all about, and it was indeed a work of art.
People often complain about title bouts that go the full five rounds, but Henderson was aggressive for the duration and Diaz was game from start to close; the 25 minutes these men fought proved to be the exception to the rule.
BJ Penn vs. Diego Sanchez
It’s rare when a champion makes the challenger look as if he’d never been in a fight before, but that’s exactly what BJ Penn did when he hammered Diego Sanchez in every position, from every angle.
In his prime, Penn ran riot over many opponents and made it look like child’s play, but against Sanchez, it was shocking.
Sanchez couldn’t do anything to Penn, and Penn was doing whatever he wanted, leaving Sanchez to look like he’d been run over by a truck.
Jon Jones vs. Stephan Bonnar
There is perhaps no better way to announce your arrival in the UFC than by putting on a highlight-reel performance against a fan favorite like Stephan Bonnar.
That’s exactly what Jon Jones did, executing perfect suplex after suplex, throw after thrown, all with an ease that made it almost look scripted.
Save for tiring in the third frame, Jon Jones put on a takedown clinic at Bonnar’s expense, and it was as shocking as it was beautiful.
Frank Mir vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira II
As soon as Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira landed heavy shots on Frank Mir, we got to see perhaps one of the most fluid, high-level submission scrambles in heavyweight history.
Watching them both battle for the dominant position, working submissions, then rolling over and over until Mir secured the top position, kimura locking on tight…it was beautiful.
After a scramble like that—so fluid and technical—the breaking of the arm seemed like it was destined to happen.
Georges St-Pierre vs. Jon Fitch
From beginning to end, Georges St-Pierre, in his first title defense, beat Jon Fitch from pillar to post in every area of the fight.
It looked effortless for GSP as he landed brutal punches, perfect takedowns and precision ground-and-pound.
No matter what the No. 1 contender tried, the champion seemed light years ahead of him.
While it was brutal at times, it was such a near flawless performance that one could appreciate everything that was on display, including the heart and grit of Fitch.
In that fight, GSP made sure everyone knew he wasn’t taking anything for granted any more.
Anderson Silva vs. Forrest Griffin
Everyone has seen it by now, so there is little need to talk endlessly about the fight between Anderson Silva and Forrest Griffin.
Silva looked so good in that fight because nearly every punch he threw landed with brutal results, and if that wasn’t enough, his defensive ability was perhaps the best it’s ever been.
Every punch Griffin threw seemed to be coming in slow motion, given how effortlessly Silva avoided them.
It was poetic, fluid and fantastic; probably one of the greatest performances in Silva’s career.