They say you aren’t a true champion until you successfully defend your belt. Just ask former “champions” like Matt Serra, Vitor Belfort, Forrest Griffin, and most recently Rashad Evans—all of whom came up short their first time around.
At UFC 104, Lyoto Machida will get his first crack to defend the belt he stripped away from Rashad Evans when he steps into the octagon against Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. Fans and pundits alike started proclaiming it was the beginning of the “Machida era” before Evans even realized what had happened to him.
While Machida’s style looks like it could forge a new era of fighting in mixed martial arts, one thing remains fact: Anything can happen when you are wearing four ounce gloves.
In recognition of Machida’s first title defense, lets go back in time to pay honor to the ten best first-time title defenses in UFC history (in chronological order).
1. UFC 15: Maurice Smith vs. David “Tank” Abbot
Mark Coleman may have been the first heavyweight champion in UFC history but he came up short in his first title defense against Maurice Smith at UFC 14.
At UFC 15, Smith defeated the gassed out “Tank” by submission (verbal submission due to fatigue) at 8:08 to retain the UFC Heavyweight Title.
Smith was unable to defend his belt for a second time when his title was lost in translation to Randy Couture before at UFC Japan: Ultimate Japan. While Smith wasn’t the greatest UFC champion of all time, he was the first ever to successfully defend his belt.
2. UFC 44: Randy Couture vs. Tito Ortiz
Who could forget the “spank heard round the MMA world.”
In his light heavyweight debut, Couture took on long-time No. 1 contender Chuck Liddell for the interim light heavyweight championship winning by TKO in the third round.
Couture went on to face five-time defending champion Tito Ortiz for the undisputed light heavyweight title. Couture won a unanimous decision and became the undisputed UFC light heavyweight champion at age 40.
But what people will remember most from that title fight was when Couture had Ortiz in a compromising position and decided to make light of the situation by tapping his "Bad Boy" opponent on the behind.
Some won't count defending an interim belt as defending a title, nonetheless, when Couture defeated Tito Ortiz it was one of the ten best “first-time” title defenses in UFC history, right?
3. UFC 52: Matt Hughes vs. Frank Trigg
Two-time welterweight champion Matt Hughes had not one but two successful first-time title defenses. And who could forget his second, a fight with Frank Trigg at UFC 52 which many consider one of the best fights in UFC history.
Hughes would sink in another trademark rear naked choke on Trigg which catapulted Hughes into three-straight title defenses. His streak was finally snapped by George St. Pierre at UFC 65.
4. UFC 54: Chuck Liddell vs. Jeremy Horn
Chuck Liddell knows how to mix title fights with a side of revenge. At UFC 52, Liddell avenged a previous loss to Randy Couture, winning the UFC light heavyweight title in the process.
Then, at UFC 54, Liddell got his revenge on Jeremy Horn, the first man to ever beat Liddell inside a cage, and the only one to ever submit him. In addition to the settling the score, Liddell defended his belt for the first time.
The “Iceman” would go on to successfully defend three more times before getting iced by Quinton “Rampage” Jackson at UFC 71.
5. UFC 73: Anderson Silva vs. Nate Marquardt
Most will remember Anderson Silva’s middleweight title fights for his destruction of Rich Franklin, not once but twice, as well as losing the first round of his title fight to Dan Henderson before choking him out in the second.
But not to be overlooked was Silva’s equally impressive performance over one of the most seasoned MMA fighters in the sport, Nate Marquardt at UFC 73. Marquardt showed that one wrong spin in the spider’s web weaves dire consequences.
6. UFC 74: Randy Couture vs. Gabriel Gonzaga
Randy Couture’s hall-of-fame career is filled with accolades and more then memorable moments. His title defense against Gabriel Gonzaga was no exception. Many thought that the younger, bigger, and more aggressive Brazilian would come in and overwhelm the cagey veteran.
Just the opposite is what unfolded before an ecstatic crowd. Couture put on one of the finest performances of his career, beating Gonzaga at every step, eventually putting his opponent on the ground and pounding him out.
While this wasn’t the first time Couture had defended a UFC belt, it was the first title defense coming off the dramatic win over then Heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia at UFC 68.
Due a strained working relationship with the UFC, Randy Couture did not return to defend his belt until UFC 91, where he was engulfed by the hammer fists of the newcomer Brock Lesnar.
7. UFC 75: Quinton “Rampage” Jackson vs. Dan Henderson
At UFC 75 two champions collided when newly minted UFC light heavyweight champion Quinton Jackson defended his belt for the first time against incoming PRIDE champion Dan Henderson.
What ensued was a five round war of attrition which ultimately saw Jackson emerge victorious on the judges' scorecards. While Jackson was successful in his first title defense, Henderson gave him everything he could handle and them some.
Like others before him, Jackson was unable to defend his belt two times in a row. At UFC 86, TUF 1 winner Forrest Griffin engaged Jackson in another five round war, with Jackson being the one coming up short in the judge’s minds this time around.
8. UFC 84: BJ Penn vs. Sean Sherk
After UFC 84, there was no doubt about who the best lightweight in mixed martial arts was. B.J. Penn battered Sean Sherk for three rounds before finally finishing him with a flying knee that left his opponent crumpled on the canvas floor. Penn emphatically defended his belt for the first time.
While a subsequent crushing loss to St. Pierre left many doubting the prodigy, it didn’t stop him from defending his lightweight scrap for a second consecutive time when he forced Kenny Florian to submit at UFC 101.
Penn will look to defend his belt for a third consecutive time when he takes on Diego Sanchez at UFC 107, but it will be hard to top the dominating performance of his first-time title defense.
9. UFC 87: Georges St. Pierre vs. Jon Fitch
Two-time welterweight champion George St. Pierre successfully defended his belt for the first time in what was technically his fifth title fight, including his interim title fight against Matt Hughes at UFC 79.
That accumulated experience was showcased as St. Pierre dominated a never-say-die Jon Fitch for five rounds. His win over a fighter many still consider the No. 1 contender in the welterweight division validates just how impressive his first title defense was.
St. Pierre has gone on to defend his belt two more times and looks to keep his streak alive when he returns from injury in 2010.
10. UFC 100: Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir
Brock Lesnar will always get grief for never earning his title shot to begin with—and with good reason. But Lesnar has done everything right to validate that he is the deserved champion, at least when it comes to the actual fighting aspect.
Many new champions could have crumpled under the epic expectations that UFC 100 produced, but Lesnar went out and did what many expected him to do by pounding Frank Mir out of commission.
Up next for Brock Lesnar is a UFC 106 showdown with heavy hitting Shane Carwin. If Lesnar is successful in his second title defense, the critics will all have to get that much quieter.