If we're sticking strictly to a sports programming context, MMA fans are pretty lucky this weekend. ESPN is throwing the kitchen sink at its daily television schedule, and as a result the UFC has taken center stage.
Starting Saturday at 12 p.m. ET, ESPN is having what its calling UFC Day. Eight of the best UFC fights of all time will air back to back.
This is the creme de la creme, so any and all are more than worth a watch. But three bouts from stand out as true appointment viewing. Get a snack, pull up a chair and settle in.
Robbie Lawler (28-14-1) vs. Rory MacDonald (21-6-1)
Date: July 11, 2015
Event: UFC 189
Result: Lawler def. MacDonald by TKO, 1:00, Rd. 5 (retains welterweight title).
The part of this that's seared in my memory came after the fight, when Rory MacDonald keeled over, eyes almost rolled back into his head, his nose flattened, the pain at or beyond a point that even a warrior like that can take.
It was the furious, slow-burning power of Lawler against a more dynamic, gifted fighter in MacDonald. We already knew Lawler was tough, but MacDonald showed everyone before our eyes.
Now, the fight is known for two rather sticky memes: Lawler's mangled lip, and that legendary staredown in the center of the canvas after Round 4.
MacDonald, who has always been hot-and-cold during a career that began with his being hailed as one of the sport's first wunderkinds, was never quite the same after this, going 3-3-1 in the ensuing stretch, which encompassed a move to Bellator.
Lawler retained his title via a split-decision victory over Carlos Condit his next time out before dropping it to Tyron Woodley at UFC 201. Time appears to have caught up with the 38-year-old Lawler, as he's dropped three of his past four.
Israel Adesanya (19-0) vs. Kelvin Gastelum (15-5-1)
Date: April 13, 2019
Event: UFC 236
Result: Adesanya def. Gastelum by unanimous decision.
With apologies to Dustin Poirier, Max Holloway and a few others, there wasn't a close second in 2019's Fight of the Year competition.
The pundits got this one right. The smart money was on a bull-matador matchup, with Kelvin Gastelum using his relentless pressure to corner and overwhelm the crafty, surgical Israel Adesanya.
Over five back-and-forth rounds and easily the toughest test of Adesanya's young but brilliant UFC career, the Nigerian-New Zealander emerged with a close decision win and the interim middleweight title—his first taste of UFC gold.
Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua (26-11-1) vs. Dan Henderson (32-15)
Date: November 19, 2011
Event: UFC 139
Result: Henderson def. Rua by unanimous decision.
Back when cars were started by hand crank, there was this classic. If you're not familiar—and even if you are—this is the one you have got to see.
Dan Henderson was in his 40s even back in 2011. He may have been born grizzled. The wrestler with the morning star at the end of his right arm was the first fighter to hold UFC belts in two weight classes. Mauricio Rua, like Henderson a former champ in Japan's venerable Pride promotion, was a dervish of vale tudo. Imagine where Rua would be on the all-time greats list if he hadn't suffered all those injuries. I digress.
With both men substantially shopworn at this point in their careers, people figured this was more of a fun novelty than anything, another fine addition to the legends circuit newly infused with fading but still potent talent from Pride, which the UFC had recently acquired.
How wrong people were. This was another back-and-forth affair that saw both men empty their gas tanks. Henderson came out on top, but they had waged not just the Fight of the Year but one on the shortlist of the UFC's best fights of all time.