Issue 166

April 2018

They’re driven to be physically and mentally better, to produce the kind of performance that earns them the title of number one in the world. When those performances are partnered with an equally fine showing from their opponent, we’re in for something special. 

So we’ve gone deep into our memory banks to recall the grandest championship action from the first 25 years of MMA as we now know it. 

To pick the ‘greatest’ title fights, we’ve tried to focus – with a couple of exceptions – on competitive fights with ebb, flow and attrition. You won’t see too much Anderson Silva, GSP or Conor McGregor here, whose championship legacies are built on blowouts. We’re interested in athletes who had to battle to get their belts.

Some you’ll have seen, some you might not have (get on Fight Pass or Google and rectify that ASAP); some are drawn-out, others last a few minutes; some are brawls, others are technically excellence. All are worthy of repeat viewings. 

58. Cruz vs.Dillashaw – UFC Fight Night 81, Jan 17, 2016

One for the nerds and true connoisseurs of strategic martial arts excellence. Dominick Cruz was just – just – a little bit better than T.J. Dillashaw (that’s how the official scorecards read, at least). Though he’d fought just once in the previous four years, ‘The Dominator’ looked sharp as he slipped past punches and hit opportunistic takedowns. The champion had an answer and never stopped applying pressure, but it was not quite enough to earn victory. It’s a shame we had to wait so long to see this.

57. Cormier vs. Gustafsson – UFC 192, Oct 3, 2015

Oft forgotten amid the Jon Jones controversy and general dissatisfaction with the matchup, this was a chaotic conflict with huge momentum swings in which Alexander Gustafsson missed out on a UFC belt by a whisker – again. After all 6'5" of him had been picked up and thrown head over heels early on, the Swede had Daniel Cormier reeling from a big knee in round three, but 'DC' recovered his wits in double-quick time to walk fearlessly through the Swede's reach advantage and win much of the rest of the fight to gut out the victory.

56. Johnson vs. Benavidez UFC 152, Sep 22, 2012

Some people in Toronto actually booed this fight. Some drunk idiots’ idea of entertainment might be heavyweights lobbing overhand rights at each other for 15 minutes, but the first UFC title fight at 125lb was a non-stop spectacle of action that far eclipsed any sloppy brawl. Before Demetrious Johnson had run away with the title of pound-for-pound best in the world, he was very evenly matched with Joseph Benavidez and the pair went back and forth all night, fighting their hearts out in a fast-paced technical masterclass that went to a close split-decision. “I’ve got to take my hat off to Joseph Benavidez,” Johnson said backstage. “He’s a great competitor, he throws some big bombs. I think I surprised him a couple of times with the takedown and he goes, holy s**t! He’s taking it here too? It’s a mixed martial arts fight, we executed the game plan very well and it was mission accomplished. The first ever flyweight champion of the world… I’m not the George Washington of flyweights – I’m the Barack Obama!”

55. Ortiz vs. Shamrock – UFC 40, Nov 22, 2002

For anyone that was there, this is still among the greatest fights in the sport’s history. A pivotal moment for the UFC in particular, it captured the imagination of the wider sporting world. The fight was quite one-sided, but elevated by the intensity of the action and the energy of the crowd. Champion Tito Ortiz just took it to Ken Shamrock from the off, who managed to hang in there to the third round by showing a tremendous amount of heart and guts.

54. Griffin vs. Rampage – UFC 86, Jul 5, 2008

Forrest Griffin had proved he was a top fighter with a win over ‘Shogun’ Rua, but many still thought of him as an ‘aw shucks’ kind of guy who wouldn't be able to stand up to the onslaught brought on by Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson, who was in the best form of his career. Griffin got dropped early but came back with leg kicks in the second, then went toe-to-toe until the final horn sounded. It was nip-tuck and nail-biting, but he got the unanimous decision.

53. Sylvia vs. Arlovski 2 – UFC 59, Apr 15, 2006

The shortest entry on our list, but lack of rounds doesn’t take away from this turbulent thriller. Just like their first fight, Andrei Arlovski drew first blood by dropping 6'8" Tim Sylvia, but instead of being finished with a submission, the giant got straight back up. Just 13 seconds later, a ‘Maine-iac’ right hook floored the ‘The Pitbull’. Another five seconds later, and it was all over. “I will never forget it,” says Sylvia. “When he hit me and I fell, I was like ‘Oh, no. This isn’t happening again!’ I jumped up as fast as I could. He definitely rung my bell, but I knew he was going to come rushing in. This was the first fight where I did a lot of tape on a guy. I watched him a lot. I was able to figure out when he hurts a guy, he comes rushing in pretty hard with an overhand right, his head down. That’s what he did to me. I was able to drop him, jump on him and finish him off.”

52. Bigdash vs. Svirid – ONE Championship: Tigers of Asia, Oct 9, 2015

Kazakh thunder vs. Russian lightning in Malaysia. At first, it looked like a routine middleweight title defense for Igor Svirid as he clubbed Vitaly Bigdash to a near-finish early in their clash, but the tide tuned in a flash with seconds to spare in round one. Another knee and right hand within moments of the restart completed an astonishing reversal. 

51. Johnson vs. Dodson – UFC on Fox 6, Jan 26, 2013

The first – and only – time in his record-breaking title run that Demetrious Johnson looked like he was actually in danger of losing his belt. ‘Mighty Mouse’ was stunned in the first and dropped in the second, but rallied to put in a supercharged third, fourth and fifth, getting more and more dominant as the fight wore on. A truly great performance from the best there is.

50. Silva vs. Rampage – Pride Final Conflict 2003, Mar 16, 2003

Both of these fighters had already endured grueling semi-final fights at this event, but there was no lack of intensity when they faced off in the grand prix final. ‘The Axe Murderer’, who was Pride champion, had to work hard to avoid damage on the ground, and was even penalized for stalling, but once he was on his feet, he unleashed one of the most dramatic finishing salvos of all time with knee after knee in the clinch.

49. Hughes vs. Sherk, UFC 42, Apr 25, 2003

Put it down to a lack of preparation, but Sean Sherk – an undersized 170lb – was the first man to take Matt Hughes 25 minutes and gave him the closest fight he’d had in years. ‘The Muscle Shark’ shocked everyone by taking the powerhouse wrestler down in round three and dropping A-bomb elbows on his face. It was a scare, but the country boy retained his title for after stepping things up a gear down the stretch.

48. St-Pierre vs. Hendricks – UFC 167, Nov 16, 2013

The most controversial encounter on this list? For the first time in his second reign, a challenger lived up to their billing and proved to be a real threat to Georges St-Pierre. Johny Hendricks messed up GSP with heavy hands, and though the long-time champ fought back, it’s hard to find anyone who didn’t score the fight 48-47 for ‘Bigg Rigg’. Unfortunately, Sal D’Amato and Tony Weeks judging at ringside weren’t among them.

47. Folayang vs. Aoki – ONE Championship: Defending Honor, Nov 11, 2016

Shinya Aoki had amassed 39 wins fighting in Japan and the rest of the world and possessed some of the best pure grappling skills ever seen in MMA. Eduard Folayang was a wushu stylist with half the in-cage experience. No one gave the Filipino a chance, but the plucky underdog scrambled to escape every takedown, guard pass and submission attempt to stay alive through the first two rounds, then started the third round by taking a huge risk by attempting a jumping knee and nailed Aoki. More knees and ground and pound followed and ‘The Landslide’ – almost unknown outside Asia – shocked the world by dethroning a legend.

“It was very emotional,” he said. “I can’t believe it was real. I beat this legend and escaped all his submission attempts. It was a different kind of joy. It’s not the end of the journey but those kind of moments in life make me realize that hard work pays off and I should continue to live with that kind of principle.” Since then, he became an icon in his homeland. Fame and fortune followed, but the most important thing to Folayang, was showing other Filipinos that it was possible to escape poverty and do something great.

46. Chandler vs. Henderson – Bellator 165, Nov 19, 2016

The first of multiple entries on this list for these men, thanks to a non-stop war of attrition. Somehow, after years of 25-minute clashes, ex-UFC champ Benson Henderson and then-Bellator champ Michael Chandler still had it in them to tussle for five rounds. You knew what to expect – except the highlight of the fight: an awesome Chandler suplex, earning him the split decision.

45. Warren vs. Soto – Bellator 27, Sep 2, 2010

Joe Warren was done. Joe Soto had embarrassed him in the first five minutes of his first title defense, showing no respect for his boxing and landing at will. ‘The Baddest Man on the Planet’ looked anything but. But just as commentator Jimmy Smith read his eulogy, Warren fired back. Now Soto was down. Punches, a big knee and the coup de grace left hook finished it 33 seconds later. 

44. N Sang vs. Bigdash 2 – ONE Championship: Light of a Nation, Jun 30, 2017

That man Bigdash again, but this time his opponent didn’t wilt when the comeback came. Aung La N Sang lost the first fight after coming in on short notice, but wouldn’t be denied. After dropping the Russian in round one, the ‘Burmese Python’ kept constant pressure on and drew on the manic support in Myanmar to pull out the win.

43. Torres vs. Maeda – WEC 34, Jun 1, 2008

The first dominant bantamweight in American MMA didn’t necessarily fight in the smartest way. Miguel Torres was a much better fighter than most of his challengers, but would always choose to throw down rather than play it safe. That would cost him eventually, but against Yoshiro Maeda, he was good enough to get the better of swinging and scrambling to force a doctor’s stoppage. 

42. Couture vs. Sylvia – UFC 68, Mar 3, 2007

Watch this one back with the volume off and you might wonder, ‘What’s the big deal?’ Well, Randy Couture came out of retirement at 43 years of age to take on a very big man indeed. ‘The Natural’ fired a cannon-like right hand at Tim Sylvia, dropping him and making 19,049 people go bananas. The noise continued for 25 more minutes.

41. Henderson vs. Silva – Pride 33, Feb 24, 2007

“That was an awesome night,” Dan Henderson remembers. “I knew in my mind I wasn’t going to do anything but beat his ass.” 'Hendo' was the underdog as the smaller man going into this battle of Pride welterweight (183lb) and middleweight (205lb) champions but did indeed thrash Wanderlei Silva and hit an iconic KO in round three.

40. Couture vs. Liddell – UFC 43, Jun 6, 2003

Just as they’d do again, no one gave 39-year-old Randy Couture a chance against a killer like Chuck Liddell, but he seemed to have a counter for every looping punch, peerless dirty boxing, the ability to get takedowns at will and unstoppable ground and pound. Fans, commentators, coaches, executives, officials – everyone was in awe.

39. Liddell vs. Ortiz 2 – UFC 66, Dec 30, 2006

The biggest fight in UFC history delivered. Though Chuck Liddell had dominated Tito Ortiz in their first fight, he was made to work for this one, as the ‘Huntington Beach Bad Boy’ got up off the canvas to threaten with submissions. It all came to a breathless conclusion in round three with an ‘Iceman’ left hand finishing him off.

38. Faber vs. Brown 2 – WEC 41, Jun 7, 2009

This battle will mainly be remembered for the warrior spirit of Urijah Faber, who battled through a broken hand – flinging elbows at Mike Brown – as he tried to regain the world featherweight championship. But all that talk means it’s been easy to overlook what a great battle it was, what an achievement it was for Brown to win in ‘The California Kid’s backyard and set a new standard at 145lb.

“He landed a hard right hand, but I tucked my chin in and it was kind of on the top of my head,” Brown recalls to FO. “I think he broke his hand at the end of the first. But I didn’t even realize until maybe the fourth round his hand was hurt… They like to give the storyline that he broke both his hands. He broke one and hurt his thumb on the other. He did fight admirably, he’s a tough-as-hell guy, I don’t take anything away from him, but certain times I do feel it’s too much credit for him and not enough for me.”

Brown set himself apart by meeting Faber head-on. He took whatever offense was thrown his way, or wrapped around him, and taking it to the challenger with standup combinations, aggressive clinch work and attacking off takedowns – many takedowns.

“I think I match up well with him,” adds Brown. “I’m a better, stronger submission grappler. I think I took him down a bunch of times, maybe nine, 10 or 11 times. I always had a kind of simple game plan. I always fought going forward. I looked to land heavy punches and take them down if the opportunity was there. It was pretty simple.

“He was kind of really trying to keep away from me. I would try to cut the cage off, back him up, and he was trying to score and run away. Score and move, score and move. It was me trying to cut the cage off and try to get a hold of him.” 

In the end, Brown did get hold of Faber – and kept hold of his belt, too.

37. Tate vs. Holm – UFC 196, Mar 5, 2016

The first UFC women’s bantamweight bout not to feature Ronda Rousey had already knocked on the door of greatness. A Miesha Tate 10-8 round eclipsed Holly Holm’s success in the first, before ‘The Preacher’s Daughter’ regained the edge. ‘Cupcake’ needed a finish and she got it, applying a rear naked and holding on for dear life to put the champion out with 90 seconds remaining.

36. 'Rampage' vs. Henderson – UFC 75, Sep 8, 2007

Not the craziest fight, nor the most action-packed, but for purists, this was superb – the two best light heavyweights in the world fighting to unify the Pride and UFC belts. After a compelling grappling battle, Dan Henderson and Quinton Jackson reverted to throwing bombs, testing each other’s’ granite chin. Neither cracked, but ‘Rampage’ did enough to win by convincing decision. 

35. Hughes vs. BJ Penn 2 – UFC 63, Sep 23, 2006

Matt Hughes was humiliated when B.J. Penn took his welterweight title. He was in big trouble again in the rematch, as ‘The Prodigy’ climbed all over him and looked for another submission, but this time he was taken into deep water and didn’t have the staying power. The Iowan wrestler eventually overwhelmed him and finished him off. 

34. Lesnar vs. Carwin – UFC 116, Jul 3, 2010

Interim title holder Shane Carwin had finished all of his fights in the first round. Brock Lesnar described the attack he had to survive as “Hurricane Katrina”. He was blown away by an uppercut and faced a cyclone of ground and pound, but survived and came back after a minute’s rest. Takedown, arm-triangle, tap. The defining moment in the big man’s MMA career.

33. Gaethje vs. Palomino – WSOF 19, Mar 28, 2015

Before Justin Gaethje wowed the mainstream with bloody wars in the UFC, he wowed hard-core fans with bloody wars in World Series of Fighting. His first fight with Luis Palomino was the brawl de résistance, as he waded in with reckless abandon to win by TKO while eating blows for his trouble. “I’d been training all camp knowing how tough Palomino is,” ‘The Highlight’ told FO. “He’s mentally tough, and I knew he wasn’t going to give up as soon as I hit him. I knew I had to make him quit.” 

32. Rutten vs. Funaki 2 – Pancrase: Anniversary Show, Sep 7, 1996

A real old-school effort from Japan when closed-fist strikes weren’t allowed and title fights were one long 30-minute round. Bas Rutten started his rematch with Masakatsu Funaki in a bad mood. In a famous interview with T-Nation from more than a decade ago, the Dutchman said The Japanese ex-pro wrestler had made a throat-slashing gesture, and ‘El Guapo’ did not like that…

He said: “I turned to my manager and said, ‘OK, I’m going to kill this guy’. My game plan was to keep the fight going for 15 minutes. He’d never fought longer.”

The attire of knee-high boots and Speedos was pretty camp, but the action was not. A technical ground battle for the first 12 minutes turned into a massacre when Rutten was able to unload with his lethal palm strikes, body punches, kicks and knees.

“My palms were black from hitting him so hard. He had the gods on his side, because he stood up every time. I hit his face back on the mat and you hear it slam. His nose is all the way to the side, broke, they have to straighten it out. I go, ‘Oh my God, this guy can take a shot!’ I kneed him so hard in the head. He went down four times, but the last knee I gave to him was like everything I had.”

It was all over after 17:05 of continuous fighting. The new champ was so exhausted, he couldn’t even manage his splits jump celebration.

31. Emelianenko vs. Cro Cop – Pride Final Conflict 2005, Aug 28, 2005

It would be hard to create a more highly-anticipated matchup in modern-day MMA. Promoters stalled and delayed for years before MMA’s most dangerous striker was matched up against its best fighter. Despite the hype, it wasn’t quite the best fight ever, but it was a great tactical battle in which Fedor Emelianenko proved he was the world’s best, beating Mirko Cro Cop at his own game.

30. Lawler vs. Hendricks 2 – UFC 181, Dec 6, 2014

Robbie Lawler had failed in his first attempt to take out Johny Hendricks and claim the UFC welterweight title. With 15 minutes gone the second time round, he was staring at a second defeat. As he explained to FO, he wasn’t about to let that happen: “I was frustrated after the first fight. When we rematched, I just wouldn’t be undone. I felt it was my time, so I stepped it up in the fourth and fifth.” His reward was a narrow judges’ nod – and the belt.

29. Condit vs. Miura – WEC 35, Aug 3, 2008

You could argue a man of Carlos Condit’s ability should never have opened himself up to this much danger, but we’re glad he did, as it allowed for a fantastic battle in which he was repeatedly tossed around by Japanese judoka Hiromitsu Miura and tagged in heavy exchanges of limbs. But ‘The Natural Born Killer’ had superior striking, submission grappling, and vitally, cardio, which helped him to a KO in the 20th minute of action.

28. Santiago vs. Misaki – Sengoku No Ran 2009, Jan 4, 2009

The precursor to a rematch that produced one of MMA’s greatest fights and comebacks was… one of MMA’s greatest fights and comebacks! Jorge Santiago decked Kazuo Misaki in the second, but whiffed many other attacks as the ‘Grabaka Hitman’ slipped and countered his way to an unassailable lead. In the fifth, the Brazilian got a life-saving double-leg, worked a rear naked choke and squeezed until his foe lost consciousness.

27. Lee vs. Yamaguchi – ONE Championship Ascent to Power, May 6, 2016

From minute one, this was wild. Angela Lee, aged just 19, went straight for the kill for the inaugural ONE atomweight title. Punches, kicks, jumping guard to go for submissions – she was throwing everything at Mei Yamaguchi. But her opponent was experienced and knew how to survive.

Despite that strong start, the most substantial piece of offense during the whole fight was a monstrous right cross from the Japanese veteran that decked Lee and stunned the home crowd into silence.

“I do not remember going out or anything. I was just kind of stunned,” Lee told Once I hit the ground, it was like, ‘OK, I need a breather, I need to control her for a little while to get my head straight.’ My dad said: ‘Luckily, girl, you can take a shot. You’ve got a hard coconut head.’ I came in with a rookie mistake by having my hands down, and she capitalized on it. It took a little while for me to regain my bearings, but as soon as I did, we were already grappling, and that is second nature.”

‘Unstoppable’ lived up to her nickname by staying conscious, surviving the ground and pound and escaping an armbar, before taking over again to the championship rounds.

Lee says: “It was my first time going into the fourth and fifth – heck, even the third! – but it was motivating. In my head, I never thought, ‘Yeah, I am up on points.’ I was always thinking, ‘Did I do enough?’ I don’t need to know if I am higher in points, I might as well keep trying to finish this.”

She didn’t quite manage that, but did enough to earn the officials’ nod. As soon as the decision was announced, she burst into tears.

“Mei is super humble and very respectful. I saw her after she got out of the medical check and we gave each other a hug. I was really happy we could share that moment.”

26. Silva vs. Sonnen – UFC 117, Aug 7, 2010

The most unlikely and unbelievable comeback. Few people actually expected Chael Sonnen to back up a year’s worth of trash talk and dominate the best fighter in the world, but by god he did. Unbelievably, he won striking exchanges, then took ‘The Spider’ down and won almost every instant of the fight, landing an unbelievable 320 blows. But battling a cracked rib and with less than two minutes remaining, Silva locked in an unbelievable triangle choke. It was un-be-lievable! 

25. Uno vs. Sato – Shooto: 10th Anniversary, May 29, 1999

A blast from the past and a grappler’s delight in Japan’s haven for the lighter weight classes. Rumina Sato, the pioneer of flying submissions and a Shooto icon, made it his life’s goal to win its title. Sadly, the ‘Moon Wolf’ never managed it: ex-UFC title challenger Caol Uno got in his way twice. Their first encounter is the pick of his wins – 14 minutes of sweeps, escapes and scrambles with a rear naked choke to finish. 

24. Serra vs. St-Pierre – UFC 69, April 7, 2007

No one outside of Matt Serra and his coach, Ray Longo, actually expected him to win. Even in hindsight, it’s remarkable that he – a blown-up lightweight – knocked out possibly the best to ever do it, Georges St-Pierre. “The first GSP fight was my Rocky moment. It was, as Goldie said before the fight started, my defining moment,” The Terror tells FO. “It was almost surreal, and something that will be with me forever.”