MMA fans, and fans of all sports really, don’t like to see blowouts. While watching a fighter systematically dismantle an opponent can be an educational experience in technique and physical ability, in terms of pure drama it isn’t all that exiting. Take TJ Dillashaw’s absolute hammering of the previously unstoppable Renan Barao back in May; that fight wasn’t exciting because it was competitive. It was exciting because the entire narrative that had been built up in the weeks leading up to the fight came shattering down the instant TJ connected with an early overhand right that sent Barao tumbling to the canvas. Everyone in the arena and watching at home collectively lost their minds, and while it’s probably the most memorable moment in the UFC’s 2014 (thus far) it’s a far cry from the best fight of the year.
The best fights happen when both men come out with higher stocks and more fearsome reputations than they had going in. A truly legendary contest can elevate the aura of both fighters substantially, and the afterglow can last for years. It’s a brutally competitive affair, with both men having the upper hand at different points. It has memorable exchanges on the feet and on the ground, it has drama and near-finishes, and most importantly of all it is enthralling. These kinds of fights are few and far between, but when they happen…there’s just nothing else like it in any other sport. An individual contest of willpower played out in a cage that redefines the career trajectories of everyone involved, and more often than not links the 2 fighters together for the rest of their careers in some capacity.
As fans we’ve been privileged to witness many of these contests over the 21-year history of MMA. These are the 10 greatest fights in MMA history, as voted for by MMA fans on tapology.com.
#15 Gilbert Melendez vs. Diego Sanchez
Both fighters came from proud Mexican heritage, and they weren’t afraid to throw down as Mexican fighters are known to do. Sanchez’s plowing, aggressive style can be a nightmare to deal with, but at this point in his career many felt he had been ‘exposed’, in the sense that it had been demonstrated multiple times he could be beaten by meticulous, calculated striking. Gilbert Melendez is very capable of that kind of style, but instead fought like he had a point to prove and dove straight into the fire with Diego. Both men brawled back and forth for 15-straight minutes, pausing only to fire each other up with small taunts. In the end Melendez won via decision and walked away the winner on a night when any one punch could have ended the bout.
#14 Wanderlei Silva vs. Quinton Jackson II
The first encounter between these two warriors had occurred at the finals of the 2003 Pride Middleweight, where a tired ‘Rampage’ Jackson was defeated by the fresher Silva in the finals of the tournament. The rematch was scheduled for Pride 28: High Octane, this time with Wanderlei Silva’s Pride middleweight championship on the line. Both men wasted no time, coming out swinging in one of the most violent and straightforward first rounds in MMA history. At the end of the first Jackson had the champ reeling, and it appeared as though he was on the verge of avenging his previous loss and capturing the belt. At the start of the 2nd round it was Jackson who came out tired, and Silva took advantage by landing a hook square to the jaw that stunned Rampage. Silva capitalized by putting Jackson in a perfect Thai clinch and unloading some of the most brutal knee strikes in MMA history. When Silva released the clinch Jackson fell face forward into the ring ropes, where he dangled completely unconsciously. The image of Jackson being KO’d into the ropes is one of the most iconic moments in Pride – and all of MMA – history.
#13 Randy Couture vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
By the time Randy Couture and Anthony Rodrigo Noguiera met in the main event of UFC 102, both men already had long and accomplished careers. Couture was a former UFC heavyweight and light heavyweight champion, and Nogueira was a former Pride heavyweight champion. Although their prior careers had been separated by the Pacific Ocean and contract law, they were finally brought together in the octagon after over a decade of speculation. The fight didn’t disappoint; both men came out swinging, choosing to push forward aggressively rather than feel each other out. After 3 rounds, it was Nogueira who finished with the unanimous decision victory – but Couture proved he could still hang with the world’s best heavyweights at 46 years old.
#12 Michael Chandler vs. Eddie Alvarez I
Most of the best MMA fights in history have taken place under either the UFC or Pride banner, but Bellator MMA made its presence known by putting on one of the very best fights in MMA history at Bellator 58. Alvarez was the lightweight champion going into the bout and was making his defense against Michael Chandler. After an explosive 3 rounds in which both men nearly got finished, Chandler caught Alvarez in a rear-naked choke and became the new Bellator lightweight champion.
#11 Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson
Alexander Gustafsson was a huge underdog coming into his championship fight with UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones. Most expected the longtime champion to roll through the swede on his way to bigger and better challenges. Instead, the fans at UFC 165 in Toronto were treated to an all-time classic, and the best fight of 2013. Gustafsson dominated Jon Jones for the first 2 rounds, taking him down multiple times and putting more of a beating on him than anyone had ever done before. To his credit, Jones dug real deep and managed to crawl his way back from the brink, barely winning the next 3 rounds. It was close, but it was enough. Jones retained his light heavyweight championship – to Gustafsson’s dismay – and the two men drew the curtain over what was most likely the first of many encounters.
#10 Nick Diaz vs. Takanori Gomi
When Nick Diaz and Takanori Gomi squared off at Pride 33: The Second Coming, pretty much everyone expected a great contest, but no one expected the absolute war that would ensue. Diaz and Gomi beat the ever-loving pulp out of each other for the duration of their bout. Diaz got rocked by a right hand from Gomi early on in the 1st round, but managed to regain his composure and pepper Gomi with boxing combinations to that rattled the rising Japanese star. In the middle of the 2nd round, almost out of nowhere, Diaz forever solidified his BJJ credentials by submitting Gomi with a gogoplata, an extremely rare and difficult choke that’s only happened in high-level MMA a handful of times over 20 years. In the aftermath of the fight, Diaz’s win was overturned after he failed a drug test for cannabis – a lot of cannabis. Those responsible for the test said the only way the THC level in his blood could have been that high was if Diaz had lit up immediately before the bout. Did he or didn’t he? A gentleman never tells.
#9 Leonard Garcia vs. Chan Sung Jung I
WEC 48: Aldo vs. Faber, all the attention was on the main event, as it was the headliner for the WEC’s very first pay-per-view. Instead, Leonard Garcia and Chan Sung Jung stole the show and put on one of the very best fights of all time. The Korean Zombie was making his debut in the United States, and he came ready to throw down. The bout was a wild, 3-round affair where both men were swinging for the fences, throwing everything but the kitchen sink at each other with every strike. Not the greatest fight in the world to watch for technical striking, but if you want a wild brawl then you have to check this out. Leonard Garcia would end up with a close split-decision victory, but both men knew right away they had created something special and embraced in the ring immediately following the final bell.
#8 Fedor Emelianenko vs. Mirko Filipovic
The Saitama Super Arena hosted the finals of the 2005 Pride Grand Prix, which featured a PRIDE heavyweight championship match between the reigning Fedor Emelianenko and Mirko ‘Cro Cop’ Filipovic. The hype leading up to the match was undeniable, as both men were considered by many to be the top 2 heavyweights on the planet at the time. Cro Cop presented the biggest challenge to the undefeated Russian, and many predicted that a new champion would be crowned. Instead, Fedor defended his title in a manner that solidified his place as one of the greatest of all time, with a surprising performance in which he stood and traded blows with the striking specialist. By stalking Filipovic and not allowing him to find his rhythm, he neutralized his game and managed to win most of the striking exchanges without using much of his world-class ground game. Emelianenko won via decision, and retained his belt after an electric contest.
#7 Clay Guida vs. Diego Sanchez
Diego Sanchez and Clay Guida headlined the card for The Ultimate Fighter 9 Finale, with a fight that no one really expected to be as exciting as it was. What ensued was a violent confrontation that was at times difficult to score. Sanchez came out strong in the 1st and did a tremendous amount of damage, but Guida absorbed it and was able to bounce back in the 2nd & 3rd. While Diego Sanchez managed to do more damage while he was active, Guida controlled much of the fight using his grappling and was still able to leave Diego hurt with his own strikes. In the end, Diego Sanchez walked away with a split decision, but in truth the win could have gone to either man that night.
#6 Anthony Pettis vs. Benson Henderson I
WEC lightweight champion Benson Henderson met #1 contender Anthony Pettis at WEC 53, which was the final WEC event the promotion would run. In the very last fight of the very last WEC event, Pettis and Henderson put on the greatest fight in the WEC’s nearly 10-year history. You couldn’t write a better script if you tried. A fiercely competitive back-and-forth fight, both men were tied 2-2 going into the 5th round. With about a minute to go in the last round, Pettis ran to the cage wall while Henderson was sidestepping away and went full matrix, running on the cage wall – physics be damned – to land a flying kick right into Benson’s face that sent him tumbling to the ground. The ‘Showtime Kick’ as it became known was one of MMA’s greatest ‘holy sh*t’ moments, and it helped Pettis win the fight by decision and become the last WEC lightweight champion.
#5 Chuck Liddell vs. Wanderlei Silva
For years, fans had been wondering how the top talent in Pride would hold their own against the ones in the UFC. When Zuffa purchased Pride in 2007, we all finally got our answers. Chuck Liddell vs. Wanderlei Silva was a fight no one ever thought would actually happen; the UFC’s premier light heavyweight star against Pride’s equivalent, the explosive and violent Wanderlei Silva. Their actual fight was one of those rare bouts that actually surpass everyone’s expectation, with both men putting in the performance of their lives. Both men channeled the aggressive and relentless styles they were known for into a back-and-forth thrilling encounter, ending with a decision win for Chuck Liddell after he wobbled Silva on his feet in the dying seconds of the fight.
#4 Silva vs. Sonnen
Anderson Silva had been dominating the middleweight division for years, and it didn’t look like anyone could stop him. Enter Chael P. Sonnen. The American grappler controlled Anderson Silva – a man that I personally consider to be the greatest fighter of all-time – for 4 consecutive rounds. After years of excellence, it looked like Sonnen had discovered how to solve the enigma of ‘The Spider’ – just as he promised in the weeks leading up to the fight. With the crowd on their feet eagerly waiting the crowning of a new champion, Anderson Silva took one last chance. With Sonnen on top of him throwing hammer fists, Silva shot up a triangle choke attempt that managed to catch Sonnen hook, line and sinker. Sonnen tapped out in the 5th round of a fight that he was sure to win if he had lasted 3 more minutes. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Sonnen walked home empty-handed and Anderson Silva proved why he should be considered the greatest ever.
#3 Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard II
After Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard II, it was clear who had the most heart in all of MMA. UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar was fresh off defeating BJ Penn twice, once for the title and once more for his first defense. His next opponent was the only man to ever beat him, Gray Maynard. In the first round, Maynard came out strong and unloaded on Edgar, dropping him multiple times and seemingly coming close to a finish on more than one occasion. Edgar brushed it off, walked back to his corner and came back ready to put in some work. He clawed his way back from the brink over 5 rounds in a fight so close that the judges ultimately called it a draw. Edgar retained his championship, but would immediately be booked for a rematch in a fight where he would finally get the win over Maynard.
#2 Griffin vs. Bonnar I
What the early days of the UFC lacked in technical martial arts mastery, they certainly made up for in drama. Griffin vs. Bonnar 1 was the finale of the very first season of The Ultimate Fighter, and their particular fight has been officially credited by the UFC for literally saving the company – and in a way the entire sport – back when it was bleeding cash and trying to turn a profit. The two men threw down live on cable television in a back-and-forth contest that showcased their grit and determination. As the story goes, the ratings for the fight started to skyrocket midway through the bout as people called their friends and family and told them to change the channel to Spike TV to witness the legendary brawl that was unfolding before their eyes. It was violent, frantic, and just a little sloppy, but there’s no doubt that UFC wouldn’t even be around if it wasn’t for the war that both men brought to the cage that day back in 2005.
#1 Henderson vs. Rua I
Lightning in a bottle. That’s the only way to describe the first encounter between Dan Henderson and Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua, because it’s a fight that may never be equalled in terms of pure excitement. MMA legends Dan Henderson and Mauricio Rua put an exclamation point on their careers and proved to everyone why they’ll both go down in MMA history as two of the best to ever compete in the sport. This fight had more twists than any other MMA fight I can think of, with both men seemingly milliseconds away from victory multiple times. Bloodied, battered and bruised, they stood in the middle of the octagon after a grueling 5-round affair with every person in the stadium on their feet applauding. Dan Henderson scored the split decision victory, but many analysts and Dana White himself believed it to be a draw. Regardless, no one was a loser in the fight – certainly not the fans.