“These two guys do not like each other!” Longtime MMA fans will undoubtedly roll their eyes at those words as they’ve heard it a hundred times from the mouth of Dana ‘Uncle Dana’ White, president and de facto face of the UFC. In their zeal to sell blockbuster fights that can break the all-important 1,000,000 PPV buy-rate, the UFC has been guilty of sometimes playing up any hard feelings between the two fighters in the main event. The truth of the matter is that 99 times out of 100 the two athletes who are being billed as having a real, legitimate hatred between them have only a minor dislike. MMA fighters are consummate professionals, just like (most) of the athletes in the NFL, NHL, Premier League and other major sports. They understand what’s necessary to promote the fight and go along with it all, but they’re almost never harbouring real aggressive feelings towards their opponent…almost never.
At a UFC 178 media event recently, UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and #1 contender Daniel Cormier came to blows. When both fighters went in for the usual promotional ‘staredown’ picture, Jones pressed his forehead right into Cormier’s face. Cormier responded by shoving Jones away, and the champion retaliated by jumping back in, fists swinging. The two men had to be restrained by everyone around them, the stage collapsed, and Cormier threw his shoe at Jones on the way out. It was irresponsible, immature, and has made MMA fans everywhere unbelievably hyped for this fight.
Unfortunately the MMA gods were unforgiving and Jon Jones suffered an injury that’ll delay their fight until January – but that doesn’t mean the hype won’t still sell their fight when the time comes. In fact, if you look at the PPV buy rate history, many of the UFC’s best selling PPV’s involved main event fights where the two competitors hated each other. MMA fans are suckers for that kind of stuff, we really are. Some of the best moments and fights in MMA history stem from heated rivalries, so let’s take a look at some of them in anticipation of Jones vs. Cormier.
#7 Frank Mir vs. Brock Lesnar
Mir and Lesnar have an even record against each other, with each fighter holding one victory against the other. Brock Lesnar was already famous thanks to his stint in the WWE and for being a ridiculously imposing figure in general. Lesnar was booked to face Frank Mir in his UFC debut at UFC 81 in 2008, which is a tall order for someone’s 2nd MMA fight ever – even if your name is Brock Lesnar. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mir used his superior jiujitsu to submit Lesnar in the 1st round with a knee bar. Lesnar won his next fight against Heath Herring, and was then booked for a title fight against heavyweight champion Randy Couture.
Lesnar became the UFC heavyweight champion, stopping Couture in the 2nd round via strikes. He was subsequently injured and had to take time off, during which Frank Mir became the interim UFC heavyweight champion. At UFC 100 in July 2009, their rivalry came to a head during their title unification match. Mir resented the fact that Lesnar was quickly pushed up the ladder by the company brass, publicly stating that he wanted Lesnar to be the first death in the octagon. Their actual fight was a more one-sided affair, with Lesnar dominating Mir and becoming the undisputed UFC heavyweight champion. The bad blood helped sales though – UFC 100 is by far the company’s best-selling PPV ever.
#6 Matt Hughes vs. BJ Penn
In his prime, Matt Hughes was regarded as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet. He won the UFC welterweight championship by defeating Carlos Newton at UFC 34 in 2001, and successfully defended the belt 5 times over 3 years until he encountered a young BJ Penn at UFC 46. Penn defeated Hughes to become the new champion, but the two would encounter each other again in the near future. Penn later left the UFC and vacated the championship to sign with K-1, but returned in 2006. He was immediately put into a championship fight with the welterweight champion – who just so happened to be none other than Matt Hughes, who had regained his title in Penn’s absence. This time Hughes was able to put Penn away in the 3rd round via strikes and defend his belt. 4 years later, at UFC 123, both men were approaching the end of their careers and were effectively out of the championship picture. They agreed to one last rubber match to settle the score between them, but the actual fight was somewhat anticlimactic. BJ Penn knocked out Hughes in 21 seconds to come out on top of their 6-year rivalry.
#5 Georges St-Pierre vs. Nick Diaz
When the UFC purchased Strikeforce in 2011 they absorbed their top stars, including Strikeforce welterweight champion Nick Diaz. He jumped to the front of the line in the UFC’s welterweight division and was booked to face longtime UFC welterweight champion GSP at UFC 137. Nick Diaz celebrated – in characteristically Nick Diaz fashion – by systematically no-showing several press events that the UFC had put together to promote the fight. The UFC stripped him of his title opportunity and booked him to fight BJ Penn instead. Meanwhile GSP sustained a serious knee injury that would see him sidelined for almost a year, an injury that Diaz accused GSP of faking because he was afraid of him. The animosity came to a head at UFC 158, where GSP finally got his hands on Diaz. He walked away with the victory and retained his championship, but the hype around their fight drove pay-per-view buy rates to just shy of the 1 million mark.
#4 Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz
Tito Ortiz was one of the UFC’s first legitimate pay-per-view draws, a mantle he held until The Iceman’s arrival onto the scene. After losing the UFC light heavyweight championship – a title he held for several years – to MMA veteran Randy Couture, Ortiz was booked to face rising star Chuck Liddell at UFC 47. Liddell became the first man to knockout Ortiz, earning himself a shot at Randy Couture in the process. This was the catalyst for bad blood that would fester and grow over the next two years. All the trash talk came to a head at UFC 66: Liddell vs. Ortiz, where Liddell successfully defended his title against former champion Ortiz. The tension between the two men brought mainstream attention to the UFC, allowing UFC 66 to become the first UFC event to earn more than 1,000,000 buys on pay-per-view. A third fight was in the works but never materialized, making Liddell the winner of their rivalry with 2 wins over his nemesis.
#3 Ken Shamrock vs. Tito Ortiz
Tito Ortiz may have been a loudmouth, but damn that guy could sell a fight. Fans tuned in just hoping to see him get his face smashed in, something Liddell was able to do twice. Ortiz worked his magic in much the same way against UFC veteran Ken Shamrock. They first met at UFC 40, where Ortiz won by corner stoppage after the 3rd round to retain his UFC light heavyweight championship. At UFC 61, Ortiz defeated Shamrock yet again – this time in the very first round – to make it 2-0. Shamrock hated Ortiz and was desperate for a win against his brash rival. They met for the last time at Ortiz vs. Shamrock 3: The Final Chapter, which aired live on Spike TV in 2006. Ortiz got the last word with a 3rd and definitive win over his rival. Although one-sided, the rivalry helped propel the UFC into the mainstream and is regarded as one of the most important in the history of the company.
#2 Wanderlei Silva vs. Quinton Jackson
The trilogy of fights between Wanderlei ‘The Axe Murderer’ Silva and Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson has been described by MMA fans and critics as “exceptionally violent”. Their story spanned 5 years, 2 continents, 2 separate MMA promotions and contained a lot of bad blood. They first met in Japan at Pride Final Conflict 2003, where Silva emerged the victor after a TKO victory. Their 2nd meeting at Pride 28: High Octane was even more definitive. Silva knocked out Jackson in the 2nd round with vicious knee strikes to Jackson’s head, causing him to fall into the ropes where he dangled lifelessly with blood pouring from his face. At UFC 92: The Ultimate 2008, Jackson had his opportunity for revenge. In the first round he knocked out Silva with a well-placed hook to the jaw, finally gaining a victory over a foe that had pestered him for years.
#1 Kazushi Sakuraba vs. The Gracie Family
One on one rivalries, while still epic, are relatively common in combat sports – but one man taking on an entire family? That had never been seen before, and likely won’t be seen again. The Gracie family created Brazilian jiu-jitsu and the UFC, effectively making them the most important martial arts family in human history. Unlike other families in combat sports that are generally just two siblings – such as the Diaz brothers – all of the Gracies are trained to fight from a young age. All of them.
When Japanese MMA star Kazushi Sakuraba submitted Royler Gracie in 1998 at a PRIDE FC event, it sent shockwaves through the MMA community. Sakuraba had claimed the first professional victory over a Gracie family member in 40+ years, and he capitalized on it in a big way. The Gracies sought revenge and brought UFC 1 winner Royce Gracie to Japan to face Sakuraba – but with a twist. Both men entered the PRIDE 2000 Openweight Grand Prix, and in the event in which they were matched up, the Gracies requested special rules; no time limits and unlimited rounds.
The two men met in the quarterfinals and fought for over an hour and a half in what is the longest fight in modern MMA history. In the end, Royce’s own corner threw in the towel citing exhaustion and concern over their cousin’s safety. Sakuraba later defeated both Renzo Gracie and and Ryan Gracie before losing a rematch to Royce in 2007, giving him a total record of 4-1 against members of the famous Gracie family. Royce later tested positive for steroids after his 2007 victory, tarnishing the only victory the Gracies were able to secure against Sakuraba.