The UFC is considered to be the pinnacle of high-level mixed martial arts. In fact, some of the most important and thrilling bouts in the history of combat sports have taken place inside the fabled octagon. As it happens, 2023 also marks the 30th anniversary of the UFC and so to celebrate that milestone, we’re taking a deeper look at six of the greatest UFC fights in history.
MMA, as a sport, did not really come into its own until the late 90s when the United States government decided to clamp down on the ‘no holds barred’ ruleset that the organisation employed. Due to increasing pressure to regulate the sport, the UFC spearheaded a more defined ruleset and added weight classes as well. This led to a more even approach which subsequently resulted in some incredible battles in the cage. The early years of the UFC were dominated by grapplers such as Royce Gracie and Mark ‘The Hammer’ Coleman but with the addition of new rules, these one-dimensional fighters were now dealing with multi-skilled athletes who had the skills and technical acumen to challenge them. This is the era where we saw the sport evolve to become what it is today.
The evening out of skills also meant that the fighters were better matched and more competitive in the cage. By the early 2000s, almost every mixed martial artist who stepped into the cage had a good jiu-jitsu game, decent striking accuracy and great wrestling skills. We saw greats like GSP, Anderson Silva, Jon Jones, Khabib Nurmagomedov and Dominick Cruz really mix the martial arts and defeat their opponents by exploiting their weaknesses. Incidentally, these names are also involved in some of the greatest UFC fights of all time.
So, without further ado, let’s dive right in and recap some of the most epic UFC bouts we’ve been fortunate enough to witness in our lifetimes.
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Take a look at the six greatest UFC fights of all time
Brandon ‘The Assassin Baby’ Moreno vs Deiveson ‘Deus da Guerra’ Figueiredo (all four fights!)
The only fighters to have faced each other a record four times in the octagon, Brandon Moreno and Deiveson Figueiredo have probably left a part of themselves in that cage. These two went to war the first time they met at UFC 256 and that incredible fight was ruled a draw. The second fight took place at UFC 263 where Moreno showed off a more complete game and choked out Figueiredo in the 3rd round. Not to be outdone, Figueiredo rebounded with a win over Moreno at UFC 270. While Figueiredo looked to be the better fighter in that bout, he was still a little defensively irresponsible. Moreno then finally put an end to their rivalry with a stoppage win over the Brazilian at UFC 283.
Dominick ‘The Dominator’ Cruz vs Urijah ‘The California Kid’ Faber (fight 3)
To say that Cruz and Faber did not like each other would be an understatement. Ever since Faber choked Dominick Cruz out in a smaller promotion called the WEC (World Extreme Cagefighting), the two have been coming at each other. Cruz always believed he was the superior fighter and that he had a bad day and got caught by Faber. The California Kid, on the other hand, always maintained that he was the better fighter. These two would lock horns for the second time in the UFC and it was Dominick Cruz who had improved and outpointed Faber for a decision win. The third and final contest took place at UFC 199 and Cruz showed why he was the superior fighter with better footwork, head movement and selection of strikes. He dropped the Californian twice en route to a lopsided decision win. The rivalry was finally over and Cruz could now move forward to become the greatest bantamweight in the division’s history.
Max ‘Blessed’ Holloway vs Jose Aldo (fight 2)
Max Holloway first debuted in the UFC at the tender age of 19 and has since been a staple in the ultra-competitive featherweight division. The man has fought the who’s who of featherweights, including ‘The Notorious’ Conor McGregor, and eventually got his shot at the title against then-champion Jose Aldo.
Max’s striking style and aggressive mentality meant that his fights always made for must-see TV. He was technical, powerful and incredibly skilled, so people naturally started wondering how he’d do against a real veteran like Jose Aldo. All those questions were answered when the two first faced off at UFC 212 in the Brazilian’s home territory of Rio de Janeiro. Max didn’t hold back and really took it to Aldo, crushing him in the third round with a barrage of punches that he just could not recover from. This netted Holloway the featherweight strap and he turned right around and defended it in a rematch against Aldo. Fans thought that Aldo earlier had an off night and would get the best of Max during their rematch but alas, the result was a repeat of the first fight (complete with a similar finish).
By defeating the former featherweight great on two occasions, Max truly cemented his place in UFC history.
Khabib ‘The Eagle’ vs ‘The Notorious’ Conor McGregor
Khabib’s UFC fights have not been close contests. On the contrary, the Dagestani has been untouched in the cage, which is why when he was slated to battle McGregor, fans thought that the Irishman was going to be the first to test the Russian’s chin.
The build-up to Conor McGregor vs Khabib Nurmagomedov was legendary as Conor went all in on Khabib. He insulted his religion, culture, wife and father. Even his manager Ali wasn’t spared from Conor’s tongue-lashing. Khabib, being his stoic self, just took the verbal beatdown and waited to respond in the cage. The build-up (capped by the walkout) was incredibly intense but as soon as the bell was rung, you could see why Khabib was the better fighter. He controlled Conor on the ground, knocked him down in the second round and then again in the fourth, took McGregor down, clamped onto his back and sunk in a rear naked strangle for the decisive win. The aftermath of the bout wasn’t pretty either as Khabib jumped off the cage and attacked Conor’s teammates.
In the end, the rivalry was settled emphatically and Khabib went on to become one of the greatest fighters in the history of MMA.
Gilbert ‘Durhino’ Burns vs Khamzat ‘Borz’ Chimaev
In his first four fights in the UFC, Khamzat Chimaev only took a single punch. He competed with (and dominated) world-class athletes with a blend of relentless wrestling and potent striking. Fans were clamouring for elevated competition for the Chechen fighter and their wish was granted when he was matched up against perennial heavy-handed Brazilian contender Gilbert Burns.
The two met at UFC 273 and put on one of the greatest fights in the UFC’s history. Burns was definitely the smaller man in the cage but he gave Chimaev all he could handle. The two warriors went blow for blow until Burns dropped Khamzat in the second round. It was the first time we’d seen the Chechen fighter hurt in his entire MMA career. Chimaev fought back in round three and the back-and-forth action led to a unanimous decision in his favour. However, Burn’s efforts were not in vain as he managed to expose a big chink in the Chechen’s armour. Now it remains to be seen if anyone else can take advantage of that.
Robbie ‘Ruthless’ Lawler vs Rory ‘The Red King’ MacDonald
If there’s one fight that deserves its spot on a list compiling the greatest UFC fights of all time, it’s this one. After all, it showed off exactly how tough and durable elite fighters can be. There was no bad blood or trash talk leading up to the fight. It was just two gladiators stepping into the cage to battle and boy, what a battle it was.
Robbie Lawler was defending his welterweight strap for the first time, and that too against the dangerous Rory MacDonald. Fans believed MacDonald’s well-rounded skills could give Lawler trouble and for a while they did. MacDonald was piecing up Lawler with accurate strikes but the veteran would not go down. In the fourth round, Rory hit Robbie with a hellacious head kick that split open his lip, causing a gruesome Joker-like smile. But again, he just wouldn’t go down.
In the fifth and final round, MacDonald started wearing down. Lawler took advantage of the opportunity and threw everything into his attack. He busted up the Canadian’s nose and broke his orbital bone. Rory’s will to continue was still there but the amount of damage he had sustained was just too much and his body eventually gave up. Lawler went on to defend his belt one more time before losing it to Tyron Woodley. Nevertheless, he will always be known as one of the most violent champions of the welterweight division.
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(Header and feature image credits: Courtesy Instagram/Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov)
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Answer: To some, Robbie ‘Ruthless’ Lawler vs Rory ‘The Red King’ MacDonald is considered to be one of the greatest fights in UFC history. The bout had everything. Good striking, great takedown defense and a brutal finish. This is a must-watch fight for any MMA fan.
Answer: One could consider the UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson to be the king of UFC fights since he’s racked up a record 12 title defenses. The man is simply unstoppable in the UFC and has taken out the best fighters in his division with ease.