UFC president Dana White has fostered a culture in which the athletes are encouraged to put on a show, and matchmaker Joe Silva is genius at pairing fighters whose styles mesh. Thus, there are literally Fight of the Year contenders on a monthly, if not more frequent, basis.
There is no right answer on a list like this. The following 20 bouts are ones that appealed to me, for reasons I'll articulate. You may agree with most or agree with none, because that's how these things go. This is my list.
Just so I don't get a lot of questions, I am only considering matches that were held in the UFC for my Top 20 list. So, the two great matches between Eddie Alvarez and Michael Chandler in Bellator won't appear here. Nor will the sensational scrap between Leonard Garcia and Chan Sung Jung at WEC 48 or any of the many great fights in PRIDE, Strikeforce, WEC or any other mixed martial arts organization.
There are only two criteria for a fight to be on this list: That it happened in the UFC, and that I found it one of the 20 best in the promotion's history.
Let me know in the comments section which fight or fights you would have chosen as the greatest you have seen.
Edgar and Maynard had already competed in a classic match at UFC 125, that ended in a draw. And though rematches often don't live up to the billing, this one did. It was the third fight of the trilogy, with Maynard having one win and then the draw at UFC 125.
It was a continuation of their last bout, with both men showing great heart and resilience. Edgar himself was hurt in the fourth round, but caught Maynard with a big right that decked the ex-Michigan State wrestler. He finished him on the ground to retain his lightweight title in a match that yet again showcased his amazing recuperative powers.
They didn't quite match their slugfest from UFC 125, but they came close.
19. Wanderlei Silva TKO2 Brian Stann, Saitama, Japan, March 3, 2013, UFC on Fuel 8
There was never a chance this fight would go to the ground. Both men love to slug and it was a slugfest from the beginning until the devastating end at 4:08 of the second round.
Silva caught Stann with a right, followed up by a crunching left that earned him Knockout of the Night honors. The ending was typical of the entire fight, as the two hit each other with enormous shots throughout the match.
Pat Barry is a major knockout puncher, and when he hits men, they usually go out quickly. And that seemed to be what was in store when Barry caught Kongo with a right about two minutes into the fight. As Barry went for the finish, firing a volley of hard punches to the head and body, UFC analyst Joe Rogan said, "It's over."
Improbably, Kongo got up, but he was clipped by another massive right from Barry.
"Now, it's over," UFC play-by-play man Mike Goldberg said to Rogan.
Incredibly, unbelievably, it still wasn't over. Barry was swarming Kongo and firing punches, but again, Kongo managed to pull himself to his feet. As Barry moved in, Kongo fired a counter and Barry was out cold.
In all, it lasted just 2:39, but it was 2:39 of the best action ever.
17. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira W3 Randy Couture, Portland, Ore., Aug 29, 2009, UFC 102
The veterans showed they learned a great deal over the years, putting on a show with a back-and-forth match that was a showcase of all areas of MMA. The early portion of the bout was standing, and both men hurt the other several times.
There were plenty of momentum shifts, but Nogueira seemed fresher down the stretch and he pulled out a victory in a Fight of the Night battle.
This fight gets on my list for reasons beyond what happened in the ring. It was a fairly one-sided fight and, in my opinion, it's hard to call a one-sided bout one of the best ever.
It was the circumstances surrounding the bout that made this fight so significant. Couture was 43 and was moving back up to heavyweight from light heavyweight. At the time, the 6-foot-8 Sylvia was perceived to be a monster, and there were a lot of people who were legitimately worried for Couture's safety.
The massive crowd, the largest for an MMA fight in North America at the time, went wild when Couture walked to the ring. And it kept up the pitch when Couture knocked Sylvia down early in the bout.
It was the moment, more than the action, but that is a fight that has to be on any list of the UFC's top ever because of the circumstances surrounding it.
15. Diego Sanchez W3 Clay Guida, Las Vegas, June 20, 2009, Ultimate Fighter 9 Finale
Sanchez and Guida are two of the highest-paced fighters in the sport, and they put on a memorable show at The Palms on this night. Sanchez roared out of his corner after Guida and was a whirling dervish of strikes.
He then knocked Guida down with a kick to the head and seemed to be ready to finish.
But Guida survived, and changed the momentum in Round 2. By the end, the men were bathed in their own blood and the crowd roared as each took turns assaulting the other.
Fisher was a late replacement for Kenny Florian, who had to pull out of the bout with a back injury. That set the stage for the first of what would be three sensational bouts between Stout and Fisher.
Stout was making his UFC debut and gave a hint with what was to coming. He showed heavy hands, a willingness to engage and strong takedown defense.
It was a violent 15 minutes that came out of nowhere to earn Fight of the Night honors.
13. Frank Shamrock SUB4 Tito Ortiz, Lake Charles, La., Sept. 24, 1999, UFC 22
Tito Ortiz would go on to a dominant run as one of the UFC's best 205-pounders not long after this match. But in this fight, he met his match against the man known as "The Legend."
Ortiz was able to use surprisingly good stand-up and his strong wrestling to control much of the action in the first three rounds. But Shamrock didn't quit and answered whenever Ortiz landed.
In the fourth round, Shamrock caught Ortiz with a flurry and Ortiz submitted to strikes while in a turtling position.
12. Georges St-Pierre W3 B.J. Penn, Las Vegas, March 4, 2006, UFC 58
St-Pierre versus Penn was eked out by Stout-Fisher for Fight of the Night, but I slightly preferred the St-Pierre-Penn bout due to the superior technique and skill level of the fighters.
Penn's hands are among the best ever in the UFC, and he used them to beat St-Pierre up in the first round. St-Pierre was bloodied and bruised. But St-Pierre adjusted, and used takedowns, clinch work and a surprisingly good top game to rally for the win.
The fight was an up-and-down, back-and-forth example of MMA at its best.
Just two weeks earlier, Leben had defeated Aaron Simpson, and got the call to face Akiyama because of an injury to Wanderlei Silva.
It led to a sensational battle that saw Leben showing an incredible chin, eating a series of Akiyama punches, before pulling off an amazing triangle choke in the waning seconds.
10. Diego Sanchez W3 Karo Parisyan, Las Vegas, Aug. 16, 2006, UFC Fight Night 6
The bout was an epic MMA match, with punching, kicking, throws and scrambles. It was fast-paced, energetic and had several momentum swings.
At one point in the fight, Sanchez hit Parisyan with a knee and Parisyan's tooth came flying out. That fight often doesn't get a lot of attention, but it was one that is unforgettable for those who were fortunate enough to be in the building live to see it.
9. Chan Sung Jung SUB4 Dustin Poirier, Fairfax, Va., May 15, 2012, UFC on Fuel 3
Jung, also known as "The Korean Zombie," finished the amazing battle at 1:07 of the fourth when he caught Poirier in a D'Arce choke. But there was something for everyone in this wild match.
Jung seemed almost impervious to pain as he took blows from Poirier, who to his credit never stopped trying. But Jung caught Poirier with a knee, then finished him with the D'Arce.
The only surprise in this match is not that it was an all-timer, but that it didn't end by knockout. It paired two of the UFC's greatest sluggers, and they treated the crowd to some memorable flurries.
Liddell hit Silva with some momentous blows, but Silva took them and doled out some shots of his own. But Liddell mixed in a few takedowns and that led him to a thrilling but deserved victory.
7. Gilbert Melendez W3 Diego Sanchez, Houston, Oct. 19, 2013, UFC 166
The third round of Melendez-Sanchez was as epic as they come. Melendez controlled the first two rounds of the bout very well, and clearly was on his way to a win. Sanchez's corner implored him between rounds to pick it up when he went out for the third.
Sanchez somehow managed to find another level, and for five minutes, they went at each other with a fury rarely seen. Sanchez caught Melendez in a rear naked choke at one point, but they were covered with blood and sweat and Melendez was able to slip out.
They had several long, extended flurries, and the crowd at the Toyota Center got as loud as any crowd at any UFC fight ever cheering.
In the end, Melendez pulled it out in a bout a few were hailing as the best MMA fight ever.
6. Frankie Edgar D5 Gray Maynard, Las Vegas, Jan. 1, 2011, UFC 125
Edgar was down three times in the first round and it seemed that Dana White would soon be wrapping the championship belt around Gray Maynard's waist.
Edgar, though, is one of the UFC's most popular fighters because of the way he comes back, and he stormed back into the fight. He used his boxing and wrestling to fight his way to a draw in a match that all who saw it will talk about forever.
Everyone had always heard about Matt Hughes' incredible strength, but it was often difficult to tell. Fighting, after all, is not a weightlifting contest.
But in this bout, Hughes' strength played a major factor. Trigg kneed Hughes in the groin, but referee Mario Yamasaki didn't see it. Hughes went down in pain, and with the referee not stopping the action, Trigg went in for the finish.
He pounded on Hughes, and it seemed he was about to win the UFC's welterweight title. But then Hughes arose, scooped Trigg up, carried him across the ring and then violently slammed him into the mat.
The arena erupted, and Hughes locked in the rear naked choke for the win.
4. Jon Jones W5 Alex Gustafsson, Toronto, Sept. 21, 2013, UFC 165
Jones was a massive betting favorite, and it seemed the UFC had so little to focus on in an attempt to build up Gustafsson in the pre-fight that it focused on the fact that he was the first fighter Jones faced who was taller.
But Gustafsson's boxing was better than Jones thought, and he was able to take Jones down.
Jones showed a mettle that many didn't think he had. With his eye swollen badly and his body beaten up, Jones caught Gustafsson with a series of elbows in the final round that pulled out the win.
After the bout, Jones was helped from the Octagon and put right onto a stretcher to be examined in the hospital. He was spent, as was Gustafsson, after giving everything he had in a bid to win.
This is the fight credited with saving the UFC. Griffin and Bonnar put on an incredible display, punching, kicking and slamming each other for 15 minutes with everything they had.
The bout was held in the UNLV basketball team's practice gym, and the sound of fans stomping their feet on the bleachers resonated throughout as the action never let up.
Griffin won the memorable bout in a decision that could have gone either way.
2. Anderson Silva SUB5 Chael Sonnen, Oakland, Calif., Aug. 7, 2010, UFC 117
After an unprecedented few months of trash talk, Sonnen lived up to his words. He went out and repeatedly took the UFC's middleweight champion down and then beat him up on the ground.
For four rounds, it was no contest, as the massive underdog was not only beating the champion, he was embarrassing him.
But as time on his championship reign was running out, Silva caught Sonnen in a triangle choke/arm bar and forced his challenger to submit.
It was by far the most dramatic ending in UFC history and among its finest fights.
1. Dan Henderson W5 Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, San Jose, Calif., Nov. 19, 2011, UFC 139
The bout was an amazing amalgamation of heart, skill, courage, conditioning, determination and power. Both were beaten severely. Both seemed at times on the verge of going out.
And each time, they'd rally from the brink to gain an advantage.
If you want to make someone an MMA fan, without question, this is the fight to show them.
That's my list. Let me know your picks for the UFC's best fights in the comments.
- Sports & Recreation
- Mixed Martial Arts
- Wanderlei Silva
- Cheick Kongo