The sport of mixed martial arts has been in existence less than 16 years. But even that short span was enough to build up a hotly anticipated showdown of epic proportions.
For years, fans clamored to see Chuck Liddell fight Wanderlei Silva. Considered the best in the at light heavyweight in the world's two highest-profile companies, Liddell was UFC champion and Silva the PRIDE titleholder.
The promoters clearly wanted it as well. At UFC 61, UFC president Dana White went so far as to announce the fight and bring both Liddell and Silva into the cage to pose, a level of exposure one can't imagine the UFC offering a rival promoter today. But negotiations fell apart before the match could be finalized. The match finally came about after the UFC purchased PRIDE, and was made for Dec. 29, 2007. The UFC 79 co-main event was worth the six-year wait, a 15-minute thrill ride in which the two famed strikers stood and banged. Liddell won the decision, but Silva upped his stock with American fans with his performance. Whether it was a highly anticipated match, a back-and-forth brawl, a stunning comeback won, or some combination of the above, the following matches stand out among the more than 1,000 the UFC has put on since 1993.
List compiled by Kevin Iole, Dave Meltzer, and Dave Doyle. Only numbered major UFC events were considered for this list. Thus, Ultimate Fight Night and Ultimate Fighter Finale events were not considered.
1. Chuck Liddell vs. Wanderlei Silva, UFC 79, Dec. 29, 2007, Las Vegas: How often has a major event been long-hyped, only to fizzle upon delivery? Liddell-Silva would have been a memorable slugfest without the back story, but the blistering action rendered meaningless the fact the match was held after both men lost their title. 2. Matt Hughes vs. Frank Trigg, UFC 52, April 16, 2005, Las Vegas: A ton of pre-fight trash talk made this fight hot before they even stepped into the cage. Things got even more testy when Trigg tried to kiss Hughes during the pre-fight instructions and Hughes shoved him away. This led to four of the wildest minutes in MMA, and the finishing sequence that cemented Hughes' legacy. Trigg got away with a low blow and nearly finished Hughes with on the ground. But Hughes used his legendary willpower to get back to his feet, carry Trigg across the cage, and slam him. Hughes followed with a rear-naked choke and secured the win.
3. Randy Couture vs. Tim Sylvia, UFC 68, March 3, 2007, Columbus, Ohio: Sure, there have been plenty of better technical matches. Sure, one-sided fights don't usually make "best of" lists. And sure, in most situations a five-round fight in which one fighter mainly uses Greco-Roman wrestling for 25 minutes wouldn't be considered. But it is safe to say we may never see another match like this, in which Couture, aged 43, came out of retirement and won his fifth championship against a foe 12 years younger and 40 pounds heavier. From the moment Couture dropped Sylvia with an overhand right to start the fight, through Couture's announcement as champion on straight 50-45 scores, the crowd at Nationwide Arena was taken on a roller-coaster ride few in attendance will ever forget.
4. Frank Shamrock vs. Tito Ortiz, UFC 22, Sept. 24, 1999, Lake Charles, La.: A match almost universally regarded as the greatest of the UFC's early era. Middleweight champion Shamrock was going to leave the company after the fight, mainly over contractual issues. The brash young Ortiz was considered the superstar in the making. And he was. But UFC 22 wasn't his night. Ortiz won each of the first three rounds, including opening a nasty cut by kneeing Shamrock in the head on the ground, which was legal at the time. But Ortiz tired in the fourth, and Shamrock took advantage, and wore Ortiz down with a relentless assault. Ortiz tapped at 4:45 of the round. Shamrock never fought in the UFC again.
5. Randy Couture vs. Pedro Rizzo, UFC 31, May 4, 2001, Atlantic City, N.J.: Couture was already considered a placeholder champion back in 2001. Pedro Rizzo, fresh off a spectacular knockout of Josh Barnett, was supposed to step in and take the title. But as he did time and again, Couture surprised the critics, retaining the title after a 25-minute thriller. UFC president Dana White was so sure Rizzo, the highest-paid fighter in the company at the time, was the man at heavyweight, he gave Rizzo another crack at Couture at UFC 34. This time Couture won via TKO in three rounds.
Honorable mention: Marcus Davis def. Chris Lytle, UFC 93; Jorge Gurgel def. Diego Saraiva, UFC 73; Tyson Griffin def. Clay Guida, UFC 72; Sam Stout def. Matt Wiman, UFC 97.