The Greatest Fights in MMA History

Photo by Zuffa LLC via Getty Images.

Luke Thomas, Jonathan Snowden, Thomas Myers and myself were asked to contribute a piece to USA TODAY's Mixed Martial Arts Special Edition -- a 40 page magazine focusing solely on MMA -- about the 10 greatest MMA bouts of all time.  You can read the whole feature on the USA TODAY site, but here's a bit about our rationale and some juicy excerpts.

Obviously a list like this is never going to please everyone -- heck all four of us could barely agree -- but the point is to appreciate some of the great fighters of the past and some of the great fights. 

Our criteria were as followed:

  • Dramatic, with momentum swings back and forth
    To really be considered a great fight, both athletes have to have at least a couple of great moments. While a highlight reel of Mike Tyson KO's is fun to watch, Muhammad Ali's epic wars with Joe Frazier and George Foreman are the fights that really stand the test of time. Nothing makes a great champion like overcoming a great challenger.
  • High-stakes, high-profile
    Just for the sake of sanity, we limited our selection to fights at the highest level of the sport -- pretty much UFC and Pride. While there are many epic wars from the smaller regional promotions we could have talked about (say Jose "Pele" Landi-Jons' epic series against Jorge "Macaco" Patino or Aaron Riley vs Yves Edwards' duels before they reached the UFC), we wanted to keep it limited to big fights on the big stage.
  • At least one legendary fighter involved
    And to narrow the field further, we wanted to make sure each of the fights included at least one immortal of the game. It's the Royce Gracies, Sakurabas, Coutures, GSPs and Fedors of the sport that fans will remember in 20 years and we wanted to reflect that.
  • Holds up to repeated viewings
    This was the most critical aspect IMO. We want to turn fans of today's action onto the old fights and old school masters. It's critical to pick fights that hold their entertainment value today. We're confident you can pop in any of these fights to share with a total n00b and have an enjoyable evangelistic experience.
Without further ado, here's the list:

 

1. Royce Gracie vs. Kimo Leopoldo,
UFC 3; Sept. 9, 1994, at Grady Cole Center, Charlotte, N.C.

2. Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Carlos Newton
Pride 3; June 24, 1998, at Nippon Budokan, Tokyo

3. Randy Couture vs. Pedro Rizzo
UFC 31; May 4, 2001, at Trump Taj Mahal, Atlantic City

Couture's first title fight against Brazilian Muay Thai ace Rizzo is arguably the most important heavyweight fight in the sport's history. It headlined the first UFC card under current owners Zuffa. For 25 minutes, the two heavyweights threw everything at each other.

In the first frame, Rizzo was nearly finished when Couture bludgeoned the Brazilian with savage ground and pound from top position. Yet Couture found himself on the verge of a fight stoppage when Rizzo returned the favor in the second round. For the duration of the bout, Rizzo battered Couture with thundering leg and middle kicks. Couture gutted through to land takedowns and find a home for his boxing from within the clinch. Couture was eventually declared the winner, and he kept his UFC heavyweight strap. While the decision was controversial, Couture bested Rizzo again, this time with ease, in a rematch at UFC 34.

4. Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
Pride: "Final Conflict 2003"; Nov. 9, 2003, at Tokyo Dome

5. Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar
The Ultimate Fighterfinale; April 9, 2005, at Cox Pavilion, Las Vegas

6. Matt Hughes vs. Frank Trigg
UFC 52; April 16, 2005, at the MGM Grand, Las Vegas

7. Fedor Emelianenko vs. Mirko Filipovic
Pride: "Final Conflict 2005";
Aug. 28, 2005, at Saitama (Japan) Super Arena

8. Georges St. Pierre vs. BJ Penn
UFC 58; March 4, 2006, at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas

Penn, the exiled champion, was making his triumphant return to the octagon after an ugly contract dispute with the promotion sent him fighting overseas for years under the K-1 banner. But White wasn't just going to anoint him the No. 1 contender. "The Prodigy" would have to earn it by going through St. Pierre, a young upstart. Penn beat St. Pierre to a bloody pulp in the first round, seemingly demonstrating how wide the talent gap was between him and the rest of the welterweights. But "Rush" survived the onslaught and refused to lose the next two rounds.

Two of the three judges at ringside thought St. Pierre won them, giving the Canadian a controversial split decision win that paved the way for him to capture the division crown. He avenged a loss to Matt Hughes in his next appearance. Disgruntled, Penn quipped that he went to the bar after their first fight while St. Pierre went to the hospital. Either way, the bout has made for several big-money events, historic rivalries and great fights for more than seven years ... and counting.

9. Nick Diaz vs. Takanori Gomi
Pride 33: "The Second Coming"; Feb. 24, 2007, at Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas

This was supposed to be a fight that showcased the talent and skill of Pride FC lightweight champion Gomi, regarded as the best lightweight in the world. His hand-picked opponent, 10-fight UFC veteran Diaz, had other plans.

The non-title fight started with Gomi winging punches and diving for takedowns. "The Fireball Kid" was well on his way to victory, dropping Diaz, busting up his face and angling for near-submission finishes. But Diaz kept charging forward.

It quickly evolved into a violent battle of attrition. Gomi landed a face-breaking punch in the second round, which left Diaz bloodied and swollen but far from beaten. Gomi pleaded with the referee to stop the fight because Diaz was a total mess. He didn't. Gomi, exhausted, went for another takedown. But while he was resting in the guard of Diaz, the Brazilian jiujitsu black belt set him up for a rarely seen and complicated gogoplata submission off his back, which forced the Japanese champion to tap seconds later.

It was an astonishing come-from-behind victory and an enormous upset. Less than two months later, the Nevada State Athletic Commission turned the biggest win of Diaz's career to a no contest after it was discovered Diaz had banned THC pumping through his veins during the fight. His win went up in smoke, but the memory endures.

10. Chuck Liddell vs. Wanderlei Silva
UFC 79; Dec. 29, 2007, at Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas

Read the whole thing at USA TODAY.

Where did we blow it? Let us know in the comments.

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