Alright, so admittedly, perhaps this piece is a few months too late. After all, it was in the afterglow of October’s UFC 166 that a lot of fans were debating whether or not the card was the best show the UFC had ever put on. Dana White and Joe Rogan certainly thought so. What really inspired me to write this now, though, was the arrival of my UFC 166 DVD. Yeah, I’m probably the only person who still buys the official UFC event DVDs these days, but I don’t care – I’m in the UK so it’s not like I pay for the shows outright and I don’t mind putting money into Zuffa’s pocket. Now, as I mentioned, fans and MMA journalists were all debating at the time whether 166 was indeed the greatest UFC show ever, and one of those writers was Dave Meltzer of MMAFighting.com. In this article Dave stated that the two UFC shows in recent years that stood out for him were UFC 116…and UFC 139. Now, for me UFC 139 wasn’t even in the top four shows of 2011 alone, and so at the time I read his piece I planned to write an article on what I feel are the top ten UFC shows of all time. But of course real life (and laziness) got in the way and so here we are, some four months later.
First off though, the disclaimer. There’s always a disclaimer on these types of articles. I’m looking at UFC shows from the Zuffa Era onwards simply because I think it’s too difficult – and pretty unfair – to compare the old SEG shows to a modern-day UFC event. It’s difficult enough to compare an early Zuffa event to one of today’s, let alone having to worry about the rule changes and stuff. Secondly – I’m only looking at "numbered" shows, i.e. the PPV cards. It’s like comparing apples to oranges….well, say oranges to tangerines, to compare a PPV card to one of the free-TV events I think, particularly when you consider some of the Spike events had prelims that never saw the light of day. So yeah, without further ado, here’s my countdown of the Top Ten UFC Events of All Time – AKA Ten Events Better Than UFC 139.
We begin with 2012’s Heavyweight fest. This show somehow saw it’s WHOLE MAIN CARD get shifted around due to various injuries and of course the elephant in the room – Alistair Overeem’s elevated testosterone levels – but still managed to be awesome. Prelims began with a fun scrap between former Featherweight kingpin Mike Brown and journeyman Daniel Pineda and only got better from there – the debuting Brazilian Glover Teixeira and England’s answer to Shinya Aoki, Paul Sass, pulled out slick submissions over Kyle Kingsbury and Jacob Volkmann respectively; Dan Hardy got his career back on track by knocking out Duane Ludwig in a great highlight reel moment and then Jamie Varner – returning from a couple of wins on the smaller circuit after a horrible run in the latter days of the WEC – inexplicably managed to knock out the undefeated and greatly feared Edson Barboza in what was one of *the* upsets of 2012. The lone slower fight was CB Dollaway vs. Mayhem Miller but even that was sort-of fun due to Mayhem seemingly melting down throughout the fight.
Then it was time for the main card. At the time, putting together an all-Heavyweight PPV seemed like a huge risk – after all how many times before have we seen a Heavyweight fight that sounds good on paper degenerate into a wind-sucking slopfest? – but this risk turned out to be one that paid off as we got an ultra-rare main card with no fights going the distance. Sure, a couple of them were basically squashes – Stefan Struve armbarred Lavar Johnson with worrying ease and Dave Herman never really got out of the blocks before Roy Nelson knocked him silly – but if you can complain about an excellent back-and-forth fight between Stipe Miocic and Shane Del Rosario (RIP) or Cain Velasquez absolutely butchering Bigfoot Silva then you’re insane. And while the main event did miss the AWESOMNESS OF THE REEM, you can’t really argue with JDS knocking the hell out of poor Frank Mir, can you? Show was let down slightly by the absence of a legit classic fight (which admittedly, UFC 139 has!) but with nine highlight reel finishes in thirteen fights this was a genuinely great show.
#9: UFC 31: Locked & Loaded
And so we go waaay back to 2001 and the second-ever Zuffa-helmed UFC show for #9. This one was headlined by one of those classic back-and-forth title match wars, this time between champion Randy Couture and challenger Pedro Rizzo for the Heavyweight title. Mike Goldberg often mentions this even today as one of his favourite title matches and I’d argue that even today – thirteen years later – it’s still probably the greatest fight for the Heavyweight Title (with Couture vs. Ricco Rodriguez being a close second…). Randy came out like a house on fire in the first round, almost stopping Rizzo with ground-and-pound, but the Brazilian came roaring back and almost finished Couture with strikes in the 2nd. Third was close, fourth went to Randy and the fifth to Rizzo, and in the end the judges decided Couture had done enough to retain his title. And of course, controversy ensued as many people thought Rizzo had done enough to win, and so he was granted an immediate rematch – one of the reasons Randy felt so "disrespected" by Zuffa years later in fact – but that’s another show.
Oh, the undercard? Well if Randy vs. Rizzo wasn’t enough, this show also had Carlos Newton bust out the ultra-rare bulldog choke (!) to unseat longtime Welterweight champ Pat Miletich; Chuck Liddell arrive with a BANG by knocking former Heavyweight champ Kevin Randleman out of consciousness AND out of a possible Tito Ortiz match; Semmy Schilt using his ludicrous reach to abuse poor Petey Williams, oh, and SHONIE CARTER KNOCKING MATT SERRA OUT WITH HIS SPINNING BACKFIST to cap off a legitimately phenomenal fifteen minutes of MMA. Anything else? Yeah, some dude called BJ Penn debuted in the second fight on the card, beating up Joey Gilbert (who’s better known today as one of Clay Guida’s first coaches). Wonder what happened to that guy? Am I cheating by putting it here when I haven’t actually seen Tony DeSouza vs. Steve Berger and that might well be like, the worst MMA fight of all time? Probably, but hell, I like Tony and trust that he’d never be involved in such a thing. So yeah, incredible main event? Check. Loaded undercard with tons of highlights? Check. Historical significance? Sure. If you haven’t seen this, well sign up to Fight Pass and CHECK IT OUT.
#8: UFC 116: Lesnar vs. Carwin
This was one of the shows that Meltzer mentioned as being a contender for the greatest and in this case I’d have to agree with him. I’ve got it at #8 only because of the existence of a few really shoddy prelims – Jon Madsen vs. Karlos Vemola in a total snoozer and Forrest Petz vs. Daniel Roberts in a fight not much better – and come to think of it, the sick slam finish to Gerald Harris vs. Dave Branch made a lot of people forget the fight up to that point stunk, but I digress – and because of the fact that by 2010’s standards, the majority of the card didn’t contain ranked fighters or (outside of the main event) anything that really impacted the title pictures at the time. But man, in terms of sheer action you’re not going to find many cards better than this.
Best fight? You’d have to say the ridiculous brawl between Chris Leben and Yoshihiro Akiyama – a fight that basically explains the appeal of Leben in a microcosm. Fun fact – I actually fell asleep during that fight (not because it was bad but shit dude, it was like 5am in the UK!) and woke up convinced Sexyama had knocked Leben out with a right head kick. When you’re dreaming your own finish to a fight, you know it’s good. The main event between Brock Lesnar and Shane Carwin was almost as good, though – a Hughes/Trigg-esque encounter that saw Carwin smash Brock in the first round before running out of steam and succumbing to an arm triangle in the second round. Sure, Jonathan Snowden didn’t think it made the fighters look great and in hindsight he was probably right, but damnit I’m sure even Jon would admit it was a hell of an adrenaline rush to watch. Throw in exciting brawls between Stephan Bonnar and Krzysztof Soszynski and Chris Lytle and Matt Brown and you’ve got one of the best shows in UFC history. On this one, Meltzer was right.
I think it says a lot about 2011 that this was only the second-best show of the year AND you could’ve had another two shows from that year (UFC 129 and UFC 134) as honourable mentions on this list. This one was a loaded card on paper that managed to surpass all expectations largely from start to finish. Admittedly we got a couple of forgettable prelims (Mark Bocek vs. Nik Lentz and Yves Jabouin vs. Walel Watson) but alongside them were brutal finishes for Igor Pokrajac, Costas Philippou and particularly Jake Hecht, who busted out Travis Browne’s now trademark knockout elbows some three years before Browne himself. Then came the main card, and what a main card it was.
Eight months beforehand, hometown hero Mark Hominick (the show was in Toronto) had unsuccessfully challenged for the Featherweight Title in what was almost a real-life Rocky I type fight. This was supposed to be his triumphant homecoming against an easier opponent – but it wasn’t meant to be as the Korean Zombie ended up tying the record for the UFC’s fastest knockout, turning Hominick’s lights out in seven seconds and establishing himself as *the* guy to watch in the division. An excellent technical battle between Claude Patrick and Brian Ebersole followed, in which Ebersole attempted to prove that the "guillotine choke is a myth" and almost succeeded. Next up was one of those UFC vs. PRIDE dream matches that we all love – in this case, Rogerio Nogueira vs. Tito Ortiz. And despite Tito coming out swinging, it was Nogueira who came out on top of an exciting fight – putting Tito away with some ironic, Ortiz-esque elbow-based ground-and-pound. But those were only appetizers for the brutality that was to follow. First we had the rematch between Frank Mir and Rodrigo Nogueira and for a moment, as Mir was wobbled by a combination, it looked like Minotauro would avenge that 2008 defeat. But then he made the mistake of looking for a guillotine choke and Mir inexplicably reversed into a kimura and SNAPPED NOG’S ARM LIKE A TWIG in one of the sickest UFC finishes of all time. This was a classic Heavyweight fight ending with one of the most memorable ways possible. And finally Jon Jones showed himself to be a champion of the highest calibre, coming back from a tricky first round against Lyoto Machida to not only win in the second, but leave Machida unconscious and looking eerily corpse-like after choking him out with a standing guillotine variant. Exciting fights, upsets, and sick finishes – this show had it all.
#6: UFC 49: Unfinished Business
This one was called ‘Unfinished Business’ as the main event was the third fight between Randy Couture and Vitor Belfort, put together after the second fight ended on a fluke cut to Randy’s eyelid in the opening seconds and saw Belfort capture his only UFC title. It may as well have been subtitled ‘Ultimate Knockouts’ though, as six of the nine fights on the card ended with either a KO or a TKO. At the time of the show there was some controversy over which fights were chosen to be aired on the PPV and which would remain unaired prelims – Josh Thomson vs. Yves Edwards, initially pegged to be for the then-vacant Lightweight Title, was placed on the prelim card along with Nick Diaz vs. Karo Parisyan, while somehow debutants Joe Doerksen and Joe Riggs, as well as an awkward-sounding Heavyweight clash between Mike Kyle and Justin Eilers made it onto the main card. In the end it didn’t matter as most of the fights ended so quickly that all nine ended up being aired.
Most memorable finish? Take your pick. Edwards ended up KOing Thomson with his still legendary flying kick at the end of an action-packed first round. David Terrell – arguably the ultimate missed opportunity in UFC history due to his injuries – knocked then-#1 Middleweight Matt Lindland clean out in the opening seconds with a left hook, making me a fan of his for life regardless of what he went on (or didn’t go on) to do in the rest of his career. Joe Riggs and Justin Eilers announced their arrivals on the big stage with brutal finishes of Doerksen and Kyle even if they didn’t go on to reach the heights they were expected to. And Chuck Liddell – taking a warm-up fight for his future title challenge – ended up in one of his greatest brawls against long time veteran Vernon ‘Tiger’ White and took his fair share of shots before landing a perfectly-placed knockout punch that left White stumbling to the ground in a truly comical scene. The main event saw Randy Couture do what Randy Couture did best – use his clinch and ground-and-pound to grind out his opponent – and at the end of the show he reclaimed his Light-Heavyweight Title after leaving poor Vitor a bloody mess. Best fight though would be the afore-mentioned Parisyan-Diaz meeting – a ridiculously paced grappling clinic that saw Karo edge out a split decision victory. Seriously, this fight is one of the forgotten gems of the pre-TUF period and if you haven’t seen it you owe it to yourself to track it down. Fight Pass, people, Fight Pass! With a ton of great finishes and not one dull fight on offer UFC 49 stands out as one of the all-time great shows in my eyes.
#5: UFC 132: Cruz vs. Faber
In the aftermath of this show – the best show of 2011, incidentally – my buddy Thang outright said he thought it was one of the all-time great cards. I actually disagreed at the time because I was so up in arms over Aaron Simpson’s wall-and-stall win over Brad Tavares, a fight that isn’t half as bad on a rewatch. I can safely say now that I was horribly wrong. UFC 132 *is* one of the all-time great cards. Literally from Rafael Dos Anjos’s knockout of George Sotiropoulos – the beginning of the end of poor George’s UFC career, effectively – everything is highlight reel central. Following Dos Anjos’s KO seemed like a thankless task but of course Melvin Guillard was up to it and slaughtered Shane Roller like the sacrificial lamb he’d been set up to be. No offense, Shane! And how the hell do you follow *that*? Well, if you’re Carlos Condit you KILL DONG HYUN KIM DEAD WITH A FLYING KNEE. No matter that the Korean was undefeated at that point and had been an unsolvable riddle for opponents as good as Nate Diaz, Matt Brown and TJ Grant. This was really where Condit announced his arrival not only as a top ten Welterweight but as one of the very best in the world and as a genuine title contender.
And to follow that? Well, if you’re a longtime UFC fan – I’m talking from prior to the TUF years – you’ll understand what I mean when I say that for years, right until the end of his career, nobody really drew you into a fight quite like Tito Ortiz. You either loved the guy or you hated him, and personally I loved him for the most part even if his feud with Uncle Dana and by proxy, Zuffa, felt annoying and tiresome. On this show, while he was in Dana’s good books by this point, he really had his back to the wall as he’d returned to the UFC with two straight losses – a decision to Forrest Griffin after which he complained of a "cracked skull", and then a one-sided beating at the hands of Matt Hamill, a guy who I think Prime Tito would’ve smashed to pieces. Opponent Ryan Bader seemed like a nightmare on paper, too – a stronger wrestler with better striking and probably better cardio, too. But on this night I guess there was something in the air. After a feeling out process, Tito caught Bader with a right hand that knocked the TUF winner down, and followed with an airtight guillotine choke that forced ‘Darth’ to tap out. Cue the legendary GRAVE DIGGER~! and arguably the most memorable moment of 2011 as well as one of the biggest upsets. Tito was back, baby, even if it only lasted for like four weeks.
Oh, and to follow that? After a solid action-packed fight between Dennis Siver and Matt Wiman, we got CHRIS LEBEN vs. WANDERLEI SILVA in a fight that almost guaranteed action. And boy did it deliver, as Wandy tagged Leben early and made the error of attacking wildly, and of course Leben fired right back and made all those PRIDE fanboys cry by knocking the Brazilian out with a series of uppercuts. Finally it was time for the first Bantamweight Title fight in UFC history – the rematch between bitter rivals, champion Dominick Cruz and challenger Urijah Faber. And despite suffering a pair of knockdowns in the opening two rounds, it was Cruz who did just enough to outwork Faber and retain his title in what I’d consider a low-end Fight of the Year Candidate. Rewatching it will only make you upset that we never did get the rubber match between the two. That Aaron Simpson fight keeps UFC 132 just out of the top four, but it’s still an all-time great.
#4: UFC 40: Vendetta
When I said that nobody drew you into a fight quite like Tito Ortiz a few years back, a lot of that aura stemmed from his fight on this show. This was actually the first MMA show I ever saw and I still maintain to this day, even though it’s now a ridiculous 12 years old, that it’s the perfect show to get someone hooked on MMA with. Eight fights, all of them ending before the final buzzer (which is ultra-rare and in fact I’m struggling to think of another show with that statistic…) and a plethora of different finishes, from knockouts (Chuck Liddell’s brutal head kick of Renato Babalu; Andrei Arlovski turning out Ian Freeman’s lights) to submissions (Carlos Newton’s tight kimura on Pete Spratt; Philip Miller choking out Mark Weir) and ground-and-pound (a Matt Hughes clinic over Gil Castillo). And if you’ve seen this show it means you’ve seen Robbie Lawler knock the hell out of Tiki Ghosn (no, the fight wasn’t stopped for the cut, Tiki!) and you’re probably loving his current surprising renaissance just as much as I am.
Of course, the fight that drew me into this show and drew me (and I’m sure many more people) into the UFC and MMA in general was the main event – Tito Ortiz defending his Light-Heavyweight Title against his bitter rival Ken Shamrock in the ultimate grudge match, built just like a feud in pro-wrestling, but firmly for real. In 2002 as a guy who knew nothing about MMA outside of the fact that Ken Shamrock was the WORLD’S MOST DANGEROUS MAN, you can imagine my surprise when I read that Tito had wiped the floor with him over three one-sided rounds, forcing him to quit on his stool before the fourth. When I actually watched the fight the surprise turned to awe. This was Tito Ortiz in his absolute pomp. His takedowns looked unstoppable, his ground-and-pound able to break any human being alive, and his confidence completely unshakeable. Even his entrance, to Limp Bizkit’s Break Stuff still resonates today with a star quality that someone like Jon Jones would kill to exude. Perhaps the ultimate praise I can give to this show is that watching it today, it’s mind-boggling to think that it took another three years after this for the UFC to break into the big time. Watching UFC 40 you’d swear that in 2002 they were already there.
#3: UFC 52: Couture vs. Liddell II
When you talk about shows that impacted the history of the UFC, they don’t get much more important than this one. For those who’ve forgotten or don’t know, this was the first pay-per-view to follow the initial season of The Ultimate Fighter, coming one week after that fateful night that saw Bonnar and Griffin throw down on free TV. The season had built to the Light-Heavyweight Title fight between champ Randy Couture and challenger Chuck Liddell, and the success of the reality show meant that eyes were on the UFC like never before, not even for UFC 40. They needed to deliver a blowaway show here and in my opinion they absolutely surpassed all expectations. Not only did the title fight deliver one of the best knockouts in UFC history, it also made a megastar of Chuck Liddell to the level where he even surpassed old friend-come-rival Tito Ortiz, all with one brutal right counterpunch. And the undercard, wow. You’re lucky if you get one Fight of the Year Candidate on a UFC show but UFC 52 delivered a pair of them in Patrick Cote vs. Joe Doerksen (one of the most underrated and unfairly forgotten fights in UFC history – again, FIGHT PASS!) and Matt Hughes vs. Frank Trigg; the latter being perhaps the greatest one-round come-from-behind win in UFC history (at least until Donald Cerrone vs. Melvin Guillard). Mario Yamasaki told Hughes to "watch the knees!" – the fans couldn’t keep their eyes off the screen.
Elsewhere, the show saw slick submissions for the returning Renato Sobral, who hit a beautiful armbar on Travis Wiuff; Ivan Salaverry, who stopped the Joe Riggs Hype Train in its tracks with a nasty upkick that set up a fight-ending triangle choke; and Matt Lindland of all people, who tapped out Travis Lutter (the Michael Jordan of BJJ, people!) with a second-round guillotine choke. Lindland’s attempts to re-christen the guillotine as a "chokeslam" didn’t go down quite so well. The pay-per-view opener was also probably the most entertaining extended squash in UFC history too, as Georges St-Pierre – the bright new thing in the Welterweight division, fresh off giving Matt Hughes some scares before falling to *that* spinning armbar – took on the debuting Mayhem Miller and beat the tar out of him for three straight rounds, including the immortal spot which saw Mayhem attempt a kip-up, only for GSP to meet him with a kick right to the dome. A blind man could’ve seen that GSP’s star was in ascendance after this performance. Before this show there was a belief in the ‘Zuffa Curse’, stemming from the horrendous UFC 33 debacle amongst other things. After it it was plainly clear that the only way was up, dude. A stone cold classic.
#2: UFC 84: Ill Will
When this one was over I immediately christened it the greatest UFC show of all time and so the fact that it’s my #2 should give away the #1. But that’s next. ‘Ill Will’ was an apt subtitle given the main event was BJ Penn vs. Sean Sherk for the Lightweight Title, the culmination of the hottest feud UFC had seen for a long, long time. Quick backstory – Sherk had won the vacant title in 2006 but in his first title defense (against Hermes Franca) he’d tested positive for nandrolone and been stripped of the title and suspended. The vacant title was won by BJ Penn in a one-sided drubbing of Joe Stevenson, and with Sherk returning from suspension, it was clear what fight had to be booked next. Those circumstances alone would make for a must-see fight, but because it’s BJ Penn and he can build a fight like few others, he took the steroid angle and ran and ran and ran with it, to the point where Sherk (who protested his innocence and claimed a contaminated sample had been tested) couldn’t walk into a building without the crowd chanting "STEROIDS!" at him. The best moment? The clip from the Countdown show that saw Penn hitting pads while answering questions. "WHAT DID HE TAKE?" "NANDROLONE!" *whack* and so forth. In the end, Penn – playing a de facto babyface in a rare occurrence – won the day for clean fighters everywhere by abusing Sherk with his jab before finishing him with an uppercut and a running knee late in the third.
The undercard was where a lot of the real action happened, though. The prelims saw the debuts of four hot prospects in Shane Carwin, Rousimar Palhares, Dong Hyun Kim and Yoshiyuki Yoshida, and all four men finished in the best way they could – Carwin brutally knocking out Christian Wellisch, Palhares claiming the Submission of the Night by armbarring Ivan Salaverry, KimTKOing an overmatched Jason Tan and Yoshida choking the hapless War Machine unconscious with an anaconda choke. Elsewhere we saw Thierry Sokoudjou regain some of his PRIDE momentum by KOing fellow PRIDE veteran Kazuhiro Nakamura, and Thiago Silva pound out Antonio Mendes after an early head kick-induced scare.
And the semi-main events, man. Firstly we had Tito Ortiz again, in his original ‘Last Stand’ with Zuffa, faced with the then-unsolvable puzzle Lyoto Machida in the final fight on his contract. The atmosphere around this one was insane and while nothing controversial happened (Tito showed a lot of class and thanked Zuffa in his post-fight interview) the fight was the best of Machida’s UFC career to that point, with Ortiz trying his hardest to figure out Lyoto, but invariably failing. The ending to the fight saw Machida knock Ortiz down with a nasty knee to the midsection before diving into his guard to attempt to finish him off. Somehow though Tito *wasn’t* done and he threw up what looked like a fight-ending triangle choke….and then my stream went black. Seriously, can you imagine? Unfortunately for Tito, Machida got out of the triangle and the rest is history. And then the card gave us Keith Jardine vs. Wanderlei Silva, back when both men were amongst the most feared in the 205lbs division. It looked like a pick-em coming in (Jardine was coming off a career-best performance against Chuck Liddell, remember….) and the staredown was amongst the most epic in MMA history, with both men looking genuinely psychotic. The Axe Murderer proved to be that much more psycho though and he brought back some of his monstrous PRIDE form to destroy Jardine in seconds. On the street a beatdown like that would gain you a stretch for GBH. In the Octagon it only added to Wandy’s legendary reputation. You won’t find many better MMA shows than this one. Outside of, well…..
#1: UFC 166: Velasquez vs. Dos Santos III
Even as a huge fan of his, I’ve got to admit Dana White goes a little too far with the hyperbole sometimes. In this case though – when he claimed UFC 166 was the "sickest card UFC had ever done" – I have to agree with him. The card looked pretty great on paper going in – whenever top ten fighters like Hector Lombard, Nate Marquardt, Tim Boetsch and Sarah Kaufman can only make the prelims, you know it’s a loaded card – but often loaded cards like that fail to live up to expectations. Look at UFC 73, for instance, or UFC 148. Here though you got a feeling that we were going to see something good from the first handful of online prelims. First, Japanese prospect Kyoji Horiguchi and TUF veteran Dustin Pague put on one of the most exciting openers of the year, and then Andre Fili – the man with the best nickname in MMA (‘Touchy’ Fili!~!) – and Jeremy Larsen put on a fight even better than that, going hell for leather like they were terrified of reaching the third round. The online card was rounded off by sick finishes for TUF 13 winner Tony Ferguson (D’Arce choke over Mike Rio) and scary-looking Chechen Adlan Amagov (violent knockout over TJ Waldburger). Things slightly slowed down with KJ Noons vs. George Sotiropoulos but it wasn’t a bad fight by any means – most fights would look slow in comparison to Fili/Larsen, and both guys really picked it up in the later rounds. Then things got going again.
The afore-mentioned Sarah Kaufman fought Jessica Eye in what was a hell of a brawl, even with a semi-questionable decision (I personally had Eye taking the first two rounds for a 29-28). The Women’s fights have pretty much delivered in spades since the division was introduced but this was the best one since April’s FOTYC between Cat Zingano and Miesha Tate. Next, Hector Lombard returned to his Bellator form and turned out Nate Marquardt’s lights in explosive, terrifying fashion. It was the sort of knockout that made you question whether Marquardt ought to continue with his career, to be frank. And by the time CB Dollaway and Tim Boetsch had finished their fight – a tremendous back-and-forth scrap somewhat spoiled by the judging (Dollaway clearly took the first two rounds and arguably took the third despite suffering a point deduction – the worst he should’ve gotten was a draw, and yet Boetsch somehow won the decision) – it seemed like not only was the Fight of the Night award a lock, but even if the main card was a letdown, the show would be worth a thumbs up for the crazy prelims.
Thankfully, the main card was about as far from a letdown as you could possibly get. We opened with a Flyweight fight between John Dodson and the newcomer – but widely considered top ten talent – Darrell Montague. The 125lbers get an unfair reputation for lacking fight-ending power, but a guy like Dodson might change people’s minds on that one yet, and this fight was another example why. ‘The Magician’ hit Montague so hard he ended up having a delayed reaction AND busting out the ‘Flair Flop’. One of the best knockouts of the year. Not to be outdone, Gabriel Gonzaga then made sure his Heavyweight bout with Shawn Jordan wouldn’t even have the chance to become a slow slopfest by knocking him silly in 90 seconds. This was another fight that made you consider the future of one of the participants – not either fighter in this case, but the referee, who allowed poor Jordan to take at least two or three pointless shots while he was already out. Entertaining finish, though!
Next up was Gilbert Melendez vs. Diego Sanchez, a fight between two former training partners who, if you believe certain sources, had some hellacious gym wars when they trained together. General consensus, unfortunately for a Diego fanboy like me, was that Melendez had progressed much more over the years and was far too technical with his striking for the 2013 version of Sanchez, who had stuttered to a win over Takanori Gomi in March. The first round appeared to follow that pattern – after a bright start for Sanchez that saw him briefly take Melendez’s back, Gilbert turned the tide and began to punish Diego with his more accurate striking, opening a nasty cut over Diego’s left eyebrow and knocking him down in the waning seconds of the round. The second round followed the same pattern, except by the end, a couple of things were quite noticeable – Diego wasn’t giving up for love nor money, and he was swinging right back even if he wasn’t all that accurate. And Melendez, rather than use his superior technique to continue to cut Diego up, was quite willing to engage ‘The Dream’ in a firefight. And so the third round became one of those epic slugfests that are hard to put into words, honestly. And it was *Diego* who came the closest to finishing – dropping Melendez with a vicious uppercut – but in the end it was Melendez that had his hand raised. Honestly, it was one of those fights – like Diego vs. Diaz, Diego vs. Karo, Diego vs. Kampmann – that you can’t even do justice by writing about. Notice a pattern? Diego Sanchez is simply put the most exciting fighter to watch in the history of MMA in my opinion. Was Joe Rogan being hyperbolic by calling Diego/Gil "the best fight he’d ever seen"? Perhaps, but in the moment it was entirely justified.
After such a crazy fight it made sense that Daniel Cormier vs. Roy Nelson just wouldn’t be able to follow it and so it came to pass. Cormier beat Big Country up for fifteen minutes but not enough to finish him, taking a dominant decision in what would actually be the worst fight on the show. Of course on any other show it’d be one of the better fights on the card, which goes to show how good UFC 166 was. And then there was the main event – the final part of the trilogy between the best two Heavyweights MMA had seen since the 2003-4 heyday of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Fedor Emelianenko (another trilogy, coincidentally enough…) – champion Cain Velasquez and challenger and former champion Junior Dos Santos. The first fight had seen JDS knock Velasquez out in about a minute, and the second had seen Velasquez exact revenge by knocking JDS around the cage for the full twenty-five minutes. How would the third go? The early rounds followed the same pattern as the second fight – Velasquez using his ability to push the pace and his power in the clinch to rough Dos Santos up, but it was the third round where the story was really told. Cain dropped JDS with a brutal overhand right and appeared to have him out – referee Herb Dean in fact almost touched Cain to stop him at one point but strangely decided to reconsider – and somehow the Brazilian survived the round, albeit looking like he’d been in a bad car wreck. From then on the fight told a different story – it was now JDS’s will to survive against Cain’s murderous power, cardio and killer instinct. The result never seemed in doubt but the question was whether Dos Santos could make it to the scorecards. In the end, Velasquez was just too much, finishing an exhausted JDS after a botched fifth round guillotine attempt. But like Diego Sanchez earlier in the night, Dos Santos showed the heart of a lion and never gave up for a second, and it made for yet another epic fight in a night packed full of them.
So, why was UFC 166 the greatest UFC show of all time? Historical significance? Look no further than the main event. Plethora of highlight reel finishes? I count seven in thirteen fights. No dull fights? Nelson/Cormier was the worst here and even that had plenty of plus points. Great fights? Eye/Kaufman would’ve won Fight of the Night on plenty of shows and here I’d argue it was only the fifth best on the card! Plus in Melendez/Sanchez it’s got the one thing that UFC 84 is missing – that genuine classic fight that you can rewatch over and over. And four months on, I’m pretty confident that I’m not overhyping it. So there you go – UFC 166 – in my opinion the best of the best.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know. Drop any e-mails to NewmanMMA@gmail.com>.
Until next time….it’s been emotional.