USA Today: The best MMA fights of all time
The 10 best fights in the history of mixed martial arts, in chronological order:
(Criteria for selection: Dramatic, with momentum swings; high-stakes, high-profile; at least one legendary fighter involved; holds up to repeated viewings)
1. Royce Gracie vs. Kimo Leopoldo
UFC 3; Sept. 9, 1994, at Grady Cole Center, Charlotte
By the time UFC 3 rolled around, Gracie had established himself as the dominant force in what was then called "No Holds Barred" fighting. He tore through an eight-man tournament at UFC 1 in November 1993, submitting three opponents, including Ken Shamrock, in less than five minutes. Then, in March 1994, he won a 16-man tournament at UFC 2, beating four opponents in less than nine minutes.
No one expected much from Gracie's first foe at UFC 3. Leopoldo was a brawler who was expected to be a minor road bump on the way to a Gracie-Shamrock rematch in the final. But 240-pound Leopoldo gave Gracie all he could handle. He came out aggressive and hurt Gracie with punches. Gracie had to dig deep into his bag of tricks to beat Leopoldo, including the use of moves that are now illegal. Gracie threw knees to Leopoldo's groin and latched onto Leopoldo's ponytail to keep the big Hawaiian immobile while he fired punches to his face.
In the end, it was Leopoldo's exhaustion as much as Gracie's jiujitsu skills that led to Leopoldo's tap to an armbar 4:40 into the fight. But the toll the fight took on Gracie forced him to forfeit his next fight. Fans seeing the fight for the first time today are in for a trip to a wilder, crazier era of MMA. There were no weight classes and few rules, but you can see the martial arts mastery of one of the greats put to the test by a much bigger, fiercer opponent. Gracie's will to win stopped Leopoldo in his tracks and cemented him as the first legend of modern MMA. Today's fans will be shocked at the sheer brutality, but this fight remains ultra compelling.
2. Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Carlos Newton
Pride 3; June 24, 1998, at Nippon Budokan, Tokyo
Sakuraba might be most remembered for his historic series of wins against the Gracies: He beat Ryan, Royler, Renzo and Royce to earn his nickname "The Gracie Hunter." But for sheer entertainment value, no Sakuraba fight matched the grappling clinic he and Newton put on at Pride 3. Sakuraba was emerging as the one Japanese pro wrestler who could win real fights. Newton had yet to claim his UFC title, but he had gone the distance with Dan Henderson in an epic bout at UFC 17. Sakuraba whetted the appetites of serious fans in his Pride 2 match with Vernon "Tiger" White, and he and Newton delivered an instant classic at Pride 3.
It's not often that an MMA fight with so little striking is highly compelling, but this fight was. The collision of Newton's jiujitsu background — already the mainstay of MMA grappling by 1998 — and Sakuraba's catch wrestling style made for a combustible mix.
The two men whirled, twisted, flipped and contorted through an amazing number of reversals, transitions, attacks and counter-attacks that still leave fans breathless. In the end, Newton took Sakuraba's back but left his leg exposed. Sakuraba forced Newton to tap from a kneebar.
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 Filipovic vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
Pride: "Final Conflict 2003"; Nov. 9, 2003, at Tokyo Dome
Filipovic was a stone-cold killer. He was fresh off a head-kick knockout of Igor Vovchanchyn at Pride: "Total Elimination 2003," which came on the heels of his demolishing of Heath Herring at "Bad to the Bone." The undefeated Croatian had owned the Japanese fight scene and entered at 7-0-2 with six technical knockout finishes. Filipovic was, as future Pride announcer Mauro Ranallo put it, "the scariest (expletive) on the planet." And he was just one fight away from winning his first title. Standing in his way was former Pride heavyweight champion Nogueira, who was at a career crossroads coming into the bout. After Nogueira lost his title to Fedor Emelianenko that spring, many wondered if Nogueira's best days were behind him.
The heavyweight landscape had been changed after Emelianenko was forced to sit because of injuries, and the promotion created an interim title while the reigning division champion patched himself up. The winner of Filipovic vs. Nogueira would leave with the right to face Emelianenko to unify the titles. The stakes had never been higher: Two of the sport's highest honors were on the line in one epic main event. It didn't disappoint. As expected, "Cro Cop" stormed out of the gate, blasting his foe with the same aggressive offense that made him such a menace in K-1, a Japanese kickboxing promotion. Nogueira, himself a trained boxer and accomplished striker, spent most of the first round on the run. And with Pride's 10-minute opening rounds, there was nowhere to hide.
Then, trouble struck for Nogueira. He lumbered in, and Filipovic seized the moment, uncorking one of his trademark left high kicks. The kick landed at the base of Nogueira's jaw, the Brazilian lost his legs and he went flat. The Croatian pounced for the finish, but the horn sounded and the referee intervened. Nogueira was saved by the bell.
In the second period, Filipovic's conditioning betrayed him, which opened the door for "Minotauro" to muscle his way in for a takedown. Filipovic made the error of trying to roll as Nogueira latched on to an extended limb. The black belt handed Filipovic his first career defeat and sent the nearly 70,000 fans into a frenzy.
It was a dramatic finish to one of the most anticipated and exciting fights in MMA history. A heavyweight classic.
5. Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar
The Ultimate Fighterfinale; April 9, 2005, at Cox Pavilion, Las Vegas
Mixed martial arts wasn't always a thriving sport. In fact, as recently as 2005, today's leading promotion, Ultimate Fighting Championship, was knocking on death's door. In a suffocating $20 million hole, the owners of the company, Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, who also (at the time) ran the fifth-biggest gaming company in the nation, Station Casinos, went "all-in" with The Ultimate Fighter, a reality series on Spike TV. Zuffa, UFC's parent company, even covered the exorbitant production costs just to market its brand on the obscure cable television network, betting that the series would get them out of the red and into the black. Did it ever. But little did they know that a 15-minute war between Griffin and Bonnar in the show's finale would catapult the company and the sport to such an unprecedented level.
The blood-soaked slugfest wasn't a technical masterpiece. But it was a back-and-forth, jaw-dropping series of surreal exchanges fought on pure heart and mettle. In the end, Griffin was awarded the victory and the six-figure UFC contract. Bonnar was rewarded with his own deal for the gutsy performance.
But the real winners that night were MMA fans. Without Griffin and Bonnar, there's a good chance the UFC wouldn't be anywhere near as strong as it is today.
6. Matt Hughes vs. Frank Trigg
UFC 52; April 16, 2005, at the MGM Grand, Las Vegas
If high-stakes drama is what you're after, it doesn't get any better than this rematch between sworn enemies. UFC welterweight champion Hughes had dispatched Trigg a year and a half earlier, but "Twinkle Toes" had worked his way back up the ladder to try to again dethrone the most dominant welterweight the sport had known at the time. Hughes was the promotional poster boy, while Trigg was the hated villain. The buildup to the rematch, trash talk and all, was epic. By the time these two stepped inside the octagon, you could feel your heart in your throat; the rivalry was that intense. The actual fight was even better. In the first round, Trigg struck Hughes in the groin with an inadvertent, illegal low blow. Hughes looked for referee Mario Yamasaki to call a timeout, but he was unaware of what had happened. Trigg pounced, stunning Hughes with a flurry of punches and taking his back before he knew what hit him. Trigg secured a tight rear naked choke, turning the champion's face purple and pushing him to the brink of unconsciousness.
Hughes somehow escaped the choke, reversed Trigg, picked him up off the mat, carried him across the octagon and slammed him into a corner in an unreal twist of fate. In a dizzying sequence, Hughes soon had Trigg in a rear naked choke, which ultimately forced the challenger to tap. It will go down as among the most exciting four minutes of non-stop, back-and-forth action in an MMA bout. That's probably the reason UFC President Dana White often calls it his favorite fight of all time. It was that good.
7. Fedor Emelianenko vs. Mirko Filipovic
Pride: "Final Conflict 2005";
Aug. 28, 2005, at Saitama (Japan) Super Arena
Rarely does a fight this anticipated live up to the hype. Fans had been waiting for the two fearsome heavyweights to finally face off, but it was worth it. Emelianenko had established himself as the best heavyweight in the world. With wins against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Mark Coleman, Kevin Randleman, Heath Herring, Kazuyuki Fujita, Semmy Schilt and Tsuyoshi Kohsaka, he was on the verge of cleaning out Pride's vaunted heavyweight division. Only one big name remained to be crossed off his list: Croatian head-kick knockout artist Filipovic.
"Cro Cop" came into the fight riding a seven-fight winning streak, including a brutal knockout of Fedor's younger brother, Aleksander. More important than his winning streak was the aura of sheer intimidation Filipovic carried with him into the ring. In an era when most MMA fighters had rudimentary striking skills at best, Filipovic's world-class kickboxing résumé and his growing highlight reel of knockouts had his opponents backpedaling as soon as the bell rang.
Not "The Last Emperor." The champ had shown the world he wasn't afraid to dive into the guard of the game's most-feared submission master when he took the title from Nogueira. Against Filipovic, he moved forward from the opening bell, peppering the Croatian with jabs and forcing him back on his heels. But no sooner had the champ seemingly established dominance when a series of reversals gave Filipovic fans hope. First, Cro Cop grazed Emelianenko's skull with one of his lethal left high kicks, then the champ fell through the ropes and out of the ring and then came the challenger's high-water mark. A skull-rattling jab made the Russian's knees buckle, and Cro Cop pressed forward, looking for the kill. The crowd went crazy, but the challenger made a mistake in going for a takedown and ended up on his back.
The rest of the fight repeated this pattern, Emelianenko pressing forward standing and controlling the fight on the ground, with Filipovic narrowly missing with head kicks that would have finished a horse. Emelianenko won by unanimous decision in an all-time thriller.
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
Fans demanded this fight for years. The UFC wanted it badly, too. White sent Liddell to compete in the Pride Middleweight Grand Prix with this matchup in mind. Instead, Liddell was KO'd by Quinton Jackson in the semifinals and a dream was deferred.
Silva went on to dominate in Japan. Liddell cleaned house in the UFC octagon. Fans argued about who was the better fighter. Finally, after years of debate and Zuffa's acquisition of Pride, the question was answered at UFC 79. Both men were past their primes, but it didn't matter. They went toe-to-toe with reckless abandon. At one point, a bloodied Silva fought his way off the cage, making Liddell retreat. Liddell responded with a takedown. "The Iceman" eventually won a decision, but even in defeat, Silva proved to be one of the sport's greatest warriors.