In the 30 years since it burst onto the sports scene with fists flying, the UFC has presented several hundred events all around the world. In all, the Octagon has been home to more than 7,000 fights. So, in celebration of the promotion’s three decades, it’s time to name the 30 best UFC fights.
Or maybe not.
What exactly does “best” mean within the context of a prizefight? Must it be a rock-’em-sock-’em slugfest, round after round of wall-to-wall fisticuffs, nonstop until the final horn? Or can a “best” squeeze all the wide-eyed gasps into a one-punch knockout? Does it matter if the fight is an upset, a comeback, or if there’s a shiny gold belt on the line? Can a curtain-jerking thriller qualify for a superlative, or must a fight card save the “best” for last?
Let’s go with “all of the above.” Go ahead and rank this as the “biggest copout in fight ranking history,” if you choose. But here are 30 of the most memorable, remarkable, fantastic fights from the UFC’s 30 years, divvied up into several categories.
5 momentous UFC KOs
Francis Ngannou def. Alistair Overeem
UFC 218, Dec. 2, 2017, in Detroit
Ngannou had some terrifying knockouts during his UFC run, but none showed off his raw power in as visceral a way as this hellacious uppercut, which tested the strength of Overeem’s neck muscles in keeping his head from flying off into the crowd.
How the fight came to be | Watch the fight | Recap
Conor McGregor def. Jose Aldo (Watch the fight on ESPN+)
UFC 194, Dec. 12, 2015, in Las Vegas
McGregor had been taking aim at Aldo — verbally — ever since the Irishman arrived in the UFC. This was unthinkable, a newbie challenging the supremacy of the acclaimed featherweight king. Then, when they finally met, Conor needed just 13 walking-the-walk-after-talking-the-talk seconds to seize the throne and rule the entire MMA world.
Recap | Photos
Jorge Masvidal def. Ben Askren (Watch the fight on ESPN+)
UFC 239, July 6, 2019, in Las Vegas
A no-time-to-wait flying knee set a record for the fastest KO in UFC history (5 seconds) and the fastest coronation of an unlikely MMA antihero.
Recap | Inside Masvidal’s epic flying knee knockout
Anderson Silva def. Vitor Belfort (Watch the fight on ESPN+)
UFC 126, Feb. 5, 2011, in Las Vegas
Silva felt disrespected to be challenged by Belfort, with whom he had shared a tightly-knit training team back home in Brazil. You disrespect the middleweight champ, you get put in your place with a front kick to the face.
Edson Barboza def. Terry Etim
UFC 142, Jan. 14, 2012, in Rio de Janeiro
The spinning wheel kick that dropped a stiffened Etim will forever live on in every highlight reel of extraordinary UFC KOs.
2012 knockout of the year: Barboza-Etim | Watch the finish
5 unforgettable UFC submissions
Nate Diaz def. Conor McGregor (Watch the fight on ESPN+)
UFC 196, March 5, 2016, in Las Vegas
Diaz told the world after his rear-naked choke finish that he was “not surprised,” but considering that he took the fight on 11 days’ notice and McGregor was undefeated in the UFC, a lot of fans were both surprised and blown away.
Recap | Nate on his victory
Ronda Rousey def. Cat Zingano (Watch the fight on ESPN+)
UFC 184, Feb. 28, 2015, in Los Angeles
Rousey was the queen of turning each highly anticipated trip inside the Octagon into a short night’s work. She scored finishes in every one of her 12 career victories, all but one in the first round — and nine in the very first minute. What made this “Rowdy Ronda” tapout of Zingano stand out from the rest were two numbers: 14 (seconds it took her to lock up the armbar, making this the fastest submission in UFC history) and 0 (she threw zero strikes … because she didn’t need to).
Demetrious Johnson def. Ray Borg
UFC 216, Oct. 7, 2017, in Las Vegas
In one (lightning-fast) motion, the flyweight champ sent Borg flying with a suplex, and before his challenger had even hit the canvas, “Mighty Mouse” locked up an armbar for a gotta-watch-it-in-slow-motion-to-appreciate-it finish.
Frank Mir def. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
UFC 140, Dec. 10, 2011, in Toronto
When a heavyweight submission ace secures a kimura lock on another heavyweight submission ace — one too proud to tap out — the finish is going to be gruesome. Avert your eyes. Or …
Jon Jones def. Lyoto Machida (Watch the fight on ESPN+)
UFC 140, Dec. 10, 2011, in Toronto
The headline bout on the same card as Mir-Nogueira produced an even more haunting finish, when Jones choked Machida unconscious while they were standing, then let him collapse limply to the canvas. Ruthless.
5 shocking UFC upsets
Holly Holm def. Ronda Rousey (Watch the fight on ESPN+)
UFC 193, Nov. 15, 2015, in Melbourne, Australia
Maybe it shouldn’t have been a shock that a former three-division world champion boxer would box up the onetime Olympic judo medalist, but when a head kick by 12-1 underdog Holm ended Rousey’s run of dominance, it was one of MMA’s most stunning upsets.
Recap | KO of the year: Holly Holm finishes Ronda Rousey | Holm-Rousey among most shocking upsets in sports history
Matt Serra def. Georges St-Pierre
UFC 69, April 7, 2007, in Houston
Serra had won a season of “The Ultimate Fighter” designed for veteran fighters making comebacks, and his prize was a date in the cage with the greatest welterweight in the sport’s history. An undaunted Serra made the most of the second-chance title challenge, knocking out GSP, a 13-1 favorite, midway through Round 1.
Chris Weidman def. Anderson Silva (Watch the fight on ESPN+)
UFC 162, July 6, 2013, in Las Vegas
Silva had won 17 fights in a row and had been toying with his opponents. When he tried that funny stuff with the no-nonsense Weidman, he ended up flat on his back, his middleweight title reign stunningly ended.
Julianna Peña def. Amanda Nunes (Watch the fight on ESPN+)
UFC 269, Dec. 11, 2021, in Las Vegas
Nunes came into the fight as a two-division champion and winner of 12 straight, her conquests including Cris Cyborg, Valentina Shevchenko, Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm. Then along came Peña to shock the women’s MMA world.
Recap | World reacts to Peña toppling Nunes | Inside Peña’s historic upset
Julianna Pena shocks the MMA world, upsets Amanda Nunes at UFC 269
Julianna Pena defeats Amanda Nunes to win the UFC women’s bantamweight title, one of the biggest upsets in UFC history.
Frankie Edgar def. BJ Penn
UFC 112, April 10, 2010, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Penn was a nearly 8-1 betting favorite to continue his run as lightweight champion, but Edgar showed off his Little Engine That Could grit to begin his own unlikely reign.
5 amazing UFC comebacks
Matt Hughes def. Frank Trigg
UFC 52, April 16, 2005, in Las Vegas
A low blow unnoticed by the referee led to a Trigg takedown, followed by a flurry of punches and a choke hold that appeared to be the beginning of the end of Hughes’ welterweight reign. But next thing you knew, Hughes had somehow escaped and was carrying Trigg across the cage before slamming him to the canvas and choking him out.
Anderson Silva def. Chael Sonnen
UFC 117, Aug. 7, 2010, in Oakland, California
After being shockingly dominated on the canvas the whole fight, Silva was two minutes from losing his middleweight title until, voila, he pulled a rabbit (actually a triangle armbar) out of a hat.
Yair Rodriguez def. Chan Sung Jung
UFC Fight Night, Nov. 10, 2018, in Denver
“What just happened?” was a common reaction to the last-second upward elbow that finished “The Korean Zombie” with just one second left (!) in a fight Rodriguez was about to lose by decision.
Inside Yair Rodriguez’s all-time great knockout of ‘Korean Zombie’
Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard fight to split draw (Watch the fight on ESPN+)
UFC 125, Jan. 1, 2011, in Las Vegas
At the end of a brutally one-sided Round 1, Edgar was bloody and wobbly after absorbing 47 punches and three knockdowns. He was trailing 10-8 on all three scorecards. Then he mustered up the will of an everlasting legend, battling his way back into the fight.
Brock Lesnar def. Shane Carwin (Watch the fight on ESPN+)
UFC 116, July 3, 2010, in Las Vegas
Lesnar was outstruck 40-3 in the first round and appeared to be on the verge of being grounded-and-pounded into oblivion. But the heavyweight champ turned the tables on an exhausted Carwin early in Round 2, taking him down and choking him out. Lesnar then proclaimed himself “still the toughest S.O.B. around, baby.”
5 memorable UFC debuts
Anderson Silva def. Chris Leben (Watch the fight on ESPN+)
UFC Fight Night, June 28, 2006, in Las Vegas
It took Silva just 49 seconds to make Leben the first of his 16 conquests to start a Hall of Fame run in the UFC. The newcomer’s dominance was impressive enough that the UFC immediately granted Silva a middleweight title shot.
Royce Gracie def. Art Jimmerson (Watch the fight on ESPN+)
UFC 1, Nov. 12, 1993, in Denver
Everyone at UFC 1 was making their UFC debuts, obviously, but no one did it better than Gracie, who in the first of his three wins at the one-night tournament tapped out Jimmerson, a pro boxer who made the curious choice of wearing just one glove.
The legend of Art ‘One Glove’ Jimmerson
Frank Shamrock def. Kevin Jackson
UFC Japan, Dec. 21, 1997, in Yokohama, Japan
Shamrock became the inaugural light heavyweight champion by tapping out the heavily favored Olympic gold medalist wrestler by armbar in 16 seconds.
Justin Gaethje def. Michael Johnson (Watch the fight on ESPN+)
The Ultimate Fighter 25 Finale, July 7, 2017, in Las Vegas
Would Gaethje’s all-action approach still be a recipe for success now that the former World Series of Fighting champion was entering the Octagon for the first time? This classic back-and-forth with Johnson answered that question with a big splash that propelled Gaethje to stardom.
Ronda Rousey def. Liz Carmouche (Watch the fight on ESPN+)
UFC 157, Feb. 23, 2013, in Anaheim, California
The first women’s fight in UFC history began perilously for Rousey, as she nearly was submitted in the opening minute, but “Rowdy Ronda” eventually got the job done the way she usually did — with a first-round armbar.
5 all-time great UFC scraps, the best of the best
Robbie Lawler def. Rory MacDonald (Watch the fight on ESPN+)
UFC 189, July 11, 2015, in Las Vegas
The bloody-faced staredown at center cage at the end of Round 4 was enough by itself to make this a legendary encounter. The welterweight title fight that surrounded that moment only enhanced that status.
Lawler-Macdonald inducted into UFC HOF | Recap
Forrest Griffin def. Stephan Bonnar (Watch the fight on ESPN+)
The Ultimate Fighter 1 Finale, April 9, 2005, in Las Vegas
The young UFC was in survival mode, hemorrhaging money and struggling to get noticed in the mainstream sports world. Could the new reality TV series, “The Ultimate Fighter,” pull off the magic trick of keeping the company alive? Well, abracadabra. The heart-thumping finale between Griffin and Bonnar made the troubles disappear. Their must-see donnybrook earned both men UFC contracts and earned the UFC a future.
The inside story of how TUF saved the UFC
Zhang Weili def. Joanna Jedrzejczyk (Watch the fight on ESPN+)
UFC 248, March 7, 2020, in Las Vegas
The UFC 248 headliner was one of the sport’s biggest names, Israel Adesanya, and the evening’s star power reached down into the prelims, where “Suga” Sean O’Malley put on a show. But both were upstaged by this slugfest for the strawweight title, in which the champ toughed out a split decision over the ex-champ. The greatest fight in the history of women’s MMA was among the greatest in all of MMA history — and among the most brutal.
How brutal was it? Jedrzejczyk wore the answer on her face.
Weili, Joanna scrap in fight for the ages
Zhang Weili and Joanna Jedrzejczyk trade blows throughout their championship bout at UFC 248.
Jon Jones def. Alexander Gustafsson (Watch the fight on ESPN+)
UFC 165, Sept. 21, 2013, in Toronto
Gustafsson put Jones in trouble early, the first opponent to do so. But Jones gutted it out and took over, and Gustafsson ended up like all the others who challenged the GOAT for the light heavyweight title: at a loss.
Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson 1 picked for UFC Hall of Fame | Recap
Dan Henderson def. Mauricio Rua (Watch the fight on ESPN+)
UFC 139, Nov. 19, 2011, in San Jose, California
That “Hendo” and “Shogun” made it through five relentless rounds of slugging it out was a testament to toughness and each man’s ability to take it and dish it out.