Over the last 20 years, the UFC has been the hallmark of mixed martial arts in the United States and eventually across the entire globe. During that time span the UFC has lived through rules changes, fighter evolution and even a United States Senator trying to deal the sport a death blow.
Through it all, however, the UFC persevered and as the promotion officially reaches its 20th birthday we've been treated to 250 events between pay-per-view, free broadcasts and special events and the list of great fights is almost endless at this point.
With that said, nothing beats a great card when it's capped off by an amazing main event that blows the roof off the arena, and that's what we will put under the spotlight today as we move closer and closer towards the UFC's 20th anniversary. We count down the greatest events in UFC history from No. 1 to No. 20, from the alpha to the omega. Which events stood head and shoulders above the crowd? Check out the list to find out.
The Ultimate Fighter season 1 finale was a huge moment for the UFC because without this show's success, the promotion might not still be around today. The main event that night was one people barely remember happened because Rich Franklin made quick work of Ken Shamrock in a light heavyweight bout, but that wasn't why this card was so famous.
Thanks to Ultimate Fighter finalists Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar, this show goes down as one of the greatest of all time because their three round war sparked a wave of never before seen attention for the UFC. The ratings for the fight literally climbed with each minute the bout wore on, which was a clear sign that fans were calling their friends telling them to tune in and watch this insane battle.
Griffin came away the victor, but both men were winners that night because UFC president Dana White quickly offered Bonnar a contract as well. In the other Ultimate Fighter final, Diego Sanchez made quick work of Kenny Florian in a memorably bloody battle while a host of other show favorites battled in their first fights in the Octagon that night as well.
#19: UFC 68: Sylvia vs. Couture
Following a nearly year long retirement, Randy Couture returned to action at UFC 68 to challenge then heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia for the title. Couture entered the fight as a humongous underdog because beyond his year away from fighting, he was well into his 40's and the last time he competed in the Octagon he was a light heavyweight. Well, Couture had other ideas because with 19,000-plus fans cheering him on in Columbus, Ohio, the man known as 'Captain America' came out on top by beating Sylvia in every facet of the fight. Couture dropped Sylvia early with a punch that had the crowd on the verge of frenzy, and the rest of the five round bout didn't go much differently.
The card also featured the return of Rich Franklin, who finished Jason MacDonald in a middleweight bout, while Matt Hughes defeated Chris Lytle on the card as well.
#18: UFC 71: Liddell vs. Jackson
UFC 71 marked the end of the ice age as Chuck 'The Iceman' Liddell surrendered his title when he was knocked out by Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson in the first round of their main event bout. It was the last time Liddell would ever taste gold during his historic UFC career. It was also the second time Jackson beat the iconic fighter after doing it for the first time when they met as part of the Pride Fighting Championships middleweight Grand Prix years earlier.
Not only was the main event an absolute show stoppper, but a huge upset also occurred on this card when unknown fighter Houston Alexander dropped and finished former Ultimate Fighter competitor Keith Jardine in the first round. At the time, Jardine was highly regarded as a potential contender in the light heavyweight division, due in large part to his awkward style. Alexander chose to deal with it by knocking him senseless and sending the crowd in a frenzy.
#17: UFC 157: Rousey vs. Carmouche
For years, UFC president Dana Whtie had said that he had no interest in promoting or building a women's division in the UFC. That all changed when White met former Olympic Judo bronze medalist Ronda Rousey and he decided to sign her to the promotion and begin adding women to the UFC. The first fight to kick off the division was Rousey against fellow former Strikeforce fighter Liz Carmouche.
The attention for this card was unreal with every media outlet from across the world trying to score time with Rousey and Carmouche for this historic event. The fight lived up to expectation as well with Carmouche nearly submitting Rousey in the first round before eventually falling victim to the Judoka's signature armbar that finished the fight.
While there was a largely forgettable fight between Dan Henderson and Lyoto Machida on the card, there were also some stand out performances courtesy of Urijah Faber, who submitted Ivan Menjivar with an unbelievablee rear naked choke that had Menjivar tapping out while still standing. UFC veteran Robbie Lawler made his much anticipated return to the Octagon for the first time in over eight years to knock out Josh Koscheck in the first round. Lawler had been competing outside the UFC for a long time and many questioned whether he still had 'it'. His KO of Koscheck proved that he still had the ability to smash high level opponents on the biggest stage in the world.
#16: UFC 94: St-Pierre vs. Penn II
It was champion versus champion at UFC 94 when Georges St-Pierre took on BJ Penn in a rematch of their earlier fight from UFC 58 that ended in controversy. St-Pierre got the nod that night by split decision, but it was Penn who felt like the winner after he busted up and bloodied the Canadian during the three round affair. The rematch wasn't nearly as close, but the build up certainly put the anticipation levels for this fight off the charts.
When it came to the match, St-Pierre dominated from bell to bell and Penn never seemed to have much of a shot as the lightweight champion going up to 170 pounds to battle for a second belt. After the fourth round ended, Penn's corner threw in the towel knowing that their fighter was unable to continue.
The other standout performances that night included Lyoto Machida knocking out Thiago Silva in the last second of the very first round in a battle for top contention at 205lbs, meanwhile, a young fighter from New York named Jon Jones splashing on the scene with an ultra impressive performance to best former Ultimate Fighter finalist Stephan Bonnar. This was the fight where Jones first introduced the world to his spinning elbow attack that landed Bonnar face first, down on the mat.
15: UFC 148: Silva vs. Sonnen II
Rivalries come and go in the UFC, as do champions in many ways, but for seven straight years Anderson Silva ruled the roost of the middleweight division with an iron fist. The champion finally showed a weak spot in his armor when he faced Chael Sonnen at UFC 117 and it took a last minute submission to stave off the challenger from snatching the title away from him. So the rematch two years later was bound to be big business, and it lived up to expectation.
Sonnen started out his second fight with Silva just like the first — taking the champion to the ground and beating him soundly over the course of five minutes. The second round saw a dramatic change when Silva stuffed Sonnen's takedown attempt, and after an ill-advised spinning back elbow from the challenger missed, the champion struck like a cobra. Silva crushed Sonnen's ribs with a knee strike before finishing the fight with a few more punches on the ground.
UFC 148 also featured the final bout in a trilogy of fights between future UFC Hall of Famers Forrest Griffin and Tito Ortiz. The fight was considered to be a close one by many and the fight showed why. Ortiz and Griffin went toe-to-toe for 15 minutes, with each fighter gaining the upper hand before momentum would swing the other direction. Griffin would end up winning by unanimous decision, prompting Ortiz to retire after the bout ended, with Griffin following him a few months later.
#14: UFC 84: Ill Will
BJ Penn helped prove that lightweights could draw huge numbers on pay-per-view with his headlining bout on this card against Sean Sherk. Penn had become lightweight champion while Sherk was out serving a suspension after testing positive for a banned substance and had his title stripped during that time. So in some ways, Penn vs. Sherk was looked at almost like a unification bout between the current champion and the last champion in the division.
Penn wasted no time to show who was the true champion, however, and at the end of the third round he exploded forward with a flying knee and punches to finally put a stop to Sherk and defend the UFC lightweight title.
The UFC 84 card also featured the return of Wanderlei Silva after he had suffered a loss to Chuck Liddell in his UFC debut. Silva wasted no time in his second fight as he snuffed out Keith Jardine in just 36 seconds by strikes. The card also featured Lyoto Machida vs. Tito Ortiz, in what was billed at the time as Ortiz's last fight in the UFC. Machida won but not without almost being finished by Ortiz late in the fight by triangle choke.
#13: UFC 40: Vendetta — Ortiz vs. Shamrock
Tito Ortiz likes to be involved in heated rivalries, and none got nastier than his battle against Ken Shamrock and his team, the Lion's Den. For years in his early UFC days, Ortiz made his name off of beating Shamrock's students like Guy Mezger and Jerry Bohlander, but not until 2002 did he finally get to face the team patriarch in the Octagon. Ortiz and Shamrock almost had to be separated at the pre-fight press conference, so it just amped the intensity for what was about to unfold that night.
The bout itself didn't lend to much replay quality because Ortiz overwhelmed Shamrock from the very first minute of the fight, but each time they exchanged it was an exhilarating moment. The fight was stopped after the third round due to Shamrock absorbing too much punishment, and Ortiz was declared the winner. It didn't end the rivalry by any means because the two fighters ended up meeting two more times before old debts were finally settled.
The UFC 40 fight card also featured Chuck Liddell landing one of his most famous knockouts when he finished Renato 'Babalu' Sobral with a thunderous head kick in the first round to solidify his spot as the No. 1 contender at light heavyweight.
#12: UFC 31: Locked and Loaded
There have been a lot of great heavyweight fights in the history of the UFC, but there's no doubt that the main event of UFC 31 stands near the top of that list. Randy Couture battled Pedro Rizzo for over 25 minutes in a classic war of attrition where neither man wanted to give up an inch to the other. Couture ultimately came out on top by decision but not without his body enduring a mountain of punishment courtesy of Rizzo and his crippling striking attacks.
The card also featured a monstrous upset when Carlos Newton finished off multi-time defending welterweight champion Pat Miletich in the third round by bulldog choke, not to mention the second fight of the night saw the UFC debut of a young, scrawny Hawaiian scrapper by the name of BJ Penn. Penn blew through Joey Gilbert by TKO in the first round to kick off his historic UFC career. Another memorable knocked took place that night when Shonie Carter landed one of the most famous spinning back fists in history when he cold cocked Matt Serra in the third round with just nine seconds left on the clock.
#11: UFC on FOX: Velasquez vs. Dos Santos
If UFC 1 was the most important show in the history of mixed martial arts because it helped launch the promotion that stuck around for 20 years while leading the fight industry, the first ever UFC on FOX show isn't far behind.
The UFC was on cable television for years during their deal with Spike TV, but not until 2011 when they signed a landmark deal with FOX did they truly hit the next stratosphere as far as mainstream acceptance in the sports world. The promotion and broadcaster were so happy with their new partnership that they kicked things off a few months early with an inaugural event that featured a heavyweight title fight between Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos.
The main event ended almost as fast as it started with Dos Santos knocking out Velasquez in the first round, but the event as a whole could not be ignored for sheer magnitude. Add in a co-main event fight between Benson Henderson and Clay Guida that could have easily stolen the show on any card and the first ever UFC on FOX event was a winner. The ratings also returned the highest viewership for any MMA event broadcast in history so all in all this was one big win for the UFC.
#10: UFC 75: Rampage vs. Henderson
It was a historic moment at UFC 75 when Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson took on Dan Henderson to unify the UFC and Pride titles after Zuffa gobbled up the Japanese organization and brought it's roster of fighters to the Octagon. Henderson was the last ever Pride champion after he knocked out Wanderlei Silva, and Jackson had claimed the UFC belt following a win over Chuck Liddell.
Jackson and Henderson put on a show for the fans at the O2 arena in London, England, slugging back and forth over five full rounds. The fight may have been the defining moment in Jackson's career because after being criticized numerous times for his lackadaisical approach to training, he came into this fight in the best shape he's ever been and showed more heart battling Henderson than in any bout before or after the night was over.
While the show also featured one of the most controversial judging calls of all time (Michael Bisping vs. Matt Hamill), it also showcased one of the greatest comeback as well when Marcus Davis on the brink of being finished somehow survived the onslaught of Paul Taylor to stick around long enough to pull off a submission win late in the first round.
#9: UFC 136: Edgar vs. Maynard III
Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard will eternally be attached to each other after a pair of title fights in 2011, the latter of which took place at UFC 136 in Houston, Texas. Edgar and Maynard battled earlier in the year in one of the craziest fights to ever happen with the challenger almost finishing the champion on about three or four occasions in the first round. Somehow Edgar persevered and came back to bring the fight to Maynard, with the bout eventually ending in a draw. So they did it all over again in October with the first round of the fight almost looking like a carbon copy of the last one.
Maynard caught Edgar early, leaving the champion on wobbly legs struggling to survive the round. Because Edgar might be the most impossibly tough fighter on the UFC roster, he came back as the fight wore on and it was clear that not only was he not going away, he was going to find a way to win. Finally in the fourth round, Edgar clipped Maynard and continued to fire away until his opponent crumbled to the mat. Edgar earned the knockout victory to retain the title and pull off his second miraculous comeback inside of the same year.
Jose Aldo also defended his featherweight title against Kenny Florian on the card, in what proved to be Florian's final fight before retirement. Chael Sonnen submitted Brian Stann, while Joe Lauzon put a stop to Melvin Guillard's title hopes with a first round submission to kick off the pay-per-view card.
#8: UFC 116: Lesnar vs. Carwin
Brock Lesnar made his long awaited return to action at UFC 116 following his personal battle with the disease diverticulitis, that nearly ended his career. Lesnar was out for almost exactly a year while dealing with the ailment and in his stead heavyweight Shane Carwin stood head and shoulders above the crowd while winning the interim title by bashing Frank Mir via first round knockout.
Carwin almost accomplished the same feat when facing Lesnar because he knocked down the former NCAA champion in the first round and continued to pummel him on the ground for a few minutes while the referee kept a close eye on the fight to see if it needed to be stopped. Lesnar somehow survived and as the second round began, many wondered if this was the moment when the former WWE superstar would lose his first ever UFC title. The tables were turned in this round, however, as Lesnar came out strong and aggressive and put Carwin on the mat. Lesnar battled for position and eventually locked on an arm triangle choke that forced Carwin to surrender. Lesnar stood proud as champion, but also humbled by the moment after almost having it all taken away from him due to the disease he faced.
Also on the UFC 116 card, Chris Leben submitted Yoshihiro Akiyama in a classic fight that the former Ultimate Fighter season 1 cast member took just two weeks after his last bout where he knocked out Aaron Simpson. It was rare for any fighter to have that quick of a turnaround, but Leben made good on his decision with a third round triangle choke to finish Akiyama with only 20 seconds remaining.
#7: UFC 47: It's On! — Liddell vs. Ortiz
In the history of the UFC there may not have been a bigger rivalry than that between Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz. The two light heavyweights were formerly managed by the same man — future UFC president Dana White — and they were apparently good friends and training partners. That was the reason Ortiz gave again and again why he wasn't willing to face Liddell in the Octagon unless he was paid quite handsomely.
It turns out Liddell never considered Ortiz much of a friend and he was ready to sign on for the fight way earlier than it ever actually took place. So finally the two combatants came to a head at UFC 47 in Las Vegas in front of over 11,000 fans at the Mandalay Bay Events Center. The fight itself barely made it into the second round where Liddell bludgeoned Ortiz with a huge series of punches, trapping him against the side of the cage before he finally wilted under the pressure. Liddell stood proud finally finishing Ortiz and validating his desire to fight the former champion for quite some time.
Another very memorable fight on the card took place in the welterweight division when Nick Diaz took on Robbie Lawler. Diaz was known for his jiu-jitsu background while Lawler was a powerful striker that could take down any fighter with a single punch. That night, however, it was Diaz that got the best of Lawler and his combination to put the former Miletich Fighting System's trainer out cold still lives in infamy today. Diaz clocked Lawler with a straight punch, and he fell straight forward on the canvas, planting his face right in the center of the Octagon.
An interesting side note to this show — it was actually supposed to feature a heavyweight title bout between Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski but the bout was scrapped at the last minute when Sylvia tested positive for banned substances. In a rush the UFC moved Arlovski to a new fight against Wesley 'Cabbage' Correira, which he won in the second round via TKO.
#6: UFC 1: The Beginning
Without UFC 1, there wouldn't be a UFC 100 or a UFC 166 for that matter. This historic event took place on November 12, 1993 from the McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Colorado. The attendance that night was just a shade over 2,800 fans, but it was the genesis for a sport that would one day become mixed martial arts and a world wide phenomenon.
The show was billed as a 'no-holds barred, anything goes' tournament where the only way a fight could end was either by submission, knockout, throwing in the towel or by referee's stoppage due to a severe cut or bleeding. The entire show was developed in large part by the Gracie family — a famed group of Brazilians that had developed their own style of submission fighting called Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and this tournament was meant to serve as an introduction for the rest of the world what grapplers could do to any martial artist they faced on a given night.
As it turns out the plot worked perfectly because Royce Gracie — all 6-feet, 175 pounds of him — won the tournament by coming out victorious in three straight bouts. The craziest part about the show is that not a single fight even made it to the five minute mark, and only two fights in total made it past the two minute plateau.
Gracie won the first UFC in a total time spent in the cage of four minutes and 59 seconds winning all three bouts by submission. This single event was integral to the growth and development of mixed martial arts as a sport and of course for the UFC as a promotion.
#5: UFC 79: GSP vs. Hughes, Liddell vs. Silva
Georges St-Pierre put an end to his trilogy of bouts against former welterweight champion Matt Hughes at UFC 79 after accepting the fight on short notice following then title holder Matt Serra being forced out due to injury. St-Pierre was split at one win a piece with Hughes going into the night, but when it was over he left no doubt who was the superior fighter. St-Pierre beat Hughes to the punch, to the takedown and eventually to the submission where he finished the fight in the second round due to armbar.
The most highly anticipated fight on the card wasn't even the main event, however, as Chuck Liddell and Wanderlei Silva finally met after years of dancing around each other as the part of separate promotions. The fight lived up to everybody's expectations. Liddell and Silva threw heavy leather from bell to bell, and the lone bad part about the bout was that it only lasted 15 minutes. Liddell won a unanimous decision but the real winners that night were the fans in attendance and those watching at home because everyone witnessed something special at UFC 79.
#4: UFC 92: Griffin vs. Evans
Two former Ultimate Fighter winners who made good on their careers met in the main event of this historic show as season one winner Forrest Griffin looked to make his first title defense as light heavyweight champion against season two winner Rashad Evans. Also on the card, Frank Mir tried to prove that he was the superior fighter all along when he met fellow Ultimate Fighter coach Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. One of the nastiest rivals in fight history also came to a close that night when Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson faced Wanderlei Silva.
Evans got the best of Griffin that night to win the title, but it didn't come without a battle. Throughout the first few rounds, Griffin used superior boxing and reach to keep Evans at arms length and beat him from the outside. It wasn't until the third round that Evans finally got Griffin on the ground, and it's there that he unloaded a barrage of punches that took its toll on the champion. Evans punched away until Griffin's arms went limp and he had no choice but to tap out. Frank Mir also proved his worth in the heavyweight division with a stifling and surprising performance to out strike Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.
Nogueira's boxing prowess was well known going into the fight but it was Mir's quickness that gave the Brazilian huge problems in every exchange. Mir finally put a stop to the fight in the second round.
After two losses to Wanderlei Silva in Pride Fighting Championships, Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson finally got his revenge when the two met at UFC 92. Jackson fired off an explosive punch midway throught he first round that absolutely crushed Silva's jaw. The former Pride fighter fell to the mat as Jackson continued the assault until the referee stopped the fight. Jackson earned his victory and a knockout of the night bonus to boot.
#3: UFC 52: Couture vs. Liddell II
Following the first season of The Ultimate Fighter season 1, the coaches from the reality show were scheduled to meet in a rematch at UFC 52 in Las Vegas. Randy Couture, who had surprised the entire world when he TKO'd Chuck Liddell almost two years earlier, was returning for a rematch and trying to repeat his performance. Liddell meanwhile was looking for redemption after a poor showing against Couture the last time out that cost him the UFC light heavyweight title.
Liddell didn't disappoint this time around, however, as he knocked out Couture in the first round to become champion and cap off the first season of The Ultimate Fighter in emphatic fashion.
Also on the card, Matt Hughes battled Frank Trigg for the welterweight title in a bout where the heat between the two fighters was all too real and not a single part of their hatred for each other was staged. Early in the fight during one exchange, Trigg tagged Hughes below the belt, but the referee didn't see it and so the fight continued. Trigg came after Hughes with a storm of shots, trying to finish the UFC's welterweight champion, and at one point he even had him locked up in a rear naked choke. Miraculously, Hughes survived the onslaught and came back with a huge slam later in the same round before choking out Trigg to defend the belt. It was not only one of the best fights of all time, but an amazing comeback by a legendary UFC champion.
The card also featured Georges St-Pierre in a bout against the always interesting Jason 'Mayhem' Miller. Despite Miller's odd attacks and off putting style, St-Pierre dominated the colorful fighter over three rounds to get the best of him by decision. All told, the show featured six finishes over the eight fight card.
#2: UFC 100: Lesnar vs. Mir, Georges St-Pierre vs. Thiago Alves
It was a special moment in 2009 when the UFC celebrated their 100th pay-per-view with the epic event that featured two title fights and the grudge match to end all grudge matches between Dan Henderson and Michael Bisping. The card was stacked from top to bottom including the company's two top pay-per-view draws at the time with Brock Lesnar battling Frank Mir for the UFC heavyweight title while Georges St-Pierre took on Thiago Alves with the welterweight belt on the line.
The show was hyped as something special and it certainly delivered on all levels. Lesnar busted up and bloodied Frank Mir en route to a defense of his heavyweight title. It was a rivalry fueled by bad blood and vengeance after Mir had submitted Lesnar in his first UFC fight. Lesnar got his revenge that night and put an exclamation point on the victory when he celebrated directly in Mir's face after the fight was stopped. While Lesnar didn't earn any points for sportsmanship, he created an iconic image as he directed his finger at Mir's bloodied and battered face.
Also on the card, Georges St-Pierre put on another workman like performance besting top contender Thiago Alves while Dan Henderson landed one of the greatest and most memorable knockouts in UFC history when he flattened Michael Bisping with his signature right hand in the second round. All told, UFC 100 was a tremendous night of fights and a landmark moment for the UFC.
#1: UFC 166: Velasquez vs. Dos Santos III
Call it prisoner of the moment because this show literally just happened, but it's hard to ignore the sheer magnitude of what happened during this awe inspired card. From top to bottom, the athletes competing at UFC 166 gave everything they had until the final bell sounded or the referee was tearing one of them off the other to stop the fight. In a card showcasing 13 total fights, eight fights were finished within the distance and of course there was the knock down, drag out slug fest between Gilbert Melendez and Diego Sanchez that left the entire crowd in Houston, Texas on their feet.
Cain Velasquez battered Junior Dos Santos to defend his heavyweight title and define one of the greatest heavyweight rivalries in UFC history. Jessica Eye and Sarah Kaufman battled in a display of pure technique and will in the women's bantamweight division, and there were some vicious knockouts courtesy of Hector Lombard, John Dodson and Adlan Amagov.
"Without a doubt the greatest night of fights we have ever had," UFC president Dana White said after the event ended. "From the first fight of the night, right up to the heavyweight championship, it's the best fight card we have ever had."
Leave it to the UFC president to say what everyone had to be thinking that night. UFC 166 was something special and it now lives on as the greatest fight night in UFC history (for now).