My top 10 favorite moments in UFC history
This is a little out of the ordinary. Most of the time when a sports writer is asked to compile a list, it’s subjective. I mean, who’s to say what the greatest knockout in MMA history really is? It’s something different to everyone. And really, a list is just meant to incite debate — for the reader to say, "hey, this guy is spot on" or "man, this dude has no idea what he’s talking about."
This particular list isn’t anything like that. It’s not just subjective. It’s personal. The UFC editors here at FOX Sports didn’t ask me to compile a list of the greatest moments in UFC history. No, that has been done before, umpteen times.
This set of 10 is not the best moments ever in the UFC. Some of them are far from that. And, well, one wasn’t in the UFC at all. But since this is my list, I can do what I want.
Below you’ll find my favorite UFC moments. Most were not necessarily significant in the annals of UFC lore. But, for whatever reason, they stood out to me.
10. Randy Couture chokes out James Toney in the first round
I mean, we all knew what was going to happen, right? Randy Couture was going to get a hold of James Toney and make him regret ever wanting to step in the Octagon. There was no way around it. Toney was a boxer, a very good one in his prime, but he had taken up MMA just months (weeks?) earlier. Some even whispered that he barely trained at all and was just looking for a payday.
Still, there were nerves. What if Toney caught Couture with one punch and finished the fight just like that? It was a longshot, but not completely out of the realm of possibility. My father and stepmother took me to Boston for my 26th birthday to hang out at the UFC Expo and see Couture-Toney (and Frankie Edgar vs. B.J. Penn II) at the TD Garden.
I remember feeling some of those butterflies in my stomach when Couture walked out. It was the first time I had seen him fight live and I knew he wouldn’t be around much longer. (He lasted just one more fight, actually). "The Natural" had to take care of business. MMA, the sport I loved, needed him to do it. One of the best UFC champions ever couldn’t lose to a boxer. And he didn’t. It happened how most expected. When it was over, of course I cheered. But it was more like a feeling of relief.
9. UFC 1
I didn’t watch this when it first aired on pay-per-view. I was 9 years old when the UFC debuted in November 1993 in Denver, Colo. It wasn’t until a few years later when my dad and I stumbled upon these weird VHS tapes at Blockbuster, nestled in between pro wrestling and MLB highlight videos. We really had no idea what the Ultimate Fighting Championship was at the time. Who was that weird guy on the box in his pajamas?
I had long been a pro wrestling fan and this seemed to be something similar, except real. And raw. I wasn’t a teen yet, but my dad agreed to rent UFC 1. We took it home, popped it into the VCR and watched Royce Gracie do some pretty incredible things. My dad and I didn’t like Gracie at the time. We hated how he used his gi for leverage on the ground. We felt his fights were boring, but we also knew he was almost unbeatable. For us, Gracie became what a great pro wrestling heel should be — someone you want to see get beaten up.
Oh and also, my father and I were hooked. We didn’t miss the live UFC events on pay-per-view from then on. The UFC has been a big part of the relationship I have with him and it all started with UFC 1.
8. UFC 116
UFC 100 is the July 4 weekend card that everyone remembers. Brock Lesnar beat Frank Mir to unify the UFC heavyweight title. Georges St-Pierre had a dominant victory over Thiago Alves to retain his welterweight title. And Dan Henderson came up with one of the most memorable knockouts in MMA history when he starched Michael Bisping — and followed it up with an arguably dirty punch on the ground.
But it was the year after UFC 100 that stands out to me most for some reason. I’ve always had a soft spot for the underdog (more on that later) and comeback stories. Not just because those are the best stories to tell for a journalist, either. Brock Lesnar was certainly not the underdog in the co-main event UFC 116, but his comeback against Shane Carwin is still, in my mind, one of the best rallies in UFC history.
Carwin absolutely crushed Lesnar in the first round. Lesnar’s face was bleeding. He was on his back. Carwin pounded away. But he couldn’t finish him. In the second round, Lesnar came out, took Carwin down and submitted him with an arm triangle. It was validation for Lesnar that not only was he a ridiculously athletic beast of a man, but he was also tough as nails, too. Combine that victory with a wildly entertaining fight between Chris Leben (who fought three weeks earlier) and Yoshihiro Akiyama and Chris Lytle submitting Matt Brown and it remains one of the most exciting UFC cards ever. At least in my mind.
7. Chuck Liddell knocks out Tito Ortiz at UFC 66
For me, this is when the UFC became semi-mainstream. I had been watching MMA since before the acronym "MMA" had even been coined. But very few friends of mine even knew what it was and the ones who did were not exactly willing to spend $40 or so to watch a few fights on pay-per-view. Liddell-Ortiz II, though, piqued the public interest. Liddell was becoming a mainstream star and Ortiz was close to that as well.
People forget how popular Liddell, Ortiz and Randy Couture were during the mid-2000s. Those three guys got the UFC over the hump and helped make it into the financial success it is today. UFC 66, at the time, was the UFC’s most successful event from a monetary standpoint. It drew more than 1 million buys for the first time. Mainstream media outlets were talking and writing about it.
It was the first time I felt like it was cool to be a UFC fan. No longer did it feel like this cult sport that most people didn’t know about where I grew up in New York City.
6. The ‘Showtime’ Kick
Alright, I know. This wasn’t actually in the UFC. Anthony Pettis pulled off what I believe is the greatest move in MMA history against Benson Henderson at the final WEC event in December 2010. WEC was owned by Zuffa at the time and Pettis and Henderson were UFC fighters literally right after the fight ended. Plus, this is my list, so I’m counting it.
I had never seen anything like what Pettis did to Henderson on that night in Arizona. I remember watching the fights at a Hooters with an ex-girlfriend (weird, right?) and being absolutely in awe of what just happened. Too bad Pettis pulled off this amazing kick before gifs became popular. He would have been an internet sensation. In a way, he was anyway. People were sharing that video left and right. It made ESPN, which was basically unheard of for WEC at the time.
Explaining the "Showtime" Kick doesn’t really do it justice. Pettis jumped up toward the cage and kicked off it with his right leg, which he swung around and landed on Henderson’s chin. The most amazing thing about it, though, was that it came in the fifth round of a lightweight title fight. And the bout, at that point, was still up in the air. Pettis didn’t finish Henderson with something out of an action movie, but he won the belt because of it. It was the equivalent of a walk-off, inside-the-park home run in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series. Freakish. There might be nothing like it ever again.
5. Zuffa buys PRIDE
Unlike everything else on this list, this is not something that happened inside the Octagon. But it was so important to future goings-on inside said Octagon. Some newer UFC fans don’t realize that PRIDE might have been the No. 1 MMA organization in the world during stretches of the early 2000s. When the UFC announced it would be buying the Japanese organization in 2007, it changed the sport forever.
No longer would fans have to wonder who would win between their favorite fighters in different organizations. Mirko Cro Cop, Wanderlei Silva, Dan Henderson, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, the Nogueira brothers and Takanori Gomi were all coming to the UFC. At the time, all of those men were at or near the top of their divisions. Some felt they were better than their UFC counterparts.
We all know what happened next. The PRIDE stars never quite lived up to all the hype. Forrest Griffin choked out "Shogun." Gabriel Gonzaga used Cro Cop’s own trademark left head kick on Cro Cop. The point is, though, that we needed to see these matchups. It was a similar feeling when the UFC swallowed Strikeforce and WEC. But neither of those organizations ever reached the popularity of PRIDE.
4. Ronda Rousey’s debut
This wasn’t just about Ronda Rousey. It was about all women in athletics. We all know the story by now. UFC president Dana White had said numerous times that women would never compete in his organization. It wasn’t a question of sexism. It was a business decision. Rousey changed his mind and has become the biggest star in the UFC. Not one of the biggest. The absolute biggest.
First, though, she had to debut and I remember getting goosebumps when I watched from home as she walked to the Octagon against Liz Carmouche at UFC 157 in February 2013. My fan hat had long been put away. I was covering MMA at the time for the New York Post. Before the fight, Rousey’s photo, with a refer to my story in the sports section, was on page 3 of the paper. That was the first time any kind of MMA had been that close to the front of one of the biggest newspapers in the country.
Rousey can draw that kind of attention. She’s the only one in the UFC who can do it. Rousey is doing movies now and looks to have a really successful career ahead of her in that. But she remains one of the most dominant champions in MMA. Her 16-second knockout of Alexis Davis at UFC 175 in July was flat-out awesome.
A friend of mine, Dave Freeman, is a well-known official scorekeeper for the Yankees and Mets. I ran into him at Yankee Stadium back in the spring while I was there covering a game. He told me he doesn’t follow many sports anymore, but the one person he makes sure to watch compete is Rousey. She just has that "it" factor, transcending demographics.
3. Anderson Silva knocks out Forrest Griffin
Philadelphia fans are some of the hardest to please in the country. Maybe the world. When Anderson Silva walked out at UFC 101 to face Forrest Griffin, he was booed lustily by the crowd. When it was over, though, Silva had won the hearts of the masses with what I believe is still one of the most impressive performances in UFC history. Silva’s undressing of Griffin, a former UFC light heavyweight champion, is a video I still show to new UFC fans because Silva looked almost inhuman.
The way "The Spider" ducked and evaded Griffin’s punches, it was almost like Silva was living in The Matrix and Griffin was just hapless to even lay a finger on him. Silva’s defining knockout — a front kick to the face against Vitor Belfort — didn’t come until two years after this, but this remains my favorite Silva performance. When Silva knocked Griffin down and then offered to pick him back up, I was in awe.
My friend Travis and I drove down to Philly from New York to watch this fight. He was (and still is) a huge B.J. Penn fan and Penn was fighting Florian in the main event. Silva was an afterthought at the time. He had come off two lackluster fights against Thales Leites and Patrick Cote. People were questioning whether he still had it. The two of us and everyone else in Philadelphia found out the answer to that against Griffin. The performance was pure magic, almost literally.
2. Frankie Edgar rallies to knock out Gray Maynard
Remember before when I said I had a soft-spot for underdog stories? Well, to me, Frankie Edgar is the ultimate MMA underdog tale. Edgar was a 5-foot-6 featherweight masquerading as a lightweight. He wasn’t particularly athletic. But he got — and is still getting — every last ounce of potential out of his natural gifts. Edgar stunned B.J. Penn for the UFC lightweight title in April 2010 and was the underdog again four months later when he successfully defended the belt against Penn.
Those were incredible moments for the kid from Toms River, N.J. But his last two fights against Gray Maynard were a testament to his heart and guts. Maynard beat Edgar rather easily two years earlier. Everyone figured he’d do it again in February 2011. He was so much bigger and stronger. He had more power. He was even a better wrestler — and that was Edgar’s biggest strength.
Maynard destroyed Edgar in that first round, like everyone thought. He hit him with everything he had. Blood all over and his nose broken, Edgar kept getting back up. He survived that round and launched a comeback that ended up earning him a draw. It was the Fight of the Year. How could Edgar come back after Maynard won the first round 10-8 and came within a hair of ending the fight?
The two would need one more fight to decide things. This time, in October 2011, Edgar wouldn’t be so lucky, everyone thought. Maynard was better and he showed it again in the first round, pummeling Edgar within inches of the fight being stopped. Edgar was bloody again, stumbling around like in the last fight. And then he was coming back again, too. A little at first and then all at once. Edgar landed a big right hand in the fourth that sent Maynard reeling against the cage. He landed another and Maynard was out.
Edgar never had a clean KO like that in his career and hasn’t had one since. Yet he did it after getting demolished by a much bigger, stronger man for five minutes straight. "The Answer" wasn’t just incredible on that night. He was inspirational to another short, Italian American kid from the Tri-State area (yours truly) and many others.
1. B.J. Penn makes quick work of Caol Uno
B.J. Penn’s lightweight title eliminator wasn’t the main event of UFC 34. It wasn’t even the co-main event. Randy Couture successfully defended his heavyweight title on Nov. 2, 2001 against Pedro Rizzo in a great fight. Matt Hughes memorably knocked out Carlos Newton with a slam on the same night in Las Vegas. But Penn’s 11-second steamrolling of Caol Uno is what stands out to me most.
There’s a backstory here. I was a senior in high school at the time and my friends and I got together to watch at my place. We did what teens did. Grabbed a few beers, ordered pizza and enjoyed the hell out of some dudes punching each other in the face. The only problem was the next day was the SAT. I walked into Bayside High School the next morning with quite the hangover, but smiling on the inside after seeing this crazy athletic Hawaiian guy just mash one of the best lightweights in the world.
What happened next is obvious. I bombed the SAT and now, instead of being a lawyer or doctor, I’m a reporter covering the same sport that doomed me in the world of academia. Ironic, right?
OK, it didn’t quite happen that way. As much as I love a good story, that narrative is incomplete. The point is, though, the UFC has had a profound affect on my life. In July, I got to cover Penn’s last fight against — who else? — Frankie Edgar.
It’s funny how things come full circle, isn’t it?