Barely a decade ago, the Ultimate Fighting Championship was looked at as little more than a freak show — a human cockfight that drew the attention of a few bloodthirsty video store browsers and a government boycott committee spearheaded by John McCain himself. Now, this fight club is the fastest rising sport in American history, a pay-per-view juggernaut and the pinnacle of a billion dollar industry. And UFC President Dana White has these 10 fights — along with some shrewd business decisions — to thank for this monumental success. 10. Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz — UFC 47
One of UFC’s first great rivalries, the war between “The Iceman” and “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” started long before this 2004 showdown. Friends and training partners early on, Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz broke into the fight game together, but when it came time for Tito to put his UFC Light Heavyweight Championship on the line against his pal, he refused, claiming that the two had made a pact never to fight. Liddell said he had no idea what Tito was talking about, but the two men wouldn’t meet in the cage until after Ortiz had lost his title to Randy Couture. When they finally did throw down, it became apparent why Tito ducked Chuck as “The Iceman” obliterated the California-native with one of his devastating punches early in the second round. Living up to its ample hype, the brawl announced Liddell as a heavy-handed antihero and Ortiz as a fighter fans would pay to hate.
9. Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen — UFC 117
Built up like a professional wrestling match thanks to the “Rowdy” Roddy Piper-inspired microphone theatrics of the always controversial Chael Sonnen, the August 2010 bout between UFC Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva and his trash talking adversary could have easily fallen flat after months of hype. After all, Silva had been sluggish and distracted in many of his recent fights and Sonnen’s bark could have been much worse than his bite. Instead, the fight was an overnight classic. A five-round war, the bout was dominated by Sonnen for the first four rounds as he continually scored with huge takedowns. Yet, just when it seemed like the powerhouse was going to back up his big mouth, “The Spider” latched on a triangle armbar with minutes to go in the fifth. It was a dramatic ending that proved Sonnen was a worthy challenger and Silva was a true champion.
8. B.J. Penn vs. Georges St. Pierre — UFC 58
Returning to UFC after leaving the promotion due to what he claimed was a lack of competition, B.J. Penn stood across the cage from a man who would give him more than he could handle — Georges St. Pierre. Meeting in March of 2006 to determine the No. 1 contender to Matt Hughes’ Welterweight Championship, “The Prodigy” and St. Pierre were both eager for the opportunity and this meeting proved it. Back and forth for three tense rounds, the bout could have been a showcase for the gifted Penn. Instead, it was St. Pierre who won out, winning a close split decision and announcing himself to the world as a fighter to watch.
7. Forrest Griffin vs. Quinton Jackson — UFC 86
Forrest Griffin deserved this. Long a favorite of UFC fans, the grinning big man had cultivated a reputation as an exciting brawler since his debut on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, but Griffin wouldn’t get a shot at championship glory until this bout against “Rampage” in July of 2008. Thrilling from the jump off, Forrest went down early in the first when Jackson connected with a blistering uppercut, but the warrior refused to stay down. Mounting a comeback, Griffin blasted “Rampage” with a leg kick in the second and then dominated the Light Heavyweight Champion for every round after that, eventually winning a grueling fight — and the title — by unanimous decision. [pagebreak] 6. Randy Couture vs. Chuck Liddell — UFC 43
The first fight of one of UFC’s greatest trilogies, Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture met for the interim UFC Light Heavyweight Championship in the town of Paradise, Nevada, in June of 2003. Slumping in the heavyweight division at the time, Couture cut down to 205 pounds for this clash, which many thought would put “The Natural” at a disadvantage. Instead, the wrestling specialist surprised many by out-punching “The Iceman” before ground-and-pounding his lights out. With the victory, Couture became the first man to knockout “The Iceman” and the first UFC fighter to win a title in two different weight classes. Liddell would get his revenge, though, smashing Couture in both of their following fights.
5. Diego Sanchez vs. Clay Guida — The Ultimate Fighter 9 Finale
Celebrated as two of the most exciting fighters on Dana White’s roster, brawlers Diego Sanchez and Clay Guida did not disappoint the UFC faithful when they finally clashed in June of 2009. Immediately physical, this violent bout saw both lightweights trading serious bombs in the opening minutes before Sanchez connected with a head kick that nearly removed Guida’s trademark curly locks. Down but not out, “The Carpenter” rallied and saw to it that the fight went the distance. In the end, Sanchez claimed the victory by split-decision, but both warriors shared “Fight of the Night” honors and effusive praise from Dana White and MMA fans worldwide.
4. Randy Couture vs. Tim Sylvia — UFC 68
This is the UFC’s “Rocky” moment. Forty-three years of age at the time, Randy Couture returned to the cage a year after a brutal knockout loss to Chuck Liddell to face the massive Tim Sylvia for the UFC Heavyweight Title. A proud, but plodding champion, Sylvia was younger, bigger and stronger than “The Natural,” but this was Couture’s night. Knocking his 6-foot-8 opponent down as soon as the fight began, Couture controlled the fight from there, outmaneuvering Sylvia for five rounds before winning the fight by a unanimous decision. “Captain America” claimed a record third UFC Heavyweight Championship that March night and another spot in the MMA history books. [pagebreak] 3. Matt Hughes vs. Frank Trigg — UFC 52
Dana White has called this 2005 Welterweight Title rematch between champion Matt Hughes and challenger Frank Trigg his favorite fight of all time and it’s no surprise why. Although it only lasted for four minutes, the battle was nonstop action with Trigg taking early advantage of his opponent and nearly beating him with a rear naked choke. Hughes refused to surrender, though, and with an amazing burst of strength he hoisted Trigg up, ran him across the cage and slammed him to the ground. The fighting champion then slapped on his own rear naked choke to secure a hard-fought victory over Trigg.
2. Chuck Liddell vs. Wanderlei Silva — UFC 79
By the time UFC 79 rolled around in December of 2007, Chuck Liddell had been written off as a wash-up. Once the most feared man in the Octagon, Liddell had fallen in his last two fights and seemed to have lost the killer instinct that once made him great. So a dream match between “The Iceman” and vicious Brazilian headhunter Wanderlei Silva seemed to come a few years too late. Yet, the showdown between two of the greatest light heavyweights in MMA history somehow managed to exceed the hype with both warriors standing and banging for three brutal rounds. Moving like he did in his prime, Liddell stood strong against his rival and scored the victory by split decision. It was the last big win of his UFC career, but one fans will never forget.
1. Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar — The Ultimate Fighter 1 Finale
What else? The fight that gave the UFC the final push it needed to reach the prominence it enjoys today, the live showdown between The Ultimate Fighter 1 contestants Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar was an all-out war. Trading fists as soon as the fight started, both hopefuls made it clear that they were prepared to leave it all in the Octagon for a chance at a UFC contract. Brutal and thrilling for three rounds, the bout actually caused television ratings to raise exponentially round by round, meaning viewers were calling their friends and saying, “Turn on your TV. You gotta see this.” Griffin won the brawl — and the competition — by decision, but Dana White was so impressed that he offered both fighters UFC deals.