By Adam Martin
“That might be the greatest title fight in the history of the light heavyweight division — and I don’t even know who won! What an incredible fight!”
Those are the words UFC color-commentator Joe Rogan uttered last weekend at the end of the five-round epic at UFC 165 between UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and challenger Alexander Gustafsson, a fight Jones won via razor-thin unanimous decision.
Although Rogan is often known for his hyperbole, he might have been dead-on that night. Was “Bones” vs. “The Mauler” really the greatest 205-pound title fight in the history of the Ultimate Fighting Championship? To determine the veracity of that statement, I went back and watched the best light heavyweight fights ever held inside the Octagon, and after countless hours of tape study, I feel as though I’ve come up with a very fair list.
Below I’ve listed what in my opinion are the top 10 light heavyweight fights in UFC history based on a mixed criteria of competitiveness, excitement level, hype, how the fight played out in comparison to its expectations, and how it ended. So without any further ado, let’s get started…
Kicking off the list is the controversial first fight between Lyoto Machida and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, a fight that still ranks up there with the worst-all time judging decisions in MMA history.
Machida had just knocked out Rashad Evans at UFC 98 and, in the fateful words of Joe Rogan, the “Machida Era” had commenced. However, “Shogun” had a thing or two to say about that as the former PRIDE star was coming off of two TKO wins over Hall of Famers Chuck Liddell and Mark Coleman, and he wanted to prove to everyone it was he, not Machida, who was the best light heavyweight in the world at the time.
For five rounds, Machida and “Shogun” went toe-to-toe in the Octagon and although Machida definitely had his moments in the match, it appeared to most observers that there would be a new light heavyweight champion crowned, as Rua landed a ton of brutal leg kicks to Machida that left the champ’s torso and thighs looking like a bruised peach.
But while “Shogun” arguably won every round of the fight, the judges somehow saw the fight in favor of Machida, with all three scoring the bout 48-47 in favor of “The Dragon” despite the volume of leg kicks thrown by Rua, leading judge Cecil People to idiotically declare that leg kicks don’t finish fights. UFC president Dana White saw things differently, however, and set up an immediate rematch at UFC 113 where Rua KO’d Machida into oblivion — a happy ending to an infamous screwjob.
The UFC promoted this fight as a title unification bout between Jackson, who had just won the UFC title from Chuck Liddell via first-round TKO at UFC 71, and Henderson, who was a two-division champ coming over from PRIDE. But even though it was a title fight, since it took place in England the UFC decided to put the tape-delayed event on SPIKE TV instead of pay-per-view, which turned out to be a great idea as 4.7 million viewers tuned in to watch what became one of the biggest MMA fights in TV history.
The match delivered as much action as it promised, with Henderson and “Rampage” going back-and-forth for five rounds with both men displaying their excellence in striking and wrestling. After it was all said and done, “Rampage” won a unanimous decision, a victory that gave him the only successful defense of his UFC light heavyweight title. As for Henderson, he finally earned another crack at the UFC light heavyweight title in 2012 — a full five years after the fight with Rampage — but after the fiasco of UFC 151 he never ended up getting his shot at the belt. And at 43 years old now and coming off of two losses, it’s doubtful that he will again.
Rampage’s next outing was his five-round battle at UFC 86 against Forrest Griffin, which followed a coaching stint on The Ultimate Fighter season seven — the same show that rocketed Griffin to stardom just three years earlier.
Griffin entered the fight as a big underdog, as most fans thought Jackson’s knockout power and wrestling skills would make it an easy second title defense for him. But the fight sure didn’t play out that way, as Griffin used leg kicks and submission attempts to make it competitive throughout and a true coin-flip on the judges’ cards.
At the end of five rounds, Griffin was announced the winner by unanimous decision and in the process became the second TUF winner to win a UFC title (after Matt Serra the previous year). However, the fight was not without controversy as “Rampage” and many media and fans felt he should have won the decision.
But he didn’t, and that night at UFC 86 was the last time Jackson would ever hold a UFC belt. As for Griffin, he fought another TUF winner, Rashad Evans, in his first title defense at UFC 92, and was knocked out. And, like Jackson, he never came close to sniffing the belt ever again.
The seventh fight on this list is one of three bouts to feature current UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, and it only came together as a result of the debacle that was UFC 151. Jones had been set to face Dan Henderson at UFC 151, but “Hendo” pulled out of the fight just a week earlier and Jones refused to face Chael Sonnen on short notice. After Lyoto Machida refused to fight Jones for a second time on short notice, the UFC then recruited middleweight Vitor Belfort to move back up to 205 and try to win back the UFC light heavyweight championship, a belt he held briefly in 2004 when he “stopped” Randy Couture with a cut at UFC 46.
Belfort wasn’t supposed to stand a chance in the matchup, but in the first round he caught Jones in a tight armbar and nearly shocked the world. However, Jones — even though he damaged his arm in the process — fought through the early adversity and then poured it on a game Belfort until the fourth round, when the champ was able to coax a stoppage with a keylock submission.
Although he did win, the fight wasn’t as one-sided as Jones’s previous conquests and it showed that the champ was vulnerable and not as unstoppable as many had previously thought, a point which was driven home in his most recent fight against Alexander Gustafsson. As for Belfort, he used the loss to Jones as fuel for a run at middleweight and he’s since knocked out Michael Bisping and Luke Rockhold in scintillating fashion to emerge as one of the top contenders at 185 pounds.
6. Jon Jones vs. Lyoto Machida, UFC 140
(Photo via Tracy Lee/Yahoo!)
2011 saw Jon Jones choke out Ryan Bader, become light heavyweight champion with a TKO of Shogun Rua, and stop Quinton Jackson with a fourth-round rear-naked choke. For an encore performance, he would have his fourth fight of the year against Lyoto Machida. It turned out to be by far his most difficult match to date, as the elusive Machida was able to outstrike Jones in round one and even rock the young champion at one point, something which no one else had ever done to him inside the Octagon.
But Jones battled back hard and in the second round he began taking it to Machida before snatching “The Dragon’s” neck in a standing guillotine choke. As soon as the referee told Jones to break, he let the choke go and Machida dropped to the canvas, unconscious and with his eyes pointing into nowhere. Jones, meanwhile, just walked away.
Jones has since made four more title defenses to break the former record held by Tito Ortiz, proving without a doubt he is the greatest light heavyweight fighter in the history of the sport. As for Machida, he’s since dropped down to 185 pounds as he looks to become the third fighter in UFC history to win belts in two different weight classes after Randy Couture and BJ Penn previously accomplished the feat.
On the next page: A record-breaking rematch, Tito battles the Shamrocks, and the greatest 205-pound title war is revealed…