5. Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz II, UFC 66
(Photo via Getty)
The title-fight rematch between Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz was so popular amongst fans that it became the first UFC event to ever sell over one million pay-per-view buys; it also did a gate of over $5.4 million which, at the time, was the gold standard for MMA events in North America.
The feud between Liddell and Ortiz had grown to epic proportions, and although Liddell did knock Ortiz out in their first fight at UFC 47, Ortiz felt he could still beat Liddell. At UFC 66, Ortiz definitely gave Liddell a hell of a fight during the peak of The Iceman’s career.
Although Ortiz ultimately fell short and was TKO’d late in the third round, he showed improved toughness and gave the fans a show, ultimately the most important consideration in the fight business. By the way, the fight would also mark the last time Ortiz competed for a UFC title.
As for Liddell, this fight marked the start of his decline as he would go on to lose five of the final six bouts of his storied career. Known for his heavy hands, UFC 66 was the last time Liddell ever earned a stoppage victory in the Octagon.
The classic brawl at UFC 22 between Frank Shamrock and Tito Ortiz is the only fight on this list to take place before the year 2000 (it happened in September 1999), and the only fight on this list to actually be for the old UFC “middleweight” title; however, that’s the same belt that would eventually become the current light heavyweight title, so it’s fair game to be included on the list.
The fight was scheduled for five rounds between the young buck Ortiz and the young vet Shamrock, who had defended his belt three times before taking on “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy.” And it turned out to be one of the greatest fights in UFC history as it featured both men displaying all the skills of a well-rounded mixed martial artist years ahead of their time.
Even though Ortiz had all the hype behind him and was thought to have the physical edge, Shamrock proved he was the better man as he was able to take Ortiz into the deep waters and force him to tap to strikes late in the fourth round for his fourth successful title defense.
Shamrock retired after the bout and briefly left the UFC without a middleweight champion. At UFC 25 Ortiz would fight Wanderlei Silva and win the vacant title. Ortiz would then go on to break Shamrock’s record for UFC light heavyweight title defenses, even though he never actually beat “The Legend” inside the cage.
What a war this was!
Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock were ultimate rivals just when the UFC needed them the most, and the pair helped the company jump out of the dark ages by promoting what was, at the time, “the biggest fight in UFC history” according to UFC play-by-play commentator Mike Goldberg. And “Goldie” backed up his claim by announcing a then-record attendance at MGM Grand Garden Arena of 14,000 before the pair faced off in the main event of UFC 40.
The hype-loaded build-up to the fight was incredible, and in the early years of MMA, it was by far the most-anticipated fight on the planet. Even thought I was only 14 years old when it happened, I remember the buzz surrounding this fight, mainly because of Shamrock’s involvement in pro wrestling, and I remember buying the hype; everyone did.
Luckily, the fight turned out to be as good as advertised, with Shamrock and Ortiz exchanging wildly early in the first round to the crowd’s delight, before Ortiz took advantage of his superior strength and conditioning, winning the fight via corner stoppage TKO after three rounds despite Shamrock exhibiting what Joe Rogan called “the heart of a lion” during the match, surviving an extended assault at the hands (and feet, and elbows, and knees) of Ortiz.
The pair would fight two more times, each time Ortiz winning by knockout, and although the 0-3 trilogy result for Shamrock looks awful, the record doesn’t speak to the importance of this fight right when the UFC needed a boost the most, and that’s why it deserves to be ranked at #3 among the all-time greatest 205-pound title fights.
The second-best light heavyweight title fight in UFC history was the first fight between Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture, which took place at UFC 43 all the way back in 2003. And, even though it took place more than a decade ago, it’s still one of the greatest fights I’ve ever seen with my two eyes.
Although Liddell was the No. 1 contender for the title, Tito Ortiz wouldn’t fight him for whatever reason and instead the UFC booked an interim title fight between Liddell and former UFC heavyweight champion Randy Couture, who had been chased down to 205 after losing two-straight fights to Josh Barnett and Ricco Rodriguez.
Couture entered the fight against the streaking Liddell as the underdog, but UFC 43 turned out to be another one of those magical nights for The Natural, who showed solid boxing and wrestling skills that surprised everyone, but most of all Liddell, who showed up to the fight out of shape and unprepared for what Couture had in store for him.
And that was a mistake, as Couture was able to impose his grinding wrestling game to wear Liddell down for over two rounds before finishing him off with a swarm of punches in round three to become the UFC interim light heavyweight champion.
Couture then fought Ortiz at UFC 44 and defended the belt before losing it via a cut to Vitor Belfort at UFC 46, then winning it back from “The Phenom” at UFC 49. As for Liddell, he ended up fighting Couture twice more, at UFC 52 and UFC 57, and both times The Iceman showed that fight at UFC 43 was an anomaly as he beat Couture via KO on each occasion on his road to becoming the greatest light heavyweight in UFC history — that is, until Jon Jones came along.
I tried very hard to prove Joe Rogan wrong and pick another fight as the top light heavyweight title match of all time, but the UFC’s always-colorful color-commentator was speaking the truth: The UFC 165 bout between Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson IS the best UFC light heavyweight title fight ever.
My hat goes off to both men, but especially the Swedish challenger, as a bout most thought was a to be a mismatch on paper turned out to be the most competitive and thrilling of all the 205-pound title fights the UFC has ever held. Sure, Lyoto Machida vs. Mauricio “Shogun” Rua I was a very close fight, but at the end of the day that fight was universally regarded as a robbery against Rua, and isn’t remembered fondly by most fans. In the case of Jones vs. Gustafsson, though, everyone knows it was just a close fight that was very hard to score, as both men laid it all out on the line for a full 25 minutes. Both fighters deserved to be called winners that night, but under the harsh (and subjective) reality of the 10-point must system, Jones ended up winning the unanimous decision.
I have to admit an inherent bias to this list, as I was in attendance at Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada that night, and the energy of the crowd — especially after the fourth round of the fight — was unbelievable, and it’s part of what swayed me to place this bout at #1 on the list. I’ve attended many fights in my lifetime and the only things that compared to the atmosphere inside the arena at the end of the fourth round of Jones vs. Gustafsson were the crane kick KO that Machida scored against Randy Couture at UFC 129 and the fifth round of Mark Hominick vs. Jose Aldo on that same night. But the difference was that the Rogers Centre was packed with 55,000 fans that night back in April 2011; at UFC 165, there were just 15,500 fans in the building, even though it sure sounded like more than that.
From my seat about 100 feet away, I scored the fight 48-47 Jones, giving Gustafsson the first two rounds and Jones the last three. In the fourth round, I had Gustafsson leading until Jones hit him with a spinning back elbow and stole the round back with a series of brutal elbow and knee strikes. That elbow turned the fight on a dime and it may be the single most important reason why Jones retained his title last Saturday night, setting the UFC record for most successful title defenses (six). That, and his champion’s heart which compelled him to fight harder as the match went on instead of fading.
I’ve re-watched the fight several times on tape and I still think Jones won 48-47, but I believe there is the argument to be made that Gustafsson won the first three rounds of the fight. The UFC obviously saw differently, though, and that’s the reason why Glover Teixeira is getting the next title shot and why Gustafsson isn’t getting an immediate rematch – or maybe they’re just buying time before a blockbuster rematch next summer at Cowboys Stadium. Who knows how promoters actually work?
There’s one thing I do know for sure, though, and it’s that I knew the whole time while watching the Jones vs. Gustafsson fight that I was witnessing one of the greatest fights of all time. It was the same feeling I got when I watched Dan Henderson vs. “Shogun” at UFC 139 — it was a fight that’s so close and competitive for five rounds that a draw almost seems like the fairer outcome. And while I admit “Shogun” vs. “Hendo” is still my pick for the greatest UFC fight of all time, Jones vs. Gustafsson is right up there — definitely top 10 and likely top five. But that’s a list for another day.