There have been scores of amazing fights under the UFC banner over the years, but when it came to putting together my “all-time, desert island fights,” it wasn’t all that difficult.
Now, I didn’t limit myself to only fights I’ve seen in person like Thomas Gerbasi did with his initial offering in this series, but I did stick to fights I watched live, either in person or as they happened.
While there were lots of outstanding contests from the days of renting VHS tapes at Jumbo Video or the years where UFC wasn’t a prominent piece of my life, I wanted to stick to the time period since I started writing about this sport for a couple reasons.
First and foremost, I had a visceral reaction to these fights, and that speaks to the impact they had on me.
Secondly, as great as some of those older fights were, I don’t have the connection to them that I do these bouts. I knew the stakes of all of these fights, knew what it meant to see these two combatants in there together, and had an understanding of the kind of magic that could, and ultimately did happen.
Lastly, these are the fights I would send people to if they wanted to see some of the high points of the sport I’ve spent the last dozen years of my life writing about because these combine to give you a little bit of everything that makes me love this sport so much.
So here we go — my all-time, desert island fights.
GEORGE ST-PIERRE VS. BJ PENN II (UFC 94)
This fight happened right as I was starting to dip my toes into writing about the UFC, and as a Canadian and an obsessive about all the coverage and build-up, I was transfixed by the UFC Countdown series and the preamble to St-Pierre and Penn facing off for a second time.
I watched this fight with a bunch of people I barely knew, at the house of a co-worker who was having some people over. It was one of those instances where I kept quiet amidst a sea of terrible takes and just watched as GSP did what I knew he was going to do.
This was the moment I realized I was watching actual greatness in the Octagon whenever I was watching St-Pierre. This performance crystallized that he was the Michael Jordan of this sport, even more so than Anderson Silva for me, because he was the complete package. He battered Penn to the point where his corner threw in the towel — dominated a fellow champion, who fought him to an incredibly close decision just a couple years earlier, and did it with ease.
Just an absolute masterful performance from the greatest welterweight in the history of the sport.
ANDERSON SILVA VS. FORREST GRIFFIN (UFC 101)
We entered “The Matrix” with this one. That’s what I remember thinking as I watched Silva bob and weave out of the way of Griffin’s punches, which looked like they were coming in slow motion.
Here was the middleweight champion, moonlighting at light heavyweight against a former titleholder, making him look like some dude off the street that walked into the gym and asked to spar the best guy in the building.
Griffin had nothing for Silva — nothing — and “The Spider” was able to win the fight with just a handful of clean, precise shots. He stood in front of Griffin with his hands down, calling him on, and then avoided everything he threw before dropping him with a right hand.
The final sequence? The left hand that ended the fight? Chef’s kiss.
There will never be a greater showman than Anderson Silva.
JOSE ALDO VS. MARK HOMINICK (UFC 129)
Just thinking about this fight still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up because there was so much that went into this one in addition to the fight itself.
Hominick was getting to fight in his home province for the first time, in the first UFC event in Ontario, in front of 55,000 people at what we all still know as the SkyDome. His wife was pregnant with their first child and after a number of years of toiling in the shadows, he was finally on the biggest stage in the sport — in the biggest event in UFC history — taking on one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world.
He walked out to “Coming Home” by Diddy and it felt right. He raced to the Octagon wearing a Hamilton Tiger-Cats hat after the CFL franchise sponsored him. And after losing the first four rounds and having a cantaloupe growing out of his forehead, “The Machine” tried his absolute damnedest to find a way to win the fight in the fifth round, bringing the capacity crowd to its feet.
Aldo was the better man, but this was Mark Hominick’s moment, and it will always be an all-timer for me.
DAN HENDERSON VS. SHOGUN RUA I (UFC 139)
This is one of the all-time “swings in momentum” fights and it had me on the edge of my seat for the entire 25 minutes.
I started there because this was Henderson returning to the UFC, returning to light heavyweight, and finally sharing the Octagon with Shogun, who he somehow never fought during their PRIDE days. Rua was coming off a first-round knockout win over Griffin in his first fight since losing the light heavyweight title to Jon Jones and seemed poised to get right back into the thick of the title chase by spoiling Henderson’s return.
Each man was on wobbly legs at various points in this contest, and each man rallied back. The ebb and flow of this fight was gripping — it honestly felt like what you would see if someone tried to script a “classic back-and-forth fight” for a Hollywood blockbuster. You could feel how exhausted they were through the television, and yet they continued to press on.
This fight instantly rocketed up my personal All-Time Top 5 as soon as it happened, and while I haven’t compiled said list in some time, it definitely is still in the mix.
JIM MILLER VS. JOE LAUZON I (UFC 155)
Part of the reason this one makes the list is because I’ve been fortunate enough to speak with each of these guys a number of times, including in person ahead of their second meeting in Vancouver a few years after this. They’re consummate professionals, terrific interviews, and the kind of quiet veterans that have always just gone out and handled their business that rarely get the love and acknowledgement they deserve.
But it’s also here because it’s an absolute blood bath and features one of my all-time favorite moments in UFC history.
With 95 seconds remaining in the second round, referee Yves Lavigne paused the fight with Lauzon in Miller’s guard. He wanted to cut a stray piece of tape off that had come loose from Lauzon’s wrap, and while he retrieved a pair of scissors, the lightweights — who were covered in blood at this point — told each other how much fun they were having beating the holy hell out of one another.
They got re-started, finished the round, and then battled for another hard five minutes in the third.
It was glorious. It’s not for the squeamish because the cut on Lauzon’s head is gnarly and there is a lot of blood, but this fight — and primarily that exchange during the pause in the action — shines a light on why I love telling the stories of these men and women every single week.
ROBBIE LAWLER VS. RORY MACDONALD II (UFC 189)
I can close my eyes and instantly recall the moment Lawler and MacDonald stared each other down in the Octagon at the end of the fourth round.
I can feel the tension in the arena, hear the deafening noise of the crowd, and conjure the butterflies that danced in my stomach as they stood there, busted up and bleeding, but not backing down, holding each other’s gaze for what felt like an eternity, but was really only a couple of seconds.
In the middle frames, MacDonald looked like he was going to ascend to the welterweight throne, having weathered early punishment to take the fight to Lawler. But the champion took the best the young Canadian had to offer and responded in kind, shattering his nose and leaving him leaking like a crimson faucet, despite the best efforts of the cutman in his corner between rounds.
Everyone that was allowed to be standing at the start of the fifth round was, and those of us on press row surely wanted to join them. Ironically, the fight ended not with one clubbing blow, but with MacDonald’s body finally giving out after solid shots from Lawler early in the fifth.
This is the best fight I’ve ever witnessed live and it’s going to take something insane in order to top it.
HOLLY HOLM VS. RONDA ROUSEY (UFC 193)
Not going to lie: I was gobsmacked watching this fight unfold.
It’s not that I didn’t think Holm had the skills to beat Rousey or would craft a quality game plan in order to give herself the best opportunity to make that happen, but to see her make Rousey stumble and flail around the Octagon as she did, and then finish things how she did left me speechless.
Rousey seemed unreasonably aggressive and fired up the entire week leading into the fight, and it carried over into the UFC 193 main event, and Holm used it to her advantage. She made Rousey miss, repeatedly, and made her pay for many of those misses.
The head kick knockout and her immediate reaction to the fight being stopped will live in my memories for all eternity.
CONOR MCGREGOR VS. EDDIE ALVAREZ (UFC 205)
The instant McGregor knocked out Jose Aldo in 13 seconds to claim the featherweight title, I thought it would be difficult for him to top that moment in terms of iconic performances inside the Octagon. He could have further success, great achievements, but from an individual moment standpoint, I thought that was the pinnacle.
Less than a year later, he proved me wrong.
McGregor winning and becoming the first person to simultaneously hold UFC gold in two weight classes isn’t the accomplishment that stands out most about this fight for me, but rather it’s how he did it.
Alvarez is a very good fighter, had been for a number of years, and was coming off a first-round drubbing of Rafael Dos Anjos to claim the title, and McGregor had him beaten in 62 seconds. Yes, the fight lasted into the second round, but McGregor dropped him one minute and two seconds into the opening stanza, with the first true left hand he threw, and from there it was academic.
There will come a time when people will want to do the whole “Yeah, but how good was he really?” and “Yeah, but who did he actually beat?” nonsense with McGregor, and the answers are simple: from the start of his UFC run through this fight, he was outstanding, and he beat a lot of terrific talents.
The Aldo win is the most memorable, I think, but this was his masterpiece.
CODY GARBRANDT VS. DOMINICK CRUZ (UFC 207)
I can still fire this fight up and be absolutely bewildered by how well Garbrandt deals with everything Cruz brings to the table. This fight happened six years ago and I’ve watched it at least a dozen times and yet I still can’t get over what an absolutely breathtaking performance Garbrandt delivered.
Some of that is likely because he’s never come close to replicating the performance and so it feels like an anomaly now, but in the moment, I remember thinking, “This is unreal” because no one had ever made Cruz look so human inside the Octagon.
Here was the guy that made his bones making people miss, swinging at air and getting styled on by a brash, tattooed hopeful that felt like he’d been hustled along a little too quickly. Garbrandt out-everything’ed Cruz in this fight: out-worked, out-styled, out-classed, out-moved; you name it.
This was one of the best championship-winning efforts of all time and easily one of my desert island fights.
ISRAEL ADESANYA VS. KELVIN GASTELUM (UFC 236)
The most recent entry on my list is the best interim title fight in UFC history.
This fight was a rollercoaster, with Gastelum starting well and Adesanya winning the next two rounds to make it seem like he was ready to cruise, only to have Gastelum roar back in the fourth to hurt the surging “Stylebender” and grab momentum heading into the deciding fifth round.
Adesanya told himself he was ready to die heading into the final five minutes, and then delivered the kind of effort that really highlights his championship mettle. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of one other instance where a fight was deadlocked at two rounds each heading into the final five minutes, and one competitor came out and collected 10-8 scores across the board.
Yes, we’ve seen some last round rallies to finish — Leon Edwards most recently — but there is something truly emphatic about bouncing back from maybe the worst round of your UFC career to turn in a dominant stanza that secures you championship gold. It was an incredible way to close out a thrilling fight that has to be in the conversation for the best fight in UFC history.