Across the UFC’s twelve divisions – we’ve seen many champions come and go. Some in shockingly close fashion, and some in the most one-sided performances the Octagon has seen. Often the case, a period of unrivalled dominance is ended on a single night, sometimes by a single strike.
We’re then forced to refer to the age-old adage; nobody’s invincible. We’ve witnessed shocking one-punch stoppages, masterful counter performances, wrestling clinics and, unimaginable upsets. Below, check out my list of the ten most impressive title-winning performances.
Renan Barão vs. T.J. Dillashaw:
From 2012 to 2014 – little separated former bantamweight champion, Renan ‘The Baron’ Barão and compatriot, José Aldo from the summit of the pound-for-pound list. The fantastic submission artist turned striker had arrived in the UFC the year prior – and expelled contenders with ease, offering an injection of new blood to the bantamweight stock. An interim title opportunity against Urijah Faber soon followed – which he grasped with a unanimous decision shutout, before finishes of Michael McDonald, and a spinning back-kick knockout of Eddie Wineland.
In Dominick Cruz’s absence, Barão was promoted to undisputed gold-holder, and once more clashed with Team Alpha MMA’s, Faber, this time stopping the Sacramento favourite in the opening round. Now 2-0 against the ultra-talented gym, Barão was next paired with slick upstart, T.J. Dillashaw at UFC 173. The Brazilian entered the headliner as a ginormous betting favourite – while Dillashaw had just bested Mike Easton following a razor-thin defeat to Barão’s countryman, Raphael Assunção.
Over the course of five rounds, Dillashaw outlanded Barão expertly – with creative entries, drop-shifts, stance switches, and high-kicks, proving puzzling for the Rio Grande de Notre native. Midway through the final frame, Dillashaw uncorks a left-high kick which rattles Barão before dinging the Brazilian with a left hook – sending him to the canvas. A moment which I remember vividly from the fifth round corner briefing was a message from striking coach, Duane Ludwig; “We’re giving him a seminar and we’re not even charging him.”
Dominick Cruz vs. Cody Garbrandt:
From one Team Alpha MMA protégé to another. 135-pound great, Dominick ‘The Dominator’ Cruz, has always enjoyed a bitter rivalry with the Sacramento team, whether that stems from his trilogy of bouts with Urijah Faber, or his war of words with the previously listed Dillashaw on his way to title reclamation in 2015. A rivalry like no other stemmed during his pre-fight preparation with the green knockout artist, Cody ‘No Love’ Garbrandt. The Ohio native was another product of Team Alpha MMA and lit up the bantamweight ranks in 2016 – with crushing knockouts of Thomas Almeida, and Takeya Mizugaki – earning a shot at Cruz’s undisputed gold.
We’ve seen showboating aplenty in the UFC. Anderson Silva’s antics against Stephan Bonner, Nick Diaz’s decision to lie on the canvas against the Brazilian – but to this day, Cody Garbrandt’s dancing against Dominick Cruz is almost the most daring. Cody landed two knockdowns in the co-main event showing at UFC 207 – and proceeding to break out his dance moves in a mocking display. Even during Cruz’s wild lunges, Garbrandt evaded and goaded. In Cruz’s twenty-four fight career, he’d only been submitted by Urijah Faber, but come the culmination of his affair with Garbrandt, dropped a lopsided unanimous decision.
Cruz was widely expected to play the role of matador that evening in Las Vegas – with Garbrandt judged as too new to the scene to cause any legitimate problems to the seemingly resurging San Diego technician. How wrong a lot of us were.
Cris Cyborg vs. Amanda Nunes:
In the main event of the aforementioned UFC 207, Amanda Nunes successfully defended her bantamweight crown against the returning icon, Ronda Rousey, in devastating fashion. Fast forward almost exactly two years, Nunes takes on featherweight queen, and compatriot, Cris Cyborg. Granted, Nunes was attempting to secure duel weight champion honours that evening – but the matchup would prove who was the greatest female mixed-martial-artist walking the planet.
Curitiba’s Cyborg had completely decimated the likes of Tonya Evinger, Holly Holm, and Yana Kunitskaya in her brief Octagon stint, and was pitted with compatriot, Nunes at UFC 232. Under the tutelage of the renowned Jason Parillo, Cyborg had abandoned a reckless approach often seen during her Invicta FC and Strikeforce days – evolving into a primed and polished Muay Thai practitioner.
One thing that’s completely evident in modern mixed-martial-arts, particularly with Muay Thai practitioners – is their tendency to chase an almost strike-for-strike approach when they get clipped. Edson Barboza displayed this in his losses to Paul Felder, and Justin Gaethje recently. Cyborg also reverted to this approach against Nunes. Clipping the 34-year-old early in the opening round, Nunes forced Cyborg into a firefight where she ultimately evaded and extinguished the featherweight best’s output. fifty-one seconds is all Nunes needed to prove she’s the greatest female mixed-martial-artist to grace the planet.
Georges St-Pierre vs. Matt Serra:
No list like this one would be complete without the inclusion of this welterweight title pairing. Talented coach, Matt Serra had just emerged from a successful appearance on the fourth instalment of The Ultimate Fighter. Once again, the huge underdog would prevail as the victor, but GSP vs. Serra I to this day, still stands as one of the biggest upsets in Octagon history.
UFC 69 in Texas played host to the initial pairing of the two, with St-Pierre fresh from recent wins over Frank Trigg, Sean Sherk, B.J. Penn, and Matt Hughes. In what was viewed as a routine title defence for the longtime Tristar trainee, St-Pierre dropped the final defeat of his hugely successful career to date. Serra became the first TUF winner and UFC champion in the promotion’s history off the back of the shocking knockout – but didn’t enjoy the most fruitful exploits in the UFC before the triumph. Serra had managed five wins but dropped four defeats – nothing excellent in the grand scheme of things, but his victory over St-Pierre in Texas solidified his legacy forever.
Tyron Woodley vs. Kamaru Usman:
A relatively new entry up next. We go back to March of last year where Tyron Woodley attempted a fourth defence of his welterweight throne at UFC 235 against the promotional perfect, Kamaru Usman. St. Louis native, Woodley, was fast approaching the conversation surrounding the greatest welterweight of all time – and with good reason. The heavy-hitting wrestler had burst onto the scene with a brutal dethroning of Robbie Lawler in 2016 – before nullifying some of the division’s biggest emerging threats.
Woodley was involved in two clashes with the then unsolvable Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson – narrowly escaping with his title in tow. Next up was a meeting with the resurging Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu player, Demian Maia – where he secured another title defence, albeit in forgettable fashion. A real statement for Woodley came in his clash with Darren Till. The Liverpudlian had emerged victorious against Donald Cerrone, and then the aforementioned Thompson to earn his first promotional title tilt. An early second-round knockdown for Woodley ultimately proved the beginning of the end for Till who was eventually wrapped in a D’Arce.
Lying in wait for his title opportunity was wrecking wrestler, Kamaru Usman. In standout performances, ‘The Nigerian Nightmare’ had bested Maia, and former lightweight champion, Rafael dos Anjos. In what proved a hugely competitive matchup – it was anything but. By the culmination of their UFC 235 co-headliner, Usman stepped out of the Octagon strapped with gold, and 50-44 (x2), and 50-45 scorecard triumphs. Excellent clinch work, faultless wrestling and pressuring offence completely threw Woodley from any real output himself.
José Aldo vs. Conor McGregor:
Arguably the most significant changing of the guard in recent Octagon history occurred in December 2015 at UFC 194. For the majority of the year, featherweight kingpin, José Aldo was subject to verbal onslaught after onslaught from interim gold-holder, Conor McGregor – in a tactical approach christened, mental warfare. A lot can be gathered from the mere Octagon walks alone that night in Nevada. Aldo – not atypical, refrains from the usual pre-fight staredown, but upon referee ‘Big’ John McCarthy’s separation – the Brazilian seemed haunted.
“Let’s go, boy,” McGregor beckons Aldo forward come the opening bell. Taking the centre of the Octagon, Aldo loads up on a massive left hook. McGregor, slides and counters with his own straight. Thirteen seconds. Ten years undefeated. Eighteen fights. All slide away similarly to the Dubliner from range. Can you imagine a more fitting way to crown a new undisputed king?
Shogun Rua vs. Jon Jones:
For almost ten years now, light heavyweight look-see-do fighter, Jon Jones has been untouchable. One of the best résumés in professional combat sports really kicks into gear with this career-defining victory over all-time icon, Maurício ‘Shogun’ Rua. The elite all-rounder had burst onto the scene via a guillotine stoppage of future Bellator light heavyweight and heavyweight champion, Ryan Bader, and was tasked with dethroning one of the most recognisable figures in mixed-martial-arts the world over.
McGregor’s demolition of Aldo was timely and sudden. Jones’ stoppage of Rua was methodical, violent, and looked possible at any time after the opening exchange. Takedowns, elbows from the clinch exits and from half guard, kicks, knees – Jones had too many tools for Rua to comprehend. A brutal three-round bludgeoning is ended with a knee to a drained ‘Shogun’ who crumples to a fight familiar canvas.
Eddie Alvarez vs. Conor McGregor:
If Jones’ battering of Rua was methodical – Conor McGregor’s performance to earn duel weight gold against Eddie Alvarez was even more orderly. Fresh from a close rematch win over Nate Diaz, ‘The Notorious’ one headlined UFC 205 at Madison Square Garden against Eddie Alvarez who had just dethroned the previously noted, dos Anjos in McGregor’s lightweight absence. Philidelphia native, Alvarez is undeniably one of the greatest talents lightweight mixed-martial-arts has ever seen. A former two-time Bellator lightweight champion with some eye-catching names on his win column. That November night – Alvarez was simply outclassed.
Three times in the opening round, Alvarez was either brought to his back or a knee via counter strikes from McGregor. Coasting toward the midway point of the second round, McGregor, untroubled to any real significance, launched a four-punch combination, forcing a stoppage. It’s arguably the most impressive championship-winning performance ever managed in the UFC, and a history-making one at that.
Ronda Rousey vs. Holly Holm:
There was a prolonged period among the bantamweight ranks where a champion other than ‘Rowdy’ Ronda Rousey was simply, unimaginable. The Judoka joined from Strikeforce back in 2013 – and until 2015, was the promotion’s only ever bantamweight champion. The Glendale Fight Team mainstay set a blistering pace between herself and 135-pound competition – besting contender after contender for four dominant fights. Liz Carmouche, Miesha Tate, and maybe most famously, Cat Zingano all fell victim to Rousey’s patented armbar in title excursions. Rousey – also lodged notable finishes of Sara McMann, Alexis Davis, and Bethe Correia with strikes, which ultimately led to her downfall.
Ahead of their UFC 193 showdown in Australia – Holly Holm was a considerable betting underdog. The Albequerque based striker brought with her a storied and successful boxing and kickboxing background, but just two fights deep into her Octagon stint. ‘The Preachers Daughter’ had narrowly bested Raquel Pennington, before taking a unanimous decision triumph over Marion Reneau on route to the championship.
In front of a sold-out crowd at the Docklands Stadium – Holm paced the blue corner during her pre-fight introduction. Come the opening buzzer, and especially the opening exchanges, the gulf in class between Holm and Rousey’s striking prowess was eerily evident. Holm was stinging with jabs and straights – threatening on occasion with a whipping high kick. The Jackson-Wink MMA trainee even managed to win an opening-round scramble. One minute into the second round, we had crowned a new bantamweight queen. A knockdown followed by a picture-perfect left high-kick spelt the end of Rousey’s reign.
Fabrício Werdum vs. Stipe Miocic:
The professional win column of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu ace, Fabrício Werdum is littered with some of the biggest names in heavyweight history. Mark Hunt, Cain Velasquez, Bigfoot Silva, Minotauro Nogueira, Alistair Overeem, Alexander Emelianenko, and most famously, ‘The Last Emperor’ Fedor Emelianenko. The résumé undoubtedly puts Werdum in the conversation as one of the greatest heavyweight mixed-martial artists of all time.
At UFC 198 on home soil. ‘Vai Cavalo’ was pitted with perennial contender, Stipe Miocic – in what he believed was a routine title defence. Miocic had dropped a competitive loss to former division best, Junior dos Santos, but had recovered with wins over the aforementioned, Hunt, and Andrei Arlovski. The Cleveland fan-favourite was met aggressively by Werdum on multiple exchanges, notably planting a right hand, wobbling the Brazilian. Nevertheless, Werdum usually a wily competitor, continued to march forward and ate another right hand, rendering him unconscious. Miocic, in enemy territory, scaled the cage, and proclaimed, “I’m a world champ. I’m a world champ.”