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Trilogies, rubber matches and fun Roman numerals

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Trilogy fights are usually known as rubber matches, because the first two fights were split and could bend either way. This is the conventional thing. In the Frankie Edgar sense of the word trilogy, there is no such thing as a rubber match. There is only re-rematches.

For instance, Edgar lost to Gray Maynard, then had a draw with Maynard, thus setting up a third fight. He won that one at UFC 136 in Houston, to make the series 1-1-1, meaning a quadrilogy fight becomes the rubber match. Similarly, his re-rematch with BJ Penn makes zero sense from conventional rubber match perspective. Edgar has beaten Penn twice already. But, they’ll re-rematch at 145 pounds because, hey, why not? Penn has been sleepless in Hilo trying to get back at Edgar one more time.

Should Penn win the third fight, and win the inevitable quadrilogy at 135 pounds or some far-fetched thing, that would set up an unprecedented quintilogy fight as the rubber match.


With heavyweights Junior dos Santos and Cain Velasquez getting set to add another Roman numeral to their series, we thought it would be a good time to revisit some of the other great trilogy fights. (Note: You will not find the Forrest Griffin/Tito Ortiz series here, because that particular trilogy falls under the category of "existential vertigo").

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BJ Penn versus Matt Hughes I, II and III
In the olden days, this was one of those match-ups that bordered on becoming a fight game "standard" for fans. Hughes, all neck and density, and Penn, the elastic man who was always a little unsettling, made for an intense rivalry. At UFC 46, Hughes was riding a 13-fight winning streak and had defended his welterweight belt five times. Yet it was the challenger Penn walked out of the cage with that belt. They’d meet again nearly three years later at UFC 63 -- by chance, really, as it was supposed to be a title fight between Georges St-Pierre and Hughes, but GSP got hurt -- and put on the fight of the year for 2006. That time Hughes retained his title.

The third fight came in depressing Auburn Hills, Michigan, when both guys were depressingly civil with one another, at a time when St-Pierre had a depressing death-grip on the welterweight title. Time had gotten on with things, so this trilogy felt more like a twilight fight (particularly for Hughes) and didn’t nearly have the luster of the first meet-ups. Penn knocked out Hughes in just 21 seconds, which was great for him (and depressing for the guy with a shotgun, a rifle and a 4-wheel drive).

Ken Shamrock versus Tito Ortiz I, II and III
This is literally one of the rivalries that had everything to do with bad blood and little to do with actual competitiveness. Shamrock hated Ortiz. Ortiz, who’d already beat Shamrock’s teammates Jerry Bohlander and Guy Mezger, used that hatred to bewitch him at every turn. This made for a fantastic thing. They met at UFC 40, and the light heavyweight champion Ortiz thoroughly dominated Shamrock. After coaching opposite one another on the third season of "The Ultimate Fighter," in which Shamrock became the equivalent of an absentee father for his team (and Ortiz came off like a gentleman, all tenderness and caring), they fought twice more in 2006. Ortiz clobbered Shamrock in the second one, and by the third it felt like Shamrock was just being assigned his regularly scheduled beating.

Still, though -- the bad blood carried the rivalry.

Chuck Liddell versus Randy Couture I, II and III
Liddell, as Dana White has iterated and reiterated, was a rock star in his day. He had a stripper pole in his house, and a Ferrari. He had a girthy mohawk with a Matrix-like tattoo running down the side of his head, and he painted his toenails. Megadeth would coil in fear if they saw Liddell walk in. Couture? Perennial underdog, and a perennial old man. But he and Chuck put on a ridiculous series of fights in the mid-aughts that to this day still feel important.

The first fight happened at UFC 43, and many thought that Liddell -- riding a 10-fight winning streak and having just literally anesthetized Renato Sobral with a head kick -- would have his way with Couture (then only a spring chicken of 40 years old). But Couture did what he did best: Defy logic. He beat Liddell for the interim light heavyweight title, setting up a huge rematch at UFC 52. This time the "Iceman" made quick work of Couture with a first-round TKO to lose the 205-pound belt. Ten months later, they’d do it again at UFC 57, a true rubber match, but Liddell put an exclamation point on the rivalry, scoring a second-round KO.

Honorable mentions:
Georges St-Pierre vs. Matt Hughes
Vitor Belfort vs. Randy Couture
Andrei Arlovski vs. Tim Sylvia