On Saturday night at UFC 210, the light heavyweight title fight between champion Daniel Cormier and Anthony "Rumble" Johnson is — at least from a marketing perspective — the biggest rematch so far this year.
It’s also the second straight pay-per-view headlined with a rematch, coming on the heels of the UFC 209 welterweight title bout between Tyron Woodley and Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson. If anything, that fight epitomized one lesson about UFC rematches: There’s no such thing as a sure thing. While some sequels play out much like the first, others are completely different.
Woodley and Thompson battled to a draw on Nov. 12 at Madison Square Garden in one of the most exciting fights on 2016. For anybody who caught the classic first fight, the second one became highly anticipated. And why not? Another great fight felt about as close to a sure thing as there can be in an unpredictable sport. And given the competitive nature of the fight bout, there was no telling who would win a rematch. Thompson was the more skilled striker, but Woodley had the wrestling and power edge, as well as an ability to finish.
The rematch resembled the first fight in the sense it was a close, but that’s where the similarities ended. The two came together the second time carrying the lessons of the first fight to the cage with them. The fact that both knew the other could beat them made each overly wary of any kind of attack. For spectators into a battle of wills, the fight probably captured their interest.
But for most of the fans in Las Vegas that came in hopes of seeing some extended magic of the first fight, it was a dud. Instead what fans got was a fight approximating one of the most famous rematches of early UFC history — the second Ken Shamrock vs. Dan Severn fight in 1996.
For years Shamrock-Severn II was considered the worst main event in company history. A great first fight is no great indicator that a sequel can — or will — follow suit.
A similar situation took place between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar. Their first meeting on April 9, 2005, which was to crown the winner in the light heavyweight tournament from the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, was an all-time classic. For many years, as the first televised UFC fight card and the first nationally televised live broadcast of an MMA event in the United States, it was been labeled the most important fight in UFC history. A dud show could have stifled growth, and perhaps nothing that happened afterwards would have taken place.
While the first Griffin-Bonnar couldn’t match the skill level of today’s best fighters, it was a hotly contested battle that went down to the wire, with plenty of drama and emotion to communicate the intrinsic beauty of MMA. Griffin was ruled the winner by the judges, but the emotions were so high that night that Dana White gave it the perfect finish by declaring both winners, announcing that each would receive a "six-figure" contract. It felt like the right thing to do. Beforehand, promos of the show proclaimed that only the tournament winner would get into UFC. It was hard to deny the heart of either man, and the UFC recognized that in one of the most triumphant moments in company history.
The Griffin-Bonnar rematch took place in Las Vegas on August 26, 2006, and lightning didn’t come close to striking twice. The only memorable take on the rematch was that in the 16 plus months between fights, Griffin had improved far more than Bonnar. He won a decision in an otherwise lackluster fight.
All told, we’ve had 49 rematches of championship fights in the UFC’s 23-plus year history. According to the UFC’s official statisticians, Fight Metric, the winner of the first fight has prevailed 26 times in rematches, the loser has won 21 times, while two of those rematches have ended in a draw.
There are many types of memorable rematches. From a box office standpoint, some were huge. Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir headlined UFC 100 and, until 2016, was the biggest pay-per-view show in UFC history. The first match was incredibly heated and controversial, with Mir winning in 90 seconds via kneebar in Lesnar’s second pro fight. When the rematch finally occurred, Mir was the interim heavyweight champion while Lesnar, who defeated Randy Couture at UFC 91, held the official belt. Lesnar won the rematch to unify the titles and become the biggest box office star of that era in the company.
There was nothing wrong with the fight itself, but in reality the television buildup of the fight — along with Lesnar’s over-the-top reactions after the fight — became more memorable than the fight itself.
Few fights in UFC history made an impression quite like the first Chael Sonnen vs. Anderson Silva fight at UFC 117. Sonnen had run his mouth in a manner nobody had ever seen, against one of the most revered figures in the game. Really, the buildup to UFC 117 made both Sonnen and Silva superstars. The common expectation was that Sonnen had little to no chance, and perhaps would find himself humiliated going against the man generally considered as the best fighter in the world.
Instead, Sonnen dominated the fight for four-and-a-half rounds and was on the verge of a lopsided decision when Silva caught him in a triangle at 3:10 of the fifth round. At the time it was the latest finish in a five-round title fight in UFC history. Dramatic for sure, even though Sonnen ended up being flagged that night for an elevated level of testosterone, thus placing an asterisk next to his performance. He was subsequently suspended, and it took two years to get the highly coveted rematch, in which Silva would finish him in the second round. It was anticlimatic.
Silva had a rematch every bit as big with Chris Weidman not long thereafter. Weidman dethroned Silva as champion and ended his UFC record 16-fight unbeaten streak in a sequence where Silva appeared to be clowning around before getting caught. That set the stage for a colossal rematch. The second fight was even more memorable for the horrific leg break Silva suffered when Weidman checked a kick. When one thinks back to how graphic that injury was — Silva’s leg basically snapping in two — it is remarkable that Silva ever came back at all, even if he hasn’t been same fighter since.
The second and third Tito Ortiz vs. Ken Shamrock fights in 2006 were quick, lopsided affairs. Shamrock, in his forties, was clearly overmatched in each. Still, the first fight drew 775,000 buys on pay-per-view, the largest number to that point. Because of the controversy over the stopped, the televised rematch still sits as one of the most-watched MMA fights in history. That fight was important historically because it opened the eyes of the television business and mainstream media to the sport.
Perhaps the most even championship program involved Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler in 2014, battling over the welterweight title that Georges St-Pierre vacated. Hendricks won three out of five rounds in the first fight, winning largely due to a timely takedown in the fifth round. That fight captured a number of Fight of the Year honors. The second fight was similar, as it was again even after four rounds. But this time it was Lawler who won the fifth round and, as a result, the title. The second fight wasn’t quite to the level of the first, but it was still a great scrap. A third fight never occurred, as now they are in different weight classes.
A couple of other pairings should be mentioned as well. Gilbert Melendez and Josh Thomson’s trilogy ranks up there with any in history, with each man clearly winning a fight apiece before Melendez narrowly got the decision in third fight. That fight, which was in Strikeforce, was very close.
Similarly, two of the most incredible fights of the Pride FC era took place between Wanderlei Silva and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, with Silva winning the first two meetings, both by brutal knockout with knees. The rematch in 2004 captured some Fight of the Year honors, but it wasn’t in UFC. A third fight took place between the two in UFC, which Jackson exacted an ounce of revenge with a one-punch knockout.
As far as split-promotion rivalries go, the biggest to date in women’s MMA was between Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate. Their first meeting, which occurred in Strikeforce, is arguably the single most important women’s fight in history, because that was the fight that led to the UFC open its doors to women. Rousey garnered the Strikeforce bantamweight title, which was essentially transferred over into UFC. The rematch at UFC 168, also won by Rousey, was easily its biggest women’s fight up to that point in time.
But as far as the greatest rematches in UFC history based on the excitement of the second fight, here’s a top five.
5Jose Aldo vs. Chad Mendes, UFC 179, Rio de Janeiro
Aldo and Mendes were the two best featherweights of their era. But the first fight, on Jan. 14, 2012, was hardly remarkable. Aldo won via knockout with a knee at 4:59 of the first round. Mendes couldn’t take him down, and while Mendes was thought to be the second best in the division, the gap between one and two was proven to be considerably huge. Mendes had to win five fights in a row to get a rematch, and it was a doozy. Aldo won the play back fight, this time via unanimous decision, and it captured a number of 2014 Fight of the Year honors. In many ways, this was the epitome of each man’s career. Aldo proved that under pressure he was still the best and an all-time great. Mendes, in coming close, showed that Aldo was no longer unbeatable — that he had managed to close the gap. Neither fighter has had a performance like this one since.
4Nate Diaz vs. Conor McGregor, UFC 202, Las Vegas
This is the one fight that ticks every button. Not only was it one of last year’s best fights, but in garnering more than 1.5 million buys, it broke the sport’s pay-per-view record. One could argue that this should go down as the greatest rivalry in UFC history, when you factor in the hype before both fights, how much public interest the fights generated, and that both fights exceeded even the most vaunted expectations. Diaz had won the first fight at UFC 196, via submission (choke). McGregor had butchered Diaz’s face early, but in carrying more weight than usual as a welterweight (instead of featherweight), he ran out of steam in the second round. McGregor panicked, attempted a desperation takedown, and got choked. The rematch saw Diaz nearly win the fight early, with McGregor again showing fatigue. But just as McGregor appeared done, he roared back, turning the fight into a grueling war of attrition. McGregor won the final round, and therefore the bout. This wasn’t a consensus for Fight of the Year due to Robbie Lawler vs. Carlos Condit taking place at UFC 195 in 2016, but it garnered some awards and was in second place in others. The door remains open for a third fight, which should — when it occurs — carry the import to threaten pay-per-view records once again.
3Gray Maynard vs. Frankie Edgar, UFC 125, Las Vegas
In this case, there was a three fight series. The first fight, on April 2, 2008, did nothing to predict that one of the great rivalries was brewing. Both were lightweights on the way up and unbeaten, but Maynard, bigger and stronger, outwrestled Edgar to win a decision. By the time the rematch occurred, the undersized Edgar had won the UFC lightweight title even though he was probably closer to the natural size of some of the bantamweights on roster. The first round at UFC 125 was one of the most one-sided rounds in UFC history, with Maynard dominating to the point that — with multiple knockdowns and Edgar surviving, miraculously, on the brink — a nearly impossible 10-7 round. But Edgar somehow persevered and made a late comeback. When it was all said and done, the fight was scored a draw. That rematch took several Fight of the Year awards. The two met a third time at UFC 136 in 2011 in Houston. It was similar to the first fight as Maynard again nearly finished Edgar in the first round, but Edgar came back — yet again — and got the stoppage in the fourth round. Both have since dropped to featherweight. Edgar remains a top star today but Maynard never reached those levels again, losing four of his next six fights.
2Robbie Lawler vs. Rory MacDonald, UFC 189, Las Vegas
The first meeting between the two was at UFC 167 in 2013, in what was actually a lackluster fight that Lawler scored won via split decision due to a late takedown. At that time the two were battling for a top contender position. When the rematch came around, Lawler had beaten Hendricks to win the welterweight title and MacDonald had beaten Demian Maia, Tyron Woodley and Tarec Saffiedine in succession to earn his own title shot. In one of the best, most brutal fights in company history, MacDonald was ahead on the scorecards and Lawler appeared to be in need of a finish heading into the final round. Lawler shattered MacDonald’s nose in one of the more gruesome finishes ever. This fight also captured many Fight of the Year honors. MacDonald has only fought once since that fight, a loss to Stephen Thompson, and is now in Bellator. Lawler then lost the title to Woodley and hasn’t fought since.
1Matt Hughes vs. Frank Trigg, UFC 52, Las Vegas
Hughes was the dominant welterweight of his era and had beaten Trigg to retain the championship at UFC 45 in 2003 via first-round submission (standing rear-naked choke). With the depth in the UFC bearing no resemblance to today, Trigg only needed two wins to earn a rematch, in which he beat Dennis Hallman and Renato Verissimo. The second fight garnered a different level of immortality. Today at almost every live UFC event, during the video montage of historical UFC highlights set to The Who’s "Baba O’Riley," the ending of this particular fight is shown and always produces a stunned reaction from the audience, most of which weren’t even fans when the fight took place. Trigg nearly finished Hughes after a low blow and had him in a choke. Hughes, suddenly, in what can be called the ultimate MMA "Superman comeback," escaped, picked Trigg up and ran across the canvas, delivered a stampede slam, and finished Trigg with a choke. It was arguably the greatest 30 second-sequence we’ve yet seen, and considered by many the greatest round in UFC history. Ironically, because of Trigg-Hughes II happening in the same year as the seminal Bonnar vs. Griffin fight (2005), it didn’t win any Fight of the Year honors. But the fight has since been inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame.