10 greatest fights in UFC light heavyweight history (2022)

The light heavyweight division for years was the marquee division in the UFC. The division of superstars. The division of fierce rivalries and unforgettable, blockbuster nights. And while that may have shifted a bit over recent times, there are few classes so rich in history and so thoroughly tied to the roots of the sport.

So ahead of UFC 210 — and the first true UFC light heavyweight title fight in nearly two years — we look back on the icons of the past and the nights that propelled 205 pounds into the place it stands today. Whether they were infamous, influential, or just plain fun, here are the 10 greatest fights in UFC light heavyweight history.

1999Frank Shamrock vs. Tito Ortiz

Though his accolades may have been swept under the rug during the Zuffa era, there is no disputing the greatness of Frank Shamrock. The godfather of the UFC light heavyweight division, Shamrock cemented his status as a legend of the sport and perhaps the greatest fighter to compete in MMA’s first generation with his UFC 22 masterpiece over Tito Ortiz, a contest that at the time was considered to be the biggest and most-anticipated fight in Octagon history.

And to make matters more impressive, Shamrock called his shot against his young lion of an opponent, a brash up-and-comer who dwarfed Shamrock by upwards of 20 pounds once fight night rolled around. Shamrock told friends at breakfast that same morning he would either defeat Ortiz with a quick armbar or draw Ortiz into the later rounds before imposing his will and dominating. At the time, rounds were a recent addition to the UFC, as was the 5x5 format that became commonplace for title fights, and Shamrock’s latter prediction ended up being prophetic.

Ortiz blanketed Shamrock well into thefourth frame before gassing hard and suffering a brutal knockout in one of the most memorable come-from-behind victories in the sport’s early days. Cageside broadcaster Jeff Blatnick immediately hailed it as the greatest performance the UFC had ever seen. Then-UFC owner Bob Meyrowitz agreed, anointing Shamrock on the spot as the best fighter the company ever featured. Having defended his title four consecutive times, Shamrock retired after the match and never again fought for the UFC. And while he eventually made his way back to competition, even he admitted that he never reached the physical peaks he hit against Ortiz.

"It was just timing," Shamrock told MMA Fighting years later. "I missed the big limelight. The irony is I did the most amazing stuff with the least amount of people watching."

2003 Randy Couture vs. Chuck Liddell 1

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It is funny to think about now, especially considering all we know in retrospect, but at 39 years old, Randy Couture was already being shuttled into the retirement home ahead of his light heavyweight debut. Here was a fighter widely dismissed as too old, too slow, and too shopworn to truly contend with the beasts at 205 pounds. But the two-time UFC heavyweight champion had other plans, and little did the fight game realize, the saga of "Captain America" was only just beginning.

In the type of result that came to typify his legacy, Couture shocked the world with the first chapter of his iconic trilogy against Chuck Liddell, manhandling the division’s longtime uncrowned king with massive slams and devious dirty boxing before out-striking the striker in a classic third round that, afterward, saw Couture claim the mantle as the first man to capture UFC titles in two different divisions.

The astonishing performance resuscitated Couture’s career overnight, and the old dog who was deemed too ancient to contend ended up contending for another eight years, winning two more UFC titles, spanking Tito Ortiz — literally — and playing a starring role on the reality show that turned around an entire sport. Speaking of which…

2005Forrest Griffin vs. Stephen Bonnar 1

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There is a reason that even today, nearly 12 years later, vignettes of Forrest Griffin and Stephen Bonnar’s legendary first brawl still make up the meat of the UFC’s Baba O’Riley-infused montages that kick off in-arena main cards.

While it’s action may have been over-lionized throughout the years, it’s hard to argue against UFC president Dana White calling the light heavyweight finale of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter "the most important fight in UFC history." Griffin-Bonnar 1 bridged a darker era of the sport into an era of unexpected national acceptance, a turning point where a confluence of reality TV magic and frenetic word-of-mouth spectacle helped hammer the final nail into the "human cockfighting" coffin and led to an MMA boom that rolled strong throughout the late-aughts.

And hey, the fight was good, too.

With the promise of a life-changing "six-figure contract" on the line (and before common knowledge caught up to the reality that those six-figure contracts aren’t exactly as advertised), Griffin and Bonnar laid it all on the line in 15 frantic minutes of non-stop swinging. It was the UFC’s first mainstream slobber-knocker, a perfect fight for a perfect moment that transcended all ratings expectations as casuals called up their friends and told them to flip to Spike TV right freakin’ now lest they miss two psychos trying to murder each other.

Looking back, Griffin-Bonnar 1 may not have been the greatest fight the UFC light heavyweight division has ever seen, but it certainly stands tall as the most influential. Hell, it even has its own Wikipedia page.

2007Chuck Liddell vs. Wanderlei Silva

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The one that nearly got away — this was the dream fight for many an MMA fan during the heyday of the Pride vs. UFC debate. And for what seemed like a lifetime, it felt impossibly out of reach.

Liddell by that point was the UFC incarnate, the defining poster-boy of a revolutionary sport with biker-gang looks, a mean overhand right, and credentials of a long-reigning, fan-favorite champion. Silva, on the other hand, was the otherworldly force; a Brazilian demon-spawn who reigned as one of the most intimidating unarmed combatants on the planet from his throne halfway across the world in Japan. They were tailor-made for each other — two no-nonsense bangers who hopelessly lacked in self-preservation — yet, for years, promotional politics and bad luck kept them apart. Even an unprecedented UFC partnership with Pride in 2003 failed to provide Liddell a meeting against the aptly nicknamed "Axe Murderer."

But things changed at UFC 79.

Though both men were past their best days, and though each rode in lugging two-fight slumps, the sight of Liddell and Silva squaring off was enough to send shivers down the spine of even the most jaded MMA fan. Then a tension-filled feeling-out process gave way to explosions of utter fury, both men standing and trading, taking turns downing the other. Liddell pulled away as the 15 minutes rumbled on, wresting a decision away from the rival who for so long seemed so far away. But even after it was over, Liddell-Silva never felt like it was about winners and losers. It was about the fulfillment of a moment, a moment an entire sport long wondered would ever come. And once it finally did, the heavy thump of Sandstorm never sounded so sweet.

2008Forrest Griffin vs. Quinton Jackson

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Even at the time, the 10-month span between UFC 76 and UFC 86 felt like the most unlikely of daydreams; an alternate timeline that existed only remind everyone how little in this sport was certain and how quickly the established order could be so thoroughly upended. Because Forrest Griffin wasn’t supposed to be there. He was the fun brawler, the everyman, the reality TV creation who put on entertaining fights but wasn’t someone to be taken seriously at the highest level. He was pegged as mere cannon fodder for "Shogun" Rua, the assumed best in the world… until the night the everyman choked out the best in the world, and then suddenly who knew what was true?

Griffin parlayed his stunning upset over Rua into a title shot against Quinton Jackson, another feared Pride transplant whose résumé far outclassed Griffin’s own UFC run. Even the oddsmakers gave Griffin little chance — he opened as a bigger underdog to "Rampage" than he did to "Shogun." But none of it mattered.

Over the course of 25 furious minutes, Griffin erased any doubt that he belonged, trading blows with Jackson in a fight that emerged as an instant classic. Jackson dropped Griffin with a ferocious uppercut in the opening round, but Griffin battled back and downed Jackson with low kicks in the second. A close third round gave way to a fourth that saw Griffin catch Jackson in a deep triangle before nearly getting power-bombed into oblivion. By the end of another closely contested fifth, even cageside commentators Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg had scant clue who won the contest.

But ultimately it was Griffin’s night, and even the most disbelieving of mixed martial arts fans had to marvel at his journey: from a man who nearly gave up fighting altogether, to a grit-and-grind underdog who improbably achieved TV stardom, to a bonafide champion of the world in the sport’s marquee weight class. Crazy how much can change in 10 months.

2009Anderson Silva vs. Forrest Griffin

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By far the shortest contest on our list, Anderson Silva’s three-minute romp over Forrest Griffin makes the cut not for its back-and-forth brilliance, but as a testament to the supernatural forces "The Spider" commanded in his prime. This was more ballet than fight, more art than sport, a Van Damme scene played out in real-time that still stands among the most fanciful feats ever performed in an eight-sided cage.

That it happened a little over a year after Griffin’s crowning moment against Jackson only made it more stunning. Moving up a weight class, Silva bobbed and weaved and bested the bigger man with such ease and such disdain that one couldn’t fault an untrained eye for questioning if the fight was even real at all; perfection that left poor Griffin, in his own words, looking like a kid clumsily trying to wrestle his dad.

If Silva’s dominance at 185 established him as an all-time great, his detours to 205 established him as the closest thing MMA had to a real-life superhero.

"I’ve never seen it, except for the highlights," Griffin said of the fight years later. "I don’t need to watch that one."

2011Dan Henderson vs. Mauricio Rua 1

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The greatest non-title fight in UFC history, and the irony is it very nearly didn’t happen.

It’s easy to forget now, but if UFC 139 had taken place six months earlier, Dan Henderson’s fabled first meeting against "Shogun" would have ended in a rout — a clear 30-27 in favor of the 41-year-old American. But just months prior, UFC president Dana White announced the UFC would be moving to five-round main events even for non-title situations, and thus one of the most surreal and primal sights ever witnessed in the Octagon was allowed to unfold on a cold November night in San Jose.

Plenty of ink has been spilled since lauding the efforts of Henderson and Rua, two legends of the game who bared empty their souls at UFC 139. And indeed, under these circumstances, there is little hyperbole too bold. In a tale of two fights, Henderson dominated the first 15 minutes, unleashing his dreaded H-bomb with devilish precision as Rua rallied to merely stay alive. But then the worm turned, and over the course of a gruesome final two rounds, a grotesquely disfigured Rua out-struck Henderson by a devastating margin of 112-17, the Octagon and both of its competitors gradually drowning in a sea of gory crimson.

If the scene happened today, it would surely end in a draw; however 10-8 rounds were a rarity in 2011, and on that night, Henderson escaped with the most costly win of his 20-year fighting career. White instantly deemed it to be one of the best fights in the history of the sport, likening Henderson and Rua’s heroics to MMA’s own ‘Thrilla in Manila.’ It’s hard to fault the comparison. Three years later, Henderson finally closed the book over his fellow mixed martial arts icon, finishing Rua in a rematch after 36 combined minutes of exhaustive in-cage bloodlust.

2013Wanderlei Silva vs. Brian Stann

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"[There are] times where it just happens, and out of nowhere, at the end of it, you hear the crowd roar. And you stare across at your opponent, you both kind of catch each other’s eye, and you know, right now, you’re in one of those fights that you’ve watched so many of, that you always wanted to be a part of."

Those are the words of Brian Stann tasked with recalling his epic encounter against Wanderlei Silva, who not surprisingly, even in his latter days, makes a second appearance on our list.

While some contests are made greater by the weight of the stakes or the moment at hand, others are fun merely because of the sheer chaos involved. Every so often, it’s okay to let a little fun seep into this ever-serious sport — and for nine minutes on a nondescript evening in Japan, Silva and Stann did exactly that, letting loose with hellish abandon as they traded hook after looping hook until Stann finally relented with his consciousness.

Neither man has competed since. And while that may change in a few months — Silva is ostensibly slated to return against his old foil, Chael Sonnen, in the headlining attraction of Bellator’s upcoming pay-per-view on June 24 — it’s hard to forget the night when the ghosts of Saitama Super Arena roared alive once more, and one of the game’s most analytical minds threw caution to the wind in a war of wills against one of history’s greatest brawlers.

2013Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson

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The greatest title fight in UFC history? The greatest fight in UFC history? Call it what you will, but few dates have epitomized the magic of mixed martial arts like Sept. 21, 2013, when over the course of a half-hour, an entire worldview was seemingly shattered then pieced back together again as a man many considered to be the best of all-time reasserted his claim to the light heavyweight throne.

Even in the moment, it felt trancelike.

Jones was the G.O.A.T. of 205 pounds, a wiry destroyer of worlds who rose from wunderkind beginnings to reforge the light heavyweight division into his own self-image. He was supposed to walk through Gustafsson, the young up-and-comer viewed only as fresh meat for Jones’ reign. But four minutes into the contest, when the lanky Swede out-of-nowhere became the first man to take Jones down in the Octagon, it became clear that something special was brewing.

Back and forth they traded blows, Gustafsson bloodying Jones, proving the king mortal with a most abrupt assault on MMA history. He nearly did it, too. With Gustafsson up 29-28 on two scorecards, and a fourth round for "The Mauler" almost in hand, Jones gazed up to the clock on big screen — 40 seconds left — and unloaded with a perfectly timed spinning back elbow. It caught Gustafsson flush on the forehead, and, sensing the moment, Jones pounced, buffeting his foe with a hellacious barrage of punches and elbows and knees. Gustafsson survived, but it was too late; the momentum had turned, and Jones unanimously clawed through a fifth round to eke out the most harrowing victory of his decorated career.

For a brief time, the unexpected classic turned both men into superstars. And though Jones’ career seemingly collapsed over ensuing years under a cascade of bad life decisions, Gustafsson’s crusade for the UFC light heavyweight belt was not yet done.

2015Daniel Cormier vs. Alexander Gustafsson

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With Jon Jones pushed far out of the picture due to self-inflicted wounds, Daniel Cormier emerged in 2015 as the man to beat at 205 pounds. And in his first and thus far only title defense, the two-time Olympian learned swiftly the hell that Jones paid at the hands of Sweden’s own.

In a contest that mirrored the chaos of UFC 165, Cormier and Gustafsson once more drank deep from the chalice of the blood gods, locking themselves in a 25-minute war of attrition that cemented both men as worthy greats of their era. By the end of the third stanza, "DC" and "The Mauler" were split wide open, Cormier mutilating his foe’s face with heavy hooks and uppercuts from the clinch, Gustafsson nearly ripping the champ’s head clean from his body with murderous counter knees. The championship rounds brought further distress, and by the sound of the final horn, both light heavyweights had the look of men who waded through the River Styx to abduct Cerberus themselves.

"Thank you, Alexander Gustafsson," an emotional Cormier said afterward, the victor of a harrowing split decision. "You made me a better man and fighter tonight. I will forever be indebted to you and your performance tonight. Alex, thank you."

Injuries and unforeseen circumstances have prevented Cormier from defending his title ever since.

But now UFC 210 is upon us, and "Rumble" Johnson awaits.

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