As part of our Top 10 series, we’re looking at the Top 10 rivalries in the UFC, taking into account the lifespan of the rivalry and the animosity involved, as well as the quality and drama of the fights.
Before Georges St-Pierre, there was Matt Hughes. The undisputed welterweight king, and the pound-for-pound number one.
GSP was never the intimidating, trash-talking type, and much preferred to do his talking in the Octagon, and even admitted that he’d idolised Hughes to the point he struggled to look his opponent in the eye. Not ideal when you’re due to meet them in the Octagon.
St-Pierre came off second best, losing to a blink-of-an-eye armbar on the buzzer at the end of the first.
On the comeback trail, GSP won five straight fights to earn a rematch, criticising Hughes’s performance after beating BJ Penn.
The rematch saw a rejuvenated GSP throw everything at Hughes, recording a resounding win in the second round.
The trilogy fight would be more of the same, signalling the end of Hughes’s career as a top-level fighter, and signalling the start of GSP’s era of dominance.
The rivalry between Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate predated the UFC, back in the Strikeforce days before women competed in the UFC, and was the defining rivalry in the early days of women’s MMA.
Rousey was fast building a reputation, and felt she deserved to jump the queue over Sarah Kaufman to fight champion Tate.
Tate, in turn, said Rousey wasn’t ready, and that she’d been protected and pampered throughout her career, a jibe that riled Rousey into a lengthy blog post about the obstacles she’d faced.
Kaufman was moved aside and the fight everyone wanted to see was made, and although Tate was the first fighter to go past the first minute with Rousey, she would still lose by first-round armbar.
After two more wins by Rousey, Tate was still the obvious contender for the now-UFC women’s bantamweight title, and while she’d break another barrier in becoming the first fighter to take Rousey past the first round, Tate would lose by armbar once again.
Also predating the UFC, the rivalry between Dominick Cruz and Urijah Faber goes all the way back to WEC days, where Faber handed Cruz his first defeat as a pro. It would also be Cruz’s last for nearly 10 years.
March 2007 would see Cruz lose via first-round guillotine as Faber defended his WEC featherweight title. Cruz dropped down to bantamweight and never looked back. Three featherweight title fight defeats for Faber saw him join Cruz at bantamweight, with the inaugural UFC featherweight title fight taking place between the pair in July 2011.
Cruz had transformed himself in the four years between fights, and beat Cruz by decision.
The pair were set to meet at the end of an Ultimate Fighter season, throughout which plenty of barbs had been exchanged, and while they didn’t have the acerbic wit of a Conor McGregor, they met more than enough for the animosity to be very real over the course of a decade, with Cruz winning the long-awaited trilogy fight to retain the bantamweight title.
When All-American wrestler and WWE superstar Brock Lesnar tried his hand at MMA, there were more than a few sceptics, wondering if he could hack it, dismissively suggesting he had nothing beyond wrestling and freakish strength.
His second pro fight – his first in the UFC – would see him chucked in at the deep end with UFC champion Frank Mir. Despite dominating the fight, Lesnar was harshly deducted a point with the fight brought back to its feet. Lesnar picked up where he left off, but a rookie error saw him submitted via kneebar.
An eight-month layoff for Lesnar gave the pair ample opportunity to ramp up the hype for the rematch, with Mir – and his camp – still dismissive of Lesnar’s MMA skills, while Lesnar was desperate to avenge his only MMA loss.
Lesnar did just that, dominating Mir once again, but without any mistakes this time around. A flawless performance silenced Mir, albeit briefly.
Even the bitterest of rivals will typically embrace and shake hands and exchange pleasantries after a fight, but after Lesnar came out on top, he went back over to Mir, shouting “talk all the s*** you want now!”
If anyone still had any doubt over the legitimacy of the animosity between them, Mir was forced into an apology after announcing his hatred for Lesnar, claiming – with no fight between them even scheduled – that he wanted to “break his neck”.
One of the UFC’s true originals versus one of the UFC’s first poster boys. When Ortiz beat one of Shamrock’s fighters in Guy Mezger, Ortiz donned an offensive T-shirt and stuck his two middle fingers up at Shamrock, sparking a furious reaction from Shamrock, a firm believer in the mutual respect between mixed martial artists.
While some rivalries are manufactured, Shamrock was left incandescent by the incident, and seemed to truly despite Ortiz, who was all too happy to take the role of heel to spark the rivalry between the pair.
Time and time again, Ortiz found a way to get under Shamrock’s skin; a press conference between the two saw Ortiz pause, then burst out laughing at one of Shamrock’s threats, prompting the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Man’ to boot a chair.
Ortiz beat the veteran to a pulp in their first fight, forcing a corner stoppage. After more heated altercations between them throughout The Ultimate Fighter, the pair met again with Ortiz once again coming out on top, albeit after an arguably early stoppage, creating a third fight, billed ‘The Final Chapter’.
Shamrock was on the receiving end of another first-round finish, closing the book once and for all.
Before McGregor, there was Sonnen. One of the most legendary trash-talkers in the game, whose mouth was perhaps the most dangerous tool in his arsenal.
By the summer of 2010, Anderson Silva had established himself as a near-unbeatable fighter, and Sonnen, though he would never have admitted it, must have known he wasn’t on Silva’s level – inside the Octagon anyway.
Outside the Octagon, Sonnen ran rings around Silva. He took shots at everything he could think of, even Muay Thai, prompting Silva to emerge in a Gi when heading to the Octagon.
For the first time, Silva looked beatable. He lost each of the first four rounds – two of them 10-8 on one scorecard – before recording a submission win out of absolutely nowhere.
The typically placid Silva took a different approach heading into the rematch, threatening to break all four of Sonnen’s limbs as well as his teeth.
Sonnen started the second fight as well as the first, before a misstep allowed Silva to record a second-round TKO, putting the rivalry to bed.
After – and during – Ortiz/Shamrock, there was Liddell/Ortiz. The former training partners and ostensible friends turned bitter rivals.
Before Dana White was UFC president, he managed both fighters. In Ortiz, he had a charismatic, adored champion, who loved the limelight and had conquered the light heavyweight division, making five title defences. With Liddell, he had the fast-rising quiet man. Not quite camera-shy, but Liddell did his talking in the Octagon.
Liddell didn’t have Ortiz’s charm, but he’d won six straight fights in the UFC, and despite their relationship, a fight seemed inevitable. Ortiz said he didn’t want to fight a friend, certainly not for the money offered, and spent a year out of the Octagon. Liddell denied the pair were friends, and claimed Ortiz was using it as an excuse, knowing he couldn’t beat him.
Instead, Liddell would fight Randy Couture for the interim title instead – and lost.
Ortiz returned to unify the division – and also lost.
A fight between the pair was finally on. Liddell, who’d insisted all along that Ortiz was scared of him, and that the Ice Man was a bad match for him, put Ortiz away.
Ortiz won five straight fights on the comeback trail, but would come up short once more in the rematch, settling the score.
In terms of genuine animosity, Khabib v McGregor trumps the lot. While part of McGregor’s tactics would be to talk up fights and get under his opponents’ skin – often successfully – it backfired spectacularly with Khabib Nurmagomedov.
While McGregor has often skirted pretty close to – and at times overstepped – the line, Khabib couldn’t stomach the insults launched not just at him, but his team, his family and anything else McGregor could volley into a microphone.
When McGregor heard that team-mate Artem Lobov had been involved in an altercation with Nurmagomedov, the Notorious headed to New York, infamously launching an attack on a bus with Khabib aboard. Tensions had gone way beyond the general trash-talk surrounding a fight, with a police warrant out for McGregor’s arrest.
This wasn’t simply a clash of personalities; it ran much deeper with Nurmagomedov, and you could argue McGregor felt the need to get to that level, to match Khabib’s hatred, i.e. with his reaction to the Lobov incident.
The pair would finally meet six months later at UFC 229, the aftermath of which remains the sport’s most infamous.
While it’s not uncommon for fighters to embrace in a show of respect after a fight, Khabib looked hesitant to even let go of McGregor after the tap, and after being pulled away by Herb Dean, Khabib set about members of McGregor’s team, while members of his team set about McGregor.
Had they fought once more, this would undoubtedly occupy top spot.
Perhaps the rivalry that captured the public’s imagination more than any other, it took a twist of fate for Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz to even fight the first time.
McGregor had decided to move up to lightweight to try and take Rafael dos Anjos’s belt, but with the Brazilian pulling out with injury two weeks before the fight, cult hero Diaz stepped into the breach, with the fight agreed at welterweight.
McGregor had built up an aura of invincibility and few gave Diaz a chance going into the fight, but nine minutes in, Diaz shocked the world. A rematch was inevitable.
You get the feeling that in different circumstances, the pair could’ve actually been friends. The impression wasn’t that McGregor hated Diaz, or vice versa, but both knew how to sell the fight. Thrown into the fire, the pair did a good job of hyping the fight in their unique ways.
A whirlwind press tour saw the first fight break the previous UFC PPV record, with the rematch breaking that. Combined, the two fights surpassed any other pair of fights in UFC history, with a trilogy still possible.
The rivalry predated their UFC days, with animosity there before any fight was agreed, with Jones mocking Cormier’s wrestling. Remember, Cormier wasn’t just an All-American wrestler, but an Olympic wrestler, and a world bronze medallist. Jones insists he was joking with Cormier. Cormier didn’t see the funny side.
When the pair went head-to-head at a press conference, Jones leaned in, Cormier pushed Jones in the throat, Jones threw a punch, and chaos ensued.
A bitter war of words followed, which included barbs about each other’s wives, and when they finally met in the Octagon, Jones would retain his title and cement his place as the sport’s #1 P4P fighter.
Jones would be suspended by the UFC for a hit-and-run incident, which allowed Cormier to capture the now-vacant title, which the pair were set to unify at the landmark UFC 200.
On the eve of the fight, Cormier was notified, on camera, by Dana White, that Jones had tested positive. A devastated Cormier asked if he could still fight Jones despite the positive test. He couldn’t, and needed to wait another year before the pair would meet again.
Cormier and Jones met for a second time at UFC 214, with Jones KOing the champion. An emotional Cormier admitted that having been beaten twice, there was no rivalry.
Though the rivalry may have ended, it produced fireworks while it lasted.