April has never really been viewed or presented as one of the bigger months on the UFC calendar, and yet some of the most memorable events and individual encounters have taken place inside the Octagon during the fourth month of the year.
Between 1993 and 1999, there was only one event held in the month of April. Another followed in 2000. And then in 2003, the first month of spring became a regular fixture on the fight calendar, but unlike its counterparts with major holidays or annual events, April has always just been a bit of a transitional month bridging the gap between winter and spring.
And yet trying to whittle down the list of fights to include in this collection of the most memorable and impactful contests in April was tremendously difficult because there have been some real seminal moments that took place in April over the years.
But after much thought and deliberation, here’s what I’ve come up with; this is my collection of the biggest UFC fights to take place in the month of April.
Forrest Griffin def. Stephan Bonnar (The Ultimate Fighter Finale)
You can’t have a collection of the biggest fights to take place in April without including — and leading off, as is the case here — with the fight credited with saving the UFC.
The Ultimate Fighter was the company’s last-ditch effort to make an impact in the mainstream. It was The Real World with fighters and fights, and it was riveting to watch. In addition to the pranks, tensions, and turmoil that transpired in the house, this was the first time most people got a peak behind the curtain of what training to be a professional mixed martial artist looked like, and it was captivating to watch several members of the cast navigate their experience.
One thing that doesn’t get discussed about the finale that much is that it was an action-packed night of fights before Griffin and Bonnar stepped into the Octagon — the first five fights ended in the first round, and Diego Sanchez kicked off the main card by stopping Kenny Florian inside of one, as well. But Griffin and Bonnar combined for something special.
For a lot of people, this was the first great fight they saw play out on their televisions, the way their parents watched Hagler-Hearns or Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran. You could feel the emotion and the swings in momentum through the screen, and as the time ticked off the clock, the stakes just kept getting higher.
Here’s how you know this was one of the most impactful fights in UFC history: most folks don’t recall that this fight wasn’t the main event, which actually featured Rich Franklin beating Ken Shamrock in the first round to land an opportunity to fight for the middleweight title.
This was a no-brainer.
Matt Hughes def. Frank Trigg (UFC 52)
There was no shot this one was getting left off the list either; not when it remains at the top of UFC President Dana White’s list of favorite fights.
Hughes won their first encounter with a standing rear-naked choke just shy of four minutes into the opening round, having navigated some early rough waters against the game, competitive Trigg. The challenger won a pair of fights in 2004 to remain in the championship mix, and with Hughes having returned to the top of the welterweight division six months earlier, the rematch was set.
Less than a minute into the contest, Trigg kneed Hughes below the belt, but the fight wasn’t stopped, giving the challenger the opportunity to chase down the champion and unload offense. Trigg got after Hughes, roughing him up with punches, climbing into mount before eventually ending up on Hughes’ back, attacking a rear-naked choke.
Hughes looked dead to rights, stuck with Trigg on his back, in complete control of the contest, searching for the finish.
But then Trigg lost his grip on the choke as Hughes tried to work his way free, twisting into top position as the challenger slid from his back. Hughes grabbed Trigg and hoisted him onto his shoulder, carrying him the width of the Octagon before slamming him to the canvas with force on the opposite side of the cage.
He landed in side control and instantly climbed into mount, and Trigg looked deflated on bottom. Hughes postured up and rained down blows, and when Trigg gave up his back, the champion kept pounding away before sinking in the rear-naked choke for a second time.
Matt Serra def. Georges St-Pierre (UFC 69)
Trying to explain this to someone today, it just won’t make sense to them; not with everything that has happened since, and the way the sport has evolved.
Serra was a fighter with a 9-4 record, who earned a championship opportunity by edging out Chris Lytle in the finals of the welterweight tournament on Season 4 of The Ultimate Fighter. St-Pierre had just made good on his second chance to claim UFC gold, knocking out Matt Hughes in the second round of their championship rematch at UFC 65, avenging the one and only loss of his career.
St-Pierre was expected to cruise, but Serra had different ideas.
The champion’s superior athleticism, fluidity, and dynamism showed right out of the gate, as Serra was stuck on the outside, hampered by his short stature and limited reach. But Serra started throwing punches to the body and mixing in leg kicks, allowing him to get his range before landing a clean Superman punch.
With a tick over two minutes remaining in the round, St-Pierre pressed forward and Serra hit him with a clubbing right hand, catching him on the side of the head with his bicep more than anything else, but it put the French-Canadian champion on skates, his equilibrium disrupted.
St-Pierre tried to fight his way out of trouble rather than circling to free space to reset, and Serra made him pay for that decision, dropping him almost immediately. St-Pierre clambered to his feet like a baby deer standing for the first time, and Serra stayed on him, clipping him time and again, forcing the champion to search for a desperation takedown.
Serra quickly extracted his foot from St-Pierre’s clutches and continued to land heavy blows, another clean right sending the titleholder to the canvas, allowing the challenger to pound out the victory.
St-Pierre regained the title a year later in Montreal and went on to have one of the most impressive careers in UFC history. Serra only fought three more times after that, wrapping his career with an 11-7 record.
At the time, it was the biggest upset in UFC history; it still might be today.
Conor McGregor def. Marcus Brimage (UFC on FUEL TV 9)
Before you launch into an argument about why a preliminary card fight on an event in Stockholm, Sweden shouldn’t be included on a list like this, remember that I said this collection contained the most memorable and impactful contests to transpire in the UFC during the month of April, and then answer me this one question:
Who has had a greater impact on the UFC — and arguably combat sports as a whole — in the last decade than “The Notorious” Conor McGregor?
All those people shouting “50Gs Baby!” after a victory? Because of Conor, who debuted the line here after dispatching Brimage in spectacular fashion.
This was where the rest of the world began to see the superstar potential of the talented featherweight from Ireland. Fifteen months later, he’d headline at home in Dublin. A year after that, he headlined UFC 194 and claimed the interim featherweight title, following it up by ending Jose Aldo’s lengthy unbeaten streak and championship reign in 13 seconds at UFC 194.
Two-weight world champions in the UFC? McGregor was the first, and even now, after consecutive losses and a broken leg, with just a single victory since November 2016, he’s still the guy everyone wants to fight at both lightweight and welterweight.
No one has had a greater impact in the last decade, and few have had as a great an impact ever as Conor McGregor, and this is when it all got started.
Demetrious Johnson def. Henry Cejudo (UFC 197)
Johnson came into this fight as the first and only flyweight champion in UFC history. He’d won nine straight fights, including seven consecutive successful title defenses. He’d beaten Joseph Benavidez and John Dodson twice, and was running roughshod over everyone that stepped in across from him.
Cejudo was supposed to be a threat — an Olympic gold medalist with an unblemished record, coming off a quality victory over perennial contender Jussier Formiga. He was fast, confident, used to high-pressure situations, and facing the best in the world.
Johnson was expected to have his toughest fight in some time when he stepped in against Cejudo, but instead, he delivered his most dominant performance in two-and-a-half years, and arguably his most impressive effort up to that point of his career.
“Mighty Mouse” was the quicker of the two, evading Cejudo’s pressure and getting the better of early exchanges in space and in the clinch. When Cejudo hit a beautiful trip takedown in the center of the cage, Johnson calmly sat up, worked his butterflies in, and kicked Cejudo off, returning to his feet, exiting to safety, and resetting.
When they tied up moments later, Johnson landed a good, hard knee to the body and forced Cejudo back towards the fence. As the Olympian looked to control the clinch battle, Johnson hit another knee and grabbed onto a Thai clinch, landing a knee to the head that clearly hurt the challenger.
Johnson pressed forward, initiating the clinch once again, burying knees into Cejudo’s midsection and shoulder thrusts into his chin. Cejudo looked to return fire, but Johnson ate it and countered in kind, adding an elbow to the side of the head and a knee upstairs that left the challenger backpedaling on uncertain footing.
A straight left hand landed clean and another knee to the body put Cejudo down.
It was a blistering effort from one of the all-time greats, in a spot where many thought he would be tested.
Rose Namajunas def. Joanna Jedrzejczyk (UFC 223)
Namajunas unseated Jedrzejczyk from the strawweight throne five months earlier, dropping and stopping the long-reigning champion in three minutes at UFC 217 at Madison Square Garden. It wasn’t just that Namajunas had dethroned “Joanna Champion,” but how she did it — clean, quick, efficient — that really made the result stand out.
Jedrzejczyk was awarded an immediate rematch, as is customary with champions that defend their titles multiple times, and she promised things would be different the second time around, and they were, but not entirely.
Any question about whether Namajunas’ first victory was a fluke were silenced almost immediately, as the Trevor Wittman protégé came out with the same clean, quick, efficient striking approach that produced her title-winning effort. But Jedrzejczyk was game too, and rather than another short battle, the women engaged in one of the most competitive championship fights of the last five years.
Based on Twitter scores and reactions, most had the bout even heading into the final round, with the title hanging in the balance. Jedrzejczyk upped her output, throwing the most strikes she’d thrown in the entire fight, and Namajunas responded in kind, landing the more impactful blows over the final five minutes to salt away the victory.
The judges all had it four rounds to one for the champion, but more than people remember the actual scores, they remember feeling like Namajunas needed to rally in the fifth, and then watching the strawweight titleholder do exactly that against the best fighter in the history of the division.
“Thug Rose” was already a popular fighter prior to this contest, but this was the night she became a full-blown superstar.
Dustin Poirier def. Justin Gaethje (UFC on FOX 29)
Going into this one, everyone knew it was going to be a Pier 6 brawl; a good old-fashioned slobberknocker between two elite lightweights that just so happen to enjoy beating the holy hell out of people.
Somehow, it still managed to exceed expectations.
Poirier was a couple fights into his march towards the top of the division, coming off a submission win over former champ Anthony Pettis, which came after his first clash with Eddie Alvarez. Gaethje was coming off his first career loss in a fight with Alvarez, where the two men hit each other with everything that wasn’t tied down in Detroit at UFC 218 and the UFC sophomore’s stock continued to rise despite the result.
Even with five rounds to work, these two got after it right away, and the God’s honest truth is that as much as I’m a talented writer, I can’t do this one justice with prose here; you just have to go watch it.
You have to see the commitment and certainty in Poirier’s eyes, the unwavering belief that he’s the better man, and the way Gaethje repeatedly steadies himself and returns fire, accepting the pain and punishment coming his way because he’s sure that his tolerance is higher than his opponent’s, and anyone else on the planet, for that matter.
And you have to see the fourth round, where both men come out of the corner wearing it a little, but still as locked in as they were to start the evening, only for a Poirier left hand to cause Gaethje’s legs to turn to Jell-O 15 seconds into the frame and kick off a barrage that not only ended the fight, but showed how much “The Diamond” had grown and matured as a fighter over the last couple of years.
Okay, so maybe I had some words, but you should still go watch the fight.
Israel Adesanya def. Kelvin Gastelum (UFC 236)
Much like McGregor’s march up the featherweight ranks captured everyone’s attention a few years earlier, Adesanya’s ascent in the middleweight division had a similar effect, with each outstanding effort bringing more interest to each subsequent fight. By the time he faced off with Gastelum for the interim title in Atlanta, he was 16-0, having earned five victories in 12 months in the UFC, and feeling as inevitable as the Irishman did heading into his first championship turn.
But Gastelum wasn’t interested in being a steppingstone; this was his first championship opportunity as well, and after knocking out former champ Michael Bisping and edging out perennial contender “Jacare” Souza, he was focused on halting Adesanya’s unbeaten streak.
The former Ultimate Fighter winner Gastelum took the first, instantly showing this wouldn’t be a walk in the park for Adesanya, who responded by taking the next two frames and grabbing the momentum for himself as the bout moved to the championship rounds. Unexpectedly, Gastelum rallied back, taking the fight to Adesanya, hurting him, and drawing level, leaving the outcome — and the interim title — to be decided by the final five minutes.
Standing in his corner before the start of the fifth round, his lips swollen and bloody, Adesanya mouthed the words, “You can’t beat me; I’m prepared to die” as he stepped back into the fray. Gastelum waded out gamely as well, but “The Last Stylebender” was just too much, earning a 10-8 score from all three judges after dropping Gastelum multiple times to claim the victory and the title.
The 2019 Fight of the Year remains one of the most entertaining, compelling, and tense battles I’ve seen in my lifetime… and I’ve watched a lot of fights.
Valentina Shevchenko def. Jessica Andrade (UFC 261)
This may be a surprise entrant to some but, to me, this is the greatest representation of how incredibly dominant and complete a fighter Shevchenko is inside the Octagon.
Much like how Cejudo was supposed to be a formidable challenge for Johnson in their first encounter, people legitimately expected Andrade to give the flyweight titleholder a run for her money. After all, she was a former strawweight champion with hellacious power and dangerous strength, and she melted top contender Katlyn Chookagian with a pair of vicious body shots in her divisional debut six months earlier.
It took about 90 seconds, maybe two minutes, max, for Shevchenko to show she wasn’t going to be troubled by Andrade. She was quicker, more technical on the feet and physically dominant in the clinch, easily twisting the Brazilian to the canvas multiple times in the opening stanza and doing whatever she pleased once the fight hit the mat.
The challenger escaped the first round, but wouldn’t escape the second, with the champion putting her back on the deck almost immediately. Andrade worked back to her feet, but not for long, with Shevchenko eventually working her way to the mounted crucifix position and ending the bout with a torrent of unanswered, unstoppable elbows.
The 34-year-old “Bullet” is the longest reigning current champion on the roster, a perfect 8-0 since moving to the flyweight division, and equaled Ronda Rousey’s record for the most consecutive successful title defenses by a female fighter with her win over Lauren Murphy five months after this.
She is a singular force, and this was her most impressive performance to date.
Kamaru Usman def. Jorge Masvidal (UFC 261)
Some people didn’t understand Usman’s desire to run it back with Masvidal less than a year after sweeping the scorecards against the veteran contender on short notice the previous summer, but it always made sense to me.
Masvidal had the short-notice card to play, and even thought the late opponent shift cuts both ways, we always see it as a greater obstacle for the person coming in with a truncated or non-existent training camp. Masvidal is great at spinning tales, and the way he told it, Usman was only able to hold him against the fence for 25 minutes the first time around, and that was when he had no training camp, so imagine how different it would be if “Gamebred” was in shape, ready to go?
When you believe you’re the better man, little questions and twisted tales like that feel like a rock in your shoe, and rather than keep marching forward in discomfort, Usman decided to deal with the rock.
And boy did he.
Playing into his “Street Jesus” moniker, Masvidal had taken to saying he “baptized” people when he knocked them out, and promised to do the same to Usman, but he was the one plunged into the icy cold waters of comeuppance at UFC 261.
After a competitive first round, each man looked for openings to start the second, with Masvidal landing a few leg kicks and a right hand that prompted him to smile and posture at Usman for a brief moment. The champion pawed out with two jabs that were parried away soon after, and when he reached out with a third, Masvidal left himself open to the megaton right hand coming behind it.
The spray of sweat coming off Masvidal’s head as he twisted to the canvas in a heap likely hit the fans in the first row; that’s how clean, how precise, how impactful Usman’s shot landed. There were no questions this time.