In films, it’s accepted that the sequel is rarely as good or better than the original.
Although there are exceptions — The Godfather, Part II; Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back; The Dark Knight — in the majority of cases, the second installment tends to come up short for one reason or another.
In combat sports, rematches — and specifically championship sequels — are often where legends are formed, legacies are cemented, and indelible memories are created. In some cases, the first fight is a classic and merits a return engagement. In others, it’s a case of a vanquished challenger climbing the ranks to once again stand opposite their nemesis.
And sometimes, the earlier meeting (or meetings) were just too good to not do it one more time.
With a middleweight championship rematch between Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker on tap to headline UFC 271 in Houston next month, now is as good a time as ever to traverse the annals of UFC history and compile a collection of the best championship sequels to ever grace the Octagon.
Matt Hughes vs. Frank Trigg (UFC 52)
UFC 52 was headlined by a light heavyweight title rematch between Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell that we’ll get to in a second, and yet it wasn’t the best title fight sequel on the card; that honor belonged to Hughes and Trigg.
Their first meeting at UFC 45 ended with Hughes climbing on Trigg’s back, sinking in a rear-naked choke, and the duo crashing to the canvas as the challenger tapped out. Having lost, regained, and successfully defended the title against emerging star Georges St-Pierre, Hughes was once again paired off with Trigg, who had earned consecutive stoppage wins over Dennis Hallman and Renato Verissimo to land a second championship opportunity.
Trigg gained an advantage early in the fight when referee Mario Yamasaki failed to recognize an errant low blow, allowing the challenger to chase down and attack the uncomfortable champion. Trigg put Hughes on the canvas and followed him to the floor, unloading with punches and elbows before transitioning briefly into mount and taking Hughes’ back. The challenger worked to secure a rear-naked choke, and nearly had the hold secured when Hughes spun into his guard and escaped.
What followed was one of the most memorable sequences in UFC history.
Hughes collected Trigg and hoisted him onto his shoulder, carrying him the width of the Octagon before depositing him with a thud on the other side of the cage. The champion instantly climbed into mount and began unloading, forcing Trigg to give up his back. Trigg put his shoulders back on the canvas and ate a storm of elbows for having done so, prompting him to once again give up his back as he looked to get back to his feet.
Seconds later, Hughes sunk in a rear-naked choke and secured the tap, bringing one of the most back-and-forth, one-round championship fights to its climactic end. To this day, UFC President Dana White still cites this as his favorite fight, and the highlight of Hughes carrying Trigg across the cage and slamming him into the canvas plays during the main card intro video scored by The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” at every UFC event.
Randy Couture vs. Chuck Liddell (UFC 52)
Two fights after Hughes had forced Trigg to tap for a second time, Couture and Liddell got reacquainted inside the Octagon as well.
“The Natural” had won the first fight nearly two years earlier, scoring a third-round technical knockout victory and claiming the interim light heavyweight title in the process. He unified the belts in his next fight, and then traded the title back with Vitor Belfort in a two-fight series before landing opposite Liddell as the coaches on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, where part of the hook was that at the end of the season, the coaches would do battle for the light heavyweight belt.
Seven days after Diego Sanchez mauled Kenny Florian, and Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar captured lightning in a bottle, Couture and Liddell clashed for a second time, and this time, it was “The Iceman” that got the better of things.
Couture pressed forward as the aggressor, but Liddell immediately showed that he was content and capable working as a counter-striker, moving laterally and pawing with corralling hooks as the champion looked to close the distance and get inside. Couture landed the first real clean blow — a good right hand — and grabbed a collar tie, getting off some dirty boxing before Liddell was able to extricate himself from the situation before time was called due to an accidental eye poke.
When the fight restarted, Couture moved forward and looked for a right hand, but Liddell slipped off to the left and connected with a hook that stung the champion. Couture tried to play it off and punch his way out of danger, but instead, the retreating Liddell planted his feet and fired off a right hand that landed like a heat-seeking missile on Couture’s chin.
The champion fell to the floor, the coffin nails quickly followed, and less than 20 seconds after the momentary pause in the action, Liddell stood tall as the new UFC light heavyweight champion.
Matt Hughes vs. Georges St-Pierre (UFC 65)
There is a widely held belief in sports circles that you have to learn how to lose and suffer a defeat in a big spot in order to know what it takes to eventually reach the ultimate goal. Whether it’s true or not, that’s how things played out between Hughes and St-Pierre.
In their first meeting at UFC 50, Hughes got the better of the undefeated French-Canadian rising star, with St-Pierre tapping out to an armbar with one second remaining in the opening round. It was a veteran effort from the tenured champion, who reclaimed the vacant belt with the win, and a critical lesson learned for his talented, young rival.
Hughes won his next four fights, successfully defending his title on either side of victories over Joe Riggs and Royce Gracie, while St-Pierre posted five consecutive wins, the last four of which came inside the Octagon.
The rematch was scheduled to take place at UFC 63, but an injury forced St-Pierre from the contest, leading to Hughes running things back with BJ Penn instead. After Hughes defeated Penn, St-Pierre was ushered into the cage, where he congratulated the champion, but declared that he was “not impressed” by Hughes’ performance, which created an added layer of tension between the two and greater anticipation for the rematch.
Less than two months after beating Penn, Hughes faced off with St-Pierre for a second time, and this time, it was clear the emerging star had learned from his previous mistakes.
St-Pierre established his striking advantage and superior athleticism early, sticking Hughes with the sharp jab that would become a hallmark of his fights going forward, mixing in kicks to all three levels. Midway through the opening round, the challenger caught the champion below the belt, immediately landing there once more when the fight restarted.
Surprisingly, it was St-Pierre that completed the first takedown, dumping Hughes to the canvas after catching a kick late in the opening stanza, passing to half guard and landing a few short blows before the champion clambered back to his feet. Late in the frame, the challenger stuffed a takedown attempt and then stunned Hughes with a Superman punch, the round ending with the champion on the canvas.
Early in the second, St-Pierre shook off another takedown attempt, and started attacking with low kicks to the calf, sweeping Hughes off his feet at one point, prompting the champion to grimace in frustration. Back in the center of the cage, St-Pierre landed a clean right hand, and as the two reset, he went upstairs with a kick, catching Hughes clean on the side of the head.
The challenger pounced on the prone titleholder, unleashing a string of punches and elbows that prompted referee John McCarthy to stop the fight, causing the audience to erupt and St-Pierre to fall to his knees in disbelief.
Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard (UFC 136)
While this was the third meeting between Edgar and Maynard, it was also their second consecutive championship clash, having battled to a draw on New Year’s Day, making a third bout between the two an absolute must. Injuries delayed the contest from the spring to the fall, but it turned out to be more than worth the wait.
Just as he had in the second meeting, Maynard dominated the opening stanza, hurting Edgar on multiple occasions, busting his nose, and appearing at times to be one good shot away from halting the proceedings. But the seminal blow never came, and just as he had done at UFC 125, Edgar came out to start the second looking fresh and ready to fight.
Over the next 10 minutes, the champion worked his way back into the fight, drawing level as the fight headed into the championship rounds, and there, “The Answer” provided the definitive answer regarding who the superior talent in the lightweight division was.
With just over a minute remaining in the fourth round, Maynard and Edgar got tangled up, and as they broke from the scramble, Edgar connected with an uppercut that took Maynard off his feet. Dazed, the challenger stumbled back to the fence and the champion gave chase, pinning him along the wall and unloaded a string of left hands that closed out the fight and the rivalry between the two men.
While their battle at the start of the year rightfully won Fight of the Year honors, the championship sequel was every bit as good.
Ronda Rousey vs. Miesha Tate (UFC 168)
Though the first meeting between the two took place under the Strikeforce banner, it was a championship fight, and since I’m the one making this list, I’m going to say it counts for these purposes.
A few months after making history as the first female fighter to earn a victory inside the Octagon, Rousey, who was promoted to being the UFC inaugural women’s bantamweight champion when she signed with the promotion, was scheduled to coach opposite Cat Zingano on Season 17 of The Ultimate Fighter, with the two meeting in a championship bout at the conclusion of the season. Zingano earned the opportunity by defeating Tate with a gutsy third-round finish, but before the reality TV competition started filming, the impending challenger suffered a torn ACL, forcing her out of the coaching role and championship fight.
Tate was the obvious choice to replace her, and her simmering rivalry with Rousey was brought to a boil once more as the two were forced to share the same space for a number of weeks as opposing coaches. When the show wrapped, the adversaries faced off for a second time, battling it out in the co-main event of UFC 162.
While Rousey ultimately won with her signature armbar, the fight marked the first time the dominant champion had been extended beyond the first round, with Tate showing toughness and heart while pushing the fight into the third frame before finally succumbing to Rousey’s finisher early in the round.
Tate offered to shake Rousey’s hand following the finish, and Rousey opted to simply walk away, the victory doing little to ease the animosity the champion felt towards her most formidable challenger.
Jose Aldo vs. Chad Mendes (UFC 179)
Aldo and Mendes first met at UFC 142 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil — the former entering as the reigning champion, having won 13 consecutive contests, including each of his first two UFC appearances; the latter venturing into hostile territory as the undefeated challenger and latest member of Team Alpha Male to vie for championship gold.
Competitive for much of the opening round, Mendes looked to elevate and dump Aldo to the canvas with just under a minute remaining in the frame, but the champion grabbed a handful of fence, stopping the takedown without getting penalized. Mendes tried again, but Aldo popped right back up to his feet, with the challenger still sticky around his waist.
Late in the frame, Aldo broke Mendes’ grip around his waist, turned out, and clocked the challenger with a perfect knee that ended the fight just before the horn sounded. “The King of Rio” raced into the crowd and celebrated with the elated, partisan populous, creating an iconic moment that will never be replicated.
They met again 22 months later, Aldo having retained his title through three additional championship assignments and Mendes working his way back to a rematch with five consecutive victories, and this time, the featherweight standouts went the distance in an instant classic.
While Aldo collected a unanimous decision win with scores of 49-46 across the board — winning all but the fourth round on all three cards — the final tallies don’t reflect how competitive and captivating this second meeting between the two really was.
Mendes stung Aldo and sat him down early in the first round and stayed right in the champion’s face, only for Aldo to return the favor late in the frame, climbing to mount momentarily, and connecting with a pair of clean, heavy shots after the horn.
The duo ran level through the second — Mendes could have easily earned the nod on the cards — with Aldo getting the better of things in the third before the challenger battled back to win the fourth. Watching it live, it felt like the fifth would decide the fight, and both men fought as if that was the case, battling for every inch and leaving it all inside the cage.
Mendes secured a takedown early, but did little with it, with Aldo pressing forward landing clean shots once he returned to his feet. Down the stretch, each man threw, but Aldo’s punches seemed to land with greater impact, and when the final horn sounded, the two embraced in the center of the cage, happy to have brought the best out of one another in an outstanding championship battle.
Rose Namajunas vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk (UFC 223)
Rematches happen for myriad reasons, including as a means of validating a surprising result, which was the case here, as five months after Namajunas knocked Jedrzejczyk from her throne atop the strawweight division, they were back inside the Octagon with one another battling it out for a second time.
Namajunas won the first fight in just over three minutes, looking sharp throughout the opening round before dropping Jedrzejczyk with a left hook that caught the champion, everyone in attendance at Madison Square Garden, and everyone watching at home by surprise. Having ruled the division for more than two years and successfully defending the belt five times during that span, “Joanna Champion” merited an immediate rematch, which was set for UFC 223 in Brooklyn.
Heading into the fifth round, it felt as if the final five minutes would decide the outcome, and the defending champion rose to the occasion, pardon the pun.
While Jedrzejczyk refused to back down, Namajunas took the fight to her, busting her up further, trading speed and movement for landing heavier blows that did more damage before punctuating her performance by tackling the challenger to the ground. When the scores were tallied and the verdict announced, Namajunas retained her title with scores of 49-46 across the board.
Much like the fight between Aldo and Mendes above, this one was much closer than the final scores indicated, as Jedrzejczyk only won one round on each scorecard, but took a different round in the eyes of each official.
With Namajunas back on top of the division and Jedrzejczyk eyeing a return to the Octagon in 2022, could a third meeting between the two finally materialize? Only time will tell.
Demetrious Johnson vs. Henry Cejudo (UFC 227)
Two years after Johnson began his reign atop the flyweight division, Cejudo arrived in the UFC, and was immediately tabbed as a potential challenger for the dominant titleholder.
Four victories in 12 months made the Olympic gold medalist the No. 1 contender, but when he stepped into the Octagon for the first time against Johnson, he wasn’t prepared for everything “Mighty Mouse” had to offer. Instead of giving the champion a stern test, Johnson folded Cejudo with a series of knees to the body less than three minutes into the fight, asserting his superiority and handing the challenger the first loss of his career.
Their paths crossed for a second time a little over two years later — Johnson fresh off establishing a new record for the most consecutive successful title defenses in UFC history (11), and Cejudo having earned back-to-back victories over Wilson Reis and Sergio Pettis. The challenger had clearly improved since their first meeting, but Johnson remained one of the pound-for-pound bests in the sport.
For 25 minutes, the flyweight standouts engaged in a tug-of-war, each man trying to seize and maintain momentum, only for the other to quickly claw their way back to level. Through the first four rounds, they seemed to alternate who had the better frame — Johnson wining the first and third, Cejudo the second and fourth — setting the stage for a decisive fifth round.
The final five minutes were a microcosm of the whole fight, with neither man gaining a clear, decisive advantage. Cejudo managed to score a takedown and accumulate 46 seconds of control time, but Johnson was the far more efficient striker of the two, landing at a nearly 60% clip. It was one of those fights where the scores could have been all over the place and neither side could claim they were robbed.
When the judges’ totals were tallied, Cejudo eked out a split decision victory to claim the flyweight title. It seemed like a trilogy bout between the two would be next, but before it could materialize, Johnson departed the promotion, leaving “The Messenger” to embark on the 2019 campaign that became “The Rise of Triple C.”
Alexander Volkanovski vs. Max Holloway (UFC 251)
You have to be careful bringing up this fight with ardent fans because more than 18 months later, the debates discussing the results of this rematch spark remain as heated as they were on July 12, 2020.
Volkanovski claimed the title six months earlier at UFC 251, fighting a smart, tactical fight to unseat the Hawaiian superstar from atop the featherweight division. The judges were unanimous, though the scoring of rounds varied, and few other than the most ardent Holloway supporters had the Australian challenger doing more than enough to secure the victory.
But Holloway’s track record as champion made an immediate rematch a must, and when they ran it back on Fight Island, the evenly matched rivals went shot-for-shot for 25 minutes, producing a technical classic that began with Holloway establishing himself early, only for Volkanovski to make all the right adjustments and make things ultra-competitive over the final three rounds.
It honestly feels like the impressiveness of what the champion was able to do after falling behind 0-2 to start the fight has been lost in the debates and discussions about the decision. Holloway was in complete control, and Volkanovski coolly went back to his corner, listened to his coaches, and implemented the tiny little shifts he needed to get back into the fight and make things competitive once again.
Like several of the epic battles on this list, the bout felt close even heading into the final round, the challenger winning the first two and the champion doing his best to draw level with five minutes remaining.
The fight hinged on how the officials saw the final round — whether they gave greater weight to Volkanovski’s volume and takedowns, which produced minimal control time or damage, but halted Holloway’s offence at critical junctures; or if the challenger’s crisper, but less frequent, strikes would be enough to swing the frame and the fight in his favor.
Two judges gave Volkanovski the edge, and the victory, but the despite being up 2-0 in the series, the rivalry and the desire to see them do it again persists. They were briefly scheduled to meet for a third time this spring, but Holloway was forced out with an injury.
Should Volkanovski successfully navigate his clash with “The Korean Zombie” in April and Holloway return to full health, you better believe that he and “Blessed” will run it back one more time before the year is out.
Kamaru Usman vs. Colby Covington (UFC 268)
There might not be two more evenly matched combatants on the planet than Usman and Covington, the bitter welterweight rivals who have battled it out for nearly 50 minutes over two fights with the difference between victory and defeat being razor-thin each time.
Covington had morphed into a polarizing figure in the two years prior to the bout, taking aim at whoever stood between him and the title, with his impressive victories being overshadowed by his over-the-top persona. He earned the opportunity to fight Usman and the two went toe-to-toe, running level through the first four rounds before the champion began to inch ahead in the fifth and final round.
Usman ultimately scored a stoppage victory in their first encounter, which marked the new champion’s first successful title defense, but Covington protested the stoppage, instantly calling for a rematch. He got his wish last November, and for the second time in just under two years, the top two welterweights in the UFC engaged in an ultra-competitive battle with the belt hanging in the balance.
Where Usman pulled ahead down the stretch of the first fight, Covington seemed like the fresher man in the latter half of the second encounter. He’d clearly improved since the first meeting, but so too had the champion, whose boxing had risen to a new level since teaming with Trevor Wittman, resulting in a pair of knockdowns in the second round.
But the challenger steadied himself and served as the aggressor the rest of the way, pushing the pace and pressuring the Nigerian titleholder, clearly and decisively winning the fourth round to enter the final stanza with all the momentum in his favor. To his credit, Usman steeled himself to the challenge and met Covington head-on over the final five minutes, the duo battling it out to the final horn, sharing a quick moment of mutual respect when the fight finally ended.
Usman emerged victorious, with scores of 49-46 and 48-47 twice, but Covington still came away looking like a million bucks; the clear 1B to the champion’s 1A in the welterweight ranks.
While each is focused on other matters as 2022 gets underway in earnest, this — like Volkanovski and Holloway — feels like one of those rivalries that isn’t quite settled, despite Usman being up 2-0 in the series.
For now, their paths have moved apart once again, but don’t be surprised if they meet inside the Octagon once more in the future.