Every year, the UFC has a handful of events that take place in specific months that have become “circle them on your calendar” dates throughout the year, like a loaded event on the first Saturday of July in Las Vegas, the annual November trip to Madison Square Garden in New York, or a star-studded pay-per-view to close out the year in December.
September has never really had that signature date or location, but that doesn’t mean that there haven’t been a number of memorable moments that transpired inside the Octagon in the first month of fall over the years.
As we gear up for International Fight Week and one of the strongest fight cards of the year later this month at UFC 266, I combed through the record books and video tape catalogues to put together a collection of my favorite fights and performances from previous September pay-per-view events.
Here they are in the latest edition of The 10.
Ricco Rodriguez vs. Randy Couture (UFC 39)
This was one of those fights that felt huge in the moment, as Rodriguez and Couture squared off for the vacant UFC heavyweight title.
Rodriguez was 13-1 and riding a 10-fight winning streak, having earned stoppage victories in each of his first four UFC appearances, while Couture was a two-time champion, entering off his loss to Josh Barnett six months earlier at UFC 36. It was the young, emerging talent against the seasoned, battle-tested former titleholder, and definitely carried “changing of the guard” vibes.
Couture controlled things through the first half of the fight, showing improved boxing and using his wrestling to grind on Rodriguez for the opening two-and-a-half rounds. But the tides began to turn in the second half of the middle frame, and it was all Rodriguez from then on, with the New Jersey native of Puerto Rican descent battering “The Natural” from top position for the majority of the fourth before quickly putting Couture on the deck early in the fifth.
After initially struggling to get off serious offense from top position, Rodriguez postured up and connected with a heavy elbow that broke Couture’s orbital bone, prompting him to verbally submit, making Rodriguez the eighth heavyweight champion in UFC history.
While it didn’t become a landmark moment in the trajectory of the division — Rodriguez lost the belt to Tim Sylvia in his next appearance to Tim Sylvia and it changed hands three more times over the next three years — it did prove to be the catalyst for Couture’s move down to light heavyweight and the next stage of his Hall of Fame career.
Randy Couture vs. Tito Ortiz (UFC 44)
When Couture returned to action following his fight against Rodriguez, he did so at light heavyweight, winning the interim light heavyweight title with a third-round stoppage win over Chuck Liddell, setting up a title unification bout with Ortiz, who entered on a six-fight winning streak, having successfully defended his title five times.
The opening four minutes or so were close, with both men looking to impose their will and control things with their wrestling, but from the time Couture executed a beautiful trip takedown late in the first, it became a one-sided affair. For the next four rounds, “The Natural” beat Ortiz at his own game — outwrestling him at every turn, climbing into mount and punishing him from top position.
When Ortiz reached for a last-ditch leg lock attempt late in the fight, Couture playfully patted him on the backside, much to the delight of the crowd. Couture won the fight by unanimous decision, unifying the light heavyweight titles and becoming the first person to win UFC gold in two different weight classes in the process, adding to his legend.
Forrest Griffin vs. Mauricio “Shogun” Rua (UFC 76)
This is one of those fights where you have to appreciate who each man was in the moment and try not to think of them based on how things played out for each following this fight and during the latter stages of their careers.
Griffin was six fights into his UFC career following his breakthrough clash with Stephan Bonnar on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, but had gone 2-2 over his last four fights, dropping a split decision to Ortiz and getting stopped in the first round by Keith Jardine. He’d rebounded with a dominant effort against Hector Ramirez but hadn’t yet established himself as a real championship contender.
Rua, meanwhile, was regarded by many as the top light heavyweight in the world, landing in the UFC following an iconic PRIDE run that saw him win the 2005 Middleweight Grand Prix and post a 12-1 record overall in Japan. He was 25 years old and 16-2 overall, with wins over Akihiro Gono, Quinton Jackson, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Ricardo Arona, Kevin Randleman, and Alistair Overeem, twice.
The first round was ultra-competitive, filled with attack-and-counter exchanges on the feet and on the ground, with Griffin showcasing improved all-around skills to go along with the grit and toughness that had quickly made him a fan favorite. Rua busted up Griffin early in the second, splitting his forehead with a sharp elbow, only to have Griffin go on the offensive once they returned to their feet.
Midway through the frame, Rua looked exhausted, and while Griffin’s pace slowed, he controlled the action heading into the third, only to spend the first two minutes of the round on his back, with Rua throwing tepid strikes and burning precious time off the clock. Griffin used an omoplata to get off the canvas and begin attacking and landed in top position when Rua tried to take him down just before the halfway point of the round.
Griffin continued touching up Rua with short strikes, prompting the Brazilian to turtle before getting flattened out on his back. With Griffin climbing into three-quarter mount and raining down blows, Rua gave up his back, and Griffin stretched him out, sinking in a rear-naked choke and drawing out the tap with 14 seconds remaining in the fight.
This was a breakthrough performance for Griffin, who earned a championship opportunity with the victory and won the light heavyweight title with a unanimous decision win over Jackson in his very next fight.
Rashad Evans vs. Chuck Liddell (UFC 88)
KO of the Week: Rashad Evans vs Chuck Liddell
KO of the Week: Rashad Evans vs Chuck Liddell
Evans followed Griffin in winning on The Ultimate Fighter and into the light heavyweight division, beginning to announce his presence as a potential contender with a draw against Ortiz and a split decision win over Season 3’s light heavyweight winner, Michael “The Count” Bisping.
But like Griffin, he still needed that big, signature win to catapult him into title contention, and this pairing with Liddell felt like that opportunity from the moment it was announced. “The Iceman” was coming off his unanimous decision win over Wanderlei Silva at UFC 79, which won Fight of the Night honors that evening and Fight of the Year awards from numerous publications, and he was still very much in the thick of the title conversation in the 205-pound weight class he’d dominated just a few years earlier.
Evans was unbeaten and brimming with confidence, his speed advantage clear in the opening stanza as he avoided much of what Liddell threw while landing a few sharp punches on the former champion, opening a cut under his right eye. They resumed feinting and circling each other to start the second, Liddell stalking forward and Evans content to remain on the outside looking to counter.
The duo exchanged blows early in the first minute, Evans the quicker of the two, landing the cleaner shots. As Liddell tried to close the distance, Evans would connect with a left hook, catching the veteran a couple times in a row in the second minute of the round, and when Liddell walked him down, but hesitated to throw his right hand, “Suga” made him pay, knocking him out cold with a 99-mile-an-hour fastball of a right hand.
Just as Griffin’s win over Rua propelled him into a championship opportunity and title win, Evans’ victory over Liddell did the same, as the Season 2 victor toppled the Season 1 winner three months later at UFC 92 to claim the light heavyweight title.
Demetrious Johnson vs. Joseph Benavidez (UFC 152)
On March 3, 2012, the UFC launched its flyweight division with a two-fight, four-man tournament to crown the initial champion. A scoring miscalculation resulted in a slight delay in the finals being set, but six months later in Toronto, Ontario, Johnson and Benavidez squared off with championship gold hanging in the balance.
Benavidez was the presumptive favorite to claim the title since the division was announced, while Johnson, who previously challenged for bantamweight gold, worked his way through a pair of fights with fan favorite Ian McCall to reach the finals, where the two went shot-for-shot for 25 minutes.
Johnson landed on the happy side of the split decision verdict, claiming the throne that he would maintain for the next six years, beginning one of the greatest championship reigns in UFC history.
In some ways, the fight feels like it was ahead of its time, occurring before the masses were ready to handle the speed, technique, and overall sharpness the flyweight combatants routinely bring to the Octagon.
This was a compelling and entertaining clash that merits a re-watch and remains one of those important moments in UFC history.
Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson (UFC 165)
Set to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame later this month ahead of UFC 266, it’s wild to think that, at the time, plenty of people weren’t overly excited about this championship matchup.
Jones was five months removed from beating Chael Sonnen to record his fifth straight successful title defense, and while Gustafsson had earned the right to challenge for championship gold by posting six straight victories, decision wins over Thiago Silva and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua didn’t make him seem like the man most likely to unseat “Bones” from atop the light heavyweight division.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Jones cruising to another successful title defense…
The champion apparently slacked on his preparation and Gustafsson showed up as sharp and focused as ever before, taking the fight to Jones out of the gate and winning the opening round on all three scorecards, setting the tone for the rest of the fight. Jones had to play catch-up and Gustafsson didn’t cede much ground, running level with the champion for the majority of the fight, putting it on “Bones” in a way no one had up to that point in his career.
Jones jostled away control of the fight late in the fourth round and capped his come-from-behind victory by winning the final stanza on all three scorecards, securing a unanimous decision win.
In addition to its enduring legacy as one of the best championship fights in UFC history, the bout became a defining moment in each man’s career — Jones long fueled by frustrations that fans and observers deigned to believe Gustafsson was on his level, chalking up the closeness of the fight to his lackadaisical preparations and little else, while the Swedish standout was never better than the night he almost won championship gold, coming close three fights later in another narrow title loss, this time to Daniel Cormier.
They would eventually run it back more than five years later, but too much time had passed and too much had transpired in the interim to recapture the buzz that existed around a rematch for the first couple years following their initial encounter, with Jones securing a third-round submission win to claim the vacant light heavyweight title.
While the sequel was a bit of a letdown, the original was an instant classic and remains amongst the best fights to ever take place inside the Octagon and will rightfully be acknowledged as such later this month.
Dominick Cruz vs. Takeya Mizugaki (UFC 178)
You probably didn’t think you would find a fight that lasted just 61 seconds on this list, but this is more about Cruz’ journey to UFC 178 than the performance itself.
After closing out his WEC run with a second consecutive successful title defense against Scott Jorgensen, Cruz was installed as the inaugural UFC bantamweight champion when the division was added to the fold at the start of 2011. He posted a pair of victories that year, holding onto his belt by outworking long-time rival Urijah Faber at UFC 132 and out-pointing Johnson three months later.
In December of that year, he and Faber were tabbed to coach opposite one another on Season 15 of The Ultimate Fighter, with their rubber match slated to take place at UFC 148, but Cruz would be forced to withdraw after suffering a torn ACL. The first repair didn’t take, prompting Cruz to undergo a second surgery, and then a month before his anticipated return in a title unification bout with interim champ Renan Barao at UFC 169, it was announced that Cruz had suffered a torn groin and would be vacating the title.
His fight with Mizugaki came just four days ahead of the three-year anniversary of his last appearance, the bout with Johnson in Washington, D.C., and carried a tremendous amount of intrigue, as no one knew what to expect from the oft-injured former champion.
Cruz came out and showed he hadn’t missed a beat, storming through the Japanese stalwart in a minute and a tick, registering just the second knockout victory of his career and his first in a major promotion.
He would be sidelined for another 15 months and change following this contest after suffering a torn ACL in his other leg, only to return in January 2016 and re-claim the bantamweight title with a split decision win over T.J. Dillashaw.
There is a reason Cruz is so adamant about ring rust not being a real thing and it’s because after fighting once in more than five years and enduring multiple surgeries, “The Dominator” always walked right back into the Octagon and dominated.
Cat Zingano vs. Amanda Nunes (UFC 178)
Cruz wasn’t the only fighter that made a triumphant return to the Octagon on September 27, 2014.
After rallying to finish Miesha Tate in the third round of their shared UFC debut in April 2013, Zingano was set to coach opposite Ronda Rousey on Season 18 of The Ultimate Fighter, with the two ticketed to fight for Rousey’s bantamweight title after the season wrapped. Before taping of the long-running reality TV competition could begin, Zingano was forced out of her coaching assignment and fight after suffering a major knee injury.
Eight months later, Zingano’s husband took his own life.
When Zingano made her return at UFC 178, no one knew what to expect given the physical challenges and extreme emotional and personal obstacles that had lined her path back to the Octagon.
At the time, Nunes was still a bit of an enigmatic prospect, brandishing the power we’ve come to recognize, but lacking the technique and understanding of how to best deploy her weapons and pace herself in a fight. Even then, “The Lioness” roared out of the gate, putting it on Zingano to the point where you couldn’t help but think it wasn’t meant to be; that too much had happened in such a relatively confined amount of time for her to come back and instantly return to contention.
Before the end of the opening round, Zingano had claimed control of the contest, weathering the torrential downpour Nunes unloaded to start and using her grappling and technical acumen to turn the tables. In the second, she was able to grind on Nunes to the point where she was exhausted and out of options, and early in the third, she climbed into mount and battered the future champion with punches and elbows, securing the stoppage.
When Zingano rose to her feet, the emotions flooded over her and she didn’t hold back, strutting around the Octagon with tears in her eyes, a proud, satisfied scowl on her face.
There are comebacks in fights and there are comebacks in life, and this was both.
Amanda Nunes vs. Valentina Shevchenko (UFC 215)
UFC 215: Amanda Nunes 'I'm a champion, I have to go five rounds'
UFC 215: Amanda Nunes 'I'm a champion, I have to go five rounds'
That bout against Zingano still stands as the last loss on Nunes’ record, though some would argue the scoring of this fight should have gone the other way, ushering Shevchenko to the top spot in the bantamweight division.
The women had fought 18 months earlier at UFC 196, Nunes getting the victory in a three-round fight where she started quickly and held on down the stretch. As much as it was a solid win for the streaking American Top Team representative, most observers came away from the fight feeling Shevchenko was in control and would have earned a victory had it been a five-round affair.
Now, after a postponed rematch earlier in the summer, the top two fighters in the bantamweight division would run it back with 25 minutes to work, to determine once and for all who was the superior talent… or would it?
The only round all three judges agreed upon was the first, which each of them awarded to Nunes. In the remaining four rounds, they were consistently split, with Shevchenko actually earning the two-to-one edge in the second, third, and fourth, but on differing scorecards, with Nunes claiming the final round and therefore the fight in the eyes of two of the officials.
We yell and shout and argue and complain about robberies and janky scoring all the time, and engaging in those debates can be incredibly enjoyable (with the right sparring partner) or make you want to swear off social media forever, but what often gets lost in the shuffle is that these are always exceptionally close, highly competitive, tremendously entertaining battles.
This was an awesome fight — tense, combative in multiple ways — and it genuinely came right down to the wire.
Four years later, people will still line up to vehemently argue the case for each fighter and a trilogy bout between the two remains near the top of a number of “Fights I’d Like to See” lists, even though Nunes is up 2-0 in the series.
Israel Adesanya vs. Paulo Costa (UFC 253)
UFC 253: Israel Adesanya Octagon Interview
UFC 253: Israel Adesanya Octagon Interview
I wrote about this fight at the end of last year in our Champion Check-in series, recalling how throughout the build up to this contest, Adesanya told everyone beating Costa was going to be light work — that he’d defeat the undefeated Brazilian challenger without breaking a sweat — and then went out and did just that.
For me, this is the fight you put on if you want to show people what makes Israel Adesanya such a special talent because the aptly named “Stylebender” went out there and styled on a guy that had, until then, marched forward and bulldozed his way through just about everyone that had stood across from him. He jawed at Costa, taunted Costa, and then put him away with sniper-like precision towards the end of the second round.
This was “I don’t throw and hope; I aim and fire” on full display, against a legitimately world-class challenger, and he made it look effortless.
While his venture up to light heavyweight in search of a second title backfired earlier this year, Adesanya’s return to middleweight and win over Marvin Vettori should serve as a reminder that he is, without question, the ruler of the 185-pound ranks, and until someone proves otherwise, it will be hard to envision that ending because you know he’s capable of putting forward efforts like this.