While the heavyweight champion might be considered the “Baddest Man on the Planet” and various other belts have produced more iconic title reigns, the lightweight division has long been considered the deepest and most talented division in the sport and, as such, there has always been a great deal of prestige and respect that comes with capturing the 155-pound crown.
Only 10 men have had the distinction of holding the title and there have only been 24 lightweight championship fights during the nearly 25-year history of the promotion, but within that small sample are some truly classic battles and memorable contests.
With an eye towards the highly anticipated headlining act at UFC 229, we thought it made sense to roll out a list of the best UFC lightweight title fights of all-time.
This is The 10.
The first UFC event to be headlined by a lightweight fight, this was a meeting of the two best lightweights in the world, with Pulver looking to successfully defend his title for a second time and Penn challenging for the belt in just the fourth fight of his career.
At the very end of the second round, Penn attacked an armbar that likely would have ended the fight had he locked it up 10 seconds sooner. But after that near-finish, “Lil’ Evil” did a better job of defending and getting off offense of his own whenever the fight hit the canvas, maintaining a steady pace and output to come away with a narrow victory.
The two would meet again several years later after serving as opposing coaches on Season 5 of The Ultimate Fighter, with Penn securing a second-round submission win to even their personal series at one win each in what proved to be Pulver’s final fight in the Octagon and a performance that would propel “The Prodigy” into his second lightweight title fight.
This one has become engrained in the memories of fight fans thanks to Martin McNeil’s iconic image of Stevenson on his knees, his face awash with blood, at the end of the contest, but it’s also one of Penn’s signature victories.
If you’re ever wondering why so many people wax poetic about the Hawaiian and what he was able to do inside the cage despite his record looking somewhat pedestrian, this is one of the fights you can call up to see why Penn is considered the greatest lightweight of all-time and one of the best fighters in UFC history.
From the outset, he dominated Stevenson, a very capable, talented fighter who entered the contest on a four-fight winning streak. Penn showed his world-class grappling game and split the former TUF winner wide open with a slicing elbow in the final minute of the opening round before replicating his ground dominance in the second and ultimately sinking in the choke.
Sherk had claimed the lightweight title when the belt was reintroduced at UFC 64 by outworking Kenny Florian and then was on the call when Penn won the belt in his fight with Stevenson in Newcastle upon Tyne four months earlier.
This was a fun, competitive kickboxing match through the opening two rounds, with Penn showing superior quickness with his hands and diversity in his offerings, while Sherk offered sharp counters and some punishing, but infrequent low kicks. In the third, Penn started pulling away, snapping Sherk’s head back with stiff jabs and sliding out of the way of many of the challenger’s offerings.
With less than 10 seconds left in the frame, Penn backed Sherk into the fence with a series of glancing punches and as “The Muscle Shark” bounced off the cage, Penn flew in, catching him flush with his knee. Eight rapid-fire follow-up strikes landed before the horn sounded to signal the end of the round and while it appeared Sherk had survived, he was unable to continue and the fight was stopped.
Not only is this one of the best lightweight title fights of all-time, but it’s also on the short list for top finishing sequences in UFC history as well.
Sanchez entered this one a roll, having won four straight and earning Fight of the Night honors in each of his first two victories since moving to lightweight in order to garner a title shot. Many wondered if the former Ultimate Fighter winner would be the man to dethrone “The Prodigy.”
Penn made it clear that wasn’t going to happen when he dropped Sanchez with the first right hand he threw 28 seconds into the contest. While Sanchez would survive the opening storm of punishment, he was completely outclassed the rest of the way, with Penn hurting him several times.
A little over two minutes into the fifth round, Penn blasted Sanchez with a kick that prompted the challenger to immediately look for a takedown, and when they finally separated soon after, Sanchez was sporting a massive cut above his left eyebrow that would bring the fight to a halt.
This would prove to be Penn’s final victory at lightweight and the last time he looked like the dominant figure that many considered the absolute best in the sport at the time.
Edgar had unseated Penn from the lightweight throne four months earlier at UFC 112 in Abu Dhabi, earning a unanimous decision victory that many questioned. In part because of the debated outcome, but also because of Penn’s lengthy reign atop the division, an immediate rematch was scheduled and, this time, there was no doubt as to who was the better man.
The newly minted champion employed the same strategy that led him to victory in April, working a stick-and-move striking game with timely takedowns mixed in, keeping Penn off-balance from start to finish.
After a long stretch where Penn looked invincible in the lightweight division, Edgar made him look like a mere mortal in their second meeting, showcasing superior quickness and movement to run away with the rematch and cement his standing as the new ruler of the 155-pound weight class.
The best fight of 2011 took place on the first day of 2011 as Edgar and Maynard locked up in a lightweight title fight to close out UFC 125 and they delivered an absolute classic.
A left hand floored Edgar just over a minute into the fight and Maynard never let off the gas for the remainder of the round, punishing the champion throughout the frame and appearing on the verge of earning the stoppage multiple times over. Somehow, Edgar not only survived, but returned to start the second like nothing had happened, twisting Maynard around with a clean right hand midway through the frame and punctuating the round with a forceful scoop slam with a little over a minute left on the clock.
The fight was close the rest of the way home and would come down to how the judges scored the contest. All three officials saw it differently, with one scoring it 48-46 for Maynard, another offering the same score for Edgar and the third having the fight even at 47-47, resulting in the bout being declared a draw.
UFC 136: Frankie Edgar def. Gray Maynard by TKO (punches) at 3:54 of Round 4 (Watch on UFC FIGHT PASS)
Ten months after their epic encounter to start the year, Edgar and Maynard finally stepped into the Octagon together to resolve things at UFC 136 in Houston, Texas.
Again Maynard rocked Edgar in the first, wobbling him with an uppercut just prior to the midway point of the round before putting him on the mat with a similar blow a minute later. Edgar exited the round on shaky legs and sporting a badly broken nose, while Maynard did well to conserve his energy despite having the champion on the ropes.
“The Answer” got his legs back under him in the second and started finding a rhythm in the third, pulling even in the contest heading into the championship rounds.
With just over a minute left in the fourth and Edgar starting to distance himself from Maynard, the champion connected with a short right hand out of a stuffed takedown attempt that sat the challenger down. Clubbing right hands followed and when Maynard fell to the canvas, Edgar unleashed a torrent of lefts that prompted referee Josh Rosenthal to step in and stop the fight.
You’d be hard pressed to find another two-fight tandem as good as the pair of championship wars these two combined to deliver in 2011.
The duo that met in the final fight in WEC history crossed paths for a second time under similar circumstances, with Henderson once again entering as the champion and Pettis reprising his role as challenger – the only differences being that this time, the fight was for the UFC title and was taking place in Pettis’ hometown of Milwaukee.
Pettis had been scheduled to drop to featherweight and challenge Jose Aldo for his title, but a knee injury scuttled those plans, while Henderson was slated to face TJ Grant before the Canadian contender was sidelined with a concussion, creating an opportunity for the former WEC rivals to run it back.
Henderson controlled the opening three minutes of the fight, tying Pettis up along the fence and chipping away at his legs with low kicks. But a series of body kicks in the fourth minute of the contest stung the champion, and when Henderson used a failed Pettis cartwheel kick attempt to initiate a grappling exchange, “Showtime” quickly laced up an armbar, leaving Henderson no choice but to tap.
After successfully defending the lightweight title in December against former Strikeforce champ Gilbert Melendez, it felt like Pettis was poised to enjoy a lengthy reign atop the 155-pound weight division, but Dos Anjos had other ideas.
Using a high pressure, high pace approach that would become the blueprint future opponents would use against Pettis, the Brazilian put the champion on the defensive and never gave him an opportunity to catch his breath. Over 25 minutes, Dos Anjos simply wore Pettis out, repeatedly taking him to the ground and never seeming worried with any of the offense the champion offered.
This was a breakthrough performance for the Brazilian veteran, who started his UFC career with consecutive losses and was never really considered as a potential champion until he marched into the Octagon in Dallas and mauled Pettis to win the title.
On an historic night in New York City, McGregor closed out the first UFC event at Madison Square Garden in spectacular fashion, becoming the first man to hold titles in two divisions simultaneously by piecing up and putting away Alvarez in less than two rounds, just as he had predicted.
A minute into the fight, McGregor dropped the lightweight champion with a left hand. A minute later, a short left sent Alvarez to a knee in the center in the center of the cage. Alvarez was down again 20 seconds later, once again felled by McGregor’s lethal and quick left hand.
Alvarez would survive the frame, but he wouldn’t make it out of the second. He looked to clinch more and minimize McGregor’s output – and therefore the damage he took – for the first three minutes, but then the Irishman uncorked a combination that put the champion on the floor and brought the fight to a close.
This was McGregor at his absolute best, and if you need a reminder of what he’s capable of before he returns to the cage against Nurmagomedov in October, pop this one in and enjoy.