Florida has featured more prominently on the UFC’s schedule over the last couple years, as the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville became one of the early pandemic landing spots for the promotion, and on December 3, the action returns to Amway Center in Orlando with a stacked Fight Night event headlined by Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson and Kevin Holland.
With a return to “The Sunshine State” on tap, it feels like a fitting time to comb through the history books and put together a collection of highlights from previous events to take place in Florida.
Before getting to the individual moments, I have to give a nod to one of the truly outstanding fight cards, in retrospect, in UFC history, UFC on FOX: Dos Anjos vs. Cowboy 2, which took place on December 19, 2015.
The card, which was headlined by Rafael Dos Anjos successfully defending the lightweight title against Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone by first-round stoppage, featured five future UFC titleholders on the prelims — Charles Oliveira, Valentina Shevchenko, Francis Ngannou, and Kamaru Usman and Leon Edwards, who fought each other — as well as the debut of future title challenger Karolina Kowalkiewicz, a second-round stoppage win for Alistair Overeem over Junior Dos Santos, and an all-time moment that will come up later on in this piece.
It was a wildly entertaining event in the moment and has grown to be an even more critical card in the years since, and deserved a full shout out.
And now, onto the list.
Rashad Evans def. Sean Salmon (UFC Fight Night 8)
This is one of those highlights that plays automatically in my mind the second I think about it, which is how you know it deserves a place in this collection of historic Florida highlights.
Evans was a couple fights into his UFC career after winning the heavyweight competition on Season 2 of The Ultimate Fighter and was starting to show a little bit more of a dynamic skill set. Salmon was 9-1 as a pro and coming off three straight stoppage wins on the regional circuit.
The future light heavyweight champion started taking the fight to a fading Salmon early in the second round. After pawing with his lead hand as Salmon circled out along the fence, Evans let loose a high kick that landed in a flash and put Salmon on the deck even quicker. This was a laser-beam of a kick, and the finish deserves to be mentioned in any Best Knockouts in UFC History compilation.
Spencer Fisher def. Sam Stout (UFC Fight Night 10)
After dropping a debated split decision to Stout in their first meeting at UFC 58, which Fisher took on very short notice, the duo rekindled their rivalry 15 months later in Hollywood, Florida.
As was bound to be the case any time these two shared the Octagon, the bout was competitive and tremendously fun to watch. Both were technically sharp with sound fundamentals, but they could also just crack, and weren’t afraid to eat a shot or two if it meant landing a good one in return. No matter where the fight went, no quarter was asked and none was given, as these two teamed up for one of the most entertaining fights of the aughts in the UFC.
A rubber match eventually happened in 2012, with Stout earning the victory and the duo once again claiming Fight of the Night honors.
Neither man challenged for a world title in the UFC, but if you speak to anyone that watched fights during this period and asked them about this fight — or either of these gentlemen individually — they’re likely to speak about them with reverence and appreciation, because you knew what you were going to get from them every time they stepped into the Octagon.
Khabib Nurmagomedov def. Rafael Dos Anjos (UFC on FOX 11)
This might seem like an unexpected addition to this list, as it’s not a title fight and ended in a unanimous decision, as opposed to a highlight reel finish, but here’s why I include it: this was the fight that really convinced everyone that Nurmagomedov could be the man at lightweight.
Previous to this, the undefeated Russian had beaten solid competition, but none of those fellas were ever genuine contenders; they were good fighters, each and every one of them, but beating Thiago Tavares or Pat Healy never prompted anyone to say, “D’you know what? That guy is going to be champion one day!”
But Dos Anjos came into this one on a roll, having won five straight, including consecutive decision wins over Evan Dunham and Donald Cerrone, and now Nurmagomedov went out there and just dominated from start to finish.
It was an eye-opening, status-redefining effort from an unbeaten prospect that forced you to really pay even more attention to Nurmagomedov, and the victory got better with age, which certainly didn’t hurt either. While Khabib was stuck dealing with myriad knee issues, Dos Anjos bounced back with three straight wins to earn a title shot, claimed the belt by mugging Anthony Pettis, and then successfully defended the title by beating Cerrone for a second time, all of which just further elevated the importance and value of this victory by Nurmagomedov.
Khabib eventually made it to the top of the division and stands as one of the greatest lightweights in UFC history, and this, for me, is the fight that made me believe all of that was genuinely possible.
Thiago Santos def. Steve Bosse (UFC Fight Night 70)
Because Santos nearly took the light heavyweight title from Jon Jones in 2019, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when he was a middling middleweight that couldn’t really find a rhythm.
Before he had Mjolnir tattooed on his chest, “Marreta” was a 2-2 fighter in the UFC, welcoming Bosse to the Octagon for the first time. The French-Canadian had played semi-pro hockey in Quebec’s fighting-heavy LNAH and went 10-1 with one no contest over his first dozen MMA appearances, earning nine finishes, but on this night, he was the one that got finished.
Watching it back now, you can see the finishing blow coming, as Santos starts the fight with an inside low kick from his traditional southpaw stance, and then follows with a thudding left leg to the body, which Bosse takes on the arms. Literally two seconds later, with “The Boss” coming forward, Santos goes high and turns out the lights.
Santos doesn’t even bother with follow-up blows, walking off before the referee even gets to Bosse, who lies stiffened on the canvas. It still took a little while longer before Santos fully developed into the truly dangerous finisher we came to know him as, but this is where that designation really started to take root.
Also, shouts to Jon Anik for a fantastic call on this one.
Nate Diaz def. Michael Johnson (UFC on FOX 17)
Even with all that talent I mentioned in the introduction competing on this card in Orlando, Diaz is the one that makes this list, and it’s honestly not because of his performance against Johnson.
Yes, the former Ultimate Fighter winner earned a surprisingly dominant decision win, beating Johnson to the punch more often than naught while adding in some open-handed slaps, a few playful points after connecting flush, and generally doing Diaz Brothers things. But the reason this was a truly historic moment is what happened after the fight was over.
Joe Rogan waltzed into the Octagon to interview Diaz and Stockton’s favorite son cut the best post-fight promo in UFC history, going in on newly-minted featherweight champion Conor McGregor, who won the title the week before and declared his intention to face the winner of this event’s lightweight title main event next.
It seemed slightly odd at the time, but was captivating to watch, and it proved prophetic as Diaz would ultimately step in for an injured Dos Anjos at UFC 196 and shock the world by submitting McGregor in the second round.
That rivalry, which still exists to this day, got its start in Orlando.
Justin Gaethje def. Tony Ferguson (UFC 249)
The first event after the coronavirus pandemic forced the UFC to press pause for six weeks featured Gaethje and Ferguson doing battle in the main event for the interim lightweight title.
Gaethje had won three straight after suffering the first two losses of his professional career, while Ferguson was on a 12-fight winning streak, having once again missed out on the chance to face Nurmagomedov for the undisputed title after the pandemic forced their April meeting to be scrapped.
This was a captivating fight from the second it was announced, and turned into an “I can’t look away” situation once the two men hit the Octagon in Jacksonville. Gaethje came out of the gates sharp and took the fight to Ferguson, battering “El Cucuy” in a way that no one had touched him up in quite some time.
As the fight progressed, it became a testament to Ferguson’s inhuman toughness and resolve, as Gaethje continued to hunt him down and hurt him. While Gaethje ate more than a few major shots of his own, to see him march down Ferguson and eventually collect the stoppage victory on cumulative damage, rather than the perennial contender going down, was wildly impressive, and set the table for a clash between Gaethje and Nurmagomedov for the undisputed title later in the year.
In the moment, this felt like one of those fights that is just going to stick with you over the years, and thus far, that’s exactly what has happened.
Valentina Shevchenko def. Jessica Andrade (UFC 261)
Andrade was supposed to be the title challenger that gave Shevchenko the most trouble, but instead, the first of UFC 261’s three championship bouts became a signature performance in the stellar career of the best female fighter on the planet at the moment.
There was good reason to expect the Brazilian to pose a legitimate threat to the reigning champion: a former strawweight titleholder with proven power and a marauding style, Andrade had earned this opportunity by roasting the ribs of perennial contender Katlyn Chookagian in her divisional debut, Sure, she was a little undersized for the division, but what she lacked in stature, she made up for in strength, and her ability to work in the clinch was going to give Shevchenko fi…
“Bullet” dominated Andrade just like she had everyone else that had previously challenged for the flyweight title.
Those clinch exchanges that were going to be interesting? Shevchenko quickly turned them into takedowns and controlled Andrade on the canvas, eventually finishing the fight in the second round from a mounted crucifix position, unloading a barrage of unanswered elbows.
What was expected to be a real test for the reigning flyweight champion turned into her most impressive effort to date — an emphatic victory over an established, world-class contender that further drove home the fact that Shevchenko was operating on a completely different tier than everyone else in the division at the time.
Rose Namajunas def. Zhang Weili (UFC 261)
Just as there was a ton of intrigue surrounding the flyweight fight that preceded it, this strawweight title fight had captured everyone’s interest heading into UFC 261.
Zhang, who won the title as a somewhat unheralded title challenger with a 42-second stoppage win over Andrade, had cemented her place atop the division with a split decision win over Joanna Jedrzejczyk earlier in the year at UFC 248 in what remains one of the best fights in UFC history. Namajunas, meanwhile, was a former champion, who had avenged her title loss to Andrade in a non-title bout the previous summer, and stood as one of the most skillful talents in the division.
Most were anticipating a competitive, drawn-out battle with attacks and counters, close rounds, and closer scorecards. Instead, Namajunas blasted Zhang with a head kick 78 seconds into the fight that put the champion on the canvas and brought the contest to a sudden, unexpected halt.
We ultimately got the fight everyone expected in the rematch later in the year, but the first installment was still shocker.
Kamaru Usman def. Jorge Masvidal (UFC 261)
A lot of people questioned why Usman was so hellbent on facing Masvidal for a second time after dispatching him with relative ease in an uneventful meeting on Fight Island the previous year, but it always made perfect sense to me.
Because that fight had come together on short notice and went the way it did, Masvidal was always going to have a thread to pull on when it came to a rivalry with Usman. He was always going to be able to suggest things would have been different if he had a full camp, and if the welterweight kingpin had opted to engage with him.
So a rematch was made, and in the build, Masvidal spoke repeatedly about how he was going to knock out Usman — baptize him, as he would say — this time around. A minute into the second round, someone got baptized alright, but it sure wasn’t Usman.
I can still picture the sweat launching off Masvidal’s head as his jaw got twisted around and his body spun to the canvas as Usman landed the cleanest of right hands.
This was the statement victory the champion was hoping for when he pursued the second fight — a walk-off, one-hitter-quitter that not only silenced Masvidal, but further cemented his standing as a dominant force atop the division.
Alexander Volkanovski def. Chan Sung Jung (UFC 273)
The most recent entry on this list comes from earlier the year, and is all about the performance turned in by the victorious featherweight champion.
Even though he was coming off a masterful performance against Brian Ortega at UFC 266 in September, Volkanovski was still dogged by questions and quips about his two wins over Max Holloway, with plenty of people feeling like the Australian didn’t deserve to be sitting on the featherweight throne. Others characterized him as a point fighter — a guy that did what was necessary to beat you on the scorecards but wasn’t going to go out there and put you away.
Volkanovski silenced both sets to a degree with his effort over Jung, earning the stoppage less than a minute into the fourth round, although the fight could have been halted much earlier.
From the outset, it was clear that “Volk” had levelled up his game even since his previous appearance against Ortega, and he took every opportunity to show it. True to his name, “The Korean Zombie” kept coming forward, but as he did, Volkanovski continued to hand him more punishment. It was an absolutely masterful showing from the criminally underrated Australian champion, who followed it up by closing out a three-fight sweep over Holloway at UFC 276 in July.