Championship fights almost always bring tension and drama to the Octagon, as everyone rests on the edge of their seats, waiting to see how things unfold.
While there have been historic title fights in every weight class, the welterweight division has produced an inordinate number of memorable, even iconic, championship bouts over the years, including a couple of performances that have already been enshrined in the UFC Hall of Fame…and a couple more that feel like they could follow suit in the future, as well.
Ahead of Leon Edwards defending his title against Colby Covington on December 16 to close out UFC 296 and the 2023 campaign inside the Octagon, we thought it was time to look back on some of the tremendous title fights that have already taken place in the 170-pound weight class.
Enjoy this trip down Memory Lane.
Matt Hughes defeats Carlos Newton (UFC 34)
The different layers to this fight are what make it such a memorable welterweight championship bout for me.
Newton had beaten Hughes’ coach Pat Miletich for the title six months earlier, setting up the whole “student avenges the teacher” angle, which is always compelling, but even more so when you remember this was the outset of the Miletich Fighting System run where the Iowa-based outfit was churning out champions and contenders left, right, and center.
And then you have the finish itself.
A minute into the second round, Newton looks to lock up a triangle choke, and Hughes scoops him up and carries him to the fence, where the Canadian sinks in the choke. It’s an incredible visual in the moment — the champion selling out to complete the hold, with the challenger holding him aloft against the cage — and then Hughes collapses, driving Newton into the canvas with force, knocking him out.
Referee John McCarthy rightfully checks on Newton first, as he seemingly just got slammed to the canvas and rendered unconscious, but in that moment, Hughes is sitting there completely unaware of what transpired, because he didn’t actually slam “The Ronin” to the mat — he apparently passed out due to the choke and gravity took over from there.
That’s not an assumption either: Hughes goes to his corner and tells Miletich “I was out” just moments before getting the welterweight title strapped around his waist.
BJ Penn defeats Matt Hughes (UFC 46)
If you ever want to know why tenured fans will always think and speak highly of Penn, pull up this bout on UFC FIGHT PASS and think about the situation at hand.
Hughes was running through the division, having defeated “Mach” Sakurai, Newton in a rematch, Gil Castillo, Sean Sherk, and Frank Trigg in succession heading into this one. He was 35-3 overall, and an absolute menace from top position, while Penn was moving up a weight class from 155 pounds.
Penn clipped Hughes with a short right hand early in the fight that prompted the champion to go to his back in the center of the Octagon, and the challenger never let him get back to his feet.
After a couple minutes of methodical work from top position, Penn lands a big right hand as he tossed Hughes’ legs aside, which leads to the champion to look for an armlock of some type — I’m guessing a kimura — on the left arm; we can’t see because of the camera angle. Penn uses that opportunity climb into mount, Hughes gives up his back, and after a couple clubbing punches and elbows to the side of the head, the challenger laces up the rear naked choke and secures the tap.
This was “The Prodigy” at his finest and remains an incredible performance and achievement nearly 20 years later.
Matt Hughes defeats Frank Trigg (UFC 52)
Championship bouts often carry heat, but rematches can bring a different level of vitriol and animus to the Octagon, and that was certainly the case when Hughes and Trigg faced off for a second time.
Hughes won the first outing, submitting the challenger by rear naked choke. He reclaimed the belt by defeating rising star Georges St-Pierre at UFC 50, and then signed up to run it back with Trigg. The challenger called his previous loss a “bad day” and promised a different outcome, while the champion was confident he’d claim another victory.
An accidental low blow less than a minute into the contest put Hughes on the canvas in a defensive posture, but didn’t halt the action, and Trigg understandably seized the opportunity, attacking with ground-and-pound and eventually transitioning to Hughes’ back, where he looked to sink in a rear naked choke.
The champion seemed dead to rights, but Trigg couldn’t complete the choke, and Hughes managed to spin into top position. What followed remains etched in the memory of everyone that has seen it and serves as the moment in the pre-main card montage at UFC live events where “Baba O’Reilly” builds to a crescendo.
Hughes collected Trigg’s body, hoisted him on his shoulder, and carried him across the Octagon, depositing him to the canvas before instantly floating into mount and unloading with strikes. When the challenger gave up his back, the champion gave him a reminder on how to secure a rear naked choke, submitting him for the second time to once again retain his title.
Georges St-Pierre defeats Matt Hughes (UFC 65)
When St-Pierre and Hughes met for the first time two years earlier, the French-Canadian rising star was still a little too green, too inexperienced to contend with the physicality and savvy of the former welterweight champion, who claimed the title for the second time by submitting St-Pierre just before the end of the opening round.
The rematch, however, was a changing of the guard in the 170-pound weight class.
St-Pierre had earned five wins since their first meeting and sharpened his weapons, learning how to blend his technical skills with his supreme athleticism, and he put it on full display from the outset. The piercing jab that became a signature piece of his game was prominent, and he attacked with kicks to all levels, including catching Hughes high twice — once in the first that created a strong sequence for the challenger, and again in the second, where he followed up with a torrent of unanswered punches that halted the contest.
This was like watching evolution play out inside the Octagon — a dominant champion dispatched by the leader of the next generation — and it felt like the start of something special for St-Pierre.
Matt Serra defeats Georges St-Pierre (UFC 69)
This is the biggest upset in UFC history and I will not listen to any arguments to the contrary.
With all due respect to Holly Holm, Serra’s win over GSP at UFC 69 in Houston remains the biggest “Are you kidding me?” moment to ever take place in the Octagon, because while Holm was a world champion boxer and unbeaten rising star in the MMA ranks, Serra was a fighter that earned his championship opportunity by edging out Chris Lytle to win the welterweight competition on the third season of The Ultimate Fighter.
He was an undersized former lightweight with a 9-4 record, stepping in with a guy that had just recently dominated one of the greatest UFC champions in history, and not only did he beat him — he stopped him in the first round.
Serra was calm, confident, and happy to land what he could in the early stages of the round, and when he shook St-Pierre’s equilibrium with a right hand behind the ear, he pounced, landing clean shots each time the champion tried to respond before finally earning the finish with a stream of unanswered blows from mount.
This is the MMA equivalent of a No. 16 seed knocking off a No. 1 seed on the opening day of March Madness.
Georges St-Pierre defeats BJ Penn (UFC 94)
Much like the Newton-Hughes bout that kicked off this list, this one earns mention because of the layers of history and intrigue that accompanied the contest.
St-Pierre and Penn had fought several years earlier, with the French-Canadian registering a debated split decision victory that propelled him into his UFC 65 showdown with Hughes where he won the title. He lost the belt to Serra, won an interim belt in a rubber match against Hughes, and unified the titles by dispatching Serra in the rematch at UFC 83 before successfully defending his title against Jon Fitch.
Following their first meeting at UFC 58, Penn ultimately returned to lightweight, where he claimed the title with a incredibly one-sided thrashing of Joe Stevenson at UFC 80 and successfully defended the belt with a fourth-round walk-off finish of Sean Sherk that remains one of my all-time favorite finishing sequences in UFC history. This was Penn at the peak of his powers, and that, combined with their history, made the build to this fight fascinating.
After a multi-part UFC Primetime series chronicled the respective champions’ road to UFC 94, they finally faced off inside the Octagon for a second time, and St-Pierre turned in a masterful effort.
“GSP” was too everything for Penn — too quick, too sharp, too focused, too varied, too precise — and after four rounds of dominating the lightweight champion, the fight was halted by Penn’s corner, who had seen enough.
Robbie Lawler defeats Rory MacDonald (UFC 189)
Robbie Lawler And Rory MacDonald 2 To Be Inducted Into UFC Hall Of Fame
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Robbie Lawler And Rory MacDonald 2 To Be Inducted Into UFC Hall Of Fame
Raise your hand if this was the first fight you thought of when you saw the title of this piece?
This one was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame earlier this year and is always going to stand out as one of the “I remember it vividly” moments of my career covering this sport.
Being based in British Columbia, I had forged a relationship with MacDonald, having covered him throughout his UFC run, and both he and Lawler had come through the offices of The Province, the newspaper I worked for at the time, in advance of the bout. Seated on press row for the fight, I got a bird’s eye view of arguably the best fight in UFC history.
The ebb and flow of this fight was palpable, and the moment where Lawler and MacDonald stared at each other, faces busted up, blood smeared across their bodies and the canvas, remains burned in my brain; to this day it is the most chicken-skin-inducing moment I’ve experienced covering a live event.
The fight ended early in the final round, MacDonald’s body giving way when his heart was unwilling to concede defeat, with Lawler letting out a primal scream in celebration, his bifurcated upper lip making the moment even more visceral.
Just an absolute belter of a fight.
Kamaru Usman defeats Colby Covington (UFC 245)
It only made sense for Usman’s first title defense to come against Covington, as the two men had progressed up the divisional ranks in parallel tracks, the champion one step ahead of the challenger.
What makes this an automatic selection for this list is how things played out once the two stood across from one another at T-Mobile Arena.
With both having strong wrestling pedigrees and having used takedowns as key weapons in their respective rises, it made sense to expect at least some wrestling to take place in this one, but instead, fans were treated to a back-and-forth battle on the feet that was ultra-competitive from the jump and remained that way right until the waning stages of the fight, when Usman finally secured the finish.
There were 755 combined significant strikes thrown in this contest and nary a single takedown attempted. In a fight that lasted 24 minutes and 10 seconds, there was just 11 seconds designated as control time.
Usman emerged victorious, but Covington showed beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was a world-class competitor himself, and he would do so again a couple years later when they faced off for a second time.
We’ll see if the third time is the charm for Covington and his title hopes when he faces off with Edwards at UFC 296.
Kamaru Usman defeats Jorge Masvidal (UFC 261)
The Godfather, Part II. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Usman-Masvidal II.
What are sequels that are better than the original, Alex?
The first meeting between these two was cobbled together on short notice and featured a great deal of clinching along the fence, leading to a unanimous decision win for Usman and Masvidal actively lobbying for the opportunity to run it back a second time, but with a full training camp behind him.
“Gamebred” was given his second opportunity, promising to knock out the champion and give fans an entertaining fight, but a minute into the second round, he was the one on that was dispatched to the Shadow Realm courtesy of an immaculate right hand from Usman.
The shot was so clean, the connection so swift that you could see the sweat launch off Masvidal as Usman twisted his chin and sent him crashing to the canvas in real time, and the replays only made it look even nastier.
Many wondered why Usman was so eager to jump into a rematch with Masvidal after having beaten him recently and this was precisely why — he wanted to put an end to the rivalry and leave no room for anyone to question his standing as one of the pound-for-pound greats.
Leon Edwards defeats Kamaru Usman (UFC 278)
“That is not the cloth from which he is cut.”
Those were Jon Anik’s words as Edwards threw the left high kick that instantaneously transformed his UFC 278 clash with Usman from heartbreak to elation.
After a solid opening round where the challenger put the champion on the canvas and controlled him there with his own wrestling, Usman grabbed control of the bout in the middle frames and showed no signs of letting go. Heading into the final round, Edwards’ corner pleaded with him to snap out of whatever funk he was stuck in, and did so again during the brief pause late in the fifth following an accidental low blow.
Just as Daniel Cormier and Joe Rogan were explaining that Edwards seemed resigned to accepting a unanimous decision loss, Anik said the above, Edwards pawed with his left hand, followed same side upstairs, and landed flush, putting Usman out.
“Rocky” snatched victory from the jaws of defeat that evening in Salt Lake City, and then solidified his place atop the division with a unanimous decision win in the rematch earlier this year in London.
Next up, a showdown with Covington to close out the year at T-Mobile Arena on December 16.
You won’t want to miss it!