With Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson set to close out the 2018 campaign by doing battle for the light heavyweight title next weekend in Las Vegas, it feels like the right time to look back on some of the best championship bouts in the division’s history.
Once the marquee weight class in the UFC, the light heavyweight ranks have played host to some of the biggest, most influential fights the company has ever seen — fights that featured the top stars of their time and stand as key moments in the UFC’s 25-year run.
These are the some of the most memorable light heavyweight title fights in UFC history.
This is The 10.
Shamrock’s entire five-fight UFC career consisted of title fight appearances and this was certainly his most memorable fight during that run. While his win over Igor Zinoviev is a better highlight, this bout showcased one of the key elements that made Shamrock one of the best fighters of his time.
For three-and-a-half rounds, Ortiz took Shamrock to the ground, content to hang out in guard, grinding out control time from top position while offering minimal offensive output. Shamrock stayed active off his back, landing short punches and palm strikes, but there was little force behind them. All he could do was bide his time and wait for an opportunity to explode and he got it late in the fourth.
With a minute left in the round, Shamrock elevated Ortiz and scrambled to his feet, attacking the challenger with a flurry of kicks and punches, knowing he needed to do something to swing the momentum of the fight back in his favor. As Ortiz looked for another takedown, Shamrock grabbed on to a guillotine choke, using it to sweep to top position, where he released the hold and unloaded a series of heavy strikes to the head of the prone Ortiz.
“The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” tapped out in the center of the cage and Shamrock secured his fourth successful title defense.
Aptly titled “Undisputed,” UFC 44 was headlined by a title unification bout between Ortiz, who had risen to the top of the division following his fight with Frank Shamrock, but had been out of action for the previous 10 months, and Couture, the former heavyweight champion who claimed the interim title with a third-round stoppage win over Chuck Liddell three months earlier.
Couture proved to be the superior wrestler, beating Ortiz at his own game. By the time the third round rolled around, “The Natural” was in complete control, repeatedly putting Ortiz on the canvas and roughing him up. While Ortiz endured, Couture was clearly in control.
Late in the fifth round, Ortiz rolled for a desperation kneebar attempt and as Couture defended, he gave his grounded opponent a series of pats on the backside — a soft spanking that previewed the more harsh one Ortiz would take on the scorecards moments later.
After serving as opposing coaches on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, Couture and Liddell met inside the Octagon for a second time, squaring off in the main event of what was at the time the highest grossing event in UFC history.
While Couture got the better of things the first time around, Liddell earned a measure of revenge in the rematch.
Restarting following a brief pause due to an inadvertent thumb in the eye, the duo began to trade big shots and although it was Couture coming forward and throwing the cleaner technique, Liddell is the one who landed the more telling blows. An early right hand stung Couture and as he pressed forward, looking to close the distance and connect with his own shots, “The Iceman” delivered another clean right hand that spun Couture to the canvas and brought the fight to a halt.
The victory kicked off Liddell’s one and only reign atop the light heavyweight division and helped propel him to new heights of popularity inside and outside of the sport.
Two-plus years after their first encounter, Liddell and Ortiz squared off for a second time at UFC 66, but this time, the light heavyweight title hung in the balance.
This was the biggest fight in UFC history at the time — a clash between a pair of iconic fighters with a tense history — and it did not disappoint.
Liddell opened a cut over Ortiz’ left eye midway through the first and went hunting for the finish, dropping Ortiz and opening up with a torrent of punches. The challenger got back to his feet and had his most successful moments of the fight in the second, taking Liddell down momentarily and taking his back for a brief second late in the frame.
Midway through the third, however, Liddell re-opened the cut over Ortiz’ left eye and it seemed to spur the champion on. With 90 seconds left in the middle stanza, Ortiz tried to respond on the feet and the two started trading, and just like in his second fight with Couture, Liddell got the better of things.
A clubbing left hand and a long right uppercut put Ortiz on the canvas and when Liddell passed the legs and started unloading with ground-and-pound, referee Mario Yamasaki stepped in and stopped the fight.
Though Liddell had suffered a handful of defeats throughout his career, he had always managed to avenge those losses, but the one that had escaped him to this point in his career was his defeat to Jackson in the 2003 PRIDE Middleweight Grand Prix.
Fresh off a debut win over Marvin Eastman and with the winner pegged to face two-division PRIDE champion Dan Henderson next, Jackson turned in one of the best performances of his career.
Commanding the center of the cage, Jackson happily let Liddell paw at him from the outside, and when the champion threw a left to the body, the challenger countered with a right hand over the top that caught Liddell on the chin and put him on the canvas. The follow-up blows were academic — Liddell was out and “Rampage” was the new UFC light heavyweight champion.
Starting with Jackson’s win over Liddell at UFC 71, the light heavyweight title began changing addresses with great frequency over the next couple of years. While “Rampage” successfully defended the title against Dan Henderson, he dropped the belt to Forrest Griffin in his next fight.
Griffin, in turn, dropped the title to Evans in his first title defense, setting up this showdown between the newly minted champion and the undefeated challenger.
Machida controlled the distance, slipping away from Evans’ attacks while offering scant offense of his own for most of the first round before a left hand put the champion on the canvas with a minute left in the frame.
The second played out largely the same as the first, with Machida keeping Evans off balance and the champion unable to find ways inside to land with force. The one difference, however, was that this time when Machida connected and had Evans hurt, “The Dragon” didn’t let up.
With Evans on shaky legs and groggily trying to tie up the challenger, Machida connected with a right hand along the fence that straightened Evans out, following it with a left hook to the chin that put the champion down for good, signaling the dawn of “The Machida Era.”
“The Machida Era” officially lasted just under a year, as Rua eventually wrestled the title away from his countryman in their second encounter after many believed he had beaten the champion in this initial clash at UFC 104.
Ten months after winning the belt, Rua defended it for the first time, stepping in against the surging unbeaten upstart Jones, who jumped at the opportunity to replace his injured teammate and former titleholder Rashad Evans in the championship main event.
From the outset, it was clear that Jones was operating on a different level than Rua. He moved quicker and with greater purpose. His strikes were long and clean and forceful.
The challenger dominated, using his wrestling to ground Rua and rough him up on the canvas, mixing in punishment on the feet whenever they were standing. Midway through the third, Jones hurt Rua on the canvas and when the champion rose to his feet, “Bones” put him away, ripping a left hook to the body that sent “Shogun” crumpling to the canvas.
And with that, history was made as Jones became the youngest fighter in history to win UFC gold.
For whatever reason, many people discounted the challenger’s chances against Jones in the preamble to their pairing at UFC 165 in Toronto. Early in the fight, Gustafsson showed that he wasn’t going to go quietly and an epic encounter took shape.
Gustafsson won the first, opening a small cut over Jones’ right eye and taking the champion to the mat late in the frame and from that point forward, it was a dogfight. No quarter was given and none was asked as Gustafsson showed he was clearly amongst the division’s elite and Jones was forced to show his heart and tenacity for the first time in his career.
The key moment came late in the fourth, as Jones, dealing with a now massive cut over his eye, connected with a spinning elbow that stung Gustafsson and forced him back into the fence. While he survived to the horn, it swung the momentum in the champion’s favor and bolstered Jones’ confidence.
The final five minutes was a battle of attrition — both men running on fumes, but unwilling to cede any ground, pressing to put a stamp on their performance and swing the verdict in their direction.
While Jones came away with the victory, Gustafsson lost nothing in this battle and next week, they’ll finally run it back.
Jones and Cormier do not like each other and spent the build-up to this fight getting into physical and verbal altercations that made this championship clash one of the biggest in UFC history. It took a while for these two to finally land opposite one another in the cage, but once they did, it proved to be as tense and entertaining as everyone anticipated.
Unbeaten at the time, Cormier had successfully transitioned to light heavyweight and seemed capable of ending Jones’ lengthy reign atop the division, but the champion had no interest in relinquishing the throne.
While Cormier had his moments, Jones proved his superiority throughout the contest, out-working the two-time Olympian in the clinch and along the fence, stifling his takedown attempts and generally frustrating Cormier at every turn. Where the win over Gustafsson showed Jones’ mettle, this performance further underscored just how gifted an athlete and complete he was as a mixed martial artist.
Jones has had many great performances, but this might have been the best of his career.
Cormier claimed the title with a third-round submission win over Anthony Johnson five months earlier and just as with his first shot at the light heavyweight title, many were counting Gustafsson out heading into this one, as the Swedish challenger was coming off a devastating first-round knockout loss to “Rumble” at the start of the year.
But just as he did against Jones two years earlier, “The Mauler” rose to the occasion and pushed the champion to his limit.
While Gustafsson used his length and smooth boxing to snipe at Cormier in space and sting the champion, “DC” did the majority of his work inside, tying up with Gustafsson and landing short, hard shots from the collar-tie position. Every time one man would start to build momentum, the other would come roaring back, leaving the crowd at Toyota Center in Houston, Texas on the edge of their seats.
In the fifth, Cormier kept the pressure on Gustafsson, forcing the challenger to circle away numerous times while punctuating his performance with more successful dirty boxing inside.
While one judge saw the fight for the challenger, two had the tens and nines in favor of the champion. Although the judges were split on the decision, the public opinion was unanimous — this was a tremendous fight and one of the best in the history of the light heavyweight division.