In advance of what should be an electric encounter between two bitter rivals and elite talents at UFC 216, here’s a look back at some of the outstanding championship fights of the past in the 155-pound weight class.
This is The 10: Top UFC Lightweight Title Fights.
Not only was this a matchup between the two top lightweights in the UFC at the time – the champion Pulver and the surging challenger Penn – but it also gave birth to a rivalry that continued simmering for five years and became the central conflict on Season 5 of The Ultimate Fighter.
While Pulver entered with the title, Penn entered as the favorite, fresh off his 11-second destruction of Caol Uno and sporting a perfect 3-0 record with three finishes in his career. But “Lil’ Evil” had no intentions of being steamrolled by “The Prodigy.”
JENS PULVER: A LOOK BACK AT UFC'S FIRST LIGHTWEIGHT CHAMP
This was a 25-minute chess match between two outstanding fighters that remains tough to score 15 years later. Standing in the center of the Octagon as Bruce Buffer read out the scores, Pulver seemed to think the scores being read were in favor of the challenger, but that wasn’t the case, as the champion retained in what would turn out to be the final title fight of his reign.
For all those who wonder why many consider Penn the greatest lightweight of all-time, go back and watch this fight – especially the way it ends – and you’ll have a better understanding. This was Penn at his apex and the finish remains burned in the memories of all those who have seen it.
Penn had busted up and bloodied Sherk with a steady diet of stiff jabs and crisp rights all night and as the final seconds of the third round ticked off the clock, he chased Sherk back towards the fence. When the challenger rebounded off the chain link wall, Penn planted a perfect knee on his chin, sending him to the floor. A torrent of punches followed until the horn sounded, but as Penn began to walk away, Sherk struggled to get to his feet.
The bout was stopped and Penn had his first successful title defense in one of his most iconic performances.
Sanchez had looked outstanding in a pair of wins over Joe Stevenson and Clay Guida heading into this championship showdown with Penn, who was fighting for the first time since his UFC 94 loss to Georges St-Pierre. Many wondered if Penn was primed to be dethroned, but the champion answered that question right out of the chute.
Just 30 seconds into the opening round, Penn dropped Sanchez with the first right hand he threw and it was a drubbing from that point forward. While the challenger exhibited the toughness and resiliency that has come to define his career, Penn was on another level this evening.
What no one knew that night was that it would be the last time Penn would successfully defend the lightweight title and the penultimate time he would get his hand raised inside the Octagon.
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After upsetting “The Prodigy” to win the title at UFC 112 in Abu Dhabi, Edgar and Penn ran it back four months later in Boston and this time, the champion made sure there were no lingering questions about who the better man was.
Edgar replicated the game plan that led him to success in their first encounter, darting in to land shots and avoiding counters while dumping Penn to the canvas with swift, timely takedowns. While the first bout was close, the gulf between the two grew larger with each passing round in the second.
This wasn’t a passing of the torch, as Edgar had claimed the belt four months earlier, but UFC 118 was where Edgar held it aloft and showed that he was the best lightweight in the UFC.
Almost seven years later, I’m not sure any fight has topped this one.
Maynard had beaten Edgar three years earlier and entered with a record capped by wins over Nathan Diaz and Kenny Florian. Early in the first, he floored the champion before keeping him on roller skates for the remainder of the round. Edgar seemed to be a punch or two away from being finished, but the end never came and, in the second, he bounced back like the previous five minutes hadn’t happened and an instant classic ensued.
To this day, the result of this fight remains debated, but what isn’t up for discussion is that it is one of the most amazing, exhilarating, entertaining championship fights in UFC history.
UFC 136: Frankie Edgar def. Gray Maynard by Knockout at 3:54 of Round 4 (Watch on UFC FIGHT PASS)
Ten months later, Edgar and Maynard shared the cage for a third time and against all odds, the rubber match was damn near as good as the sequel.
Once again, Maynard looked poised to put the champion away, busting Edgar up and stalking him in search of the finishing blow for the final half of the opening round. Just as he’d done on New Year’s Day, Edgar survived and rallied, only this time, it seemed to wear on Maynard a little more this time around.
Edgar started frustrating Maynard, picking his spots and stymieing whatever offense the challenger offered, and midway through the fourth, the champion completed his comeback and closed the book on this rivalry.
A short uppercut out of a stuffed takedown rocked Maynard and Edgar never gave him space to recover. Short, precise follow-ups crashed home as Maynard crashed to the canvas, forcing the referee to wave it off and Edgar to explode with understandable excitement.
Close fights marked Edgar’s title reign, so it makes sense that his time atop the division came to a close as a result of a tight contest that could have gone either way.
Henderson entered on a solid three-fight winning streak and was able to match Edgar’s conditioning, never getting swept under by the blistering pace the champion liked to keep. While Edgar’s previous two bouts had been tense, come-from-behind efforts, this was a fight where neither man really pulled ahead by much and came down to how you scored a series of close, five-minute mini-battles.
In the end, Henderson got the nod and Edgar got an immediate rematch six months later, where the new champion retained the belt in another hotly debated, ultra-close affair.
Part of what lands this fight on this list is how it came together.
Pettis was scheduled to fight for the featherweight title and Henderson was poised to defend against Canadian challenger TJ Grant, but a knee injury forced Pettis from his bout with Jose Aldo and a couple weeks later, Grant was ruled out of the lightweight title fight due to a concussion. Fortunately for the UFC, Pettis had recovered enough to accept the bout and squared off with his old WEC adversary for the lightweight title in his hometown of Milwaukee.
While their first bout was punctuated by “The Showtime Kick,” the ending of this one was somewhat obstructed, as Pettis attacked Henderson’s arm and locked up an armbar out of a tie-up that no one really got a good look at. One second they were grappling and the next Henderson had a disappointed look on his face after tapping out.
At the time, it felt like UFC 185 was going to be where Pettis ascended to the next level of stardom and become a dominant force the UFC could build around going forward. Instead, Joanna Jedrzejczyk became that breakout champion and Dos Anjos straight up trucked Pettis to claim the lightweight title.
This was a masterful performance from the Brazilian, who suffocated Pettis with pressure from the outset and never allowed the inventive, rhythm-based striker to get comfortable. From start to finish, Dos Anjos marched Pettis down and battered him with punches, forcing him to play defense and weather a relentless storm, giving other fighters a blueprint for how to beat “Showtime.”
Dos Anjos delivered a flawless performance to usurp the lightweight throne from Pettis, providing further evidence as to why everyone rightfully considers the 155-pound weight class the most competitive and consistently entertaining division in the UFC.
UFC 205: Conor McGregor def. Eddie Alvarez by Knockout at 3:04 of Round 2 (Watch on UFC FIGHT PASS)
Making history in the iconic Madison Square Garden, McGregor waltzed into the Octagon and put on an equally iconic performance against Alvarez en route to winning his second UFC title.
After paying homage to Joe Frazier at the pre-fight press conference, McGregor looked like a prime Roy Jones Jr. once the fight began, dropping his hands and hiding them behind his back before connecting with lightning quick shots that Alvarez couldn’t avoid and ultimately couldn’t handle. It was clear early on that “The Notorious” one was going to garner his second gold belt and just a few minutes into the second, he made it official.
As of right now, it’s the last we’ve seen of McGregor inside the Octagon. Perhaps a title unification bout with the winner of next weekend’s interim title fight will be intriguing enough to lure him back to the cage.