Call me crazy, but UFC lightweight title fights might be, en masse, the fights I have gotten most excited for over the course of my time covering this sport, and as a fan before that.
The upcoming clash between Charles Oliveira and Islam Makhachev at UFC 280 in Abu Dhabi has been my most anticipated fight of the year since before it was even booked, and over the years, many of the fights listed below in the collection of the top lightweight title fights in UFC history stood as can’t miss contests I was eagerly counting down to along with everyone else.
There have been some truly incredible championship contests and title-winning moments over the years, featuring some of the biggest names in the sport.
Enjoy this look back at the all-time best UFC lightweight title fights.
Jens Pulver def. BJ Penn (UFC 35)
Pulver had won the title nearly a year earlier with a victory over Caol Uno before successfully defending the belt against Dennis Hallman. Penn was in the very early stages of his career, but clearly a problem, entering as the betting favorite after his 11-second destruction of Uno at UFC 34 two months earlier.
At the close of the second round, Penn attacked an armbar and had Pulver dead to rights, but the horn sounded just before the champion tapped, and the fight continued. Over the next couple rounds, Pulver did a much better job of defending the takedowns and wrestling effectively, scoring from top position and having success when they were on the feet.
It was a close, competitive fight that ended with Pulver winning a majority decision, with scores of 48-45, 47-47, 48-47, but the rivalry didn’t end with the end of the fight. Instead, the competitive fire between the two burned on, leading to Pulver and Penn coaching opposite one another on Season 5 of The Ultimate Fighter before facing off on the show’ finale, where Penn earned a measure of revenge by collecting a second-round submission victory.
BJ Penn def. Joe Stevenson (UFC 80)
Seven months after defeating Pulver in their rematch, Penn traveled to Newcastle, England to square off with TUF 2 winner Joe Stevenson in a battle for the vacant lightweight belt.
Newer fans to the sport may not understand why so many old heads hold Penn in such high regard given the way his career ended, but if you saw him in this fight and during this stretch, you understand why.
Stevenson was a very good fighter, entering on a four-fight winning streak, and Penn made him look like he had no business being in the Octagon. He dominated from the outset and never let off the gas, busting up Stevenson before finally securing a rear-naked choke finish late in the second round.
This was one of Penn’s most emphatic performances and his handiwork was captured in stunning fashion by photographer Martin McNeil, whose picture of Stevenson’s anguished, crimson face at the close of the contest remains one of the most iconic MMA images of all time.
BJ Penn def. Sean Sherk (UFC 84)
Following Penn’s win over Stevenson, Sherk, who had been stripped of the title at the end of 2007 and was on commentary for the broadcast, entered the Octagon, setting up a clash between the current and former champions.
The two men ran level through the first two rounds, engaging in a back-and-forth kickboxing match for the opening 10 minutes before Penn started to pull away in the third. He was the fresher, sharper of the two, and began avoiding more of Sherk’s offerings while continuing to crack home stiff jabs and clean strikes.
As the “10 second clapper” sounded to signal the impending end of the round, Penn hit Sherk with an uppercut that sent him towards the fence, then raced forward and connected with a jumping knee as the former champion bounced forward off the cage. Sherk collapsed to the ground and Penn unloaded a flurry of follow-up blows before the horn sounded.
When he began to walk back to his corner, Penn turned and saw Sherk still on the ground and began motioning that the fight was over. And it was, as the fight was officially halted.
If there was any question about who the best lightweight in the world was heading into the fight, none remained on the way out — Penn was the undisputed UFC lightweight champion and the absolute best in the business.
Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard (UFC 125)
The Fight of the Year race for 2011 was decided on January 1 at UFC 125, as Edgar and Maynard engaged in one of the most chaotic, competitive, thrilling fights in UFC history.
To this day, I still don’t understand how Edgar survived the hellacious onslaught Maynard hit him with in the opening stanza, where he was knocked down three times and left bloodied and battered. Even more perplexing is how “The Answer,” who had won and retained the title in back-to-back victories over Penn in 2010, was able to come out like nothing happened in the second round and take the fight to the challenger.
The final three rounds were all close, with neither man gaining a real big advantage or claiming ahold of the fight, and when the final horn sounded, you knew that the scores could very well be all over the place. Two officials saw the fight 48-46 — one for Maynard, the other for Edgar — and the third judge had the fight even, 47-47, resulting in the bout being declared a split draw.
Neither man was happy with the verdict, but fight fans knew it meant we’d get to see them do it again later in the year.
Frankie Edgar def. Gray Maynard (UFC 136)
The rematch — which was actually the third meeting between the two, after Maynard had bested Edgar early in their UFC careers, before either was in the title picture — finally took place on October 8 in Houston, Texas and it proved to be worth the wait.
Maynard again started quickly, flooring Edgar midway through the opening round and dropping him for a second time later in the frame, sending the champion back to his corner on shaky legs, sporting a broken nose that was pouring blood.
Yet again, Edgar recovered well and rallied, and as the fight hit the championship rounds, the champion from Toms River, New Jersey started to pull away.
The indefatigable Edgar continued peppering the bigger, more powerful Maynard, whose gas tank was starting to run low, and late in the frame, as they clambered back to their feet out of a scramble, Edgar cracked Maynard with an uppercut that sat the challenger down. Edgar pounced, backing Maynard into the fence with a series of clubbing right hands, and when he fell to the canvas, the champion unleashed a torrent of lefts that brought the fight to a close.
This was another wildly entertaining scrap between two ultra-talented rivals, and easily one of the best two-fight series in MMA history.
Anthony Pettis def. Benson Henderson (UFC 164)
This one was captivating for a number of different reasons.
First, Pettis and Henderson had met in a similar pairing in the final fight in WEC history, with Henderson entering as lightweight champion, Pettis arriving as the challenger and hitting “The Showtime Kick” late in the final round to seal the victory.
Secondly, Pettis was originally booked to fight for the featherweight title in June, but was forced to withdraw due to an injury, only to tag in to face Henderson when his original opponent, TJ Grant, was forced out after suffering a concussion during training camp.
Thirdly, the event was taking place in Pettis’ hometown of Milwaukee, meaning either the local kid would claim gold, or his friendly rival would send the partisan crowd home disappointed.
Late in the first round, Pettis sent the crowd at the BMO Bradley Center into hysterics, trapping Henderson’s arm as they battled on the canvas, forcing the champion to verbally submit as the challenger shifted towards being belly-down.
Just as he’d done when they battled for the WEC title, Pettis entered as the challenger and exited as the champion, bringing Henderson’s reign to an end, and positioning himself to be the face of the division for the foreseeable future.
Rafael Dos Anjos def. Anthony Pettis (UFC 185)
After successfully defending the title against Gilbert Melendez at UFC 181, Pettis entered his second appearance as champion poised to try and break into the mainstream consciousness. The good-looking, well-spoken lightweight champion was pictured on the cover of a Wheaties box and given a headlining assignment against Dos Anjos at UFC 185 in Dallas.
Five rounds later, his reign was over.
The Brazilian suffocated the champion with pressure and pace, taking the fight to Pettis right out of the gate and never letting off the gas. Dos Anjos, who entered on a three-fight winning streak and having won eight of his previous nine bouts, never gave Pettis room to operate, crowding him against the fence, dragging him to the canvas nine times over the course of the 25-minute affair, and dominating just about every minute of the fight.
Just when it seemed like Pettis was poised to rule the division, Dos Anjos came in with alternate plans, handing “Showtime” a defeat that not many saw coming.
Conor McGregor def. Eddie Alvarez (UFC 205)
Dos Anjos didn’t hold on to the title for very long, either, successfully defending the belt once before losing it to Alvarez in the summer of 2016 after being forced out of a matchup with McGregor at UFC 196 due to a broken foot.
That postponement led to McGregor’s two-fight series with Nate Diaz and Alvarez sliding in to claim the title from Dos Anjos, and resulted in the champion and the Irish challenger facing off in the main event of the UFC’s debut appearance at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
This is the best Conor McGregor has ever looked.
He’s had quicker finishes, fought with more flair and brashness, but never in his UFC career has he looked this sharp, this crisp, this focused and poised and unbeatable.
After spending some time making reads and getting his range, the first real shot McGregor threw stunned Alvarez and the second put him on the canvas. He stung him again a minute later and dropped him once more 20 seconds after that. Alvarez was able to make it out of the first, but he wouldn’t survive the second.
McGregor was just too sharp, too quick, too powerful, too confident, taking the champion off his feet once more just beyond the three-minute mark to make history as the first fighter to ever hold UFC gold in two divisions simultaneously.
Khabib Nurmagomedov def. Conor McGregor (UFC 229)
Remember in the intro how I talked about lightweight title fights being amongst the most highly anticipated in UFC history?
Yeah, this one might actually top that list.
Everything that led up to this fight and followed the action inside the Octagon was ugly, but there is no denying that people were ravenous to see what would happen when the bitter rivals stepped into the cage with one another.
Nurmagomedov had finally ascended to the top of the division earlier in the year, and McGregor was returning for the first time since his win over Alvarez, looking to reclaim the belt he never lost in competition, but it wouldn’t happen.
The Russian champion dominated the majority of the fight, repeatedly putting McGregor on the deck with his wrestling and even taking the challenger off his feet with a clean right hand in the second. As the fight progressed, McGregor’s ability to defend on the ground waned, and Nurmagomedov eventually locked onto a neck crank that brought the fight to a close.
Though it has been four years since this meeting, the tensions between the two continue to linger, with McGregor unable to let go of the feud despite Nurmagomedov having retired and transitioned into being a coach.
Charles Oliveira def. Michael Chandler (UFC 262)
Oliveira reaching a lightweight title fight was an incredible story in and of itself, as the Brazilian debuted in the UFC as a prodigious talent, struggled to find consistency while shifting between lightweight and featherweight, and then rattled off eight straight wins to land opposite Chandler with championship gold hanging in the balance.
Chandler, a multiple-time titleholder in Bellator, had scored a first-round knockout win over Dan Hooker in his promotional debut earlier in the year, instantly establishing himself as a contender, and 40 seconds into this one, it looked like he might add a UFC title to his mantle, as well.
The Octagon sophomore stung Oliveira with a left hand and locked onto a guillotine choke as the Brazilian shot in looking to wrestle, sinking the choke in tight. But Oliveira popped his head out and swam around to the back, forcing Chandler to sell out on defending before he was able to turn inside the body triangle and eventually work his way back to the feet.
With two minutes remaining in the opening round, Chandler swarmed, clipping Oliveira and sending him to the canvas, desperate to grab a leg and find a way to tie up and avoid further punishment. He was able to survive, but he was cut up and bleeding, with Chandler carrying all the momentum into the second round.
Just 19 seconds after the fight resumed, the fight was over, and Oliveira was the UFC lightweight champion.
He marched out to the center confidently and dropped Chandler with a counter left hook, chasing him back to the fence where he swarmed. A right hand crashed home and another left as Chandler was trying to scurry to open space put him on the canvas once more, Oliveira unleashing piston-like lefts until referee Dan Miragliotta was forced to step in and halt the fight.
Incredibly, this has now become Oliveira’s championship trademark — dealing with damage and still finding a way to finish, as he’s rallied to earn submission wins over Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje to extend his overall winning streak to 11 as he readies to face Makhachev later this month in Abu Dhabi.