The battles that really stand out, the clashes that really take root in our memories and stick with us through the years are often the ones with the most history. It’s not just about the moment at hand, but everything that came before it as well and, in some cases, the potential for what may come after.
The more familiarity we have with the subjects, the deeper our connection and the more weight and emotion the moments carry. While individual encounters can be heated and every great two-fight or three-fight series starts with that initial contest, the rivalries that really resonate are the ones that contain multiple chapters and numerous layers.
Every league has them – the rivalries that define eras or franchises – and the UFC is no different.
With another great rivalry between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor coming to a head in the main event of UFC 229 on October 6 in Las Vegas, here’s a look at some of the best.
This is The 10: The Greatest Rivalries in UFC History.
Royce Gracie vs. Ken Shamrock (WATCH ON UFC FIGHT PASS)
This might actually be the best rivalry of all-time because to this day, nearly 25 years after their first encounter in the Octagon, these two pioneers and Hall of Famers still haven’t settled things, and there is a strong likelihood that it will remain forever unresolved.
Gracie caught Shamrock by surprise at UFC 1, forcing him to tap to a sleeve choke in the semifinal round before defeating Gerard Gordeau to win the inaugural event. The sneering, sculpted American offered various objections and explanations for how and why things went wrong and was bent on avenging his loss, but ended up having to wait until UFC 5 to get the opportunity.
They finally met in the first “Superfight” at UFC 5, but were given a 30-minute time limit, which didn’t sit well with either fighter. Even after introducing a five-minute overtime period on the spot, the bout ended in a draw, with both competitors feeling unsatisfied with the outcome.
Twenty-one years later, they squared off for a third time, this time outside of the Octagon, with Gracie earning a controversial first-round stoppage win that began after he landed an inadvertent strike below the belt.
While some rivalries are run their course, others carry on forever and this is one of those ones that will never be settled.Ken Shamrock vs. Tito Ortiz (WATCH ON UFC FIGHT PASS)
Gracie wasn’t the only fighter Shamrock had a long-running feud with in the UFC. In fact, his rivalry with Ortiz was even more heated, more emotional than its predecessor, but unfortunately for “The World’s Most Dangerous Man,” it was even more one-sided as well.
The rivalry stems from what can best be described as “Tito being Tito,” as the brash light heavyweight standout earned back-to-back victories over Lion’s Den students Jerry Bohlander and Guy Mezger at UFC 18 and UFC 19, respectively, donning disrespectful t-shirts and taunting Shamrock in the corner following each triumph.
It took four years before they finally shared the Octagon together, with Ortiz earning a third-round stoppage victory to retain his light heavyweight title before posting consecutive first-round stoppage wins in the controversial second fight and non-controversial third encounter.
While they appeared to bury the hatchet following their third meeting – after Ortiz performed his traditional “Gravedigger” celebration and donned a shirt saying, “Punishing him into retirement” – chances are you could still get either man fired up in no time flat by mentioning the other’s name.
Tito Ortiz vs. Chuck Liddell (WATCH ON UFC FIGHT PASS)
Just as Shamrock wasn’t a “one rivalry” kind of guy, neither was Ortiz, whose feud with Liddell still rages on to this day.
The two rose to prominence in the light heavyweight division at the same time, with Ortiz holding the title and Liddell emerging as a dangerous contender who seemed destined to challenge for the belt.
Ortiz was reluctant, but after losing his title to Randy Couture, the two finally met at UFC 47, with Liddell earning a second-round knockout victory. They would run it back two-and-a-half years later at UFC 66, with Liddell successfully defending the light heavyweight strap by scoring another stoppage win, this time in the third round.
Both men always longed for a third meeting and we expected to meet at UFC 115 after serving as opposing coaches on the 11th season of The Ultimate Fighter, but just weeks before the event, Ortiz announced that he had to withdraw from the bout, making Liddell – who had predicted the bout would never happen – furious.Chuck Liddell vs. Randy Couture (WATCH ON UFC FIGHT PASS)
While Liddell’s first rivalry on this list was heated and still rages on to this day, his second was more about competition and was resolved inside the cage.
Couture became the third man in the light heavyweight triumvirate during the early aughts, leaving the heavyweight ranks to pursue gold in the 205-pound weight class after losing the title to Josh Barnett and failing to claim the vacant belt in a bout against Ricco Rodriguez at UFC 39.
He would defeat Liddell for the interim title at UFC 43, halting his 10-fight unbeaten streak and becoming the first person to stop Liddell with strikes before unifying the titles by beating Ortiz three months later. After a two-fight series with Vitor Belfort that saw Couture lose and regain the title, he and Liddell served as opposing coaches on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter and squared off in a championship rematch a week after the iconic finale at the Cox Pavilion.
Liddell would claim the title and draw level in the series with a first-round knockout win at UFC 52 and claimed victory in the series with another knockout win 10 months later at UFC 57.
Dominick Cruz vs. Team Alpha Male (WATCH ON UFC FIGHT PASS)
This one originated in the WEC, but carried over to the UFC so I’m going to allow it.
The rivalry started in the preamble to WEC 26, where Cruz was set to face off with team founder Urijah Faber for the featherweight title. When they were signing promotional posters, Cruz took to signing over Faber’s face, which rankled “The California Kid,” who would go on to submit Cruz in the first round to retain his title.
Cruz then dropped to bantamweight and started climbing the divisional ladder, beating Team Alpha Male’s Joseph Benavidez to earn a title shot and then successfully defending his title against Benavidez in a rematch a year after their initial encounter.
After migrating to the UFC, Cruz and Faber would meet for a second time at UFC 132, with Cruz collecting a unanimous decision win to retain his bantamweight title in a close, back-and-forth fight. The duo met for a third time at UFC 199 after Cruz returned to action and reclaimed the title by edging out former Alpha Male fighter TJ Dillashaw, with “The Dominator” collecting a lopsided decision win.
Upon losing to Cruz in Los Angeles, Faber warned him that the team’s latest rising star in the 135-pound ranks, Cody Garbrandt, would be the next member of the squad carry the torch in this long-running rivalry, and at UFC 207, “No Love” orchestrated a masterful performance to hand Cruz the second loss of his career and win the bantamweight title.
Tensions between the two sides are currently cooled, with Cruz and Faber burying the hatchet after the latter retired at the end of 2016, but whenever Cruz returns to action, don’t be surprised if things flare up again.
Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir (WATCH ON UFC FIGHT PASS)
After moving from the professional wrestling ranks to a career in mixed martial arts – with a brief, unsuccessful stop with the Minnesota Vikings in between – Lesnar was thrown right into the deep end in his UFC debut, paired off with former heavyweight champion Frank Mir.
Though it only lasted 90 seconds, their meeting at UFC 81 not only showed that the hulking, hyper-athletic Lesnar had immense potential inside the cage, but sparked a rivalry as well. Lesnar didn’t like that referee Steve Mazzagatta was slow to acknowledge that he tapped and that Mir continued to hold onto the fight-ending kneebar submission, in addition to the fact that the Las Vegas-based veteran was dismissive of his abilities and prospects in the sport.
Each man would go on to claim gold – Lesnar defeating the returning Randy Couture for the heavyweight title at UFC 91 and Mir claiming the interim title six weeks later by knocking out Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira at UFC 92 – setting up a title unification showdown at UFC 100.
Lesnar dominated the rematch, finishing Mir less than two minutes into the second round before storming around the cage, snarling and seething, and getting in his beaten foe’s face. This was the biggest event in UFC history at the time and the peak of the organization’s rise to popularity, and Lesnar’s emergence and his rivalry with Mir played a big role in all of it.
Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen (WATCH ON UFC FIGHT PASS)
Up until the point where Sonnen started using his skills as an orator to talk his way into the spotlight, the self-proclaimed “Gangster from West Linn” was a journeyman fighter with a 26-10-1 record that most fight fans couldn’t pick out of a lineup.
But a three-fight winning streak put Sonnen in line to challenge for the middleweight title and he took every opportunity he had during the preamble to his bout with reigning champion Anderson Silva to launch verbal salvos at “The Spider,” his friends and teammates, and the Brazilian people as a whole.
He became “The Bad Guy” and his tactics gave what was expected to be a lopsided fight some sizzle.
Then Sonnen went out and dominated the first four rounds of their encounter at UFC 117, making good on all the pre-fight promises he’d made. Midway through the fifth round, it appeared as if Sonnen would in fact be the one to end Silva’s reign, but a momentary lapse in judgment gave the champion the opening he needed to lock up a triangle choke and force Sonnen to tap.
Seventeen months after their first meeting, Sonnen commandeered the microphone following his narrow win over Michael Bisping on FOX and fired more verbal salvos at Silva, setting the stage for their highly anticipated rematch.
While the first round was similar to the opening four stanzas of their initial meeting, with Sonnen using his wrestling to ground Silva, it quickly shifted in the champion’s favor in the second. After an out of character spinning backfist attempt by Sonnen left him seated along the fence, Silva pounced and pounded out the finish.
Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard (WATCH ON UFC FIGHT PASS)
This one never started out as a rivalry, as Maynard beat Edgar in the co-main event of a Fight Night event in Broomfield, Colorado in April 2008 as the two were climbing the lightweight ranks.
Less than three years later, Edgar was atop the division and Maynard was still undefeated, and they were paired off in the main event of UFC 125 on New Year’s Day, where they combined to deliver one of the most thrilling, back-and-forth fights to ever grace the Octagon.
After an action-packed 25 minutes, the bout was scored a draw, setting up a rematch – and a third bout between the two lightweight standouts – that ultimately landed atop the marquee at UFC 136 in Houston, Texas.
It was every bit as good as their previous encounter, with Maynard again taking a commanding lead and nearly finishing Edgar in the first before the champion rallied back and settled things by stinging Maynard with a short right hand and finishing him off with a torrent of lefts.
Ronda Rousey vs. Miesha Tate (WATCH ON UFC FIGHT PASS)
Like Cruz and the Alpha Male squad, this one started outside the UFC, but carried over into the Octgaon and deserves a place on this list.
After starting her career with four straight wins in the featherweight division, Rousey set her sights on challenging Tate for the Strikeforce women’s bantamweight title. The Olympic bronze medalist was granted her opportunity and claimed the title with a first-round submission win, but it’s only once they migrated to the UFC that business really picked up.
Heading into Season 18 of The Ultimate Figther, Rousey was supposed to coach against and then square off with Cat Zingano, who had beaten Tate to claim the spot opposite the champion. But when Zingano blew out her knee, Tate was tabbed to replace her and the tension between the two remained at a boil throughout the season and into their rematch at UFC 168.
While Tate would become the first women to escape the first round against Rousey, she ultimately succumbed to an armbar in the third, and when she extended her hand to her rival following the finish, Rousey ignored it and walked away.
At various times, it appeared as if a third bout between the two was going to happen – first when Tate rattled off four straight victories and then again after she claimed the title from Holly Holm, who had won the belt from Rousey, at UFC 196, but it never came to pass.
Jon Jones vs. Daniel Cormier (WATCH ON UFC FIGHT PASS)
While Cormier famously said following their second meeting that “in order for it to be a rivalry, (he’s) got to win one,” I’m going to respectfully disagree with the UFC’s current “Double Champ.”
What started with a flippant comment by Jones has morphed into a long-standing feud that will likely never be completely settled, even though Jones holds the advantage in the cage.
In addition to their two fights – the first took place at UFC 182, the second at UFC 214 – there have been physical altercations and countless verbal battles, as well as myriad social media spats and numerous times when one has voiced their contempt and displeasure with the other on air.
While the fact that Cormier holds both the light heavyweight and heavyweight titles and Jones will be cleared to return to action late next month could serve as a very interesting backdrop to a third bout between the two, “DC” has said he’s shifted his focus from “Bones” and intends to stick to his plan of retiring after squaring off with Brock Lesnar next year.