With Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier set to clash for the heavyweight title for a third time this weekend in the main event of UFC 252, it’s only fitting that we take a tour through the history books and examine some of the top trilogies to take place inside the Octagon.
There is something about the kind of rivalry that has to play out of a series of bouts that is undeniable. It’s an intoxicating combination of admiration and respect mixed with intense competition that always seems to elevate the stakes and heighten the excitement surrounding each contest in the series.
They can come with or without animosity between the two combatants and championship gold doesn’t always have to be on the line, but the fights are often better when it is.
Some of the biggest fights and most memorable moments in UFC history have taken place in bouts that are part of a trilogy, and now it’s time to take a look back at some of the best three-fight series to ever grace the Octagon.
This is the Dynamic Dozen: UFC Trilogies, Part I
MAURICIO “SHOGUN” RUA VS. ANTONIO ROGERIO NOGUEIRA
Fight 1: Pride Critical Countdown 2005 — Rua via Unanimous Decision
Fight 2: UFC 190 — Rua via Unanimous Decision
Fight 3: UFC Fight Island 3 — Rua via Split Decision
While not technically a UFC trilogy, the last two contests in this all-Brazilian battle were contested inside the Octagon just under five years apart and like their initial encounter in Japan, they were wildly entertaining affairs.
This is one of two series on this list where one person — in this case “Shogun” — won all three bouts, but if I’m being completely honest, the official decision isn’t the thing I’m remembering most about their final two battles.
Their first fight came when both were in their prime, as Rua would go on to defeat Alistair Overeem and Ricardo Arona on the same night two months later to win the 2005 PRIDE Middleweight Grand Prix, while the loss snapped Nogueira’s eight-fight winning streak and his unbeaten run under the PRIDE banner.
Each of the final two pairings came when the Brazilian icons had already achieved a tremendous amount in their respective careers, but that didn’t keep them from putting on a show both times, engaging in a pair of back-and-forth battles over 15 minutes where each one gave as good as they got and everyone watching went home happy.
They wrapped up their trilogy just a few weeks ago on Fight Island, with Rua once again edging out Nogueira on the cards before “Little Nog” announced that he was calling it a career.
DOMINICK CRUZ VS. URIJAH FABER
Fight 1: WEC 26 — Faber via Submission (Guillotine Choke)
Fight 2: UFC 132 — Cruz via Unanimous Decision
Fight 3: UFC 199 — Cruz via Unanimous Decision
Yes, I’m going with another trilogy where only two-thirds of the fights took place in the UFC, but it’s difficult to put together a collection like this and not include this long-standing rivalry that feels like it could still have another chapter added before both men are done with their fighting careers.
Additionally, featherweights weren’t a part of the UFC when these two met for the first time, but the WEC was home to the best in the business in the lighter weight classes, so it’s only right that we ease up on the rules and regulations and highlight this outstanding rivalry.
The first meeting came while Faber was the WEC champ and arguably the best featherweight in the world. The leader of Team Alpha Male was 17-1 overall and riding a nine-fight winning streak, while Cruz was unbeaten in nine professional appearances and making his promotional debut. Just over 90 seconds into the opening round, “The California Kid” clamped onto his signature guillotine choke and Cruz was forced to tap.
The rematch came four years, three months, and nine days later at UFC 132, but this time it was contested in the bantamweight division and Cruz was the one walking in with gold around his waist.
“The Dominator” dropped down to the 135-pound weight class in his second fight after losing to Faber and ascended to the top of the division at WEC 47, winning the title from Brian Bowles before successfully defending the belt against both Joseph Benavidez and Scott Jorgensen prior to matriculating to the UFC. Faber successfully defended his featherweight strap three more times before losing the belt to Mike Brown, then relocated to bantamweight after coming up short in championship bouts against Brown and Jose Aldo at WEC 41 and WEC 48 respectively.
A pair of victories, including a win over Eddie Wineland in his UFC debut, put Faber in line to challenge for the title and the former opponents turned bitter rivals renewed their hostilities in the summer of 2011, with Cruz edging Faber on the cards in a close, competitive fight that some still debate to this day.
Level at one win each and having never been able to bury the hatchet, Cruz and Faber met for a third time at UFC 199 in the former’s first title defense since reclaiming the belt from TJ Dillashaw at the start of the year. Unlike their second meeting, the rubber match wasn’t nearly as close, as Cruz’ funky movements and quick combination attacks proved to be too much for Faber, with the judges scoring the bout 50-45, 50-45, and 49-48.
Top 5 Trilogies In UFC History
Top 5 Trilogies In UFC History
RANDY COUTURE VS. VITOR BELFORT
Fight 1: UFC 15 — Couture via TKO (Punches)
Fight 2: UFC 46 — Belfort via TKO (Doctor Stoppage)
Fight 3: UFC 49 — Couture via TKO (Doctor Stoppage)
This one was wrapped up and in the books before UFC 50 and isn’t talked about as much as some of the other trilogies on this list, but one that I have always personally enjoyed.
Additionally, given the impressive careers each man went on to enjoy, it’s awesome to me that Couture and Belfort first locked up at UFC 15, when Couture was 34 and Belfort was 20, with “The Natural” sporting a 2-0 record after UFC 14 and “The Phenom” having won his first four appearances in a combined 184 seconds.
No one would know that this was classic Couture until several years later, but it’s a big part of what made him a special kind of competitor. Even though he was always the older man and the less powerful man in the cage, Couture could outwork just about anyone and he did that to Belfort in their first meeting, tiring the 20-year-old out and putting him away with a flurry of unanswered shots once he was gassed.
Act II took place more than six years later at UFC 46, with Couture fresh off his title unification victory over Tito Ortiz and Belfort having blitzed Marvin Eastman six months earlier.
As he did in their first encounter, Couture began the second fight by pressing forward, looking to close the distance against the younger, faster, more powerful Belfort, but disaster struck in the first exchange, as a glancing Belfort left hand left Couture wincing along the cage. When referee John McCarthy halted the action to assess the situation, it was discovered that Couture had suffered a grizzly looking cut that resulted in the bout being waved off and Belfort becoming the new light heavyweight champion.
Act III took place eight months later at UFC 49 with Belfort entering as the champion and Couture assuming the role of challenger. It quickly became an updated version of their first fight, with the wily veteran crowding his Brazilian rival, beating him up inside and dragging him to the canvas repeatedly.
An accidental clash of heads opened a cut over Belfort’s right eye at the start of the second and got progressively worse throughout the bout, with Couture leaving “The Phenom” painted in crimson at the close of the third round, a second cut adding to the outpouring of blood and prompting the doctor to declare Belfort could not continue prior to the start of the championship rounds.
Couture had a few more iconic moments inside the Octagon, but his performance in the rubber match with Belfort might have been “The Natural” at his best, as he nullified the Brazilian’s powerful striking and imposed his will from start to finish.
CHUCK LIDDELL VS. RANDY COUTURE
Fight 1: UFC 43 — Couture via TKO (Punches)
Fight 2: UFC 52 — Liddell via KO (Punches)
Fight 3: UFC 57 — Liddell via KO (Punches)
If the trilogies on this list had to be ranked in order, this one would certainly be in the running for the top spot. Not only did it feature two of the most iconic fighters in the UFC to that point, but it also ended up producing a “changing of the guard” in what the light heavyweight ranks, which was the prestige division in the UFC at the time.
Questions about Liddell’s focus after not getting the chance to face Tito Ortiz were being asked alongside those about Couture’s age and whether Father Time was finally catching up to the former heavyweight champion as these two squared off for the interim light heavyweight title at UFC 43.
This was another vintage Couture performance and his approach completely flummoxed Liddell, who seemed hesitant and unsure as Couture marched forward, leading the striking exchanges and getting the better of them. Just as he did with Belfort, Couture took away Liddell’s best weapons and made him expend energy defending takedowns, getting back to his feet, and moving backwards and as time continued to tick off the clock, Liddell’s gas tank ticked closer and closer to empty.
By the time the third round started, it was clear Couture was in complete control and by the middle of the frame, the fight was all but finished, with Couture putting Liddell on his heels and then on the canvas, advancing to mount, and unleashed a barrage of unanswered strikes that forced the stoppage.
The second fight happened a little shy of two years later, after Couture had beaten Ortiz and wrapped up his trilogy with Belfort. Liddell had come up short in his bid to win the PRIDE Middleweight Grand Prix, beaten Ortiz in their first meeting and added a win over Vernon “Tiger” White to affirm his standing as the No. 1 contender for the light heavyweight title, setting the stage for this rematch.
Liddell was a different fighter at this point, and it was obvious immediately. He was moving more right away, and he had the wide-eyed, “This dude looks a little crazy” stare we’d become used to in full effect right out of the gate. He’d become the dangerous counterpuncher and was ready for Couture’s advances, responded to his offerings in kind and circled into space whenever “The Natural” tried to hem him in.
An inadvertent eye poke paused the fight momentarily and Liddell connected immediately on the restart, stinging Couture with the kind of forcible shot that makes your instincts take over. When Couture tried to land one of his own and trade with Liddell, “The Iceman” floored him with a right hand amidst the chaotic trading of punches, following him to the canvas and quickly bringing the bout to a close.
Liddell was the new light heavyweight champion and a new era was about to begin in the UFC.
The rubber match would happen 10 months later at UFC 57, which was the biggest show in the company’s history to that point, and though it took a little longer, the outcome was ultimately the same. Couture looked to press forward and crowd the champion and Liddell was happy to fire off counters, circle out, and play the matador against the challenger.
Liddell hurt Couture late in the first, prompting “The Natural” to shoot for a takedown while opening him up above the left eye, and after a minute of circling each other to start the second, he cracked the advancing challenger with a counter right hand that spun him to the canvas in a heap. The fight was stopped and the series was over.
TITO ORTIZ VS. KEN SHAMROCK
Fight 1: UFC 40 — Ortiz via TKO (Corner Stoppage)
Fight 2: UFC 61 — Ortiz via TKO (Elbows)
Fight 3: The Final Chapter — Ortiz via TKO (Punches)
Of all the rivalries in this collection, this one is easily the most contentious as Ortiz and Shamrock flat out hated each other, which only added to the excitement and anticipation surrounding each of their three fights.
Their first encounter came at UFC 40 and was arguably the biggest fight in UFC history to that point. Ortiz was in the midst of his reign atop the light heavyweight division while Shamrock was stepping into the Octagon for the first time in six years and the familiar constant hum that fills an arena before any massive fight filled the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
There was no feeling out process — they met in the center, locked up right away, and starting slinging hammers from there, each man landing a heavy shot or two in the fray, with Ortiz clearly stinging Shamrock before the returning veteran sent the champion to a knee with a counter right hand of his own. Ortiz wisely took the fight to the ground and it set the template for the remainder of the contest, as he would put Shamrock on his back and unload with punches and elbows for the majority of the second and third rounds.
When an exhausted Shamrock returned to his corner following the third, his corner threw in the towel, knowing their man was spent and there was no need to send him back out into the fire.
Ortiz and Shamrock squared off for a second time at UFC 61 after serving as opposing coaches on Season 3 of The Ultimate Fighter. Shamrock came out swinging and Ortiz welcomed it, grabbing a Thai clinch and attacking with knees, before scooping him into the air and slamming him to the ground. After moving Shamrock over to the fence, Ortiz started smashing home elbows and referee Herb Dean quickly stepped in to stop the fight.
Shamrock was in disbelief and Ortiz broke out his gravedigger celebration, pouring fuel onto the fire. UFC President Dana White would quickly announce a third bout and the rivals would run it back three months later.
There was nothing controversial about the third meeting, as Ortiz once again put Shamrock on the ground and busted him up with punches and elbows, bringing the fight to a close prior to the midway point of the opening round.
FORREST GRIFFIN VS. TITO ORTIZ
Fight 1: UFC 59 — Ortiz via Split Decision
Fight 2: UFC 106 — Griffin via Split Decision
Fight 3: UFC 148 — Griffin via Unanimous Decision
Before Ortiz fought Shamrock for the second time, he shared the cage with the breakout star from the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, serving as a litmus test for the wildly popular Griffin, who followed up his historic victory over Stephan Bonnar with stoppage wins over Bill Mahood and Elvis Sinosic.
For 15 minutes in the middle of the UFC 59 main card, Ortiz and Griffin went toe-to-toe, no quarter asked and none given, with the former champion earning the split decision victory with scores of 30-27, 29-27, and 28-29 the other way. Unbeknownst to the two combatants, their Fight of the Year clash in the spring of 2006 would become the blueprint for their entire trilogy.
When they squared off three-and-a-half years later at UFC 106, it was like they picked up where they left off in Anaheim, California the first time around. Once again, it was a give-and-take where neither man ever seemed to gain a substantial edge, with the judges once again split on the scores. This time, however, it was Griffin who got the nod, levelling the series as one win each, creating the possibility for a third fight between the two.
A little less than three years later, the former light heavyweight titleholders squared off in a rubber match at UFC 148 in Las Vegas, and while it was again a spirited, close fight, a clear winner emerged. Griffin swept the scorecards with scores of 29-28 across the board in what turned out to be the final Octagon appearance for both men.
Tune in to UFC.com on Tuesday, August 11, for six more memorable UFC trilogies