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 II
TIM SYLVIA VS. ANDREI ARLOVSKI
Fight 1: UFC 51 — Arlovski via Submission (Achilles Lock)
Fight 2: UFC 59 — Sylvia via TKO (Punches)
Fight 3: UFC 65 — Sylvia via Unanimous Decision
Sylvia and Arlovski met for the first time at UFC 51 in a clash for the interim heavyweight title. Frank Mir, who had beaten Sylvia to claim the vacant title eight months earlier, was involved in a terrible motorcycle accident and would be laid up for some time, prompting the promotion to pair the two contenders off together here.
Sylvia had rebounded from his loss to Mir with a 92-second stoppage win over Wes Sims at Superbrawl 38, while Arlovski entered off consecutive stoppage wins over Ian Freeman, Vladimir Matyushenko, and Wesley “Cabbage” Correira, setting up this showdown of the top two UFC heavyweights at the time.
Arlovski floored Sylvia with a right hand 30 seconds into the fight, chasing him to the canvas with punches. As the former champion tried to kick him away and create space, “The Pit Bull” grabbed a hold of his right leg and dropped back for a heel hook, eventually torquing and rotating to the point that Sylvia had no choice but to tap.
They would reconvene 14 months later, Arlovski having been promoted to undisputed champ due to Mir’s extended absence. The standout from Belarus had successfully defended the title twice, while the challenger had bounced back with three consecutive victories, setting up the rematch.
The rivals traded punches from range for the first half of the opening round before Arlovski once again felled Sylvia with a clubbing right hand. This time, however, “The Maine-iac” was able to get back to his feet and when Arlovski rushed in looking to put the challenger away, Sylvia dropped him with a short right hand inside.
Piston-like punches followed, Herb Dean waved it off, Sylvia was once again the UFC heavyweight champion and the series was all even at one win each, setting up a highly anticipated third bout.
After the exciting conclusion to each of their first two contests, the fact that this one lasted more than three minutes was surprising and then as each round passed, that surprise turned to frustration as the pace slowed, the output dropped and it became apparent that we were headed to the scorecards.
Listen, this fight was better than people remember — there were some quality exchanges in each of the first two rounds — but when the first two lasted less than five minutes combined and got everyone up out of their seats, a five-round boxing match where no one landed anything really telling in the championship rounds felt like a disappointment.
And that’s really too bad because the first two fights were so much fun.
BJ PENN VS. MATT HUGHES
Fight 1: UFC 46 — Penn by Submission (Rear-Naked Choke)
Fight 2: UFC 63 — Hughes by TKO (Punches)
Fight 3: UFC 123 — Penn by KO (Punches)
The trilogy between Penn and Hughes is sort of like the elevated, championship-tier version of the Stout-Fisher series in that the first two bouts were incredible and saw each man earn a victory. Where the comparison falls apart, unfortunately, is that while Stout and Fisher still brought it and took home bonuses following their third meeting, the conclusion of the Penn-Hughes rivalry came too late to end any way other than it did.
If you’re new to MMA or haven’t bothered to go back and learn about the great fighters from previous eras in the sport, it’s going to be difficult for you to understand how good Matt Hughes was during his heyday. He went into the first fight against Penn with a 35-3 record, riding a 13-fight winning streak and having successfully defended the welterweight title five times. He was an absolute beast and that’s what made what happened even more incredible.
When Penn and Caol Uno battled to a split draw in their lightweight title fight at UFC 41, the company decided to do away with the division. “The Prodigy” went and won a bout against Takanori Gomi outside of the promotion to move to 6-1-1 overall, then returned to challenge Hughes for the welterweight title, moving up a division for the first time in his career.
Hughes took the fight to the canvas early, looking for a single before basically allowing Penn to set up camp in his guard. He wouldn’t make it back to his feet until the fight was over.
Penn controlled Hughes from top position, allowed to work methodically while mixing in short shots by referee Mario Yamasaki. Outside of a brief scramble and submission attempt from Hughes early on, which Penn easily escaped, it was a tactical, positional battle that the Hawaiian won easily. With a minute left in the opening frame, Penn landed a hard shot that prompted Hughes to roll to a hip, and when he did, the prodigious jiu-jitsu practitioner pounced, quickly transitioning to mount and taking Hughes’ back as he rolled to all fours.
As Penn peppered with shots from back mount, Hughes exposed his neck and the challenger capitalized, sinking in a deep rear-naked choke that left the champion with no choice but tap.
They would run it back two years and eight months later at UFC 63 after Penn had returned to the promotion and Hughes had regained his place atop the welterweight division. The champion was coming off his first-round mauling of Royce Gracie, while Penn was filling in for the injured Georges St-Pierre, whom he’d faced in his previous bout, losing a still-debated split decision.
Penn controlled the action through the first round, nullifying Hughes’ takedown attempts and getting the better in the striking exchanges with the champion. While Hughes successfully put Penn on his back in the second, the challenger eventually took his back and threatened with an inverted triangle choke-armbar combination through to the end of the round.
But somewhere in that back-take sequence, Penn suffered a rib injury that compromised his breathing and altered the fight. He looked listless to start the third and Hughes took full advantage, peppering Penn with shots in the center of the cage before dragging him to the canvas, advancing to side control, and finishing the bout with elbows from a mounted crucifix position.
It would be four years before they faced off in their rubber match and while Penn spent the interceding years as one of the top lightweights in the world, Hughes began to fade. Although he entered the contest on a three-fight winning streak — and Penn was coming off back-to-back losses — “The Prodigy” was still an elite-level fighter, while Hughes had been beating fellow veterans in the twilight of their careers.
The third bout lasted just 21 seconds, as Penn came out sharply and dropped Hughes with a right hand down the pipe, sending Penn into celebration mode while Hughes looked to his corner and asked, “What happened?”
SAM STOUT VS. SPENCER FISHER
Fight 1: UFC 58 — Stout via Split Decision
Fight 2: UFN 10 — Fisher via Unanimous Decision
Fight 3: UFC on FX 4 — Stout via Unanimous Decision
One of the three series on this list that didn’t include a title fight, this is the only trilogy in this collection that doesn’t involve a current or former UFC champion, which tells you all you need to know about how awesome the first two fights in this rivalry were.
The initial meeting between these two came on short notice at UFC 58, as Fisher stepped in for Kenny Florian against the newcomer Stout, who was making his promotional debut. Fisher had won eight straight overall, including each of his first two UFC appearances, while Stout was on a nine-fight winning streak after beginning his career with a loss and a draw. The second meeting came 15 months later, with Fisher having the benefit of a full training camp to prepare for the encounter.
The first two fights in this tetra-pack are still amongst my all-time favorite fights and not just because it involves a guy named Spencer and a tough Canadian kid. They’re a combined 30 minutes of give-and-take featuring loads of technical kickboxing, some quality interactions on the ground, and two guys showing their toughness and mettle as they were each caught with some solid shots and forced to deal with a little adversity.
Stout landed on the happy side of a split decision verdict in the first meeting, though the result remains the subject of debate amongst hardcore fans, while Fisher swept the scorecards in the second to draw level in the series.
It’s not that the third fight was bad or anything — they still took home Fight of the Night honors and spent the majority of the 15-minute affair fighting in a phone booth, peppering each other with punches — but the first fight was excellent and the second is considered one of the best bouts in UFC history, so it’s just that the bar was set extremely high and these two were both five years older than the last time they squared off.
Stout earned the nod on all three scorecards, winning every round by edging out Fisher in the striking exchanges and successfully mixing in timely takedowns to close out their trilogy.
GEORGES ST-PIERRE VS. MATT HUGHES
Fight 1: UFC 50 — Hughes via Submission (Armbar)
Fight 2: UFC 65 — St-Pierre by TKO (Head Kick and Punches)
Fight 3: UFC 79 — St-Pierre by Submission (Armbar)
Just like the trilogy between Couture and Liddell, the three-pack of fights between St-Pierre and Hughes played out as a “passing of the torch” in the welterweight division.
The first bout came at UFC 50, with the vacant welterweight title hanging in the balance. Hughes had rebounded from his loss to BJ Penn, who left the promotion and vacated the title, with a victory over Renato Verissimo at UFC 48, while St-Pierre was an undefeated rising star, fresh off a first-round stoppage win over Jay Hieron.
St-Pierre got the first takedown, but Hughes got back to his feet with relative ease. Two minutes later, Hughes elevated St-Pierre and dumped him to the canvas, but the Canadian was able to work his way up and into space. With just over a minute left in the round, Hughes wrestled St-Pierre to the canvas for a second time, and with a handful of seconds remaining in the frame, he spun for an armbar, locking it out and securing the tap right before the horn.
They met for a second time 25 months later at UFC 65, the champion having extended his winning streak to six with his victory over Penn at UFC 63 and the challenger having bounced back from his first professional defeat with four straight victories.
The second fight featured both men on seemingly even footing — Hughes was still a dominant force and St-Pierre had clearly grown since their first meeting — and the cat-and-mouse opening round showed that. St-Pierre was more active, but Hughes didn’t cede any ground. Two errant inside kicks in quick succession brought the round to a halt momentarily, but they picked right back up, the French-Canadian leading the dance while the American was happy to move with him throughout most of the opening five minutes.
Late in the frame, however, St-Pierre connected with a Superman punch followed by a left hook that left Hughes on shaky legs, leading some to question whether the fight had been stopped or if the round had simply come to an end. St-Pierre carried that momentum into the second and ascended to the top of the division, catching Hughes with a left high kick that put him on the canvas and kicked off the finishing sequence.
The welterweight legends would close out their trilogy 13 months later at UFC 79 in an interim title fight, and this time around, St-Pierre was clearly the better fighter. It’s not that Hughes had fallen off or anything like that, but rather that St-Pierre had taken his game to the next level following his upset loss to Matt Serra and was at the outset of a lengthy winning streak that remains intact to this day.
It was St-Pierre who initiated the wrestling exchanges and brought the fight to the ground, advancing positions and peppering Hughes with shots in both the first and second rounds, manhandling the former champion in a manner that was completely foreign to anything we’d seen in the Octagon. With 40 seconds left in the round, St-Pierre put Hughes back on the mat with a beautiful harai goshi takedown, landing in side control, and from there, he attacked a kimura, transitioned to an armbar, locked it out and forced Hughes to verbally submit.
Watching this trilogy is like watching the interplay between two siblings, where initially the older is just a little savvier, a little stronger, and a little more experienced, but over time, the younger grows into himself and continues to improve, draws level, and eventually overtakes his older brother.
FRANKIE EDGAR VS. GRAY MAYNARD
Fight 1: UFN 13 — Maynard via Unanimous Decision
Fight 2: UFC 125 — Draw
Fight 3: UFC 136 — Edgar via TKO (Punches)
This is the only series on this list where the first fight was nothing special and I don’t mean for that to sound dismissive.
It was a quality matchup between two undefeated lightweight competitors who were looking to take a major step forward in the division and it ended up serving as the co-main event of the evening, but while all the other non-title bouts that kicked off a trilogy on this list were barnburners or part of a PRIDE Grand Prix, this was a solid battle where timely takedowns from Maynard proved to be the difference.
What’s interesting is that after this bout, both rattled off three straight wins through to the end of 2009, but it was Edgar who ended up being tabbed to challenge for the lightweight title. Maynard kicked off 2010 with a unanimous decision win over Nate Diaz, but in April, Edgar fought BJ Penn in Abu Dhabi, unseating the Hawaiian from the lightweight throne. After they ran it back a few months later in Philadelphia with Edgar securing an even clearer decision victory to retain the title, a rematch with the unbeaten No. 1 contender was set for the first day of 2011.
The second fight in this trilogy remains one of the most entertaining and unbelievable fights in UFC history, as Maynard beat Edgar from pillar to post over the opening five minutes, pummeling him to the point where many still believe to this day that the bout should have been stopped, only to have Edgar survive and come out in the second like nothing happened. It was incredible then and remains a “how did he do that?” mystery all these years later.
Over the final three rounds, the only frame all three judges agreed on was the fourth, which Edgar won on all three cards, and when the totals were tallied, the bout ended in a rare five-round split draw — 47-47, 48-46 Edgar, 48-46 Maynard — meaning a third bout was required to resolve things.
The third bout finally came together at UFC 136 in Houston, and once again, Maynard got off to an exceptional start, cracking Edgar with a sharp, stinging uppercut midway through the round. Maynard got a little ahead of himself and Edgar was able to start clearing the cobwebs, but just when it seemed like he was in the clear, “The Bully” blasted him with a right hand that put the champion on the canvas, kicking off a 90-second sequence where the challenger busted Edgar up and tried to put him away.
Edgar’s face was a mess but he survived, and just as he had done in their New Year’s Day classic, the champion came out fresh in the second round, taking the fight to Maynard and getting himself back into the fight in the process. In the third, Edgar picked his spots and drew level, sending the third fight into the championship rounds dead even.
This time, they wouldn’t see the fifth frame.
Over the first two minutes of the round, Edgar started finding a home for some cleaner shots, connecting with a crisp right hand and a stiff uppercut that clearly hurt Maynard. The challenger responded with a clean right of his own, but Edgar was unbothered, touching Maynard with combinations and slowly starting to pull away.
Coming out of a scramble with a little more than a minute left, Edgar hit Maynard with a short right uppercut that sat the challenger down, and the champion swarmed. Two heavy right hands crashed home as Maynard backed into fence, the second one putting him on the canvas. A series of left hands followed, and referee Josh Rosenthal stepped in, bringing the fight — and the trilogy — to an end.
The final two fights in this series were absolutely amazing and you can’t help but feel for Maynard, who came as close to winning championship gold as you possibly could while still falling short, while Edgar made it crystal clear to anyone who remained unsure that he was the top lightweight in the world.
CAIN VELASQUEZ VS. JUNIOR DOS SANTOS
Fight 1: UFC on FOX 1 — Dos Santos by KO (Punches)
Fight 2: UFC 155 — Velasquez by Unanimous Decision
Fight 3: UFC 166 — Velasquez by TKO (Punches)
Both men started climbing the heavyweight ranks at roughly the same time and throughout their parallel ascents, it was obvious to everyone watching that eventually, their paths would cross and the UFC heavyweight title was likely going to hang in the balance.
Velasquez claimed the belt at UFC 121, running his record to 9-0 by running over Brock Lesnar to win the title. Eight months later, “Cigano” became the No. 1 contender after dominating Shane Carwin for his seventh consecutive UFC victory, setting up the clash of the titans, which was scheduled for November 12, 2011 as the culmination of a one-hour special on FOX, which had signed on to be the broadcast home of the UFC earlier that year.
The highly anticipated contest lasted just 64 seconds, as Dos Santos hit Velasquez with a clubbing right hand on the temple and swarmed him with punches on the ground to secure the finish and claim the title.
Each man would go on to earn a victory at UFC 146 — Dos Santos successfully defending the belt against Frank Mir; Velasquez bludgeoning “Bigfoot” Silva — setting up a second meeting between the two at UFC 155.
The middle bout in the series went the full 25 minutes, but the outcome was obvious pretty early on. Fighting at his signature torrid pace, Velasquez took the fight to Dos Santos, constantly forcing him to move backwards, peppering him with punches and kicks, and chasing takedowns. Late in the first, Velasquez dropped the champion with a right hand and from that point on, it was academic.
Over the next four rounds, Velasquez absolutely mauled Dos Santos, battering him beyond recognition en route to reclaiming the title, evening the series and creating the possibility for a third fight between the two.
Just as they had after the first meeting, both men claimed victory on the same card following the second bout, with the champion thumping Silva for a second time and “Cigano” beating Mark Hunt at UFC 160. A little less than five months later, they would stand opposite each other in the Octagon for a third and final time in the main event of UFC 166 and it was a repeat of the second bout, only with a different ending.
Velasquez started the third bout like it was a continuation of the second meeting, taking the fight to Dos Santos immediately and once again, the champion had worn out the challenger by the end of the opening round. After punishing Dos Santos throughout the middle frames, Velasquez maintained his constant battering of the challenger in the fifth, with the bout finally being stopped with just under two minutes remaining in the contest.
These three fights highlighted each of these men at their best, with Dos Santos shining in the first with his blistering power and precise boxing, while Velasquez showed why he was long considered a special talent over the final two meetings by pushing a punishing pace and suffocating his Brazilian rival.