Hall Of Fame
You can’t forecast how any given fight is going to play out — all you can do is make matchups that look great on paper and carry a high potential for awesomeness and hope for the best.
Thankfully, over the years, numerous January events have featured pairings that have lived up to or exceeded expectations, with a few others blowing past what people may have believed they would deliver ahead of time, as well.
As the start of the 2023 UFC calendar draws closer, we look back at some of the best finishes to occur in the first month of the year inside the Octagon.
Fingers crossed that some of the matchups penciled in for the opening series of events this year will be in contention for a future iteration of this list, but even if they don’t, that’s understandable too, as this collection is pretty strong.
BJ Penn vs. Matt Hughes UFC 46
Penn came up short in two attempts to claim the lightweight title, but after a win over Takanori Gomi at home in Hawaii, he returned to the Octagon to challenge Hughes for the welterweight title… and rolled through him to claim the strap.
The fight hit the canvas fairly early on and Penn never allowed Hughes to get back to his feet. At every turn, he was a half-beat ahead of the welterweight champion, controlling his position, hitting him with sporadic shots from top position, and constantly threatening to advance.
Late in the opening round, Hughes looked to get back to his feet and Penn latched onto him, sinking in his hooks and attacking a rear-naked choke. As Hughes tried to wriggle free, Penn sunk the choke in deeper, securing the tap and claiming the UFC welterweight title.
He’d finally add the lightweight title to his collection four years later with another dominant January effort opposite Joe Stevenson, cementing his status as an all-time great.
Duane Ludwig vs. Jonathan Goulet (UFN 3)
Until Jorge Masvidal went airborne against Ben Askren, this was the fastest knockout in UFC history.
The fighters and the referee were introduced, Mike Goldberg gave insights on each competitor, and then Goulet started coming forward. As he pawed out with his lead hand, Ludwig stepped out, threw a right that found his chin, and the fight was over.
The whole thing took seven seconds.
Jason Von Flue vs. Alex Karalexis (UFN 3)
When a finish results in the move being named after you, it deserves a spot on this list.
Early in the third round of this drawn-out back-and-forth, Karalexis grabbed for a guillotine choke, but Von Flue quickly took him down, landing in side control. From there, he fished one arm under Karalexis’ head, clasping his hands on the far side of his body and driving his shoulder into the near side of his opponent’s head. The pressure from Von Flue was enough to put Karalexis to sleep and marked the first time a Von Flue choke was used to earn a finish inside the Octagon.
Ovince Saint Preux has become so proficient with the hold during his UFC run that the name is often modified to Von Preux choke, but the former Ultimate Fighter contestant was the originator, and this finish deserves its moment in the spotlight.
Georges St-Pierre vs. BJ Penn (UFC 94)
This one isn’t the same kind of finish as the others on this list, but it was a finish nonetheless, and with the magnitude of this fight, this performance has to be recognized.
St-Pierre and Penn had an insanely close battle a few years earlier, with the French-Canadian coming out ever so slightly ahead. Here, they were dual champions battling for St-Pierre’s welterweight title, at a time when Penn was at the peak of his powers in the lightweight division, fresh off one of the best walk-off wins in UFC history against Sean Sherk.
But unlike their first encounter, Penn had little to offer St-Pierre in the rematch, as “Rush” ran roughshod over his Hawaiian rival.
For four rounds, the welterweight champion dominated, working behind his sharp, piercing jab, and outstanding work from top position on the ground. When Penn rose to return to his corner following the fourth round, his corner threw in the towel, signaling the end of the contest.
This was expected to be an ultra-competitive clash between a pair of UFC titleholders, but instead, St-Pierre turned it into the moment he cemented his standing as one of the absolute best fighters on the planet.
Edson Barboza vs. Terry Etim (UFC 142)
If I made a list of the best finishes in UFC history, sans modifiers, this knockout would certainly make the cut, so its inclusion here was automatic.
I’ve written about it a couple times recently, but never thought to frame it this particular way: it might be the prettiest finish in UFC history.
Barboza’s spin is fast, smooth, effortless. His kick cuts through the air and lands with punishing force and expert marksmanship. The impact stiffens Etim instantly before he drops like a ton of bricks to the canvas, and it all happens in the blink of an eye.
Spin. Land. Knockout. Done.
(Makes Chef’s Kiss gesture)
Conor McGregor vs. Dennis Siver (UFN 59)
The actual mechanics of this finish weren’t all that dynamic or special, but the result and aftermath made it a result that had to be highlighted.
McGregor was coming off a September win over Dustin Poirier, 4-0 in the UFC and in full, maniacal pursuit of featherweight champion Jose Aldo, who was in attendance in Boston. The expectation was that if and when McGregor defeated Siver, he would earn a championship opportunity against the legendary Brazilian.
A couple ticks shy of two minutes into the second round, McGregor got his finish, and then he bolted over the Octagon fence and into the front row, getting face-to-face with Aldo, who stood his ground, mildly amused by the Irishman’s attempt to get under this skin.
The victory kicked off what would be a year-long countdown to the duo finally facing off, with McGregor first claiming the interim featherweight title with a second-round finish of Chad Mendes before knocking out Aldo in 13 seconds at UFC 194 to unify the titles.
Anthony Johnson vs. Alexander Gustafsson (FOX 14)
The late Anthony Johnson returned to the UFC in April 2014, earning a unanimous decision win over Phil Davis in Baltimore. He followed that up with a summer knockout of Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, and then in January, he ventured to Sweden to face off with Gustafsson in a massive stadium show that aired on FOX.
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Gustafsson started well and the two were neck-and-neck for the first two minutes of the contest, but that’s when Johnson’s power took over.
As soon as he had Gustafsson hurt, “Rumble” cranked up the pressure and punishment. The partisan crowd at Tele2 Arena fell silent as Johnson pounded out a finish, earning an opportunity to challenge for the light heavyweight title in the process.
Jeremy Stephens vs. Dooho Choi (UFN 124)
This one was expected to be fireworks from the minute it was announced, and boy did it deliver.
Stephens had made a career of being in exciting fights, though he entered this one off one of his more patient, measured performances against Gilbert Melendez. Choi was coming off his loss to Cub Swanson in their epic UFC 206 clash that was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2022.
For seven minutes, the two went back-and-forth, battering one another with heavy shots, constantly looking for the one blow that would put the other down, though neither found it. Midway through the second round, Stephens connected with a swinging right that rung Choi’s bell and sent him to the canvas, giving the veteran finisher the opening he needed to close out the contest.
Choi did a pretty good job avoiding the first couple hellacious blows Stephens directed at him, but then the “Lil’ Heathen” landed a crushing right hand that essentially ended the fight. It was a laser beam that landed clean, and referee Keith Peterson was in seconds later to halt the action.
Stephens never rose to being a true contender over the course of his UFC career, but the man was never in a boring fight and had sledgehammers for hands, and this was one of his signature victories.
Henry Cejudo vs. TJ Dillashaw (UFN143)
Because he’s the self-appointed “King of Cringe,” it’s easy to forget or downplay what a tremendous talent Cejudo was becoming before he surprisingly announced his retirement following his UFC 249 win over Dominick Cruz.
After narrowly defeating Demetrious Johnson to claim the flyweight title, Cejudo’s first defense came against Dillashaw, then the bantamweight champion. The challenger was coming off his second consecutive knockout win over Cody Garbrandt, and many envisioned him claiming a second title in similar fashion, but it was Cejudo that scored the finish and the victory.
Dillashaw came out in his traditional “hunt and peck” style, looking for openings, while Cejudo stood with legs wide, offering kicks and getting his range. What looked like a glancing blow to the side of the head put Dillashaw face-down on the canvas, and the flyweight champion pounced. A torrent of left hands followed, and when Dillashaw tried to clamber to his feet, he was greeted by lefts and rights that sent him back to the ground, ending the fight.
Five months later, Cejudo would claim the vacant bantamweight title to earn “Champ-Champ” status.
There is talk of him returning in 2023, and if he does, it will certainly be one of the most intriguing stories of the year because there is no denying he exited right when it looked like he was getting really good at this MMA stuff, and he could have very well kept improving over these last two years.
Dustin Poirier vs. Conor McGregor II (UFC 257)
McGregor won the opening round of this second bout between the two rivals, who faced off for the first time at featherweight before meeting here at lightweight. In hindsight, that might have been the best thing that could have happened for Poirier, because taking the best the brash Irishman had to offer when he was at his freshest seemed to fill him with confidence heading into the second.
Because of how it ended up, people tend to forget that McGregor did exceptionally well through the first seven minutes of this fight, give or take. He was the aggressor and landed good shots throughout that time, but from the moment Poirier gives him the little “that one landed” point coming off the fence with 3:24 remaining in the second, the fight shifted.
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Poirier had fully settled in and found his groove. He was comfortable and confident, landing well and slipping more shots than he had earlier in the contest. The investment in heavy calf kicks had McGregor weary of those attacks and made it easier for Poirier to get loose and land with his hands.
Seconds after taking a good left hand from McGregor, Poirier landed one of his own and instantly recognized that it had a serious impact. He hustled into the pocket and started putting together combinations, backing McGregor into the fence, and beating him up. Lefts continued to land and hurt McGregor, but it was a right that finally sat him down and ended the fight.
The victory for Poirier set up a trilogy bout between the two later in the year, which ended with McGregor suffering a gruesome leg injury, and Poirier going on to challenge for the lightweight title at the end of the year.