The sport of Mixed Martial Arts is still relatively young in comparison to other sports but there has been no shortage of rivalries. Part of the reason there are constantly rivalries is because there's a lot of testosterone in this sport. You have to be a special breed to participate in an MMA fight. For sure, there's also violence in rugby and football but the violence is kind of a side dish as the goal is still to move the ball. In MMA, the goal is to beat your opponent senseless until the referee pulls you off, or to lock them up in a submission hold so they're forced to give up before their bone breaks or they go unconscious.
Fighters are very headstrong people that march to the beat of their own drum and oftentimes their ideologies clash during the build up to a fight. There are many factors that go into making a great rivalry. MMA fans like to sound sophisticated (myself included) about how a fight is actually very technical like a chess match, and how the sport is regulated by the government and there's a great degree of sportsmanship. But at the end of the day, fans love to see two combatants that have a genuine dislike for each other. There's also the promotional aspect that comes into play. Fedor Emelianenko and Rodrigo Nogueira were regarded as the two best heavyweights in the world at one time, and had three wars in PRIDE. But fans generally don't remember them because they didn't really have a dislike for each other. Three fights between two of the all time greats are forgotten, but Mark Coleman and Phil Baroni brawling with Chute Boxe is still talked about frequently to this day.
Another trilogy that's quickly being forgotten is Cain Velasquez vs. Junior Dos Santos. They were clearly the best and second best guys at the time (and still are). But when it comes to promoting a fight, Velasquez emotes as if he's talking about hardware equipment. If he doesn't seem to care, then it's hard for the casual fan to get interested when just a few years ago you had Brock Lesnar foaming at the mouth and talking about how he was going to "get on top of his wife." The best rivalries have a combination of longevity, great promotion and most importantly, strong heat between the two. Let's have a look at the top 10 rivalries of all time!
10 Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate
This rivalry had huge ramifications because women fighting in the UFC wouldn't exist if it weren't for Ronda Rousey. This is not a case of a writer trying to be a "know it all," as president Dana White has confirmed that notion on multiple occasions and has even gone as far as saying: "this is the f****** Ronda Rousey show." But she didn't do it alone, as very great champion needs a rival, and that rival was Miesha Tate. They met all the criteria mentioned above for a great rivalry...and they're both really hot, which plays a huge role when the prime viewership is males between the ages of 18 and 34.
Tate was the Strikeforce champion and Rousey knew she had to pick a fight in order to get noticed, and that's what she did. Half the stuff that she was saying made no sense, but it got her recognized and Tate took the bait. The rivalry then got personal when Rousey stated that she could easily beat up Tate's boyfriend, UFC Bantamweight Bryan Caraway. He responded by saying (on twitter) that he'd punch her teeth out, and the personal jabs intensified from there. They've fought twice so far with Rousey getting her hand raised in both contests. But nobody has put up a better fight than Tate so far.
9 Georges St-Pierre and Matt Hughes
They are the two best Welterweights of all time and it was an absolute treat to watch them fight three times. They displayed such an impeccable skill-set and most importantly, they had the audience eating out of the palms of their hands as they were split down the middle and rotated from powerful chants of "USA" to "GSP." Their first two fights told a story. Their first meeting was almost exactly 10 years ago at UFC 50. Hughes stood alone in the division and nobody could really rival him, until this fight. St-Pierre stunned Hughes with a diverse attack and nailed him with a spinning back kick that winded him. Hughes admitted in his autobiography that he knew he had to get this to the ground quickly because St-Pierre started the fight timid as he couldn't even make eye contact in the pre fight stare down, but was quickly gaining confidence with every strike. Hughes managed to submit St-Pierre with an armbar with just a second left in the first round.
The personal barbs and trash talk was mostly kept to a minimum during this rivalry but there was one zinger created by St-Pierre that turned into an instant classic. After Hughes' victory over BJ Penn, St-Pierre (uncharacteristically) stormed the octagon during Hughes' post fight victory interview and proclaimed: "I'm not impressed by your performance, and I look forward to fight you in the near future." This set the stage for their second fight, and the passing of the torch as St-Pierre won via TKO. Their 3rd fight was simply not competitive but did provide closure on the rivalry. 2-1 GSP.
8 Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Rashad Evans
They only fought once, and it was actually quite a lackluster tilt. But the heated verbal confrontations and full on near brawls that these two had were unbelievable. The feud commenced at UFC 96 after Rampage won a close decision against Evans' friend and training partner, Keith Jardine. Evans (the champ at the time) had come into the octagon to do a stare down to promote their upcoming title fight and as they said in Anchorman...things escalated quickly.
The two were then coaches on The Ultimate Fighter 10 and had to be pulled apart almost every episode. Their trash talking was so outrageous that it was even comical at times. There were bad breathe jokes, mimicking on how the other guy got knocked out in previous fights, and in one glorious moment, Rampage even destroyed a door (and then apologized to it). But other instances got extremely serious as they nearly came to blows and had to be broken up. Evans ultimately won their actual fight by decision. The fans just expected more seeing how these two so desperately wanted to get at each other. The two were very tentative and Rampage was clearly out of shape.
7 Brock Lesnar and Frank Mir
This rivalry was so good that they were chosen to headline the UFC's 100th show in a blockbuster card that also featured Georges St-Pierre vs. Thiago Alves and Dan Henderson vs. Michael Bisping. Brock Lesnar was a mega star in the WWE so it was natural for heads to turn when he decided to fight in the UFC. Common folks don't understand how impressive Lesnar's run was, as his first fight was against a former champion. Lesnar showed a lot of credibility in that fight as he punished Mir with takedowns and brutal ground and pound but was ultimately submitted via knee bar due to his lack of experience on the ground. They seemed cordial enough when the fight was over, but then it got personal.
Mir had some insults regarding Lesnar's MMA game such as: "I'm working on the intricacies of details of maneuvers that he still doesn't know the names of." He also called Lesnar's ground and pound "annoying" and equated it to having your little sister jump on your back and pull your hair. Lesnar responded by saying: "He's a glorified karate kid that won a few fights, and here he is, with a golden horse shoe up his ass." Their fight at UFC 100 was sheer domination as Lesnar pummelled Mir en route to a TKO victory. After the fight he proceeded to get in Mir's bloodied, battered face and yell: "TALK ALL THE SH** YOU WANT NOW." After the fight, they certainly did not make nice. Mir went as far as saying: "I hate who he is as a person, I want to break his neck in the ring. I want him to be the first person that dies to Octagon-related injuries." Ouch...take it easy Frank. Even though Lesnar is in the WWE, Mir recently stated that he'd be open to a rubber match. Stay tuned!
6 Matt Hughes and Frank Trigg
Some would argue that the Hughes and Serra rivalry was more intense but according to Hughes himself, Trigg angered him far more. The reason being was because Trigg got really personal, as he was making comments about Hughes' family and made the claim that he had a better upbringing. Their rivalry also stemmed deep because they were both long time wrestlers and were taking jabs at each other's credentials.
This was a rivalry where the fights lived up to the trash talk, particularly their rematch. Dana White has gone on record saying that this was his favorite fight of all time. Early on in the contest, Trigg got away with a blatant low blow and took advantage while Hughes was still reeling, landing a barrage of punches and elbows on him and then put him in a rear naked choke. Amidst the choke, somehow Hughes managed to pick up Trigg while getting back to his feet and ran with him on his shoulder across the cage and proceeded to slam him. What came next was some of the most vicious ground and pound we've ever seen: "That's the first time that I was actually pissed, where I wanted to hurt my opponent."
5 Wanderlei Silva and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson
Not much trash talk in in this one (partly because Wanderlei barely spoke English at the time and some would argue neither can Rampage), but they fought three times and produced three of the most violent finishes in MMA history. Their first fight took place in PRIDE. The ending of the fight involved Wanderlei putting Rampage in a clinch and kneeing him until he fell, he then soccer kicked him in the head twice as Rampage was getting up, and then dealt him more knees until the ref stepped in as Rampage collapsed and ended up laying between the ropes. In modern day MMA, the amount of damage Rampage took simply would not happen as the ref would have stepped in earlier and soccer kicks are illegal.
Rampage brought it in their second fight. He was landing vicious combinations and was winning most of the exchanges in the grappling, sending Silva to the mat on multiple occasions. But he ultimately ended up in that dreaded clinch again and Silva landed a knee that could have dropped an elephant. Rampage almost unbelievably ended up in the same position hanging face first between the ropes again, this time completely out cold.
Alright, fight number three and it's time to show Rampage some love (we all know he's all about the love, just ask the reporter). Right off the hop, Silva seemed tentative while Rampage seemed patient. The patience paid off as while Silva was throwing a haymaker, Rampage countered with a left hook that dropped Silva and left him unconscious. He then hit him with two right hands when he was already out cold as referee Yves Lavigne was forced to pull him off. The punches were so devastating that Silva was twitching.
4 Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell
What a history these two former champs have. This rivalry is so intriguing because they used to be best friends. They were training partners and both managed by Dana White, back when he was just an agent and not "The Baldfather" poised for world domination. Eventually Ortiz won the UFC Light Heavyweight championship when he beat Wanderlei Silva. But when Liddell and Ortiz would train, Liddell would dominate him and they both knew what would happen if they squared off in The Octagon. In Liddell's autobiography, he claimed that during one sparring session, he dropped Ortiz with a body shot which promptly send him to the mat. While Ortiz rolled around in agony, White was shouting at him, urging him to get the f*** up.
This is where the beef starts. Ortiz successfully defended his belt five times and it was time for him and Liddell to square off. In Ortiz's eyes, he claims that he and Chuck had a pact that they would never fight each other. He also kept declining the fight due to movie commitments. In Liddell and White's eyes (and pretty much everyone else's), Ortiz knew he was going to get destroyed and was just manipulating the system in order to keep his belt longer. Finally the UFC got fed up of Ortiz's stall tactics and booked Randy Couture vs. Chuck Liddell for the interim title. Couture managed to upset Liddell, and "miraculously" Ortiz was ready to return! It didn't do him much good as Couture dominated him en route to a 50-45 unanimous decision win.
It was a long time coming, but the stage was finally set for Tito and Chuck at UFC 47. It turned out that the rumors about what happened in training were true as Liddell delivered a serious beating on a helpless Ortiz en route to a 2nd round win. Their rematch at UFC 66 was more of the same.
3 Chael Sonnen and Anderson Silva
As mentioned above, every great fighter needs a bitter rival in order to cement their legacy. Muhammad Ali is the greatest of all time partly in fact because he had Joe Frazier wanting to take his head off. Some boxing pundits make the argument that Rocky Marciano was actually a better boxer, but that school of thought lacks some substance, as unfortunately for Rocky, he never had a Joe Frazier. Neither did Anderson Silva until Chael Sonnen came along.
Silva was knocking people out at will and was billed as the best pound for pound fighter in the world, but for whatever reason he didn't generate as much interest as Georges St-Pierre or Brock Lesnar. There was just no heat behind his fights, it was casual knockout after knockout with very little promotion as he refused to speak English. Sonnen came around and started saying things like: "first off, he speaks English and second we could replace Ed Soares (his interpreter) with an app I can download for $9.99." Sonnen also asserted that Silva was terrible, and equated his black belt that he received from the Nogueira bothers to getting a free toy in a happy meal. These were some bold claims from a fighter who spent most of his career as a mid carder and had several losses on his resume. This notion combined with the fact that Silva genuinely seemed angry got heads to turn. Incredibly at UFC 117 in Oakland, Sonnen almost backed up every word as he brutalized Silva for 4.5 rounds. The audience stood in awe and disbelief as this had never been done before in the UFC. Silva managed to rally in the 5th round and catch Sonnen in a triangle choke.
Their rematch was the most anticipated rematch of all time. This was due to the fact that Sonnen was the only man in UFC history to ever inflict such damage on Silva, and because he amped up the trash talk to even more ridiculous levels, infuriating Silva. This time Silva left no doubt, finishing Sonnen in the second round. The pay per view generated 925 000 buys.
2 The Gracies and Sakuraba
Many MMA fans are aware that the Gracies are the most famous family in the sport's history. But it tends to fly under the radar that a gentleman named Kazushi Sakuraba beat all the notables in the family and received the nickname "The Gracie Hunter."
Sakuraba took on Royler Gracie at PRIDE 8 and won the bout by technical submission. People were flabbergasted, it was like Superman just got pie faced with kryptonite. The Gracies were such a proud family that they weren't going to let this fly. Sakuraba met Royce Gracie at the 2000 PRIDE Grand Prix finals. Royce was the most successful and famous Gracie, and the family had to be sitting around thinking: "Royce, Royce, he's our man, if he can't do it then no one can." Their fight was an all out war that lasted 90 friggin' minutes! We will never see anything like that ever again as such a contest would not be sanctioned. Not only did Sakuraba beat Royce, but he made him quit on the stool and he was never the same.
Renzo Gracie then did his best to save the family's honour at PRIDE 10, but he got beat down too. Nobody really batted an eye at that one, as the king of the Gracie family had already been dethroned.
1 Ken Shamrock and Tito Ortiz
Dana White and the UFC brass like to say that Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar at the TUF 1 finale is what officially put the UFC on the map. That may be partially true because that's when the company started to make money. But it was the Ken Shamrock vs. Tito Ortiz rivalry that initially attracted many eyes. MMA was a brutal sport, something common folks would turn on for a second and treat it like a car wreck. When they saw a familiar face in Ken Shamrock (he had just finished his stint in the WWE), people suddenly got very interested. When they saw him leaning over the cage pointing the finger and screaming at Tito Ortiz, they got even more interested. At UFC 19, Ortiz TKO'ed Guy Mezger and then proceeded to flip off the Lion's Den, which infuriated Shamrock and set the stage for the wildest rivalry of all time.
It was so significant because it was the first MMA feud that went mainstream. They even ended up on "The Best Damn Sports Show Period." This was unheard of at the time as MMA was still taboo to the general public. Ortiz and Shamrock absolutely went off on each other in a wild and entertaining exchange.
Their first fight was quite memorable as they had some great exchanges in the first round, as both men were head hunting. At one point Shamrock connected with a solid right to the jaw of Ortiz, which buckled his knees. The punch seemed to wake up Tito because he started to respect the power of Shamrock after that and went to his bread and butter, which was his wrestling and ground and pound. Ortiz ended up winning by TKO. This was the first pay per view to ever eclipse 100,000 buys.
Despite Shamrock's advanced age and declining performances, there was still a lot of heat between he and Ortiz and the fans were interested in a rematch. There was too much money to be made, Dana White finally booked the rematch and had the two rivals coach on season 3 of The Ultimate Fighter, which led to some highly entertaining confrontations. When it was all said and done, the rematch was set and there was even more of a buzz. The proof is in the numbers as UFC 61 generated 775 000 buys! Sure, the fight was an utter blowout for Ortiz but the amount of attention it created was insane. Some felt it was an early stoppage and the fans felt ripped off, so Dana White booked a third fight between them on free television which produced the same result.