Another title fight, another discussion of a rematch. Saturday night, Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler punched, kicked and leaned on each other for five rounds with Hendricks' UFC Welterweight Championship on the line. After the judges' scorecards were announced by Bruce Buffer, Robbie Lawler became the new champ via split decision (49-46, 47-48,48-47). The controversy surrounding the decision has prompted UFC President Dana White to consider the thought of an immediate rematch between the two fighters. If that happens, not only will number one contender Rory MacDonald have to wait a little while longer for his title shot, it will be another trilogy etched in the history books of MMA.
In the brief history of MMA there has already been quite a number of trilogies. Whether they happened due to shallow weight divisions, captivating trash talking or questionable decisions from judges or referees, some fighters are destined to battle in a neat package of three fights. Legends were born, beefs were squashed and classic finishes were immortalized all as a result from these trilogies.
The trilogies will be ranked on three (since three seems the number of the hour) factors:
1. The quality of the fights: This is first and foremost the most important quality in a trilogy since this is well, the sport of fighting. Nobody wants to see one, let alone three fights of Cheick Kongo and Shawn Jordan hugging each other on a fence. (P.S. I present to you the newest product of Nyquil: UFC 149).
2. Story: It's difficult to care about and grow attached to a series of fights if the narrative is lacking. This doesn't necessarily mean the fighters have to trash talk for there to be a story. Competitive nature of the fights also factors into this category.
3. Visibility: Excuse the ancient expression but if a tree falls in an empty forest does anybody hear it? If the trilogy is not seen by a large group of people, it will be lower in favour of more widely seen trilogies.
10 Tito Ortiz vs. Ken Shamrock
These two men have both delved into the world of pro wrestling and this trilogy certainly demonstrates their showmanship. The feud started four years before the first fight even took place due to Ortiz disrespecting Shamrock's camp, The Lion's Den at UFC 19 after he defeated Lion Den's member Guy Mezger. When Shamrock returned to the UFC a few years later, the fight was finally on for Ortiz's Light Heavyweight title It's a good thing that both guys can sell a fight, because the fights themselves seemed damn sad to watch.. The first fight could be excused for Shamrock fighting with a torn ACL, but the second and third fights were ground n' pound exhibitions for Tito Ortiz. Still, this trilogy did huge business for the UFC, squeaking in at number 10.
9 Joachim Hansen vs. Shinya Aoki
When discussing the best fighters to never fight in the UFC, Shinya Aoki has to be near the top of that list. His world class grappling game more than makes up for his lack of striking ability and just his tights are a marvel in of themselves. Joachim Hansen learned that when he fought Aoki at PRIDE Shockwave 2006 when he got submitted with the ultra rare gogoplata inside of three minutes.
Hansen came into the rematch at DREAM 5 as a different man and defended against Aoki's submission whirlwind by knocking him out with a combo of ground strikes in the first round to become the first DREAM lightweight champion. In their final encounter, Aoki overcame an illegal up kick from Hansen to submit him with an armbar in the second round at DREAM 11. If this trilogy had taken place in a bigger promotion, it would be higher on this list.
8 Junior Dos Santos vs. Cain Velasquez
What could have been. On paper, this trilogy seemed destined to be one of the best in MMA history. These two heavyweights had KO power in spades, likeable personalities and were by far the two most talented heavyweights the UFC had. The hype couldn't have been any bigger when their first championship encounter was announced as the UFC's first fight on FOX. The champion Velasquez though, not learning from Ken Shamrock, stepped into cage with a torn ACL and promptly got KO'd by Dos Santos in about a minute.
The loss sparked a fire under Velasquez though and he came to dominate JDS in their second and third fights. The heart displayed by "Cigano" in those fights was remarkable but the one sided nature of the fights took away from the suspense of the result. A potential classic rivalry managed to turn into a merely good one.
7 B.J. Penn vs. Matt Hughes
Everything about "The Prodigy" B.J. Penn can be summed up by this rivalry. The 155-pound Penn stepped into the octagon to face Welterweight Champion Matt Hughes, a man an entire weight class above him. The world expected Hughes to handle Penn and send him back to 155 pounds but what we got instead was a first-round rear naked choke victory for Penn and a new UFC welterweight champion. Right after he won, Penn left the company to fight for kickboxing and MMA promotion K-1. In his absence, Hughes won back his UFC title and defeated Penn in a thrilling rematch at UFC 63. The first two fights were excellent but by the time the two fought at UFC 123, both men were past their prime and Penn won the fight by TKO only 21 seconds into the match. An anti-climatic end to an otherwise great trilogy.
6 Gilbert Melendez vs. Josh Thomson
They may be in the UFC now, but "El Nino" and "The Punk" etched their names into the history books with their trilogy of fights in the now defunct Strikeforce promotion. Melendez won the first and third fights but both fighters came out looking like a million dollars as a result of these wars. There was no trash talking, no stare-down antics or any other nonsense, just two underground fighters proving to the world that they belonged in the category of elite lightweights. This trilogy is a large part as to why Melendez and Thomson are so successful in the UFC today.
5 Fedor Emelianenko vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
While the debate of the best pound for pound fighter ever has boiled down to Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva, there still remains a loyal group that says Fedor Emelianenko is the greatest of all time and with performances like these three, it's hard to deny. Nogueria was known as a jiu jitsu monster in the defunct PRIDE organization, submitting everyone who dared go to the ground with him while possessing a chin of granite.
This made it all the more shocking when "The Last Emperor" chose to engage Nogueria in his realm and not only win, but dominate. To his credit, Nogueria entered the first fight with a back injury and was doing better in his second fight until an accidental headbutt caused a fight-ending cut on Emelianenko, rendering the match a no contest. The third fight cleared the air with Emelianenko pounding Nogueria for a unanimous decision. It remains some of the Russian's greatest work and a testament to Nogueria's resiliency.
4 Chuck Liddell vs. Randy Couture
This, along with the Tito Ortiz vs Ken Shamrock trilogy, is the reason the UFC is alive today. Coming into their first fight, Chuck Liddell was considered the uncrowned champion of the Light Heavyweight division. In Liddell's mind, he should have been fighting Ortiz for the title, but first he had to get by the senior citizen of MMA, Randy Couture. "The Natural" upset Liddell in the first match, beating Liddell to the punch and taking him down at will. Flash forward a couple of years and Couture and Liddell are fighting for the world title after the first season of The Ultimate Fighter. Liddell knocked out Couture in the second and third fights but all three of their matches were awesome, dramatic affairs between two of the greatest fighters of all time.
3 Georges St-Pierre vs. Matt Hughes
How ironic that GSP's two career losses are to men named Matt? Anyway, this trilogy began all the way back when St-Pierre's English was more broken and was known for his killer instinct. The French-Canadian also idolized his opponent Matt Hughes. When St-Pierre stared down with Matt Hughes though, GSP looked like a defeated man before he even threw a punch. Despite taking Hughes down and blasting a spinning back kick into his opponent's chest, "Rush" was ultimately submitted by Hughes via armbar with one second left in the first round and lost his first chance at a world championship.
Coming into their second fight, Hughes's taunting meant nothing to St-Pierre and GSP's hero worship was gone as he TKO'd the champion in the second round to become king of the welterweights. St-Pierre returned the arm-cranking favour in the third fight by submitting Hughes in the second round with an armbar to gain the UFC Interim championship. All three fights represent stages of growth and maturity in the career of GSP and is one of the best trilogies in MMA history.
2 Frankie Edgar vs Gray Maynard
If there is a fighter who has channeled the spirit of Rocky Balboa more than anybody else, the answer (and forced pun) is Frankie Edgar. The first fight between these two was a decent but hardly a legendary back and forth affair that Maynard won on the back of his superior wrestling. Despite his loss to Maynard, Edgar became a UFC champion before "The Bully" by defeating the legendary B.J. Penn at UFC 112. Coming into their New Year's Day clash nobody expected a really great match but oh my were we mistaken.
Maynard blasted Edgar for nearly the entire first round in of the most thorough whippings ever seen but Edgar rallied back in the later round to cause a draw and retain his title. Their final match began as a repeat of their second match but like their previous match up Edgar came back and made a fight out of it. Then, finally after nearly a hour of total cage time with Maynard, Frankie Edgar knocked out his career nemesis with a flurry of pent up frustration and anger to finally prove he is the better fighter. A storybook ending to a legendary trilogy.
1 Wanderlei Silva vs Quinton Rampage Jackson
At one point in time, PRIDE was packing the Saitama Super Arena with tens of thousands of fans on a regular basis, often outselling UFC events with ease. The crown jewel of the PRIDE magic would have to be the two fights between "The Axe Murderer" Wanderlei Silva and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson. Simply put, these men did not like each other. These two men have some of the most intimidating stare down faces in MMA and their brutality in the ring lived up to their mean mugs.
Before Jackson forgot he was a wrestler he made his name in PRIDE for slamming men with canvas shaking power and starching fighters with monster hooks. Silva was THE berzerker in MMA, never stopping with power punches and knees until his victim laid motionless. The two styles of these animals made for some of the most spectacular displays of violence ever seen in combat sports. Silva topped Jackson both times in their PRIDE encounters with salvos of knees but when they met for the third match in the UFC, it was a different story.
Silva was slower and his power was waning; Jackson's was not. Rampage cracked Silva with a counter left hook and followed up with two more punches on his already unconscious rival before his bloodlust was satisfied. This amazingly violent trilogy will be nigh impossible to match for any two fighters and if they surpass it, God help us all.