The moment of truth is upon us—the top 10 fights in the history of mixed martial arts.
There are no interlopers here. Every fight features a pairing of iconic figures from the sports past, either immediate or distant. There is only a single battle on the list that owes its placement to what it symbolizes more for the content of the actual physical confrontation.
And I get that one out of the way immediately.
Except for it, the 10 fights below represent the absolute best the sport has to offer at its highest level.
Legendary protagonists, epic struggles for supremacy, seismic outcomes, and profound footprints on the road from 1994's there to 2009's here—it takes almost the perfect fight to elbow your way into this grouping and every MMA war below deserves its place of honor.
At least for another day.
Come Saturday, I calmly expect Brock Lesnar's apocryphal rematch with Frank Mir to bully its way into the top 10. Maybe, just maybe, Josh Barnett's long-awaited throwdown with Fedor Emelianenko can do to the same.
Until we find out, here are the top 10 fights in MMA history (all links were working when posted):
No. 10—Royce Gracie vs. Ken Shamrock at UFC 1 The Beginning
Many would say a 57 second fight can't be one of the 10 greatest of all-time. Ordinarily, I'd agree.
But Royce Gracie taking on Ken Shamrock in the UFC's maiden voyage does not qualify for any semblance of ordinary.
Nobody knew what to make of the entire outfit, let alone this little South American rugrat with the funny gi thing. Then Royce took out a street-tough boxer from St. Louis named Art Jimmerson and eye-brows raised, but in comic skepticism rather than admiration.
Because Ken Shamrock, at 29 and already a veteran of Pancrase, really did have a legitimate claim to his moniker, the World's Most Dangerous Man. Plus, he was 235 pounds of muscle and raw power to Gracie's 175 pounds draped over a slender frame.
Surely the cock American with his chiseled intimidation would put the little man in his place.
Then, the ruckus started and jaws hit the floor when Gracie shot in for the takedown. After Shamrock recovered to put Royce on his back, eyes rolled and we gullible many in the crowd figured the man who would become the greatest fighter the sport has ever seen had gone for the element of surprise and it failed him.
Not true. Turns out the ground is exactly where you do NOT want to be with a Gracie, especially Royce. No matter your size.
You can see Ken Shamrock realize this at 55 seconds, even if the referee didn't.
No. 9—Mirko Filipovic vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira at PRIDE Final Conflict 2003
Once this salvo of elite sporting combat is done, you should have a greater appreciation of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. You should also understand why some are still hesitant to jump on the Frank Mir bandwagon with both feet.
This is the first such fight where you see just how much cumulative punishment Big Nog has taken over his storied career. It should come as no surprise that a man, who survived being run over by a truck as a child, has built his reputation on absorbing savagery and willing his way through it.
Take a look at this highlight reel, most of which shows Cro Cop slathering Minotauro with rugged body blows and whistling fists to the head. The Croat has Rodrigo Nogueira in critical danger several times, and would have finished the big Brazilian if not for the bell to end Round One.
And, remember, this disagreement comes less than eight months on the heels of Minotauro's three-round slugfest with Fedor Emelianenko. In between which, he fought Ricco Rodriguez just to keep the weight off.
The maintenance fight against Rodriguez also went the full three.
Which makes Big Nog's exploitation of Filipovic's one mistake that becomes the decisive armbar all the more incredible.
No. 8—Fedor Emelianenko vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira at PRIDE 25 Body Blow
It's a long one—goes the distance in fact. But you should watch it because no Fedor celebration ever features extended lulls.
More significantly, the Last Emperor and Minotauro are two of classiest professional athletes you could find (from what I can tell). Find interviews of either man, you will be moved by their eloquence and depth of consideration.
Now, granted, it could just be their interpreters who deserve such praise as I speak neither Portuguese nor Russian. However, I've heard them both speaking English in limited bursts and was even more impressed. Our confounding language is not the easiest to tackle and these guys earn their bacon suffering mini-concussions.
Ironic that they’d represent a sport considered so brutal by John McCain, yet these aren't the guys you’ll find throwing females into walls or carrying on like spoiled divas
Fedor and Big Nog are men of discipline and it's a stronger brand—born of being the best in an occupation where slippage means getting your tush kicked or your skull cuffed, literally.
Wait, there was also an airing of grievances in there, too, wasn't there?
Fedor was a relative unknown at this point (to the World), in just his third PRIDE bout. Rodrigo Nogueira already had a good bit of his lore in place, which was a good thing because the heavy-handed Russian hasn't looked back since this annihilation (his introduction to the PRIDE Heavyweight belt).
On display during tonight’s Last Emperor tutorial: speed, agility, and balance that kept him safe from the considerable threat posed by arguably the greatest heavyweight practitioner of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu the sport has ever seen to date.
As well as Emelianenko's customary integrity and Bushido-style reverence for his worthy opponent.
No. 7—Royce Gracie vs. Dan Severn at UFC 4 Revenge of the Warriors
I've seen a couple "All-Time Top 10 UFC Fight" lists making the rounds out there, including this little gem from Inside Fights that touts Hughes vs. Gracie as a big fight.
Not a one mentions Royce taking on the Beast. That is, in a word, laughable.
Let's go down the vitals—this battle featured two future UFC Hall-of-Famers at or close to their primes. It happened back in the fledgling days where the event was actually a tournament and the adversaries met in the finals of said tourney.
The Brazilian had already dispatched Keith Hackney and Ron van Clief while the older American bid adieu to Anthony Macias and Marcus Bossett.
What else? Oh yeah, the Beast is such a singularly-driven colossus that el hombre is still brawling today, at the veteran age of 55. I've got your Randy Couture right here.
Look at the alleged-man's body of work—there are simply too many impressive bouts to rattle off here.
When he faced off against the Godfather of Mixed Martial Arts, Severn was a spritely 40 years of age and had 70-80 pounds on the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu virtuoso, who was days removed from his 28th birthday.
It was each warrior's third fight of the evening and they pushed each other for over 15 minutes. Straight, no rounds like there are today.
And, yet, it doesn't make the lists. Like I said, laughable.
No. 6—B.J. Penn vs. Georges St. Pierre at UFC 94 Penn vs. St. Pierre II
Until and if GSP faces Anderson Silva in the Next Great Super Fight, we'll have to settle for this one. Lest I send anyone into a frothing rage—St. Pierre has some stunningly rabid fans—I'm using 'settle' in the sarcastic sense.
I came thisclose to paying for the Prodigy against Rush (another really slow link), thisclose.
It was almost worth the, what, $80 (I know it's less) because it figured to be an all-timer based on participants and their track record. Both resumes gleam with super-stardom and championship bling while featuring a previous head-to-head won by St. Pierre courtesy of a split decision.
The back-stories didn't stop there.
The Hilo Kid stepped to the center of the Octagon as the reigning UFC Lightweight Champion while the Van Damme-esque wonder from up North wore the UFC Welterweight Championship belt. Only the latter was up for grabs, an element that figured in GSP's advantage.
Furthermore, B.J. Penn is everything Georges St. Pierre is not or vice versa—the upshot being they are stark contrasts.
As I've mentioned, B.J. is brash and can be offensive. Not to mention his resume also comes smeared with the real-life of a police blotter. Georges is MMA's golden boy—the kid with the apple for Teacher. That sounds disparaging, but I don't mean it to be.
Forget the "oiling" controversy or whatever the hell it's being called. GSP dominated this fight and moved one more rung up the ladder of history. Plus, I might've been that kid in class.
No. 5—Fedor Emelianenko vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira at PRIDE Shockwave 2004
We just crossed a line where I don't think anyone can really argue with the selections in terms of them being Top Five. You might disagree as to my ordering, but these were the easiest five history-makers to place.
I'm not gonna bother trying to describe the actual battle—you'll just have to suffer through another three rounds of discouraging action.
I say 'discouraging' because every second is proof that neither you nor I is as tough as we think. As mythic as I or others might try to make these guys, I am taller than Fedor and about the same height as Big Nog.
In other words, while each has distinct physical attributes that lend themselves to effective combat, the main difference between these muchachos and a lot of us (and me at the very least) is years of training and practice in their chosen art.
Which is to say, dedication, sacrifice, mental fortitude, courage, and tons of toughness. I'm not even sure I could stay conscious until impact if Emelianenko threw a punch at me—I might just black-out the minute he came forward and launched.
And Minotauro could submit me with his eyes—that sounds creepy, I mean in a non-sexual way.
OK, I guess I have to say something about the action—it's very similar to the first go around in that you can feel Fedor's impact through the screen. It's something beyond hearing, but not quite touch.
Part of the impetus behind those blows would be the anti-climactic No Contest in the rematch of their first epic decision. The NC put the kibosh on the second fight after Fedor suffered an inconvenient and accidental cut.
Minotauro proved again his elastic will and unique heart while losing for a second time.
No. 4—Stephan Bonnar vs. Forrest Griffin at TUF Finale
I've made an exception for this fight because, in truth, it's more brawl than display of mixed martial arts.
Despite both men possessing the seeds of impressive ground games, neither the eventual-but-briefly-reigning UFC Light Heavyweight Champ nor the American Psycho was all too interested in taking the discussion to the ground.
Instead, they delivered a fight for the ages on their feet.
You've heard it a million times, I've heard it a million time, we're probably all tired of having the story beaten into our gray matter—say it with me—this is the announcement of the UFC's return to prominence on the professional sports scene.
That bullet-point more than any other earns it such heady company.
Because while Bonnar and Griffin are both accomplished Spartans with bodies of work of which to be proud, neither's name is written in lore for his greater deeds.
As I mentioned when writing about his loss to Bones Jones, Stephan Bonnar has lost to nothing but champions and Bones—unfortunately, those are his biggest challenges and he's lost them all.
Meanwhile, Griffin did ascend to the height of his weight class and you cannot deny him that achievement nor diminish it. But his stay at the top was very brief as was that of the bad boy who unseated him.
Should he fail to recapture that championship form—something getting considerably harder due to the thickening of the Light Heavyweight Division not to mention his upcoming suicide-run into Spider Silva's gauntlet—Forrest figures to clatter onto the heap of Cup o' Coffee Champs.
On this night, though, both pioneers poured it all out for their sport and their pride. For this act of senseless violence, each will be remembered forever.
No. 3—Royce Gracie vs. Kazushi Sakuraba at PRIDE Grand Prix 2000 Finals
Look, I'm not a braggart, but I'll state the fact that I'm in good physical shape—about 6'3" and 210-215 pounds depending on how much I've had to eat that day. I run thrice a week despite crunches in my ankle and snags in my knee, and can work sets with 245 on the bench press.
None of that makes me super-duper, but I'd say it puts me in the upper 20 percent of the population with regards to physical fitness.
I say this to emphasize I've NEVER jogged, biked, played basketball, or otherwise exerted myself in equal or greater fashion for an hour and a half. That's 90 minutes of hell from one person.
Nolan Richardson only got 40 from an entire team. And that was college basketball.
PRIDE in 2000 was the pinnacle of professional MMA and both heroes materialized in the ring with major motivation. Gracie, at 33, was their to defend his family's lineage while avenging losses by his older brother, Royler.
Sakuraba was Sherman-ing his way through the Gracie Family on some sort of medieval personal vendetta. After convincing Royce's corner to chuck in the towel, the Gracie Hunter would become just that by adding cousins Renzo and the late Ryan to his credit.
The IQ Wrestler didn't really have to go any further—once he used his catch-wrestling expertise to hang an 'L' on Royce, you knew the alpha-Gracie would be back around. All the others were tweaked, yet inferior attempts at duplicating the master.
The entire fight is too nuanced to waste on a computer screen. To fully appreciate this literal blood-feud, you've got to break out the big screen and HD.
Until that's a possibility, here's a highlight reel that includes the coolest intro ever—the Extended Gracie Family Train. Sakuraba's got big stones, man, I see that and I'm taking my rear home.
There's also an interesting little stab at conspiracy around the 1:05 mark.
No. 2—Fedor Emelianenko vs. Mirko Filipovic at PRIDE Final Conflict 2005
I struggled with this one, almost wussed out and called it a tie.
In truth, both fights are over the line that separates average greatness from territory where all superlatives are exhausted in the first round. That means those who have the Last Emperor proving his dominion by splattering Cro Cop for three rounds as the best fight in the history of MMA are right.
I don't like to swear when writing because it reads lazily, but there's really only one way to say it—Fedor Emelianenko is the baddest motherf*cker on the planet.
And Mirko Filipovic might just have been the second baddest until a lot of his swagger and possibly sense was expunged by the ferocious-but-flatline Russian.
Most highlight clips tend to distort the drama of reality. This one doesn't, not in the slightest. In it, you can see some other elements to Fedor that his hard work has turned into overwhelming assets—perplexingly long arms, apparent imperviousness to pain or fatigue, and respect.
I'll say it again, I've been dealt roughly the same physical proportions as Fedor with the weight potential they entail. Furthermore, we're close enough in age that we’d’ve gone to high school together should God have put him in Marin County or me in Siberia or wherever the hell his madness is bred.
Despite all the apparent equalizers, I’d soil myself while running away and risk the rash should I ever be confronted with the unhappy proposition of fighting the automaton.
The industrial metal played over the highlight is so appropriate—it really must feel like a machine wrapped in flesh besieging you when this cat pads your way.
You can see the proof with your own eyes in the clip—Fedor’s skin may have looked beaten, but it was Cro Cop’s will that broke and it happened well before the final bell.
All Hail the Last Emperor.
No. 1—Royce Gracie vs. Ken Shamrock at UFC 5 The Return of the Beast
Except possibly Royce Gracie.
I can picture my screen burning up as I type this. Oh well.
You either appreciate ground fighting and submission efficiency, or you don't. If you don't then you are very happy about the UFC's evolutionary path. And you can thank the booing fans at what should've been a jubilant triumph for the sport for their nudge along that path.
Whether directly or indirectly, this fight started the demise of what some analysts call "true fighting." As in one individual against another with just enough rules to preserve honor, no refs, no points, no rounds, no gloves if that's how you rolled, gis as well, etc.
Whether directly or indirectly, this fight convinced the suits to resort to alternative channels to sufficiently declaw the growing Gracie mystique. One that resulted in a bunch of rolling around and no teeth-rattling KOs (not that I don't drool over those like most fans).
Because the rumor was Ken Shamrock had learned from his simple mistake, the one that allowed the Brazilian revolutionary to tap him out in 57 seconds. I should say tap him out twice. And why shouldn't the fight public believe such rumors?
The World's Most Dangerous Man, another supreme wrestler (of the hybrid variety), was young enough to learn new tricks. Additionally, he still had the aforementioned size and strength advantages to nullify any knowledge or experiential deficit.
Essentially, that's exactly how it played out—like a battle between two chess masters who are both several steps ahead. Unfortunately for Shamrock and those who wanted to see the diminutive monster taste defeat, Royce stayed several steps ahead of the American.
Enough to nullify the differential and put the Lion's Den founder on the defensive from the second Big John McCarthy dropped his meaty club. Which is why most people will tell you Royce Gracie would've won this fight with judges or had it continued.
He looked battered and spent, but those little scrapes and bruises were not going to force the man to quit. Not if having his shoulder torn apart didn't force capitulation. The fight would've gone on and on until fatigue provoked a fatal mistake from Ken Shamrock.
Consequently, this gets the spot of honor despite the official draw.
It's 36 minutes of relentless drive to exhaustion through blood, sweat, and pain. Both timeless gladiators proved their merit of such description and it changed the path of mixed martial arts forever.
UFC 100 and maybe a new No. 1...